But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” – Jonah 4:1-11 (NRSV)
Do you recognize him? Yes, this is the same Jonah from the belly of the whale. But this passage, the final part of his story, doesn’t seem to fit with what we know of the Sunday school hero. We find him here at his worst—and also find a sobering message for ourselves.
The episode in the whale (“large fish,” to be precise) comes from a complex tale of rebellion, salvation, and misunderstanding. Jonah was an Israelite prophet, whom God appointed to preach impending judgment to the pagan city of Nineveh. Resisting the call, he instead found a ship faring to Tarshish, about as far away from Nineveh as the ancient mind could imagine. But the act was futile: a terrible storm led to Jonah being tossed overboard and into the belly of the fish. From the bottom of the sea, however, he prayed to God, and the fish spit him out—within walking distance of Nineveh, of course. Jonah then obeyed God, and called the Ninevites to repentance; miraculously, the wicked city responded and mourned its evil. And God, in an act of grace, “changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).
It seems that Jonah should be happy—he received a second chance, preached his message, and witnessed its success—but instead he sulks outside the city. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” he complains (Jonah 4:2). God’s mercy towards Nineveh annoys him so much that he finds it better “to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).
Jonah’s frustration stems from a perceptive analysis of the situation: he sees that his experience is quite similar to the Ninevites’; both essentially rebelled against God, Jonah by running away, and the Ninevites by their “evil ways and … violence” (Jonah 3:8). Yet God punishes Jonah (i.e. sends him into the fish), and withholds punishment from the Ninevites. Perceiving this difference, Jonah grows angry that God would let the Ninevites off so easily, while he, God’s prophet, suffered humiliatingly.
His anger betrays a deficient understanding of salvation, featuring prominently in his prayer from the belly of the fish. He begins with the seafloor, crying “you [God] cast me into the deep,” and ends proclaiming “yet you brought up my life from the Pit” (Jonah 2:3,6). The only reason he gives for his punishment is that God sent him there; never does he account for his own rebellion. No, he ignores his spiritual guilt and concerns himself solely with physical salvation. Losing sight of his need for spiritual salvation, he grows petty, wanting to see God punish others rather than show them mercy. Moreover, he is ungrateful. The bush (Jonah 4:6-8) is an image of his failure to thank God for his numerous blessings; only when the bush is taken away, only from the bottom of the sea, only in uncomfortable circumstances does he call to God. Finally, weighed down by a life defined by a weak view of God’s salvation, he becomes disillusioned—“It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8).
His misunderstanding lies right at the core of what salvation is. As the language of his prayer describes only upward motion (“into the deep” to “up … from the Pit”), so his conception of salvation is one that sees us only rise upward. But true salvation requires us to first descend: we must acknowledge the depths of our depravity. When faced with Jonah’s message of judgment, the king of Nineveh left “his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6). He used his actions to model his and Nineveh’s spiritual reality, acknowledging and lamenting “their evil ways and … the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:8). Only then did he consider salvation from physical punishment, and this not even as a guarantee: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9, emphasis added). Unlike Jonah, the Ninevites understood that they foremost needed spiritual salvation.
Alongside Jonah’s story, today’s lectionary reading also includes Psalm 51, a heartbroken prayer of repentance. The Psalmist’s humility stands in stark contrast to Jonah’s sulking: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). Only with this vision can we understand our great need for salvation—for a Savior—cry out “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” and receive God’s mercy (Psalm 51:7). Here is the heart of the Ninevites, the heart of Lent, and indeed the heart of the Christian faith: repentance unto salvation.
Joseph McDonough ’23 is a freshman in Stoughton Hall.