"I knew You were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!" (Jonah 4:2b, The Message)
My husband and I went through something several years ago that caused us to wish for some retribution on an offending party. Unlike Jonah with the Ninevites, we didn't really want God to strike them dead, but we did desire for God to bring some wrath upon them in our defense. (I don't know what sort of wrath I was hoping for -- I would never be able to pick. Maybe just something that looks like a spanking.) We even sat back and watched and waited for things to fall apart a little for this group of people. Thus far, we haven't seen any significant punishment come down. We've seen only mercy. Jonah is a lesson for me in God's rich and unfathomable mercy. He is merciful to the Ninevites and He is merciful to Jonah. I understand Jonah better than I like to admit.
Let's begin by reading Jonah 4.
Earlier in the story we saw how merciful God was with Jonah by saving his life and how Jonah repented and agreed to do God's will. But again, Jonah becomes angry with God -- so angry that he would rather die than live, again. Some lessons are very difficult to learn. Wouldn't you agree? The real reason for Jonah fleeing to Tarshish is revealed. He prays, "O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? THAT is why I was so quick to flee 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." (Emphasis mine.) Imagine yourself doing something you knew God wanted you to do knowing that you weren't going to like doing it. Then, after doing it, you say to yourself, "This was just as awful as I expected it to be!" You might take some comfort in knowing that you were obedient, but no comfort in the task itself. Can you imagine a situation like that? Have you been in a situation like that? That's how I felt regarding the situation I mentioned above. We were obedient in following through with what God had asked of us and it turned out to be just as difficult and uncomfortable as we expected it would be. I wonder if days or weeks later Jonah thought about what he said to God. Recognizing the irony in his words.
Questions for reflection:
Why would Jonah rather die than see God's mercy come to the Ninevites?
God had defended Israel against her enemies so many times. God had just delivered Israel from the rule of Damascus, and Israel was a little cocky. The Israelites always expected God to give them victory over their enemies (without any thought towards their own sinful state it would seem). Israel was quickly approaching a time when God would tolerate their promiscuity and unmerciful ways no longer and was beginning to prophecy to them through Amos and Hosea about their pending exile. The Israelites had become very narrow in their worldview and in their view of God's love. They weren't considering that God might just love and desire the best for all of His creation, enemy of Israel or not. So, for Jonah to accept God's love and mercy toward the Ninevites was counter-thinking -- Jonah's brain would need to make a complete 180 degree turn to consider God's love toward Nineveh. Tough spot for Jonah -- tough spot for Israel.
Questions for reflection:
What is the most difficult thing that God has ever askef of you?
Why did Jonah construct a shelter and sit down to watch what would happen to the city?
Think of a time when God constructed a shelter for you.
Has there ever been a time when you were disappointed in God's answer to you personally for a difficult situation?
Is it ever right to be angry with God?
Here's what's so real about Jonah for me: after giving Nineveh God's message he goes out and plants himself outside the city still holding out that God is going to bring some judgment upon this undeserving nation. He plops himself down in a pouting stupor to watch and wait. At this point he doesn't really know for sure that God is going to be merciful with them. Only time proved this out. He's fairly convinced that the Ninevites' reformed actions are not heartfelt and that their appeasement of his God by fasting and wearing sackcloth was just that, appeasement. He's thinking that their reformed ways cannot last and God will see and bring the retribution that will finally relieve Israel of this military threat once and for all. Keep in mind that God only recently saved Jonah's life, undeserving as he was. So he waits. He constructs a makeshift shelter to protect him from the wind and heat, and what does God do? He mercifully builds Jonah a better one by growing a large vine up to give him adequate shade. Now, God also brings a treacherous east wind and a worm that destroys the vine, but lest you think that God's mercy only went so far with Jonah, think again.
If God's mercy came to an end with any of us, we would die. It is because of His mercy that we live and breathe. "And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. . . For in Him we live and move andhave our being . . ." (Acts 17:25 & 28a, NIV) It is because of His mercy that He takes the time to teach us invaluable lessons like the one He teaches Jonah. Verse 6 tells us that Jonah was "very happy about the vine." Who wouldn't be. This is the only time through this whole story that we see this emotion. He might be thinking that because God relieved his suffering from the heat that He was was also going to comfort him and ease all his pain at this moment. He might be thinking that because God is merciful to him yet again (just like He's always been to Israel) that He will indeed see God overturn Nineveh. He's more than a little wrapped up in his own feelings and views. Maybe Jonah's view of God is that He is like one of those parents who can't stand to see their children be unhappy even for a moment about anything. You know the kind I'm talking about. The one's that ease their child's pain in every discomfort and get them out of every difficult circumstance. God is not that kind of a parent. And, we should be thankful. God always has a plan for our maturation. He's always working at helping us to see a bigger picture, a bigger love -- His perspective. Indeed, it is because of His mercy that He takes the time to teach us about His heart.
A new day dawned for Jonah. God's mercy was going to show up in Jonah's life all over again. We know that Jonah spent the night outside the city because verse 7 says that at dawn the next day God provided a worm which ate the vine. After the vine withered and died, God brought a scorching east wind causing Jonah to nearly faint from the heat. What does Jonah say? "It would be better for me to die than to live." (Shocking!) The east wind reveals the condition of Jonahs' heart attitude. He would rather die than live. He would rather die than live with God's mercy and compassion on his enemies. He would rather die than live with the fact that God loves the people of Nineveh. He loves God's mercy and compassion for himself. But then don't we all! The worm reveals Jonah's misplaced compassion for a plant over people. Jonah recognizes compassion, one of the theme's of this story, as something God possesses -- but he does not share this trait with Him. Instead, Jonah says (and at this point I can almost hear him myself), "I KNEW You would do this! I KNEW You would be merciful to these people! THAT is why I didn't want to go!" He basically wishes that God wasn't so good. Try as we might to be different, we all have our moments when we wish God to be exceedingly good to us but not so good to the undeserving people in our lives. Jonah did God's will but not with the right attitude. God asks him, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" Jonah says with assuredness, "I do. I am angry enough to die." The Ninevites cared nothing for Israel and Israel cared nothing for Nineveh. The evil that marked the Ninevites, now marks Jonah. Now Jonah himself needs to face God's punishment. Maybe, just maybe, Jonah deserved punishment more than the Ninevites because of God's ever-present grace and mercy in the lives and history of the Israelites. Instead, God shows Jonah the same compassion He'd shown Jonah's enemies.
I love the end of this story. After God reveals the condition of Jonah's heart, He reveals His own heart. His heart is for people and all of His creation. "But the Lord said, 'You have been concerned about his vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" End of story.
God loves all of His creation and so should we. There is no race of people better than the next -- no individual less sinful than another. We all share the same propensity toward sin. Israel was not blessed by God because they were a supreme race. They were blessed because of Abraham's obedience. Abraham was not a man without sin, either. He was just a man -- like Jonah. But, God made a promise to him and He was faithful to hold true to what He said, "Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him." (Genesis 18:18, NIV. Emphasis mine.) Israel was called "God's chosen people" because He chose them as a nation to do a specific job. One of Israel's jobs was to show other nations the grace and mercy of the one true living God!
I asked you earlier if it was ever right to be angry with God. What do you think about that? I know that God is always right and that He always has my best interest at heart, so . . . therefore, when I am angry with God it is safe to assume that I am in the wrong, not Him. But, I'm human and sinful, just like Jonah. My perspective is not always God's perspective. Many times my own worldview is very narrow. I get wrapped up in my own feelings. Sometimes I try to appease Him by just going through the motions of my faith -- trying to earn His love and mercy, just like the Ninevites. Yes, I do get angry with God sometimes. I don't always like His answer for me. But, you know what? God has really BIG shoulders. He can take my anger without feeling threatened or hurt. He is unmoveable in His purpose and love for me!
"Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:23, NIV)