“[Jonah] prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster'” (vv. 2–3).
We must wait until Jonah 4 for the real reason why the prophet did not want to heed God’s call to preach to Nineveh. Ironically, as we see in the chapter, Jonah’s sin was grounded in a correct view of the Lord, albeit one that was grossly misapplied. Some people are troubled by the fact that the Lord relented from disaster in the case of Jonah’s ministry to Nineveh because the prophet gave no indication to the Ninevites that God would stay His hand if the people repented. Does this mean the Lord changed His mind like we do—that He learned some new information that caused Him to rethink His plan of action? Some people would answer in the affirmative, but this betrays their failure to read Scripture carefully. Given that prophecies often include unstated conditions (Jer. 18:5–10) and that the Lord is not a “man, that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:19), the idea that He did not know what Nineveh’s response would be is nonsense. He did know what would happen, for He has ordained all things, including Jonah’s preaching and the Ninevites’ response (Eph. 1:11). The Lord just chose not to reveal explicitly the full scope of the future impact of Jonah’s ministry until it came to pass. Jonah could not see the future with certainty, but he could know what would happen if the Ninevites were to repent in response to his preaching. So could anyone else who knew God’s character. The Lord is holy, yes, but He is also slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and eager to forgive iniquity (Ex. 34:6–7; Micah 7:18). Jonah never wanted to go to Nineveh in the first place because he did not want to see the Ninevites turn from their sin. He ran not because he was afraid of preaching in a foreign land but because he was afraid God’s Word might change the hearts and minds of Israel’s hated enemies. So, when the people did rend their hearts and garments, Jonah grew angry at the Lord for being merciful and acting according to what He had revealed about His character (Jonah 4:1–3). Jonah’s anger was irrational—he was mad at God for being God. Lest we are quick to judge Jonah and not ourselves, let us consider how often we expect the Lord to forgive us but then do not want to see our enemies pardoned. We are too much like Jonah, hoping God will crush our enemies instead of saving them. But as the Lord takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32), neither may we. May our longing always be for the repentance and restoration of God’s foes and ours.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant (Jonah 4:5–9), Dr. R.C. Sproul tells us, means that the prophet cared more about plants than about people. Jonah forgot that no sinner deserves God’s forgiveness—even a prophet of God Almighty—and wanted to withhold the possibility of pardon from those he deemed unfit for the kingdom. But we are all unfit for the kingdom, so we should long for the Lord to save others just as He has saved us.