This morning we come to the final installment in our series on the book of Jonah. And just in case you have missed some of our earlier messages, let me just summarize the story so far: God had called Jonah to go as a missionary to the city of Nineveh, but at first he refused to, and tried to run away from God by taking a ship across the Med sea in the exact opposite direction. But then in the midst of a great storm, he was thrown overboard and a great fish swallowed him. After 3 days inside the fish, Jonah has a change of heart, and decides to obey God’s call after all. And so he goes to Nineveh and warns them that in 40 days, God is going to destroy their entire city as a judgment against their wickedness. Jonah 3:10
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. “
Now you would think that this would be an appropriate place to end the story. Jonah has carried out his mission, the people of Nineveh have changed their ways, and the city has been spared. That would make for a nice, happy ending! But in fact, that’s not the end of the story. In our scripture reading this morning in chapter 4, we have this brief epilogue which gives us some important insights into both Jonah”s and God’s perspective on what had happened to Nineveh. So let’s read on: Jonah 4:1-11
Bill & Marg, a Christian couple, had been trying for years to have a baby without success. Then when Marg found out she was pregnant, the couple was ecstatic. At last they were going to have the child they had prayed for and dreamed of. But 9 months later their joy was shattered when their new-born baby girl was born with a severe heart defect. After 3 weeks in the ICU, the baby died. Bill & Marg don’t know whether they will be able to have any more children. They don’t know if they even want to try, if it might mean going through all that pain and grief again. And though they wouldn’t admit it to other people, the truth is that it’s hard for them not to feel angry with God.
Rightly or wrongly, I suspect for many us here this morning, there have been times in our lives, no matter how strong our faith is, when we have been disappointed and hurt and disillusioned when life has thrown a curveball at us. When the doctor tells us we have a terminal illness, or when we get laid off from our job, or when a member of our family dies suddenly, it’s hard sometimes not to direct some of our feelings of frustration and anger at God. Why would he allow this to happen?
So, is it right for us to ever be angry with God? Is it ever justified? And what do we do with those feelings of anger? That’s what we want to think about for a few minutes this morning.
Here in our scripture reading in Jonah 4, when he realizes that God is not going to destroy Nineveh after all, we are told that “Jonah was greatly displeased, and became angry”. The word used here in the original Hebrew indicates that he was he is not just a little bit upset at what has happened, Jonah is absolutely furious over what God has done. In fact he’s so angry he says he wishes he were dead!
So… why is Jonah so angry? Well basically, he’s angry because God didn’t carry through on his threat to destroy the whole city of Nineveh, in the same way that he had wiped out the whole world in the great flood back in Noah’s day, or as he had rained fire down on Sodom & Gomorrah in Abraham’s time.
So, on one level, Jonah was ticked off at God because he felt that God had made him look ridiculous: the dire predictions that Jonah had made about Niniveh’s imminent destruction never materialized: no fire and brimstone, no Armageddon, no catastrophic act of God after all. Jonah is angry is because the Ninevites didn’t get what they had coming to them. He feels as though God has let him down!
This was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place!
This is exactly what he was afraid would happen all along:
"Didn't I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.” (NLT)
As we said earlier, Nineveh was the capital of the great Assyrian empire. By Jonah’s time, the Assyrian armies had already swept across much of the middle Eastern world, pillaging and burning everything in their path including much of Israel. The Assyrians were kind of like the ISIS of their day. To Jonah, they were a feared and loathsome enemy for whom he had nothing but disdain and hatred.
So when God mercifully spares them from the fate that Jonah felt they so richly deserved, it just makes him crazy! What kind of God would do such a thing? Where is the justice, where is the fairness in this?
You see Jonah’s problem was the same as many of us today, when we try to fabricate for ourselves a God who is made in our likeness, instead of the other way around. We want to have a God who thinks the way we think, who acts the way we act, who looks at other people the way we look at them. But God is always so much bigger than the the little box we try to contain him in.
“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts," says the LORD. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” (Isa 55:8 NLT)
The irony is that Jonah already knew what God was like. As he says in v2: “I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.”
So when you read that, you think, wow! Jonah has some great insight here into the character of God. He describes him as gracious, merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding with love. And as we saw in chap 2, Jonah had already experienced God’s love & mercy for himself first hand. The problem was, while Jonah got that this was how God felt towards him and his fellow Israelites, I don’t think it ever occurred to him that God might have the same kind of love and compassion for his sworn enemies, the people of Nineveh!
He just can’t get his head around this! And so he’s angry because God hasn’t comformed to his preconception of what he should be like.
And so this final chapter of Jonah pulls back the curtain on a very important truth that really runs through the entire Bible. That is this: We will always surprised by the extravagant grace of God, and sometimes we will even be offended by it. But then God challenges Jonah: “What right do you have to to be angry about this?”
And of course Jonah has no response to God at this point, but instead, probably still simmering inside, he goes out to a place east of the city, where he builds himself a shelter and he waits, to see what will happen to Nineveh, hoping that just maybe God will still destroy it after all.
But God, in his patience & grace is still not finished with Jonah just yet. And so the Lord proceeds to provide Jonah with a rather strange object lesson!
4:8 “Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.”
Now as you know, in middle Eastern countries, the sun can get incredibly hot during the day, and without shade it becomes almost unbearable! And so God graciously provides him with this plant to ease his discomfort. And Jonah is delighted with this for the moment, but then the next morning:
“God provided a worm which chewed the plant so that it withered…” When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint." He wanted to die and and said ‘It would be better for me to die than to live” (4:7-8)
Jonah seems to have some real anger issues here, doesn’t he? Just as he got angry about the way God had treated the Ninevites, now he’s angry that God has taken away this plant which gave him so much relief from his discomfort. But in both cases, God says: “Jonah, what right do you have to be angry?” Because I am a gracious God, if I wish I can provide you with this plant to give you shade from the heat, but never forget that I can just as easily take it away whenver I choose. And if I wish, I can be merciful to the people of Nineveh. But what is that to you? You are so concerned about this little plant that provided you with a bit of relief from your discomfort, "But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” (4:11)
Why are you not as concerned about the people of this great city, as you are about your plant which is here today but gone tomorrow?”
And so the story of Jonah is meant to show us something of the heart of God, which we see in the final words of the book: "Should I not be concerned about this great city? Should I not have compassion for these people?"
In the gospel of Matthew we read how Jesus, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matt 9:35) In the very same way, when God saw the people of Nineveh, he had compassion on them, because they couldn't even tell their right hand from their left. In other words, they were so confused, so morally bankrupt that they didn't even know right from wrong. But he was ready to extend his grace and mercy to them
But the story of Jonah is also meant to reveal to us something about our own hearts as well. Remember the parable that Jesus told about the prodigal son? When the father celebrated the return of his younger son who had gone off to a far country, he welcomed him home with a great celebration. But his older brother was angry at his father, because he felt that it wasn’t fair, his little brother had gotten off too easy. But the father said, “We need to celebrate together that this brother who was lost, has now been found!”
I think we see a lot of the older brother here in Jonah, don’t we? Instead of rejoicing in the grace that God poured out on the people of Nineveh, Jonah was angry, because he didn’t think they deserved to receive the same mercy that God had already extended to him.
And sometimes we can be angry with God because we feel that he hasn’t treated us as graciously as he has other people, who we may think aren’t as deserving as we are. But the final lesson of Jonah is that God’s incredible grace is far bigger and extends far wider than we could ever begin to imagine. And sometimes he may surprise us with just how far his grace will extend, but we can know that no matter what happens in our lives, his grace will be sufficient for us to the end.
“His love has no limit, his grace has no measure,
his power has no boundary known unto men,
for out of his infinite riches in Jesus,
he giveth and giveth and giveth again”