READ : Jonah 4:1-11
Jonah learned the hard way about what is really on God’s heart. Do you know God’s heart? Do you share it?
Today we come to the final chapter of a story whose plot has more twists and turns than a television drama. When Jonah’s history was recounted to his fellow countrymen back in Israel, I imagine it must have struck them with amazement. Every time they thought they knew what was going to happen next, the actual sequel must have left them shaking their heads in astonishment.
First came a call from the Lord to Jonah to prophesy for him, but the divine message was addressed to the pagan city of Nineveh instead of to God’s people Israel. Then in a mind-boggling act of insubordination Jonah disobeyed the word of the Lord and fled in the opposite direction. Then when the justice of God caught up with Jonah, instead of visiting him with the destruction he so richly deserved, it turned into mercy and Jonah was spared and given a second chance. Then when Jonah finally went to Nineveh and proclaimed God’s message of judgment, the citizens of the city responded instantly with sincere repentance and faith, and their destruction was averted.
What could possibly happen next? Just when we reach the point where we think that there couldn’t be any more surprises, we come to the final chapter of Jonah and there find one last shocking development in the form of Jonah’s reaction to God’s mercy toward the Ninevites.
At the end of the third chapter God’s response to the repentance of the city of Nineveh is described: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). The warning to the people of Nineveh about their imminent death was really an invitation to them to believe the Word of God by turning away from evil and toward God. When the people did that, God showed kindness to them by sparing and forgiving them. Now the spotlight shifts back to Jonah, who has been observing these developments closely. This is what we read in the opening verse of chapter 4: “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
Listen to that! Jonah has just proclaimed the word of the Lord to a mighty city and the entire population has believed it, repented and turned to the Lord. No other prophet or apostle in the Bible ever experienced success as complete as this. Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, even Peter and Paul, never saw that kind of response to their preaching.
You might have expected Jonah’s reaction to include surprise at the suddenness and completeness of what happened among the Ninevites, perhaps awe and thankful wonder at the power of God’s word, maybe gratitude for this demonstration of the Lord’s wonderful mercy – but anger? That’s hard to understand. Maybe Jonah was angry because his prediction of disaster was not going to come true – maybe it was a fit of professional prophet’s pique. Maybe he’s mad because Israel’s enemy now won’t be destroyed. Or maybe he’s just one of those people who doesn’t like to share with others the good things he himself has been given. Or maybe he doesn’t have any good reason at all for his angry reaction.
Jonah gives vent to his frustration and anger in a prayer that is surely among the most surprising prayers in the Bible.
O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee. . . . I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Here is Jonah rehearsing Israel’s great confession of faith, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” But instead of praising God for these wonderful truths – which are the only hope of salvation anyone has – Jonah is using them as the basis of a complaint against God. I can tell you, this is the only place in the Bible you will find God being criticized for being so patient, merciful and forgiving.
Next Jonah’s prayer proceeds to a request. “Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (v. 3). If his anger is inexplicable and his complaint inexcusable, Jonah’s prayer to die is just plain embarrassing. As he sits outside Nineveh, Jonah is asking God to take his life away. It’s a sort of parody of an earlier Old Testament story in which the prophet Elijah had fled into the wilderness and sat down beneath a tree and asked the Lord to take his life. But where Elijah was depressed because he believed he had failed in his ministry, Jonah was depressed because he had succeeded. Elijah wanted to die because it seemed to him that God’s cause was finished. Jonah wanted to die because God’s grace had triumphed.
Bit by bit, do you see what is happening? We are being given a clear and unmistakable picture of the absurdity of Jonah’s behavior. Actually, the writer of the story is a brilliant artist. Slowly he is taking the natural prejudices
his audience Israel against the foreign Ninevites and in favor of the prophet Jonah and he’s completely reversing them. One cannot help but find oneself approving of the people of Nineveh and of God’s treatment of them, and condemning Jonah. What sort of way is this for a man of God to act, we wonder? Which, of course, is exactly the question the Bible writer wants us to ask. From beginning to end there is no justification for anything Jonah has done. No motive, no explanation can excuse his attitude and behavior.
When we look at him, we can only wonder how anyone could be so self-absorbed, mean-spirited, narrow-minded and hardhearted. How is it possible that a man who himself has received so much undeserved kindness from God should become so upset when others are given the same thing? Do you suppose that the Bible, in helping us to see the truth about Jonah, could be trying to show us something about ourselves? Could it be possible that when God looks at us he does not see us as we tend to see ourselves, as the basically kind, generous and noble persons we imagine ourselves to be, but rather that he sees us the way we have come to see Jonah?
God does not leave Jonah alone and fuming at the end of the story. He comes to him with a final attempt to help him change. In doing so God calls to Jonah one last time, a call from his heart to Jonah’s heart. He comes gently, asking Jonah questions that are intended to help him understand God’s heart, recognize his own heart, and see the disparity between them.
“Do you do well to be angry?” God asks Jonah (v. 4, rsv). What a kind thing that question was! God was inviting Jonah to stop, step back, look at himself, analyze and judge the appropriateness of his behavior. He is trying to hold up a mirror so that Jonah can see himself and his attitude for what it really is.
But because Jonah is in no mood to listen, the Lord offers him a little object lesson. Jonah has wanted destruction for the whole city of Nineveh, death dealt out on a vast scale. So God decides to give it to him on a small scale to let him see how it feels. A plant springs up beside him and offers shade to Jonah. Jonah cherishes the plant, but it dies in a day and once again, he wishes that he too could die. Back comes the Lord with the same question: “Is your anger appropriate, Jonah? Is it right and good?” “Yes,” says Jonah, “I have a right to my feelings. I cared about the plant and now it is gone.”
At last Jonah – and we – are ready for God’s final question, the question that is the point and climax of the whole story.
A QUESTION WITHOUT AN ANSWER
Listen to the concluding verses of the book of Jonah.
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
This is a curious ending to the story of Jonah. A remarkable conclusion to the book. But the glimpse it gives us into the depths of God’s heart is nothing short of astounding. God shows us something of his inmost being in this question he asks Jonah. “You pitied the plant,” he says; “shouldn’t I pity Nineveh?” What a revelation that is of the compassion of God! Some think that compassion is an attribute of the weak and the soft; well, if it is, it’s the kind of “weakness” that marks the almighty God of the universe. “The Lord is good to all,” says the Bible, “and his compassion is over all he has made” (Ps. 145:9). God is concerned not only for the 120,000 inhabitants of Nineveh; he even cares about the animals that live there!
God’s heart of love is moved today with compassion for the millions of people in our world who do not know him. He feels for those who don’t really know what they are doing, people who live from day to day without a thought about eternity or about God himself, people who do not know right from wrong, who do not know their right hand from their left when it comes to truth and goodness and love, people who do not even know that they do not know the only one in whom there is life and hope, the Lord Jesus Christ. God has compassion for all such. He cares deeply about them. He is not cold, remote, heartless, cruel. He is warm and tender and full of kindness. Maybe you have been living like one of the citizens of Nineveh, in ignorance. Maybe you have been living like their cattle even, with no more thought of God than an animal has. Well, whoever you are, God cares about you. His compassion is for you too.
One thing that strikes me most about the conclusion to the book of Jonah is the form that it takes. The story ends with a dangling conversation. God is talking with the prophet. His last sentence is a question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
But the question receives no reply. The book simply ends. I cannot help but wonder about Jonah. How did he answer that question? How did he respond to God? Did he change? Was he embarrassed by the contrast evident between his heart and God’s heart? Did he get up and say, “You are right, Lord. I have been terrible,” and did he go off to serve with gladness? Did he believe God’s word and repent the way the Ninevites had? We simply don’t know.
I think the book’s ending is intentionally ambiguous. The reason Jonah does not answer God’s question is because we each have to answer it for ourselves. Do I care about the world the way God does? Do I have compassion on all those people who do not know him, who have not learned about his love, who have never heard the name of Jesus? Do I share God’s heart in my heart? What answer would you write in to complete Jonah’s story if it were your story? Because in a very real sense, it is.
Here is a little poem that sums up, I think, the story of Jonah and the issues it raises in a wonderful way:
And Jonah stalked
to his shaded seat
and waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking
And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs
in their comfortable houses
to come around
to his way of loving.
(quoted by Johannes Verkuyl,
“The Biblical Foundation for the
Worldwide Missionary Mandate”)