Will the Real Sinner Please Stand Up?

Jonah 4

July 25, 2011 | Ray Pritchard

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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 maiden he has rescued.  It reminds me of the 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.

And 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.

Jonah’s Misplaced Anger      

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.  He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

I’m struck by the way the NLT translates verse 1: “This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry.” I underlined change of plans because that’s the key to Jonah 4.

What change of plans?
The fact that God is no longer going to destroy Nineveh.

There’s a little Jonah in all of us and a lot of Jonah in most of us.
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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. That’s a 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. “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). That’s a reference to Exodus 34:6-7, 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. One writer brought the truth home this way:

“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. And this was God’s man!

The real question turns out to be, “God, what are you going to do about Jonah?”
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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.

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.

Three things happen in short order, all of them caused by God:

Then the LORD 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?

Did Jonah Repent?

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 (Jonah 1), he runs away. The second time God calls (Jonah 3), 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.

It is perfectly possible to obey God with a rotten attitude.
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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.

As I pondered this conundrum, I remembered Paul’s words in Philippians 1:15-18 that some preach Christ out of selfish ambition and false motives. Now whatever that may mean, we know that sort of preaching can’t be a good thing. But it doesn’t seem to bother Paul too much. He’s just glad that Christ is preached.

I conclude from this that we will sometimes (often?) serve Christ with motives that are far from pure. I remember being shocked many years ago when I heard a pastor say that he had rarely done anything in his life without mixed motives. I was a young man then and not very wise in the ways of human nature. I now see that the pastor was confessing an obvious truth. This side of heaven even our best deeds and noblest acts will be tainted with self-interest. As Tim Keller has commented,

“We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness – the sin of seeking to be our own Savior.”

We can say it another way. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for our good deeds, we should repent of the pride we take in doing those good deeds in the first place because without God, we would never do anything good at all. I simply mean that even our “best” deeds are tainted by sin.

It is surprisingly easy to do the right thing for the wrong reason and still be blessed.
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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? Only one man knew all the details. And 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 stinky attitude toward God and toward the people God loves. And since the book ends with a question, that means the final response must come not from the prophet but from you and me.

God’s Heart Revealed                    

“But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (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 cozy, and keep it nice and neat inside the four walls of the church.

This story speaks to all of us who would rather not get involved in the world.
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There is another way of looking at this whole issue: Jonah has two 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. Oh, 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.

The problem with the world is not the world.
The problem with the world is the church.
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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 odious to us so we don’t even bother to pray for them.

–God’s greatest problem is not the sinner out there.
–His greatest problem is the saint in here.

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.

Three closing lessons

Let’s wrap up our study of Jonah with three lessons that bring the truth home to our hearts.

A.  God loves Nineveh!

Where is Nineveh today?  Nineveh is Philadelphia. Nineveh is London. Nineveh is your neighbor next door, the one you don’t like who won’t take care of his yard, 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 hall. She’s such a drama queen. Thinks the whole world is about her. She’s your Nineveh.

“You can tell you have made God in your image when it turns out he hates all the same people you do.”
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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 neighbor and your Sikh banker 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 splendor 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.

Look around, child of God! You live in Nineveh, you work in Nineveh, all your life is lived in and around “that great city.” No one can escape it.

The message is clear:  God still loves Nineveh!  He still loves the people who make their living in the big city. He loves the teeming thousands who work long hours each day. He loves the union workers who ply their trade in some mammoth factory in the bowels of the city.

Nineveh ultimately stands for any part of the will of God that you are afraid to face.  
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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 three days and three 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!

There’s an old gospel song that includes this line: “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.

Sometimes we see only the evil and think, “God must hate this city.”  No, God loves this city and these people.
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He just makes you willing to go.

C.  Nineveh needs you.

Think about this. 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.

What will God have to do to get you to obey him?
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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.

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You’ve got a Nineveh in your life right now. It might be a friend where you work. It might be that group you hang around with after school. It might be your neighbors down the street, or it might be the women in the PTA or the guys on your bowling team. Who knows? Your Nineveh might be your husband or wife or even your grown-up children. Your Nineveh might be someone you love whose behavior has provoked you to the point of anger and bitterness. Your Nineveh might be a new job in a new city or a home on a new street. 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.”

Nineveh is calling you today . . .
What will you do about it?

God wants you in Nineveh . . .
But you don’t want to go.

You’d rather go to Tarshish . . .
Fine, but watch out for that great fish.

The world is evil and mean . . .
Will you speak up anyway?

People are cruel . . .
Will you tell them about God’s love?

You say, “I don’t want to go.”
God says, “I’ll just make you willing to go.”

He doesn’t make you go against your will. He just makes you willing to go.
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At this point I’m reminded of that commercial about a car that break down, and the voiceover says, “You can do this the easy way, or you can do this the hard way,” the point being that prevention costs less than repair work. In a sense, that’s what God is saying in the book of Jonah. We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way, but we are going to do this because God’s got a great big heart. He will not sit by silently while his children disobey him.

You may say, “Where is the gospel in this story?” I answer that the gospel is all over the story. That’s why no sign will be given other than the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 12:39-40). And one greater than Jonah is here (Luke 11:32). For God so loved Nineveh that he gave his only Son that whoever in Nineveh believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

You, Jonah

Thomas Carlisle wrote a poem called “You, Jonah.” The last two stanzas go this way:

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.

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.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?