But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 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. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:1-3 ESV
Jonah had received a second chance from God. He had refused God’s command to go to Nineveh the first time and attempted to run away from his responsibility. But Jonah’s disobedience had only led to God’s displeasure and punishment. Jonah had ended up caught on a ship in a storm, was eventually thrown overboard, and then swallowed by a large fish. It was in that dark and hopeless predicament that Jonah had second thoughts about his decision to disobey God. So when God rescued him, he agreed to go to Nineveh and deliver the words of warning God had given him. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). There was a part of Jonah that enjoyed delivering this message, because he was thinking about God bringing judgment against a pagan people who he disliked very much. But his greatest fear was that the people of Nineveh might actually listen to his words and repent. Because he knew God to be a gracious and forgiving God. The whole reason he had run from God was because he didn’t want to see the Ninevites spared by God. He had figured if he refused to warn them, they wouldn’t hear and therefore, they could not repent. But God had other plans.
God doesn’t always do what we expect Him to do. Jonah should have known that. There had been countless times in the history of Israel where God had shown Himself to be inexplicable and to do the unexpected. The prophet Isaiah had recorded God’s own admission of His tendency to do the surprising and unexplainable. “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the LORD. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine’” (Isaiah 55:8 NLT). When Jonah delivered God’s message of warning, he did so with the hope that God would bring destruction on the people in 40 days time. He was not hoping that no one would repent. In fact, his message didn’t even contain a call to repentance. All he said was, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But God knew something Jonah didn’t know. God had a plan for Nineveh that Jonah would find highly disappointing, but not surprising.
The Scriptures are very clear. As soon as Jonah delivered the message of God, something happened. “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). Even the king of Nineveh got involved, issuing a proclamation: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:7-9 ESV). And when God saw their repentant hearts, He spared them.
This was exactly what Jonah had feared. And this outcome left him angry with God. He didn’t try to hide his displeasure, but lashed out at God, reminding Him that this was the very reason he had run away in the first place. “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.” Here was a man who had just enjoyed the grace and mercy of God himself, but who became angry at seeing someone else experience that same blessing. In his mind, the people of Nineveh didn’t deserve it. But that’s where he misunderstood God’s grace and mercy. None of us deserve it. Jonah had done nothing to earn the second chance he had received from God. If anything, his actions had earned him an ignominious death in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea. But God had spared him. God had shown mercy upon him. And now that God was doing the same thing for the people of Nineveh, Jonah was upset. So much so, that he preferred death over life. He would rather have God kill him than to live to see the Ninevites spared by God.
How easy it would be to villainize Jonah and make him out to be the bad guy in this story. But the truth it, there is a little bit of Jonah in each of us. As followers of Christ, we have been given the mission of telling the world about the forgiveness and mercy made available through the death of Jesus. But we choose to withhold it. The very gift we have received, unearned and undeserved, we refuse to share with others. Especially those whom we don’t want to see forgiven. The very gift we have received, we hoard. The message that was so graciously shared with us, we selfishly keep to ourselves. And when we see someone forgiven by God who we feel doesn’t deserve it, we can become angry and upset. But our God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We have been the undeserving recipients of His affections. So why wouldn’t we want others to experience the same thing? God’s grace and mercy were not meant to be hoarded. They were intended to be shared. What we have received, we should be willing to give away to others. Jonah should have been the greatest champion for God’s grace. But rather than share what he had received, he attempted to hoard it for himself. God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness is meant to be dynamic, not static. It is meant to be shared. What we have received, we should long to share with others.