Jonah reminds us that while it is essential to know the truth and profess correct theology, that is not enough. What we actually do, as well as the attitude with which we do it, also must conform to God’s Word and God’s character.
The Fainting Spells of a Prodigal Prophet
Had the book of Jonah ended with chapter 3, Jonah would have been revered to this day as the greatest evangelist-prophet who ever lived. At his preaching, an entire city had repented and followed God. And this was not just any city; it was Nineveh, a city known around the ancient world for its wickedness and cruelty.
If this had happened today, I can just imagine the invitations for Jonah to appear on television and radio to talk about his experiences. He would be sought out for advice by church leaders. He would certainly become a best-selling author.
Fortunately, none of this happened, and frankly, God kept Jonah from becoming some kind of celebrity. And that is because this little book did not end with chapter 3. The rest of the story, recorded in chapter 4, reveals that Jonah is not some super-saint; he is still battling a self-centered life. So, when you come to the end of this little book, you do not end up glorifying Jonah but giving God all the glory.
Now to get a running start today, chapter 3 concludes by telling us in verse 10 that God accepted the repentance of the Ninevites and did not bring upon them His judgment. With that, chapter 4 begins in verse 1: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.”
If you have never read this verse before, Jonah’s reaction is going to come as a disappointing surprise. Can you imagine a preacher seeing thousands of people repent and follow God after his sermon and then going home angry? You would expect Jonah to be jumping for joy for all the people God has redeemed and rescued from judgment.
What is Jonah thinking? Well, we are told in verse 2 as he prays:
“O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful.”
In other words, “I was afraid this would happen, and you would forgive all these wicked people!” Think about it: Jonah had run away, not because he was afraid the Ninevites would not listen; he was afraid they would listen. That is how much he hated the Ninevites. They were the enemy of his people, and he didn’t want them to be spared the judgment of God.
And by the way, Jonah’s hatred was shared by Israel’s government and citizens. They could have viewed him as a traitor to their own foreign policy.
Jonah prays in verse 3, “Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
In response, God asks Jonah the first of three questions: “Do you do well to be angry?” (verse 4). This question focuses on Jonah’s perspective. God is saying, “Jonah, we are looking at the same spiritual awakening—a national conversion. The hosts of heaven are rejoicing, and you are angry!” God and Jonah have two very different perspectives, and the Lord is asking Jonah which perspective is the right one.
Looking back at verse, 2 Jonah admits, “I knew that you are gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
This is the truth, but it did not alter Jonah’s perspective. And it certainly did not affect his emotions. He knew the truth; he just didn’t let the truth affect his life.
So now Jonah is just going to sit outside the city and see if the Ninevites were truly repentant:
Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. (verse 5)
Jonah assumes the Ninevites did not mean it! So, he wants to be far enough away that when the fire of God’s judgment falls, it will not scorch him.
Then in verse 6 we read this interesting detail:
God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.
This is the first time Jonah is described as happy about anything. But his relief from the sun does not last very long. Verse 7 says, “When dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered.”
Again, beloved, there is this underlying theme of creation’s obedience to God’s commands: God “appointed/commanded”a great fish, a plant, and now a worm, and they all obey His command. Everything in this book obeys God—including the Ninevites—everything and everyone except Jonah.
Verse 8 introduces another obedient element of creation:
When the sun rose, God appointed [commanded] a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he . . . said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
This wind refers to a hot dust storm in that region that can last for days. Once again, Jonah would rather die and be put out of his misery than submit to God’s perspective and live.
Then in verse 9, God asks Jonah a second question, and this question probes Jonah’s priorities.
God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
So, Jonah is angry that sinners are converted, and he is happy he gets some shade; but then he is angry that the plant withers. His priorities are upside down. He cares more about his personal comfort than the eternal condition of unbelievers.
We need to ask ourselves these same questions: What do we really care about? What is our real priority in life? Is it making money, being comfortable, and avoiding problems, or is it being an ambassador for the Lord wherever He has assigned us today?
God’s third and final question points at Jonah’s misguided passion. The Lord speaks bluntly to Jonah in verse 11:
“Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
These 120,000 people are more than likely the citizens who lived within Nineveh’s city walls; this would not include the outlying suburbs, where as many as 500,000 people lived. In describing them as people who don’t know the difference between their right hand and their left hand, God is reminding Jonah of how utterly confused and blinded they are by their wickedness and idolatry.
This is also another way of saying that the Ninevites had confused right for wrong and wrong for right. That sounds like our world today. But God is reminding Jonah not to get angry with these people but to pity them, have compassion on them. Beloved, the sinners of our world are not our enemies; they are our mission field.
And with that final question from the Lord, the book of Jonah comes to an abrupt end. We are not even given Jonah’s answer. I would like to think he gave the right answer. I would like to think he said, “Lord, You’re absolutely right. I ought to care more about these people than myself!”
We do not know how Jonah answered. But beloved, we do know how we are answering to the Lord today.
Let us answer correctly these questions about our perspective in life, our priorities in life, and our passion in life. And here is how we can tell we are answering correctly: when we are obeying God like the wind and the waves and those sailors and that great fish and the worm and the plant and the east wind and, don’t forget, like the Ninevites, who gave their lives to the Lord.