When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
Here the depth and extent of God’s love is revealed to Nineveh. The people in that city change their minds and renounce their wickedness and there is a divine change of mind in response. Nineveh is not destroyed.
In the Hebrew the same noun (ra’ah) is used to describe Nineveh as ‘evil’ and for the ‘calamity’ God had intended to inflict on them. The author is making a claim that if God destroyed the Ninevites, who lived in ignorance about the nature of the true God, then God would be acting as wickedly as their behaviour had been. The force of this is lost in most English translations – it is strong stuff! The same noun is used again in 4:1 where it is translated as ‘displeasing’ with regard to Jonah’s reaction. A point is being made: Jonah’s anger, Nineveh’s wickedness and even destructive action by God are equally ‘evil’ and contrary to God’s nature, which is to love unconditionally.
Jonah prays once more, but in protest to God. In the text Jonah said none of the things he claims to have declared as his reason for fleeing. He dislikes the fact that God is showing kindness to Nineveh. He cites Exodus 34:6, expressing God’s covenant commitment towards Israel; an eighth-century Jonah believed this applied solely to the chosen people.
Jonah effectively says to God, ‘If you’re going to behave like this to other people – especially towards Israel’s enemies – then I want no part of it, let me die’. He is throwing the gift of his life back at God.
Jonah wants God to punish Nineveh for its violence towards Israel. He understands justice from his own perspective, in terms of retribution, and finds no place in his heart for forgiveness and reconciliation, even when repentance is shown. Do I?
Gracious God, forgive us when we get things out of perspective and focus our prayers on what we want, on what satisfies our desire to see wrong-doing punished.
Forgive us when we imagine that our concepts of justice are the same as yours.
Help us to remember that it is not by merit but by grace that we are accepted as your children.
Renewed by your love may we share it abundantly with the world. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge