“The Jonah Complex”
Well I hope you’ve enjoyed our little socially distanced summers cruise with Jonah. We’ve gone from the waters off the coast of Joppa to the bottom of the sea in the belly of a fish, and we took a 3 day tour of the ancient city of Nineveh, one of the wonders of the world of its day, and finally ended up on a hillside outside the city of Nineveh, modern day Northern Iraq.
Personally, I’m a little disappointed having to come back to dock again, but that’s where we are with this part of our story today. Last week we left Jonah sitting on a hillside east of Nineveh…and he’s angry. He has now preached God’s message to the Assyrian people that Jonah hated because he was a Jew and they were not. Basically, it was a prejudice deeply imbedded in Jonah, and really all Jewish people. Like we still today talk about Nazi Germany as the epitome of evil.
Now before we leave this too quickly let’s think again where Jonah was. He was angry…he was resentful that an entire city of pagan, idolatrous people had turned to God in repentance. Lest we think that would never happen to us, let’s imagine a scenario.
For some of us, had something drastic happened last week during the DNC…speaker after speaker took the platform and began to repent and turn from their sins…revival happened! For some of us, we might have a problem because it happened at the DNC! Or what if something similar happened next week at during the RNC.
God forgave them upon their genuine repentance as they turned to God as their Creator and judge. In 2 Chronicles 6:32-33 Solomon prayed “As for the foreigner who does not belong to Your people Israel…when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from Heaven, Your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of You, so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your Name and fear You.” Jonah would have known this promise. And now he’s seeing it come to pass before his eyes!
With just 48 verses, this is an incredible and God-inspired account we are reading about. While we’ve talked about Jonah a lot, this is really a story about God: not a prophet, not a whale, and not a revival in a city. The fish gets mentioned four times; Jonah 19 times but God is mentioned 38 times! It is a portrayal of God as “gracious, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
But it’s also a lesson to Israel to show them Who He was and what He expected them to be. They were rebellious and resistant to God’s call to be “a blessing to all the nations of the earth” and “a kingdom of priests and kings.” They wanted to enjoy the privilege of God’s call without the pain of responsibility. Just like us! They didn’t want to have to love people they didn’t like! Jonah’s story was a real-life object lesson for all of Israel and revealed their resistance to doing His will.
But the Book of Jonah also reveals characteristics of God that we sometimes struggle with and don’t understand. Let me mention three.
God’s Mercy and Jonah’s Resentment. (Jonah 4:1-5)
Jonah experienced what many today experience. He struggled with reconciling how God could be just, and righteous, and holy and, at the same time, forgive the unrighteous who, clearly in Jonah’s opinion, more than deserved God’s burning wrath. He didn’t like the “change of plans” that God pulled off, because it crashed into Jonah’s neat and simplistic view of God that some of us entertain: God loves good people and punishes bad ones.
This view is flawed on several levels, but the most obvious one is this: Good people compared to who? “Would God send an innocent person to hell?” Absolutely not! The problem with that statement, though, is that there are no innocent people. We usually compare ourselves with other people and then create a sliding scale of good vs bad. “Well, I’m better than that person, but not as good as her.” But God stands us up next to His perfect righteousness as the standard. How’s that working for you now? “All have sinned…” There is no righteous person. No innocent person. Not even one.
It took the death of Jesus on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. Religion can’t do that. Promising to try harder won’t do it. Only trusting in what Jesus did for you at the cross can bring you the righteousness you need.
And only the cross can explain how God can reconcile His own holiness, and righteousness and justice and still forgive our sins.
God’s Plan and Jonah’s Resistance. (Jonah 4:6-7)
Let’s remember again a theme that runs throughout Jonah: The theme of obedience. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” we read in 1 Samuel. Every element of nature and every person introduced in the Book of Jonah obeyed God unquestionably. But not Jonah. The wind and sea obeyed as a storm came. The pagan sailors on the boat obeyed and the last time we see them they are praying to Jonah’s God offering sacrifices of thanksgiving to Him. The fish obeyed; worst assignment in the story: The fish and the worm may have argued about who had the worst job: The fish might say, “I had to have that ugly, bitter little prophet kicking and shouting inside of me for three days and three nights!” It is debatable which was more relieved, and who wanted Jonah out of the fish more: Jonah or the fish! But then a little worm had to eat a castor oil plant! The people of Nineveh obeyed “even the cattle,” the plant obeyed and grew up over Jonah, the east wind obeyed and blew, and a little worm did what God told him and ate a castor oil plant.
We see this incredible portrait of God’s sovereign rule over all of His creation, people, and nature alike. All of creation obeyed God. But Jonah was still stubborn in his rebellion. He resisted. He chose to disobey God’s plan.
God’s Love and Jonah’s Reluctance (Jonah 4:8-11)
Jonah preached to Nineveh, but not because he loved Nineveh. He was an angry, bigoted, Jewish prophet who wanted the God of Israel to obliterate these people. Jonah obeyed God, but not because he loved God. He feared God…he saw what God can do with a fish! He didn’t want to end up in a worse condition.
But God’s “abounding love” even abounded toward the hated enemies of Israel. Jonah couldn’t handle that. It was too much, and far too much for him to get his arms around.
So, God gave Jonah an object lesson about His abounding, steadfast love. He allowed a plant to grow up. Now Jonah had already made a lean-to, probably tying some sticks together. (Guat: Cornstalks). But God sent Jonah the mercy of a shade plant. (ricisnus—castor oil)
God covers us with His mercy and love. That’s how the love of God works…that’s how it worked for Jonah…that’s how it worked for Nineveh. God “covers” us when we don’t deserve it.
And Jonah “set his heart” on this plant. He was so grateful. “Finally, something is going my way!” But then came the worm. And the east wind. And soon the plant was a casualty and withered and died.
Jonah got REALLY angry then. And it was right there that God called him out: “Jonah…you set your heart on this plant…but you won’t set your heart on these people I have created.”
God taught Jonah an important lesson we all need to learn. The Greek philosophers taught that there were two kinds of love: Benevolence, which basically is a love based on the one loving, since the one being loved could do little or nothing for the one loving.
But they also believed there was a second kind of love: the love of “attachment.” This is a love that brings the one loving into the relationship because of attraction and loving desire. (Keller, Prodigal).
[The word used in verses 10 and 11 for “compassion” is a word that means to grieve over someone or something, to have your heart broken, to weep for it. God says, “You had compassion for the plant” (verse 10). That is, God says, “You wept over it, Jonah. Your heart became attached to it. When it died, it grieved you.” Then God says, in essence, “You weep over plants, but my compassion is for people.” For God to apply this word to himself is radical. This is the language of attachment. God weeps over the evil and lostness of Nineveh. When you put your love on someone, you can be happy only if they are happy, and their distress becomes your distress.
The love of attachment makes you vulnerable to suffering, and yet that is what God says about himself—here and in other places (cf. Isaiah 63:9). In Genesis 6:6 it says that when God looked down on the evil of the earth, “his heart was filled with pain.”6 While this language cannot mean that the eternal, unchangeable God loses any of his omnipotence or sovereignty, it is a strong declaration at which we must marvel.7 Most of our deepest attachments as human beings are involuntary. Jonah did not look at the Ricinus plant and say, “I’m going to attach my heart to you in affection.” We need many things, and we get emotionally attached to things that meet those needs. God, however, needs nothing. He is utterly and perfectly happy in himself, and he does not need us. So how could he get attached to us? The only answer is that an infinite, omnipotent, self-sufficient divine being loves only voluntarily. The whole universe is no bigger to God than a piece of lint is to us, and we are smaller pieces of lint on the lint. How could God be attached to us? How could God say, “What happens to Nineveh affects me. It moves me. It grieves me”? It means he voluntarily attaches his heart. Elsewhere we see God looking at Israel, sinking into evil and sin, and God speaks about his heart literally turning over within him. “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8, ESV).]
And God gives us an object lesson as well as we see His love crucified on a hillside outside of the city of Jerusalem.
Last week I mentioned in our little sidebar on anger that anger happens as a result of a threat to something important or precious to us.
Sin happens when we are inflamed with anger, or “quick to anger” and when we “seethe with anger.” Getting angry is not sinful. Getting angry all the time becoming inflamed and for no good reason is a problem. Hanging on to anger and letting it turn into resentment and bitterness is sin.
But if anger is a result of something being threatened in us, and it is, how could anything threaten God?
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Could God possibly be VULNERABLE? What’s more vulnerable than a newborn baby? What display of love is more genuine than laying down your life for what you love?
It was this amazing fact of God’s “hesed” love; His steadfast love that even extends to lost, and violent, idolatrous, and pagan people that threw Jonah. He didn’t know how to think about a God Who loves even people who don’t deserve to be loved.
We don’t really understand the profound message of Jonah without the cross. From a hillside of judgement and condemnation, where Jonah sat, to a hillside of mercy and reconciliation at Calvary.
“Should I not love…?” is the question that God leaves Jonah with…and us as the book ends. It really doesn’t end. The reader must put your own ending on the book!
Two things remain to do. First, let me answer the question asked me by a young lady early in this study. “Is Jonah in heaven today?” I think “yes,” not because of any evidence we see in Chapter 4 of Jonah’s changing.
But the logical question is, “if Jonah didn’t tell the story in The Book of Jonah, who did?” Biblical books don’t just “fall from the sky,” bound in black leather and gold-embossed pages.
They are real. They happen to people. People relay what happened to them, as in the four Gospel presentations of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Biblical inspiration can be, ultimately, traced back to a real person experiencing something with God in a valid historical context.
Jonah told the story of Jonah. He told it as a cautionary tale, because I believe that one of the important purposes of this book was to warn Israel how they were missing the point of their existence by refusing to proclaim their God to the pagan and unbelieving nations of the world.
Second, “what are you going to do about the ending of the book?”
It ends with a question. Let me prompt your thinking with four. Each are taken from one of the four chapters of Jonah.
- What thing that God is calling you to do are you running from? Maybe God is offering you a second chance to do the right thing. (Chapter 1)
- What storms has your disobedience brought into your own life…and those around you? (Chapter
- Who are the most difficult people or maybe just the most difficult person in your life to love? (Chapter 3)
- What are you angry about? Where is that anger coming from? Why are you “angry enough to die?” Is it right? Your anger usually reveals an idol in your life… (Chapter 4).
If you are running from God in your life, remember Jonah. When his running was finished, he ran right into the God he was running from! I pray you’ll do the same.