Studying Jonah: Part XIV

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B. A pouting prophet running against God, 4:1–11

If the point of the book of Jonah was the deliverance of the Ninevites from God’s wrath, their wholesale repentance in chapter 3 would have been a suitable conclusion and, thus, leaving chapter 4 as an epilogue of sorts (1). This final section of the Jonah narrative, a pouting prophet running against God, corresponds nicely with the second pericope, a praying prophet running back to God (2:1–10). Laying these two sections alongside one another further contrasts the anger Jonah expresses at the Ninevites’ deliverance when compared to his joy and relief at his own deliverance. In fact, as we keep chapters 1 and 2 as the backdrop, Jonah’s increasing hostility toward God and the pagans God decides to graciously show mercy, the prophet’s inconsistency and hypocrisy are highlighted.

i. Jonah calls out to God, 4:1–3

4:1. But this was extremely evil to Jonah and he became very angry. If any doubt remained as to the attitude and motive with which Jonah carried out his divine commission (3:3), they are now dispelled by the frank assertion of the opening verse of the fourth and final pericope (2). 

Whether God himself told Jonah that he was now going to relent of the destruction of Nineveh or whether it was obvious because the forty-day destruction countdown had come and gone with the Assyrians still alive, the prophet understood Yahweh had shown mercy and relented of the destruction he had said was coming. And, though he himself had been shown a great deal of mercy (see pericope 2), it greatly displeased Jonah. Literally the Hebrew reads “it was evil to Jonah a great evil” (וַיֵּרַע אֶל־יוֹנָה רָעָה). This again harkens back to the opening scene of the narrative in which God states the reason for Nineveh’s pending destruction was that their evil (רָעָתָם) had reached a level that required divine punishment. Now, after God’s mercy has been demonstrated, it is not the pagan evil that is the issue at hand but, according to the prophet, it is Yahweh’s (in)action that is labeled evil! Jonah became angry

In addition to tying back to the running theme of “evil” in the narrative, the word used to describe Jonah’s rage can also carry the connotation of “burning,” as with fire. Thus, the prophet’s emotional state could conceivably be rendered in 4:1 as inflamed (3).

4:2.“The first chapter shows Jonah fleeing from teh face of God. The fourth chapter shows Jonah pointing his finger in the face of God” (4). Jonah, fuelled by rage, prayed to Yahweh. This is the second time in the book that this word for prayer (פלל) is used. The first prayer the prophet uttered was in response to his helplessness and panic. This second prayer, however, is in response to his helplessness and indignation. 

2:1 וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל יוֹנָה אֶל־יהוה אֱלֹהָיו מִמְּעֵי הַדָּגָה׃ Then Jonah prayed to
Yahweh
his God from the stomach of the fish,
2:2 וַיֹּאמֶר and he said,
4:2 וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל־יהוה וַיֹּאמַר He prayed to Yahweh and said,

This repetition of the prophet emotionally calling out to the Lord reenforces the parallel between this fourth and second pericopes of Jonah and further serves to unite the narrative as a whole. However, while in 2:2 the prophet calls out to God from his distress and receives a divine answer, here in chapter 4 his prayer takes on an accusatory and explanatory tone. “In a tone of aggrieved rationality, he explains why he fled—and how right he was to flee. Essentially, then, he is still fleeing” (5). Jonah’s displeasure with the actions of Yahweh indicate that the prophet, while he did show signs of realigning with God’s will, is not fully recovered.

Was this not my concern while I was yet in my country? Jonah is pointing the hearer/reader back to the initial interaction between himself and Yahweh (1:3). The audience is finally now receiving insight on the reason why the prophet arose not to Nineveh and obedience, but to Tarshish and rebellion. It is because Jonah knew something about God and his character.

For I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and full of lovingkindness and one who relents from calamity. Jonah’s rebellion from God was rooted in his intimate knowledge of God’s character. He was not running away from a God he knew little of, but rather running away from a God he knew all too well. 

It is telling that the Ninevites (as the sailors before them) hoped for this divine characteristic while Jonah already knew it was part of who God is.

Sailors: “Perhaps that god may consider us” (1:6).
King: “Who knows, God may turn and relent” (3:9).
Jonah: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God” (4:2) (6).

Not only does Jonah demonstrate here his knowledge of God’s character, but he hints at his knowledge of God’s character as revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures. No doubt his listing of divine attributes echoes the revelation of Exodus 34:6–7a, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (cf. Pss. 86:15; 145:8; Joel 2:13). Perhaps it frustrated Jonah that, to him at least, it seemed God was choosing to abandon the remaining declaration of verse 7: “Yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (34:7b).

The bottom line is that Jonah was familiar with God’s character and that it was precisely because of that character that the prophet initially rejected his divine commission. He was, in essence, longing for God to be something other than what he is (7). Knowing God’s propensity to forgive and show grace to the wicked, Jonah feared that same mercy would be extended to the Ninevites, a fear that, at the end of the third chapter, came to be realized. “What inhabitant of Israel would want to be the harbinger of destruction to Nineveh knowing full well the real outcome of events” (8)?

Perhaps Jonah knew that, because of his sovereignty, God would accomplish what he was set to accomplish with or without Jonah’s voice. In this case, it is conceivable that the reason Jonah then fled from the presence of the Lord was not to ensure the destruction of Nineveh as much as it was to ensure he had nothing to do with their survival.

4:3. With his greatest fear now a reality, Jonah declares he believes death to be better than to go on living in a world in which people as evil as the Assyrians experience God’s mercy. Thus now, Oh Yahweh, take my life from me, for death is better to me than life. Jonah feels strongly enough about his (erroneous) convictions to request death a number of times through this saga.

Suicidal confessions are not common in the biblical text. For God’s people, the more expected reaction to hardship and suffering is more along the lines of “I wait for your salvation, O Lord” (cf. Gen. 49:18; Pss. 25:5; 119:166; Isa. 25:9) (9). However, Jonah is one of four examples of men who, overcome with terrible circumstances that highlighted the fragility of their humanity, an internal wrestling match with the sovereignty of the God they serve in light of said circumstances, and a depressed state of mind, expressed a death wish, the others being Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Jeremiah (Jer. 20:14), and Job (Job 6:8) (10). Jonah, however, is perhaps unique in his persistence and reputation of his request. The table below shows the five different sayings of the prophet of Yahweh stating the desirability of his death.

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As Jonah calls out to God from the midst of his distress, it is revealing to notice the concentration of personal pronouns in his prayer (4:2–3). 

Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.

The self-centredness of the prophet of God is on full display in his rage-soaked vent session to the God he is supposed to be submitting. Instead of adhering to the word of the Lord (1:1; 3:1), Jonah is upset that what he said was not given attention. Rather than acknowledging that it was God’s people, i.e. Israel, to whom Jonah belonged and was to minister, they are his people in his country. In place of acknowledging God’s all-knowing nature, Jonah admits that it is what he knew that is the basis for his current emotional state. And, to top it all off, Jonah declares that his life belongs to him and he can demand it to be ended when he feels it appropriate. Once again, this is all increasingly surprising when the hearer/reader reviews the lengths to which God has gone to preserve his prophet’s life and demonstrate his divine sovereignty, omniscience, and omnipotence.


Footnotes

  1. Pinchas Kahn, “The Epilogue to Jonah,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 28 (2000): 146.

  2. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, 501.

  3. Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, 109.

  4. Ben Zehabe, A Commentary on Jonah, 75. 

  5. Zornberg, “Jonah: A Fantasy of Flight,” 273.

  6. Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, 110–11.

  7. Estelle, Salvation Through Judgement and Mercy, 126.

  8. Meir Havazelet, “Jonah and the Prophetic Experience,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 10 (1969): 31.

  9. See also the examples of Hezekiah (2 Kings 20) and David (Ps. 55:23).

  10. Devora K. Wohlgelernter, “Death Wish in the Bible,” A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 19 (1981): 131–32.