Jonah 4: Selfish Righteousness
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Jonah 4: Selfish Righteousness

Updated
Jul 29, 2023 3:35 PM
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JonahChapter StudyAngerMental HealthRepentance and ForgivenessAssyria
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Jonah 4

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Done
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Table of Contents
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A podcast episode on this chapter is available (🎙️Jonah 4: The Unmerciful Believer).

Introduction

Jonah 4 concludes the book of Jonah and it should be a time for rejoicing as the people of Nineveh have repented and God had chosen to honor their repentance with mercy. Instead, the book follows Jonah wallowing in anger about God’s decision.

Why is Jonah Mad?

Jonah is angry that God shows mercy on the people of Nineveh, but why? We aren’t given an explicit reason why, but there are a few possibilities that make sense given the context.

  1. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, a rival of Israel. Jonah likely wanted to see harm come to them out of prejudice or as a form of “justice” in his eyes.
  2. One of my study Bibles suggests that Jonah was embarrassed that he spent time telling them a calamity would befall them, and it didn’t.[1]
  3. Perhaps Jonah thought their particular sin (or amount of sin) was to egregious to “let go.”

Bitter Rivals

When people do us wrong, we often have the desire to see them get what’s coming to them. While we may get the details—or even the larger picture—completely wrong, the desire to see justice carried out is within each of us. It is the strongest when we are the victim seeking justice against our perpetrator. It’s possible that Jonah saw Israel (and thus himself) as the victim and Assyria (including Nineveh) as the perpetrator. As such, he would be hoping God would destroy the city and show them a think or two.

We can be guilty of the same behavior. We may not call people enemies and rivals in our day to day life, but there are likely people we see as adversarial. It is easy to fall in to the trap of wishing harm on such people, especially if they have been the cause of harm to us. However, we are still to show mercy to and desire mercy for these people.

Embarrassment

Jonah had been preaching doom and gloom for 40 days, only for there to be repentance and joy. I can definitely relate to the idea that Jonah would not want to look like “the boy who cried wolf.” Personally, however, I think Jonah’s proclamation that he might as well be dead is a bit over-dramatic for mere embarrassment. When you consider that not only could Jonah go home but the people actively petitioned The Most High God to change his mind, I don’t think people would have still viewed Jonah as a prophet.

Nonetheless, there is still a lesson to be learned from this possibility. Sometimes we are so determined to be right that we don’t care about justice or mercy. That is not how we should lead our lives. We should rather to be wrong and see someone saved than to be right and see them suffer.

A Worse Sin

People often rank sin, despite the Bible never doing such a thing. For example, the general public would probably consider murder worse than dishonoring your parents (though arguably, murder would probably constitute dishonoring your parents making the latter a subset of the former). In such cases we may believe we a person who has committed a sin we consider “the worst” doesn’t deserve mercy and repentance. However, this exact image represents what the Father does for each of us—we are all guilty of sin and none deserve His grace but it is freely given to any who will accept. Many verses remind us that we will be judged the way we judge others. If we are unforgiving and suggest someone does not deserve God’s mercy, the question will be why do we?

Undue Anger

My favorite verse from this chapter is verse 4 (repeated in verse 9):

But the Lord said, “Do you have a good reason to be angry?”

📚 Jonah 4:4 NASB

God calls out the absurdity of Jonah’s angry. Many times we get upset about things that have nothing to do with us. Should we be upset that someone else receives mercy? In Jonah’s case, we aren’t talking about a situation where he believes they received something that was owed to him instead. Jonah was granted mercy for his own disobedience in the first chapter, so he really has no reason to be angry! How often do we dwell in this mindset where we forget the grace and mercy shown to us in favor of trying to restrict grace and mercy from being shown to others? This is the behavior The Most High God is rebuking in this chapter.

To illustrate His point, God causing a plant to grow, providing shade for Jonah, then just as quickly causes it to die—prompting another “temper tantrum” from Jonah. There are two lessons we can get from God’s demonstration. The first is the point He explicitly makes: if Jonah is upset over the death of a single plant that sprung up overnight, why shouldn’t God care about the death of thousands of people living in the city? The second point is more subtle. Jonah is angry about something he did not create nor cultivate. God created the people of Nineveh, they belong to Him. It was His message Jonah delivered, and the repentance of people that made a difference. Jonah is irrelevant in the equation. Many times we elevate ourselves and insert ourselves in situations (perhaps out of pride) that have nothing to do with us.

References and Footnotes

  1. David Stern. The Complete Jewish Study Bible. pg. 835-836. 1998

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