But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)
A tale of a sibling spat
This chapter reminds me of a time when my youngest sister, Carmen, and I were fighting. I can’t remember about what, but I must have gotten the upper hand in the argument, because Carmen went to complain to our parents. I hovered outside the door to hear if she would malign me, and what they would say. I don’t remember what Mom said, but clearly Carmen didn’t like it and told her to shut up – something we never said to our parents. I waited for Papa to lower the boom. All he did was look up briefly and say tersely, “Don’t talk like that to your mother.” I was so angry! If it had been me or my brother, we would have been in so much trouble! But Carmen, the youngest, only got a brief verbal reprise. Not exactly the vengeance, if you will, I was hoping would be brought to my whining, obtrusive, clearly out-of-line-in-so-many-ways little sister.
To be clear, I love my sister dearly, but I was not her biggest fan at that moment. I was even more mad when I saw she didn’t get punished. I felt much like Jonah did, sitting in a snit up on that hill, acting all holier-than-thou while really doing nothing to improve anybody’s situation. I don’t know why Carmen didn’t get in trouble that day. No one does, actually. None of my other family members remember this incident. So all I can do is conjecture. It’s possible that Papa was just tired, though I doubt it because that sort of disrespectful language was never tolerated in any other instance. So perhaps she was having a hard day and Papa was cutting her some slack. Perhaps I was really in the wrong and had pushed Carmen to the limit in our argument leading up to this little story, and Papa knew it, and wasn’t going to hold it against either of us, because that’s what siblings do sometimes.
Whatever the reason, how much easier would it have been for my parents to come down hard on my sister, yelling and blustering and sending her to her room? And how much of their own frustration would be expended (because I now know just how much frustration you suffer as a parent) if they had then turned their anger towards me for goading my sister into such a state in the first place? They would have been justified in doing so: neither Carmen nor I were behaving very well in the above scenario.
God, the patient parent
It is easy to be angry. It is easy to shout at, to shut out, to punish. And in some cases, all those things are justified – needed, even. But it is so much harder to be patient, to be loving, to be forgiving. Let’s look at this chapter again: By all rights, Nineveh should be destroyed. We don’t get to learn much about what condemned Nineveh in the book of Jonah, but in Nahum (another book devoted to prophesy against Nineveh), we learn that the city “plots evil against the Lord,” that it is a “city of blood, full of lies,” and a place of “endless cruelty.” To sum up, they were bad, really bad. God sending Jonah to warn them is kind of like the divine equivalent of a parent saying “you shape up or so help me…God?” Perhaps that analogy falls apart a little, but you get the main thrust of it. Here’s the twist though: unlike most children (or at least, unlike my children), they listened. Nineveh showed repentance, and God showed mercy. The fact that God spares such a terrible people after one little act of repentance clearly rankles Jonah, who storms off in a huff to sit on a hill and see what will happen to the city, much like an older brother sick of the leeway given to a younger sibling.
God has every right to be angry at Jonah now. Jonah basically back-talks to God (complaining about God’s greatest virtues, compassion and love, in just the height of irony). Then he waits to see if God will change their mind and actually strike Nineveh down, like Jonah thinks should happen. Jonah clearly thinks he knows better than God, and is just waiting for God to get with the picture. The hubris of his thinking is just like that of a teenager, don’t you think? I, at least, remember being thirteen and just knowing that I knew better than my parents. Again, God would have every right to turn Xyr anger against Jonah. Instead, God turns this into a teaching moment with the vine. Yet again, with what must have been accompanied with a deep cosmic sigh, God is patient.
Patience is the price we must pay for Grace. Perhaps it is easier for God to be endlessly patient, tapping into endless grace, being the Almighty and all. For me, it is a daily struggle. How much easier would it be to meet harsh words with more of the same? To yell at the kids every time they make a mistake? To look out for nobody’s needs but my own? I would have the satisfaction of saying exactly what I want to say when I want to say it…but not much else. Eventually, that sort of behavior would push everyone away, and I’d be left with an empty life, devoid of love.
My NIV study notes on this chapter close out with an additional line of scripture from Ezekiel: ” ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.’ ” We see that in Jonah, as God saves literally everyone from beginning to end: the sailors and captain; Nineveh’s people, king, and even livestock; not to mention Jonah himself. Maybe not everybody is worthy of our grace (let alone God’s) as we see fit. But what we think doesn’t matter: God gives us all that grace anyway. And if God can spare a city so full of sin and hate and murder as Nineveh, can’t we spare a little more grace for our neighbor? I think it is our duty to try.