Nineveh’s Repentance and Jonah’s Wrath (Jonah 3 & 4)
No More “Mr. Nice Guy”
We once had a Siamese cat that didn’t have the sense to back away from danger. Our landlord kept a burro named HeHaw in a pasture next to our house. HeHaw was pregnant, which made her even more cantankerous than ever. One day when we went over to the fence to check on HeHaw, our cat followed. Worse yet, the cat began to stalk the burro. The burro looked threateningly at the cat, but neither Jeannette nor I had any intention of getting around the backside of that burrow to retrieve our cat, so we kept hoping that it would have enough sense to know better than to antagonize that beast. The inevitable happened, the cat transgressed the boundary established by the burro. With one swift kick, the cat was launched into an orbit that sent it flying, landing a fair distance away. He got up shaking his head, having learned that burros are not impressed with cats, no matter how determined and fearless they might be.
When I read the third and fourth chapters of the book of Jonah, I get that same feeling that I had when I observed our cat stalking HeHaw. Jonah, like our cat, was stubbornly attacking God in chapter 4. He will seriously overstep his boundaries. As we read the chapter we just know that Jonah is going to get a proverbial “kick in the head” from God. And we will not be able to work up much sympathy for him if and when this happens.
Strangely enough, Jonah is not kicked in the head, even though he deserves it. The book ends with a rebuke which lingers in mid-air, leaving the reader with a most uneasy feeling. The book does not leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling, like we might wish it did. The book did not begin with a “Once upon a time …” Neither does it end with a “happily ever after.”
Our uneasiness at the end of the book is by design. God does not want us to be comfortable, for repentance and change seldom result from our comfort. The question is, “What is it that we are to feel uncomfortable about?” The third and fourth chapters expose a very serious sin in Jonah, which is just as common today. Let us listen very carefully to Jonah’s protests and God’s probing as we conclude our study of the book of Jonah.
The Structure and Setting of Our Text
The structure of our text can be summarized as follows:
Jonah’s Preaching and Nineveh’s Repentance
God’s “Relenting” and Jonah’s Wrath
Jonah’s Prayer of Protest and God’s Response
From Ecstasy to Agony: The Plant, the Worm, and the Prophet
God’s Final Word
The stage for the events of these last two chapters of Jonah has already been set in the first two chapters of the book. In chapter 1 Jonah was commanded by God to go to Nineveh, where he was to cry against this great city for its sins. Instead of traveling to the northeast, Jonah went down to the seaport of Joppa, where he boarded a ship headed to Tarshish, apparently on the coast of Spain. Jonah was headed in the opposite direction!
Jonah’s disobedience resulted in God bringing about an intense storm, which was breaking up the ship, and which had frightened the sailors to the point that they were fervently calling on their gods to save them. At the same time, they were casting all the cargo overboard. Finding Jonah sleeping soundly below deck, the captain of the ship commanded him to pray (which he apparently never did). At the seamen’s initiative, lots were cast to determine on whose account the ship was about to sink. After persistent and thorough interrogation, Jonah told them he was at fault and what they must do to save themselves and their ship—cast him overboard. Only after God thwarted their diligent efforts to get Jonah to shore did the sailors consent to do as Jonah had instructed them. They preceded this act with a prayer which expressed their concern for putting an innocent man to death. When Jonah was cast over the side, the sea calmed and the seamen worshipped the God of Israel with sacrifices and vows. If this first chapter revealed anything, it dramatically contrasted Jonah with the heathen sailors. He was disobedient to the command of God; they obeyed what God told them to do through Jonah. They prayed frequently and fervently; Jonah did not. They had great compassion on Jonah; he seemingly had none on them.
Chapter 2 records the “psalm” of Jonah. The poetic form and terminology of Jonah’s “psalm” is very similar to that of the psalms of the Old Testament. In theology and emphasis, however, Jonah’s psalm falls far short of the biblical pattern and ideal. Jonah’s “psalm” was self-centered, focusing more on the prophet’s dilemma, danger, and deliverance, than on the God who spared his life. Most distressingly, there was no repentance on Jonah’s part. In this “psalm” there is an evident disdain for the Gentiles and the telltale signs of self-righteousness in the “praise” of Jonah. Nevertheless, when Jonah gave the glory to God for his physical deliverance, God commanded the great fish to spit Jonah up on the beach.
In chapters 3 and 4, all appearances of piety vanish in the account of the prodigal prophet. This is the reason for my subtitle for this message: “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” In chapters 1 & 2, Jonah’s sin is apparent, but it is still somewhat subtle and passive. All of this changes in chapters 3 and 4, for Jonah’s preaching and the repentance of Nineveh causes Jonah to “blow his stack” and now his sinfulness is seen in its ugliest dimensions. In chapter 1, Jonah simply sought to withdraw from God’s service, but in chapter 4, Jonah attacks God, persisting that it is his right to be angry with Him. In chapter 2, Jonah prayed that God would save his life, but in chapter 4, Jonah prayed that God would take his life. Things go downhill very quickly in our passage.
It is at this critical point that our story begins. God’s first words to Jonah were virtually a repetition of the command given to him before the storm and his incarceration in the fish. We have an account of the preaching of Jonah in Nineveh, and the dramatic repentance of the entire city, along with God’s relenting of the evil He had foretold through the prodigal prophet.
In chapter 4 Jonah blurts out his reasons for rebelling against the command of the Lord to preach against the city of Nineveh. The events which take place in this chapter were intended to reveal the sin of Jonah. While the sins of the prodigal prophet become very apparent to the reader, they apparently do not have much of an impact on Jonah, and so the story ends in a kind of stalemate, with God’s final words of admonition suspended in mid air, and Jonah still angry with his God.
Jonah’s Preaching and Nineveh’s Repentance
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. 4 Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8 But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9 Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?”
For the second time, the “word of the Lord” came to Jonah: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you” (vs. 2). It is not a new command that Jonah is given, but almost a repetition of the command given to him in chapter 1. This time Jonah obeyed, not joyfully or with a proper attitude, as we shall soon see, but at least Jonah went to Nineveh.
The population of the city of Nineveh, perhaps including its “suburbs,” was exceedingly large (cf. 1:2; 3:2; 4:11). We also know that the city was great in size. The city was described as being a “three days’ walk” (3:3). Secular history has a great deal more background information concerning this city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.
Jonah’s message was simple, to the point, and frightening: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4).18
Just like the seamen of chapter 1, the people of Nineveh took these words of imminent divine judgment seriously. We are told, “They believed in God” (3:5), which focuses on the faith of these Gentiles in the God of Israel, and not just their fear of judgment. It suggests to me that there was a real revival resulting from Jonah’s proclamation. This revival seems to have begun from “the bottom up,” rather than being imposed from “the top down.” The people, we are told, believed in God. They called a fast and put on sackcloth (3:5). The response was unanimous, from the lower to the upper classes.
By the time word reached the king, the city’s repentance was already well under way, but because the king also believed Jonah’s warning, he made every effort to assure total compliance to the city-wide repentance. He began by personally repenting (3:6). The king then made a proclamation which required all of Nineveh to fast, and to abstain from drinking water (3:7). Both men and animals were to be covered with sackcloth, and all the people were to call upon God and to abstain from their wicked ways and their violence (3:8).
It is particularly interesting to note that there was apparently no need for the people to be told what their wicked ways were. Of course, Jonah could have filled in the details for the people, but it seems as though no one needed any such clarification. The issue, then, was not one of having inadequate knowledge of what God considered sin, but lacking the desire to abstain from it. The issue was not that of information, but that of motivation. I have the distinct impression that if our nation received word of God’s impending judgment, we would have little difficulty determining what it is we are doing which is offensive to God, which is, in short, sin.
If the Ninevites had but 40 days left, why would they cease sinning? One would think that they might be inclined to act in accordance with the expression, “Eat, drink, and make merry, for tomorrow (or 40 days) we may die.” Nineveh’s motivation for putting off the wickedness of the city is described in verse 9: “Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?” (3:9).
Some people find it very troubling that God would “relent,” that is, change His mind, regarding the destruction of Nineveh. Let me simply point out that Jonah expected God to do so (4:2), and the Ninevites at least hoped He would do so (3:9). If God intended to destroy Nineveh, why would He announce to them that He was going to do so? The proclamation against Nineveh which God instructed Jonah to deliver was not simply a promise of things to come, but a warning. The Ninevites were absolutely correct in understanding Jonah’s words as they did, as the occasion for repentance. This is entirely in keeping with what God has said in the book of Jeremiah:
Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it, if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it, if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds”’” (Jeremiah 18:5-11, emphasis mine).
God’s promises of blessing are contingent upon man’s obedience, and God’s judgment may be averted by repentance. The Ninevites hoped for and Jonah expected God’s “relenting,” based on the principle expressed above.
Nineveh’s Repentance, God’s Relenting, and Jonah’s Wrath
10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. 2 And 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 Thou art 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.” 4 And 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 And it came about when the sun came up that 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.” 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 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, as well as many animals?”
God took note of Nineveh’s repentance, something which involved more than mere words or token gestures. Verse 10 does not tell us that God heeded the words of the Ninevites, or even that He regarded their sackcloth and ashes, but that He took note that their deeds had changed, that they had “turned from their wicked way.” Here is genuine repentance. No mere words of regret, no trite, “I’m sorry,” but a change of conduct signaling a genuine change of heart. Nineveh had truly repented of her evil ways, and God therefore relented of the calamity which He had threatened.
It is noteworthy that we are given no explanations for the quick, sincere, and virtually universal repentance of the Ninevites. It may have been that the sailors preceded Jonah, and gave a report of the miracle which had taken place. Jonah’s appearance, in and of itself, may have proven to be an awesome sign to the Ninevites. There may also have been other incidents which served to prepare the Ninevites for their repentance,19 but they are not so much as mentioned. Indeed, the absence of such reports serves to dramatize the conversion of this Assyrian capital city.
Our Lord’s reference to the repentance of the Ninevites is particularly informative, and confirms our observations:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation in the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:38-41).
The request of the scribes and Pharisees for yet another sign from our Lord, prompted Him to turn to the book of Jonah, where two lessons could be learned. In His first use of Jonah, Jesus promised one final sign that was similar to that of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, Jesus would be in the belly of the earth for the same period of time. Jesus’ resurrection would be a “sign” to Israel, just as Jonah’s “coming forth from the fish” was a sign (perhaps to Israel). This one final sign, the “sign of the prophet Jonah,” Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, would be irrefutable proof that He was Israel’s Messiah.
There was yet another lesson which the book of Jonah had for the Israelites of Jesus’ day. The Ninevites immediately repented at the preaching of Jonah, even though there was far less evidence than that which the Israelites of Jesus’ day had witnessed. And, compared with Jesus, Jonah was not nearly as important, or, I think, as persuasive or powerful in his preaching. If the Ninevites could repent with so little evidence, then surely the problem with the Jewish leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, was not a lack of evidence. The problem was not one of evidence at all, a problem which would be solved by some compelling sign. The problem of the scribes and Pharisees was the same as Jonah’s, and thus no evidence could change their willful rejection.
I am inclined, on the basis of the teaching of Jonah and that of our Lord, to see the “sign of the prophet Jonah” as two-fold. It is the “sign” of Jonah’s three day entombment in the great fish, from which he is released, alive. It is also the “sign” of Jonah, whose hardness of heart kept him from grasping what God was trying to teach him, regardless of how clear and forceful that message was, while at the same time this message is perceived and acted upon by the less well-informed Gentiles.
Jesus’ use of the account of the repentance of the Ninevites in Matthew chapter 12 accepts and affirms the impression which we gain from taking the narrative at face value. He confirms the fact that the Ninevites believed in God in spite of little evidence. Hearts that were open to the word and the will of God were quick to recognize it and respond to it. Hearts that were not so inclined—as was the case with Jonah’s heart—would not get the message, regardless of how clear it was.
Jonah’s Anger With God
Had Jonah been any other prophet in the history of Israel, he would have been overjoyed with the results of his ministry, the repentance of the great city of Nineveh. Throughout Israel’s history, her prophets had failed to turn the nation to God, and were rejected and even killed by the people. As Stephen put the matter, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:52a).
In spite of joy at the repentance and salvation of so many, something for which his colleagues would have been overjoyed, Jonah was angry with God: “But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry” (4:1). Why would Jonah have been so angry with God? Jonah is not hesitant to explain, and so he prays this prayer of protest:
“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 Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life” (Jon. 4:2-3).
Jonah’s anger is incredible. Let us take note of what his anger was all about.
(1) Jonah was angry with God. In the final analysis Jonah was not angry with himself, or with men, but with the holy, righteous, perfect God. Jonah’s anger was so intense that he would rather die than live. Having prayed in chapter two that he might live, Jonah prays now that he might die (4:3).
(2) Jonah was angry with God because He acted consistently with His character, and for doing exactly what Jonah expected Him to do.
(3) Jonah was angry with God, protesting those very attributes of God for which the psalmists praised Him. The psalmists of the book of Psalms praise Him for His lovingkindness, His grace, and His mercy (cf. Ps. 86:5, 15), but for Jonah this is grounds for protest rather than praise.
(4) Jonah was angry with God because He showed grace toward the Ninevites. God’s question to Jonah should have served to instruct this prodigal prophet. It should have called Jonah’s attention to the utter sinfulness of being angry with God in the first place. Who can sustain a holy anger against a holy and perfect God? Furthermore, the gentleness of God’s rebuke should have reminded Jonah that He was not only gracious to the Ninevites, but also to Jonah. Indeed, more so, for while the Ninevites had repented, Jonah had not. Jonah persisted in his rebellion.
The Plant and the Prodigal
Because of Jonah’s persistence in maintaining his anger toward God, God presses on with yet another experience for Jonah which will serve to expose the root problem of the prodigal prophet. This is accomplished by means of the giving and the taking away of a plant, which gave Jonah pleasure.
It would seem that the forty days have passed, yet the judgment of God does not fall upon the city of Nineveh. This is no surprise to the reader, but it was a great disappointment to Jonah. Jonah went outside the city, where he made himself a mini-grandstand, a shady booth from which he could enjoy the spectacle of the destruction of Nineveh, perhaps in a hail of fire and brimstone like that which overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. Here was Jonah, a spectator waiting for disaster to strike, so that he could watch, like the Romans who later would gather at the coliseum to watch the Christians eaten by the lions.
God caused a plant to grow, the shade of which gave Jonah great comfort (4:6). For the first time, Jonah is described as being happy, extremely happy in fact, over the presence of this plant. His happiness was short-lived, however, for on the following day a divinely appointed worm came to do its work, which resulted in the destruction of the plant. When you stop to think about it, Jonah should have found it easier to identify with the worm than with the plant. He, like the worm, seemed to find greater fulfillment in the destruction of God’s creations than in bringing pleasure, as the plant brought shade and enjoyment to Jonah.
Along with the worm, which brought the demise of the plant, God sent a scorching wind, which caused Jonah great discomfort. While Jonah wanted the Ninevites to be “torched,” he himself was “scorched” by the heat of the wind (4:8). Jonah did not need to be here, and thus did not need to suffer, but he was determined to stay put. He once again begged God to die.
Jonah is angry with God again, now in regard to the plant and the worm. For the second time, God challenged Jonah to consider his anger: “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” (4:9). In no uncertain terms, Jonah reiterated his right to be angry with his God: “I have good reason to be angry, even to death” (4:9).
God has the final word in the book of Jonah. His last words press to the heart of the matter:
“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. 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, as well as many animals?” (4:10-11).
By means of the provision of the plant there is at last some common ground between Jonah and God. Jonah had compassion on the plant; God had compassion on the people. Jonah’s “compassion,” like his “psalm,” are inferior. God now presses His point, to show the self-centered nature of Jonah’s “compassion,” especially when contrasted with His compassion of the people of Nineveh. Consider the following points of contrast between the “compassion” of Jonah for the plant and the compassion of God for people.
(1) Jonah had compassion on a plant; God had compassion on people. Jonah was willing for the entire city to perish in great pain, even though there would be many innocent victims, including 120,000 people and many cattle. Cattle and people suffer pain. There is no evidence that plants do. Jonah had compassion on the plant, but not on people or their cattle.
(2) Jonah had compassion on a plant, in which he had no investment; God had compassion in people, whom He had created, and for whom He had prepared and promised blessing. Jonah had no real relationship with the plant. He had not made it, nor had he contributed to its growth. God created man, and He is the Creator of every creature. God cared for that which He had made, so much so that He purposed to bless men through the offspring of Abraham, so much so that He would send His Son to die for men. Jonah cared for something that cost him nothing.
(3) Jonah had compassion with respect to the demise of a plant; God had compassion with respect to the eternal damnation of people. Jonah had compassion for a plant which existed for a day. Granted, the plant might have lived for a year, perhaps longer. But the judgment of men is for eternity. The “passing” of a plant has no real significance; the death of the people of Nineveh was the outpouring of divine wrath. The eternal judgment and damnation of people is vastly more important than the withering of a plant.
(4) God had compassion on the innocent; Jonah did not. He would have enjoyed watching the destruction of the innocent, along with the guilty. (Remember, it would be the descendants of this generation of Ninevites which would take Israel captive.) It was one thing to want the wicked to suffer for their sins, but totally another to want the innocent to suffer along with the wicked.
(5) Jonah had compassion on himself; God had compassion for others. Jonah’s “compassion” is not really centered on the plant, but rather on what that plant did for him . The plant made him very happy. Had the plant not pleased Jonah, he would have had no compassion toward it at all. Jonah’s compassion was really self-centered. He cared for himself, but not for others. On the other hand, God cared for people, people who had greatly sinned and who had offended Him.
The Plant and the Point
For a long time, I thought that Jonah’s root problem was selfishness, that he wanted God’s grace for himself and for his people Israel, but not for anyone else, especially the Ninevites. It is my strong conviction now, however, that Jonah’s selfishness was only symptomatic. Jonah’s major grievance with God was His grace. The very nature of grace made it repulsive to Jonah. Let us pause to consider the characteristics of the grace of God which made it offensive to the prodigal prophet.
(1) The Nature and the Origin of Grace. The nature or the essence of grace is unmerited favor—a blessing which is not deserved. The origin or source of the grace Jonah disdained is God. Jonah did not like grace because it was not something which one could earn. One could never feel any sense of accomplishment or ownership, because it is given without cause. To put the matter in plain words, Jonah did not like grace because it was charity.
(2) The Recipients of Grace. The recipients of grace, those to whom grace is bestowed, are those who are undeserving and unworthy. Jonah did not wish to view himself as unworthy. Essentially, Jonah suffered from a large dose of racial pride. He felt that as an Israelite, God was somehow obliged to bless him and his people. The Ninevites, Jonah would gladly concede, were unworthy, which is exactly why Jonah protested against God’s grace shown to them.
(3) The Distribution of Grace. Grace, because it is unmerited, and is bestowed upon those who are unworthy, has no one who can claim it. That is, no one can legitimately feel that he or she has a claim on God’s grace, that there is something they have done or can do which obligates Him to respond with some gift of grace. Since grace is not given out on the basis of merit, it is sovereignly distributed, “just as He wills.” As God put it, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exod. 33:19).
(4) The Goal of Grace. The goal of grace, the purpose for which it is given, is holiness, not happiness. The plant which God gave to Jonah made him “extremely happy,” we are told (4:6), but it did nothing to make him holy. Thus, God took the plant away. Grace is not given to make us happy, to make us feel good, to give us pleasure, but to bring us into fellowship with Himself.
(5) The Means of Grace. If the goal of grace is to make us holy, then the means of grace include not only those things which are pleasant and comfortable, but also those painful experiences which cause us to turn from our sin and to trust in Him. If we are honest with ourselves and with God, and if we read our Bibles carefully, we must acknowledge that most of us grow spiritually more in painful experiences than in pleasurable ones.
Think about Jonah, for example. God did answer Jonah’s prayer that He would save him from drowning, but not with the most plush and pleasurable means possible. God saved Jonah by means of a great fish, and Jonah got to soak for three days in the stomach juices of that creature. Being vomited onto dry land was not exactly flattering to Jonah’s ego, either, but it was what was best for him. So, too, the shade of the plant was not furthering Jonah’s walk with God, and thus the destruction of the plant and the sweltering sun was given to him instead. God is not committed to our pleasure, but to our piety. Thus, He often uses painful means to bring us to holiness. These painful experiences, just as much as the pleasurable ones, are a gift of God’s grace. Grace is often experienced in the midst of the most unpleasant of experiences.
This explains all that God has done, as well as why Jonah disliked it. God could bestow the grace of salvation on the unworthy Ninevites because grace cannot be merited. Likewise, because grace is sovereignly bestowed, God can provide a plant for Jonah, and then take it away.
Because of these two characteristics of grace, Jonah wanted no part of it, and no part of life. GRACE, TO JONAH, WAS OFFENSIVE AND UNWANTED. It is easy to see why Jonah would resent the fact that God would be gracious to the Ninevites, but how can it be said that Jonah disdained grace, even when shown to him? BECAUSE GRACE IS REQUIRED ONLY BY THE UNDERSERVING, AND JONAH WAS UNWILLING TO ADMIT THAT HE WAS UNDESERVING OF GOD’S BLESSINGS.
How can a prophet protest the gift of forgiveness to the Ninevites? Only by believing that God’s blessing must be merited. How can the prophet protest when God takes away the gracious provision of the plant? Only by supposing that he deserved the plant, by thinking that God owed him the comfort of the plant.
Here, then, is the key to the entire book of Jonah, and to the sin of the nation Israel, which caused God’s people to assume that God owed them blessing and their enemies judgment. Jonah had rejected the principle of grace, exchanging it for a doctrine of works. THE ROOT PROBLEM OF THE PRODIGAL PROPHET WAS SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS. The only person who despises grace is the one who thinks that he is righteous. To the self-righteous, grace is charity, which is demeaning to the recipient.
What Jonah had forgotten was that God’s choice of Israel and His blessing of Israel was due solely to His grace, and not to Israel’s righteousness.
6 “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; 10 but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face” (Deut 7:6-10, emphasis mine).
Take careful note of the term “lovingkindness” which is found in verse 9 above, for this is the basis for God’s kindness to Israel, just as it was the basis for God’s kindness to the Ninevites (Jon. 4:2).
God warned the Israelites that when they entered the land of Canaan and began to experience His material blessings, the blessings of His grace, that they would be tempted to take credit for their prosperity:
11 “Beware lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; 12 lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, 13 and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, 14 then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. … 17 Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ 18 But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14, 17-18, emphasis mine).
If this were not ample enough warning, God further warns Israel about taking any credit for their success or for their blessings, which He has given as a gift of His grace:
“Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people” (Deut. 9:4-6, emphasis mine).
Jonah, and his people, the Israelites, had forgotten that God’s blessings were the product of God’s grace, not the result of Israel’s righteousness or superiority over the Gentiles. They had also forgotten that God had promised to bless all nations through Israel: “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b).
Jonah’s prophecy to the nation Israel, as recorded in 2 Kings, was the promise of prosperity, in spite of the nation’s sins. God promised to prosper Israel, not because of its piety, but in spite of its sin. Look with me once again at this prophecy.
In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and reigned forty-one years. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin. He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher. For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, which was very bitter; for there was neither bond nor free, nor was there any helper for Israel. And the LORD did not say that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, but He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash (2 Kings 14:23-27, emphasis mine).
Israel’s king was evil, as were the people. The prosperity which Jonah promised was not due to Israel’s spirituality, but in spite of her sin. The blessings he promised were thus the blessings of divine grace.
Jonah was also the recipient of the grace of God, and yet it is for being gracious that Jonah protests against Him, even to the point of preferring death to life. Jonah’s deliverance by means of the great fish, and his exodus from the fish were all provisions of divine grace. So, too, was the gift of the plant, which afforded him shade and comfort. Perhaps the greatest evidence of the grace of God to Jonah, however, is the way in which God responds to his rebellion and his protests. How easy it would be for us to have read that God burned Jonah to a crisp with a sudden blast of lightening!
Jonah typified Israel in that he no longer viewed God’s blessings as a manifestation of God’s grace to an undeserving people, but rather as the blessings which He was obligated to give a righteous people. No wonder Jonah despised the grace of God. He knew that only the undeserving received grace, and he and his people were not in need of divine handouts. The pride and the self-righteousness of Jonah and of his people are now glaringly apparent. The reason for the sacking of Israel by the Assyrians is now obvious.
The book of Jonah does not end nicely and neatly, with a “happily ever after” feeling. Far from it. We are left somewhat suspended by the final words of God to Jonah, words of rebuke. We are never told that Jonah repented. The reason is simple, I believe. It is because there was no final solution to the sin of self-righteousness and to the waywardness of the nation Israel apart from the new covenant and the coming of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. The conclusion of the book of Jonah is fitting, for it portrays the stalemate between Israel and her God which persisted till the time of Christ and indeed to the present moment. The last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, is a record of Israel’s belligerent argumentation with God, who is accusing the nation of sin:
The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have You loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob” (Mal. 1:1-2, emphasis mine).
In the final analysis, this hardness of heart will persist until the Great Tribulation and the return of Messiah breaks the stubborn pride and will of His chosen people, who will be finally saved, not because of their righteousness, but by His grace.
Jonah’s Self-Righteousness and the Israelites of Jesus’ Day
Not only did Jonah typify the spiritual state of Israel in his own day, he also prototyped the self-righteousness of many Israelites, especially the religious leaders, at the time of the first coming of Christ. When our Lord was born, it was not to the religious elite that His birth was made known, but to the humble and the meek (cf. Luke 2). This was indicated in the magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). The coming of the Christ was for the Gentiles (Luke 2:31-32), as well as for the Jews, and so the magi were informed of His birth and came to worship Him (Matt. 2:1ff.). Our Lord’s introduction of His ministry in Luke chapter 4 (esp. vv. 16-21) indicated this same emphasis on Christ’s coming to the poor and the oppressed. The Sermon on the Mount gives similar testimony to the recipients of God’s grace.
When Jesus commenced His ministry, much of His time and energy was devoted to “sinners,” which brought an immediate reaction from the religious elite of Israel, the scribes and Pharisees:
And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Mark 2:16).
Why would the scribes and Pharisees be offended by the fact that Jesus spent more time with “sinners” than with them? For the same reason that Jonah was angry with God. The religious leaders felt that they were worthy of Jesus’ time and presence, and that the “sinners” deserved nothing but the wrath of God (cp. John 8:2-11). They despised the Gentiles and even the masses of Israelites (cf. John 7:49).
Why did the scribes and Pharisees react so vehemently to the teaching of Jesus? Because He exposed them as sinners, and they were not willing to admit this. They were self-righteous. Thus, they rejected God’s Messiah and instigated His death on that Roman cross.
Even the disciples of our Lord seemed, like Jonah, to be eager to have the “heathen” perish at the hand of God:
52 … And they went, and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make arrangements for Him. 53 And they did not receive Him, because He was journeying with His face toward Jerusalem. 54 And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:52b-54).
Later, after our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, it was the Jews who opposed the proclamation of the gospel (cf. Acts 22:19-23). Even Christian Jews drug their feet in the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 10-11, esp. 11:19). Because some Jewish Christians felt superior to Gentile believers, they either segregated themselves or they sought to force the Gentiles to conform to their Jewish practices (e.g. Acts 15:1; Gal. 2:11ff.). Truly Jonah’s self-righteousness typified a tendency among Israelites which has continued on throughout the centuries.
The book of Jonah has much to say to 20th century Christians, as well as to Israelites of all ages. Let me conclude by pointing out a number of points of application to our lives today.
(1) God’s dealings with men have always been on the basis of His grace, and not on the basis of man’s works. Dispensationalists (among whom I would include myself) must be very careful to avoid giving the impression that God deals with men today by means of grace, and dealt with people in the Old Testament by some other means. The distinction of this “age” as “the age of grace” tends to imply that God dealt with men according to some other principle in the Old Testament. Jonah was wrong because he forgot or had forsaken the principle of grace. God has always dealt with men according to the principle of grace. The New Testament and the new covenant simply enable God to bestow His grace more freely and fully. Let us never view God’s past dealings with men as anything less than gracious.
(2) Resisting and rejecting the grace of God are just as great and just as common a sin today as they were in Jonah’s time. Christians become angry with God today, and for the same wrong reasons as Jonah. We are just not as open and honest as Jonah to admit it. When do Christians get angry with God?
- Whenever we think we deserve something from God and we find Him guilty for not giving it to us.
- Whenever we think someone else to be unworthy, and we are angry with God for giving them blessings they don’t deserve.
- Whenever God takes away some blessing from us, which we think He has no right to remove.
- Whenever we are self-righteous.
I believe that self-righteousness had deeply penetrated the Christian community in America. Americans are very inclined to take credit for our prosperity. We believe that we have been “blessed” due to our intelligence, our ingenuity, our hard work, and our devotion to God. Conversely, we excuse ourselves from sharing our wealth and prosperity with others by convincing ourselves that other nations suffer poverty because they lack the righteousness which we have. Thus, while the nation India lavishes in poverty and starvation, we assure ourselves that their poverty is the result of their worship of cows. Simple, isn’t it? But in the final analysis, it is self-righteous.
Some Christians today view divine healing as a result of one’s righteousness than as a gift of God’s grace. I do not wish to argue whether there is a gift of healing today; I am willing to grant that God does heal. What I wish to vehemently reject is the contention that God must heal, if we but have the faith to claim it. Is divine healing a gift of God’s grace? If it is, then it is undeserved, not earned, even by “having faith.” Is healing a gift of grace? Then God is free to give it to whomever He chooses, to a believer or an unbeliever, and He is also free to withhold it from one who asks for it, or claims it in faith. We don’t demand grace, nor do we dare to protest when we don’t receive what makes us happy (remember Jonah’s plant).
Let us remember, too, that God’s grace does not always come in the form which we might choose or prefer. God was gracious to Jonah, saving him by means of the great fish. Had Jonah been able to choose which form the grace of God would have taken, it wouldn’t have been in the form of a fish’s stomach. God is gracious to His children by chastising them, by bringing pain and adversity into their lives, just as He was going to do in the history of Israel. Adversity is just as much a gift of grace as is affluence. Remember the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount!
Job understood that God was both good and gracious, whether He gave prosperity or took it away, whether He gave pleasure or pain. Thus, when he received word of the loss of his family he responded, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
Failure, suffering, and adversity are often the result of God’s grace, for when these things come into the life of the Christian they are for the purpose of displaying the grace of God, to us, to others, and even to the heavenly host.
The principle of grace, by which we are saved, is the governing principle of God’s dealing in all of our lives, whether He shows Himself to be gracious in bestowing wealth or health, or whether He shows Himself to be gracious in our hour of trial, by sustaining us and drawing us to a deeper trust and intimacy with Him.
The principle of grace is also to govern our relationship with others. Just as God is gracious to us, so we must be gracious to others, especially to the undeserving: the cruel and those who are our enemies, who would persecute and despitefully use us. Only by showing grace to others do we reflect God’s grace to us.
(3) The book of Jonah has much to teach us about evangelism and revival, which we desperately need in America. I believe that the book of Jonah informs that the following elements are required for revival. These are not the only elements necessary for revival, but they are essential:
Revival requires those who will go and who will warn the lost of the impending wrath of God on sinners. A deep conviction of sin and the motivation to be saved is rooted in the proclamation of the fact that men are sinners, destined to face the wrath of God.
Revival requires genuine repentance. There was revival in the city of Nineveh because men turned from their wicked ways. They not only confessed their sin, they turned from it. Revival requires repentance, and repentance requires change.
Furthermore, the book of Jonah confronts us with what is perhaps the foremost enemy of evangelism and revival—a smug self-righteousness which detests the grace of God, and which expects and demands God’s blessings for us, but not for others. It was Israel’s self-righteousness, pride, and selfishness which kept God’s people from sharing the blessings of God with the Gentiles. Likewise, I believe that it is our self-righteousness, pride, and selfishness which hinders us from telling the lost of the salvation which God offers all who repent and who believe on His Son for salvation.
Imagine, for example, that God called you to devote your life to finding a cure for AIDS, or to give your life in ministry to the victims of AIDS. “But they deserve to die,” you protest. The fact is that many suffer from AIDS apart from any willful act of sin on their part—an immoral spouse, a contaminated blood transfusion, an infant whose parent was infected.
Many of us are just like Jonah. We are eager to condemn those suffering from AIDS as a whole, even though there are many innocent victims among them. Jonah was willing, indeed eager, to see the entire city of Nineveh perish, even though there were 120,000 innocent children among them, and animals as well. Jonah was not just seeking divine judgment for guilty sinners; he was condemning the innocent along with the wicked. (To Jonah, their ‘real sin’ was that of being Gentiles. And by this standard, all Ninevites should perish, according to the prodigal prophet.) The fact is that the wicked repented of their sin when the prophet proclaimed God’s Word to that city. God was not only eager to save the innocent, but to save the guilty as well. Not so with Jonah.
All sinners deserve to die (the wages of sin is death), which includes every one of us. Isn’t it amazing that the sin of sexual immorality is (or at least was) readily condemned by Christians, but pride and self-righteousness are often tolerated, and sometimes even praised (a ‘good self-image’). We must remember that our Lord came to seek and to save the lost—those whom the self-righteous religious leaders disdained and avoided. Apart from his saving grace, we are all sinners, who deserve God’s wrath and should be cast out of the presence of a holy and righteous God. Surely those who have become the recipients of God’s grace should be the first to seek to show and to share that grace to others.
(4) God’s grace has come to men in Jesus Christ. The grace of God has been revealed to men in the person of Jesus Christ, who promises all who will believe the gracious gift of eternal life. All you need to do is to acknowledge that you need it, that you are a sinner who can never merit God’s blessings, and to receive God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ. It is by faith in Jesus Christ that our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous in God’s sight. It is by faith in Christ that we receive the gracious gift of eternal life.
There is no word that better sums up the goodness of God to men than the word “grace.” Jesus Christ is God’s grace personified, sent to men (cf. John 1:14, 17; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2:1; Titus 2:11). Salvation is God’s grace to sinful men, the forgiveness of sins and the provision of eternal life (cf. Acts 14:13; 20:24, 32; Romans 1:5; 3:24; Ephesians 2:8; Colossians 1:6; Titus 3:7; 1 Peter 5:12). We grow in and by means of God’s grace (2 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 13:9). We are eternally secure in the grace of God (Romans 5:12). When we pray we approach the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). When we serve, we serve by grace (Eph. 4:7ff.; 1 Peter 4:10), and we live by the standards of grace (Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:6).
May the grace of God be precious to you, the basis for your praise of God, not your protest, as it was with Jonah.
18 The word “overthrown” had strong connotations for Jonah. This term was used in connection with the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:21, 25, 29). It was also used in the poetic description of the overthrow of the Egyptians at the exodus (Ex. 15:7). It was also used in Deuteronomy 29:23 in connection with God’s warning of judgment on His people Israel, if they disregard His law. Cf. also 2 Sam. 10:3; 1 Chron. 19:3.
19 “Before Jonah arrived at this seemingly inpregnable fortress-city, two plagues had erupted there (in 765 and 759 B.C.) and a total eclipse of the sun occurred on June 15, 763. These were considered signs of divine anger and may help explain why the Ninevites responded so readily to Jonah’s message, around 759.” John Hannah, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), Vol. 1, Old Testament, p. 1462.