In the last chapter of the book of Jonah, we see the prophet make good on his mission to preach against the mighty city of Nineveh, albeit through a detour by way of a large fish. When Jonah finally starts to preach, both their reaction and his reaction is unexpected.
3 Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Jonah 3:3-6
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 3:10
The large powerful pagan nation suddenly repents and turns to God. That doesn’t sound realistic, but it’s actually not that farfetched. This was a particularly rough stretch historically for the Assyrian Empire. There was widespread famine during this time, there were numerous revolts from the countries they had conquered, and there was an auspicious solar eclipse that happened in this time, which for a superstitious people would have freaked them out and would have been a sign that the gods weren’t happy with them.
And there’s an outside chance that when Jonah was spit back up on dry ground, somebody saw him. Perhaps his story preceded him before he even walked into the city. Either way, the completely unexpected happened and the people of Nineveh repented and turned to God, which was great! Wasn’t it? Well, not to Jonah.
1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Jonah 4:1-5
Jonah didn’t want to see the city of Nineveh repent. He wanted to see it burn. That’s a timeless truth we still need to wrestle with today: Do you truly want the world to repent or would you rather see it burn?
Those people on the opposite end of the political spectrum, those people that practice a different religion, those people who support values that you abhor, do you truly want to see them repent and turn to Jesus or would you rather see them judged? Do we want to see the world repent or would we rather see it burn? That’s a heart check moment for each of us. Because God calls Jonah on the carpet for his heart:
6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” Jonah 4:6-11
When we show concern about things but not about people, our hearts are not in a good place. God didn’t say the plant wasn’t important, He said that it wasn’t right to show concern for the plant but no concern whatsoever for the people.
Think about how hard Jonah’s heart had to have become to walk through the streets of Nineveh for forty days and preach. That’s what he did. He looked in the eyes of thousands of people. He saw women and men, young and old. And he wanted them all to burn. And he was angry enough to die when they turned to God. As Christians, I pray that we never give off the impression of Jonah, that we actually want the world to burn, that we care more about things or buildings or traditions than we do about people.