In Jonah 3, a city of 120,000 turns from their evil ways to the Lord – the greatest revival in the Bible! In Jonah 4, we see Jonah’s anger over it. He finally explodes and pours out the poison of his soul to God, revealing that it wasn’t fear but disgust – disgust at the Lord’s extravagant mercy – which drove him to flee from God in the first place! He protests at him extending mercy so far beyond Israel: “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (v 2) This description of God is half of his glorious long name (which is revealed to Moses in Exodus 34:6–7) – the half with which Jonah has a problem. He ignores the part about punishing the guilty (because he’s quite happy with that) and complains about five wonderful attributes of God: he’s gracious, he’s merciful, he’s slow to anger, he’s abounding in steadfast love and he relents from sending calamity.
Jonah just can’t stand how kind God is: “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (v 3) Jonah would rather die than witness God’s mercy; he doesn’t want to be in God’s world if this is how God is going to behave. Jonah can’t stand the One who is “God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:3–4) Though Jonah has only just been saved from drowning, his hatred of the Assyrians has now become a hatred of God! So the Lord asks Jonah a question which he’ll repeat in v 9: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (v 4)
God is effectively asking, “Who on earth do you think you are?” He ignores Jonah’s idiotic request for assisted suicide and demands that Jonah consider what right he has to feel resentful of others being blessed. What right do we have to be annoyed if funds are diverted from our church camp to a Bible translation project in Mozambique? Or if we’re asked to host foreign students for lunch instead of our friends? What right do we have to get annoyed by a family from a different culture noisily arriving late – or by an old guy who’s new to church and needs to go out for a smoke during the service – or by those who struggle with English – or by those who hate the drums – or by a single mum being slow to take her crying baby out? What right do we have to feel annoyed? Or have we forgotten that we’d be suffering in hell if not for the same grace now being shown to them?
We’re not told if Jonah’s disgust was primarily a self-righteous religious scorn for pagan idolaters, a racist hostility towards the violent enemies of Israel, or despair at how soft the Lord was proving to be. Most probably a toxic cocktail of all three. What is quite clear is that Jonah felt no compassion for these foreigners. Although his time in the fish had taught him to be obedient and to preach the gospel of judgement, he had allowed his racial and cultural prejudices to strangle his love for unbelievers. And I think that many of us are much more like him that we dare admit.
“Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.” (v 5) Picture Jonah, having complained bitterly about the Lord’s mercy, trudging off to sit on a hill on the outskirts of the city, waiting for the forty-day period (3:4) to expire. Presumably he sat there hoping that God would still rain down the fires of hell on Nineveh, as he had on Sodom and Gomorrah. How pathetically selfish. His teaching had just been used by God to bring a whole city to repentance – his urban church-plant exploded with growth into a megachurch of 120,000. They urgently needed instruction in the Scriptures, but God’s trained prophet is too busy feeling sorry for himself.
Jonah must have known that the Lord is a cross-cultural missionary. It’s woven into Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation (Genesis 12:3, Psalm 2:8, 1 Kings 10:1–10, Isaiah 2:2, Matthew 2:1, Acts 10:34–35, Revelation 7:9). But Jonah did not yet share God’s priorities. So the Lord had to discipline Jonah… again! First, he provides a plant to shade Jonah: “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.” (v 6)
Next, he sends a worm: “But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.” (v 7) Like the plant, the worm was God’s provision – so that he could lovingly disciple Jonah.
Finally, the Lord provides a wind: “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 said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’” (v 8) God directs the wind in order to ‘turn up the heat’ in Jonah’s evangelism training. And once again, Jonah is afflicted with a seriously self-pitying death-wish! So the Lord asks him the same question again: ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’ (v 9) Implication: No!
“But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.” (v 10) You seem more concerned about this single bush that you’ve enjoyed for one day than for a whole city of people whose eternity is at stake! You’re like Christians who put more effort into their lawns than they do into their friendship with the non-Christian family next door. How can you be so selfish?
You seem more concerned about this single bush that you’ve enjoyed for one day than for a whole city of people whose eternity is at stake! … How can you be so selfish?
And now we get to the climactic punchline of the book, in the Lord’s probing question that calls across the centuries: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?’” (v 11) Can’t you see that this city of people (and even the animals I’ve created) are more deserving of your concern than the shelter over your head? You’re as pitiful as people who spend more time and money on the interior of their house than they do on gospel work! How can you be so selfish?
He is – as we so often are – so different from Jesus. Just as God says to Jonah, “should I not have concern for the great city?” (v 11) so we read of Jesus’ compassion for the crowds of his day: “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The word for “compassion” literally means “entrails” – it signifies Jesus’ gut-wrenching tenderness towards people who are “harassed and helpless” (literally, “flayed” and “crushed”; we might say, “stressed” and “burdened”), that is, people who are lost without him. When Jesus sees a lecture hall full of students, or a stadium full of rowdy supporters, or a social media thread full of people arguing about Brexit, he doesn’t do a Jonah – rather than condemn them, he feels gut-wrenching compassion for people who desperately need him.
When Jesus sees a lecture hall full of students, or a stadium full of rowdy supporters, or a social media thread full of people arguing about Brexit, he doesn’t do a Jonah – rather than condemn them, he feels gut-wrenching compassion for people who desperately need him.
We are so often like Jonah – more inclined to condemnation than to compassion. And that’s often the primary reason why we struggle with evangelism. But if we ask God to help us love other people, then his compassion will lead us to evangelism. It will lead us to planting churches so that we can reach different communities and different cities with the gospel. It will lead us to get involved in cross-cultural mission – to extend the hand of friendship in gospel ministry to God’s people everywhere, and to resist the temptation to think of international mission as the ‘sore thumb’ that taxes our spending elsewhere, and instead to look to be cross-cultural in everything we do. It will lead us to ask what we can do to reach the lost in another culture. It will lead us to go – and trust that God will provide everything that we need.
Let’s pray for his compassion right now, so that we will maximise our gospel ministry. For the book of Jonah is not really about Jonah – the reluctant evangelist – at all. It’s about our Lord, the sovereign, gracious, merciful and compassionate evangelist – the One who was concerned about “that great city” – the one who is “patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The one who told Jonah “Go…” and, in Jesus, commands us to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
Photo credit to Nick Franks. Used by permission.