Text: Jonah 4
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” Then the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”…
There was an old comic-strip called Pogo. It was famous for all sorts of reasons, but it gave us one line that has stuck around, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That line took on a life of its own, and it is widely-quoted today, even by people who have never heard of Pogo. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That makes for a pretty good summary of the book of Jonah, as we see in chapter 4. We are given the twist ending which actually explains the whole book. Jonah’s anger is not some extra moral tacked on to the end of the book. Jonah’s anger was actually present in the very first chapter, and it is what caused him to run away from God. Jonah’s anger is what kept him from wanting to preach to the Ninevites. He didn’t want them to repent! Jonah’s anger kept him from being able to swallow the grace of God, even after everything he went through.
Why Jonah was Angry
Chapter 4 of Jonah has to be read in connection with chapter 3. The people of Nineveh have just repented, and God has relented from destroying their city. “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry” (Jonah 4:1). The fact that Nineveh was being spared is what made Jonah so upset, and he goes on to tell us that this outcome is what he had been worried about all along:
Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live! (vs. 2-3)
Can you believe he would say such a thing? That’s really pretty crazy. The reason that Jonah fled to Tarshish was because he knew that God was “a gracious and merciful God” and “One who relents from doing harm.” He didn’t want to see God forgive Nineveh, and so he tried his best to avoid preaching to them. And then to top it off, rather than rejoicing in their salvation, he becomes so angry that he asks to die. “It is better for me to die than to live!” Whoa.
What’s really incredible is to think that Jonah is saying this after his encounter with God in the fish. Here is a prophet of God, someone who has had a supernatural experience of deliverance, who went on to preach a divinely-inspired message, and he still doesn’t understand the gospel! Jonah has met the enemy alright, but it wasn’t the people of Nineveh. It’s him.
God Teaches Jonah a Lesson
What happens next in Jonah is a little strange. God asks Jonah the question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (vs. 4), but then a mini-story is introduced about this plant.
So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” (vs. 4-8)
Jonah goes out to watch the city, perhaps hoping that God will still find a way to destroy it. And while he is waiting there, God made a plant, tradition says it was a kind of gourd, to grow up very quickly and provide shade for Jonah. Jonah loved this plant. The text literally says that he “rejoiced over the plant.” But then God took it away from him.
The text is clear that everything is sent directly from God. God “prepared” a worm to eat this plant, and then He “prepared a vehement east wind.” This causes things to get very hot, and Jonah again asks for death. How could God give and take away like that? God’s answer puts Jonah on the spot.
Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!”
But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (vs. 9-11)
Jonah had no ownership over the plant. It had been a pure gift to him. God had given it to him for a season, and he became angry because it had been taken away. God then compares that situation to the greater situation of the city of Nineveh. God did have a relationship to that city. He had created the people and sustained their growth. Though they did not worship Him, they were still His. Jonah should have pitied them. The feelings he had toward the plant show that he ought to also love the city of Nineveh, and the fact that he is angry when God removes grace from him shows just how much he ought to wish for God’s grace to be extended to others.
Jonah’s anger exists because, at the bottom of it all, Jonah is bitter. Jonah does not want to see bad people receive grace. He does not desire the salvation of others. He does not love his enemies. And so Jonah, the prophet of God, becomes an illustration of the self-righteous man who misunderstands the gospel.
You and Your Enemy Are One
The ending of Jonah is the interpretative key to the whole book. It’s like an M. Night Shyamalan twist ending. Once you read chapter 4, the whole rest of the book starts to look differently. The good guys and bad guys switch places and you want to start again at the beginning to see what you might have missed.
It’s also important to know that the book was written just prior to the time when Israel itself would be sent into exile, sent to live as captives among Gentile peoples. Jonah’s early audiences would have been people who felt very-much like Jonah, who had a lot of anger in their hearts towards their captors. Israel would have had a hard time wanting to see God show grace to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Persians.
And that’s precisely the point. The point of Jonah is that we have to want to see sinners saved. We have to get beyond thinking in mere tribal terms, as if “we” are the good guys, and “they” are the bad guys. The central message of Christianity is that anything good in us at all is always dependent upon God’s mercy. At any given time, our hearts can betray us, and we can find out that we are ourselves the bad guys. This means that when we are confronted with oppositions and even a hostile and hateful world around us, we have to remember that old Puritan line, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
This is what makes grace so hard to swallow. If we are sinners and God still loves us, then that means we have to love other sinners. Indeed, in the words of Jesus, we must love our enemy:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matt. 5:43-48)
These must surely be the most challenging verses in all of Scripture. Because these verses require us to swallow our pride, quench our anger, and put God’s perspective ahead of our own. They require us to step out on faith. Loving folks who love you is natural. Loving your enemy requires grace. It requires the gospel.
Jonah is a lot like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He failed to see that it is a joyous occasion whenever a sinner repents and that getting even is the opposite of grace. He missed out on the big picture. This was Jonah’s problem too. And that means that Jonah teaches the same message that the older brother taught. “Good people” have to get over their belief that one has to first make things up to God and make things up to men before they can be accepted by Jesus and saved. The Jews needed to get over their anger at the Gentiles, and the Pharisees needed to get over their anger against tax collectors and prostitutes.
And so, perhaps, we need to get over our anger at our enemies. Now this requires more explanation than is often given. It’s a pretty common thing to say that Christians need to avoid being angry at our enemies. We are told that we have been “haters” for far too long. We are told that the reason that people oppose us is because we are obnoxious jerks. And this is false. It doesn’t matter how nice you are if your message itself is deemed “hateful,” and it is our message that is most offensive. Also, the Bible is full of occasions where God and His ministers are rightly angry at sin, and the word “hate” is even used.
A high regard for God’s truth revealed in Scripture has to bring a high regard for both the hatred of evil and the love of enemies, and the tension should be obvious. We have to always do both at the same time, and the only way we can do that is through the gospel. What do I mean? We have to remember that God hates sin and yet loves sinners. Listen to these statements, all coming from Romans 5:
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. (Rom. 5:6)
God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8)
When we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son… (Rom. 5:10)
How can you love someone who you hate? You could try by starting with yourself. That’s what God did.
The Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone means that we are not loved by God because we righteous but in spite of the fact that we are unrighteous. We are loved by God even when we are God’s enemies, and even after we are received as righteous in His sight, we are still always simultaneously saint and sinner. Our relationship continues to be a love/hate one, so to speak, but we know that God has found a way to bring both His justice and His mercy together and that His love is fully demonstrated in turning enemies into friends. This does not mean that God feel any less angry towards to the sins, but it means that He can and does have pity upon the person committing the sin and manages to identify them, not with their sin, but with Christ.
And so we need to see all of our enemies as sinners who have the potential to be saved. We need to have a pity for them which desires their salvation, and truly. And we need to see that we are just like them. “There but for the grace of God go I.”
The place to start with this challenge is your own heart. Do you delight in the thought of God condemning other people? If so, then you must repent. Put yourself in their position and envision yourself being condemned to Hell. They aren’t any worse than you were. They need what you need—grace— and you never deserved to get it in the first place.
After this, try to see God’s purpose in their life. What function do they serve? How do they bring God pleasure? What gifts do that have which might be used for good? Try to cultivate a desire of your own towards them, a good-feeling and love of their good qualities.
Thirdly, pray for them. You can and should pray that they would repent. But also bless them. Do not curse them. Pray that God would work in their life in such a way that good things come. Pray that they would be recipients of grace.
And then, finally, evangelize them. This will require confrontation, but at the right time and the right place. You don’t always need to use a hammer. Begin by building some sort of shared rapport. Get to know them. Let them see you learning about them and understanding them. And then give them your reason for their repentance and salvation. It’s that you want what’s best for them. You want to see them saved.
The book of Jonah turns out to be a lesson for the good folks. It’s a book directed towards those who think of themselves as God’s people. We have to have tender hearts. We have to have pity on others. We have to love God’s grace, even when it’s hard to swallow.
Let us pray.