The Faithful Prophet - Chapter 4 (running behind God)
Roy Hill, Bristol, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
At the end of chapter 3, in verses 9- 10, we note that the Lord turned away from His fierce anger. No doubt the Ninevites heaved a huge sigh of relief and there would have been thankfulness on the streets of the city and also rejoicing in heaven where normally there is joy over even one sinner repenting. In fact, this could have been an appropriate point at which to end and we should also have been spared the embarrassments of chapter 4. It is to Jonah’s great credit, however, that he wrote chapter 4 sharing with us his tensions and emotions and showing how God graciously dealt with His petulant and brooding servant, so that we might learn the lessons Jonah so signally failed to do. Everyone rejoiced, but not Jonah. He was not only ‘holier than thou’ but also, apparently, holier than God! Sometimes this can happen even today. God is more gracious than men. What lay behind Jonah’s anger was not just disappointment or unhappiness; he was being utterly selfish. He was ‘broken up’; incensed; consumed with rage. As God turned away from His fierce anger so Jonah turned, disgracefully, to his. The nondestruction of the city was not what caused his anger but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back! Deeply rooted in Jonah’s psyche was a hatred of Gentiles, an envy that God used people of whom he disapproved and the fact that God did not share his point of view. Anger is selfdestructive and we do well to resist it. It may be appropriate when there is an understandable reason for it but often an event becomes a convenient peg on which to hang longharboured grievances and dirty washing from the past.
Ariel Leve, a journalist, has written, ‘I’ve never had a problem with anger providing it is about something specific. If I can tell you why I am angry that is not the kind of anger you should be worried about. The kind of anger to worry about has built up over the years, like plaque that can’t be scraped off, and there is an alchemy in it that makes it infinite. Often, it can’t be explained and is confusing and frustrating to the people on the receiving end. It is real anger – a deep, dark, seething rage that derails lives, poisons relationships – that simmers beneath the surface. It is colourless, odourless, and, like a toxic gas, undetectable. It contaminates silently and completely’.
Some suggest that Jonah may have feared that the news of the preservation of Nineveh would not be well received at home. If so, he was shackled by the armchair prophets, the great uncalled, who relaxed in the relative comfort and inactivity of home; Gath-hepher. Missionaries, teachers and evangelists today should remember that they serve the Lord and not men. And men should not seek to manipulate them.
Jonah’s Attempt to explain
Verse 2 now tells us that ‘Jonah prayed unto the Lord’. I suppose it may have been put differently as ‘Jonah preached unto the Lord’, for that is really what he was doing! This ‘prayer’ is not for others, nor for God’s glory but is replete with ‘I’s’ and ‘my’s’ (nine in all!). It is a bold and foolish statement of selfjustification. Apparently, Jonah had been right and had behaved consistently all along. God, on the other hand, had shown Himself to be soft on sin and wholly inconsistent with His word. Had God listened to Jonah He, God, could have made a much better fist of the Ninevites than the vacillating approach He had taken. One day this, and another that. And Jonah would be embarrassed as a result! Jonah explains the logic of his action in fleeing to Tarshish. It was because of God’s character. He knew from personal experience what God was like and what He might do, and he wanted no part in it. We can see that God’s love stretched beyond Israel to other peoples; Jonah’s was confined to a circle approved by himself.
Here, in verse 2, we have a most wonderful description of God’s character which resonates with other Old Testament passages, as when God passed before Moses and proclaimed, ‘The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin’, Exod. 34. 6-7, and in Nehemiah chapter 9 and verse 17, ‘a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness’. Jonah’s arrogance is clear. He said, ‘my saying’; he should have been more interested in what God was saying. ‘My country’; he seems to have forgotten that God had said, ‘The land is mine’, Lev. 25. 23. ‘It is better’; he claimed to know better than God. When he said, ‘It is better for me to die’ he was really saying, ‘I can’t live with what you are doing and I don’t even want to see it happen. Let me die’. How selfish, misguided and foolish! God simply asks him, ‘Doest thou well to be angry?’ Jonah ignores the question and heads out of town.
The last verses of the book show us how the Lord handled His peevish prophet and we see that God’s grace eventually wore him down - an evidence that where sin abounded grace did much more abound. In verse 5 Jonah storms out of his conversation with the Lord and heads for the hills on the eastern outskirts of the city. From here he would have an unobstructed view of whatever was to happen. As he planned to stay for some days he constructed a booth for his shelter and comfort. But it was not efficient protection from the sun, though better than nothing. Here is the picture: while God works in grace in Nineveh His servant sits idle, brooding in bitterness of soul in the shadow of an unstable shelter. In spite of his contempt shown to the Lord in regard to His purposes Jonah now enjoys God’s grace for himself. God prepared a gourd – a profuse, broad-leaved plant which may grow to about twelve feet high. It miraculously sprang up overnight covering the roof of the booth and giving welcome shade from the fierce sun. Jonah is delighted. It has been suggested that he might even think that he had been right and this was God rewarding him for his wisdom. As we shall see that was certainly not so! Jonah enjoyed the protection afforded by the gourd for one day only. The next morning God prepared a worm (a symbol of death and decay) which attacked the gourd and caused it to die. As it withers away Jonah is furious and undoubtedly blames God for its destruction. A wind also specially prepared springs up and maybe wrecks the fragile booth so that all Jonah’s protection is gone in an instant. When something similar happened to Job he said, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’, Job. 1. 24. Not so Jonah! He faints away and wishes he were dead.
Jonah may not have recognized the gourd as a gift from God so that when it died he was very angry. We need to remember that God may bless us with material things, a job, a home and family but we must not treat them as if they were our right. God can easily remove them. This is a section of gourds (blessings) and worms (trials); of wind and sun (adverse circumstances) such as believers may encounter in a hostile world. Here we see Jonah as wholly inconsistent. He was upset about the salvation of Nineveh, arguing it should be destroyed, and angry about the destruction of the gourd arguing it should have been saved. He thinks he knows better than God and when he does not get his way he wants to leave.
God, however, continues to treat His servant with patience and longsuffering. He explains to Jonah that the gourd came from nowhere, was one day old, would have lasted only for a season and had little value, yet, when it is destroyed Jonah is livid. God is not complaining about that – simply stating the position. Nineveh on the other hand had been around for centuries. It teemed with established life both human and animal, all having many years ahead of them. So, God preserves them; what is wrong in that? To which question Jonah has no answer. What happened next we do not know. But what we do know is that we should be grateful for God’s provision, neither complain when our circumstances change for the worse, but share God’s concern for the souls of men and women throughout the world and be prepared to work with Him for their salvation.
And so the story of Jonah comes to an end and the next we hear of him is in the New Testament, many centuries later, when his work is commended by the Lord Jesus.