Jonah’s Act of Defiance

In the previous article, we looked at the Lord’s rhetorical question to Jonah, “Doest thou well to be angry?” Quite clearly, Jonah had no right to be angry at the Lord’s mercy upon the city of Nineveh. The purpose of that question was really to get Jonah to pause and to do some serious reflection and consideration. But sadly, instead of seriously reflecting upon his ways and repenting of his ungodly attitude, Jonah persisted in his defiance and rebellion against God. In a very real sense, Jonah was running away from God all over again.

Jonah 4:5, “So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.”

Remember the context. Jonah was displeased – exceedingly displeased. Jonah was angry – very angry. And for the second time in this book, Jonah prays to God. But unlike his first prayer (2:1-9) which was a prayer of thanksgiving and praise, this second prayer (4:2-3) was one of complain and dissatisfaction.

Jonah was essentially saying, “I told you that this would happen, didn’t I?! That’s the reason why I tried to flee to Tarshish in the first place! I knew that you are a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and a God who turns away from sending evil.”

Amazing prayer! This is one of the rare instances in the Bible where the attribute of God’s goodness is mentioned and enlarged upon not for the purpose of praise but for the purpose of complain. Jonah complained that God was more gracious and merciful than He ought to have been. Then he requested of the Lord to cut him off from the land of the living. If the people of Nineveh were going to live, then let him die.

But God denied his sinful request which really arose from sinful anger. Instead, He confronted Jonah with his problem of anger by asking him, “Doest thou well to be angry?” or “Have you any right to be angry?” Nothing is recorded in terms of an answer on Jonah’s part to the Lord’s question. Instead, we read that he simply went out of the city and sat on the east side of it.

In a way, Jonah reminds us of how Cain responded to the Lord’s question and word in Genesis chapter 4. The Lord, after rejecting Cain’s offering, confronted him with the question, “Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen?” Cain did not say anything in reply. In all probability, he simply bowed his head and kept silent.  Then the next thing we read about Cain is that he went out into the field with his brother Abel and he rose up against him and killed him.

Here in Jonah chapter 4, Jonah responds to the word of the Lord in silent anger. He goes out of the city and finds a location east of the city where he can observe it from a safe distance. When he reached that place, he constructed a booth or tent and sat under its shadow. No doubt he did this because of the scorching heat of the sun and the lack of natural shade at that place.

The word for booth or tent is the same word used in Leviticus 23 to describe the makeshift shelter of branches and leaves that the Israelites made each year during the Feast of Tabernacles. As an Israelite, Jonah was familiar with such tents, having constructed many of them in the past, and so he made one outside the city of Nineveh as part of his observation plan.   

What was Jonah hoping to see? What was he hoping would happen to the city of Nineveh? Obviously, Jonah hoped that God would change His mind and destroy Nineveh after all.

But why should God do that? Well, Jonah might have thought to himself, “Maybe, just maybe, the repentance of Nineveh was not genuine and lasting. Maybe, the Ninevites would soon return to their old ways, and then God’s threatened judgment would indeed fall on them.” And so he waited to see if that would happen, and if it did, his great anger and displeasure would be justified.

You see, rather than taking heed to the Lord’s question and examining his own heart, Jonah chose instead to examine the city to see if they would change for the worse and be destroyed! Jonah had been blinded by his own sinful and self-righteous anger, and that is a very dangerous thing.

The verb “see” in verse 5 is the same verb we find in chapter 3 verse 10 when it says that God saw that they turned from their evil ways. Whereas God’s seeing or looking was with delight at their turning from evil, Jonah’s looking or seeing was in the hope that they would turn back to their evil ways and be destroyed.

In the end, Jonah’s going out of the city and stationing himself at a safe distance from it and setting up a booth so as to wait for its destruction were all part of one big act of defiance towards God. Jonah was not content for the kingdom of God to come and for the will of God to be done. He wanted his own kingdom to be established and his own will to be done. 

Well then, how did God respond to this act of terrible defiance from his prophet?

He could have simply destroyed him, which would have been perfectly just. But He didn’t. Instead, He did three things in preparation for the lesson which He wanted Jonah to learn. We will consider them in the next article.

—Linus Chua