Reluctant witness – Jonah 4

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Jonah might be the most reluctant witness to God there has ever been.

When we started Jonah I made the point that it’s an unusual book in the prophets. Partly because Jonah is more narrative than others. I also said it’s unusual that Jonah was actually sent to Nineveh. Other prophets had messages for foreign nations but they weren’t usually sent to those nations like Jonah.

It seems this is all about a message to Nineveh, then? But when we get to chapter 4 we realise it was never really about Nineveh, no more than about sailors or a fish. In fact, it’s a pointed rebuke to all God’s people about our failure to make God known to people unlike us.

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube.

Your emotions betray you

In chapter 3 we saw Jonah preaching to the Great city of Nineveh. The news spread across the area quickly – God was angry at them for their sin and judgment was coming. Amazingly, they were all very much cut up about it. They repented of their sin in the hope that God might relent – which he did! Read Jonah 3:10-4:1.

When you read that, Jonah comes over as a bit bizarre – it’s pretty unpleasant and mean-spirited. So he prays his second prayer in the book: Read v2-3.

It’s hard to stomach. Jonah is actually angry that God is “a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love” – key OT phrases used to praise and glorify God over and over. He’s angry that God is “eager to turn back from destroying people” – something the king of Nineveh had particularly hoped would happen. Why was he so angry? Why such a reluctant witness? He wanted Sodom and Gomorrah again! Jonah wanted fire and brimstone raining down judgment from heaven on this wicked city! He felt they didn’t deserve grace, but only punishment!

But is that right? That’s the question God asks: Read v4. Is it right? After all, they were horrifically wicked?

Should Jonah be so angry?

So Jonah goes and takes a seat to see if God might at least do something to them (ever hopeful!) and his mood changes. Read v5-6. Where v1 was literally Jonah “felt wronged a great wrong”, now he’s got this plant to shade him he’s “happy with a great happiness” – a full shift in mood!

But then he’s soon raging again! Read v7-8. Why is he so worked up? He’s raging? God questions him: Read v9.

But let’s notice some things:

  1. The plant was a surprise blessing; he didn’t ask for it, and he didn’t deserve it.
    So he had no right to complain when it was taken away.
  2. God arranged for the plant, arranged for the worm, arranged for the wind (and earlier, the fish).
    The message here is more for Jonah than Nineveh.

So God spells things out to him: Read v10-11. Jonah was angry that 120,000 people didn’t die. And yet Jonah was angry that a plant sheltering him did die. Aren’t his values being exposed here, by what he gets worked up about?

His rage and his lack of compassion reveal two deeply troubling underlying values in Jonah – his own heart before God:

  1. Wicked people don’t deserve grace, but judgment.
  2. I’m yours, O God, so I deserve better.

The story’s not finished

The book finished abruptly: Because, in a sense, it’s not even about Jonah. You’re meant to examine your own heart and emotions:

  • How do you feel about what Jonah did? 
  • How do you react when wicked people become Christians?
  • What do you get angry about when you look at the world?
  • Is there more of Jonah in you than you’d like to admit?

What would the opposite of Jonah look like in a Christian? What is the opposite of being a reluctant witness?

  • A heart burdened with a need to tell people about Jesus.
  • A life of prayer where the eternal state of unbelieving people was a constant theme.
  • A life of telling people about Jesus, regularly + naturally.

Jonah is a book about the unwillingness of God’s people to promote his name to others: Your heart before God also has:

  1. Wicked people don’t deserve grace, but judgment.
  2. I’m yours, O God, so I deserve better.

You speak to God but not of him

Jonah’s heart has been laid bare for us. Now his earlier actions actually become clearer too. Back in chapter 1, God first told Jonah to go to Nineveh. He refused to go, and went in the opposite direction instead. Why did he refuse to go? We have found out in Ch 4.

  • He knew that if he went and told the wicked city of its wickedness, it just might change – and what then?
  • Then God would be the God he is: a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
  • In Jonah’s eyes, they’d be let off!
  • But, in Jonah’s eyes, they don’t deserve grace, but judgment. So Jonah wouldn’t even go and tell them.

When the storm came, the sailors were all non-Hebrews too. So while they were all worried about perishing in the sea, and while the captain got everyone to pray to their gods so that they wouldn’t perish in the sea, Jonah went for a nap. When they challenged him, he said “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” There was pride and prejudice in his heart. Something of “I’m yours, O God, so I deserve better” – he certainly wouldn’t be just another passenger on that ship. In the end they threw him overboard and God arranged for a big fish to swallow him up.

Jonah had prayed!

He prayed a beautiful prayer to God (in chapter 2):

  • From the deepest depths, from the door to death itself
  • He looked up to God in the highest heights!
  • And – wonderfully – God heard him and rescued him.
  • It really is a very helpful prayer for anyone in the depths.

But within Jonah’s prayer, there was a problem in Jonah’s heart. He prayed for release, but he didn’t pray repentance. He prayed that he might be restored to praise God again in the Temple, but he didn’t say anything about his sinful rebellion, nor about renewed effort to go to Nineveh. In his heart, he still has “Wicked people don’t deserve grace, but judgment” – so he says nothing about wanting to go to Nineveh. Instead, his prayer is effectively “save me so that I might praise you” – revealing “I’m yours, O God, so I deserve better.”

Jonah had preached!

When you get to chapter 3, Jonah actually did go to Nineveh. What did he actually preach? Jonah 3:4 “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”

  • Not exactly a call to repent, to change.
  • Jonah didn’t let on that God is “a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love”. He just said judgment was coming.
  • The king of Nineveh was left to say “Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”
  • As far as Jonah was concerned, even his preaching said “Wicked people don’t deserve grace, but judgment.”

Too many Christians today are quick to condemn the world, but slow to evangelise it.

Way too many Christians today are quick to condemn the world, but slow to evangelise it. Too many Christians get worked up about the wickedness around but are slow to speak life into it.

  • Lots of Christians across the West have got very worked up about Governments closing church buildings in the pandemic (not churches, just buildings).
  • Many Christians complain about Sunday trading, or pornography, or marriage issues.
  • The Bible has much to say about these things, of course.
  • But you need to examine your heart: Do you look at these things in the world with a heart like Jonah?

Examine your heart

You might be happy to be at church week by week, praising God. But you’re less happy about anything that gets in the way of that. And you frankly refuse to go out and tell people about Christ as you’re supposed to. Jonah wanted to praise God to his face, but not to praise God to others. He enjoyed God’s mercy, compassion, patience and unfailing love – but he also enjoyed condemning wicked people by not sharing with them what God was like.

Our Motto text for 2021 is 2 Corinthians 4:13 “I believed in God, so I spoke.” Paul is quoting Ps 116, knowing that the psalmist means he spoke to God, trusting that God could save him. Paul adds to that further meaning: He trusts God not only to speak to him, but of him.

So Jonah is a pointed rebuke to all God’s people about our failure to make God known to people unlike us. So:

Nurture Christ’s compassion in you

When all else is understood, we can grasp the one key phrase in the whole book.

  • It comes, ironically, on Jonah’s own lips at the end of his prayer in Jonah 2:9.
  • The NLT has it “my salvation comes from the LORD alone”- which is probably how Jonah meant it.
  • More literally, it’s just two words, essentially “Salvation belongs to the LORD.”

Salvation belongs to the LORD.

Jonah doesn’t get to choose to whom the LORD shows mercy. Salvation doesn’t belong to you or me; nor the Western church, nor African or Asian. It doesn’t belong to Israel (however you define that) either. Salvation belongs to the LORD

  • He will have mercy on whom he will have mercy; he will have compassion on whom he will have compassion.
  • And he abounds in mercy and compassion.
  • And all people and nations are his.

God chooses no-one because they’re “special” in some way. All people are equal before him. Equally sinful; equally in need of forgiveness.

One God and one way to him

There is only one way for anyone to approach God.

Repentance for sin against him; forgiveness received from him; punishment taken by Jesus in your place. You can’t come any other way, but God has provided Jesus to be the way: Salvation is from the LORD.

To be his, then, means to be united to Jesus and to become like him. How he wept to see death. He cried over Jerusalem for their constant rebellion and unbelief – and the judgment that would come.

  • Jonah 4 ends with God declaring compassion over Nineveh. Yes, their sins were terrible and judgment was due, but all people are his and he takes pleasure in no-one’s death or condemnation.
  • Christian, draw near to Christ. Become like him (that’s your destiny), and emulate his warm compassion for the lost. Don’t be Jonah.

Since you are only saved by grace, you have no grounds for boasting, no superiority over others, no right to choose who deserves to hear the Good News and who doesn’t. You are God’s workmanship to do God’s works.So you are to tell the Good News to everyone without discrimination. Invite unbelieving people to church, or simply to chat. You are to pray for the lost (by name) with humility, gratitude, and passion.

Jonah didn’t care for the lost, didn’t pray for them, didn’t want to tell them about God. They could – literally – go to hell. This whole book is a rebuke to Israel, to the people of God, to you: For your uncaring, unwitnessing, unpraying heart.

  • Salvation belongs to the Lord – so nurture the Lord’s compassion in your own heart, and then do that gospel work that he has called you to do.