“When God saw what [the Ninevites] did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 3:10-4:1).
The story of Jonah is a well-known one, commonly introduced as the story of Jonah and the whale. His story begins when God tells him to deliver a warning to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a hated enemy of Israel who had carried many of their people into harsh captivity. Jonah was extremely unhappy at the thought of proclaiming a message of coming destruction to them, as he knew exactly what might happen—if he warned them of God’s wrath, there was every chance they would repent and experience God’s mercy instead of his judgement.
So Jonah ran away, hoping that he could escape the presence of God. God soon debunked that theory, however, by sending a terrible storm upon the ship. Jonah eventually told the ship’s crew that he was the cause of the storm and that throwing him into the sea would calm the waters. This seems like a noble sacrifice, but in reality Jonah’s intentions might have been suicidal. He clearly couldn’t run away from God, but if he drowned, that would still mean he wouldn’t have to go to Nineveh.
God, however, had other plans for Jonah. He sent a great fish to swallow him, and in the belly of that fish, Jonah repented. Three days later, the fish spat him back onto dry land, and Jonah headed to Nineveh. There, he did proclaim a warning, but it was half-hearted at best. Nevertheless, the warning made its way to the king himself, and he proclaimed a citywide fast and time of repentance. And God, seeing their repentance, was merciful to them and did not destroy the city.
This made Jonah angry. He threw God’s character in His face, complaining that he hadn’t wanted to come to Nineveh because then God would be merciful to these people who did not deserve it. He demanded death, insisting that it would be better to die than to see this hated people be spared.
It’s easy to cast shame on Jonah, to shake our heads and piously judge him for his hard heart. But when it comes down to it, are we any better? Think of a person, a people group, or a whole country that you don’t like. How would you react if God told you to go to them with a message of His mercy? If we’re not careful, our natural bent will be towards Jonah’s reaction. It’s only by the grace of God that we can have His heart for the nations—a heart that loves our enemies and longs to see them come to repentance.