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Jonah’s Prayer

Jonah’s Prayer

In our last article, we considered Jonah’s sinful response to the Lord’s withdrawal of His judgment upon Nineveh in Jonah 4:1. We continue now with Jonah’s prayer.

Verse 2, “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.”

The opening words of verse 2 are practically the same as the opening words of chapter 2 where we read, “Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly…” This repetition of the phrase “and he prayed unto the LORD” invites us to compare this second prayer of Jonah to the first one which he uttered while in the belly of the fish.

And the contrast between the two is very stark indeed. Jonah prays for the second time in this book, but sadly, this second prayer is nothing like the first. Whereas the first prayer was a prayer of thanksgiving for the Lord’s grace to an unworthy sinner, this second prayer is a complaint about the Lord’s grace to a whole city of unworthy sinners.

Whereas the first prayer arose from the heart of a “new Jonah” – one that had been changed by the Lord’s chastening hand, this second prayer comes out from the heart of the “old Jonah” – the one that ran away from the Lord the first time.

This second prayer, though just two verses long, sees the personal pronoun ‘I’, ‘my’ and ‘me’ occurring no less than 10 times. It indicates the selfishness and short-sightedness of the prophet. All that mattered to him at that point was how he felt and how he thought things should have turned out. 

“I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish…” Jonah was in essence saying, “I told you so…I told you that this would come to pass” or “Didn’t I tell you that this would happen even when I was still in my homeland?”

Jonah was fully persuaded even before he left Palestine that if he preached at Nineveh, his preaching would be well received and it would eventually lead to the Lord’s pardoning and forgiveness of their sins. Jonah knew that but he didn’t like it, and so he fled to Tarshish. Here is his explanation and indeed his justification for fleeing from the Lord’s call in the direction of Tarshish.

Obviously Jonah disagreed with the Lord on how the Lord was dealing with the Ninevites.

He “knew” better than the Lord how things ought to have turned out. He was right, the Lord was wrong.

Now in all this, Jonah sinned and charged God foolishly. He was proud, arrogant, selfish, ungrateful, ungracious, irrational, and insubordinate to the will of God. But if there was one thing that Jonah got right in his prayer, it was this: that God was acting consistently with His character.

“for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” Here is a wonderful confession and statement on the character and nature of God. Five things are said about God here.

First, He is a gracious God or a God of grace. The word grace has to do with God’s attitude to those who are undeserving and unworthy. The Lord gives to them what they do not deserve or what they have not merited.

Second, He is a merciful God. The word mercy can also be translated compassion. God is full of compassion. He does not deal with sinners as they deserve. Whereas grace has to do with God giving to sinners what they do not deserve, mercy has to do with God withholding from sinners what they do deserve, namely, His wrath and judgment.

This concept of mercy and compassion is closely related to the third characteristic of God, namely, He is slow to anger. This speaks of the patience and longsuffering of the Lord. The Lord mercifully withholds His judgment and does not carry it out immediately or quickly but rather slowly. Or as one commentator says, “He is slow to arrive at anger.”

Fourth, He is a God of great kindness or a God who abounds in lovingkindness. The word kindness or lovingkindness speaks of the covenant love of God. It includes such qualities as goodness, kindness, loyalty and unfailing love.

And lastly, He is a God who relents or turns away from inflicting evil and sending calamity.

So the five characteristics of God are: gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, and turning away from evil. This is the God whom Jonah was praying to. But amazingly, Jonah is not praising God for these attributes. Rather, he is complaining that God manifested all these attributes in His dealings with the city of Nineveh.

Notice the terrible inconsistency in the two prayers of Jonah. In his first prayer, He praised and thanked God for being so merciful to him, for hearing his cry, and for saving his life from the depths of the sea. Jonah had experienced all these five characteristics of God – His grace, His mercy, His patience, His love and His relenting from judgment. If God did not deal with Jonah in all these ways, Jonah would have perished long ago, not just in the depths of the sea but in the very depths for hell for truly, that is what he deserved.

But the gracious and merciful God delivered him, and he responded rightly to His deliverance by thanking Him. But when God manifested these same attributes to the people of Nineveh, Jonah gets very angry and he complains to God and indeed against God for what He had done.

Jonah said, “for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” Compare this with verse 9 of chapter 3 where the king of Nineveh said, “Who can tell (or Who knows) if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?”

The king and the people of Nineveh were not sure if God would be merciful to them and so all they could do was to cast themselves on the mercy of God. But in contrast, Jonah knew. Jonah knew all along. He could assert with confidence, “for I knew…”

Jonah’s grasp and understanding of theology was far superior to that of the people of Nineveh. The problem with Jonah is that he allowed his emotions to get the better of his mind, and he failed to rightly apply the doctrine of God to his own life. He failed to see how his unrighteous anger and response to God’s grace is utterly inconsistent with his understanding of who God is and of what God had done in his life.

After all, if you think about it – if God is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness, why should we be angry or even surprised if He shows grace and mercy and patience and love to the poor sinners of Nineveh. If anything, what God did to Nineveh should call forth the loudest praise from His people! But Jonah was blinded by his selfish and stubborn heart, and thus his response was diametrically opposed to God’s.    

But Jonah had not finished his sad prayer. We read in verse 3, “Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah had but one request to make of God. It was not that he might have his heart and attitude changed so that it might be aligned with God’s own heart. It was not that he might come to love and forgive the people of Nineveh just as God had loved and forgiven them. Far from it. Instead, he prayed that the Lord would take his life from him for it was better for him to die than to live.

Jonah’s thinking and emotions were all topsy-turvy and haywire at this point. He had no desire to see the deliverance of Nineveh and the eventual destruction of his own people. And Jonah knew that all this was part of God’s sovereign plan and that there was nothing he could do about it. No amount of petitioning or complaining to God could change God’s mind about Nineveh.

And so the only thing left for Jonah to do was to die. Rather than humble himself and submit to the sovereign will and plan of God, Jonah hardened his heart and chose the path of death as the way to end all his miseries.

Jonah would rather die than to see his people get slaughtered by the Assyrians. In a sense, he is like the apostle Paul who wrote in Romans 9:3, “For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh…” The Apostle was willing to have himself cursed and to die for the sake of his fellow Israelites and countryman. His desire was that they come to salvation in Christ.

But in another sense, Jonah is totally different from the Apostle Paul. He did not have a deep longing and desire in his heart to see the Gentiles converted. Paul was especially the apostle to the Gentiles. Jonah was the unwilling prophet to Nineveh. The two had totally different views on the salvation of the heathen.

Well, Jonah had enough of God’s grace, mercy, patience and kindness upon the heathen. If these people were going to live, then he didn’t want to continue living. Either they die or he dies. In the end, Jonah’s desire for death was a wrong and sinful desire that needed to be corrected and repented of.

So we have seen Jonah’s sinful anger and Jonah’s sinful prayer request. Next time, we will consider the Lord’s question to Jonah.

—Linus Chua