The largest interpretive question in Jonah seems to be the question of why Jonah was so disturbed by the prospect of Nineveh experiencing the grace of God. Jonah would rather run from God than go to Nineveh. He would rather die than live to see them blessed by God. Why?
Some say it was patriotism. A destroyed Nineveh can’t do harm to Israel, even if Israel deserves it. This is a possible answer, but the book itself doesn’t mention it.
Some say it was prejudice. Jonah simply hated the Assyrians. This is possible and it fits God’s closing lesson of compassion. Prejudice as a reason, however, feels a little simplistic to me.
I think it was Jonah not wanting to give up what was comfortable. Going to Nineveh meant going away from his nation, his culture, and in many ways his religion. If God had destroyed Nineveh after Jonah’s message, then he could have gone home. He could relax in his known routine. Instead he was stuck in a foreign land, with a foreign language, and a different climate, with no temple or sacrifices, or people with whom to discuss theology.
The solution to Jonah’s selfish clinging to predictable comforts was in two parts. First was the illustration of the vine. God made it clear how petty the things we cling to really are. Second, God directed Jonah’s eyes to focus on that which is really important. People who need God (including 120,000 children) were the reason it was worth Jonah leaving everything he knew.
God was helping Jonah become more like God. Out of love for us, Jesus left all the glories of heaven. Let’s follow his example for the people of Nineveh around us.