Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
26 November 2017
Texts: Jonah 4
The Gospel according to Jonah
Christ the King Sunday
Sermon: Jonah 4
Last week we left Jonah in the city of Nineveh. Remember he was sent there to preach the message that God gave him to preach. “Yet 40 days and the city will be overthrown.” In response, the whole city of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes. Nineveh experienced a massive-scale revival sparked by preaching. Thus, Jonah witnessed what most preachers can only hope and dream about — a fruitful harvest of gospel ministry.
This response was quite different than the response he got in his own country among his own people.
According to 2 Kings 14, Jonah was a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam, king of Samaria. A king which did evil in the sight of the Lord for forty plus years. You can read about all the sins and treacheries of Jeroboam and Samaria and God’s judgments against them in the Book of Amos. Amos the prophet was a contemporary of Jonah the prophet. Both preached God’s word to his people.
The point is this: Despite Jonah’s best efforts among his own people — the Hebrews of Samaria — they refused to repent and believe God’s word. Yet, after preaching one day in Nineveh the whole city repents and believes and cries out to God for deliverance.
They repented, and God relented.
And that brings us to our sermon text in Jonah 4. This is Jonah’s reaction. Hear the word of God.
1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” 5 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.6 Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”10 And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
The word of the Lord.
There was rejoicing in heaven — and yet resentment on earth. Why?
In Hebrew we see that Nineveh turned from its evil way and God repented of the evil he said he was going to do to them. “And it was evil to Jonah a great evil and he was angry for it.”
But why was he so angry that God repented from overthrowing Nineveh?
We have already seen that Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and that the Assyrians were mortal enemies of Israel. And now we see why Jonah was so reluctant to go preach there.
2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
Contrary to popular opinion, Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, not because it was a big, violent, sinful city, but because God is so gracious and merciful and willing to save! In other words, Jonah did not want God to show them mercy and grace and save them.
As James Jordan explains why in his book Through New Eyes:
Jonah had been reluctant to preach to Nineveh, fearing that God would convert those people and thereby raise them up as a powerful nation. He knew that Israel deserved judgment, and that God had threatened to take the Gospel to another nation, thereby raising it up as a weapon to punish Israel [as it is written in (Deuteronomy 32:21):
They have made me jealous with what is no god;
they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
Sure enough, the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, and Jonah was horrified. In spite of her sins, Jonah loved wayward Israel and hated to see the Gospel taken from her to the Gentiles (compare Paul, Romans 9-11). (83)*
Jonah knew the truth about the true and living God. He had already seen the Lord draw straight lines with crooked sticks in his own country. 2 Kings 14 says that “the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel.But the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of the wicked King Jeroboam the son of Joash.” Instead of blotting out Israel for her idolatry and sins, he showed them mercy. It was a severe mercy, but mercy nonetheless.
The point is that Jonah knew by first-hand experience that God is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
He also knew it by divine revelation from the Holy Scriptures.
When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the Lord hid him in the cleft of the rock and passed by him and proclaimed these truths.
When the Hebrews rebelled and refused to take possession of the promise land, Moses reminded the Lord of his great power by reciting these words.
The psalmist sang these words in times of need.
The prophets reminded God’s people of these words in moments of crisis.
All God’s people learned these truths by catechesis.
Question: Who is God?
Answer: Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Sadly, many people misunderstand that and get things exactly backwards. Man’s imagination about God is far different than God’s revelation of himself. If you don’t hear anything else, hear this and mark it down: God is far more gracious and merciful and loving than angry. His anger is but for a moment, and his grace is for a lifetime.
So what’s the problem? For Jonah, the problem was that these truths about God only applied to Israel, God’s covenant people. They were not supposed to apply to the nations at all. Ever.
So when Jonah sees God showing grace and mercy to people who deserve wrath and justice, he throws a tantrum and drums his heels on the desert floor.
Unlike the Lord, Jonah was slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry.
He wanted God to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and to relent from disaster when it came to Israel. But he wanted God to be grievous and malicious and swift to anger and abounding in catastrophic wrath and releasing disaster when it came to the nations and enemies of Israel.
His systematic theology was rock solid on paper; but his missional zeal was dust and ashes in real life.
We know that because in his anger he said (in effect), “I knew you were on mission to save the world and I didn’t want anything to do with it. I knew you were going to let that fish off the hook and I can’t stand it when you catch and release these monsters.”
He cared very much if God saved America, but he didn’t care at all if God damned the nations -– especially those nasty Assyrian terrorists.
Now, before you judge the prophet too harshly, ask yourself this:
If God spared the lives of terrorists who wrecked your homeland how would you feel?
If God saved the terrorists who hi-jacked planes on a suicide mission on 9/11 how would you react?
If God saved the terrorists who slaughtered some of your brothers and sisters in Egypt and Syria, would you rejoice with them or not?
Let’s bring it closer to home.
What if God spared a church full of legalists? Or a congregation of fundamentalists? Or a bunch of hypocrites? How would you feel about that?
The truth is that often we want grace for ourselves, but justice for others. Just like Jonah.
Notice, God did not overthrow the city of Nineveh, but he did overthrow the prophet Jonah.
Jonah was so angry over God’s display of mercy and grace towards Nineveh that he actually asked God to take his life.
“Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
He is not the first prophet to pray for death. Elijah did the same thing under similar circumstances in 1 Kings 19. God’s prophets were passionate guys. Some people even thought their were a little crazy.
Still, this is a selfish, childish, and foolish prayer!
Once again we see Jonah clinging to worthless idols (nationalism, racism, egotism) and sinking deeper into the pit and forsaking God’s mercies for himself and for others.
And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
Notice that Jonah did not answer right away. He gave God the silent treatment.
When Jonah realized that God was not going to do what Jonah wanted God to do, he did what many protestant evangelical zealots do: he pitched a fit, then he planted a new and improved church.
Jonah planted the East-side Church of Justice: a shelter for critics, cynics, and complainers.
All joking aside, this is a sign of a very bad move.
Throughout the biblical story we see that whenever someone moves East that is a sign that they are moving away from the presence of the Lord.
Adam was driven out of the garden towards the east. Cain drifted around the land East of Eden. People moved east and built a sky-scraping tower in Shinar. Lot settled in the east near Sodom. Ultimately, the Jews went east into Babylonian captivity.
To go east is to go into exile away from the face of the Lord.
Jonah is in a bad place. He is an exile sulking in the darkness of his anger. But Nineveh is free celebrating in the light of God’s grace.
6 Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint.
There is so much to explore here. Perhaps another time. Suffice to say for now that God appointed a plant, a worm, and a wind the same way he appointed the fish. This shows that God is the Sovereign Lord of all creation. It also shows that God treats his people with severe mercies. He comforts us with shade and plants; and disciplines us with worms and scorching wind. In this brief section of the story, Jonah experiences the covenant of blessing and curses (see Deut. 28-32). In all these things, God got Jonah’s attention and exposed the idols of his heart. This is a severe mercy.
[Note: Jonah’s story echoes the story of Adam in the garden: tree = plant; serpent = worm; east of Eden = east of the city. It also echoes the story of the Hebrews in the wilderness: booths and leafy plants = booth and plant. Jonah is a sign that Samaria, like Adam and Israel, is cursed and condemned to exile according to God’s covenant. (cutting room floor notes on Jonah 4; cp Genesis 3:1ff; Leviticus 23:33–43; Deuteronomy 28-32)]
And the Lord said to Jonah: “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.
Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Jonah showed more concern for his country, his theological system, his reputation, his creature comforts, his well-being, and other vain-delusions than he showed for the lost souls of Nineveh.
By clinging to worthless idols, he forfeited the grace was freely offered to him.
I can relate to Jonah more than I want to confess. Can you?
I had a Jonah-like experience about seventeen years ago. Through a series of events I was called to leave the foothills of Colorado and move to the swamps of Louisiana. One week we were playing snow; the next week were burning in hades. Suffice it to say for now that the Lord compelled me to serve in a traditional Church of Christ in a college town. Now, I had recently discovered the gospel of God’s grace, and I was determined not to serve among those legalistic CoCers ever again. But there I was in the midst of them. They were the sweetest people you could hope to meet, but I did not want to be there for various personal reasons. So I decided to do the one thing that would ensure a short-tenure: I decided to sabotage my ministry by preaching the gospel of God’s grace without an apologies.
But something happened that I did not expect.
The church received the gospel of grace with joy. And when I saw that they were open to the gospel of grace I did not rejoice. I was as hot and muggy as the Louisiana summer. For a time I resented the Lord for sending me there and I resented them for not driving me away. As summer gave way to fall, I repented for acting like Jonah. Natchitoches was my Nineveh. It was a place that God used to overthrow me, to show me that God is on mission to save all kinds of people in all kinds of places in all kinds of ways.
The fact that Yahweh showed concern for the children and livestock of Nineveh shows that God is concerned about bodies and souls, all creatures human and beast.
Jesus echoes this divine concern in his life and ministry. That’s why he took a child and put him by his side and said to his disciples, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
In this story, Jesus is the true and better prophet who wept over the great city of God.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Luke 13:34-35)
— and who wept over her refusal to repent and return to the Lord.
And when Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44)
Now, some of Jesus’s disciples (James and John) were like Jonah who was quick to get angry. When they saw how a village of the Samaritan mestizos treated Jesus, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
But Jesus turned and rebuked them.
Unlike James and John and Jonah — and some of us — Jesus takes no delight in the death and destruction of the wicked. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
Jesus is the true and living God in the flesh. The embodiment of grace and mercy and love and patience. He has come to make all things new. To redeem sinners. Restore cities. Renew the world. Resurrect the dead.
Should he not be concerned about cities, children, creatures?
* Note: Calvin has a different take in his Commentary on Jonah. He suggests that Jonah was angry that Nineveh was not overthrown because he thought the Ninevites would mock him as a false prophet (so he was concerned about his reputation) and because he thought they would mock Yahweh as false and deceitful (so he was also concerned about God’s reputation). But Jonah tells us in his own words that he was angry with God not the consequences of the situation.