JONAH IS TERRIBLY UPSET (Jonah 4) because the judgments he has pronounced against Nineveh have not taken place. The people have repented, from king to pauper, and God has relented and shown mercy to the great city. “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home?” (Jonah 4:2). This is stronger than an idiomatic and caustic “I told you so.” The expression “what I said” is literally “my word”: Jonah pits his own word against “the word of the LORD” (Jonah 1:1) that he had been called to deliver. He is telling God, “See? I told you so. My word was right, and your word was at best ill thought out.” He explodes, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). This basic creedal confession is found in Exodus 34:6-7; Jonah cites it in the same form in which it is found in Joel 2:13 (which may be significant: Joel 2:14 is cited in Jonah 3:9). When the prophets want grace and mercy for themselves, they appeal to God’s character; when Jonah does not want grace and mercy for others, he portrays the same attributes of God as fatal weaknesses. He has forgotten Jonah 2:1-9, where he recognizes that only God’s mercy could have released him from the big fish. The ironies call to mind one of Jesus’ parables in which grace is gladly received but denied to another (Matt. 18:23-35). In Jonah 4:3, Jonah pretentiously strikes a pose: his words “take away my life” are culled from Elijah (1 Kings 19:4)—but instead of continuing “for I am no better than my ancestors” (a confession of personal weakness and failure), Jonah says “for it is better for me to die than to live”—which is nothing but whining self-pity.
There follows the incident of the “vine,” probably a ricinus plant, whose broad leaves provide some shelter. When it dies, Jonah repeats his whining desire to die (Jonah 4:8), and God repeats the question he raised earlier: “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4, 9). In rough language Jonah insists he has every right to be angry. What’s the point of living in a world that pops up a ricinus and then cuts it down again, dead almost before it is alive? So God debunks Jonah’s thinking. Jonah shows more concern for the death of a plant than for the death of a city. Yet even here, his concern for the ricinus is not deep, but provoked by self-interest. He views the Ninevites the same way—with no thought for what is good for them, but out of self-interest. It is God, the gracious and merciful God, whose compassion extends to “that great city” (Jonah 4:11). Reflect on Matthew 23:37-39; 28:18-19.