This week, we’ve been looking at the OT book of Jonah. On Monday, we saw how Jonah was a prophet who was given a simple message of judgement to deliver to a hostile people – but ran away in the opposite direction. Unwittingly, he himself becomes an object lesson as he embodies Israel’s failure to live out her calling to be a light to the nations. (You probably want to read Monday’s first, if you missed it.) God gets Jonah’s attention with a violent storm, and he has himself thrown overboard to save the others aboard the ship. God sends a giant fish to rescue him, and Jonah sings a song of praise – acknowledging that God has shown him undeserved mercy and vowing to complete his mission to Nineveh. Yesterday, he did just that: and all of Nineveh repented. Although Israel isn’t responsive to the steady stream of prophets God has sent, the evil Ninevites repent after just five words from Jonah.
Scene 5: God’s heart for the nations
But the story doesn’t end there. Jonah, it turns out, isn’t overjoyed at Nineveh’s repentance and God’s forgiveness. ‘Cause it’s exactly what he was worried might happen. This merciful God of his might be… well… merciful. How bad would that be! Listen to what he says:
4:1-3 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “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. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
(A bit of a drama queen if you ask me…) Far from being happy that God didn’t destroy Nineveh – he reveals it’s his reason for running away in the first place. Jonah knew that God was ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love’. He remembered that bit from Exodus. And he certainly didn’t want this mercy being shown to the dreaded Ninevites: Israel’s enemies! So instead of repenting of his own attitude – he simply resents them all the more. So much so that he thinks it’s better to die! Better to die than to go on living in a world where his enemies don’t get what they deserve!
Have you ever detected that attitude in yourself? Being happy to be the recipient of God’s incredible forgiveness – yet finding it hard when God shows mercy to people we think are undeserving. Who are beyond forgiveness.
Or do we have more compassion on people with a similar background; of the same ethnicity as us? Do we get angry that God offers forgiveness even to our enemies; to those who hurt us? Or hurt our society?
Yet of course, we don’t deserve mercy either. It’s just that our respectability stops us from seeing it as clearly. Just like Israel’s status as ‘God’s chosen people’ stopped them from being aware of their state before God. They came to think they deserved God’s favour. Unlike everyone else. But God stops them cold – he stops Jonah cold – with a probing question:4:4b “Is it right for you to be angry?”
After all God has done for you Jonah, rescuing you and giving you a second chance; after all God has done for you Israel, forgiving you time and time again; after all God has done for… you?
Now instead of leaving it there, God decides to give Jonah an object lesson to teach him this point. (This in itself is an act of mercy.) Because Jonah’s not going to give up in a hurry.4:5 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.
A bit of prophetic denial here. Forty days might have passed, but maybe God’ll do the right thing and still smite them. And while he waits, it’s getting hot. His makeshift shelter isn’t really cutting it. So God decides to help out and miraculously provides a vine to cover it.4:6 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.
This is pretty much the first time Jonah’s been happy about anything in the whole story. And it’s just a plant. Meanwhile, down the hill in Nineveh, there’s something he really should be excited about – the repentance and salvation of an entire city. Oh well, let’s see what happens next.4:7-8 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 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.”
For the second time in the story, Jonah says he’d be better off dead. The author is forcing us to see the link between Jonah’s attitude to Nineveh, and his attitude to the vine.4:9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
Aha! Now God has him exactly where he wants him.4:10 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.”
This little vine, which you did not create – you can rejoice in, and care for, and be upset when it’s destroyed. Hmmm….4:11 “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 cows?”
Can’t tell their right hand from their left. Is this a city full of dislexics? People who spent their entire lives thinking they lived in the city of Niveneh? No, it’s a figure of speech about how helpless they were. They were in trouble, but didn’t know how to get out of trouble. They didn’t know the path back to God.
And also many cows. Did you notice this? That the entire book of Jonah actually finishes with the phrase ‘and also many cows’. Making the little sarcastic dig even more biting by its absurd placement as the final word on the matter.
So remind me again Jonah, why should I not care for the people of Nineveh? I did create them, you know. And, in the grand scheme of things, they’re more important than a vine, wouldn’t you say? I mean, there are even cows there – not as important as human beings, I grant you that. But still more important than – your vine. That’s why I called you to go to Nineveh.
It’s also why Israel was called to be God’s special people. Not just for their own sake. But because God wanted them to be a light to the nations. To be a witness to the other nations – to other people also created in God’s image.
It’s why Jesus was sent, too. What was his message? ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is near’. Get ready for God’s coming judgement by turning from your sin! Essentially the same message as Jonah. Which is why it’s called the “sign of Jonah.”
And Jesus was sent – not just to one city, but to an entire humanity who didn’t know their right hand from their left. Who were objects of God’s wrath. Without hope and without God in the world. He came to show us all the path back to God. Everyone. Not just God’s chosen people, but people from all nations. Not just respectable people, but the prostitutes and tax-collectors and Ninevites– the worst of sinners. And their cows.
The biting message of Jonah, then, is one that’s still very relevant today. God’s love isn’t just restricted to some people. The people who look like they might deserve it. Because no-one does. God’s love is universal. He doesn’t want anyone to perish. He sends his messengers – he sends us – not just to the lost sheep of Israel, but to go into all nations. So that one day there might be people from every tribe, every language, every nation – gathered around the throne singing ‘worthy is the lamb’. If you want to put it in one simple sentence: ‘people matter to God’. All do. Not just us. But everyone.
They all matter to God. And so they should matter to us. Are we doing something about it? Or by our apathy, or fear, or resentment – do we show that we’re running in the opposite direction? Do we avoid contact with the Ninevites of our world, so we don’t have to bring the message of God’s love and mercy for all?
To think about
In the TV show The West Wing (still the greatest TV show ever made) one of the episodes has the President confronting a dilemma. He’s deciding whether he’ll intervene to stop genocide in the fictional country of Kundu. Military intelligence estimates that 25,000 Kundunese will die if the West sits back and does nothing.
Yet the President is being pressured not to intervene. Why? His staff projects that 100, maybe up to 1000 American troops would be killed. Is it worth the cost? He goes and talks to one of his speechwriters about this. The President asks him: ‘Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life.’ His speechwriter replies: ‘I don’t know, sir, but it is.’ What he means is that in the eyes of public opinion, when it comes down to it, one of our lives is worth more than one of theirs.
The book of Jonah tells us that God thinks otherwise. The gospel tells us that Jesus came because he thinks otherwise. That one of our lives is not worth more than one of theirs. In fact, that both our lives and their lives are all precious. They are all worth the life of God’s son. Which means there’s no longer any reason there should be an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ at all.
Be careful that you’re not like Jonah; that you’re not like the people of Israel this was first written to. Fulfil your prophetic call to bring the message of God’s mercy to everyone. Regardless of who they are, or what their background. Whether you have to go to the heart of the Assyrian Empire, or simply go next door.
And when you see God show mercy to those who don’t deserve it, don’t be resentful. Rejoice! Because you didn’t deserve it either. Yet God has shown great mercy to you. Because people matter to God. They all do.
And their cows.