It seems strange that a preacher would be angry that his listeners repented of their sin, but that is exactly Jonah’s reaction to the Ninevites’ repentance. Jonah 4:2 tells us why: “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah knew from the start that God was gracious and merciful. He realized that if the people of Nineveh repented, God would spare them. The prophet was angry at their repentance because he would rather see them destroyed.
There are several possible reasons for Jonah’s desire to see Nineveh destroyed. First, Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, a ruthless and warlike people who were enemies of Israel. Nineveh’s destruction would have been seen as a victory for Israel. Second, Jonah probably wanted to see Nineveh’s downfall to satisfy his own sense of justice. After all, Nineveh deserved God’s judgment. Third, God’s withholding of judgment from Nineveh could have made Jonah’s words appear illegitimate, since he had predicted the city’s destruction.
We can learn from Jonah’s negative example that we should praise God for His goodness. First, our God is a merciful God, willing to forgive all those who repent (see 2 Peter 3:9). The Ninevites were Gentiles, yet God still extended His salvation to them. In His goodness, God warned the Assyrians before sending judgment, giving them a chance to repent.
Second, God cares for people of every nation. He is, by nature, a Savior. As Luke 15 reveals in the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son, God’s heart is for the redemption of all who will come to Him. Further, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 emphasizes God’s call to take God’s message of “good news” to all the nations. Romans 1:16 also emphasizes the importance of sharing the gospel with both Jews and non-Jews.
Third, God is concerned for those who have never heard the message of His salvation. The mention of “more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11) most likely refers to those who know nothing of spiritual truth. Concerning the things of God, they cannot tell up from down or right from left. God takes pity on the spiritual blindness of the pagan. God desires to extend His salvation to all who would repent and turn to Him.