But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “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, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” – Jonah 4:1-4 ESV
In order to get the full impact of these verses, it’s important to remember what immediately preceded them.
God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:10 ESV
God’s message that the Nivevites would be overthrown, delivered through the prophet Jonah, had resulted in their repentance. From the king in his palace to the peasant in the streets, everyone in the city was on their knees before God in a state of mourning. Not only that, an official royal decree had gone out commanding every citizen to “turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence” (Jonah 3:8 NLT). And they had. But Jonah was displeased. And that’s putting it mildly. He was angry. In the Hebrew language, the frustration is much more intense. Verse one of chapter four could actually be translated, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” He saw what God had just done as not just wrong, but evil. And the result was anger and frustration – with God. Again, the Hebrew word translated as “angry” is much more intense. It is charah and it literally means, “to be hot, furious, burn.” Jonah was incensed. He was boiling over with rage and it was directed at God. So, he decided to call God out – in prayer.
“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish!” – Jonah 4:2 NLT
So, now the truth comes out. For the first time, Jonah shares the true reason for his refusal to obey God’s initial commission to go to Nineveh. He feared they might repent. This is fascinating. It wasn’t that he feared they might kill him for bringing them a message of pending destruction from a God they didn’t even worship. It wasn’t that he feared rejection. He feared the people might repent. And he feared that God might spare them. Why? Because he knew God.
“I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.” – Jonah 4:2 NLT
What an amazing acknowledgement. Jonah knew his God well. And he knew his Israelite history well. What he says is almost a direct quote from the book of Exodus. Moses had returned to the mountain with a second set of stone tablets to receive God’s law again. This was after Moses had smashed the original set after having come down off the mountain the first time to find the people worshiping a golden calf. So just before engraving His law one more time, God called out to Moses:
“Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.” – Exodus 34:6-7 NLT
God had spared the people of Israel, in spite of their rebellion against Him. Before Moses had even had a chance to give them God’s laws, they had turned away from Him and decided to worship a false god made from the gold and silver God had provided for them when they had left Egypt. Jonah knew the story. And he knew that God was compassionate and merciful. He knew God’s reputation for forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin. And his greatest fear had been that God would do just that for the people of Nineveh, who Jonah hated with a passind on. And Jonah explains to God that his original plan to flee to Tashish had been an attempt to keep what he feared from happening. He had preferred to disobey God than risk the chance of God forgiving and sparing the Ninevites. The thought of that happening had been more than he could bear.
But it’s interesting to note that God had spared and forgiven Jonah for his iniquity, rebellion and sin. He had saved Jonah’s life from death by drowning by providing a large fish to swallow him. Then, three days later, God had miraculously caused that fish to vomit Jonah up on the dry land. If you recall Jonah’s prayer, offered up to God from the belly of the fish, he was counting on God’s mercy and compassion.
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me…” – Jonah 2:2 ESV
“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit…” – Jonah 2:6 ESV
“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” – Jonah 2:7 ESV
“Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – Jonah 2:9 ESV
Jonah had been more than willing to accept the mercy and compassion of God for himself, but he refused to allow God to do the same thing for the people of Nineveh. Somehow, Jonah felt their sins were worse and their destruction much more deserving than anything he had done. But at a time when Jonah should have been kneeling before God in awe and wonder at what had just happened in the city of Nineveh, he is accusing God of evil. He is shaking his fist in the face of Almighty God and questioning His wisdom and integrity. Now, it’s important to note that Jonah’s anger was partially a result of his intense nationalistic fervor. He was a loyal Israelite. And he would probably have been aware that the prophets Hosea and Amos had both predicted that God was going to use the Assyrians to bring judgment on Israel.
They [Israel] shall not remain in the land of the Lord, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria. – Hosea 9:3 ESV
They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. – Hosea 11:5 ESV
“I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts. – Amos 5:27 ESV
Jonah most likely thought that if he refused to go to Nineveh, there would be no chance of them repenting and God sparing them. And because they were vile and wicked sinners, God would be forced to destroy them. That way, there would be no Assyrians to fulfill the prophesies of Amos and Hosea. Jonah had thought he could somehow force God’s hand and halt the pending destruction of Israel. But the sad reality was, the people of Israel would fail to heed the warnings of Hosea or Amos. But the Assyrians living in the capital city of Nineveh, would hear God and believe. They would repent. And God would eventually use them to conquer rebellious Israel and take them into captivity.
Jonah knew that God was merciful and compassionate. He was well aware that God was slow to anger. But he just seemed to have a difficult time with the concept of God’s sovereignty. Jonah found it hard to understand that God was going to do what He wanted to do, whether Jonah agreed with it or not. God didn’t need his input or help. Jonah couldn’t fathom why God would spare the very people who had been prophesied to be the future source of Israel’s destruction. He failed to trust God and His bigger plan for His people. So, he asked God to kill him.
“Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” – Jonah 4:3 NLT
In other words, Jonah tells God that he would rather be dead if God is not going to destroy the Assyrians. This took a lot of guts on Jonah’s part. And I think it reveals just how upset he really was. Jonah is not bluffing. He had already tried to take his own life once before, when he had the sailors toss him overboard in the midst of a raging storm. This time, He asks God to do it. He wants God to kill him. And I find it somewhat surprising that God didn’t take him up on his offer. After all, his insubordination and disrespect for God are off the charts. God would have been fully justified in taking Jonah up on his offer. But instead, God simply asks Jonah a question:
“Is it right for you to be angry about this?” – Jonah 4:4 NLT
God asks Jonah is his anger was truly justified. Did he have a good reason to literally burn with anger at God? Was he just in calling what God had done, evil? In essence, this is a rhetorical question from God. Jonah had no right at all. He had no clue as to what God was doing and why He was doing it. God had a perfectly good reason for sparing the Ninevites, whether Jonah understood it or liked it. His problem was with accepting the will of God. The apostle Paul would deal with this very same issue centuries later.
Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. – Romans 9:20-22 NLT
The prophet, Daniel, spoke very similar words regarding the sovereign will and right of God to do as He pleases in the world which He has created.
“All the people of the earth are nothing compared to him. He does as he pleases among the angels of heaven and among the people of the earth. No one can stop him or say to him, ‘What do you mean by doing these things?’” – Daniel 4:35 NLT
Jonah’s beef was with God. While he knew much about God, He didn’t know what God was up to. From his limited human perspective, none of this made sense. But rather than shake his fist in the face of God, he should have kneeled in awe and wonder at the mystery of God’s way. Jonah could have used the wise words of Paul about now.
Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.