Jonah 4:1-11

June 9, 2002


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

As we approach the final segment of Jonah’s pilgrimage recorded for us here in this brief story, let’s reflect for a moment on what we have seen thus far. In chapter 1, we saw Jonah the flabbergasted, who (1) acted on the basis of his feelings rather than according to what he knew God wanted him to do, (2) believed that God exercised control only over the territory of Israel and that he could therefore run away from him, and (3) claimed to worship God but disobeyed him anyway.

In chapter 2, we looked at Jonah the fishfood, and we noticed that (1) changes began to occur in his life when he took the time to think and pray, (2) neither circumstances nor location can put the truly repentant sinner beyond God’s reach, and (3) apparent difficulties in life often actually result in our deliverance.

In chapter 3, we considered Jonah the follower, and we pointed out that (1) Jonah’s second chance did not bring an alteration in his calling, (2) Jonah’s message was God’s message, and (3) God’s compassion extends beyond the walls and barriers that we humans so often erect.

Today, we turn our attention to the fourth and final chapter, where we encounter “Jonah, the Furious.” You will recall that, when we left off the last time, Nineveh had repented and, as a result, God compassionately dismissed the expected judgment. What we did not see was Jonah’s personal reaction to all of this. His last contribution to the story was the proclamation of God’s message–the Ninevites took over from there. As chapter 4 begins, the narrative reverts once again to Jonah, and we quickly notice that, when God’s anger came to an end, Jonah’s begins.

Apparently by this time, the 40 day grace period mentioned in 3:4 was over, for Jonah was clearly upset that the results which he had anticipated never came to pass. Jonah, a Hebrew, had no compassion for his arch-enemies, and he wanted them to receive the judgment which he thought they richly deserved. It was for this reason, Jonah confesses, that he ran from God in the first place. It was not simply a fear of physical injury or persecution, nor was Jonah merely concerned about his reputation as a prophet. Jonah, quite astonishingly, feared the possibility of God showing mercy to the Ninevites. “That’s why I quickly fled to Tarshish. I knew what you were like, Lord, and I was afraid you would act this way.” And indeed, Jonah’s fears were realized, and it caused him so much personal anguish that, given the choice, he would have preferred to die rather than to live and witness the salvation of his enemies. Jonah was once again a rebel who, though obedient to a command, was anything but convinced of its correctness. As such, God deals with him, hoping to bring his distraught prophet to his senses.

Note, carefully, how God responds to Jonah at this point. Not with harsh words of condemnation–Jonah was already so blinded by his own emotional distress that he could not see the truth if it hit him in the face–but with a simple question: “Have you any right to be angry?” God, in essence, gives Jonah the opportunity to admit his anger to see that it is unjustified. Jonah apparently leaves the question unanswered.

God continues to deal with him, exposing him to a series of bizarre events that are intended to drive that simple question into the depths of Jonah’s heart and soul: “Jonah, do you have any right to be angry?” These events begin with Jonah seated someplace to the east of the city. He perhaps doubted the sincerity of Nineveh’s repentance and accordingly grabbed front-row seat to watch the coming doom. In any case, the mountains in the vicinity provided a most acceptable vantage point, so the scene is set for the remaining developments. Jonah’s anger concerning the city is about to be evaluated and thoroughly exposed.

We immediately notice that Jonah, who has just requested to die, is in reality not interested in any physical discomfort at all. He has fashioned a shelter intended to provide comfort from the scorching rays of the sun. Yet, even such a shelter was not maximally efficient, so the Lord himself provides additional relief in the form of an unspecified vine that grows quickly, as in an accelerated film. The writer informs us that this vine pleased Jonah considerably, it apparently got his mind off of his own distress for few moments. The Lord’s easing of Jonah’s discomfort recalls his easing of the Ninevites destruction in 3:10. And indeed, what we have here with the vine is a parable. If Jonah’s attitude then requires that God destroy his non-Israelite creatures, the Ninevites, then similarly God in this case should destroy the vine as well.

Jonah’s happiness, we quickly note, was short-lived, for God, who created the vine, now destroys it with equal haste. To make matters even worse, the same God who summoned the great fish as an instrument of deliverance now summoned a worm, the sun, and the wind as instruments of discomfort. Jonah’s recently found happiness withered with the vine and blew away with the wind, and once again, his preference for death is uttered. The shoe that Jonah wants the Ninevites to wear is now on his own foot, and it pinches.

This time, when asked about his right to be angry, Jonah, who is painfully honest throughout all of this, argues that in fact he does–he is angry enough to forfeit his own life. But it is precisely that response which enables the writer to close the story on a most climactic note. He draws a contrast between Jonah’s concern for a simple, temporal vine, and God’s compassion for an entire city of human beings. “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow,” the Lord remarks. “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” And with that, the story abruptly ends. It seems as though it was cut-off. We’re left to picture Jonah pondering this perplexing and all-encompassing question. How might he answer? Will he see the folly of his ways, or will he stubbornly refuse to change? How would you respond if you were in his position?

Chapter 4, then, provides us with a fascinating character study of Jonah. It takes us into the very depths of his personality. We could, for example, discuss Jonah’s impulsive nature, and how quickly he would choose to die when faced with less than ideal circumstances. Jonah had not yet learned, as James later did, to “count it all joy” when trouble comes (1:2). Jonah had not learned that trials are useful in developing patience–he had no interest in trials, preferring death instead. We sense, then, a contrast between Jonah, who had little toleration, even for circumstances which he was partially responsible for, a Job, who, even though subjected to anguish far beyond that of Jonah who was guiltless through it all, honored and feared God to the end. We could discuss Jonah’s unbroken will or his self-centeredness, but today I want to turn our attention in another direction–Jonah’s anger.

We notice immediately here in chapter 4 that Jonah’s initial and primary reaction to God’s compassion towards the Ninevites was one of anger. Jonah became very angry. Furthermore, just a few short verses later, Jonah became angry once again, this time over the loss of the vine. Jonah, quite clearly, had a temper. He had a problem with anger. Now, you and I know that being angry in and of itself does not necessarily constitute sin. Paul, for example, wrote to the Ephesians and told them to be angry but not to sin (4:26). We know also from the Gospels that Jesus himself grew angry on occasion. Recall specifically the time when he cast the money-changers out of the Temple. Is there anyone who would honestly question whether or not he was truly angry in the process? The issue before us, then, is not whether anger is ever an appropriate and even helpful response, but rather, what is the difference between godly anger and sinful anger? If we look more closely at Jonah’s temper, perhaps we can find some help.

Jonah’s anger, first of all, was basically reactionary. That is, it happened very quickly and was unsolicited. When Jonah was confronted with the situations we see here in chapter 4, he lost it–he simply “flew off of the handle.”

Contrast this to the anger of Jesus in John 2:13ff. When Jesus was confronted with the abomination in the Temple, he grew angry as well. However, he methodically channeled his anger in a constructive way. For Jonah, anger was unsolicited–a purely spontaneous reaction. For Jesus, anger was a chosen method, if you will, for accomplishing his task on a particular occasion. Jesus knew that soft words would not work here, but anger would.

Jonah’s anger, secondly, was uncontrollable. Because his anger was solely an unsolicited response, he had no power to “shut it off” when the right time came. His anger was such that he could have pouted for days–it could have gone on and on. Jesus, by way of contrast, used anger in such a way that, once the Temple was cleansed, he could go back about his business. Jesus, in other words, could stop being angry–he could control it.

Thirdly, Jonah’s anger was irrational–it simply did not make sense. On one occasion, he grew angry because the Ninevites repented. Just imagine it–the entire scene depicts a preacher’s dream. A huge arena, filled to overflowing with unbelievers. After a sermon of five words, the entire crowd repents. I’d be overcome with a sense of God’s power and goodness. Jonah is furious. On another occasion, we find him upset over a silly vine. Why, Jonah could get mad at almost anything, I imagine, including the smallest, most ridiculous things.

Jesus, on the other hand, since he could control his temper, got angry only when the situation called for it. He saw his Father’s house being turned into sheer havoc. It was a mess. People were being cheated while other grew unfairly wealthy. Who could worship under such conditions? So Jesus meant business. He got tough. He got angry.

Finally, Jonah’s anger was directed toward his own end and his own desires. Did you notice that? When the Ninevites were forgiven, why was he angry? Because it was not what he wanted. Even more so in the situation with the vine. The vine provided him with shelter, so he got angry when he was deprived. Why the Lord himself points this out in verse 10 when he questions Jonah about it. “You did not tend the vine. You did not grow it. You therefore do not feel the attachment that a gardener would feel. You are angry because of self-interest, not love.”

In other words, Jonah’s anger was self-centered. He used anger to protect himself and his own interests and concerns. If something did not go Jonah’s way, he would get angry. If someone did something to Jonah, he would get mad.

But look at Jesus. What was he angry about? The sanctity of his Father’s name. “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” he shouted. Jesus was angry because the cause of his Father was being threatened. His Father’s name was on the line, and Jesus’ genuine love for his Father and for the people being affected stimulated this response.

Jesus, interestingly, never reacted in this way in defense of himself. Read through the Gospels carefully. Jesus was laughed at, mocked, ridiculed, even crucified without getting angry. Jesus did not use anger to protect or defend himself. Neither do we have any accounts in which Jesus became angry over the small and insignificant things that so often infuriate some of us. Jesus grew angry when his Father’s name was on the line.

Godly anger, then, is not simply some uncontrollable emotion that swells up within us when things do not go our way. Unrighteous anger is. It is self-seeking. It cannot be shut off. Unrighteous anger controls the person–it clouds his thinking, gives him a feeling of superiority, destroys his capacity to love, and lingers in the form of bitterness or an unforgiving spirit. Godly anger is controllable, useful, and it directs itself towards godly goals. Most significantly, godly anger is rooted in genuine compassion and love.

Be angry. But don’t sin. Do you, like Jonah, struggle with anger? Has your temper left its scars on those around you and even on your own soul? What should you do? God’s response to Jonah provides a few simple suggestions:

1. Stop to think about the circumstances. “Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks. Ask yourself the same question when you feel the temperature rising within you. Is my anger on this occasion justifiable? What exactly am I so mad about anyway? Is the person I’m angry with tired, exhausted, or perhaps struggling with something herself? Does the situation really merit such a heated response? Is it right for me to be angry?
2. Stop to think about your own condition. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow....” anger often subsides when you take a good look at yourself. The things that annoy me and infuriated me seem less significant and less offensive when I realize my own weaknesses, my own blemishes, my own faults.
3. Let me add a third. Learn to laugh a little more. Turn selfish anger on its head with a few well-timed jokes, humorous nicknames, or symbols that help snap us to our senses. A little laughter goes a long way.

With God’s help, we can, as Alastair Campbell describes it, “sever the link between anger and destructiveness” and find ways to channel such powerful reactions in more healthy and constructive directions.