Jonah 4:1–11 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 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. 3 Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the LORD replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 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. 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. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 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.” 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.” 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. 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 animals?”
Yes, that ending just happened. And, yes, it totally leaves you hanging. I mean how can it not? Jonah’s outside Nineveh getting cooked on the frying pan of the Middle East. It’s so bad he’s saying, “I wish I were dead,” (v. 9) already for the second time in the chapter. This time though he’s not saying it in prayer. He’s apparently so disillusioned with the Lord by this point that he seems to mumbling this death wish to himself. So the Lord comes to him and asks this devastatingly depressed and disillusioned Jonah a profound question. And after it’s asked the question just hangs there. It just hangs there. We never find out how Jonah answers the question or if he gets turned around or anything. The question just hangs there. You know why I point this out to you? That should bug you. It should bug you worse than the TV series Nashville getting so suddenly yanked off the air that it has no ending at all. It should bug you worse than the way people experienced the ending of HBO’s Sopranoes serious a few years ago. This cliff hanger should bug you.
How do I know this? Because Jonah four is far too well-crafted for the author to just have run out of ink. There are many literary features here I could point out to make that case, but let me just point to the pure mathematical precision in it. In a chapter that is basically an extended talk between the Lord and Jonah, they each get identical air time. Identical. Jonah speaks 47 Hebrew words. The Lord does too. In verse four the Lord asks a question of Jonah in three Hebrew words. In verse eight Jonah answers the question in three Hebrew words. In verse nine the Lord re-asks the question with five Hebrew words. In verse nine Jonah re-answers the question with five Hebrew words. Jonah opens the chapter with what amounts to a question that’s that’s 39 words long. The Lord closes the chapter with a question that’s – you guessed it – 39 words long. That’s incredible precision, planning, and structure. And so it is no accident – no coincidence – that Jonah four ends with a question mark.
It’s no accident either that the chapter doesn’t just end with a question. It is a chapter of questions. Troubling ones. Did you squirm a bit at the first one? The Ninevites get into a faith relationship with the Lord. Awesome, right? Not to Jonah. “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?’” (v. 1–2) Jonah was angry. Angry that the Ninevites were off death row. That they got a reprieve. He was so angry that he started acting out. He got down to prayer immediately and said, “I knew this was going to happen. It’s why I originally tried to go to Tarshish. I knew, Lord, you’d do this.” And that’s when he really starts to make us uncomfortable with this outrageous comments. Did you happen to hear what he basically said? “Lord, I don’t really like who you are.” And he really digs in by listing the Lord’s true attributes. It’s stunning especially because of how he just nails the Lord’s essence. He doesn’t mischaracterize him at all saying, “Lord, I don’t like that you are an unrelenting eye in the sky.” Or, “Lord, I’m enraged because you are so judging and demanding and harsh.”
No. None of that. He’s not mad because of how he’s misperceived the Lord or mischaracterized him in his head. He truly dislikes who God really is. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (v. 2) These, by the way, are not primarily Jonah’s words. Jonah’s quoting here what some call the John 3:16 of the Old Testament – words that keep popping up in the Old Testament over and over and over again. They’re a kind of creed that describes who God is. God is gracious and compassionate. He is slow to anger. He is abounding in love and a God who relents from sending calamity. That’s who God is. And that upset Jonah. Think of that. The essence of God rubbed Jonah so badly the wrong way that he wanted no part of what God was up to. He wanted in on no world where a God like this could forgive even Ninevites and restore them to himself. So he prayed, “Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (v. 3)
Unusual, right? I mean I think we all get that there are tons of people who are dechurched or unchurched because they have a caricature of God in their heads. They’ve been told God’s not gracious and compassionate. He’s judgmental and mean. They’ve been told he’s not slow to anger and abounding in love. He’s quick to send you to you know where. They’ve been told he’s not a God who relents. He’s a God who brings full force condemnation. I think we get that there are tons of people who don’t like the God they’ve been told exists (but who doesn’t), but we also understand why. He’s been mischaracterized and misrepresented. We get that. But this? This isn’t a man reacting to a caricature or misrepresentation of God. This is a man reacting to who God truly is. Essentially. At the core of his being. This is human nature spiting God for who he is and what animates him at his core. I don’t think I have to tell you how scary rebellious that is. This isn’t just, “God, I’m over here trying to pull a fast one on you by breaking a rule. This is: “God, I don’t like you.” That reaction has got to be an outlier in history, right? No one ever fights the God of grace and mercy, do they? They just celebrate him, right?
Wrong. My 8th anniversary of pastoral ministry is coming up. I couldn’t be more thankful. I love being a pastor. I love being your pastor. In eight years, the Lord’s given me now probably hundreds of chances to take people into the faith for the first time or to take neophyte Christians and show them the heart of God like they’ve never been seen it before. I want to tell you something I’ve learned through the years in dealing with lots and lots and lots of people. We all react in some way to the God of pure, unmerited, un-won grace. There’s always some point on which we fight it. In fact, sometimes I can almost guess when it’s coming. When I begin to insist that Jesus died for the forgiveness of the world and that everyone who receive that in faith is forgiven? You know what happens so often when I teach that and it begins to sink in? You know what I hope for? I hope that everyone I’m teaching begins to weep tears of sweet relief that even they the worst of sinners have been forgiven. That their rebellious college years; their lack of reverence for the Word they’ve seen in their on and off church attendance; their fill-in-the-blank sins are all forgiven and so they say with joyful tears, “Sweet Jesus. There is finally relief.”
That’s what I hope for, but that’s almost never the whole story. By the grace of God people grow into that, but you know where they often start? Someone inevitably asks, “Can even murderers and such be forgiven too?” Why is that? What’s happening there? I’ll tell you what’s happening there. We like to check up on God. We don’t naturally want to receive him the way he is and just celebrate his massive heart of grace. We prone to checking up on him. We want to make sure he’s being equitable and fair. That he’s doing this salvation thing right. We think, “There can be forgiveness for all as long as they aren’t any worse than me.” Because that’s equitable. And that’s fair. And that’s right. But if they’re worse, God should ban them from his presence. They shouldn’t get to receive the gospel too. Let me tell you something. We really don’t want a fair God. I promise you. We don’t. We don’t want an equitable God. I promise you. We don’t. If there is any part of you that thinks you do you’ve got two huge problems. 1. You’re totally underestimating how much sin you’ve got. And 2. you’re totally underestimating what sin deserves.
But you know what’s great about this story? You don’t have to trust me on that. You can just see how it goes for a person who takes the opposing position. Jonah wanted a fair, equitable God. That’s why he was outside Nineveh. He couldn’t be inside celebrating with the newly, unfairly, inequitably saved trying to deepen them in faith. He had to position himself outside the city. He was saying, “I will protest this magnificent grace. I’m staying outside the city. I will have no part in the celebration of it.” He was so determined with his protest that he even fashioned for himself a hut to survive in the heat and the sun out there. And then grace comes for him. I mean think of it. Jonah was hating and dissing God’s very essence. Worse yet, he was being just plain foolish. There were well over a 100,000 people that his preaching had saved. I’m pretty sure he could’ve gone in, celebrated, and someone would’ve given him a great place to stay. But, no, he had to be a lonely hut building protester.
So what’s the Lord do? He gives him undeserved love. “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.” (v. 6) Something must’ve happened to Jonah’s hut (Preacher’s aren’t good builders!) so all he’s got is this plant and the Lord condemns it. A worm comes and chews it through. In the Scriptures, worms are often pictured as a part of judgment. Hell, for example, is a place where the worm doesn’t die. So a worm comes with God’s judgment on the plant and chews it through. And the plant dies in the judgment. And sure enough Jonah didn’t really like this judging, condemning God. He didn’t like this equitable, fair-with-people God especially as he personally begins to experience what that kind of God would be like for him. “God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’” (v. 8) And then the Lord asked the key question: “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” (v. 9)
His response? Disappointing. Disillusioned. And angry. He said, “It is. I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” (v. 9) And so the Lord went after his hypocrisy. “Jonah, you didn’t tend this plant. Jonah, you didn’t make it grow. Jonah, you had a relationship with this plant for less than 24 hours. And, Jonah, it’s only a plant. And yet you’re so opposed to my judgment and my condemnation that you want to die. Jonah, do you see how I can feel the same way about Nineveh? I’ve got this great city of 120,000 men. Spiritually, they don’t know “their right hand from their left.” (v. 11) “Should I not have concern (for them)?” (v. 11) Should I not have concern for them? Bam. Done. That is the end of the book. Unanswered question. Unfinished book. And one powerful cliffhanger. So incredibly powerful. The Lord goes going toe to toe with his prophet in defense of the gospel. “I don’t want the Ninevites eternally super-heated. I want them eternally chilling with me. I don’t want them suffering forever worm. I want them hanging with me in my forever garden.” Here’s what’s happening here: with the closing question of Jonah, the Lord is challenging this entire world to tell him he’s wrong to give grace. Should I not have concern for the worst of sinners?
And the question still hangs. It has for centuries now. In a way, it’s the eternal question. Do you realize that’s what’s so brilliant about this ending? You’re not supposed to ever know how Jonah responded to it. The only response you ever get to know is yours. Will you spend your time outside the city protesting, “Lord, be more fair. Be equitable with your salvation?” Will you stay outside the city and be critical of the Lord’s unfair, overly generous salvation to all the sinners? Or will you see that personally you’re worse than you ever dared deem, and more forgiven than you ever before conceived? Will you see the fight against grace as dissing God for who he is? Or will you celebrate that you too through faith in Jesus have sweet relief? Will you see yourself as unworthy and just as bad as everyone else (That’s why it has to be grace!) and join the mission of this church to bring everyone the Word so they can join the party? That is the eternal question that Jonah has hung in the air before our eyes today.
But you know what? I honestly don’t think that the Lord was fishing so much for your answer to the question. You know why I think he asked it? So he could answer it himself. Should the Lord not have concern for this Nineveh? For the world? For the worst of sinners? For you? For centuries these critical questions just hung in the air as a massive spiritual cliffhanger. Not so that you could finally answer them, but so that he could. The question hung in the air outside that city until God’s answer hung in the air outside another city. On a cross. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is God’s answer. The Lord could be concerned. The Lord would be concerned. The Lord would die before he would allow a worm to chew a sinner. The Lord would give his life before he would allow his judgment to blast. And as inequitable and as unfair as it was, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ satisfied God’s justice so that through faith every sinner is square with God. Nineveh. Aiken. You. Answered question. And finished book. You know how? The Spirit’s letting you write the ending with the ink and pen of your life. He’s even suggesting how you might. Do what you hope Jonah did. Head back into Nineveh and celebrate with and deepen the other sinners in God’s eternal answer, Jesus Christ. What do you say? Are you in? Amen.