Most preachers would give anything to experience only a fraction of converts that Jonah had been given. 120,000 people had responded to his message of repentance and a heathen city had turned to God. Yet Jonah was not overjoyed, in fact it was the opposite. His response is a reminder that sin and rebellion in the heart of a believer can occur in a spiritually prosperous situation.
We can identify several negative features in Jonah's outlook. One is a spirit of petulance, which is particularly seen in his outburst after the gourd was destroyed. This spirit is also displayed in his attitude to God. Jonah was angry with the God who refused to punish sinners. This attitude of petulance seems to have been a natural trait in Jonah’s character because he was irritated by the demise of the gourd.
It is easy for our natural traits to be transferred into religious outlooks and cause us to sin. An impatient person will be an impatient Christian unless he or she deals with the matter. The best way to deal with a flaw is to replace it with its opposite. Jonah, therefore, should have been praying that the city’s repentance would continue; he should have been praising God for showing mercy to it; he should have thanked God that his delay in getting to Nineveh had not caused judgement to come on the city. Of course, I wonder how many people died in Nineveh the day before Jonah arrived and therefore did not hear his warning because he arrived late.
A second negative feature may be a concern for public appreciation. If Jonah had returned to Israel having announced a message of judgement on Nineveh that took place forty days later, he would have been welcomed as a hero in his homeland. Now he faced the prospect of having to return with the reputation of bringing a message of mercy to the enemies of his country.
A third negative feature is his attempt at self-justification (v. 2). How often believers can engage in this outlook, often after they have been shown to be wrong. Even if Jonah was perplexed by God’s dealings with the Assyrians, it does not excuse his attempts to justify himself. Instead he should have acknowledged that God’s ways were higher than he could grasp.
Jonah is an example of how unlike God a believer can become. When God saw the city’s repentance he was moved with compassion; when Jonah saw it he was moved with anger. Sinclair Ferguson notes that geographically Jonah was outside Nineveh, chronologically he was in the middle of a revival, but spiritually he was almost back to square one. Instead Jonah should have imitated the God he knew how to describe.