Jonah likes challenging God. If his rebuke in Jonah 4:2a isn’t bad enough, it gets worse in 2b as he now uses a worshipful expression to continue rebuking God.
The end of verse 2 contains a long list of God’s attributes, which often appear in Scripture, and in most other instances used in a positive light: “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding and steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” In many ways, these attributes have their roots in Exodus 34. In this passage, Moses is on Mount Sinai with two brand new stone tablets in order to renew the covenant between God and the Israelites. But before the actual covenant takes place, God reminds Moses of who He is. For it is on account of God’s own character that covenant renewal and with it His forgiveness of the Israelites is even possible. God tells Moses, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (verse 6). Now God’s self-disclosure here becomes a classic statement of His character that later biblical writers frequently cited. In fact, this testimony about God turned into a liturgical expression of worship for the Israelites. For example, you can see expressions like this all throughout the Psalms (cf. Psalm 145).
Do you see how Jonah nearly quotes this phrase from Exodus 34:6 verbatim in Jonah 4:2? But now, with the true understanding of the expression in mind, we are given greater clarity into Jonah’s heart as he repeats it here, and it is a dark one. Jonah dares to use this expression of worship and turn it into an accusation against God; he takes this phrase of praise and uses it as an indictment. Do you see how bizarre this is? Jonah uses what otherwise are glorious attributes about God and throws them in God’s face. It is as if Jonah marches into the throne room of heaven and rebukes God with what normally are words of praise; and the reason for this, according to Jonah, is that God’s gracious and compassionate character is to blame for the “problem” at hand, namely that the Ninevites are still alive. In this moment of anti-worship Jonah insinuates that God is a traitor for giving deliverance to the enemies of Israel.
Jonah 4:3 then rounds out the climactic finale to this insulting tirade. Having spoken about God in the worst way possible, Jonah now wants to die: “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In many ways, this request is quite humorous. Jonah wants to die because his God is too gracious and compassionate. He feels that God’s mercy upon Nineveh is worse than death itself. What kind of prophet is this?
Instead of modeling true worship to Yahweh, as prophets should, Jonah gives us a paradigm for what not to do. Knowledge should not be separated from acceptance and obedience. Jonah knows a lot about who God is. He knows that God is “gracious”, “merciful” and “slow to anger”. Yet, when God acts in these ways, Jonah is angry, proving that he neither fully accepts these truths about God nor does he want to comply with, or obey, them; and it is not difficult to see how, as a result, this selfish, disobedient, and even spiteful man is not living a worshipful life to God.