Most Americans, especially those who grew up in church, possess some awareness of Jonah’s story. I too grew up hearing this “whale of a tale,” but I must confess that I was in junior high before I realized that the story did not end with the Ninevites repenting.

To say the least, I was shocked. I have no idea how this reality eluded me so long. The true ending cast a whole new light (or shade) on the account of Jonah’s life.

I once heard someone say that, unlike so many of the other prophets in Scripture, the recipients of Jonah’s message actually listened and responded positively. His shipmates, after learning of Jonah’s attempt to flee from God, “feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows” (1:16). Then, in Nineveh, the entire community heeded the warning with prayer, fasting, and repentance.

So why wasn’t Jonah thrilled with these results, particularly the massive turnaround in Nineveh? The answer to that question is likely as complex as the human mind. I have a few ideas, however.

First, the Ninevites were exceedingly wicked, even by their own admission. When the king heard God’s warning he proclaimed, “Let everyone turn away from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” Their wickedness was the very reason God sent Jonah in the first place (1:2). Perhaps Jonah felt it was unfair that such people would receive the same grace that his own people—God’s chosen people—had received.

Second, the Ninevites were Assyrians. To say that these countries did not get along would be putting it very mildly. In fact, shortly after Jonah’s prophecies, Assyria would become the tool God used to send Israel into exile as punishment for their faithlessness and idolatry. Given the animosity between the two nations, Jonah’s anger at God’s mercy toward the Ninevites makes more sense.

Third, fear. This one is a bit more speculative on my part, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable. Realizing that your sworn (violent) enemies will not be wiped out as you expected must carry some weight of anxiety. Furthermore, as a prophet, it is also possible that God had revealed—even just in part—the impending Assyrian invasion to Jonah.

Whatever the case—spiritual pride, national pride, fear, or a combination—Jonah clearly had a horrible attitude regarding God’s decision to spare the Ninevites. He even claimed that the very reason he attempted to flee in the first place was because he knew that God was gracious and merciful. He did not want to see Nineveh saved.

He was so mad about the turn of events that he despaired of his own life. This same rage flared again when God allowed a worm to eat the plant that was providing him shade. The plant had given Jonah joy for only one day, but its removal was unbearable for him. When questioned by God, Jonah defended his indignation and claimed he was “angry enough to die” (4:9). At that point, God called out Jonah’s warped priorities, valuing an insignificant plant more than the 120,000 people who were lost in darkness.

I used to be so critical of Jonah’s reaction… right up until this morning when I realized how similar I am to him. I’d like to think that I would never be angry over anyone repenting and turning to the Lord, but I realized that I often value my own comfort more than the souls of the lost people around me.

When that car cuts me off in traffic, my reaction proves I care more about my convenience than the other driver’s eternity. When I worry that starting a Gospel conversation will be too awkward, I prove that I care more about my temporary comfort than the other person’s eternal anguish. Sadly, this list could go on and on. So today I am seeking God’s forgiveness and asking Him to make me less like Jonah and more like Jesus.

Photo by Magda Ehlers