When we read the book of Jonah in the Bible, we find a prophet who didn’t want to prophesy to some people he hated, because he knew God would be merciful to them if they repented. By the end we find Jonah getting very bitter about the result of his prophesying, and that’s where it stops. The Bible doesn’t say anything else about Jonah’s attitude after that. We don’t know if he got over his bitterness or not. We don’t know if he learned something important about mercy and letting go or not. But let’s talk about how it went so we can learn from it.
God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them that God would overthrow their city if they did not repent of their wickedness. Jonah had reasons to hate these people. Not only were they exceedingly wicked, they were also enemies to his own people. It makes sense for God to punish people who are being that bad, and seeing those people judged by God Himself would probably have been the justice Jonah wanted. So when God told Jonah to warn them, Jonah didn’t want to. He’d seen how merciful God could be when people repented, and he didn’t want those people to have a chance.
That sounds a little harsh on Jonah’s part, but let’s talk about how we can be like that. There are people that we’d like to see get their just desserts, and if suddenly they were forgiven in a way that releases them from that punishment, we’d be very put out to say the least. Even if these people were changing their ways, something in us screams that it isn’t fair, even if they do still have to live with the consequences of their choices. For example, sometimes I wonder, if I were to live in the time of Nazi Germany, would I have wanted someone to give the Gospel to the wrongdoers after all they’d done? Would I want them to be able to get to Heaven, or would I want to deny them the chance because I wanted them to go to Hell? What if I’d been personally hurt by them? Would I feel good about it if God gave them the same mercy He gave me? Or what about people today in prison for heinous crimes? If I knew what they’ve done or if they’d done it to me, how would I feel about them receiving mercy? How would I feel if God told me to personally give the Gospel to these people?
Jonah ran. He bolted off somewhere else completely. Jonah of all people would know that you can’t run from God, but maybe he figured if he got things out of sight they’d be out of his mind. But God wouldn’t let him, and God “chased him down.” During this process, Jonah likely tarnished his reputation as a prophet since he had told people what he was doing. He might not have said it in so many words, but essentially Jonah was running from God’s command because he didn’t want God to be merciful to some people he didn’t think deserved it. By the end of the whole ordeal – which involved Jonah insisting he get thrown overboard, God sending a big fish/whale to swallow him, Jonah praying about his circumstance, and then Jonah getting heaved up on dry land – God again gives Jonah His command to prophesy to the people of Nineveh, and Jonah gets right to it this time.
By the time Jonah finishes reaching the entire city, they’ve decided to repent and to display it openly to God by fasting and wearing clothes for mourning. And unless that’s an idiom being used in Jonah 3:6-8, even the animals were made to participate. God saw the people’s repentance inwardly and outwardly, and He extended mercy by not overthrowing their city.
Then we see Jonah getting angry again. Had he really learned nothing from his time in the sea creature’s belly, and was he only prophesying all this time because he had to? Or had he meant it, but then picked up the offense again when he realized God really was going to be merciful and these people weren’t going to be hard-hearted? Whatever it was, Jonah essentially complained, “I knew you’d be like this, God! That’s just like you to be merciful! This is why I didn’t want to come in the first place!” Jonah gets so angry that he tells God he wants to die. As Jonah goes off and sulks for a while, apparently hoping God will change His mind about the whole mercy to Nineveh thing, God gives Jonah an object lesson and has a little chat with him about whether he should be so angry about God extending mercy.
In the last verse we see God asking Jonah, “Shouldn’t I have spared them?” in a way that essentially answers His own question. Why wouldn’t God have had compassion on these people when they repented? So when God says that He loves everyone and wants everyone to come to Him in repentance so He can show them mercy (Isaiah 55:6-9; Ezekiel 33:11; Acts 1:7-8; 1 Timothy 2:3-6), it might take me some work with God to think and feel the same way, but I should think and feel the same way without bitterness. By God’s grace, we can all get there.