The Reluctant Prophet - Jonah 4 - preached at The Baptist Church of Driftwood, Driftwood, Texas on November 8, 2015
The Reluctant Prophet - Jonah 4
Prayer: Father God, you are a mystery to us, yet the Holy Bible is a partial revelation from you to us to create a relationship between us through your Son, Jesus Christ. Let us get into your Word, and let my voice fade away, and your Holy Spirit come forth, as we look to the Reluctant Prophet, and what he has to say to all of us. It is in Jesus’ name that I pray, Amen.
[Illustration – Robert J. Ingersoll]
Robert Green "Bob" Ingersoll was a lawyer, a Civil War veteran, political leader, and orator of the United States during the Golden Age of Free Thought (1875 - 1914) , noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism.
When Mr. Ingersoll was delivering his lectures against Christ and the Bible, his oratorical ability usually assured him of a large crowd. One night after an inflammatory speech in which he severely attacked man’s faith in God, he dramatically took out his watch and said, "I’ll give God a chance to prove that He exists and is almighty. I challenge Him to strike me dead within 5 minutes!" First there was silence, then people became uneasy. Some left the hall, unable to take the nervous strain of the occasion, and one woman fainted. At the end of the allotted time, the atheist exclaimed, "See! There is no God. I am still very much alive!" After the lecture a young fellow said to a Christian lady, "Well, Ingersoll certainly proved something tonight!" Her reply was memorable. "Yes he did," she said. "He proved God isn’t taking orders from atheists tonight."
There is a separation between what we humans think and what the Creator thinks. God is sovereign, and His ways are not our own. And what God thinks is not what we think, as Isaiah 55:8 states in this way:
Isaiah 55:8 New International Version (NIV)
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
It is frustrating for us in the world, but true. Probably the most memorable story from the Bible about the difference between our thoughts and God’s thoughts happens during the book of Jonah.
[Background on the book]
The Book of Jonah is in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. Jonah is listed as one of the Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Although the book is silent on the author, “Jonah son of Amittai” is mentioned in 2 Kings: Jonah was the son of Amittai, from Israel which was the Northern Kingdom. He prophesied during or shortly before the time of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.). It is said that Jonah was a successor to Elijah, and Jonah promised that victories would come to Jeroboam II because of the Lord’s compassion for Israel. (2 Kgs 13:2, 6, 11; 14:24) (NAC 204).
The date of the book is also unknown, but is thought to be about the 8th century B.C. What is known through history is that Nineveh had a relationship with Israel, and mostly of dominance or greatness – in spite of not following Israel’s God Yahweh. It was not the place for an Israelite to go, much less a prophet.
So one of the amazing things about Jonah is that it is set on the way to and in Nineveh, a “great city” in Assyria, which is now in Iraq. A non-Israelite town, and a nemesis of the Jews.
[Intro to Jonah 4 (the first 3 Chapters)]
In the first 3 Chapters of Jonah, we learn the following: Jonah son of Amittai didn’t like what he heard from Yahweh, because it was to go to Nineveh. It had come to the attention of God that there was wickedness or, to the Israelites, sin in the city. In response, Jonah tried to run the opposite way – to Tarshish by ship (somewhere, it is thought, in Spain) – but Yahweh followed him, and caused a great storm that was so vast the ship that Jonah was on threatened to break up. As Jonah was on a vessel - actually sleeping - the sailors questioned him because of the storm. Jonah said He was a Hebrew, and he was running from God: That is why God created the storm. Then Jonah said “Throw me overboard and the sea will become calm.” The sailors were reluctant to throw Jonah into the sea (and even apologized to God for taking Jonah’s life by throwing him into the sea), but eventually gave in and cast him off the ship... and the water died down (which caused the sailors to praise Yahweh, even though they were Gentile!) God then saved Jonah from the sea with a great fish (or whale) by being in its belly. Jonah went to Nineveh as a result of the Lord’s miracle, but he did not go there willingly.
Maybe that’s because to Jonah Nineveh was in Assyria, which is modern day Iraq. It was not in Israel or Judah, it was a long way off, and the Assyrians were known enemies of the Jewish people. And a prophet’s sole job was to speak the word of the Lord to his people – not the Ninevites!
Because God asked Jonah – twice – to go to Nineveh, and saved him from the sea, Jonah went there reluctantly and preached the word of the Lord. Surprisingly, the Ninevites repented! Just one sermon from Jonah and they repented! Then, an amazing thing happened: God had mercy on the Ninevites. (Which was a surprise to Jonah – surprised that God had mercy on the Assyrians who had made life miserable for the Israelites).
[Major themes of the Book]
In my view, there are lots of themes in Jonah. For example:
(1) Jonah ‘s running from the Lord because he didn’t like where He is sending him; (2) People are genuinely good (for example, sailors did not want to harm Jonah, and Ninevites turned from their wickedness once it was pointed out to them); (3) God is rebuking His own people; and God caring about the entire population, not just the Jews; (4) Humans getting angry at God for multiple reasons (for instance, we don’t like where He’s sending us, or God’s gracious even to the wicked or sinful people, etc.); and (5) God having mercy on His own people (in this case, Jonah) and non-believers (here, the Ninevites, who were the Gentiles).
I’m going to visit with you about mostly the latter two of these, and couch them like this: -- God has mercy, or is gracious, to His whole creation, which includes people. Shouldn’t we as well? -
[Illustration - Peter and Acts 10 - Cornelius and the Vision on Top of the House]
In the New Testament, we have a similar situation. Peter had an experience like Jonah when he was believing that God would only have a relationship with Israelites. In Acts 10 we see God showing Peter the error of his ways by the vision and Peter going to Cornelius’s house (who was a Gentile Roman centurion in the Italian Regiment). Peter accepted this fact, as Acts 11 states, and even went to Jerusalem and explained his new beliefs to the Jews there.
Did Jonah see what Peter saw?...
[Jonah 4 overview Pericope theme]
Well, not really. Jonah knew that God was good and had mercy, as Scripture states in Chapter 4, verse 2 “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” But Jonah was angry, not accepting of God’s instruction. Not accepting of the message that God’s is forgiving (full of mercy) and loves all people and animals, and He wants His people to love them, too.
Do we today make distinctions when we view people? Do we make ethnic or racial comparisons, lean on socio-economic factors, make educational level distinctions, or make our own cultural comparisons to view people wrongly? For example, in Hungary it is rude if you don’t put your arms on the table! In America, at least at our table, we tell our children to take their arms off the table... These decisions that are made by us often prevent us from embracing our fellow humans and witnessing to them!
[Jonah 4 scripture]
In Jonah 4, God had mercy on the Ninevites because they repented. That displeased Jonah, and the Lord tried to teach Jonah a lesson. Jonah went east of Nineveh, sat down, and waited. Maybe he was waiting for the Lord to spare or destroy the city! It was blindingly hot and the sun blazed overhead, so Yahweh provided a gourd plant or vine to protect Jonah from the sun. Jonah, as you can imagine, was “very happy” about the vine.
Let’s go the God’s Word to finish the story. I am reading from a part of Jonah 4 verses 7-11 and I will give you a minute to get there in your Bible [wait for a moment]:
Jonah 4:7-11 New International Version (NIV)
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?”
The Word of the Lord. [Thanks be to God] Thanks be to God.
So Yahweh teaches His prophet about Yahweh’s character in the book of Jonah. The Hebrew language uses a verb manah which means “to appoint,” “to provide,” “to prepare” throughout the book of Jonah. For example, the great fish (1:17), the vine (4:6), the worm (4:7), and the east wind (4:8) all point to the divine initiative and sovereignty.
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.
God does so here by creating, or providing a plant, then creating a worm to chew it up, then forming a sirocco (East Wind) that made it unbearable to survive (one commentary says all who are in the sirocco’s run for shelter). I was in Iraq in 2005, and the dust storms are majestic and raise hundreds of meters above the earth. One source says that a sirocco can last from ½ a day to several days. Dust Storms in the western area of Iraq lasted about an hour. If you are in the middle of one, you cannot breathe, so you find shelter (if there is shelter)! But there was no shelter or respite for Jonah.
It is interesting that Jonah was reluctant to embrace God’s plan, and reluctant to examine himself...
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.”
What we see here is that God is personal and corrects his people. And God is specific in correcting Jonah.
God is portrayed as a teacher, trying to help Jonah recognize Yahweh’s divine character and Jonah’s own inadequacy in understanding. But God is tender in such a moment.
The question God asks is nearly identical to that asked at least twice before in Jonah and asked just previously is Jonah 4:4. One commentary – and I think the commentary is right on this - is that God’s questions to Jonah about anger is central to the whole book of Jonah. One theologian asks: “What right do we have to demand that God should favor us and not others?” But I think it is deeper than that... I think it is borne of pride, arrogance that is driven by our perception of God’s lack of love for us.
Though one commentary says the anger of pity is meant here. The Hebrew word is ḥā·rāh- which means literally “angry.” Let’s pause a minute from Jonah 4 and consider “Anger.” Though at least one sermon could be preached on “Anger and its Ramifications,” we need at least to define anger as “divine anger” and “human anger.” Divine anger looks like Jesus overturning the moneychanger’s table at the Jerusalem Temple in the Gospels. Jesus is “angry” because the most vivid point in that time of the relationship between Yahweh and humanity was tainted by the sin of man! In other words, the Holy place that was to be the entrance of God into humanity was tainted by our sin!
Human anger, on the other hand, looks and feels entirely different. From the Biblical standpoint, it is human to feel anger, just as it is human to feel compassion, without the Bible taking a moral or theological stance on it. And there is a hint of irony here, that Jonah gets “angry” enough to die from the withering of the plant. But, again, I think it is more than that: Jonah doesn’t understand God’s mercy, and thinks emphatically that it should be different. There is sin there...
But let’s get back to Jonah 4 and God’s lesson for all of us...
In Jonah 4:10, it says:
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.
God’s correction is specific – and gentle (which is amazing!)– “though you did not tend it or make it grow.” Of course, we know the God is the creator of everything (as Jonah did), so he did create the Ninevites and their animals!
By fretting over the life of a plant that Jonah did not create, and even wishing to die over it, Jonah did not see it as a gift of God’s grace. Maybe, as one commentary put it, the Lord was trying forcefully to ask the ultimate question: “Who are you to question me?” Maybe Jonah’s anger expressed a lack of understanding, but also a lack of trust.
Evident also for Jonah is the self-confidence of one who knew God’s character (4:2) but had become indifferent to those outside of Israel’s fate. Do we have the same indifference in churches today? Do we have the same attitude towards other churches? Towards non-believers?
Jonah 4:11 states:
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?”
God is concerned about the “great city of Nineveh,” which is Gentile and they did not know God as the Israelites – the chosen people – did, for they cannot tell their right hand from their left. Maybe the Lord was referring to a city of morally and ethically naïve, though not morally innocent, individuals.
The question of the entire book of Jonah, brought to a conclusion here, is grace and mercy. God’s wish for His creation is salvation, not destruction. The point that Yahweh cares for all His people and animals is lost on Jonah (or more specifically, Jonah doesn’t want to accept it)!
Jonah’s disobedience to God, especially since God was merciful, is odd, given that Jonah knew God, as he states in 4:2. Reminds me of a story about Abraham....
[Illustration – Abraham; Patience]
The story is reproduced in Jewish Writings, and is not in the Bible, but rings true in this sense. It is about Abraham and the old man who comes along. Abraham invites the old man in and fixes him some dinner. When the old man does not say grace, Abraham chastises him and throws him out to fend for himself. God then “steps in” and says “Why did you throw him out?” Upon Abraham saying he did not worship Yahweh, Yahweh says “He is 100 years old and I have borne it all the time, can you not stay with him for a night?”
It seems that a child of God would be more than happy if God had mercy and spared people from His wrath. Maybe one of the problems Jonah had with the Ninevites was patience. Jonah was not patient enough with the Ninevites, unlike Yahweh, who is graceful and patient.
[Old Testament to New Testament – Grace, Forgiveness, Love]
When we talk about the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) versus the New Testament, it is appropriate to say a few things.
There are different languages in the Old (Hebrew) versus the New (Greek) Testament which had different grammar, words, and nuances;
In the Old Testament, we get “mercy” used to describe many of God’s actions, not specifically “grace” as much as it is used in the New Testament (especially Paul);
When God is described as “gracious” in the Old Testament, it is usually tracked back to Exodus 34:6, which says in part “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (like in Jonah 4:2).
Grace and mercy are intertwined, but mercy is part of grace, and is a synonym for compassion and means to have pity or to feel sorry for someone. Grace is broader. In the New Testament, Grace is the demonstration of God’s goodwill toward humankind in the person of Jesus Christ and the effects of that goodwill in human lives. Grace, therefore, brings forth forgiveness and love.
At least one commentary believes that it is a mistake to think of Jonah in New Testament terms. But, at least as Baptists, we see the whole Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ. I see it as a further revelation of God’s character that ultimately came in Jesus Christ. It is a link, between the Old and New Testament, that God loves all of His people, and will do anything to have relationship with them...correct His prophet, Jonah, or come down and die on a cross as Jesus Christ, the Savior of us all!
But sometimes, in this world, do you get a little tired of people, occasionally? Especially, people not like you – worshiping different god’s; who think different; wear different clothes (or the lack thereof), or act differently? Does the Bible tell us, as Christians, to hate those people, or love them?
And what about the people? Sinful people, to our eyes ... unbelievers – are they any different than the Ninevites?
Most of you were alive on September 11, 2001. It was a day that I will remember as long as I live. Many of you from 18 on down, do not remember the day but remember the price we paid: things like the buildup of the military and the cost our military service men and women have paid and are paying; the Homeland Security Agency, which came to exist because of it; the Transportation Security Agency (most of y’all are familiar with these), which man’s security stations at airports; the cost of gasoline and diesel at the pump; and the economic downturn in 2008 – 2009 which arguably was caused in part by the post 9/11 world.
Another thing that was also brought out by 9/11 is racism, especially against Muslims or people of the Middle East. This was going on in my mind on the evening of Sept 11, 2001 when I came to Sunset Canyon Baptist Church to pray. There was a lot of prayer that night, for those that were lost and their families, for those associated with the military; but also for the terrorists, and those that are terrorists. But did we pray for the Muslims in this country, especially the Arabs and Persians?
[Bringing it home to the congregation]
Maybe we are supposed to have mercy on humankind, and - on this side of Jesus, forgiveness.
Do you have mercy and forgiveness to your family? I hope so... Do you have mercy and forgiveness to your friends – at school, at work, at play? Do you have mercy and forgiveness to your teachers, bosses, fellow workers or students? Do you have mercy and forgiveness to your adversaries – people of the opposing political party, your business competitors, people who see a different God than you do (or no God)? Do you have mercy and forgiveness to your enemies – even terrorists?
If your answer was no to any of my questions, do you think God would answer them “Yes”?
I think God is in the business of changing us, His Children, like He did Jonah. Maybe, like Jonah, God is providing for us. Maybe God is providing for us and preparing us, but also for the entire creation for what is to come. Maybe we are supposed to provide mercy and forgiveness (both for ourselves and more importantly for other people). I think, as a new creation, Jesus lives inside us in the Holy Spirit, and changes us, too. Changing/refining/challenging us to live like Jesus did, to be (as much as we can be) like Jesus...to bring God’s message to the people of this earth.
My prayer is that God will mold us to answer the questions “yes,” and look for ways to witness to those people in love, like Jonah perhaps should have done...
Prayer: Father God, you are so gracious...to love people such as we, who are sinful. Let us not forget that we are all sinful, and let us not forget that because of your grace we are saved. Let us see through Your eyes people who are in this world looking for you, though sometimes they don’t know it. Let us be witnesses to them in Jesus’ name, Amen.