But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry?

Jonah 4:1-4

A lengthier but better title for this article would be “Jonah’s Displeasure at God’s Good Pleasure.” That puts Jonah’s sulking, as recorded in the first verses of Jonah 4, in perspective. Jonah was not only angry at Nineveh’s repentance and rescue, but he was wickedly displeased with a merciful and gracious God. It is difficult to think of anything worse. His sin was the sin of those who perish forever because they grudge and complain and reject the everlasting mercy of God. That we must never do.

We must see Jonah’s displeasure in its historical context. Jonah was not only displeased that God had been merciful to Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy, but also that God had not shown the same mercy, as Jonah saw it, to Israel. These were the days, after all, of Jeroboam II, days of material prosperity and political expansion not only, but also days of rapid spiritual decline. Israel would soon come to the end of its history as a kingdom under God’s judgment.

In sparing Nineveh and casting away the Northern Kingdom, God not only foretold the salvation of the Gentiles but showed that “he [hath] mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:18). Jonah did not like that revelation of God’s sovereignty, but he was no different than most, only more outspoken in his displeasure.

Perhaps Jonah wanted the destruction of Nineveh so that he could go back to his work as a prophet in Israel with the message, “See what happens to those who wickedly rebel against God?” and with the hope that such a message would bear good fruit in Israel—that Israel would turn from its wickedness and turn to God. Patrick Fairbairn suggests this possibility in his commentary on Jonah1 and it is not unlikely.

If Jonah’s great concern was for Israel, as his reference to “my country” suggests, we can sympathize with him and even commend his concern for his own people. Nevertheless, Jonah’s sin was the sin of thinking he had the right to dictate to God the dispensing of His mercy and grace, thus denying the sovereignty of God in salvation. Jonah’s sin was the sin Paul describes in Romans 9:20, the sin of replying against God. His responsibility as a prophet was bringing God’s Word and leaving the outcome to God.

His sin is the sin of those who say, “I could never believe in a God who saves some and sends others to hell,” or “a God who eternally chooses some and not others is not a merciful, gracious, and loving God.” It is the sin of those who are unhappy, discouraged, and complaining because God does not show His love and mercy to a family member or friend. It is the sin of the preacher or church member who is discouraged and unhappy because the fruits of the gospel are not such as he or she wants. It is the sin of those who begrudge the church’s efforts in missions because of a greater “need” at home, as they perceive that need, though they usually are not as bold in their displeasure as Jonah was. This is the sin of people who think that only those of a certain theological persuasion or with certain traditions can be saved. There are things that must be believed for salvation but, even then, salvation is not a matter of one’s theological persuasion but of God’s sovereign mercy and grace. The sin is the sin of anyone who thinks that they have the right to counsel God as to whom He should save and not save.

When Nineveh repented, Jonah knew already that God would spare the city and was “very angry,” with God! Literally, he was “burned up” against God. Nor was his anger concealed, but expressed both in his “prayer” and in his sulking outside the city. He would express his anger also against the gourd that for a time sheltered him from the sun, but even then his anger was against God.

The reference to Jonah’s displeasure is very difficult to translate. The English words “displeased” and “exceedingly” are really the same word in Hebrew, one of the Old Testament words for sin that describes sin as malicious rebellion against God. The passage could be translated, “And wickedly rebelling, Jonah wickedly and greatly rebelled and his anger was kindled.” Jonah was not just displeased, therefore, but in his displeasure, was guilty of rebellion against God and so sinned grievously.

Jonah had been chastised by God and had repented of his previous rebellion in running away from God’s command, but he was far from being cured of that sin. His attitude had not changed very much and he even tried to justify his previous rebellion: “Was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” How much like ourselves he is! Corrected by God and truly sorry for what we have done, we nevertheless find ourselves committing the same sins over again, especially those sins to which we are prone, and always excusing our sin.

Jonah’s prayer to God hardly qualifies as such. It was addressed to Him, but full of self-pity, self-justification, foolish anger, complaining and rebellion, it really was no prayer at all. What an abomination such a prayer must be to God who requires humility and trust in prayer. Yet God only gently rebukes Jonah with the words “Doest thou well to be angry?” for Jonah was one of God’s own, just as the Ninevites, and God shows the same patience and mercy to Jonah that He had shown them. Jonah, however, was too blinded by his anger to realize that he was in the same place as Nineveh and equally in need of God’s mercy. In fact, he was even more in need of it, since his sin was aggravated by his greater knowledge of God, his prophetic calling, and his previous repentance.

He adds sin to sin by asking to die. His request was not only an expression of discouragement, but an act of further rebellion, a resigning of his office as prophet and really the same sin he committed when he tried to go to Tarshish. In asking to die, he means to say, “If you are not going to destroy these Gentiles, these Ninevites whom I hate, then I’m done as prophet. If you spare them, I would rather be dead.” Jonah was not unlike Elijah under the juniper tree, who, when God did not do what he expected after God’s revelation on Mount Carmel, also wanted to resign his office and die.

He sins even more when, rebuked by God, he does not answer but turns his back on God and walks away. Going outside the city, having finished his work of preaching, he found a place from which he could watch the city to see if God might after all destroy it. Did he really expect that God would yet destroy Nineveh? It would seem he did not from his own words, “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” Why then did he go outside the city and build a booth, waiting (perhaps as long as forty days) for Nineveh’s destruction, all the while enduring the desert heat? It is likely that Jonah, so like us, was enjoying his case of the sulks and seeking to prove that he was right in being angry with God.

When God tried to teach him the lesson of the gourd plant, Jonah insisted that he was right to be angry and did what we do when we find every excuse to keep a bad attitude even while we know in our hearts we are wrong. Whether Jonah was cured of his displeasure and anger, Scripture does not tell us; but he remains an example of what we must not do when we find that God’s ways are not our ways. We, like Jonah, are happy enough to confess the sovereignty of God when things go our way, but when God does otherwise than what we want and have prayed for, we too become angry, frustrated, discouraged, depressed, and unhappy.

Thus Jonah himself becomes again an example of the sovereignty of God’s mercy and of the undeserved grace of God. He proves, as we all do, that no one ever deserves God’s favor and lovingkindness, that God does indeed show mercy to whom He wills. In his sin and in the mercy God shows him, Jonah shows that he stands in God’s sight with the Ninevites and is not a whit better than they. He demonstrates that there is no difference in God’s sight between Jew and Gentile:

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one (Rom. 3:9-12).

Jonah is a reminder that we who attend church faithfully, who have learned the Word of God from our youth, who have had the advantage of covenant homes and families, who can look down our noses at the wickedness of those who do not believe and shake our heads in amazement at what they do, are no better than they, that there is nothing we have that we have not received, and that we are as much in need of the mercy of God as the worst of hardened criminals and those who have turned our society on its head, destroying morality, good order, and decency. Much as we may sympathize with Jonah’s motives, his hatred for Israel’s enemies, and his love for his own country, our only response to the sovereignty of God’s mercy may be that of the publican in the temple: “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). And when He has shown to us the same mercy He showed to Nineveh and to Jonah, we say, do we not?

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen (Rom. 11:34-36).


1 Patrick Fairbairn, Jonah, His Life, Character and Mission
(Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1964), 156.