When God’s People Don’t Get It

Jonah 4

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / July 31, 2005


The Book of Jonah could easily be described as a book of unexpected events. First, there is the unexpected storm that threatens to sink the ship Jonah is traveling on (1:4). Then there is Jonah, thrown overboard in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea only to be saved in the most unexpected of ways—by being swallowed by a whale (1:17).


That Jonah finally agrees to preach to his enemies, the people of Nineveh, is also unexpected. And while we expect, or at least hope, that some people will respond favourably to Jonah's preaching, we are surprised to read that all of Nineveh repents.


From a preacher's perspective, however, what I find to be most unexpected in this book is Jonah's reaction to the repentance of the people of Nineveh. Jonah's preaching causes the largest mass revival in world history, but instead of being overjoyed by this miracle of God's mercy, Jonah becomes "angry" (4:1).


The text says that, when Jonah witnessed the repentance of the people of Nineveh, and after God "relented" (3:10) to destroy them, "it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry" (4:1). Now why would this be? Why would Jonah be so agitated by the successful results of his preaching?


One possibility is that Jonah wanted God to destroy the people of Nineveh. You may remember, these people were bitter enemies of the people of Israel. It appears that Jonah only agreed to preach to the people of Nineveh because of the compelling means God used to get him there, rather than out of any compassion he held for the people of Nineveh.


I suspect that many of us can relate to Jonah here. We know what it is to heed God’s command, but to do so with wrong motives.


There are times when we do something for another person, not because we genuinely care for the person, but because we want to feel better about ourselves having done a ‘good deed’.


There are times when we do nice things for another person with an end view of getting something in return.


There are times when we do something for another merely out of a sense of obligation to God’s law when our heart really isn’t in it.


What is clear from this text, however, is that God desires our good deeds to be motivated, both, by our love for God, and by our love for our neighbour.


A second reason why Jonah was likely angry is because he felt betrayed by God. By not destroying the people of Nineveh as God had intended, Jonah's pride was hurt. Jonah had preached that Nineveh would be destroyed, but that judgment did not come. Jonah must have felt like a false prophet—for his prophecy did not come true. It appeared to Jonah that God had ‘shown him up’—and in front of his enemies, no less.


So how does Jonah respond to this perceived betrayal? Jonah points to God's ‘change of plans’ to justify his former disobedience. Jonah complains, "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 Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity" (4:2).


This is a bold defense on the part of Jonah. If I could paraphrase Jonah, I hear him saying sarcastically, ‘I knew this would happen.’ Jonah, so infected by his own pride, is acting as if he knew better than God. And so disappointed with the end result, Jonah pleads, "Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life" (4:3).


At this point, we rightly ask ourselves, ‘What in the world has gotten into Jonah? What is wrong with this guy?!’ Clearly, Jonah is someone who just ‘doesn’t get it’; Jonah does not yet understand the mercy of God. And Jonah has evidently forgotten the mercy God had shown toward him.


God begins to point this very thing out to Jonah by asking him a rhetorical question, "Do you have good reason to be angry?" (4:4). This question is pivotal because it challenges Jonah to think about who is behaving appropriately. God is pleased with the repentance of Nineveh; Jonah is angry about it. It appears that the Lord's question is meant to highlight the inappropriateness of Jonah's response.


It seems to me that there is a lesson here for us. There are times when you and I lose our temper. We are easily frustrated. We worry and fret about how events are unfolding. For this reason, I think it is right that we ask ourselves the same question that God asks Jonah, "Do we have good reason to be angry?" Do we have good reason for being agitated?


There may be times when we have good reasons for being upset. There may be occasions when someone has unjustly treated us. But the question remains, how are we going to deal with this anger? Because how we deal with this anger will indicate whether or not we understand the mercy of God.


Jonah demonstrates a lack of appreciation for God's mercy in at least 3 ways—all of which are found in verse 5, "Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under the shade until he could see what would happen to the city."


The first thing Jonah does wrong here is he quits. The text says "Jonah went out from the city"—he abandons his mission to Nineveh even though he has no instruction from the Lord to do that.


Does this reaction ever describe us? When something upsets us, do we try to deal with the issue maturely, or do we run away from trouble? When something upsets us, do we turn to God for strength, or do we turn away from God and blame Him?


The second thing Jonah does wrong is that he isolates himself—the text says that Jonah "made a shelter for himself." Not only does Jonah run away from what has upset him, but he isolates himself from it. One commentator rightly observes, ‘Were there no shelters in Nineveh? No homes? No places where the prophet of Israel, who had been the vehicle of such great spiritual blessing would be welcome? Of course there were. But Jonah was not interested in these shelters. He secretly despised the people and hoped that God would judge them’ (Boice, The Minor Prophets, 248).


The third error committed by Jonah is that he becomes a spectator. The reason he fled, the reason he built a private retreat, was so that "he could see what would happen to the city." It appears that Jonah was still hoping that judgment would come. Jonah had yet to comprehend that God wanted to show mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah’s assessment was that he had done his part, and now he was prepared to sit back and watch.


This, unfortunately, describes many Christians today. When things don't go as planned, we often give up, we isolate ourselves, and we become spectators. We’ve heard of phrases like ‘backseat drivers’ and ‘armchair quarterbacks’—and I tend to be both of those things. I think we need a similar phrase to describe those who sit in church pews, but refuse to contribute to the health of the Body of Christ.


And yet, there is tremendous hope even for those people. See how God deals with the ingratitude of Jonah. Instead of punishing Jonah, God gives Jonah more mercy. Listen to what God does for Jonah in verse 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."


Jonah has done little else, but belly-ache and grumble, and yet God acts to “deliver (Jonah) from his discomfort.” What a merciful God we serve!


I also find it remarkable that Jonah would be "happy" about anything. Up to this point, most everything has been a source of unhappiness for Jonah—his commission to preach in Nineveh, the storm that interfered with his journey to Tarshish, and even the repentance of the people of Nineveh bothered Jonah.


But now, a plant, appointed by God, was a source of happiness for Jonah. God was merciful to an undeserving Jonah, but Jonah still doesn’t appreciate God’s mercy. Jonah still doesn’t ‘get it’. 


Finally, God moves to correct Jonah’s attitude. The next day, we are told that God sent "a worm" (4:7) to attack Jonah’s beloved plant. And when the plant withered, the sun beat down on Jonah so intensely that "he became faint and begged with all his soul to die" (4:8).


Once again, God confronts Jonah's ungratefulness, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant? . . . You cared about a plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. And 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" (4:9-11).


In one respect, the Book of Jonah ends on a depressing note. Because the book concludes with God's question to Jonah, we are left with no indication that Jonah ever came to appreciate the mercy of God. With all that mercy God showed Jonah, it is difficult to understand Jonah's lack of compassion towards the people of Nineveh.


Friends, let us not make the same mistake as Jonah. God, in Christ, has been merciful to us. Jesus came to earth to die for us. And while we may struggle to comprehend that mercy, we must not fail to appreciate that mercy.


If we are not acting lovingly towards others, we demonstrate that we are just like Jonah; we demonstrate that we have yet to appreciate God’s mercy.


God, in Christ, has indeed been merciful to us. Let us resolve then, to show mercy to one another. Amen.