The Bible is literally full of not only interesting but, in many cases, gripping stories about God and his relationship with people. The Old Testament book of Jonah is such a story. A prophet of God, Jonah lived in the small town of Gath-hepher in Galilee, some five miles north of Nazareth in the eighth century before Christ.
The story has been divided into four easily remembered sections. As someone cleverly noted, in the first chapter, we find the prophet running away from God, who had commanded that he go to the great city of the Assyrian and “call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (1:2). The second chapter finds Jonah, following his chastisement by the Lord, “running” back to God, and the third shows him “running” with God. Most Bible students are familiar with these first three sections, but the fourth and last chapter is not as familiar to some. It’s this segment I’d like for us to think about briefly.
God’s warning to Nineveh through Jonah was that the city would be destroyed in 40 days (3:4). In the last verse of chapter 3, the text reads, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” But Jonah was unhappy, to say the least, with God’s compassionate decision. In fact, he was angry at him, saying, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2). Here is an amazing sight. The prophet of God became incensed with the God of heaven because he decided to be merciful to a penitent people. He may be the only preacher who ever lived who was unhappy because his preaching was successful!
The truth of the matter is simple: Jonah was jealous. The Jews were God’s people, and many of them had the attitude they should be his only people. Jonah could not accept that God loves everyone and everything he has created. Why, he was even concerned about the cattle that belonged to the Assyrians (4:11)! But God’s acceptance of people isn’t based on national or ethnic identity. Even the apostle Peter and the early Jewish Christians had to learn this lesson, as Peter expresses it early in his preaching to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
Jonah was so dismayed that God would show favor to these heathen Ninevites, he went out on the east side of the city, built a small shelter and proceeded to sulk like a child. The Lord caused a plant to grow over him to further “save him from his discomfort” (4:6 ESV). But a worm was sent by God to kill the plant. This calamity was followed by a scorching east wind, which added to his misery. He was so miserable, he angrily asked God to take his life.
Now the Lord was ready to teach him the lesson he needed so badly. He asked Jonah why he was so concerned about the plant when he hadn’t planted it nor caused it to grow. It was the power of God that placed it there. Then he said, “And should not I 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?” If God, in his mercy, wanted to spare the penitent heathens, why should Jonah be so calloused in his jealousy for God’s merciful forgiveness?
We don’t know Jonah’s reaction to God’s rebuke. But we do know the point it makes about our love for all men who stand in need of God’s loving favor.