Jonah and the Worm: the neglected end of the story (2 of 3)

In the first two chapters of Jonah, discussed in my previous post, Jonah tried to run away from God, ended up in the ocean, and was saved from death by a large fish. What happened next?

As chapter 3 of Jonah begins, we move into what is usually portrayed as the “happy ending” in the Sunday school version of the story. But with a closer look, we will see that the details of chapter 3, while presenting a happy turn of events for Nineveh, are actually leading us into the real crisis and the primary message of the book.

As chapter 3 begins, things are looking up: the word of the Lord comes for a second time, commanding Jonah, “”Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2)  This time, Jonah went, “according to the word of the Lord.” He’s moved from disobedience to obedience. But what kind of obedience? What’s in his heart? When we look at his message, it gives the impression that Jonah is preaching like a teenager who’s been forced on stage by his parents – fulfilling his duty, but without much enthusiasm. His message is just one sentence long: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4b).

The book of Jonah appears in a collection of prophetic oracles (from Isaiah to Malachi) that include expressions of great poetry, eloquence, and poignancy. From the standpoint of the human authors, books such as Isaiah, Amos, and Nahum were crafted with thoughtfulness and creativity – at the place where divine inspiration met passionate creative effort. But the best oracle Jonah can muster in this story is one abrupt declaration.

The response of the city of Nineveh is in line with that of the sailors in the first chapter of the book. One simple, seemingly dispassionate statement from the prophet elicits a dramatic response. Everyone in the city, from the king on his throne to the lowest person, repents in sackcloth and ashes (literally!). They give meticulous attention to showing they are earnest, even to the point of compelling their livestock to fast and put on sackcloth and ashes (3:7b-8a).  The rulers of Nineveh decree these actions based on the hope – however remote – that God might show mercy. They do not have history of covenant relationship with God on which to pin their hopes; just a possibility. They pose the rhetorical question, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9). Verse 10 reveals that, in fact, God did relent from his punishment in response to their repentance. God’s plan to make himself known among the nations goes ahead in all of Jonah’s actions: After using Jonah’s disobedience in chapter one to bring the idol-worshiping sailors to himself, God has now used the prophet’s obedience in chapter three to turn a great city away from evil. The prophet must be overjoyed at this great success! Right? Well, actually, something different is happening in Jonah’s heart and mind…and that’s what chapter 4 is about.

The next scene, at the opening of chapter 4, tells us what’s going on in Jonah’s heart – and it’s ugly. In this final section, we begin to think that the whole point of this story may not actually be about Jonah’s obedience, or about Nineveh’s repentance and the results of his ministry. The focal point is Jonah’s heart condition, and his refusal to repent even as the Lord steadfastly seeks to win him over. One sentence sums up Jonah’s response to Nineveh’s repentance and God’s mercy: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (4:1). Aha. Remember how the sailors in the first chapter feared God “exceedingly”? (1:10, 16)  Now we see in Jonah an emotion of equal intensity – except that the emotion is not fear of God, but anger towards him! Read on: “And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.'” (4:2)

Here is the contrast the author wants us to see: When pagan sailors, in chapter 1, learn who God is, they fear and worship him; when the prophet Jonah, on the other hand, observes the extent of God’s merciful character toward the wicked (i.e., anyone other than himself), he hardens his heart and resents God’s character. With the final statement of his prayer, Jonah continues his morbid outlook from the first chapter: “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). He still sees death as preferable to submission to God’s will! His actions changed – he went to Nineveh- but his heart did not. Thus, as we understand from the teaching of the other prophets, true repentance has not taken place.

This time, the Lord responds verbally to his prayer with a question. Generally, when God asks a person a question in the Hebrew Bible, it’s because that person is in trouble! (Remember God’s first question to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”…God did not ask it because he did not know where they were!). The question cues us in that Jonah is about to be shown just how wrong he is. The Lord asks, “Do you do well to be angry?” (4:4). Well, I think everyone, including Jonah, knew the right answer to that question!

Jonah then sets up camp looking over the city, apparently still hoping that the Lord will change his mind and rain down fire on the city.  As he sits, the Lord shows him grace by bringing a physical comfort to Jonah. He “appointed” a vine to grow to give shade in the heat of the sun. This word “appointed” is important: it is the same word used when the Lord summoned the great fish (1:17), and it will be used again when God brings a worm to eat up the vine, then sends a hot wind to make Jonah miserably sweaty. (4:7) It’s the language that describes God calling a prophet as his spokesperson. And the use of this word underlines another contrast in the story: all of nature responds to God’s call, obeying without question, while the prophet struggles to respond to God’s call and obey with the right attitude. God used a one-sentence sermon to bring one of the most wicked cities on earth to repentance. They were quick to repent! Yet he had to marshal all the forces of nature in an effort to bring his chosen prophet to repentance.

What about this other key idea, “repentance”? How does it play into the story? “Repent” can be translated more literally as “to turn,” and in the ESV we see it being used to describe the action of the people of Nineveh. (3:8-10)  We also see another word, “relent”, paired with it in reference to God: when Nineveh repented, God relented. Both involve changing a course of action. And Jonah indicates that it is precisely the Lord’s tendency to “relent” – to change his course of action when sinful people cry out and turn from evil – and that infuriates Jonah. (4:2)  But here’s the question the storyteller is asking: Will Jonah turn away from the sinful attitude in his heart? The wicked city of Nineveh repented. The perfectly holy and wise Lord relented. But Jonah will not turn away from his self-absorbed anger. Thus, the Lord uses an object lesson to try to get through to him.

When the Lord causes a vine to grow up with miraculous speed to give Jonah shade, the “exceedingly angry” prophet now finds something to be “exceedingly glad” about: he feels more comfortable! This is a development that merits strong feeling! However, this feeling soon evaporates. “But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.'” (Jonah 4:7-8)

Here is where it is not too hard for me to imagine myself in the story. I just spent two years living in Niger, West Africa. During the hot season, when daily highs reach 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit (and in the “cool of the night” it’s still a balmy 85 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s sometimes tempting to feel that it would be better to die than to live! And often, just when I’m having a few moments of rest in the cool of an air-conditioned room or under a powerful fan, the electricity cuts out. In that moment of frustration, “Good-bye, cool air” and “Good-bye, cruel world” do not seem that far removed from each other!

When Jonah lost his shade it became clear that, while the comfort of the shade may have calmed his disposition temporarily, the anger and self-pity in his heart were still simmering below the surface, and they quickly come boiling up again. The Lord then patiently asks another, similar, question: “But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ ” (4:9a). While Jonah kept his silence earlier, now his rage explodes: “And he said, ‘Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die’ ” (4:9b). Then God gets to the point of the illustration. After zeroing in on the one person (himself) for which Jonah was still capable of feeling pity, the Lord now draws a comparison between Jonah’s pity for the plant and the Creator-God’s pity for the people he has made in his image. God gets the final word as the book closes, again with a question:

“And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’ ” Jonah 4:10-11.

In all of this drama over rebellion and disobedience, the Lord really has longed for Jonah to understand his heart, to identify with the compassion the Lord feels for his creation. The Lord wants these morally lost people to find their way, and this alienated nation to be reconciled to him. And this is accomplished! Oddly, the one person in this story who stubbornly refuses to align his heart with the Lord’s, right up to the end of the story, is his chosen prophet from the chosen people; the one character we would expect to be spiritually healthy!

So what was the obstacle for Jonah? Something about Nineveh brought a strong reaction in him. Perhaps it was that the people of Nineveh, the Assyrians,  were among the political-military rivals of Israel during the time of the Israelite kingdom. Jonah was being called to love the enemies of his nation by warning them of the impending judgment, and he was not ready to accept that the Lord could transform them rather than destroying them. Jonah had decided that they were in a different, less worthy category of humanity than he was. Pastor Tim Keller says that our tendency as humans is “to like those who like us or are like us.” For Jonah, the people of Nineveh do not fit either of these categories, and thus deserve destruction, not mercy. Though he recognizes the salvation he individually received from the Lord in his prayer (chapter two), it does not leave him ready to see others come to salvation. Though he has been the Lord’s instrument to turn people from the nations to repentance and true worship, the very success of his message makes him feel that life is no longer worth living. He is not buoyed up by the wonder of the Lord’s work in the nations, but is drowning in a stinking pool of self-pity. He can live with a great city perishing in their sin; he cannot live with physical discomfort, nor with his faith community being disrupted by foreigners joining the circle.

And the story ends with the Lord’s final question, as if the needle was lifted off of the record. Did Jonah understand and accept this? Did he finally recognize and change his heart? We can only speculate about what happened to this character in the story, but we can understand what we are to do as readers: we ought to seek to be sensitive to the Lord and ready to repent. Ready to repent of our self-pity, when we must sacrifice comforts for the sake of our calling; Ready to repent of our resentment, when we disagree with how God has chosen to direct our lives and our service to him; And ready to repent of our hardheartedness towards the groups of people we have decided in our hearts are undeserving of mercy.

This story has been meaningful for me in the midst of the difficulties of moving across cultures and living in a harsh environment for the sake of fulfilling the role the Lord has given me in his work among the nations. More than once, the Lord has used it to jerk me out of my self-pity over the comforts I sometimes must sacrifice. I have been challenged to keep a sensitivity that will allow me to rejoice in the fruit the Lord brings, and to remember that he is concerned both with what is happening in the great city where I work and with what is going on in my heart.

What kind of practical example can I give to show what this kind of repentance and alignment with God’s heart for the world might look like? One striking example for me came in a conversation with my sister-in-law, who teaches English as a second language in a culturally diverse area of her city on the East Coast of the U.S. She described seeing families arrive in her city who come from a Muslim people group that has been severely persecuted as a minority in their country. Right now, debate rages in the U.S.A. over accepting refugees and immigrants from the Muslim world. But as these refugees entered her city, her reaction was not based on the politics of the left or of the right, but on sharing the Lord’s heart for the world. She described how she rejoiced to see them enter her church’s neighborhood, where people who love Jesus could reach out in love, serve them and share the good news about Christ with them. In her heart, the gospel won. Sensitivity to the Lord’s work among the nations was more important than a certain brand of nationalism, more important than keeping a distance from people who were not “like her.” We can only hope that Jonah, in the end, arrived at a similar attitude.

What other examples do we find of the alternative to Jonah’s attitude? Where can we look for a positive contrast? The place of the book of Jonah among the other prophetic books and in Israel’s history gives us some clues….and this will be the topic of the third post on Jonah, coming soon.


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