Tremendous joy was in Heaven when it heard the news of Nineveh’s repentance. There is a clever wordplay not apparent in English translations, but it is readily apparent in the Hebrew. When God saw how they had turned from their wicked (ra’ah) way, He turned from the calamity (ra’ah) (Jonah 3:10). In the presence of Heaven, the angels rejoiced over the repentance of 120,000 Assyrians (Jonah 4:10; Luke 15:10). But there was one man, albeit a prophet, who was not rejoicing over the salvation of the pagans: Jonah, the son of Amittai.
Among its contemporaries, the book of Jonah is unique in that it is not the messages of a prophet, but rather it is written about the life of a prophet named Jonah. The tragedy of this narrative is this: it is not the pagan sailors or pagan king swallowed up with pride, but the judgmental child of God. He is so swallowed up in his own bitterness that he cannot see how his sin affects others. So often, it is not the outsiders who struggle with pride, but it is God’s very own people. Little is known about this prophet except for a brief passage in 2 Kings 14:25 which mentions Jonah prophesying in favor of an apostate, faithless king, which immediately casts suspicion on his character.
Jonah’s Selfishness and Pride
There is a witty wordplay in Jonah that most English translations do not pick up, but it is apparent in the Hebrew. “Jonah went down (yêreḏ) to Jaffa,” he went “down (yêreḏ) into the ship,” and he had gone “down (yāraḏ) into the lowest part of the ship” (Jonah 1:3-4, 5). Three times in a few verses, the writer emphasizes where this disobedient prophet had sunk to in his selfishness: down, down, down. Later in Jonah’s Hebrew poem for salvation from the sea beast’s stomach, he bemoans how he had gone “down (yāraḏ) to the bottoms of the mountains” (2:7). So willing was the prophet to run from the Lord that he intended to go to Tarshish, the edge of the known world (modern-day Spain). We might compare this with a modern-day saying that he was trying to flee to Timbuktu.
Does Jonah run from God because the prophet is scared for his life? This might seem plausible. Yet when we read later in the narrative, we find it was much more selfish. Jonah said to the Lord, “That’s what I anticipated, fleeing to Tarshish—for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and full of kindness, and relenting over calamity” (Jonah 4:2). Here, Jonah quotes from Exodus 34:6-7, a poem steeped deep within Israel’s history. The reason the prophet runs from God is simple: if the people respond, God will forgive them. This casts suspicion on the reason Jonah was thrown into the ocean (“If I die, I won’t have to go to Nineveh”) and his short five-word sermon, which could be viewed as prophetic sabotage (Jonah does not mention their sins or repentance). Nonetheless, Jonah serves as a valuable example for God’s people today – because it is a mirror into our own faults.
Lessons For Today
What lessons can we learn from Jonah’s story to combat selfishness today among God’s people? First, we must come to understand that our selfishness and pride affects others. Oblivious to his own sin, the effects of Jonah’s sin began to swallow up the pagan sailors as the storm comes upon them. Sin in general rarely just affects us—the apostle Paul succinctly states, “For none of us lives for himself, and none dies for himself” (Rom. 14:7). When we come to understand that our sin affects others more than just ourselves, we will humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and trust in His grace (1 Pet. 5:6).
Second, we must become more empathetic. Jonah was so wrapped up in his tiny little world that he refused to accept God’s verdict. We read of a short, strange event of God sowing a leafy plant to comfort Jonah, which is the only time in this story that Jonah is happy (Jonah 4:6). But after the worm eats the plant away and Jonah becomes angry again, the Lord asks the seething prophet: “Is it good for you to be so angry about the plant?…You have pity on the plant for which you did no labor or make it grow, that appeared overnight and perished overnight. So shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh — the great city that has in it more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right and from their left — as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
Jonah was so angry about this plant—and was totally oblivious to the fact that over 120,000 people were now saved. Jonah needed to become more empathetic toward His enemies. Let us heed the words of the apostle Paul, “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving each other just as God in Christ also forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). Are you okay with God loving your enemies?
Third, we must come to know the character of our God. When we come to not merely acknowledge but truly trust that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and full of kindness, and relenting over calamity, then this truth will truly bring about heart change for God’s children. By becoming gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and full of kindness, and relenting over calamity ourselves, we become more perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:43-48).
The story of Jonah—just like the story of the prodigal son’s elder brother—is left with an open ending (Jonah 4:10; Luke 15:30). We do not know whether Jonah, or the elder brother, had a change of heart. But the story is not really about Jonah; it is about you and me. Let us not become so wrapped up in our own story that we become swallowed up in pride.
Stephen is a 2012 alumnus of the Memphis School of Preaching in Memphis, TN. He is currently living in Dublin, GA, where he is seeking to further his education in ministry.