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Jonah 4 - The Mercy of God

In a society that wants justice, recompense and protection, where does mercy fit in?

Written by Mike Biolsi on .


  • Chapter 1 – Jonah ran away from God
  • Chapter 2 – Jonah gave in to God
  • Chapter 3 – Jonah preached for God

Let’s dive into this last chapter and see what we learn about Jonah and about God.

Jonah 4:1–4 (CSB) — 1 Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Please, Lord, isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster. 3 And now, Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 The Lord asked, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

We left off in chapter 3 with the king in sackcloth and sitting on ashes, all the people and animals doing the same. ALL of them fasting and seeking God with the hope that:

Jonah 3:9–10 (CSB) — 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent; he may turn from his burning anger so that we will not perish. 10 God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster he had threatened them with. And he did not do it.

What do YOU think Jonah’s reaction should have been?


Let’s start by looking at Jonah’s reaction to the mercy God offered the Ninevites.

He was “greatly displeased”

Jonah’s attitude is surely exaggerated, just as the word “great” appears 12 times in this book to make use of verbal hyperbole.

He was “furious” (hot)

At what? At changed lives?

We come to chapter 4 and you would *think* that Jonah would be happy that his message was heard and that the people responded to God. After all, isn’t that the goal? Share God so people can know him and enter a relationship with him? Isn’t that what it means to be the image bearers of God? Isn’t that what God determined the Jews would be?

When God made his covenant with Abraham, what did he say?

Genesis 12:2–3 (CSB) — 2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

Genesis 18:18 (CSB) — 18 Abraham is to become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him.

Isn’t that what God meant by “all the nations of the earth will be blessed?” YES! So, Jonah should have been one of the happiest people on the earth because one of the most wicked people groups that existed encountered God and they changed!

It is obvious that Jonah’s reaction is not right. When we have the wrong reaction to God’s working it will undoubtedly lead to unhealthy ACTIONS.


Jonah’s actions are super ironic. NOW he prays!

It took Jonah 3 days in the belly of a fish to pray to God the first time, now he is quick to pray, but not for Nineveh, nor for his own people, but that his life would be taken!

“Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah defended his actions like this:

  • Nineveh is wicked, and the enemy of Israel
  • I knew you were sending me so they could repent, so I ran
  • I did what you said, and they repented
  • Now you are going to spare them
  • So please kill me now

While it is very easy to call out Jonah’s drama, and the author wants us to, we have to also ask ourselves why Jonah might have such a violent and destructive attitude in the first place.

What would drive Jonah to feel this way? Was his attitude justified? Jonah was looking at life through his own lens, personally and as a Jew.

Jewish Lens – the national perspective

At that time, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and at one of its weaker moments. The Assyrian leadership ran through the family line of Shalmaneser.

  • Shalmaneser I (1274–1245 BC), the first king of this name, was active in the days when Israel was emerging as a significant group in Palestine. He had no direct contact with Israel.
    • Perhaps this was what the Israelites were looking at when they said, “we want a king like everyone else around us”? 1 Samuel 8:19-20
  • Shalmaneser II (1030–1019 BC) was roughly contemporary with King Saul, but he had no contact with Israel.
  • Shalmaneser III (859–824 BC) had the first significant contact with Israel. This ruler made frequent raids into the lands west of Assyria during his reign.
  • Shalmaneser IV (782–772 BC) had no contact with Israel. He ruled Assyria during a period of decline. [during the time of Jonah] His successor Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 BC) was an exceedingly vigorous and able ruler who conducted campaigns in Syria and further west from 743 BC. onwards and made several contacts with Israel (2 Kgs 15:17–29).

Shalmaneser III was an enemy and annoyance to Israel with the frequent raids. He would have been doing this AFTER Solomon and before Jonah. For the Jews, it was unthinkable that God would forgive them!

  • What about David’s prayer about destroying enemies? Have you read the Psalms?
  • What about the Abrahamic covenant – curse those that curse you?

What about THOSE passages/promises, God? Shouldn’t God be PUNISHING Assyria?

Hosea, a contemporary of Jonah, who was a prophet during the same century, predicted that it would be the Assyrians that would lead Israel into exile.

Hosea 9:3 (CSB) — They will not stay in the land of the Lord. Instead, Ephraim will return to Egypt, and they will eat unclean food in Assyria.

It is possible that Jonah was aware of this? If so, could that be the reason he ran away from his mission? If they never repent, God would have to destroy them and possibly avoid the exile. It is doubtful that Jonah thought he could alter the future of Israel by not preaching to Nineveh. Surely, God’s plans would be accomplished, even as the sailors mentioned:

Jonah 1:14 (CSB) — So they called out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish because of this man’s life, and don’t charge us with innocent blood! For you, Lord, have done just as you pleased.”

Jonah’s perspective – possible prideful motives

It is more likely that Jonah did not want to be the man who was known as showing mercy to those that would later destroy the temple and lead his people captive. Though a rational theology would acknowledge that God is in control of governments and circumstances, people who live through tough times often look for a scapegoat. (we see this quite a bit today, don’t we?)

Perhaps THIS is part of the reason Jonah lingered outside Nineveh? Perhaps this is why Jonah went to the East of the city (a specific detail) which is farther away from his home? How could he face his fellow Israelites knowing that HE was the one that helped bring mercy to the people who were going to soon bring affliction on them?

Shalmaneser V (727–722 BC) was able to bring Hoshea, the last king of Israel (732–723 BC), under his control (2 Kgs 17:3).  Assyria, under Shalmaneser V, conquered the Northern kingdom (Israel):

2 Kings 17:1–6 (CSB) — 1 In the twelfth year of Judah’s King Ahaz, Hoshea son of Elah became king over Israel in Samaria, and he reigned nine years. 2 He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, but not like the kings of Israel who preceded him. 3 King Shalmaneser of Assyria attacked him, and Hoshea became his vassal and paid him tribute. 4 But the king of Assyria caught Hoshea in a conspiracy: He had sent envoys to So king of Egypt and had not paid tribute to the king of Assyria as in previous years. Therefore the king of Assyria arrested him and put him in prison. 5 The king of Assyria invaded the whole land, marched up to Samaria, and besieged it for three years. 6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria. He deported the Israelites to Assyria and settled them in Halah, along the Habor (Gozan’s river), and in the cities of the Medes.

** note: read the rest of 2 Kings 17 if you want to understand what Israel was really doing and why God sent them into exile!

If Jonah had not gone, would this have still happened? Of course! The sovereignty of God is one of the primary lessons on this book of Jonah.

Proverbs 19:21 (CSB) — Many plans are in a person’s heart, but the Lord’s decree will prevail.

Jonah dreaded taking the message to the Ninevites because he felt they deserved the wrath of God for their wickedness. He wanted to see justice served. He wanted to spare his people from future anguish.

I suppose those are common threads in the fabric of our society. Justice, recompence, protection – they can be very noble and valuable commodities in any culture.

It seems that our culture is enraptured with these concepts! There are some very emotionally charged campaigns to bring about justice, recompence and protection to certain people or people groups in our society today.

However, in God’s economy, if justice were served to everyone who deserved it, it would lead all to destruction.

The main thread of the tapestry of Jonah is something much greater than justice, recompence and protection. The bigger thread is MERCY. This is what is missing in our society, and sadly even in much of Christendom today. God did NOT give Nineveh what they deserved but instead gave them mercy. Jonah knew that God would do this – otherwise why bother sending him in the first place?

Jonah 4:2 (CSB) — 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Please, Lord, isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster.

Jonah is quoting the book of Exodus, when Moses was getting the tablets from God the second time:

Exodus 34:5–8 (LEB) — 5 And Yahweh descended in the cloud, and he stood with him there, and he proclaimed the name of Yahweh. 6 And Yahweh passed over before him, and he proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, God, who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding with loyal love and faithfulness, 7 keeping loyal love to the thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and he does not leave utterly unpunished, punishing the guilt of fathers on sons and on sons of sons on third and fourth generations.” 8 And Moses hurried and knelt down to the earth and worshiped.

This THREAD of the compassion and mercy of God is one that is quoted by several of the prophets regarding Israel:

  • Joel 2:13-14
  • Nahum 1:3
  • Nehemiah 9:17

It is also quoted by David in the Psalms:

Psalm 145:8–9 (CSB) — 8 The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and great in faithful love. 9 The Lord is good to everyone; his compassion rests on all he has made.

But notice the twist that David makes in the Psalms? David does not say, “Yahweh is only good to Israel”, he says, Yahweh is good to EVERYONE” and his compassion rests on “ALL he has made” (including those animals mentioned at the end of the book?)

The passage in Exodus is part of the Mosaic covenant. A covenant with the nation Israel.  However, the covenant that started that nation was the Abrahamic covenant.

Genesis 18:18 (CSB) — 18 Abraham is to become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him.

Who would be blessed? ALL THE NATIONS.

God’s choosing of Israel was not so that He would be their exclusive God, nor that they would be his exclusive people. They were called to be instruments, the ones chosen by God (a holy nation), to bring blessing to ALL nations.

David seemed to get that in Psalm 145:9. Jonah seemed to be teaching that as the sailors experienced the grace of God and turn to Yahweh and Assyrians repent, are forgiven and worship Yahweh.

Truly, God has established that ALL people be able given access to him!

  • No one is so far gone, or has actions that are too abhorrent, that God cannot change – that would be the Ninevites.
  • When people experience the power of God, and are made aware of God, they can then choose to follow God – that would be the sailors.
  • As a NEGATIVE lesson – no one who is known as a follower of God should act like Jonah did, wanting to hold back the message of grace from his enemies.

Let us wrap this part up by looking at God’s response to Jonah.

God’s RESPONSE to Jonah

Jonah 4:4 (NLT) — 4 The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”

“Do you have a right to be angry, Jonah?”

First thing we should notice: God’s attitude. Is he demeaning Jonah? No. Is he mad and Jonah? Not that we are told. He seems to be quite patient.

Just as God approached Adam & Eve in the garden after they ate from the forbidden tree, and as he approached Cain after he killed his brother Abel, God simply comes to Jonah and meets with him, and asks him a question:

“Do you have a right to be angry, Jonah?”

That is certainly a loaded question! It is also one that is aimed directly at us:

Do any of us have the right to question and complain about the decisions of God?

I am not asking, do we ever do it, or do we ever want to do it. Do we have the RIGHT to question the sovereignty of God?

Isaiah 45:9–11 (NLT) — 9 “What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’ 10 How terrible it would be if a newborn baby said to its father, ‘Why was I born?’ or if it said to its mother, ‘Why did you make me this way?’ ” 11 This is what the Lord says— the Holy One of Israel and your Creator: “Do you question what I do for my children? Do you give me orders about the work of my hands?

Who are WE to question God? Perhaps the question to Jonah could have the emphasis on the word “right”… do you have the right to be angry at my mercy?

But I think there is another lesson to be found in this question. It is more personal and hits much closer to home.

  • Jonah was wicked in running away from God. God spared Jonah and showed him mercy.
  • If that is the mercy Jonah received, how could he be angry that God showed mercy to someone other than him?
  • Is violence any less an act of disobedience than willful running away? Should one receive mercy and not the other?

Perhaps the question from God could have the emphasis on the word “you”… do you, who has experienced my mercy first hand, do you have the right to be angry that I show someone else mercy?

Micah 6:8 (NLT) — No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

The message from the prophet Micah is that Israel is to love mercy. Mercy is to be shown to others. But to whom? To those that need it, obviously. God set the standard of what that looks like in the book of Jonah. It is NOT just the Jews.

This is certainly what Jesus was talking about when he gave the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-25, or the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37. And what about when Jesus hung on the cross for your sins and mine and the solders mocked him, spit on him and gambled for his clothes? His words were:

Luke 23:34 (CSB) — 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”…


The book of Jonah starts by demonstrating the sovereignty of God – He is the God of the sea and the land and he commands all of nature. Is plan WILL be accomplished. This is chapters 1-2.

But the book of Jonah ends by showing us the MISSION of God in chapters 3-4. It has been and continues to be his mission to redeem all mankind from our own sinful ways. He is a gracious and compassionate God.

This is a unique combination for The God of gods – to be sovereign and compassionate.

In all other cultures, THE God of that culture is supreme but for the benefit of the deity, not the people. Surely, this is the way the Assyrians lived as well, until they encountered a God that was greater than any they knew, and this supreme being that controls the sea and dry land sent a messenger to spare them, not destroy them.

Hitting Home

I know there is more in this book to cover, and by the grace of God we will get to that next week. But we are left with this image in our head of a man who should show mercy because he has received mercy, being angry and in a rage.

It is a wrong picture, would you agree? It is upside down like we have seen throughout this book.

The problem is that when we see something so blatantly obvious, so ridiculously wrong, we cannot help but question if the exaggeration is designed to show us how we, too, have the same wrong reactions and actions.

  • Are there people we do not want to forgive?
  • Are there things God has done that we want to complain about?
  • Are there times we are angry at God for what he is doing?
  • Are there times we are more interested in justice and punishment of others rather than mercy?

If God is described as:

Jonah 4:2b (CSB) —  … a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster.

And you and I are described as:

Genesis 1:27 (CSB) — 27 So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.

What should our actions and reactions look like?

Jonah 4 - The Mercy of God