You just can’t please some people. We love happy endings and fairy tales and stories where the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and the poor young man wins the hand of the beautiful woman he has rescued. Immortal words of Hannibal Smith, leader of the A-Team, who would say at the end of a successful mission, “I love it when a plan comes together.” So far the plan has come together perfectly. God called Jonah. Jonah ran away. God sent a storm. Jonah went to sleep. The sailors throw Jonah overboard. The storm ends. The sailors worship God. God sends the great fish that swallows Jonah. Jonah spends 3 days and 3 nights in the great fish. That’s just chapter 1.
Eventually Jonah goes to Nineveh. He preaches an 8-word sermon. The whole city repents. God relents. It’s the greatest revival in history. You would think Jonah would be happy. But no! You just can’t please some people.
1. Jonah’s Misplaced Anger v. 1 - 3
Another translation -“This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry.” Change of plans - key to Jonah 4. What change of plans? The fact that God is no longer going to destroy Nineveh.
Jonah’s attitude has been quite clear from the beginning: “I’m fine, Lord, as long as you send them straight to hell. Pull the lever, open the trap-door, do whatever you have to do, but send those people to hell.” That’s how Jonah felt. The fact that God showed mercy was “a great evil” to Jonah. Literal translation from the Hebrew for “greatly displeased."
When God shows great grace, to Jonah it is a great evil.
Now at last we understand why Jonah was so reluctant to go to Nineveh in the first place – v. 2. One of the greatest statements in the Old Testament about God’s gracious character. Here is the irony of this story. Jonah was fine with mercy when he received it, but he couldn’t handle it when God showed mercy to Nineveh. “You can tell you have made God in your image when it turns out he hates all the same people you do.”
So Jonah says, “I wish I was dead.” Talk about a miserable, rotten, no-good attitude. This was God’s man! In the belly of the fish, he was about to die and prayed, “O God, let me live.”
Now after the greatest triumph of his life, he prays, “O God, let me die.”
We may read this book and ask, “God, what are you going to do about Nineveh?” But the real question turns out to be, “God, what are you going to do about Jonah?” God knows how to deal with wicked sinners. He saves them. But what’s he going to do with smug, arrogant, anger-filled church members? That’s a much bigger problem. That’s what I meant when I said there’s a little Jonah in all of us and a lot of Jonah in most of us.
2. God’s Object Lesson
So Jonah now leaves Nineveh and goes out east of the city. He’s still hoping against hope that God will send down fire and brimstone and destroy the city. When that happens, he’ll have a front-row seat to watch it happen. But God has other plans. 3 things happen, all of them caused by God:
God provided a vine v. 6
God provided a worm v. 7
God provided a scorching east wind v. 8
The vine was good because it gave Jonah shade. The worm was bad (in Jonah’s eyes) because it chewed up the vine. The east wind was very bad (in Jonah’s eyes) because it caused him great discomfort. Yet all these things came from God. The same God who provided the vine also sent the worm and the scorching wind. The real question boils down to this. Will Jonah be happy with God only when God makes him happy? What will he do when God doesn’t live up to his expectations?
This little drama raises a fascinating question that the book itself doesn’t really answer: Did Jonah ever really repent? The first time God calls, he runs away. The second time God calls, he obeys. So the answer is “Maybe yes” if we stop reading at the end of chapter 3. But if we continue to the end of chapter 4, the answer becomes “Maybe no” because there isn’t the slightest statement in the final chapter that shows any hint of repentance. Maybe the answer is yes and no. God never said, “Go and have a good attitude.” He just said, “Go and preach to Nineveh.”
That leads me to a frightening and solemn conclusion. It is perfectly possible to obey God with a rotten attitude. That in fact seems to describe Jonah from beginning to end. At no point does he seem willing to obey God out of joy in the Lord and with compassion for the lost. Even in the belly of the fish, when he prays the great prayer in chapter 2, it’s as if God has him backed into a corner so he turns his heart to God because he has no other choice. While I admit that’s a very human thing to do, it doesn’t speak very positively about his love for the Lord.
This side of heaven even our best deeds and noblest acts will be tainted with self-interest. It is surprisingly easy to do the right thing for the wrong reason and still be blessed. But we must not stop there because God is never satisfied with mere outward obedience. He wants us to obey from the heart, with gladness and not grudgingly. He’ll send a vine, a worm and a scorching wind to reveal our inner rottenness so that our hearts might be transformed.
One final note on the question of Jonah’s repentance. I’ve been pretty hard on the prophet, and deservedly so. But where did this story come from? How did it end up in the Bible? Onlyone man knew all the details. That man cared enough to write his story down.
If Jonah was this honest about his own spiritual journey, perhaps the very existence of the book means that he did at last repent of his attitude toward God and toward the people God loves. Since the book ends with a question, that means the final response must come not from the prophet but from you and me.
3. God’s Heart Revealed v. 11
Jonah’s story ends not with a statement but with a question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” The answer of course is yes. God is concerned about “that great city,” and therefore Jonah should be concerned too. By ending in a question and not in a declaration, the book leaves the issue hanging in the air. Will we have God’s heart for the Ninevehs of our world? Or will we hate them as Jonah hated the city of Nineveh?
This story speaks to all of us who would rather not get involved in the world. We’d rather be comfy and cosy and keep it nice and neat inside the 4 walls of the church. There is another way of looking at this whole issue: Jonah has 2 problems. On the surface his problem is that he has no heart for the people of Nineveh. But his real problem is deeper: He has no room for a God who does. Jonah’s real problem is God! His God is too small, and that’s why his heart is too small.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that God’s greatest problem is not with the wicked people of Nineveh. The moment they heard the message, they believed it. They were truly evil – no doubt about that. But God has no problems with them. It’s a sobering thought that in the book of Jonah, the pagans were quicker to believe than the man of God. That’s true of the pagan sailors in chapter 1 and of the people of Nineveh in chapter 3.
We sometimes say (in a dismissive way) that the whole world is going to hell. As a matter of fact, that’s true. The world is going to hell. But that’s not the problem. The problem with the world is not the world. The problem with the world is the church. The problem is not the sinful excess of the world that we see all around us. The problem is that we’re running the other way so we don’t have to love the world that God loves. The problem is not the gross evil that we so quickly condemn. The problem is that we’re not praying for the people who live in the wickedness we say we hate. Their sin has made them ugly to us so we don’t even bother to pray for them.
We’re a lot more like Jonah than we would like to admit. That’s why we laugh and then we squirm. There’s a lot of Jonah inside most of us.
3 Closing Lessons
A. God loves Nineveh!
Where is Nineveh today? Nineveh is Johannesburg. Nineveh is London. Nineveh is your neighbour next door, the one you don’t like, who makes too much noise, whose kids get in trouble all the time. Nineveh is your boss who is a jerk. Nineveh is the guy in the next cubicle or the woman down the passage. She’s such a drama queen. Thinks the whole world is about her. She’s your Nineveh.
Nineveh is your ex-husband, which is really easy to understand but hard for you to love. Nineveh is your ex-wife whom you’d rather not see again. Nineveh is your Muslim neighbour and your hairdresser who is on her third husband (or it her fourth? Who knows?).
You see, Nineveh is not just a place. Nineveh is a symbol for the gathering together of the people of the world. Wherever you find people, there you find Nineveh in all its splendour and power and glory and greed and brutality and evil. It’s all there, mixed together, the good with the bad, the light with the darkness.
Sometimes we see only the evil and think, “God must hate this city.” No, God loves this city and these people. Nothing they can do can make him stop loving them. He sees all the sin - not the tiniest bit escapes his vision - but it does not turn back his heart of love. God still loves Nineveh!
B. God is still willing to do whatever it takes to get you to Nineveh!
For Jonah that meant spending 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a great fish. What will God have to do to get you to obey him? Our churches are filled with modern-day Jonahs who have taken a holiday cruise to Tarshish. Maybe you are one of them. Maybe God has spoken to you and you have said, “I don’t think I can do that.” If so, I’ve got good news and bad news for you: The good news is: Don’t worry about that great storm on the horizon. The bad news is: You’d better start worrying about that great fish!
Old gospel song - “He doesn’t make you go against your will, he just makes you willing to go.” How true. God won’t force you go to Nineveh, but he will make your life miserable until you decide to go on your own.
C. Nineveh needs you!
For all its cruelty and sinful brutality, Nineveh was ready to turn to God. The people didn’t know it, they weren’t consciously aware of their need, and they weren’t intentionally looking for God. But God who sees all things knew that this vile city was primed and ready to turn to him. If only he could find a man – the right man with the right message – who would dare to go there and deliver his message. Jonah was God’s man for Nineveh!
The world is full of Ninevehs today . . . and God is still looking for someone to go there.
Nineveh is first of all a literal city. It also stands for all the great cities of the world. But Nineveh is even more personal than that. It stands for . . . That place only you can go. That person only you can reach. That opportunity only you can fill.
You’ve got a Nineveh in your life right now. Nineveh ultimately stands for any part of the will of God that you are afraid to face. You’re afraid to go . . . but God wants you there. You’re afraid to speak up . . . but there are people who need to hear what you have to say. You’re afraid to make a move . . . but God says, “Trust me.”
Prayer – “Father, expand our vision to see the world as you see it. Please make us less like Jonah and more like Jesus. Grant us a fresh concern for those we meet. Renew in us a compassion for those who by nature would be repulsive to us. Lord, do some divine heart surgery and replace our anger, fear and hesitation with your love. May the Holy Spirit fill us with true compassion in every part of our being. Give us your tears for the Ninevehs all around us, and give us hearts to go gladly with the Good News. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.”