First Glance: Jonah 4

One of the more likely candidates for the 'bush' of Jonah 4. Photo by dinesh_valke.
One of the more likely candidates for the ‘bush’ of Jonah 4. Photo by dinesh_valke.

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Jonah 4:9

Chapter 3 of Jonah ends with what would have seemed the perfect opportunity to celebrate. The disaster is averted, the people saved, God decided not to destroy Nineveh! People should have been rejoicing and dancing in the streets at the good news of their deliverance.

Not Jonah.

When Jonah finds out that God didn’t destroy Nineveh, he is ‘very displeased’ and becomes angry (4:1). He then begins to rail against God – I knew it! That is why I ran away in the first place – you are too gracious, too loving, too forgiving, you are always ready to stop punishment and show mercy!

Jonah’s anger reaches the point where he would rather die than continue on this journey any longer. When God questions the validity of Jonah’s rage, the prophet goes sets up camp outside the city, hoping that God might change his mind back and destroy Nineveh.

God then sends a plant to provide shade for Jonah, which makes him ‘very happy’ (4:6). However, God takes away the plant the very next day, which only sends Jonah into a deeper fit of rage. When God again asks him about his anger, Jonah claims he is justified in being angry over the plant – angry enough to die.

The book ends with God’s poignant question about Jonah’s concern for the plant in relation to God’s own concern for Nineveh. The ending itself does not provide a response to God’s compassion on Nineveh, but calls for our own responses to God’s word and call.

But let’s back up a moment and look at the plant. What is up with the bush? What is this supposed to illustrate? What point is God making for Jonah through the bush?

There are many wonderful and valid interpretations of the bush. The bush is Jonah. The bush is Israel. The bush is the Church. The bush represents God’s election. I’m not disagreeing with any of these, but I want to offer an additional layer of meaning to a rich image in the book of Jonah.

In Jonah 4:6, there are two reasons given for God providing the bush – to provide shade and to relieve discomfort. The purpose of the plant, in part, is so that Jonah will be comfortable. This comfort makes Jonah very excited, but when it is removed he is inconsolable. Jonah is not happy about Nineveh’s salvation, only his own comfort. In fact, he has the same reaction to Nineveh being saved as he does to his own discomfort – anger, outrage.

Jonah is more concerned about his comfort than the mission God has placed him in Nineveh to carry out. His comfort is more important than God’s mission.

I doubt most days we are any better than Jonah. We are fairly adept at finding ways to be comfortable and ways to avoid the mission God has placed in front of us. We are well-practiced at using anger and accusation to avoid facing the hard truth of God’s claim upon us.

Because God’s call upon our lives is uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable for Jonah – Nineveh was the last place he wanted to be. Jonah was called, challenged, disciplined, blessed, and he still found ways to resist the call right in front of him. He still found reasons to be angry when he should be rejoicing over what God had accomplished.

Maybe, like Jonah, sometimes our own comfort has become more important than the mission God has called us to. Perhaps, at times, the discomfort of the call becomes a reason itself to resist. Sometimes we are angry about the bush, when we, like God, should be concerned about Nineveh.

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:10-11

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