No missionary has ever received such a response. Upon hearing the threat of God’s impending wrath, hundreds of thousands of Ninevites repented of their wicked ways and believed in Him. Most missionaries would be extremely elated by such an overwhelming response to their message. Not Jonah. His attitude of prejudicial hatred toward the Assyrians was still firmly embedded. If the people of Nineveh repented, it meant they would not be judged. And this zealous Israelite was not happy about that prospect:
But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” (Jonah 4:1–3)
Incredibly, Jonah would have preferred death over the salvation of his enemies! No wonder he fled toward Tarshish, fell asleep in the midst of a storm, and volunteered to be thrown overboard. Given the choice, Jonah would rather be killed than preach to the Ninevites! But Jonah’s rebellion could not overturn the sovereign grace of God; the Lord used Jonah to accomplish His saving purposes in spite of the prophet’s petty protests.
Jonah’s prayer not only exposed his own prejudice and pride, but also showcased the lovingkindness and compassion of God. In His infinite mercy and grace, the Lord can rescue any sinner, even one as wicked as the pagan king of a barbarian nation. Jonah recognized the magnitude of God’s grace, which is why he initially ran in the opposite direction; he wanted nothing to do with divine pardon being extended to Israel’s hostile enemies. Ironically, when Jonah himself was in trouble, he cried out for God’s mercy. But when the Lord extended grace to others, Jonah was filled with resentment. When God withheld His wrath from the Ninevites, the prophet’s wrath was aroused.
In annoyed disbelief—angered that his prophetic mission had been so stunningly successful—Jonah set up camp on the outskirts of Nineveh to see if perhaps God would still judge the city. Evidently, he hoped that the people’s repentance would prove to be hypocritical and superficial so that the Lord would still destroy them after forty days. The prophet hastily constructed a temporary shelter to shade him from the blazing sun and waited to see how it all played out.
As Jonah sat disgruntled in his lean-to shanty on the eastern edge of Nineveh, the Lord graciously caused a large plant to instantly grow up behind him, providing the melancholy prophet some shady relief from the beating sun. The text states that Jonah was thankful for the plant. But the next morning, when God sent a worm to eat the plant, the prophet’s anger was again incited. The situation worsened when the Lord sent a scorching east wind (called a “sirocco”), which overwhelmed Jonah’s makeshift shelter and brought him to the point of extreme heat exposure. In the same way that God had hurled a great wind on the sea to affect Jonah (1:4), He prepared this hot desert wind for the same purpose—to humble His servant and teach him a vital spiritual lesson.
And true to form, the whining, faithless prophet once again wished for death. As He had all along, the Lord responded to him with undeserved patience:
Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:9–11)
Jonah’s perspective was completely backward and entirely self-centered. He was passionately concerned about a short-lived shade plant to protect himself from discomfort, but had no compassion for the entire population of Nineveh, including 120 thousand small children (those who cannot discern between their right and left hands).
The stubborn, prejudiced prophet had been operating in his own self-interest, but the Lord wanted him to put the eternally significant message of salvation above his own myopic concerns and trivial comforts. How could he be concerned about a weed when hundreds of thousands of souls faced judgment and he had the opportunity to see them saved?
The book of Jonah ends abruptly, with those final words from the Lord forming its sudden conclusion. But the lesson for Jonah was unmistakably clear, and that same lesson is vitally important for all believers to learn. Like Jonah, we might be tempted to allow our own fears, prejudices, or selfish interests to inhibit our gospel witness. But when we prioritize the gospel message over our own personal agendas, we bring glory to God as we advance His kingdom purposes throughout the world.
What Jonah Teaches Us About God
Like most Old Testament narratives, the story of Jonah is primarily about God. He is the ultimate hero of the story—the One who saves Nineveh in spite of the rebellious prophet’s attempts to thwart the mission. Though the book is relatively short, it nonetheless unfolds three profound and unforgettable truths about the character of God.
First, the story of Jonah emphasizes the fact that God is the sovereign Creator. Throughout the entire narrative, the reader is continually reminded that the Lord is controlling all of Jonah’s circumstances. It is God who sends the wind, incites the storm, calms the seas, prepares the fish, grows the plant, sends the worm, and then whips up the wind once again. The pagan sailors recognize the Lord’s power over creation and worship Him as a result. The pagan king of Nineveh likewise recognizes God’s sovereign hand. Surprisingly, the only person who resists God is Jonah—the prophet of Israel who acknowledged the Lord’s sovereignty with his lips (Jonah 1:9) yet rebelled against it with his life.
Second, the Jonah account reminds us that God is the supreme Judge. That, in fact, was the message the prophet was to deliver to the Assyrians. After forty days, their city would become the object of divine wrath. But God’s judgment never came upon the people of Nineveh. Instead, it came only in the form of chastisement against Jonah for his deliberate disobedience. Recognizing that their doom was imminent, the Ninevites repented, and God’s wrath against them was withheld.
Finally, Jonah’s story reiterates the fact that God is the Savior and that His lovingkindness is not limited by our prejudicial preconceptions. The prophet Jonah considered the Assyrians beyond the reach of God’s mercy. After all, they were the brutal, idolatrous, Gentile enemies of Israel and Israel’s God! But the Lord showed Jonah that His saving grace extends to all who repent and believe in Him. In this way, the book of Jonah encapsulates the message of salvation. When sinners recognize the Lord as Sovereign Creator and Judge of the Universe, and cry out to Him for mercy, He graciously saves them from divine wrath, giving them eternal life instead.
Those three truths point to the heart of the gospel. Sinners are creatures who have broken God’s law. They await His wrath, yet He offers them forgiveness and salvation through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself used the prophet Jonah, and the three days he spent in the belly of the fish, as an illustration of His own death and resurrection. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus told the crowd who had gathered, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea montster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Three days after He was crucified, Christ rose triumphant from the grave, demonstrating once and for all that He is the Savior of the world. Those who repent from their sin and believe in Him, whether Jew or Gentile, will be saved (Romans 10:9–10).
Although we are not Old Testament prophets like Jonah was, we have been given a mission similar to his. As New Testament believers, our charge is to take the gospel to those who are lost, proclaiming to them the reality of coming judgment and the hope of salvation (cf. Matthew 28:18–20). When we resist this responsibility, whether out of fear, pride, or a preoccupation with trivial things, we fall into the same trap that Jonah did. But when we are faithful to obey the Lord in this way, we experience the wonderful blessing of being used by Him to further His kingdom. There is no greater joy than seeing sinners embrace the good news of salvation. As the apostle Paul told the Romans, quoting from Isaiah, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad news of good things!” (Romans 10:15).