After the surprise reaction of the Ninevites in Jonah 3, what happens at the end of this book is almost comedic. It must have been hard for Jonah. He came to bring a pronouncement of judgment—reluctant to go because of their evil in the first place. Instead of listening to God the first time, he ran away. Now, after having been tossed into a raging sea and swallowed by a sea monster for three days and spit back up again on land, he makes the trek all the way to Nineveh—that great and terrible city, which is just waiting to devastate his own people, and he tells them all that’s going to happen to them and how evil they are—just as God instructs him—and then they all repent. And God has mercy on them—no judgment, no catastrophe—and Jonah loses it. He flips out.
Jonah, chapter 4 begins:“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was ANGRY. 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; and he says, for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.’”Jonah repeats something that is said over and over again in the Old Testament. Exodus 34:6 says, “The Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.’” We see it repeated in Numbers 14, Nehemiah 9, Psalms 86, 103, 145, Joel 2, Nahum 1.
Yet, whereas these are all examples of the proclamation of God’s goodness and his mercy, I don’t think that Jonah actually meant it that way. He was expecting judgment on these evil Ninevites, and then he shows his own self-righteousness. He has the audacity to stand there and tell God that he was right in disobeying him. And then he’s just done with all of it. He says,“Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” This has been Jonah’s song the whole time, hasn’t it? But God responds, saying, “Do you do well to be angry?”In other words, God asks, “Do you actually think that you’re in the right?
Then Jonah goes out of the city to the east side and makes a booth for himself so he can sit under it and watch.He doesn’t seem to believe it. He’s probably gone through the whole city at this point, because he’d be arriving from Israel at the north-west side. And now he’s going to wait this thing out and see what happens.
While he’s still waiting, God gives him a nice little object lesson. The text says,“Now the Lord God appointed a plant (just like God appointed a fish back in Jonah 2)and he made the plant 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 appreciates when he is the recipient of God’s mercy. Isn’t that something? But it doesn’t last long. Early in the morning the next day, God appointed a worm which destroyed the plant. The text continues, “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.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’” This is the same conversation as before. And this time, Jonah says,“Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die!”I’d rather die than admit that I was wrong. He’s saying this to God. Meanwhile Jonah’s suppose to be one of his prophets! He’s supposed to be God’s instrument. Our God uses means in this world; the Ninevites weren’t going to magically repent—magically believe. They needed someone to tell them, just like everyone else.
Before we get to God’s response, the very ending of this whole book, there’s something to understand: the Book of Jonah was really just one big criticism of 9th century BC Israel. Way back at the Exodus, God called Israel to be a priesthood to all nations! They were to be an instrument of his judgment as well as his mercy—his grace. But, in their pride and their arrogance, they ran from the presence of God—over and over again. They would turn to their own ways, and then when another nation or tribe came in to oppress them, they would call out to God. They showed their pride in the wilderness, during the time of the judges, during the monarchy, and finally God used the Ninevites and then the Babylonians to wipe them out. And maybe if Israel had been that priesthood—proclaiming the word of God—then maybe the Assyrians and the Babylonians would have repented and turned to the one true God instead of conquering them. Because of the Book of Jonah, we know that Nineveh did repent for a short time, but that didn’t last very long.
Like Jonah, Ancient Israel was too concerned with itself. They didn’t care that the only reason that God chose them to be his people was so that he could bless the nations. Yet, even in spite of that, God still did it. God still used his people to bring about a Savior. Like he did with Jonah, God still used Israel—his chosen people—for his own purposes. Jesus was born from God’s people Israel. Even then, they still didn’t get it!
When the religious leaders, who very self-righteously wanted to keep God’s goodness and graciousness all to themselves completely taking it for granted—just like Jonah did with the plant—Jesus blasts them! Matthew 12:38–42 says, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered [Jesus], saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus continues, ‘The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.’” He’s telling these religious leaders: “you’re so self-righteous that even the Ninevites repented, and you didn’t—you won’t.”
At the very end of the Book of Jonah, the big question is posed. In fact, I don’t believe that there is any other book of the Bible that ends in a question. The Book of Jonah ends with: “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?’”That’s the question—should I not pity Nineveh? That’s what makes this so difficult for Jonah. But it’s not just about Jonah. Just like it wasn’t just about Israel. God’s mercy isn’t just for one set group sectioned off in one small corner of the world. 1 Timothy 2:4 says, “[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
God wants to be in a good relationship with the whole world. And that sounds really nice at first, and it might seem obvious because God is merciful, but that means that God has mercy even on those with whom we’ve had to bear. God has mercy on those who have hurt us—all who repent. God has mercy on the people around us whom we’ve deemed to be the “bad guys.” God has mercy even on Nineveh. And sometimes it’s so easy to want to self-righteously hold God’s mercy and grace all to ourselves, because it just doesn’t seem fair! But that’s not how our God works.
Jonah watched as those Ninevites—those evil Ninevites listened to God the first time. They were more faithful than he was. It must have been pretty hard for his pride to bear. Sometimes we’re so focussed on the sins of others. I think that we concentrate on them to avoid thinking about our own sins. If we truly acknowledge our own sin, if we truly acknowledge the evil that we’ve committed in this world—the harm that we’ve caused, the hurt, the pain, all of those people that have had to endure us at different points in our lives, then the the real question behind it all is this: does God have mercy on me? Can God have mercy on me? Can he love me? Can he be gracious to me even when I haven’t listened to him? Jonah was too self-righteous even to entertain that idea, but if our God had mercy on the Ninevites he has mercy on you too—for the sake of Jesus.
Once we realize that—trust that—the way that we see other people in this world changes. Jesus Christ came, died and rose again to bring about the salvation of all of God’s creation. And he’s made all of those who have repented, who believe in him, into a holy priesthood together. He does that not for us to keep this wonderful message of grace to ourselves but to share it with the world, with whom he desires a good relationship. We should want all people to put their faith in Christ. We should pray for all to believe in him, for all to look to Christ for mercy—even those who have hurt us. It was through that same love and mercy that God has forgiven us and claimed us as his very own.