The compassion of God is a common theme in the minor prophets, despite the judgments frequently pronounced. In his self-revelation to Moses at Sinai, Yahweh named himself as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth … forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin” (Ex. 34:6–7). By contrast, God’s prophet Jonah lacks compassion for his hearers.
Chapter 4 finds Jonah displeased and furious God had relented from punishing Nineveh (3:10). God had used him to fulfill His divine plan despite his sin, but it seems the prophet himself required further training and is learning about God on the job.
The word for compassionate (“rahum”) is related to the word for womb (“rehem”), indicating an intimate, powerful love as that of a mother for her child. Jonah knows what Yahweh the covenant God is like, but he does not want God’s compassion or faithful love extended to Nineveh.
This is his stated reasoning for fleeing to Tarshish. The weakness of his excuse is evident, and we can recall from the events of Jonah’s deep-sea calamity the consequences of disobedience. Ironically, Jonah compares poorly to the Ninevites who immediately and corporately repented in fasting, sackcloth and ashes upon hearing of coming disaster.
God challenges Jonah’s attitude: “Is it right for you to be angry?” The correct answer is no, but Jonah feels no conviction: he would rather die than see Nineveh spared, probably wishing God would not leave the guilty unpunished. His own prejudiced and willful heart does not line up with the compassionate heart of God for the lost. Interestingly, God may have been reaching out to get Nineveh’s attention before Jonah’s ministry (ca. 780–750 BC), for in that time frame Assyria experienced a series of natural disasters.
East of the city, Jonah situates himself for a good view of hoped-for destruction, but has wound up yet again in the path of God’s discipline. God continues Jonah’s spiritual education with the lesson of the plant, which is appointed like the fish, the worm and the scorching east wind. Again at the point that Jonah desires death (ironic for one who was saved from death just a while before), God confronts him about his excessive and misdirected anger.
The truth of this cautionary tale emerges. Jonah’s attitude throughout the book shows he values himself and his wishes over God’s will; that his heart is not in tune with God’s heart for saving the lost; and that he values his own comfort, even caring about something as small as a transitory weed to provide temporary shade, more than caring about the dwellers of a large city like Nineveh, who live in ignorance of God’s love, and whose eternal fate is precarious. Sometimes we, like Jonah, enjoy being the beneficiaries of God’s compassion and steadfast love, but do not wish for it to extend to and embrace others who are wicked.
As an interesting providential twist, this reluctant missionary remains a warning against sin and a testimony to God’s love for the nations. Jonah’s tomb is found today near ancient Nineveh, in Mosul, Iraq, devastated in recent years by ISIS terrorists.
His story is mentioned in the Quran and is also read by Jews during Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), which is celebrated with fasting, prayer and confession.
By Stefana Dan Laing
Associate professor at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama