The Angry Prophet and the Compassionate God

Did Jonah really have a soft spot for plants? Or is there more going on here in this challenging conclusion to his story?

Chris Hutchison on September 5, 2021
The Angry Prophet and the Compassionate God
September 5, 2021

The Angry Prophet and the Compassionate God

Passage: Jonah 4
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Today we come to the end of our four-week journey through this book. Three weeks ago, when we began, I talked about the moon and the telescope, and how there’s glory in familiar things if we just look close enough.

And that’s been my experience in these weeks. This story is just dripping with life and has so much to say to us today all these years later. And I’ve so enjoyed getting to look through the telescope with you as we hear what God is saying to us in His word.

As we wrap this journey up today with chapter 4, it’s important for us to see how chapter 4 fits in with the rest of the book. There is a structure and a pattern to how this book is put together.

In chapter 1, we had the whole series of events leading up to Jonah’s being swallowed by the fish or whale. And in chapter 2, we see Jonah respond to those events through prayer.

Then in chapter 3 we see a whole new set of events: Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh and the repentance of the Ninevites. And now, in chapter 4, just like in chapter 2, we find Jonah’s response to those events.

Events, response. Events, response.

But just a spoiler alert: Jonah’s response in chapter 4 is very different from chapter 2. In chapter 2, he was thankful and glad that God saved him. In chapter 4, he is grumpy and angry that God has saved the Ninevites.

And right away you might be thinking, “Wait, if he was happy for God to spare his life, shouldn’t he be just as happy for God to spare the Ninevites?”

And the answer is “exactly.” That is the question at the heart of this chapter and the heart of this book. How is it possible to rejoice that God saved you, and get upset when God saves others? Jonah chapter 4 leads us to ask that question, not just of Jonah, but even more so of ourselves.

But let’s just jump ahead. Let’s start where we left off last week, back in 3:10: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).

And how does Jonah respond? “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1).

There’s a very interesting play on words in the Hebrew language in verse 10 of chapter 3 and 1 of chapter 1. It comes from the way that “evil,” “disaster” and “displeased” all come from the one same Hebrew word.

Here’s how Leslie Allen, in his commentary on Jonah, puts this in English: “Bad behaviour should lead to a bad end, and Jonah takes it very badly that it does not.”1Leslie C. Allen, The Book of Jonah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 229.

Jonah is exceedingly displeased and angry that God relented from the disaster he was going to bring on them.

And now comes Jonah’s confession. Now comes Jonah’s very honest complaint to God. Verse 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” (Jonah 4:2).

We’ve seen that Jonah is full of surprises, and this is one of the biggest ones. If we were reading Jonah for the first time, we might imagine that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was afraid. He was afraid of what the Ninevites might do to him and how they might treat him, and how they might mock or persecute a Hebrew prophet telling them to repent.

We would imagine that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was afraid his mission would fail.

Instead, we find that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was afraid his mission might be a success. He knows who God is. He knows that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, a God who relents from disaster.

And Jonah didn’t want that to happen. Jonah wanted to see the Ninevites get the disaster that they deserved.

And in verse 3 we find out how much he wanted this: “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

Have you heard of the phrase “over my dead body?” That’s what Jonah is basically saying here. “Over my dead body will Nineveh be saved! I would rather die than see them not die.” Wow, hey? He’s taking this really seriously.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a prophet ask God to take his life. Elijah did this when he ran from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:4). But once again, we see the surprising twists in Jonah. Elijah wanted to die because he thought he had failed. Jonah wants to die because he knows he has succeeded!

And all of the questions come pouring in: “Jonah, you were really happy that God saved you when you didn’t deserve it. How in the world can you be upset now? Do you seriously want God to treat you one way, and everybody else a different way?”

And we’re going to ask some of those questions before we’re done here today, but we should notice how God responds to Jonah in verse 4: “And the Lord said, ‘Do you do well to be angry?’”

Such a gentle question. And yet a question with an obvious answer: No! Jonah does not do well to be angry.

This isn’t the major point of this passage, but I want us to notice that God asks a question. God could have said, “Jonah, you do not do well to be angry.” But instead, he asks. Like he did with Adam: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Like he did with Cain: “Where is Abel your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Like Jesus did so often in his dialogue with people.

A good question, in the right setting, can be a very effective way to invite someone to pause and reflect and think. That being said, we should notice that Jonah doesn’t answer God’s question here. The question is just left hanging.

It’s as if Jonah knows the answer is “no, I do not do well to be angry,” but he doesn’t want to say it.

The Lesson

So God, having spared the Ninevites, sets about to teach Jonah an object lesson about mercy and judgement and compassion. That’s what verses 5 down to 11 are all about. This is God responding to Jonah’s silence by teaching him a lesson. And here’s how it begins:

“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. 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” (Jonah 4:5–6).

Instead of answering God, Jonah grumpily goes to sit down and see what will happen to Nineveh. Maybe he’s hoping the people will start being evil again or that God will change his mind, but it seems like he’s hoping that somehow judgement is still going to fall on Nineveh.

And in verse 6, God does another miracle. Just like he appointed a fish to swallow Jonah, now he appoints a leafy plant to grow at what seems to be an alarming rate to shade Jonah from the heat.

But there’s more going on here. If you have an ESV Bible you’ll see that there’s a little number beside the word “discomfort.” And the note says “or his evil.” That word for “discomfort” is the exact same Hebrew word used back in 3:10 for “evil” and “disaster.”

The idea here is that, just like God saved Nineveh from the disaster coming upon them, so he has saved Jonah from the scorching heat by this supernaturally growing plant.

And after this summer, I think we understand how big of a deal this is. Remember some of those really really hot days? That’s how hot it could be on a regular basis in this part of the world. Now imagine you’re just sitting there out there with no shade at all, the sun just beating down on you.

And so verse 6 tells us that “Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.” I mean, of course. We’d all be grateful for some shade. But don’t miss the irony here. God has once again stepped in to save Jonah from something bad, just like He stepped in to save Nineveh from something really bad.

And instead of making that connection, and realizing how much of a hypocrite he’s been, Jonah just enjoys the plant. He still has this idea that it’s okay for God to save him, but it’s not okay for God to save the Ninevites.

So God takes the lesson a step further. In verse 7, God appoints a worm to attack the plant, so that it shrivels up. And then God appoints a scorching east wind, and the sun beats down on Jonah until he’s almost passing out.

Once agin, we see God’s sovereign power over nature. Plants, worms, and the wind. And by the end of verse 8, Jonah is begging to die again.

And so God speaks to Jonah and drives home the point of this lesson. “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’” (Jonah 4:9).

Notice how God asks Jonah the same question as He did back in verse 4. “Do you do well to be angry?” Back then, Jonah was angry about Nineveh not being destroyed. This time he’s angry because the plant was destroyed.

Do you see the irony here? And that’s the irony God drives home in the final two verses in this book.

“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. 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?’” (Jonah 4:10–11).

Here’s the idea here: Jonah cares more about a little plant than the whole city of Nineveh.

A simple plant, that grew in one day and died in one day, which Jonah didn’t do any work for whatsoever. And he cared about it so much.

So how much more should God care about Nineveh?

Now let’s make sure we’re clear on what’s going on here. I know there’s some of you here today who really love plants, and when one of your plants dies you are quite sad.

But that is probably not what’s happening here. I doubt Jonah was just a plant lover. Jonah loved this plant because this plant provided him with some comfort. And Jonah cared more about his own comfort than the whole city of Ninevites.

And that’s because, ultimately, Jonah thought that he was better, or that he somehow deserved God’s kindness more that all of the Ninevites put together. He had no problem soaking up all of God’s grace and all God’s kindness and all God‘s comfort for himself because he felt like he mattered more than those other people.

And so that’s why he got upset with his plant dying. He cared way too much about his own comfort, because he cared way too much about himself.

And so God asks him this question—“Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city—” and then, with that question ringing in the air, the book of Jonah ends. Talk about a cliff-hanger! We don’t get to find out what Jonah says in response!

But that’s on purpose. By ending the way it does, the author of Jonah invites God’s people to answer the question for themselves. And the of Jonah did that on purpose because the goal here was never just to report on Jonah. The goal of this chapter and, in fact, of the whole book has been to cause God’s people to reflect themselves on their own attitudes.

Because Jonah wasn’t a one-off. Jonah was just one example of a big problem that plagued God’s people for years.

It’s the problem of favouritism. The problem of soaking up all of God’s grace for themselves and not being willing to share a drop with others. The problem of thinking that one group of people deserves God’s grace more than anybody else.  The problem of forgetting, as Psalm 67 reminds us and which we’ll sing together at the end of this service, that God has blessed His people in order “that [His] way may be known on earth, [His] saving power among all nations.” (Psalm 67:1–2). And this problem causes God’s people to ignore or even run from the mission to the nations that God has given us.

This was a problem even after Jesus came. He told His disciples clearly to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

And yet for a while they stayed put in Jerusalem, huddling together as Jews, not reaching out to the “unclean” Gentiles around them.

And so God had to break in to shake things up. And one major way He did that was by giving Peter that vision of the animals coming down from heaven and sending the servants from Cornelius, the Gentile, to invite him to preach the gospel to them. That was a major turning point in the gospel breaking out of the ethnic circle of the Jews and spilling over to the Gentiles.

And is it any coincidence that when Peter had that vision, and the men from Cornelius came to find him, he was in what city? Joppa (Acts 10). The very city that Jonah set sail from. The very place where Jonah tried to run from his mission to the Gentiles was where God found Peter, and instead of running Peter went and preached and the church has never been the same again.

But there’s still been struggle since then. Peter himself at times pulled back from the Gentiles and had to be rebuked by Paul for not acting “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).

And since then God’s people have had to ask themselves again and again and again, “Are we going to keep the gospel to ourselves, and choose our own comfort and security, or are we going to step out in dangerous love to share with others the grace that has been shared with us?”

That’s the question the book of Jonah leaves hanging, and that’s the question it invites you and me to pick up and answer for ourselves.

So let’s do that. How would you answer these questions for yourself?

And I don’t just mean the right answer. I mean the honest answer—the answer that comes not just out of your mouth but out of your life and actions. Have your actions or choices ever told the same story that Jonah’s did—that your happy for God to be kind fo you, but it doesn’t really matter so much whether He saves anybody else?

Have you ever acted as if you love your own comfort more than the lives and destinies of other people?

I just think back over the last two weeks of my own life, and the discomforts that have given me grief. Meanwhile, not far from ancient Nineveh, Afghanistan has fallen, and people are being hunted down by the Taliban and blown to pieces by terrorist bombs. Haiti lies in ruins, again. And billions of people go about their days with no clue that Jesus saves.

I’m so grateful that I matter to God, but I so often forget that so do all of those other people. And if they matter to God, shouldn’t they matter to me as well?

Those are the kinds of questions that the book of Jonah invites us to ask. Which makes the book of Jonah as relevant today as the day it was written.

Because we need to be reminded again, don’t we, that God is a missionary God? He is seeking worshippers for Himself from every tribe, language, people and nation. Just like some of you sang in Sunday school as a kid: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Whatever colour their skin is, whatever language they speak, they are precious in His sight.

And Jonah reminds us that the God of mission has a people whom He sends out to fulfill His mission. Jonah was one of the first to be sent out. Now, “make disciples of all nations” is the mission given to all of the people of God to fulfill together. We each have a role to play in this mission.

And the book of Jonah asks us to reflect on this simple question: what do we love more? Ourselves and our own comfort, or seeing other people be rescued by the God who made and loves them?

And I think it’s so important for us to really press in on this question because it seems to me that the number one factor preventing God’s people from joining God on His mission is that we love ourselves and our own comfort too much.

Isn’t this what keeps so many people tied up here in a comfy North American life instead of going to the unreached peoples of the world, or the needy people of our own community? It’s comfort?

I just think about the phrases I’ve heard so many times in my life: “Oh, I could never go live in that country.” “Oh, I could never be a missionary.” Or “I couldn’t bear to not have my kids home at Christmas.” Or, “I could never live in that part of town.” Or even, “I could never serve in that role in the church.” “I could never work with those people.” Or even, “I don’t really have time for that.”

And I wonder, when we say those kinds of things, if what we really mean is “If I did that, I would be really uncomfortable, and I’m not willing for that because I love myself too much. And I’m content just to enjoy God’s grace all to myself.”And we choose to love our little plant more than the city of Nineveh.

And so don’t we need the book of Jonah to help wake us up from the coma of our North American addiction to comfort and help us remember that our  purpose in life is to serve our God in His mission to make disciples wherever and in whatever way He wants us to, even if that means going to a hard place to share God’s word with a people that we don’t particularly like?

Don’t we need the book of Jonah to remind us that the people God made are extremely valuable—more valuable than our comforts or prejudices? And beyond this, God Himself is supremely worthy of the worship of all peoples. Ans so if we have truly experienced the grace of God than we can’t be content to keep it to ourselves.

These are some big ideas we’re talking about here. And as we end here I want to make this really practical for us. I’m going to do that by giving us three practical invitations from the message of Jonah.

Invitation #1

The first invitation is for us as a church, and this is more of a big-picture invitation. The invitation is that that we would aspire to always be a church that values the mission of God more than our own personal comfort.

Now I want you to know I celebrate as I make this invitation, because over this past year and beyond, so many of us have demonstrated that being the church together in obedience to God’s word is more important than our own personal comforts and preferences. Like, coming to gather at 8 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon, in January.

But I think it’s so important to issue the invitation again, because here in comfortable Canada, we’re always going to face the temptation to be swept up in a pursuit of comfort.

We’re always going to face the temptation to get cozy and start to act like a community club, and to forget about the mission and the lost people around us who need Jesus.

We’re always going to need the reminder that the church is not just a community club where we come to enjoy being comfortable with a bunch of people who are just like us. The church is not like a day spa where we come to be pampered and have all of our preferences catered to. Rather, the church is more like a military outpost, where the wounded come to be treated, and we all get trained and equipped for the next stage of the mission God has given us together.

I get that language of “equipping” from Ephesians 4:11-12, which says that Jesus gave to his church pastors “and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” That verse is a big part of my understanding of what should be happening when we gather together.

It’s not about being comfortable. It’s all about the work of the ministry that God has given us together. And so we come together to regroup, resupply, and build each other up and then march out together for another week of battle.

Now please understand that this doesn’t mean that we’re going to go out of our way to be uncomfortable. It’s not about being uncomfortable for the sake of being uncomfortable. But if there’s a choice between the mission and our comfort, the mission comes first. Because other people, and ultimately God Himself, matters more than our comfort. Nineveh matters more than the plant.

Invitation #2

Here’s the second invitation, and this gets more specific: in just under three weeks, we have an opportunity to go out, as a church, and love on the people of Nipawin in Jesus’ name. We get to go let our light shine before others through our good works which, we pray, will bring glory to our Father in heaven.

I’m talking about Outpour weekend. And I just want to highlight how wonderful it is that we don’t have to pretend to be anything other than a Christian church. As you take people’s yards, they know you’re a christian. And when people offer to pay you, as they so often do, you can tell them, openly, that you’re doing this just to show them the love of Jesus.

And this year, in the spirit of the book of Jonah, I’m inviting us to make this weekend a priority. What do we have to do that’s more important than this?

I’m going bow hunting for the first time this year, but I will not be up in the tree stand on September 25. I will gladly miss out on that prize buck, if that’s what it means, because the lost people of Nipawin matter more.

So I invite you: if you’re able to pull a rake or wash a window or pick up garbage, let’s fill up that sign up-sheet back in the foyer and go do this together for the good of our community and for the glory of Jesus.

Invitation #3

The third invitation is about Christianity Explored. We’re starting next Sunday, and we’re doing this in two time slots: at 9:30 am for Adult Sunday school, and then again at 6:30pm.

Christianity Explored is for all of us. If you’ve been coming to church for years, you’re going to benefit from this. But so could your neighbour or your friend who doesn’t know the Lord. One of the focuses of this course is evangelism—introducing people to Jesus who don’t know Him already.

And so I invite you to think of one person that you could invite to this course with you. Just tell them, “I’m going; would you like to come with me?”

There’s postcard-sized invitations we made in the back—you can grab some on your way out. We also did a page on our website with a video and a write-up., or you can click on it under the “what we do” menu.

The worst that someone can say to you is “no.” But what if they say yes? What if God has a Nineveh situation waiting for you, in which they’re going to respond way better than you expected?

So my invitation is for you to pray about who to invite, and then do it. I can’t wait to see what God might do in and through us in these next weeks together.

So there’s three specific invitations for us, coming out of the book Jonah. Behind all of these invitations is a longing that God would make us a church that loves Him, and loves other people, more than we love ourselves.

Let’s pray and ask Him to do this work in our hearts.