Bible Reference: Jonah chapter 3 and 4.
Heart of the Story: Jonah was the only Old Testament prophet sent directly to the Gentiles. The theme of Jonah is the God’s divine mercy is applied without favoritism to Jews and Gentiles.
Back Story: Jonah was from the tribe of Zebulun. His ministry was between 800-750 B.C. about the time of King Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom. By the end of 721 B.C., Assyria conquered and deported the Northern Kingdom Jews. The Book of Jonah begins with God telling Jonah to travel to Nineveh, Assyria to warn the people of pending retribution because of their wickedness. Instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, Jonah booked passage on a ship to Tarshish, a city located in southern Spain. What happened onboard the ship and immediately thereafter is in the previous blog.
Story Line: Again, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim a message that God would give to him. Jonah went and proclaimed, “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4 NIV) The Ninevites including their king believed Jonah’s prophecy. They fasted in sackcloth and ashes. When God saw that the Ninevites turn from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not destroy Nineveh.
Likely, the Ninevites were ecstatic over God’s decision to allow them to repent, however, Jonah was angry. His complaint to God and about God included (Jonah 4:2):
Isn’t this just what I said would happen when I was at home?
That’s why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.
I knew that you are gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, and relent from sending calamity.
Pondering Relationships: Jonah was so upset that the Nineveh’s repented that he told God to kill him. God’s response was to ask Jonah the question, “Have you any right to be angry” (Jonah 4:4). Instead of answering God, Jonah went to a spot east of Nineveh, built a small shelter, sat down under it, and waited to see what would happen to Nineveh. Jonah had no confidence that the Ninevites would continue their reformed ways.
As Jonah watched the city, God stimulated a vine to grow over Jonah to screen him from the sun and to ease his discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the vine. At dawn the next day, God made a worm chew the vine so it withered. When sun rose, God caused a scorching east wind and the sun to shine on Jonah’s head. Jonah grew faint and again told God that it would be better for him to die than live.
God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine” (Jonah 4:9)? Jonah’s response was a resounding “I do and I am angry enough to die.” God said told Jonah was concerned about a vine that he neither caused to grow nor tended. How much more should God be concerned about Nineveh, a city of 120,000 people who did not know right from wrong.
Jonah’s vine symbolized God’s compassion and ultimately Jonah’s understanding of compassion. Compassion means a sympathetic awareness of another person’s distress together with a desire to alleviate the distress. In the story of Jonah, we see compassion juxtaposition with lack of compassion. God had compassion on the Ninevites and sent Jonah to call them to repentance. Jonah had no compassion for the 120,000 Ninevites who repented of their sins. God had compassion on Jonah and caused a leafy vine to grow over Jonah’s shelter. Jonah had compassion on the vine that protected him from the sun; he was angry when a worm chewed through the vine and caused it to die.
Possibly some of Jonah’s lack of compassion for the Ninevites was the result of seeing God as belonging to the Israelites. He didn’t fully comprehend that God was the God of the world and cared about all peoples to include Ninevites. Throughout the book of Jonah, God leads Jonah to a new understanding of God himself. We never read that God was angry with the sulky Jonah. Instead God gave patient explanations using Jonah’s feelings for the vine to parallel God’s feelings for the Ninevites. I always remember that Jonah wrote the book that bears his name. He showed all his character defects as well as his final acceptance of God’s right to tell him what to do.
Reflection: Jonah called the Ninevites to repentance because of God’s compassion for them. Because of Christ’s love for us, we need to have compassion on our brothers and sisters in need.
Copyright 10/30/18: Carolyn A. Roth