The contrast between the Jonah who humbly and effectively prayed while inside the fish and the Jonah who sulked while the Ninevites prayed effectively, is striking. Jonah had sinned in his disobedience and deserved punishment as much as the idol worshipers of Nineveh. When he was delivered from the fish, he rejoiced and did God's bidding. He knew from his heritage and from experience that the God who is offended by sin is quick to forgive a truly repentant sinner.
Jonah confessed now that this knowledge lay behind his unsuccessful flight from the presence of the Lord. From the time of Moses, the core teaching of the covenant of Mount Sinai had been “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex 34:6-7a). The next sentences balance God's love with his insistence that sin must be punished. Jonah's deep dislike for the people of Nineveh led him to insist that punishment take precedence over the compassion of the Lord. Jonah had allowed anger to push love out of his soul. Anger produced a despair so profound that the will to live was obliterated.
The Lord was not harsh, but he did pierce deeply into Jonah's soul. The question tore aside a veil that hid a boiling anger that contrasts with God's anger. Though his anger is due to the falseness of idolatry and the viciousness of sin, God looks for evidence of repentance and repudiation of evil ways. The true goal of his anger is the salvation of the sinner.
Jonah was angry because his prejudice toward the Ninevites as a people was deep seated. He did not want them to repent and change their evil ways. He wanted them dead, period. That was not right, and the Lord wanted Jonah to see his sin.
In contrast to the Ninevites, who regarded the forty days as a door of hope and repented, Jonah regarded the forty days as an unnecessary waste of time. If Nineveh was to be overturned, why not now? Besides, the spectacle of the city ablaze would be quite a show. Gathering some saplings and branches, he constructed a crude shelter and waited.
Meanwhile the Lord arranged the course of events so that he could teach a lesson on true compassion. He caused a broad-leafed vine to sprout and spread over Jonah's shelter. Wonderful shade from the blazing sun protected Jonah, and his anger turned to joy. Surely the Lord was good to him. He was unaware of the Lord's next move.
Before dawn a worm chewed on the roots of the vine, causing it to wither. Next the Lord directed the east wind to blow on Jonah, causing great discomfort. Jonah's self-centered love for personal comfort was vividly revealed. Like the leaves of the vine, he wilted and begged for death. Again the question about the rightness of his anger was thrown at Jonah.
When the Lord first asked the question, Jonah was angry because the hated Ninevites were repenting and the Lord was forgiving them. Jonah's reputation as a prophet seemed threatened, for he had predicted destruction, but the Lord was granting salvation. That made him look like a false prophet; it was not fair. This time Jonah was angry because God seemed to be making a fool of him, appearing to bless him with a vine and then exposing him to extreme suffering. That was not fair either. Jonah loved himself and the vine that shaded him, but nothing else.
The Lord contrasted this selfish concern with the Lord's concern for people, even wicked people. Here was a great city filled with people deprived by their leaders of essential skills of learning. They had never received instruction in moral principles and holy practices of dealing with each other. They had a multitude of children who had no hope of hearing the truth about the living God unless a Hebrew taught them. They had wealth enough to possess many cattle, but they did not have true riches, the true knowledge of God.
The moral and spiritual poverty of Nineveh deeply concerned the Lord, and here he had a prophet on his hands who was excited about preaching judgment but was blind to opportunities the revival in Nineveh provided to instruct and nurture the people on how to live a holy life before him. What irony!
Allen, Leslie C. “The Book of Jonah.” The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
Clarke, Adam. “The Book of Jonah.” A Commentary and Critical Notes. New York: Abingdon, n.d.
Laetsch, Theo. “Jonah.” Bible Commentary: The Minor Prophets. St. Louis: Concordia, 1956.
Morgan, G. Campbell. “Jonah.” BI. New York: Revell, n.d.
Patterson, John. “Jonah, a Plea for Universalism.” The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets. New York: Scribner, 1949.
Peisker, Armor D. “The Book of Jonah.” BBC. Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1966.
Thompson, W. Ralph. “Jonah.” WBC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.
Wolff, Hans W. “The Prophet Jonah.” Obadiah and Jonah: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986.