As far as Old Testament prophets go, Jonah probably has the worst reputation. Sure, Jeremiah had his bouts with God, no one listened to Isaiah, and Ezekiel had to cook his food over feces. But Jonah? Jonah had the most successful ministry of any of the prophets—an entire city repented at his preaching!—but a fish had to deliver him to his pulpit. What’s more, he was reluctant to preach because (I’m not making this up) he knew that God “is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).
Despite what must have been a lackluster performance (“Hey, guys, God’s going to kill you all. So, yeah, you may want to do something about that”), God caused the Ninevites to repent. Their repentance—and God’s mercy, slowness to anger, abundance of steadfast love—caused God to relent from the punishment he promised and sent Jonah into a tailspin of anger and despair.
As a young man, just converted to the faith and boiling over with anger toward my stepfather, I spent a lot of time praying imprecatory psalms. It wasn’t hard to cast myself in the image of the unjust sufferer, echoing David’s cries for vengeance on my enemies. At some point during all that vitriol I read the book of Jonah. Now, here was a guy I could identify with. I mean, come on, who can fault a guy who doesn’t want God to be gracious to his enemies? (At least, I couldn’t—and still can’t, if I’m being honest.) I get it, Jonah, I don’t want God to go around doling out forgiveness like it’s free either.
At some point during all of my imprecatory psalms praying and Jonah sympathizing, my stepfather reconciled with my mother. Okay, fine. That’s great. Then, the guy had the nerve to apologize to me as well. WHAT?!?! No, I thought, he’s not getting off this easy. This guy seriously damaged my soul; he doesn’t get to just repent and “move along now, nothing to see here.” No way. The guy needs to suffer. God’s righteous wrath should be poured out. And I mean poured out.
That’s when I remembered the ending to the book of Jonah. You know, that pesky chapter 4, where the Lord really gets at the heart of Jonah’s problem by ordaining a plant to give Jonah shade, then destroying the plant with a worm. Jonah was already upset about the Ninevites repentance and God’s steadfast love (“it is better for me to die than to live”). The plant dying was just too much for him, and, as it turns out, for me too. With Jonah I could say “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
It’s humorous, really, when you read the book and think about the gospel. Of course the Lord was right to “pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left.” And of course it’s absurd for Jonah to be so angry about their repentance and the death of that plant. And of course it’s even more absurd that a man who had received such grace would angrily withhold it from another.
I was actually the unforgiving servant from Matthew 18. Having been forgiven so great a debt, I was now demanding the payment of a few pennies. The Lord was gracious to give us the book of Jonah, if for no other reason it’s a glaring indictment of my own response to those who’ve harmed me. I still identify with Jonah because I still am prone to be angry enough to die when I perceive some injustice, whether real or imagined. However, the great thing about Jesus is that he lovingly disciplines me and reminds me of the great grace poured out on the cross. In light of my great sin and Christ’s great sacrifice, it’s blasphemous not to forgive others.