Reading Time: 7 mins

Unforeseen Sympathy

Reading Time: 7 mins

Jonah’s biggest blunder was a failure to understand that God’s grace is always undeserved and always falls on those who are unworthy of it.

Out of all the surprising elements within the story of Jonah, it’s the way the book ends that takes the cake. In a narrative that never unfolds quite as we expect it to, it shouldn’t be shocking that the conclusion would continue that trend, as the closing scene of Chapter 4 offers one of the most jarring finales ever recorded. Technically speaking, Jonah’s ending can barely be called an “ending” since it closes with a question that goes unanswered. “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city,” Yahweh inquires, “in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). This unanswered question invites us to ask ourselves the question. In that way, then, we are being cross-examined by God just as much as Jonah was. By putting his prophet on blast for his lack of compassionate concern for the people of Nineveh, God also exposes our kindred nature of self-interest and self-concern. 

The Book of Jonah is a staggering showcase of God’s unstoppable mercy, throughout which we are meant to be caught off guard by both God’s sovereignty and compassion, even for those who are running away from him. Both of these themes are on full display in the climactic chapter, as the startling aftermath of Nineveh’s remorse is recorded for us. Jonah’s prophetic proclamations result in a city-wide movement of contrition that brings every Assyrian to their knees (Jonah 3:5). This moment of repentance is surprising in and of itself, but that is when we are given a glimpse of the prophet’s response:

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)

Both the uncanny spiritual turn exhibited by the Ninevites and God’s own unexpected “turn” from disaster cause Jonah to become a sulking and sniveling mess. Yahweh’s prophet fumes as he attempts to justify not only his previous decision to run away but also his present disgust for the way things have unfolded. In Jonah’s mind, his feelings are perfectly reasonable. After all, nobody in their right mind would have thought that a city like Nineveh filled with people like the Ninevites should ever be treated with mercy, especially when they were the least likely people to show mercy to their opponents. But, as Jonah confesses, he “knew” that this was the type of God he represented, which was why he was frustrated at this commission in the first place. He couldn’t stand this outcome and, I’d hasten to say, next to no one in Jonah’s day would’ve been okay with it either.

Nineveh deserved judgment. They deserved to pay for the crimes and atrocities they had inflicted upon the rest of the world. If only Jonah hadn’t opened his mouth, they undoubtedly would have, which is what precipitates his temper tantrum just outside the city limits. Now, Jonah’s name would be forever linked to the redemption of a group of people everyone loved to hate and wanted to see destroyed. Watching this merciful situation develop proved too much for Jonah, leading him to plead with God to take his life (Jonah 4:3). His intense displeasure and distaste for God’s leniency toward Nineveh brought him so low that he didn’t even want to be around to see it.

Yet, Yahweh shows up not to lay into his prophet with words of judgment but with a probing question that seeks to shake Jonah out of his fit of rage. “Do you do well to be angry?” the Lord inquires (Jonah 4:4). God had every right to show up with “guns blazing” and demand that Jonah explain himself. “How dare you act this way, Jonah! How can you have the gall to respond so childishly, so foolishly, so selfishly? What do you have to say for yourself?” God could have — and, perhaps, should have — interrogated his frustrating prophet in this way. But instead, he draws close to his disgruntled prophet to lead him to repentance. God’s inquiry is just another revelation of his compassionate heart. 

It is reminiscent of the scene in Genesis 3 where after Adam and Eve have fatefully chosen to disobey their Creator God, God himself comes after them and calls out to them, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Those words are, of course, more of an invitation than anything else. A similar moment occurs as Yahweh approaches his beleaguered prophet. God is taking the initiative to invite Jonah to recognize his foolishness and rebellion so that he might fall. God might embrace him with arms of infinite compassion. Jonah, however, digs his heels in and decides to exit the city to get a front-row seat for what he hopes will be an eventful next few days (Jonah 4:5). Consequently, we take note of the stark contrast on display: inside the walls of Nineveh, a mass movement of revival lingered, whereas outside the walls, a preacher was found moping and sulking.

God’s inquiry is just another revelation of his compassionate heart.

But why is Jonah in such a huff? How does he go from preaching repentance to the Ninevites to being perturbed when they responded positively to his preaching? How does this make sense? Why does Jonah react like this? The answer is that Jonah does not understand grace. His view of God’s unmerited favor is severely limited. This should startle us since it is Jonah, the preacher, who pouts over the grace of God being poured out on “those people,” that is, on those who don’t deserve it (according to his estimation). However, as the prophet’s pity party continues, Yahweh shows up to teach Jonah a lesson about his divine grace by giving him a “parable of nature”:

Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 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 4:6–8).

God appoints a plant or gourd to sprout overnight, providing Jonah with shade and relief from the blistering heat of the Middle Eastern sun. But just as quickly as the plant appears, so, too, does it disappear, as God appoints a worm to attack and devour the gourd. Jonah’s shelter is ruined and he is left with no covering to withstand the “scorching east wind,” which God has also “appointed.” This, as you might imagine, sends our peeved prophet into a downward spiral of emotions, so much so that he said he wants to die (again). However, even as he sat in a pool of his own outrage and despair over the prospect of his nation’s archrivals receiving divine mercy, it is God who, once again, intervened on his behalf:

But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 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 4:9–11)

Similar to Jesus’s occasional explanation of his parables, Yahweh proceeds to explain the lesson of grace he just gave him. The Lord’s words to Jonah are not filled with any ounce of irritation. Rather, his words are almost like those of a counselor or therapist, aiming to show how his prophet has misread the circumstances around him. Jonah’s rage over the plant emerged out of his entitlement. In his mind, he had a right to that plant and the shady relief it offered. Therefore, when that right was so cruelly taken away — when what he deserved was devoured — his anger was warranted, or so he determined. What God reveals, though, is that his prophet is owed nothing. Jonah did not cultivate the plant, nor did he labor for it. Accordingly, he was enjoying the shade of something that he had no involvement in or entitlement to. The shady relief of the plant was entirely a gift of grace, springing from the undeserved “pity” of Yahweh’s heart. 

Consequently, God’s prophet became the ultimate beneficiary of God’s pitiable concern, even at a time when he deserved it the least. In the middle of Jonah’s ranting and raving, he was given a gift of grace he did not deserve, which, as it happens, was what had transpired in Nineveh, too. “Your heart burns and breaks over a gourd you thought you deserved,” God cross-examines, “but my heart burns and breaks for souls that are desperate for my grace and don’t even know it.” 

Jonah’s biggest blunder was a failure to understand that God’s grace is always undeserved and always falls on those who are unworthy of it. Whether it was his pedigree, his position, or his pride, the Lord’s fugitive preacher was acting as if grace was something he was owed. But as soon as you twist the grace of God into something you deserve, you can be sure you have made an idol of your own worthiness. This is what Jonah did — he had forged an idol out of his own bloated sense of personal merit. 

The sacrificial death and resurrection of God’s Son is a gift of indiscriminate grace given to the undeserving, which is a category that includes everyone.

Even though Jonah had no leg to stand on, it was his own misshapen idol of self-righteousness that blinded him from seeing the irony of it all. He was angry at the Lord for showing a divine dose of compassion and patience to a wayward group of people when he himself was a recipient of that same divine compassion and patience. But God’s unmerited favor isn’t a wage to be earned, nor is it a badge to be won. Grace is absolutely free and entirely undeserved. The record of Jonah gets to the heart of what the rest of Scripture reveals — namely, the sacrificial death and resurrection of God’s Son is a gift of indiscriminate grace given to the undeserving, which is a category that includes everyone. No one is worthy of the offer of Christ’s sin-defeating passion and death, but this is what the Lord extends to the world anyway. 

Thinking that you deserve grace while others do not is both a byproduct of and a catalyst for a calloused heart of self-preoccupation and self-righteousness. Indeed, self-righteousness cauterizes us from looking with compassion and pity on the plight of others and instead keeps the blinders on so all we see is ourselves. But the good news of God announces that “he has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy” (Ps. 72:13). Not because the needy have labored for it or have anything to earn it, but because he is a God whose heart burns for the lost and the needy (Hosea 11:8–9). God’s gospel tells us all about how God’s Son has looked on a world full of pitiable sinners who don’t know their own predicament with unmerited pity and unrelenting mercy and assumed their predicament as his own (Phil. 2:4–8). In unforeseen and unbounded sympathy, the Christ of God willingly condescends to where sinners are to rescue them from certain damnation, revealing his compassionate concern for those who least deserve it. This is who Jesus is — namely, the true and better Jonah who embodies God’s pity for weary and wayward people like you and me.