Jonah 2 – 4.
Most are well versed with Jonah’s differences with God over the Babylonian Ninevites. After being disgorged from the mouth of a giant fish, he made his long trek to Nineveh, and his reluctant preaching resulted in their repentance. His not so shocking response to God’s mercy to the Ninevites is our focus here. God immediately confronted His prophet’s attitude, but attitudes are only the behavioural evidence of a deeper malaise, Jonah’s self-righteousness. The Book of Jonah is a vignette of God’s perennial contention with the darkness of the human heart, irrespective of religious convictions, where man’s egocentric self is unable to identify satisfactorily with divine grace and compassion.
God drew Jonah’s attention to a couple of issues. Firstly, the exigencies of a rapidly deteriorating moral and ethical situation at Nineveh caused Yahweh to summon Jonah to warn the city – its people and animals – of His impending judgment (Jonah 1:2; 4:11). Jonah, however, did not share that same concern (cf., Jonah 4:10). The word variously translated as ‘concern,’ ‘take pity,’ ‘be troubled,’ or “compassion,’ gives us some idea that despite the Ninevites’ worsening sinfulness, Jonah was not unaware of God’s character of unconditional love (i.e., ‘chesed’; Jonah 4:2); the same grace that was available to the Israelites. But his prejudice towards the Babylonians, either completely blinded him to his own sick heart, or he was simply a bigot (Jonah 4:2). What is the source of this insolence? Jonah’s self-righteousness was the basis of his presumptive national uprightness and superiority, in that Yahweh ought to simply destroy Israel’s enemies for Israel’s sake. By not allowing God to be God, at this point, Yahweh became his idol to be used.
Secondly, God specifically questioned the basis of Jonah’s anger, mentioning it twice: “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4, 9). As Yahweh’s prophet, he possessed spiritual authority, and one would have expected him to be able to empathize with God’s desire to forgive the Ninevites upon their contriteness. But Jonah dissociated himself from God’s mercy. When he was cornered by the overwhelming success of his mission, he sunk into depression (Jonah 4:8). As usual, God’s grace to the Ninevites was available to him too: He engineered a plant to supernaturally grow into a tree overnight, providing shade for Jonah as he sulked, but had a worm attacked it the following morning, killing it, exposing him to the scorching sun and wind that followed. (Jonah 3:10-4:8). Jonah pitied the dead plant! God responded: ‘What is wrong with your heart? You were sorry for a plant that you were not the cause of its beginning or end. Whereas I created the Ninevites, should I not have compassion on them?’ (Jonah 4:10-11). Jonah’s priorities were topsy-turvy, his self-righteous heart was out of sync with God’s.
Biblical self-righteousness informs us that primarily, we somehow are able to generate within ourselves a righteousness that is acceptable to God (c.f., Rom 3:10), and secondarily in relation to others, that our opinions and actions count more than others’. Hence, any challenge to our views or behaviours is inevitably interpreted as a threat to our identity and security, and unconsciously our self-righteous prejudice becomes our ‘armour.’ Being the very antithesis of humility, the peculiar element of this sin is that the more self-aware we are of it in a God-fearing sense, the closer we would desire to draw toward God, allowing Him to ceaselessly and with chesed confront us; since salvation is from the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Did Jonah eventually repent?