This is the last sermon in my four part series on Jonah. I preached it on Sunday, October 2, 2022. It might be the one I was least happy with. This is partly because it didn’t come together as smoothly as the others. As a preacher you’re also aware there’s more to say than you’re able to say in the time you have. Not only that, there’s the fact that some of what you say also leads to more questions. But since I had already shared the rest of the series, I figured I’d post it anyway. I hope and pray that it speaks to you in one way or another.
Here’s the link to Jonah 4.
“Jonah was greatly displeased”
The Book of Jonah should almost end with chapter three. And how differently it would read if it did! Jonah ends up in the belly of the great fish, turns to God in prayerful humility for deliverance, and then obeys God’s second call to preach in Nineveh. Jonah’s heart changes. Nineveh repents. And everyone seemingly lives happily ever after. Roll credits.
But this is not how the story ends. We then have chapter four. And it begins with these words: Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious. All because once he brought the Lord’s message to the people of Nineveh, they responded with genuine heartfelt repentance, and God spared them.
And Jonah makes clear—as we’ve pointed out before—that this is why he tried to flee to Tarshish. He knew what God was like: gracious, compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love.
And he didn’t want Nineveh—who he also knew—to have a chance to respond to God’s mercy. He didn’t want them to experience God’s love. So this final chapter of Jonah is, in part, a conversation between the Lord and Jonah about all of this: his anger and God’s mercy.
One of the important features of this chapter to notice is how we’re told that Jonah is displeased with what happens to the Ninevites on the one hand but on the other hand he is greatly pleased with the plant that God sends to provide him shade—or, as the text says, to rescue him from his trouble.
Jonah gets angry enough to die when the Lord spares Nineveh, but then is also angry enough to die when God takes away the plant that gave him shade.
What’s going on here? Jonah is more than happy for God in his mercy to deliver him: from the depths of the sea, from the belly of the great fish, and now from the scorching heat. But Jonah is furious when God shows this very same mercy—mercy which is at the heart of who God is—to the people of Nineveh.
Notice how God twice asks Jonah: Is it right for you to be angry? First, because of Nineveh’s repentance and then because God sends a worm to devour the plant.
There’s a lot mixed up in this. The ancient nation of Israel—whom Jonah represents—was chosen by God to be a light, a witness, to the other nations. The calling of Jonah was the calling of all Israel: to be a blessing by proclaiming the name of the Lord, by loving God and loving their neighbor.
Yet Israel had gotten to a place where they interpreted God’s grace as something to which they believed they were entitled. Because they were chosen by God, they were also special. Maybe they deserved or had earned God’s favor.
Now God was calling Jonah not only to bring this message of God’s mercy to another nation, but to hated enemies, to a nation that would be just as glad to see Israel destroyed.
Perhaps Jonah thought: “Why not instead take a pre-emptive strike against Nineveh, to eliminate the risk of that city—and the nation to which it belongs—attacking Israel? Better to get rid of them first, right?” But that’s not what happens. Instead, Jonah preaches, Nineveh repents, and God relents.
And so Jonah, seeing Nineveh repent and God relent, says Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
Jonah’s anger—and his whole attitude—reveals his narrow heart. He wants God for himself and for his people. He knows God is merciful but he doesn’t really want God to be merciful. Which means he doesn’t really get what God’s mercy is all about in the first place.
Think about that line from the Lord’s Prayer: And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. Some understandably ask: Is Jesus saying that our forgiveness is conditional upon our willingness to forgive others? If I don’t forgive, does that mean God won’t forgive me?
Perhaps think of it this way: If I am not willing to forgive, to show mercy, to extend God’s grace, can I really say that I have understood God’s grace and mercy? Can I honestly claim to understand God’s forgiveness?
God is merciful, and everyone needs his mercy. If God is merciful, then his mercy applies to all.
How God shows his mercy is not up to you and me. How God chooses to reveal his mercy and his grace to someone in need of it is not up to you and me. More importantly, if we truly are recipients of God’s mercy, then we ought to be willing to show God’s mercy to others.
So: If we find ourselves angry with God (and how might we know?), what does this reveal about our heart? Do we ever struggle to show mercy, grace, or love to someone? How has God shown his mercy to you?
“But may I not care . . .?”
Notice that God never condemns Jonah for his attitude. He doesn’t chastise Jonah. Instead, he asks Jonah a probing question: Is it right for you to be angry?
He wants Jonah to reflect more deeply on the state of his own heart. He wants Jonah to think through his attitude, his motives, and his assumptions.
Notice how all throughout the book God’s actions are intended to provoke Jonah, to challenge Jonah, to push Jonah toward what we might think of as spiritual change.
Yes, God wants to bring this message of repentance to Nineveh, but he also seeks to unearth what’s going on inside of Jonah’s heart.
Think of it this way: Why did God call Jonah in the first place? Did God think Jonah would be willing to go to Nineveh? Of course not! He knew Jonah was going to run. So even calling Jonah in the beginning was God’s way of speaking into Jonah’s heart.
In the first week of looking at Jonah, I made this point: God will speak into our lives in whatever way necessary to get our attention.
And God does that in two ways in the Book of Jonah. He does this to Jonah by pushing him to the brink in order to challenge his assumptions about who deserves and who doesn’t deserve God’s mercy.
And he also does this to the people of Nineveh by having Jonah bring to them a message of judgement and repentance.
God is merciful both to Jonah and to Nineveh. But not in the same way. God doesn’t reach everyone in exactly the same way. What’s needed to reach one person is not what’s needed to reach someone else.
But at the heart of what God is doing is the heart of who God is. And so we’ll repeat those same words of Jonah’s again: I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster.
I love the words of the Lord at the end of our passage, which illustrate this. Jonah’s plant has withered away and he’s angry enough to die. He’s petulant and bitter. And then the Lord says this: You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. But may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish their right and their left, as well as many animals?
You could say that the Book of Jonah is all about how the Lord wants Jonah and Nineveh to understand his mercy—his very character, who he is as a God of love and compassion.
We can see this in the contrast between Jonah’s anger and God’s anger. Because way back in chapter two in his official decree the king of Nineveh says this: Each must turn from his evil ways and from his wrongdoing. Who knows? God may turn and relent; he may turn from his burning anger so that we will not perish.
While God is described by the king as having a burning anger, God’s anger towards Nineveh is anger borne of love. Think of it this way. Think of a loved one—someone you care for deeply—who yet is making decisions that you know are harmful, that are destructive and selfish. Would you maybe be angry? And wouldn’t you be angry because of your love for that person? Your anger would be from the way sin is wrecking their life.
God asks Jonah: May I not care about the great city of Nineveh? In other words, God is saying: “Nineveh is a sinful place. The people there are violent. I hate the path of self-destruction that they are on. I love them too much to leave them that way.”
So: What do you make of how God tried to teach Jonah to be merciful? Do you have any sympathy with Jonah? Why or why not? Who might you have trouble showing mercy and grace? How might God have you relate to them?
One of the most interesting features of the Book of Jonah is the ending. Did you notice the ending? It ends with the Lord asking Jonah a question. But it ends without giving us Jonah’s answer, if there was one.
This means that not only is God asking Jonah this question, but that the writer of the Book of Jonah is asking the reader the same question. May I not care about people you don’t seem to care about?
Jonah was angry enough to die because God in his mercy saved Nineveh. God is loving enough to come in Jesus to die in order to show us his mercy.
When God called Jonah, he wanted Jonah to set aside his obvious hatred for his enemies. He wanted Jonah to be willing to sacrifice his own comfort. He wanted Jonah to reflect his love and his character to the Ninevites.
And of course we see this love—the very character and heart of God—ultimately and fully in Jesus.
And the truth is, though Jonah didn’t seem to see it, that apart from God’s grace we are all God’s enemies. We’re all in need of the grace and mercy. That’s true for Jonah. It was true for the Ninevites. And it’s true for us too.
Consider Romans 5:10: For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
While Jonah wasn’t willing to show mercy to his enemies, the good news is that God in Christ showed mercy and grace to his enemies: that is, us.
And the mercy and grace we know through our Lord Jesus is the same mercy and grace we ought to show even to our enemies, not because they deserve it but because like us they need it. And because the God we worship extends his grace and mercy to us because of who he is, no matter who we are. That’s the good news of the Book of Jonah and that’s the good news of Jesus too.