WHY CARE

 

Week of December 4, 2005

 

Bible Passage:  Jonah 4:1-11.

 

Biblical Truth: God desires that His people share His passion for reaching the nations.

 

Overview.

 

Jonah proves that God does love and care for even the Assyrians, the most vicious and powerful of all Israel’s ancient enemies. God sends a prophet to preach to the Assyrians so that they, too, may come to know the God who has created the heavens and the earth. Jonah’s reluctance to undertake this task shows the hatred Israel and the nations share for one another. Jonah continues to complain about God’s kindness despite the fact that he himself has benefited from God’s deliverance from the stomach of the fish.

 

The final scene of the book captures again the essence of the Lord’s nature. Here God creates, calls, sustains, reveals, judges and forgives. There is no other God to do these things or any other things for that matter. Even when God’s chosen servants fail to see the implications of biblical faith, the Lord continues to act according to the principles stated there.

 

God’s Love: Bigger than our Borders 4:1-3.

 

[1] But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. [2] He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. [3] Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.”  [NASU]

 

Jonah’s story is a story of God’s mercy. First, there had been mercy for Jonah, who had been given a great commission. God’s mercy to Jonah involved the storm, the great fish, the repentance of Jonah within the fish, and then God’s recommissioning of him after he had been cast up on the shore. Parallel to the story of God’s dealing with Jonah is God’s dealing with the sailors who were manning the ship taking him to Tarshish. This too shows God’s mercy. Finally, and greatest of all, there is the account of God’s mercy to Nineveh. If there had ever been a cause for rejoicing, certainly those three evidences of God’s mercy should provide it, and we should expect Jonah himself to be literally leaping with joy and thanksgiving. Instead, when we come to the fourth and final chapter, we find Jonah angry about what had happened, violently angry. He was angry with God. Jonah had obeyed God, doing what God wanted; but God had not done what Jonah wanted. There are two possible reasons for Jonah’s anger. First, he could be angry because he might be considered a false prophet. He had prophesied that Nineveh would be destroyed but now that was not happening. Second, he could be angry because of his hatred for the enemies of Israel. He wanted God to destroy them but now God is going to forgive them.

 

In Jonah’s anger at God we notice three significant things. First, he tried to justify himself both in his own eyes and in the eyes of God. That is, he tried to justify his former disobedience. He said, in effect, “This is why I refused to go to Nineveh when You first called me; what is more, I was right in refusing.” The second thing Jonah did in his anger is somewhat harder to explain. Jonah tried to turn God against God. He tried to quote God’s word back to Him in his warped desire to show that he was right and God was wrong. This is what he was doing in verse 2. Jonah was probably thinking of Exodus 34:6,7. In effect, Jonah is saying: “You said that You are the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Then why did you send me to Nineveh with a message that You never intended to fulfill?” The third thing Jonah did in his anger was almost comic: he asked for death again. It is hard to understand the prophet’s apparent death wish. When he had run from God and God had caught up to him in the storm, he thought it would be better to die than obey. He asked the sailors to throw him overboard. Now, having obeyed, he is still unhappy and says once more that he would rather die and get it all over with. It is a warning that it is possible to obey God but to do so with such a degree of unwillingness and anger that, so far as we are concerned, the obedience is not better than disobedience.

 

At this point of the story we rightly ask ourselves, “But what is wrong with Jonah?” He should have been happy; he is unhappy. He had been instrumental in the gift of spiritual life to thousands; he prefers death. He claimed to be cognizant of God’s grace and mercy, which he himself had experienced; he resents God for it and says that he would have preferred wrath for Nineveh. One thing wrong with Jonah is that he is not reconciled to the will of God even yet. He was still unwilling to see the people of Nineveh saved, and he resented the God of mercy for having saved them. Second, Jonah had forgotten God’s mercy to him and was therefore ill-prepared to appreciate it when God showed the same mercy to others. The third reason why Jonah was angry was that he did not know God as well as he thought he did. He did not grieve over sin as God grieves over sin, or to rejoice at the repentance of the sinner. Instead, he was like the older son of Christ’s parable, who sulked while the father celebrated and felt cheated by the prodigal’s return.

 

God’s People: Confused Priorities 4:4-9.

 

[4] The Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” [5] Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. [6] So the Lord God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. [7] But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. [8] When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.” [9] Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.”  [NASU]

 

God began to teach Jonah more about His mercy, doing so by means of three significant questions that conclude the book. God likes to ask questions because they are effective in helping us see the state of our hearts.

 

First, Do you have good reason to be angry? This question is a challenge to Jonah to judge whether the angry prophet or the great and holy God of the universe is right. It is as though God had said, “We are looking at the identical situation in two different ways, Jonah. I am pleased with it. You are angry, which of us has the proper perspective?” Whenever God asks that type of question, we must recognize that, whatever our thoughts or feelings may be, it is always God who is correct and not we. Jonah did not think like that. He did not confess his error. Instead, he became even angrier and left the city. On the outskirts Jonah waited to see if God might not destroy the city after all. Here he made three errors. First, he quit. He abandoned his mission to Nineveh even though he had no right or instruction by God to do it. Jonah should have stayed and taught the people of Nineveh about God. Second, Jonah built a little shelter for himself which again he had no right to do. Were there no shelters in Nineveh that he could have stayed in? Jonah was not interested in these shelters because he still secretly despised the people and hoped that God would judge them. Jonah’s third error was to become a spectator. He was not called to be a spectator. He was called to identify with those people and help them as best he could by the grace of God.

 

After giving Jonah a vine for shade and then taking it away, God asks a second question: Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant? By this question God exposed Jonah’s pettiness, for his anger had brought him from the grandeur of being angry at God to being angry at such a petty thing as a plant or worm. The same thing happens when we become angry. We begin by being angry at big things, but quickly we become angry at petty things. First we are angry with God. Next we express our anger at circumstances, then minor circumstances.

 

Note the variation in the names of God in verses 6-9. The creation of the miraculous tree to give shade to Jonah is ascribed to Yahweh-Elohim in verse 6. The composite name, which occurs very rarely except in Genesis 2:4b-3:24, is chosen here to help the transition from Yahweh in verse 4 to Elohim in verses 7-8. Elohim, as the divine creative power, causes the miraculous tree to spring up, prepares the worm which attacked the plant and appoints the east wind. One of the characteristics of the Book of Jonah is its use of the verb manah (to appoint, to provide, to prepare). It is used of the fish [1:17], the plant [4:6], the worm [4:7], and the wind [4:8]. This is intended to stress the divine initiative and sovereignty. God uses both the great fish and the insignificant worm equally as instruments of his purpose.

 

Lost World: Should I not Care? 4:10-11.

 

[10] Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. [11] Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”  [NASU]

 

At last God asked His final question, and it is with this question that the book closes. If Jonah can care about a plant why cannot God care about the children and animals of Nineveh? God does not talk to Jonah about the adult population of the city, who undoubtedly deserved the judgment Jonah was so anxious to have fall on them. God talks about the cattle, who were innocent, and the smallest children, designated as those who could not yet discern between their right hand and their left. Was God not right to show mercy for their sake, if not for the adult population? Does not even Jonah’s compassion for the plant vindicate God’s judgment? The book ends on a question in order that each one who reads it might ask himself the same question: Is God not right? Is He not great for showing mercy? The lessons of this book are many. But the greatest lesson is the greatness of the mercy of God. How can we, who have known that mercy and benefited from it, be less than merciful to others? How can we do less than love them and carry the gospel to them with all the strength at our disposal?

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.     Why did Jonah become so angry at God?

 

2.     How did God respond to Jonah’s anger? Why did God use questions with Jonah?

 

3.     What do these verses teach us about God; about ourselves?

 

 

References:

The Minor Prophets, James Boice, Kregel.

Commentary on Jonah, John Calvin.

Jonah, Matthew Henry.

Jonah, C.F. Keil, Eerdmans.