But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.Jonah 4:1 ESV
That’s how chapter four begins. Jonah is angry, but angry at what? What would cause him to be exceedingly displeased?
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.Jonah 3:10 ESV
God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, Israel’s enemy, and warn them of coming judgment. Included in that warning was the offer of mercy, yet Jonah did not want to offer them mercy so he headed to Tarshish. God put him back on course via a divinely-ordained storm, sailors tossing him over, and a great fish that delivered him safely back to land—and in the direction of Nineveh. Jonah, defeated by God, headed to Nineveh and warned them of coming judgment, but did not offer them mercy. The people responded to this warning, however, and pursued repentance. The king of Nineveh ordered a fast along with outward signs of mourning, all in hope that God would turn and relent from the disaster and be merciful. God was merciful! That was his purpose all along! And this is why Jonah was angry.
The last thing Jonah wanted to see was God’s kindness and mercy extended to the Ninevites. He hated the Ninevites. They were cruel and violent and wicked—utterly unlike Jonah. He explained to God why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place:
And he 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. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”Jonah 4:2–3 ESV
Jonah knew all along that his purpose in warning Nineveh was so that God would be gracious and merciful and pour out on Nineveh his steadfast love! God’s love, the very love Jonah experienced, was given to others and Jonah declares he would rather die than see the salvation of the people of Nineveh.
Jonah recognized something important: God’s offer of salvation is scandalous. Judgment makes sense. We get it intuitively. We are hard-wired to want justice. We feel this when that guy passes us on the highway with too little space to do so safely. We feel this when someone tries to cut in line in front of us at Costco. We feel this when someone dares to vote differently than we vote. Justice makes sense to us: the guilty and the wicked should get what’s coming to them. It is mercy granted to the guilty that is so shocking, so scandalous.
I remember a brief conversation I had years ago with a skeptic who sneered at the very idea of forgiveness offered to the most evil of people. “You mean I could go around murdering and raping and hurting people, and all I have to do is ‘ask forgiveness’ and God will forgive me? Pfff.” He was offended by the very notion of forgiveness because we are all hardwired for justice. So was Jonah. God simply asked him,
Do you do well to be angry?Jonah 4:4 ESV
Think about that question. Who was sinned against? Whose holiness was offended by wickedness and violence and brutality? It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Jonah had family or friends who had been harmed by Nineveh, but who was that wickedness and rebellion really against? God had far more at stake than Jonah, yet it was God’s idea all along to offer mercy in place of judgment to Nineveh, should they repent.
What Jonah forgot is that each one of us has gone astray. He forgot the psalm that David wrote all those centuries before:
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.Psalms 14:2–3 ESV
Let us never forget the scandal of salvation, of God who offers mercy and grace and kindness and forgiveness to us, let alone to others. If he can forgive our sin, our rebellion, our disregard for him and his holiness, then surely he can forgive their sin, their rebellion, their disregard for him and his holiness. The reality is we’re all Ninevites, whether we’re violent and brutal or we’re lazy and lustful, whether we engage in openly wicked activities or we hide behind neat and tidy rebellion against God. We have a great God who is a great Savior. Let’s proclaim his greatness to save even people like us, so that others may hear that message of hope so they, too, can believe and be forgiven.