Here’s some Bible trivia for you. Question: What is the Bible’s only book that ends with a question? Answer: Jonah. Jonah 4:11 closes the book with God asking the prophet Jonah:
“And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left — and much livestock?” (N.K.J.V.)
Whatever answer Jonah gave to that question — if he gave one at all — has been lost to history. There is a strong possibility, though, that Jonah’s answer wasn’t something merciful and compassionate along the lines of, “Yes, Lord, you should pity Nineveh, especially its livestock and infants who aren’t old enough yet to know their right hand from their left.” I say this because the plain truth is that Jonah absolutely despised the Ninevites.
If you know the story, you know that Jonah hadn’t even wanted to make the ministry trip there in the first place. He was living in Israel, minding his own business, fulfilling his role as a prophet. Despite the fact that he was from Gath Hephet (2 Kings 14:25), which was located in Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah, he served as a prophet to the northern kingdom during the long reign of the wicked King Jeroboam II. He was even a popular prophet for having given a prophecy, one that had come to pass, that Jeroboam II would successfully expand the territory of the northern kingdom (2 Kings 14:25). But then one day God gave Jonah a new assignment: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:1, N.K.J.V.).
Nineveh was the capital city of the notorious Assyrian empire. At its height, the city was the largest in the world. Its roots could be traced all the way back to Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:8-11). That’s the same Nimrod who led in the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10:10; 11:1-9). From such a wicked start, Nineveh couldn’t help but eventually become a hated enemy of God’s chosen nation of Israel. They were infamous for being absolutely ruthless in warfare, and if you know your Old Testament history, you know that it was them who would ultimately destroy Israel’s entire northern kingdom.
Even God didn’t pull any punches about who the Ninevites were. He didn’t say of them, “Their goodness has come up before Me.” No, He said, “Their wickedness has come up before Me.” But, hey, all He told Jonah to do was go to Nineveh and “cry out against it.” That doesn’t sound like too unpleasant a task, does it? So, why did Jonah balk at it and head off hundreds of miles in the opposite direction toward Tarshish? (Jonah 1:3)
He did it because he suspected even from the jump that God was going to show mercy to the Ninevites rather than destroy them. He even told God so (Jonah 4:2). And sure enough, once God finally did get Jonah to the city (after a crash course in whale seminary), and Jonah finally did prophesy God’s message of doom upon the city (Jonah 3:3-4), the city’s citizens repented and God spared them (Jonah 3:5-10).
That’s when Jonah got hopping mad at God and asked Him to kill him because he would rather not live if he had to serve a God who would show mercy to such a wicked race of people (Jonah 4:1-3). There was probably also an embarrassment factor in play as well because Jonah had prophesied that something was going to happen and it didn’t. Nobody likes to end up looking like a fool.
Jonah was so mad that he could no longer abide in the city. Even when God tried to get him to talk out his anger by asking him, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah offered no response (Jonah 4:4). I honestly believe that Jonah was too furious with God to even talk to Him. So, Jonah left Nineveh and found himself a spot just outside the city (Jonah 4:5). His plan was to stay there awhile and see what would become of the Ninevites. Would their repentance last? Would God’s mercy hold?
Jonah built himself a crude little shelter and sat down under it to beat the heat. God did him one better, though, by having a plant shoot up miraculously overnight to become large enough and high enough to provide him with some major shelter (Jonah 4:6). Jonah was very grateful for that plant. This point of gratitude is one of the few mood-breakers in the entire book.
Alas, though, Jonah’s happiness had a short life-cycle. The next morning God sent a worm to damage the plant and cause it to wither as fast as it had sprung up to a gigantic size (Jonah 4:7). Then the sun arose fully and God sent a strong east wind to blow the heat upon Jonah (Jonah 4:8). It was at this point that Jonah again wished to die by saying, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8).
This time God responded by asking him, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” But Jonah, having now lost all concern for spirituality or reverence, shot back, “(Yes), it is right for me to be angry, even to death!” (Jonah 4:9). When I read that response I am struck by its raw honesty and intensity. We just don’t find passages in the Bible where people, especially saved believers, bark at God like that and tell Him what they really think.
It is this brief conversation that sets the stage for the aforementioned ending of the book. After pointing out that Jonah had pity for the odd plant that rose up in a night and died the next morning, God asks him, “If you had pity for that plant, shouldn’t I have pity for the city of Nineveh, especially for its undiscerning infants and livestock?” To that, Jonah provides no response, at least not one the book records. As I said earlier, considering the state of mind he was in at the time, my guess is that he didn’t particularly care about Nineveh’s children and livestock at that moment.
And so, when all the dust settles, what lessons can the close of the book of Jonah teach us? I’ll offer two, neither one of which has anything to do with a whale. See what you think of them.
Lesson #1: God shows mercy to people we don’t think deserve it. Jesus had this lesson in mind when He said that God makes the sun rise on the evil as well as the good, and sends rain on not only the just but also the unjust (Matthew 5:45). This is God’s way of living out His own commandment about loving one’s enemies (Matthew 5:44). He doesn’t expect us to do what He Himself isn’t willing to do.
However, we shouldn’t take the fact that God shows mercy to wicked people to mean that He gives them a permanent free pass. What Jonah didn’t understand was that God wasn’t finished with the Ninevites. God threatened, the Ninevites repented, and God relented of the threat. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Approximately 150 years after the events of the book of Jonah, God destroyed Nineveh by way of an alliance between the Babylonians and the Medes. This fulfilled the prophecies against Nineveh that were prophesied by another of God’s prophets, Nahum.
Lesson #2: Sometimes God does something or allows something that really ticks us off, and there’s no use faking that we’re fine with it. I genuinely feel for people who are inwardly mad at God but are too afraid or ashamed to outwardly show it. Imagine some wide-eyed person saying, “Isn’t God great?” only to have another person respond, “I don’t think He’s so great, not after what happened to me.” How fast do you think that first person would get away from that second one?
This is the world we have constructed in Christian circles. If you say anything that even remotely hints that you are angry with God, people look at you like you are on the precipice of dropping straight into hell. I think about how the Nineveh version of Jonah, a preacher no less, would fit into such circles. He’d no doubt be a ministry dropout who no longer attends church and blasts any fellow Christian who tries to use the old expression “God is good, all the time” on him.
I don’t write this to give the impression that being angry with God is a fine place to be. I write it merely to let anyone out there know that it’s a perfectly legitimate path to walk for a period of time. Let’s call it “the Jonah path.” It’s not a path you should walk for the rest of your life, but God isn’t going to strike you with a lightning bolt just because your heart isn’t in singing “How Great Thou Art” or “How Great Is Our God” while you are walking it.
If you can think of God as your counselor, the last thing He wants you to do is lie to Him about your true feelings. You’ll never experience any genuine healing like that. You have to start with honesty, even if it’s honestly that makes other people uncomfortable. Don’t worry, God can handle it. I mean, it’s not like He doesn’t already know what’s churning inside you.
I suspect that if our Christian testimonies were more real, our version of Christianity would be more appealing to the Jonahs of the world. Such people are out there, whether they ever reveal their secret identities or not. They feel let down by God. They don’t agree with the way He is running the universe. They are angry about certain events that He has either caused or allowed to transpire. All they need is a safe, non-judgmental environment in which to vent. Sadly, such environments are exceedingly scarce.
I don’t mind admitting that I myself have quite a bit of Jonah about me. I guess that’s why I’m qualified to write this post. Frankly, God has led me into some situations that, if a story was being written about them today, would end in a question mark because God and I are still sorting out the messy fallout. I’ll admit that I’m not fully recovered yet and don’t know when I will be.
What I do know is that the book of Jonah is every bit as God inspired as all the Bible’s uplifting passages, and that encourages me. It assures me that I’m not the only person (even the only saved believer) who has ever walked this darker path with God. Again, it’s not a path that anyone with any sense wants to keep walking. You should stay on it, though, until you reach the end of it. To abandon “the Jonah path” prematurely by faking how you really feel is to abort the healing process the path provides. That’s why I have to keep walking the path an undetermined amount of time longer. I’m just trusting that it will one day end in an answer rather than a question.