“This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen” (Jonah 4:1-3, NLT).
The book of Jonah presents some difficult theological issues, not least of which is represented by Jonah’s memorable complaint to God in these verses. His complaint seems so reprehensible that it’s enough to make you question, “What’s his problem, anyway?”
Jonah is given the hardest conceivable assignment by God. God told Jonah to go to the capital of Assyria, the greatest earthly power in his world and the archenemy of Israel.
Jonah, like others before and after him, is a most unlikely prophet and reacts to God’s call not with expressions of inadequacy and reluctance but by taking action.
When told to go east, he gets on a boat heading west!
But Jonah’s flight proves futile and he himself becomes a recipient of God’s mercy in a most remarkable way. He is lost at sea and swallowed by a large fish (perhaps a whale), which prevents him from drowning at sea.
When Jonah finally does reach Nineveh, he has only to preach a half-hearted sermon in order to achieve astonishing results. Everyone in Nineveh repents and turns to God to the extent that even their livestock are included in their acts of repentance.
In response to their repentance, God relents from executing judgment upon the Ninevites.
Then the storyline turns into a dialogue between Jonah and God about the meaning of what has happened. This dialogue is where this discussion takes up. What’s Jonah’s problem anyway? Why is Jonah so troubled with God’s amazing grace? Jonah complains to God that He is too merciful, His grace too amazing, and so God should just kill him!
Maybe Jonah despaired of life because God is so merciful (towards the unrighteous) that it was difficult to discriminate between who are God’s people and who are not God’s people. The prophet Malachi raises that same concern: “On the day when I act in judgment, they will be my own special treasure. I will spare them as a father spares an obedient child. Then you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not” (Malachi 3:17-18).
Possibly, Jonah despaired because he thought the Ninevites just didn’t deserve God’s mercy or because of the potential risk to Israel by the dispensation of God’s grace on Assyria.
My personal belief, however, is the story of Jonah describes a simple case of selfishness–selfishness about the mercy of God.
Jonah was merciless!
And he thought God should be also.
Jonah received divine mercy himself, yet selfishly begrudged it to others, an attitude that itself nullifies the very nature of that mercy.
Unfortunately, we all have a little Jonah in us and Jesus warned us against such behavior in the Lord’s prayer and the postscript to the prayer: “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
The parable of the unforgiving debtor in Matthew 18:21-35 reinforces this teaching: “Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35).
Here’s the moral of the story of Jonah. God is predisposed to save rather than destroy, we are not. So, we must not begrudge the mercy of God that we have received to others because in so doing we nullify His grace in our own lives.
The imperative for receiving God’s mercy is to show mercy to others!