Jonah and Nineveh
INTRODUCTION Among the paradoxes of the Bible is the doctrine of separation of God's people from the world on one hand and on the other hand their mission of mercy from God to the whole. Misunderstandings and misapplications of the doctrine of separation have too often led to a pharisaic, "holier-than-thou" position of prejudice and hypocrisy. On the other hand, humanistic perversions of the message of divine mercy have too often led to sentimental compromises and alliances with the world.
Both Old Testament Israel and New Testament Christianity have been more or less guilty of these opposite distortions of their proper relationship to the world: sometimes mistaking pride for holiness, sometimes mistaking weakness for goodness, and generally confusing themselves and the world by departing from God.
Jonah is an outstanding Biblical example of a reluctantly obedient but narrowly self-righteous servant of God, compelled against his will to be an instrument of divine mercy in proclaiming the wrath of God to a sinful city. We may suppose that Jonah learned to accept the truth that God is both just and merciful; at least this is the truth revealed in the book which bears the prophet's name.
Our present lesson is the last chapter of Jonah. Outline follows: 1. Displeasure, Jonah 4:1-4. a. Personal pique, 1. b. Personal prayer, 2-3. c. Personal problem, 4. 2. Discomfort, Jonah 4:5-8. a. Angry anxiety, 5. b. Anger assuaged, 6. c. Anger aggravated, 7-8. 3. Discernment, Jonah 4:9-11. a. Rash response, 9. b. Reasonable rebuke, 10-11. NOTES ON THE TEXT:
DISPLEASURE, Jonah 4:1-4. Most Christians are inclined to condemn Jonah for his Jewish prejudice. Imagine a preacher displeased because his hearers are converted by his preaching! Even the Pharisees, said Jesus, used to "compass sea and land to make one proselyte" [Matthew 23:15]; and consider the very great efforts that are exerted by churches and evangelists today to win a very few converts! Is it not shocking that Jonah was filled with displeasure because the people of Nineveh repented?
Yet we can hardly claim that Jonah was the last man on earth to manifest ill will toward an alien people. Though Jesus tells us that "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth" [Luke 15:10], we do not always see much manifestation of such joy among God's people on earth. Granted that we may be interested in the salvation of our own friends and loved ones, to what extent are we pleased by the salvation of souls from another race or even from a different social level?
Personal Pique, 1. Jonah was displeased and angry perhaps partly because God had compelled him to preach to a people he hated, and perhaps partly because these hated foreigners showed more immediate faith in the Word of God than was generally evident among the prophet's own people, but most of all because "God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not" [Jonah 3:10].
Under the warning of impending judgment, Nineveh repented, and so averted the judgment of God. In the language of appearance, God repented; but actually the Ninevites repented and so God acted on the principle set forth in Jeremiah 18:6-8. In his personal pique Jonah would have preferred to see Nineveh destroyed.
Personal Prayer, 2-3. How foolishly we can pray sometimes! And how kind and patient is God to suffer our foolishness! How thankful we ought to be that God sometimes refuses to do what we pray for!
None of us, including Jonah, would complain that God is too gracious and merciful to us. Jonah's complaint was that God was being merciful toward Nineveh. So perhaps we would like to have mercy for ourselves and justice for our enemies. But God extends and limits His mercy and executes His judgments according to His own will, not ours. If, like Jonah, we would rather die than see God save our enemies, then may God have mercy upon us, as He had mercy on Jonah.
Personal Problem, 4. "Doest thou well to be angry?" Sometimes a question can be more effective than a statement. It is difficult, however, to think clearly in a state of anger; Jonah's anger was a part of his personal problem, and he needed some additional experience with God, some additional working of God's grace upon him, before he could learn to think God's way.
DISCOMFORT, Jonah 4:5-8. Given a choice between comfort and discomfort, we would always choose comfort, because we do not know what is good for us. We learn more from our afflictions, troubles, and sorrows than we are likely to learn when we are too comfortable in the flesh.
Angry Anxiety, 5. Maybe Jonah guessed wrong about what God would do next. Maybe he hoped that God's judgment upon Nineveh was only postponed for a few days, so that he might yet see the city's destruction. At any rate, having made for himself a little shelter from the sun, he sat down to watch "till he might see what would become of the city." He was angrily anxious to know.
Anger Assuaged, 6. Evidently Jonah's booth was not very effective in providing shade from the sun. As God had earlier prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah [1:17], so now He had no difficulty in preparing a gourd to shade Jonah from the sun. Anyone who has sat long in a hot sun with scanty shade can understand why "Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd."
Anger Aggravated, 7-8. We may note that while Jonah liked the gourd, if he understood what caused it to wither he did not like the worm. What we may forget but need to remember is that God prepared both the gourd and the worm, each for, His own purposes.
If Jonah was angry before, his anger was aggravated by the sun and the "vehement east wind" (which also God prepared). We might say that Jonah really got hot. Fainting under the heat, he "wished in himself to die." But God did not immediately grant his wish, because Jonah still had something to learn.
DISCERNMENT, Jonah 4:9-11. Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned [I Corinthians 2:14], but God often uses natural experiences to teach us spiritual truth. We can learn especially from our own experiences, if God gives us spiritual discernment.
Rash Response, 9. For a second time, but in a changed context, God asked Jonah, "Doest thou well to be angry?" The first time Jonah was angry for Nineveh, because Nineveh survived; the second time he was angry for the gourd, because the gourd perished. The first time he hardly dared to assert that he was doing well in resenting God's mercy on Nineveh, but the second time he rashly responded that he did well in resenting God's chastisement on himself.
Poor Jonah! He was mad enough to die, as we say, and made bold to justify himself in his madness.
Reasonable Rebuke, 10-11. Come to think of it, any creature ought to know better than to try to carryon an argument against his Creator. God spoke the first word in creation, and He will always have the last word in judgment. So in the book of Jonah, the first and last words are the words of Jehovah. We may certainly infer that Jonah learned his lesson; but, more important, the lesson is preserved for us.
Later perhaps Jonah could realize that his attitude was essentially selfish, but God dealt gently with His servant, permitting him to draw this conclusion for himself. Meanwhile, even supposing that Jonah's chief concern was for the gourd, he was due a simple and reasonable rebuke.
Without explicit mention of the selfishness involved in Jonah's anger, consider the inconsistency of his "pity" on a gourd, a mere vegetable which did not belong to him; while at the same time trying to find fault with God for extending His pity to a great city whose responsible inhabitants had repented and which included in its population more than 120,000 infants, in addition to all the domestic animals which were also the creatures of God but were not to be blamed for the sins of Nineveh!
That reasonable rebuke certainly gave Jonah enough to think about; and in due time, under divine inspiration, he wrote it all down in the book for our learning. May God help us to learn it!
CONCLUSION [Matthew 12: 41] Though the point may not have been acceptable to the Jews, it is surely clear enough to us today. No one would deny that Jesus is greater than Jonah; no one with good moral sense will deny that responsibility increases with privilege. But if the sin of the Jews in the first century who rejected their Messiah was greater than the sin of Nineveh, how much greater still is the wickedness of Jews and Gen- tiles alike who continue to reject Him after nearly two thousand years of accumulated testimony to His eternal diety? ==============
[From Ashland Avenue Baptist paper, November 22, 1974, pp. 2-3. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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