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Last week Jonah expressed great joy over the provision of a castor oil plant that provided him some shade in the hot Assyrian sun. That joy turned to despair as God appointed a worm that destroyed the plant. That was followed by a scorching east wind carrying small particles of sand that blew with such force that Jonah begged God to let him die. Quite the range of mood swings. There is one final conversation that God initiates with Jonah. Let’s see what God says.
Jonah 4:9-11 tells us, “Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
The first thing you notice is God’s incredible patience. Hey Jonah, just one last question to think about. “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” God is affording Jonah another opportunity to look at things from a kingdom mindset. I don’t think God is using His mighty voice. I think He’s asking in a very soft, tender sounding voice because He still wants Jonah to get it. Pro. 15:1 tells us that, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” You want to diffuse a difficult situation quickly? Speak softly and tenderly. It really works. Try it with your spouse, your family, friends, and co-workers.
“Do you have good reason to be angry?” Jonah said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” How angry is that? No doubt the heat and scorching wind played a part in Jonah speaking before thinking. If only Jonah would have thought about the question for just a second. There’s got to be something more here than tremendous grief and sorrow over the death of a plant. Is that really the issue here or is there more going on? What kind of man are you that you would despair to the point of death over a plant? In Jonah’s mind, he was absolutely justified regardless of what anyone says, regardless of what the Word says, regardless of what God says. His mind was made up and no amount of reasonable dialogue could change what he thought.
God provides a very solid argument for agreeing with Him even though He doesn’t need to. The gentleness of God’s voice diminishes in v. 10 when He says, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight.” Jonah has some misplaced emotion. He has compassion for a plant that he had nothing to do with. He didn’t put a seed in the ground and lovingly care for the plant. He didn’t water it; he didn’t do anything for it. The plant is an inanimate object and when it dies, Jonah wants to die. He still doesn’t get it. The real issue isn’t the plant; the real issue is that Jonah is still wallowing in his great anger thinking of Nineveh’s turning from wickedness. God’s doing what He can to make Jonah realize that his priorities are whacked. Jonah had no compassion on Nineveh. His rationale? Nineveh was wicked and we judge him for his lack of love. Yet, don’t we do the same thing? All compassion goes out the door when we mention names like: Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Khadafy, and Adolf Hitler. We have no compassion when we think of the unknown person that killed Jon Benet Ramsay, or what we believe is the unjust not guilty verdict for Casey Anthony. None when we think of the unsolved disappearance of Natalee Holloway we get angry and demand justice. When we hear of death row inmates repenting we are skeptical. We feel like Jonah and we justify our feelings by concluding they deserve death, not life. When this is our attitude, we don’t fully grasp God’s grace. If God’s grace is sufficient for you and for me, then why isn’t it sufficient for someone as despicable as Bin Laden, or Hitler? When we look at humanity from God’s perspective, from a Kingdom perspective, our attitude should change. We are the receiver’s of God’s grace – unmerited favor: we are granted what we do not deserve. We are also recipients of God’s mercy – we don’t get what we do deserve.
God does have justification for what He does. God’s last recorded question goes unanswered when He asks, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” It’s a very thought provoking question. If God exercises His grace and mercy on one person, why not on another? On one nation, why not another? Jonah had compassion on a plant. He cared for that plant deeply enough that when it died, he wanted to die. Jonah had an opportunity to express compassion on God’s highest creation and would not. Nineveh repented and Jonah still concluded they did not deserve God’s mercy, they deserved God’s judgment. God’s question captures the whole purpose for this book. It’s never too late to repent. No matter what a city or country has done, it’s never too late. The issue is God’s grace and mercy. It’s seen throughout the book. Jonah disobeyed the call to go to Nineveh. God’s grace resulted in a second call. Jonah deserved to die in the sea. God’s mercy resulted in a fish. Jonah deserved to bake in the sun. God’s mercy resulted in a plant. Nineveh deserved judgment for their wickedness. God’s grace sent them a prophet.
God’s desire for humanity is salvation, not destruction. He’ll do what He can to provide that salvation as long as His creation does its part. We have the responsibility to carry the message of hope – the message of salvation to people that deserve death yet God loves the world so much that He willingly gave His only begotten Son. Each person must respond to that message of hope – that’s our part of the equation. God wants Jonah to feel how He feels for Nineveh. Jonah has the capacity for compassion. He showed it to the sailors on the ship. He showed it for the plant. God loves the people in Nineveh, just like He loves the people of Jerusalem and Galilee. He also loves the people Pyongyang, Kabul, Riyadh, Mogadishu, Tehran, Malé, Tashkent, Sanaá, Bagdad, and Islamabad. What is significant about these cities? They are the capital cities of the top ten countries on Open Doors world watch list where it is most difficult to be a Christ follower. In 8 of these top 10 countries, Islam is the predominant faith.
God has compassion on these places and wants those people to hear and respond to the life changing message of Jesus Christ. God tells Jonah that, “There are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right hand and left hand.” The number is probably the entire population of the city. The exact meaning of the phrase “do not know the difference between their right hand and left hand” is not definitively known. It might refer to the Ninevite’s inability to distinguish between various religions. During this time period, there was monotheism, polytheism, atheism, idolatry, and the Assyrians were known for worshiping the constellations. It might refer to the helplessness of the people or their pitifulness. The best understanding would be that God is referring to a morally and ethically naïve group of people. The people are not innocent, but it conveys the idea that they just don’t know any better. When told the truth, they responded so they at least recognized their evil ways and did something about it. At best, this group of people is in the infancy of their Christian walk of faith. “As well as many animals” likely indicates that even God’s creatures that walk, fly, and crawl about the earth as well as the fish of the seas have a higher place than plants do. God is still the Teacher. It seems that this book ends suddenly and somewhat strangely. We don’t know what Jonah’s response was, if any. Did Jonah hear? Did Jonah care?
We leave Jonah to wallow in his self pity for being the instrument God used to accomplish the greatest mission trip ever recorded. Salvation comes to every person in Nineveh. No one can ever resent the grace of God that is shown to another person. We are all undeserving of it. Today we are left to wonder if we, God’s people, will have any compassion for a lost world. The choice is ours. What becomes of Nineveh? Do they live happily ever after? Next week, we’ll look at the rest of the story.