This final chapter is clearly key to an understanding of the whole book. And (if we weren’t familiar with it already) it takes us quite by surprise. The deliverance at the beginning of the book was followed by a song as Jonah celebrates God’s mercy to him, but the deliverance of Ninevah from judgment is followed by deeply felt anger on the part of the prophet. Anger very often exposes our hearts and what we really prize, and Jonah’s heart is laid bare here, as is God’s.
At the end of chapter 3 God turns away from his fierce anger (3:9,10), but as chapter 4 begins we see Jonah’s anger aroused. He is clearly quite out of sync with his God. It is easy to see it as simply very childish petulance, but though his anger is not right yet we are to understand it as being driven by a deeply held (but flawed) conviction of what is right – “this seemed very wrong”. It is also what he feared all along, as he explains in verse 2. The king of Ninevah could only say of God “Who knows? God may yet relent” (3:9), but Jonah knew exactly what God was like – “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God … who relents from sending calamity” (4:2), referring to the definitive summary of God’s character revealed to Moses in Ex.34. But why should that make him so angry? It was surely not to do with the loss of face that his prediction of calamity fails. Presumably, whilst he delights to know God’s grace himself (as he does in chapter 2), he is not concerned that others should know God’s grace. He doesn’t really grasp the fact of “God’s love for them” (2:8). Also, in his mind, it was a matter of justice. Ninevah was an evil city (see Nahum), and an enemy of God’s people: surely God should act in judgment against it. In verse 3 he is saying in effect – “What is the point of living if there is no justice?!” In his mind it is a matter of what is right, but God gently questions Jonah’s grasp of what is “right”.
Jonah sits down in view of the city and waits to see what will happen, clearly hoping God will reconsider and exact retribution, still sure in his own mind that he is right. The LORD meanwhile works to expose the wrong in Jonah’s heart and to bring him to a point that he might understand God’s own heart. Having “provided” a great fish in 1:17, the LORD now sovereignly “provides” first a leafy plant, then a worm, then a scorching east wind. That Jonah’s mood is so easily changed by the provision of the shady plant shows the selfishness that is shaping his response; he’s demanding justice, but when justice had threatened him in chapter 2 “Mercy!” had been his cry.
Behind his anger at seeing the city of Ninevah spared had been his questioning of God’s right to deliver. In 4:8-9, his anger is at seeing a plant condemned, and he questions God’s right to destroy; but the provision of the plant and the worm demonstrate God’s sovereign right both to deliver and to destroy. In both bringing justice and in showing grace God is utterly sovereign.
Jonah is frustrated by God’s apparent inconsistency in providing shade and then removing it, but as God contrasts Jonah’s attitude to the plant with his own attitude to the people of Ninevah, God shows where the real absurdity or inconsistency lies – namely in Jonah’s compassion towards a plant (not even one he nurtured) and hard-heartedness towards all those people. But as well as exposing Jonah’s own heart, God exposes his own – his deep deep compassion towards the lost, a compassion this book calls us to share. Does God not care deeply for the great city of Oxford, where people, for all their intelligence, often “cannot tell their right hand from their left” in spiritual or moral terms? It is for that reason that God is patient still, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Peter 3:9).