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Jonah 4

Sermon Transcript

How do you respond when things don't go your way? Jonah was the recipient of God's grace, but when it came time for Jonah to extend it to others he had some serious hangups. Join Dr. Marty Baker as we dive into Jonah chapter 4 and see there is room for everyone at the foot of the cross.

When you hear an incredible, true story, what should your response be? An average, healthy person would be exuberant and excited.  Take, for instance, this story.

Mrs. G. Gudebrond of Hillingdon, California, lost her coveted wedding ring on a beach picnic in 1979.  A year later, her husband caught a crab on this same beach.  He brought it home for her to cook.  Looking at the crab’s claws, she saw something shiny affixed to one of them.  You guessed it.  It was her long-lost wedding ring.[1] Given all the crabs in the ocean at that precise spot, what are the chances of this happening? It's a story that must have filled Mr. and Mrs. Gudebrond with joy and a sense of wonder. Don’t you know they did a little celebrating?

Now, let’s go back in time to another incredible story. Jonah, a Jewish prophet of God, called his nation’s enemy, the dreaded Assyrians, to repent and turn to God in faith or face divine judgment. Shockingly, the king, to the lowest person in society, heard Jonah’s short call to repentance; they abandoned their false gods, confessed their sins, and followed hard after the living God. From what we know about the number of children in the city from chapter four verse 11 (120,000), Nineveh’s population probably hovered, at least, around 600,00o or more. This was an incredible conversion that no Jew ever thought would occur, but it did.

How should Jonah have responded? With shouts of joy. He should have been slapping many Assyrians on their backs and high-fiving everyone he met before he traveled back to Israel.

That’s NOT what Jonah did, as we learn from chapter four.  He so disliked the Assyrians; he so hated them for the atrocities they had committed against his people over the years; he could not embrace the fact God had forgiven them.  So, what did he do? He walked to a high point on the east side of the fortress of Ninenveh and waited for God to rain fire and brimstone down upon these terrible sinners.  Irony has dripped from the first three chapters of this interesting little book. Still, this turn of events raises irony to a whole new level: the man of God who should have been excited about the mass conversions of the Assyrians became enraged.  He enjoyed tasting the wonder of God’s rich grace in saving him from the dark dungeon of the massive fish, but his pride and prejudice kept him from extending grace to people he couldn’t stand.

Why didn’t the book close on the high spiritual note of chapter three?  God wanted to expose Jonah’s sinful heart to show him how far he was from God’s heart for the lost. As J. Sidlow Baxter correctly observes: “Jonah needed to learn that God’s special favour toward Israel did not mean a lessened love for other peoples . . . Israel had not been chosen simply for Israel’s own sake, but to fulfill a Divine purpose, the end of which was the blessing of all peoples. The election of one nation did not mean the rejection of others! God loves all His human creatures ‘without respect of persons’ . . .”[2] This is a message God knew would be pivotal in Jonah’s life and also appropriate to  believers for all time, for we all can be tempted to think, “I don’t think those people should experience the love and forgiveness of God in light of all the evil things they have done.”  God’s heart is bigger than this, and ours should be, too. But, just in case you struggle with Jonah's isolationist, prideful thinking, this chapter is divinely designed to wake you up so you can grow up.

As we move through the progressive panels of this historical record of chapter four, one central motif strikes us:

If You React With Prideful Elevation, God Will Respond With Some Powerful Education (Jonah 4:1-11)

This theme is carefully developed in the ensuing eleven verses. We can better understand it by working our way through the passage's seven logical movements.  First up is . . .

The Response (Jonah 4:1-2)

As I just stated, Jonah’s response to this glorious revival of the citizens of Nineveh was the total opposite of what you’d expect:

 Jonah 4:1 But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry.

God’s holy anger against the cumulative and brutal sins of the Ninevites was justified, but Jonah’s anger was out of line completely.  Has your attitude ever run contrary to what God desires? If so, don’t be too hard on Jonah, but learn and apply what God sought to teach him to yourself.

Jonah’s response is even more off the charts in the Hebrew text.

 Jonah 4:1 וַיֵּ֥רַע אֶל־יוֹנָ֖ה רָעָ֣ה גְדוֹלָ֑ה וַיִּ֖חַר לֽו

The NASB, KJV, and NKJ translate this opening verb, ra’ah, as “displeased,” but this is not the ultimate root meaning. According to the Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew lexicon, the verb is one of the main words in Hebrew for evil.

[רָעַע S7489 TWOT2191, 2192 GK5336, 8317, 8318]98 vb. denom. be evil, bad;—†Qal Pf. 3 ms. רַע Nu 22:34 + 3 times, רָ֑ע 11:10; 3 fs. רָעָה Dt 15:9 (Ex 21:8 v. i. רַע); Impf. 3 ms. יֵרַע (Ges 67 p) Gn 21:12 +; 3 fs. תֵּרַע Dt 28:54, 56; 3 mpl. יֵרְעוּ Ne 2:3;— 1. be displeasing:[3]

God uses the noun root in Jonah 1:2 to describe the wickedness of the Ninevites, and the king of Nineveh employs it in chapter three, verse eight, to describe his people's evil. It is also used in verse ten of the same chapter.  Why is it important to dig temporarily into this Hebrew word? We need to look at it because of how it relates to Jonah.  Jonah viewed God’s gracious salvation of the Assyrians in Nineveh as evil.  That’s simply jaw-dropping. How did his theology become so twisted? The next verse gives us some insight into the question.

Listen carefully to what Jonah says in his argument with God over the revival in Nineveh:

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.

From Jonah’s response here, he offered this argument to God before he sailed to Tarshish. He fled from God’s command to head to Nineveh with a message of impending judgment if repentance did not materialize because he understood God's character. The fact that he argued with God is one thing, but it is quite another that he used the Scriptures to justify his disobedience.

Jonah’s theological credo comes from Exodus 34:6-7 where Moses describes God’s mercy to sinful Israel after the sad incident with the golden calf. It might also be based on Numbers 14:18, where Moses prayed for sinful Israel when they wouldn’t go into the Promised Land because of the negative report of ten spineless spies. By talking about the beautiful character of God in relation to Israel, Jonah, therefore, worried God might just let that character motivate Him to deal graciously and lovingly with the Ninevites, so he, who couldn’t stand his enemy, decided it best to run. How spiritually selfish and shallow.  He wanted God’s rich mercy and forgiveness for his people and himself, but he didn’t like it for people he didn’t care for.  It is one thing to know sound theology and quite another to apply and live it even if you don’t like the outcome.  Jonah knew the chapter and verse about God's lofty, loving character, yet he only selfishly wanted God to love his sinful people, not their enemies.  With a twisted, narrow view of God like this, it is no wonder he hopped on a ship bound for Tarshish. Sadly, we learn here that he still tenaciously held this warped view after God showed him mercy by delivering him from the fish, and after He redeemed the people, most thought couldn’t be redeemed.

Don’t think this twisted theological spirit cannot rear its ugly head in our day. I’ve seen my share of saints who know theology well but chose not to love as God loves. At my last church, we had a fantastic Awana program for children.  One night, two lesbians dropped their children off to enjoy the program, and they went to dinner.  In time, they felt comfortable enough to bring their Chinese take-out into our large conference room near the church office. They would eat and talk while their kids enjoyed Awana.  I thought it was great they were in the building because there is room at the cross for all sinners.

One of our key members didn’t hold my view.  Angrily, she approached me one evening and said, “Do you see who is eating dinner in the conference room? What are they doing here?  What are you going to do about it? You need to tell them to leave.” When I informed the concerned Awana worker, I thought it was wonderful that these ladies had come into the building and stayed, I lost the worker and loyal worship team member.  She, like Jonah, understood God’s character and how this applied to her life as a sinner, but she didn’t want to extend this to “those people.”  Perhaps your heart needs to become God’s heart.  If so, the Lord will help you, as we see from Jonah’s life.

The Request (Jonah 4:3)

Jonah’s request in light of God’s redemption of the Ninevites is the epitome of emotional drama and selfishness:

3 "Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life."

Translated into our vernacular: “I’d rather die than live with converted Assryains.” His statement should make you want to stand back and wait for a lightning bolt to pulverize him.

Jonah’s words are so strange.  While in the giant fish, he begged and prayed for God to be merciful to him, a sinner. He didn’t want to die in the dark, dank place. No, he wanted to live, so he threw his sinful self on the mercy and compassion of the living God.  But now, after God forgave and delivered him, he begged for death because God saved the people he hated. He, obviously, had not grown in this area of his life.  Perhaps this has happened in your life.  You thought a divinely ordered adversity shaved off some of your rough, sinful edges, but when God did something you disagreed with, the real you surfaced again. When that occurs, please realize that God is never content to leave you in your spiritual immaturity. On the contrary, He will providentially work to get your attention so you can break free from the chains of sin that hold you back from real spiritual progress (Rom. 6:19ff).

We see this heart of God unfold in the following verse:

The Rebuttal (Jonah 4:4)

God’s holiness could have motivated Him to call his prophet home, but His love for his sordid, selfish saint and desire to see him mature overrode His option to beam the prophet up.

 4 And the LORD said, "Do you have good reason to be angry?"

When God counters your petty, flimsy arguments with well-crafted questions, you had better stand your ground and note that you are about to lose the debate. Jonah’s answer, which we aren’t given probably because he was too upset to provide one, should have been, “No, Lord, I don’t have any viable reason to be upset about you saving the Ninevites.”  This was the first of three divinely crafted questions designed to unmask the prejudice in Jonah’s heart and challenge him to be concerned about the spiritual condition of all people. I wonder what question God is asking you right now?  Hopefully, you will humble yourself and respectfully answer God.

Unfortunately, Jonah didn’t do that. He doggedly held onto his untenable and prejudicial position and opted for what I call . . .

The Repayment (Jonah 4:5)

Picture the scene.  Nineveh became joyous over God’s forgiveness of their collective and individual sin, but the man who brought the spiritual light didn’t stick around to disciple them in their new faith. Instead, he found the nearest gate to assist him in finding a location where he could sit and wait for God’s fire to fall from heaven. Talk about a stubborn saint.  For Jonah, it was either his way or no way, which meant he didn’t want God’s way.  He wanted the sinners vaporized.

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.

Given the barren desert surrounding Nineveh, I’m sure Jonah didn’t have many options for building a good, sturdy shelter. The Hebrew text uses the word sukkah (סֻכָּ֗ה)for shelter here. Interestingly, this is the same word used for the shelters Israelites built for the Feast of Tabernacles.  During this annual religious observance, the people “lived” in temporary shelters to remember God’s excellent provision for them during the forty years of wilderness wonderings (Lev. 23:233-44).  Perhaps Jonah constructed this kind of flimsy shelter to motivate God to be faithful to him by bringing judgment on Israel’s dreaded enemy.  It didn’t faze God at all.  On the contrary, this shelter of selfishness motivated God to providentially work in Jonah’s life so he could see the condition of his human heart compared to God’s.

What God did in Jonah’s life, He will do in yours if He perceives your view of certain sinners as narrow, jaded, and unjustified.  The ensuing verses reveal how God providentially worked to awaken his pernicious prophet concerning his limited view of evangelism.

The Revelation (Jonah 4:6-8a)

Previously, God had arrested Jonah’s attention by sending a massive wind upon the Mediterranean Sea so stormy seas would almost sink the boat he fled on (Jonah 1:4).  Next, God made sure the casting of lots on deck during the storm fell on Jonah so that he would be the first man overboard (Jonah 1:7).  Once they threw the guilty prophet into the raging sea, God controlled the storm and caused it to immediately abate (Jonah 1:15).  Then, God commandeered the right size of fish to swallow the prophet without killing him. Once inside the fish, God guided it back to the coast of Israel. God even made the fish spit the prophet up on dry land instead of upchucking him in deep water.  What providence God possesses. Why would we run from Him and His will? Why would we not simply do what He has asked of us? Some struggle because they, like Jonah, are hard-headed. They always have to learn the hard way.  God will oblige to be their teacher, as He was with His clueless prophet.

 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."

Since the Lord made the earth in six days and populated it with all sorts of beautiful plants and animals, I have no problem with him causing a plant to spring up and quickly grow to provide even better shade than the shelter did.

Jonah enjoyed the newfound shade and must have thought God had blessed him.  Its presence probably also gave him hope that as God had magically caused the plant to grow to shade him, it wouldn’t be long before God would magically neutralize the Ninevites.  The plant and shade were short-lived, however.  God took the plant out with one little, hungry worm. The worm providentially showed up at dawn just before the sun rose, and the day became unbearably hot. As the sun began to scorch the sand around Jonah’s feet and to bake his exposed head, God then turned up the heat . . . literally . . . by orchestrating the arrival of a blistering hot scirocco. I experienced one of these in the Dead Sea region back in 2003.  It was around 110 degrees that day when the wind suddenly became gale force.  Sand pelted us, and we could barely see our way back to the protection of the bus. It was most unpleasant, and I don’t think our sin caused God to send it our way!

The point of all of this can’t be missed. God will providentially use things in our lives to allow us to see the condition of our spiritual hearts.  If we have a selective view of evangelism and harbor prejudice toward a specific people group, we should be prepared to encounter a so-called vine, a worm, and some super-heated wind. God may strike your car with a malfunction, cause you to have a flat on the 395, and so forth in His quest to help you get a much-needed attitude adjustment.  In Jonah’s case, these providentially arranged events were lovingly designed to show how misplaced and misguided his comprehension of love was.  God will do the same to ensure your heart reflects His heart.

How did Jonah respond? Not well.

The Request (Jonah 4:8b)

As before, he said he would rather die than change his heart.

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."

I’ve seen stubborn people before, and I’ve seen it in my life as well.   But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as stubborn as Jonah.  Like a pit bull with its jaw locked on a large bone, there was no way he was giving up his hatred of the Assyrians, but God hadn’t given up on him.  What grace.

We see that grace extended in the closing verses:

The Rebuttal (Jonah 4:9-11)

First, let’s read how God tutored Jonah after this brief lesson in His spiritual schoolhouse:

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?" (Jon. 4:1-11)

What is God’s point?  He confronted Jonah’s prejudice head-on by telling him he had more love and compassion for a temporary plant than an eternal spirit bound for eternal judgment.  Ouch. God’s salvation of Nineveh and the Assyrians was far more critical than Jonah’s creature comforts. God was focused on the eternal, while Jonah was focused on the temporal.  God was focused on eternal life, while Jonah was concentrated on temporal life and wanting to end it just because he didn’t get his way. Jonah’s priorities were way off base, spiritually speaking. He showed more concern for a worthless vine than he did for priceless people created in God’s image, but who needed a faith relationship with Him to truly live in the here and now and in the hereafter.

So, what’s the answer to God’s final question? Was He right to show compassion on the Ninevites? Absolutely, for they were of ultimate value. They were created in God’s image; sin had stained and marred that image.  That’s why they needed a prophet to bring them a word of hope and healing so they could be spiritually restored (Acts 4:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:17). Unfortunately, Jonah didn’t totally share God’s concern.  His prejudicial priorities caused him to care about all the wrong things instead of all of the lost.

The implication of God’s question speaks to us some three thousand years later: How can we not be concerned about all the lost, regardless of who they are? How can we be more in love with temporal things than eternal souls that need the chance of a faith relationship with the Master, Jesus?

We must wait until we reach heaven to find out how Jonah answered God’s final question.  But right now, if you are a saint of the Lord Jesus, you must do three things.

  • First, you need to come clean if you are more absorbed with a cause, a pursuit, a quest, or prejudice than with those around you who don’t know Christ.
  • Second, if your theology is excellent but doesn’t impact your personal evangelism concerning all people, regardless of how unworthy they may be, then seek today to right this wrong and bring your evangelistic life in line with sound theology.
  • Third, you need to pray, “Lord, give me a heart for the lost like your heart, and forgive me for being selective concerning who I share the gospel with.”

Do this now, and prepare yourself for a divinely ordered attitude adjustment.

[1] Lyall Watson, The World’s Most Incredible Stories: The Best of Fortean Times (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 97.

[2] J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore The Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1976), 180.

[3] Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 949.