When we tell our children the story of Jonah, we usually stop at chapter 3 because that closes the story on a very positive note. But it also leaves out a very important section. In fact, I think everything else in this book leads up to chapter 4 — which tells us that the book of Jonah is not really a story about a fish; it’s a book about misplaced values.
In our story so far:
God called Jonah.
Jonah ran away.
God sent a storm.
Jonah went to sleep.
The sailors throw Jonah overboard.
The storm ends and the sailors worship God.
God sends a great fish that swallows Jonah.
Jonah spends three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish.
fish spits Jonah out and Jonah goes to Nineveh.
He preaches an 8-word sermon.
The whole city repents.
God changes his mind and doesn’t destroy Nineveh.
It’s the greatest revival in all of history.
And you would think that Jonah would have been thrilled. This is what every preacher dreams of – getting thousands of people to turn to God. This is the preacher equivalent of winning the Super Bowl. And if this were a football game, it would be time to bring out the Gatorade and pour it over Jonah’s head as he celebrates.
But Jonah was in no mood to celebrate. It would appear that you just can’t please some people.
There’s a story told of a man and a woman who got married and the husband thought he would give some special treatment to his new wife so he got up early and brought her breakfast in bed. But his wife wasn’t impressed. She looked at the breakfast tray and said, “You poached the egg? I wanted scrambled!”
The next morning, the husband figured he would make things right, so he got up early again, and this time, he brought his wife a scrambled egg for breakfast. But she said, “You think I want the same thing every day? I wanted a poached egg this morning!”
The husband was determined to please his wife so the next morning he brought two eggs — one scrambled and one poached. He said, “Here you are, sweetheart. Enjoy!” She looked at the plate and said, “You scrambled the wrong egg.”
There are some people you simply cannot please, no matter what you do. And Jonah was a lot like that. Have you ever heard of a preacher who got upset because people responded to his preaching? Imagine finding a preacher sitting out outside the church building one Sunday afternoon crying his eyes out, and you ask him what’s wrong. He says, “When the invitation was extended this morning, twenty people came forward to be baptized and I’m so upset I just want to die.”
But, as strange as that may sound, that was exactly the way that Jonah responded to what happened in Nineveh. As we saw last week, Jonah preached in Nineveh and the entire city — 600,000 people — responded to Jonah’s invitation, they repented and turned to God. And here was Jonah’s reaction — “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” (Jonah 4:1).
The Hebrew word that’s used in this verse is significant, so I want to share it with you. The Hebrew word “ra” means “something evil” or “something really bad”. The text here says that, “It was “ra” to Jonah, it was a great “ra”. It was a great evil to Jonah, he thought it was really, really bad.
What was it that was so bad? The fact that God was no longer going to destroy Nineveh. Now those words are even more significant when you go back to the last verse of chapter 3. In chapter 3, verse 10, that same word “ra” is used twice. It says that the people of Nineveh turned from their “ra” and then God decided not to send “ra” upon the city of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh turned from their evil, and God decided not to do something really bad to the city.
So when the Ninevites are committing sin, God thinks that’s really, really bad. And if he has to destroy people because of their sin, that’s really, really bad. But here’s Jonah saying, “No, no, no, I’ll tell what’s really bad – when God forgives people of their sin!”
Jonah’s attitude has been clear from the very beginning: “Lord, it’s fine with me if you send these people straight to hell. Pull the lever, open the trap-door, do whatever you have to do, but you need to destroy those people, wipe them off the face of the earth.” That’s how Jonah felt. And so when God forgave them, Jonah said, “That’s a great evil, it’s a really, really bad thing that God has done.”
And we can criticize Jonah for the way he felt about Nineveh, but I haven’t heard of a single congregation in this country that’s been making an effort to send a missionary over to preach to ISIS in the Middle East, or to Boko Haram and his kidnapping militants in Nigeria. There are some folks so evil that we’re not even sure we want them to get to heaven.
And then in verse 2, we learn why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place: “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; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2)
Jonah says, “I knew this was going to happen. I told you so!” He didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place because he didn’t want those people to repent and be spared. He says to God, “I knew you’d end up being nice to them!” Jonah wanted the full measure of God’s wrath to fall upon them! Remember that the Assyrians were a cruel and vicious people. They raped women. They killed children. They tortured men and made pyramids out of their skulls. Jonah believed that people like that didn’t even deserve God’s mercy; they deserve to be totally annihilated!
By the way, do you notice how much Jonah is like the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son? That brother would have been so much happier if his younger brother had just stayed in the far country, feeding the pigs. And when his brother returned, he was upset, not so much at his younger brother, but at his father who was willing to forgive his son and treat him like nothing ever happened. It’s not fair!
And do you notice the irony in Jonah’s story? In chapter 2, Jonah was in the belly of the fish praying for God’s mercy and he was OK with God’s mercy as long as he was the one who received it, but then he got upset when God showed mercy to Nineveh. “God, I want you to be gracious to me, but not to anyone else! Thank You for being patient with me, but I don’t want you to be patient with them. God, thank you for giving me a second chance. But I will never, ever, ever give them a second chance.”
Let me pause here for a moment because there may be some of you here this morning who need to hear this message, because like Jonah, you’re harboring resentment in your heart. You feel resentment toward someone because you’ve been hurt, and you’re not willing to forgive them. Maybe it’s because of sexual abuse. Maybe it’s because of physical abuse. Or maybe you’ve been verbally abused. You’ve been told that you’re no good, you’re not worth anything, you’ll never amount to anything.
Maybe you’ve got a friend who has done you wrong. They‘ve let you down, they’ve walked away and said, “I’m done with this friendship.” Or, even worse, maybe they’ve turned on you. They’ve slandered you. They’ve spread rumors and lies, and as a result, your heart is filled with resentment.
Or maybe you’re resentful toward your spouse, maybe because of the way they spend too much money, or because they’re not meeting your emotional needs. Maybe you’re resentful because of things that have happened in the past. Maybe that guy never returned your Back Street Boys CD back in 1994. Maybe you’re resentful at your boss because somebody else got a promotion and you didn’t.
Maybe you’re resentful toward your kids, because they never call. Maybe you’re resentful toward your parents, because they’re not treating you the way you think they should.
But here’s the thing – if we are going to be followers of Jesus Christ, we have to forgive. Let me say that again – we must forgive. We can’t be like Jonah, wanting God to forgive us but not being willing to forgive others. Jesus made it clear, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:15). Those of us who are the recipients of God’s grace should be the ones most willing to extend that grace toward others.
But Jonah was not one to forgive and forget. Jonah is like a 4-year-old child pouting because he didn’t get his own way. He said in verse 3, “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3). Could he have possibly been any more dramatic? Jonah may well have the distinction of being the first drama queen in all of history. “Life is so terrible, I just can’t stand it anymore. Please just let me die!”
Back when he was in the belly of the fish and Jonah was about to die, he prayed, “Please God, let me live.” And now after his successful preaching tour of Nineveh, he prays, “Please God, let me die. If you’re going to let all those people live, then just go ahead and take my life because I can’t stand living on the same planet with all of them.”
Talk about a bad attitude. And this was God’s prophet! Sometimes we read the book of Jonah and we wonder, “God, what are you going to do about those people in Nineveh?” But the real question turns out to be, “God, what are you going to do about Jonah?” And that’s an important question because as I said in an earlier lesson, there’s a little bit of Jonah in all of us.
God’s response to Jonah is simply to say, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), or as the New American Standard translates it, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”
And Jonah thought he did. He left the city of Nineveh and went up on a hill. In verse 5, “Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.” (Jonah 4:5).
It appears that Jonah is hoping that maybe, just maybe, God will change his mind a second time and he’ll send down fire and brimstone and destroy the city of Nineveh after all. And if that happens, Jonah wants a front-row seat to watch it happen. So, he sets up a little shelter and sits down to wait.
In the next few verses, three things happen, one right after the other, all of them caused by God. So far, we’ve seen in the book of Jonah that God prepared a storm, and then he prepared a fish. Now, he’s going to prepare three more things:
(1) In verse 6, God prepared a plant — “Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it 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.”
(2) In verse 7, God prepared a worm – “But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered.”
(3) In verse 8, God prepared a scorching east wind – “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.”
The plant that God prepared was good because it gave Jonah shade. The text says that “Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.” Which is interesting because this is the first time in the entire book that Jonah is happy about anything.
So, the plant was good. But the worm was bad (at least, in Jonah’s eyes) because it chewed up the plant. Then the east wind was very bad (in Jonah’s eyes) because it caused him great discomfort. Let’s put this into modern day language – it was a typical August day in Fayetteville with 100 degree temperatures and 97 percent humidity, and the air conditioner in his house just broke.
But notice that all these things came from God. The same God who provided the plant also sent the worm and the scorching wind. Which leads us to an important question– Will Jonah be happy with God only when God makes him happy? What will Jonah do when God doesn’t live up to his expectations?
And what happens is that Jonah was furious. Once again, Jonah “asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’” (Jonah 4:8). And once again, Jonah acts like a drama queen. “I don’t have any shade. Just shoot me and get it over with!”
Once again God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” (Jonah 4:9). Jonah, do you really have a good reason to be angry. And this time, Jonah responded and said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” (Jonah 4:9). I like how the International Standard Version translates this conversation. “Then God asked Jonah, ‘Is your anger about the vine plant justified?’ And he answered, ‘Absolutely! I’m so angry I could die!’”
And you’ve really got to appreciate the patience of God at this point, because I don’t think I could have dealt so calmly with someone who has such a childish attitude.
“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?’” (Jonah 4:10-11).
This is the time of the year when all of the Peanuts cartoons are replayed on TV. Starting with Halloween there’s “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”, then “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”, and finally “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. Most of you are familiar with the main characters. There’s Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Peppermint Patty, Sally, Lucy, and Linus.
Each of them have their own little quirks that make them interesting and funny. Linus’ quirk is his blanket. Linus doesn’t do anything without his blanket. He sleeps with it, he eats with it, he goes to school with it, he even sits in the pumpkin patch with it. He and his blanket are inseparable. He is attached to that blanket and will not let it go.
There may be something in your life that you’re attached to: a family heirloom, a memento, a piece of jewelry, or something from your childhood like a blanket or stuffed animal. When there is an attachment to something, you know how hard it can be, maybe even impossible, to let it go. You take extra care because you care about it so much. Maybe you even take it with you wherever you go like Linus did with his blanket.
Here in Jonah chapter 4, God tells Jonah that is he intimately attached to people. His attachment to people comes from his love for them. God shows his attachment and his love for people in many ways. He created us, he provides for us, he calls to us, and he saves us. And it bothers God that Jonah doesn’t feel that same attachment. Well he does, but it’s not to people.
God said to Jonah, “I want you to think about what you’re saying to me. It bothers you to see that plant die – but it’s just a plant. And you’re not moved at all by the possible destruction of an entire city. You’re not even moved by the fact that the city contains 120,000 children.”
And now we get down to the real purpose of the book. Because the book of Jonah is not about storms, or great fish, or plants or worms. It’s about values. It’s about priorities. It’s about what we truly consider to be most important. And the big question this book asks is this: “What’s more important to you — plants or people?”
And that’s a question that we would all do well to ask ourselves. What bothers you more – for your car to break down while you’re on vacation, or to know that billions of people on the face of this earth have never heard of Jesus Christ?
What causes you to get more upset – to have your computer’s hard drive crash, or to think about all the people in this world who don’t have access to a copy of God’s Word?
What bothers you the more — to have your electricity go out during a thunderstorm for a few hours, or to know that there are neighbors living all around you who are bound for an eternity in hell unless somebody shares the gospel with them?
What is it that really disturbs you, what is it that really gets you upset? How many tears have we shed for the lost? The truth is that we’re all a lot like Jonah, perhaps more so than we’d like to admit. Because we spend our lives getting frustrated and upset about all the “plants” in our lives, especially when we lose those things that are bring us the most pleasure, but we don’t find ourselves nearly so concerned about lost souls.
Now, most of us don’t have the audacity of Jonah, who said, in effect, that he didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he wanted those people to be lost. I don’t think any of us would be so hardhearted as to say concerning the lost in this community, “I hope they all just go to hell.” We would never actually say that, but the truth of the matter is, most of the people around us are headed for eternal destruction, and it doesn’t seem to bother us. At least as long as we’ve got a nice comfortable place to sit in the shade.
There’s another way of looking at this whole issue: Jonah has two problems. On the surface, his problem is that he doesn’t have a heart for the people of Nineveh. But his real problem is deeper: Because Jonah doesn’t want a God who does have a heart for them. Jonah’s real problem is with God!
It’s interesting to me that God’s greatest challenge is not with the wicked people of Nineveh. The moment they heard the message, they believed it. Oh, they were truly evil, there’s no doubt about that. But God’s biggest challenge was not with them. In fact, in the story of Jonah, it’s always the pagans who were quicker to believe than the man of God was. 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 headed for destruction. And in fact, that’s true. The world is headed for destruction. But the problem is not just the sinful, immoral world that we see all around us.
The problem is that we sometimes don’t love this world the way that God does. The problem is not just the evil around us that we are so quick to 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 so repugnant to us that we don’t even bother to pray for them.
Or, as someone has put it, God’s greatest problem is not the sinner out there. His greatest problem is the saint in here.
There’s one more unusual thing about the book of Jonah and I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this or not. The book doesn’t have an ending; it closes with God’s words to Jonah. And even those words are not a statement but a question. Which makes me wonder, how did Jonah react to what God said? Did Jonah repent of his terrible attitude, or did he continue to pout? Does the story have a happy ending or a sad ending? We don’t know.
I think perhaps God intended that the Israelites should supply the ending, as they examined their own attitudes toward the Gentiles. And I think that God has preserved this book for us because he wants us to supply the ending today.
Jonah’s story ends with God’s question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” And, of course, the answer is yes. God is concerned about “that great city,” and the implication is that Jonah should be concerned too.
But by ending in a question and not a statement, the book leaves the issue hanging in the air. Are we going to have God’s heart for the Ninevehs of our world? Or are we just going to hate them as much as Jonah hated the city of Nineveh?
It’s a story that speaks to all of us who would rather not get involved in this world. We would much rather be comfortable and cozy, and keep it nice and neat inside the four walls of the church. Because we’re a lot more like Jonah than we would like to admit.
In 1968, Thomas John Carlisle wrote a book entitled, “You, Jonah.” It’s a series of poems about Jonah. When he comes to the last chapter, here’s what Carlisle writes:
The generosity of God
displeased Jonah exceedingly
and he slashed with angry prayer
at the graciousness of the Almighty.
“I told You so,” he screamed.
“I knew what You would do,
You dirty Forgiver.
You bless Your enemies
and show kindness to those
who despitefully use You.
I would rather die
than live in a world
with a God like You.
And don’t try to forgive me either.”
And Jonah stalked
To his shaded seat
And waited for God
To come around
To his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting
For a host of Jonah’s
In their comfortable houses
To come around
To his way of loving.
So, as we close, I raise the question this morning, “Where do you find yourself in the story of Jonah?”
Maybe you’re someone who’s been running away from God like Jonah did in chapter 1, and if so, I hope this morning you’ll make the decision to come back. Because I don’t care how far away from God you may have gone, or how deep into sin you may have sunk, if you return to the Lord, he’s ready to forgive.
Or perhaps you realize that you’re more like Jonah in chapter 4, and you need to confess that you’ve been a lot more interested in the “plants” in your life that keep you comfortable than you have been in people and their souls. If that’s the case, then I hope this morning you’ll take steps to get your priorities straight.