Jonah is well known for running away to Tarshish to keep from having to preach to the people of Nineveh. We tend to assume that Jonah’s flight from God’s command is a spontaneous reaction. But actually, the author reveals at the end of the book that Jonah’s refusal to go where God sent him was based on deep reservations about God’s mercy: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2, ESV). Essentially Jonah is saying to God, “I knew you were setting me up to look ridiculous: I go in there full of fire and brimstone, and then you go soft and don’t zap them after all.” So it’s obvious that Jonah needs an education, and God sends him to school through the journey to Nineveh.
Jonah’s conscience is quite bothersome as he boards the ship to Tarshish, for he is fleeing “the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). God responds by saying, in effect, “You want to hide? I can do you one better than the hold of a ship. How about the belly of a big fish?” From that place Jonah cries out to be restored to the Lord’s presence, and he is cast up on shore by the fish, ready to hear again the Lord tell him to go preach to Nineveh. He’s now turned around to do God’s bidding, and he dutifully walks the three days’ journey through the town warning the citizens of their impending doom. But he evidently does not have the heart of his merciful God in delivering his message, and, perversely, he is even chagrined at his success in turning the Ninevites from their wickedness!
We then see the last unit of Jonah’s course acted out in the last chapter of the book. First, we see the compassion of God contrasted with the vindictiveness of Jonah as God “relented of the disaster he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:10), and Jonah was angry at God’s mercy. God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and Jonah’s lack of an answer is an implicit “Yes.”
The next step is for God to show Jonah how sinful is his sense of values. When Jonah builds a little arbor for shade as he self-righteously waits to see “what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5), apparently without much charity in his heart for the inhabitants of Nineveh, God makes His final point with Jonah by supplementing the prophet’s shade with a vine, for which Jonah is glad. But as quickly as it came, God caused it to wither, once again making Jonah angry enough to want to die. God asks a second time, “Do you do well to be angry” over the loss of such an insignificant thing? God drives home the absurdity of Jonah’s feeling more for the loss of a trivial comfort than for “a 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 4:11).
We are not told whether Jonah took God’s lessons to heart and changed his attitude toward those he preached to, but we would do well to heed God’s lesson to His prophet: don’t be more wrathful toward sinful people than God is.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)