Anger and Absolution

Updated on March 22, 2018
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I am an adopted son of the MostHigh, a husband of a beautiful wife, father of three amazing P's, and a Discipleship Pastor in South Carolina

Introduction

In the book of Jonah, the author takes the reader on an amazing but sometimes very confusing journey. The reader learns the details of Jonah trying to run from God’s directive and being caught at sea in an epic tempest. He offered himself as a sacrifice for the sailors and after his entry into the sea, the storm subsided and he was swallowed by a fish. After three days in the fish’s belly, he was deposited on the shore of Israel and he began his journey east to God’s original destination for him, the city of Nineveh. Once he arrived in Nineveh, and in a most dramatic turn, while Jonah was obedient in his pronouncement of divine judgment, chapter 4 details his incredulous reaction to the mercy of God. When Jonah’s audience actually responds to his sermon and repents, God shows the city mercy and stays His planned judgment of the city. Upon their forgiveness, Jonah’s anger towards the Assyrians was so acute that it morphed into depression and suicidal desires. It is Jonah’s strange reaction to what every preacher desires that is the enigma in Jonah 4. Jonah’s anger to the absolution of Nineveh is incongruent with the very reason for a message of repentance, so this paper will explore possible reasons. This paper will explore the reasons for Jonah’s anger and why this chapter was included in the narrative dialogue, to turn the main theme of the book from that of a wayward turned obedient prophet, to how anger damages a believer’s witness and prevents God’s blessings from being experienced.

The book of Jonah and specifically chapter 4 will be first examined within its literary context, along with its historical critical context as well. The chapter’s imagery used by the author will be defined and examined. The exegesis will finally address the theological considerations of Jonah 4, and conclude how a modern day reader of Jonah 4 can apply the original message of the author to the 21st century life of a believer.

Contexts

Literary Context

The purpose of the book of Jonah is didactic, thus its intent is to teach the reader something.[1] Because the book of Jonah is also historical, the author is using an event in the history of Israel to seemingly teach the reader about repentance, issues with prophetic warnings that do not transpire (unfulfilled prophecy), Jewish attitudes towards Gentiles, and also the relationship between divine justice and mercy.[2] This particular passage is the last chapter in the book of Jonah, and it follows the conclusion of Jonah’s quite circuitous mission to Nineveh. The placement of the passage is due to the timeline of the story; this is the conclusion of the book that points the reader to the principle theme of the book, Jonah’s anger.[3] Jonah chapters 1-3 give the 21st century reader a perfectly bookended story, but the inclusion of Jonah chapter 4 changes the true intent of the entire book. Rather than a miraculous story of a prophet who tried his best to run away from God’s mission for him and the coinciding repentance of an entire city and nation, the book actually becomes a text conveying to the reader the danger of an angry heart. This is developed further to be a challenge for God’s people to have a heart for the lost, regardless of their authority or their violation of certain sensitivities. While Jonah was supposed to be a shining light to the world of God’s love and forgiveness for any who call on His name, he instead became the personification of the victimization of Israel, and the only thing he wanted was revenge carried out on the bullies that had caused him and his people harm.

Historical Context

Aside from the direct text in the book of Jonah, other passages in the Bible give the reader an idea of the events in relation to Israel’s history. A cross-reference to II Kings 14:25 informs the reader that Jonah was written during the reign of King Jeroboam II who held power from 793BC through 753BC. Using this information the reader can deduce that Jonah was penned between 790 and 760BC.[4] This time period was during the time when, following Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel was divided between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and Jeroboam II was the king of the northern kingdom of Israel. During Jonah’s time, Israel was its own state, but the military threat of the Assyrians was a daily threat to their existence. It is this threat that is critical to understanding the text, because the Israelites would have held the Assyrians with equal parts fear and disgust.[5] For the years leading up to this time, Assyria had consistently posed a serious threat to Israel. During that time, Israel had aligned itself with a group of western nations that banded together to resist the Assyrians, but this coalition was weak at best. Finally, in 841BC, King Jehu of Israel agreed to be an Assyrian territory and pay taxes to them in exchange for “protection”.[6] The problem with this was that in the following years, Assyria’s influence began to wane and that protection seemed unreliable. This ultimately would be Israel’s undoing, because Assyria focused their military attention on Israel and destroyed it completely in 722BC.[7]

The other historical-cultural piece of information needed is the understanding of the Assyrian polytheistic religion. Idol worship was rampant at this time, but an additional understanding is required; there were different kinds of gods the Assyrians worshipped. There were cosmic deities and there were patron deities.[8] When Jonah arrived in Nineveh, the author may have only included Jonah’s call to repentance and not include Jonah’s entire sermon in chapter 3, but it is safe to assume given Jonah’s previous explanation of God, he let them know he represented the one true God, the God who created the Heaven and the Earth.[9] The people of Nineveh would have understood Jonah’s warning as coming from a cosmic deity, and that would have gotten their attention.[10]

Studying the events of Jonah within the historical-critical context is paramount, because the reader must know the back-story in order to understand Jonah’s anger towards the Ninevites. Jonah didn’t want to go anywhere near Assyria. Theirs was the government that Israel had been submissive to. In Jonah’s time, Israel had begrudgingly entered into a protection racket with a heathen and blasphemous bully, and Jonah was OK with them all dying without knowing the one true God and Jonah believed that it served them right. In Jonah’s mind, it did not make sense that God would save a city full of Assyrians but leave His chosen people to suffer under that same oppressive regime.

Imagery

The author details God using many different items to ultimately show Jonah a parallel between his circumstances and the lost people of Nineveh. As Jonah left the city, he proceeded to stage himself at a good vantage point for witnessing the destruction of Nineveh. Once his desired spot was chosen, he constructed a booth in which to shelter. Jonah would be familiar with building a temporary dwelling or booth. When the Hebrew people celebrated the Feast of Booths, they built temporary shelters and lived in them to remind the nation of their time dwelling in temporary structures while they were in the wilderness.[11] These booths were crudely made and decidedly temporary. They consisted of a basic frame and then leaves from local plants were used to construct the walls and the roof. These leaves would protect the inhabitants from both sun and wind, but also morning dew and rain.[12] In the case of Jonah’s booth, he was limited by the local environment as to what materials his booth would be made of. Using the leaves of the local fauna he could find, Jonah constructed a crude shelter for him to dwell in while he waited for God to change His mind and the remainder of the 40 days of his prophesy to transpire.

The author also details a plant, a parasite, and an easterly wind in Jonah 4. The author uses a word for the plant that is only found in this one place in the Bible.[13] As such, we are not sure what kind of plant this is, just like the reader is unsure the type of parasite or worm as well. These are interesting omissions in Jonah 4, because the specifics of the fish in Jonah 1 are also absent.[14] We can then imply that the author left these details out because it was not required to understand the intent of his writing. All of these components can be understood to have a divine master, so the specific type of fish or plant or worm is immaterial. This is further personified by the speed of the plant’s growth and the equal haste with which it dies and withers. These specifics that the author intentionally leaves off imply that they are immaterial because they were not natural phenomena, but miraculous ones.[15]

The geographic location chosen for Jonah’s shelter is important as well. Jonah set up his shelter east of the city, which is at a higher elevation than the city, giving him the high ground and a good vantage point to witness what he hoped was the coming destruction.[16] Similar to having a ring-side seat to the obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah was going to see in great detail the wrath of God on this city, and he would be able to watch the smoke from its ruins rise to the heavens. Furthermore, the location he had chosen was east of the city and away from the busy Tigris River, allowing him solitude and to be alone with his anger and resentment.[17] This location also seems to present the initial reason for the booth’s appearance. In meteorological terms, the direction of a wind is always stated from the direction the wind is coming from, not the direction it is blowing. We read that an easterly wind is one blowing from the east in a westerly movement. The wind described here is one that would be crossing the desert east of Nineveh and would be gathering heat as it traveled. At the terminus of its journey across the desert and upon its arrival at Nineveh, the wind would be hot enough to not only make Jonah uncomfortable, but to even induce medical issues such as heat stroke or hyperthermia. The adjective used to describe the wind, scorching, like the noun used for plant[18] is only used this one time in the bible, so it’s full meaning of the word is unsure as it is related to the wind.[19] No matter though, Jonah was Ok with the uncomfortable location and possible convalescence, as long as God changed His mind about the absolution of Nineveh and destroyed it, and Jonah could be there when that occurred.[20]

Structure

The main idea of the text, and also of the entire book of Jonah, is that Jonah’s anger prevented him from experiencing the fullness of joy found when people repent for their sins. Jonah had set a thermo-nuclear bomb with a time-delay fuse right in the middle of this despised city, and he was livid that it was a dud. As the book of Jonah unfolds, the reader is given a miraculous recount of Jonah’s delayed arrival in Nineveh and a successful crusade that resulted in the repentance of one hundred twenty thousand people. If the book ended at chapter 3, Jonah would be hailed as one of the most successful evangelists in history.[21] However the author includes a final chapter in his book that turns the understanding and theme of the book on its ear. Jonah 4 gives us an inside look at what the prophet was really thinking, and the shortcomings of his mindset. In the very first verse of chapter 4, Jonah’s anger bursts on the scene. In the first 3 chapters, even while he was fleeing God’s direction, Jonah was never angry. Now, however, as God had seen the reaction in Nineveh to Jonah’s message, Jonah was mad, angry, and outraged. The whole trip had been a farce, and Jonah was furious. He was embarrassed. He had told the people of the city they were going to be destroyed, and now they were not. All Jonah could see was that the bully nation who had terrorized his people for years, was now receiving grace from the very God who claimed to be Israel’s protector.[22] Jonah was worried that the people of Nineveh and others who had heard his proclamation now considered him a false prophet, or even a liar and figure God can be paid off.[23] Problematically though, Jonah’s anger became his Achilles’ heel. Similar to Elijah underneath the broom tree, Elijah became almost suicidal because nobody would listen to his sermon, but Jonah became suicidal because thousands of the wrong people repented.[24]

The reader should notice the contrasting imagery within the chapter related to Jonah’s state of mind. Jonah just knew that God would follow through on His plan to destroy the city, so Jonah went to out to the east to watch the show. It is here that the conversation between Jonah and God became a series of rhetorical questions aimed at proving a point, but while Jonah’s questions are selfish, God’s questions are pointed and telling. Jonah starts the chapter praying, as if he was an observant Jew, but in reality it comes across as more passive-aggressive towards God.[25] Jonah was rhetorically asking God why in the world God had him take this trip when it was God’s plan all along to show mercy. God then asks Jonah the perfect question, asking if his anger is justified. We know from other places in scripture that righteous anger is not a sin, so God’s questioning of Jonah was meant for Jonah to take a look at his finger pointing at Nineveh’s sin, but Jonah’s other three fingers were pointing back at him. This question of God also goes unanswered[26] by Jonah, and leaves us assuming this question just made Jonah angrier. God asked this question again in the exact same format later in verse 9, but with that instance God adds clarification, including Jonah’s anger about the plant. Jonah’s response, almost as if he had been mulling the question over in his mind, was that his anger was justified and that it was great enough to wish himself dead. In Jonah’s answer we see a stubborn little boy pouting. The reader can almost sense the frustration in God’s voice, desiring Jonah to get past his own sinful anger, and see the lesson God was teaching him for what it was. Jonah’s anger towards Nineveh’s absolution was hurting Jonah alone, and preventing him from experiencing fellowship with them and missing a golden opportunity for discipleship within the city of Nineveh.

The reader can also see parallels in chapter 4 between how Jonah reacts towards Nineveh and how God orchestrates the environment around Jonah. When the author described Jonah’s anger in verse 1, the word khaw-raw' is used, which has similarity with the word 'charash' used in verse 8 describing the easterly wind.[27] It is almost as if God was going to give Jonah what he asked for. God was showing Jonah that if he thought his anger was burning hot, God would give him something that was physically burning hot. The reader also sees that Jonah built a booth for shelter and shade. In a more overt example, when the shade provided by the divinely appointed plant was gone, Jonah again got so mad he himself wanted to die. God used this example to exemplify that Jonah had done nothing to put the shade there in the first place, but when it was gone he reacted in anger. It was in these examples that God was trying to show Jonah that his anger was completely and totally misplaced. It is through this lens we look at the remainder of the book and see that while it was not written about, his anger was playing a behind-the-scenes role. Jonah was angry at God for calling him in the first place. Jonah was angry for being asked to leave his country and go to Nineveh. Jonah was angry for having to spend 3 days in the belly of a fish, and Jonah’s anger was ramped up when he preached through Nineveh for 3 days and they actually responded to his warning and became repentant. When we look for Jonah’s anger throughout the text, we can see it in the underlying tones of every action that he took, and it is the author’s intent that Jonah’s anger should be our focus for interpretation of the text.

Theology

The book of Jonah leads the reader to many different theological veins. Certainly as this paper has shown its main goal is a warning about how anger can rob us of the blessings of seeing new believers come to Christ. Other themes such as immediate obedience, trust in God, the cost of sin and even repentance are evident within the text, but sinful anger seems to be the centerpiece. Jonah’s concern of the plant rather than the people personifies his selfishness and hatred towards the Assyrians.[28] In the text the reader sees that while God cared for and tended the people of Nineveh, Jonah cared for a plant but did nothing for it or to it.[29] If a believer’s desire is for temporary desires, comfort, or fleeting sentiment, then a heart change is needed. God cared for the human and animal life within the walls of a pagan metropolis, but Jonah’s care was only for his personal comfort along with his self-interest.[30] Jonah also did not want the Ninevehites to repent.[31] His hatred and anger towards them invaded every aspect of his being, and the reality was that Jonah was hoping God would change His mind and in 40 days the destruction would arrive.[32] If any one of us were commanded by God today to take a message of destruction to a region of Iraq controlled by ISIS, or if we were directed to relay a message of destruction to Kim Jong-un in North Korea, would we book our plane ticket? Either of these scenarios can put us today in the same frame of mind Jonah was at the outset of his mission in Jonah 1:1. When the word of the Lord comes to us, no matter how hated of a people we might be sent to, would we obey? Given the tragic events perpetrated by ISIS we see every night on the news, would we rejoice if all of ISIS repented, or would we all become angry that God would forgive their evil deeds? If North Korea repented, despite its horrible history of human rights violations, would we rejoice or build our booths on the outskirts of Pyongyang and pray for heavenly fire to rain down? When the entire city of Nineveh showed outward signs of repentance, it drove Jonah mad and suicidal.[33] Would God’s forgiveness of our enemies do the same to us? Every person who has received God’s gift of salvation was guilty of every sin prior to our salvation; would we begrudge any other once they receive the same gift?[34] More to the point, would we forgive that person who hurt us deeply? Would we forgive that one person that scarred our very being with a violent act or knife in the back, or would we welcome them in to the family of God, just like He welcomed them and us when we were redeemed?

Conclusion

The final chapter of the book of Jonah leads the reader to come to one final conclusion. Jonah was ultimately angry that throughout the history of Israel, God had spoken to the people through prophets and kings and judges, all for His words to fall on deaf ears either initially or over time. However, Nineveh had heard just one sermon and the entire city had moved in a complete repentant way. This was the one thing that Jonah could not accept, and he was angry at the circumstance and situation, and the way he saw it, it was all God’s fault! Jonah’s attitude towards the city of Nineveh and the country of Assyria was that of Hebrew nationalistic pride, rather than claiming a heavenly residence.[35] Jonah couldn’t get past his own personal hatred of a people group, and God’s statement in the final verse drives this final point home. There are entire people groups who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and no matter what nationality we are, or what events have occurred between nations, God’s grace and salvation through Jesus Christ is the most precious thing we can share with the world. Similar to Joshua’s encounter with the Lord, He is neither for us nor for our enemies, the only question is if we are for God or not. [36] That is the only side that matters. Matthew 28:19 serves as the directive under which we remain. God does not say to go to only the nations we like, or to go to the nations that are safe. His command is to go to them all and share the good news of His Son to the world.


[1] David W. Baker, T Desmond Alexander, and Bruce K. Waltke, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 23a, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: an Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, ©1988), 73-74, 81.

[2] Walton, John H. 1992. "The Object Lesson of Jonah 4:5¬7 and the Purpose of the Book of Jonah." Bulletin For Biblical Research 2, 47¬57. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 4, 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] John H. Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2009), 101.

[5] Nelson's Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts, 3rd ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Inc., [©2010]), 249.

[6] John H. Walton, Victor Harold Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©2000), 777.

[7] Merrill C. Tenney, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, rev., full-color ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2009), 393.

[8] Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 779.

[9] Jonah 1:9 NASB

[10] Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 779.

[11] Tenney, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, , 562-63.

[12] Ibid., 665.

[13] Baker, Alexander, and Waltke, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 23a, 128.

[14] Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 780.

[15] The Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, The Book of Lamentations - the Book of Ezekiel - the Book of Daniel - the Book of Hosea - the Book of Joel - the Book of Amos - the Book of Obadiah - the Book of Jonah - the Book of Micah - the Book of Nahum - the Book of Habakkuk (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952), 893.

[16] Billy K. Smith, Layman's Bible Book Commentary, vol. 13, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, ©1982), 151-52.

[17] Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, 103.

[18] Jonah 4:6 ESV

[19] Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 780.

[20] The Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, 892.

[21] Moberly, R W L. 2003. "Preaching for a response?: Jonah's message to the Ninevites reconsidered." Vetus Testamentum 53, no. 2: 156­168. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 4, 2015).

[22] Psalm 121:4 (ESV)

[23] Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 780.

[24] The Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, 893-894.

[25] Ibid., 891.

[26] Billy K. Smith, Layman's Bible Book Commentary, vol. 13, 151.

[27] John Hurt, “King James Bible with Strongs Dictionary,” The HTML Bible, accessed December 4, 2015,http://www.htmlbible.com/sacrednamebiblecom/kjvstrongs/index.htm.

[28] Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes On Jonah, 2015 Edition: Notes On Jonah, 2015 Edition,” Dr. Constable's Expository (Bible Study) Notes, accessed December 4, 2015, http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/jonah.pdf.

[29] Nelson's Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts, 253.

[30] Nelson's Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts, 253.

[31] Moberly, "Preaching for a response?: Jonah's message to the Ninevites reconsidered."

[32] The Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, 892.

[33] The Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, 891.

[34] James 2:10 (ESV)

[35] Philippians 3:20 (ESV)

[36] Joshua 5:13-14 (ESV)

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