This past February, I was formally introduced to the biblical story of Jonah for the first time. Before that, all I had known about Jonah was that he disobeyed God’s command and ended up in the belly of a large fish for three days. Prior to that sermon in February, I didn’t know what God commanded Jonah to do, how he disobeyed the Lord, or what happened to him after he escaped the belly of the fish. And I’ll be honest: the reason for my lack of knowledge on the subject was that I had always assumed Jonah was one of those long stories hidden somewhere in the Old Testament, like in the book of Genesis or something. And personally, I didn’t feel like reading such a “long” story due to the commitment and time it would require- in other words, I was being lazy. It wasn’t until this past February that I discovered the things I had assumed about the story were false. I found out Jonah is actually its own book in the Bible. In addition, it’s one of the shortest books: only four chapters long.
That particular Sunday in February, the pastor’s sermon had left me skeptical as I listened to him because I refused to believe there was a Book of Jonah in the Bible. After all, I had never heard of it! I thought, surely, there must have been a mistake. Was he using a different Bible? When I went back home after church, I immediately searched it up and- what a surprise- the pastor was right! I sat down and read the entire book of Jonah for the first time; it was one of the quickest reads in my life. However, when I finished the book, I was slightly upset because I felt like I was fed a lie during my entire childhood. Whenever I heard about “Jonah and the Whale” (that title had been ingrained in my head as a child, much like “Noah and the Ark”), I imagined a life story that spanned across many chapters of the Holy Book. I knew nothing about the prophecy, the passion, the anger, or the forgiveness that this story entails. Even more, I had no clue that I would learn so much about God’s faithfulness in just four short chapters. I was upset because I wish I had known the truth about this story earlier: how the story of Jonah beautifully captures God’s heart of forgiveness, even in a time long before Jesus entered the picture. Now, this book holds the position as my favorite book in the Bible.
Two weeks ago, I was reintroduced to Jonah in Sunday school. As our class read the last chapter of the book, I discovered a new lesson that I would like to share with you: In the times when you feel angry or frustrated with God, God can use that anger to teach you a powerful lesson about who He is. In other words, sometimes, your anger can actually open up your eyes to the things unseen. That’s what happened in Jonah’s case. And it baffled me. I thought to myself, can my anger really serve a purpose? Well, yes, it can. And what better way to show you than through Jonah’s story.
Jonah was a prophet who was told by God to deliver a special message to the people of Nineveh. The Ninevites were ruthless people who showed no respect for God and were well on their way to destruction. God saw the horrible path the city was headed on, so He asked Jonah to preach to them about repentance. He sent Jonah to tell the Ninevites that if they did not repent, He would destroy their city in 40 days. With the fate of an entire city in his hands, one would imagine Jonah would listen to this vital command from God. But on the contrary, Jonah disobeyed. He ran away from the duty God had given him and boarded a ship to Tarshish in an attempt to flee from God. While he was on the journey there, a great storm occurred and the sailors threw Jonah overboard in order to save their lives. Once they did, the storm cleared and Jonah was swallowed by a large fish. While in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed a beautiful, earnest prayer that moved God; God ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land. God repeated his command to Jonah and this time, Jonah obeyed. He went to Nineveh and warned them that if they did not repent, their city would be destroyed. To Jonah’s surprise, the Ninevites received this message with open arms and quickly repented from their evil ways; they fasted, put on sackcloth, and humbled themselves before the Lord. Of course, God was faithful and He didn’t destroy the city because they repented. Mission accomplished.
However, Jonah was unsatisfied with the outcome of the situation. He was so angry that God spared the lives of the Ninevites that he actually asked God to kill him. He didn’t want to be alive to witness them getting a second chance because he believed they did not deserve it. I also like to think Jonah was angry because the prophecy about the city’s destruction did not come to pass. God’s decision to save the city, rather than destroy it, could have made Jonah’s words appear illegitimate. Jonah may have felt anger towards God for making him seem like a prophet who did not know what he was talking about- which isn’t much of a prophet at all. In his anger, Jonah retreated to an area where he could watch the outcome of Nineveh from afar. After he made himself a shelter and sat down to watch the city from a distance, God prepared a plant to provide Jonah with some comfort and to serve as a shade for Jonah’s head. The special plant hovered over Jonah until the next day, when God sent a worm to damage and kill the plant. Jonah became very angry that the plant died and he asked God to kill him. (Am I sensing a pattern here?) God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” Jonah’s response to God was that it was right for him to be angry about the plant’s death, even to the point where he wished he would die too. Jonah believed the plant didn’t deserve to die, especially because it was a source of comfort and it kept his head cool. It was at that moment of deep anger and frustration in which God revealed an important lesson to Jonah- a lesson that has touched me deeply. God replied to Jonah’s angry response by asking him a profound question, which I have summarized as this:
“You have had pity on a plant which you did not create or grow, a plant that came up and barely lasted a full day. Should I, then, not feel the same way about Nineveh? Should I not feel pity towards a great city whose people I did create, a city I watched grow, a city that has lasted many years?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
And then, just like that, the book of Jonah ends. God, rather than reciprocating feelings of anger towards a very angry Jonah, chose to respond in the gentle fashion of a question that would open up Jonah’s eyes to the truth. In those last two verses, the reader sees how God used Jonah’s own anger to teach him an important lesson about love, faithfulness, and forgiveness. He did this by challenging Jonah with a question that would require him to analyze his anger in order to find an answer. And it didn’t just stop there: God went above and beyond. Even though Jonah didn’t deserve an explanation from God, God chose to explain to Jonah why he saved the Ninevites (He loved them and didn’t want them to perish) and why He took away the plant (He wanted Jonah to experience how it felt to love something and to suddenly see it perish). God used Jonah’s anger to change his outlook. I’m sure in that moment, when God made that comparison between Nineveh and the plant, Jonah was speechless. In that moment, he could finally understand God’s reasoning and probably felt so foolish about his extreme anger. I can imagine him sitting there, next to that withered plant, thinking to himself, “Of course God didn’t want Nineveh to perish; if I were Him, I wouldn’t want that either! If I’m feeling sad about this plant’s death, I can’t even imagine how sad I would be over the death of an entire city- especially one I created with my own hands! Why couldn’t I see this before? My anger must have been blinding me…”
What I like the most about the book of Jonah is that, in the final chapter, the reader doesn’t even get Jonah’s response to God’s thought-provoking question. Because of this, I feel like it was meant to be a rhetorical question not just for Jonah, but for us too. Is it right for us to ever be angry about God’s decisions, especially when we know that all things work together for the good of those who love Him? Have there been times where we’ve acted like Jonah? Where we disobeyed God or thought we knew better than God did? Where we thought people didn’t deserve another chance? Where we judged people from afar because of our own self-righteousness? Where we let our anger blind us to the simple truth?
I’d like to leave you with one last thing: Jonah’s lack of a response to the question in the final chapter leaves us with God’s question staring directly at us. God’s words to Jonah are the final words we read. Let this serve as a reminder to you that God always has the final say, whether it be in what happens to Nineveh or what happens now.