The Message of Jonah – Part 4

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

One of the worst atrocities in world history was the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in the small central African country of Rwanda. At least 800,000 or more people were massacred by thousands of Hutus in 100 days. Rwanda was approximately 90 percent “Christian” at the time, and the notion that such mass violence would ever occur was unthinkable.

The contributing factor to the genocide was rampant tribalism. Rwanda has two primary ethnic groups: Hutu (they were the farmers) and Tutsi (they were cattle farmers). Trouble began with these groups referring to themselves ethnically and tribally rather than as Rwandans. The country became divided, with each group dehumanizing the other; the Hutu believed the Tutsi lacked any positive qualities, and vice versa. Hatred toward one another became acceptable, and that animosity eventually manifested itself brutally.

The same will occur in America without recognition that all people are created equally in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27). “‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Certainly, “the world” includes all ethnic and racial groups.

Hatred and prejudice will always result in disregard for God’s loving plan of salvation, with destruction and vengeance being the outcome. The book of Jonah depicts what occurs when a person fails to represent God’s love, and instead allows personal desires and prejudices to become all-consuming. Jonah allowed hatred and intolerance to devour his life, which brought him to the verge of death. God, however, loves the world so much that “whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13). Salvation in Christ makes it possible for “we, who are many,” to live as “one body” (Rom 12:5), and even to love one’s enemies and pray for them (Matt 5:44).

(Jonah 4:1-11) Based upon Nineveh’s repentance (ch. 3), one might conclude that the book of Jonah would end there. The fact that another chapter remains indicates that God’s deliverance of the Ninevites from imminent destruction is not the climax of the book. What is most important to learn from Jonah is God’s compassion toward His people.

Jonah was “greatly displeased”—even “angry”—with Nineveh’s repentance, because it led to God withholding judgment (4:1). Although the Assyrian Empire was in decline at the time of Jonah, the prophet still sought destruction of the capital city, since the nation could regain its former sovereignty and would then rival Israel. Jonah hoped the Ninevites would not repent and God’s judgment would ensue. Obviously, the prophet’s heart was not right before God. Jonah did the right thing by going to Nineveh, yet he did so with the wrong mindset. The fact that God is as concerned with motives as He is with our actions is the emphasis of the closing chapter.

Jonah’s great displeasure was actually evil. He felt more than anger; he was irritated and vexed by God’s actions. “Evil” (Heb. re’eh) had described the Ninevites previously, but now it characterized Jonah. He was now “evil” in the estimation of God, and thus in need of judgment like the people of Nineveh (cf. Rom 2:1). Yet the Lord would be compassionate to Jonah, as He was with the Ninevites. When the Lord turned from His indignation (3:9-10), Jonah welcomed sinful anger into his life. The conjunction “but” (4:1) emphasizes the immeasurable contrast between God’s compassion and Jonah’s displeasure.

Jonah’s behavior was similar to that of the unforgiving servant parable (Matt 18:21-35), and the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable. His attitude was in evident contrast to that of the Apostle Paul, who had “great sorrow and unceasing grief” in his heart concerning those “separated from Christ” (Rom 9:2-3; cf. Exod 32:30-35). Paul expressed great exultation and joy with his own experience (Rom 8:38-39), yet sincerely desired the salvation of others, and even sacrificed much in that regard (Phil 3:8).

Jonah’s prayer indicates why he would rather flee to Tarshish than proclaim imminent judgment to Nineveh, in addition to why he would rather die than obey God (4:3). He knew that God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” Jonah knew his Bible, since he quoted Exodus 34:6-7. He disliked the notion that God might have compassion on Nineveh. Jonah apparently expected God to violate His own character to demonstrate mercy. The prophet did not merely fail to have compassion toward the Ninevites; he was displeased with God’s attributes. Yet the Lord’s mercy is inseparable from His justice. He is immutable, infinite, and unfailing in His mercy.

Jonah had earlier celebrated God’s deliverance (Jon 2), yet now had become like the “wicked slave” who was forgiven and would not express mercy toward his “fellow slave” (Matt 18:21-35). Perhaps he was also angry because the announcement of judgment failed to materialize, which might provoke questions regarding his authenticity as a true prophet (cf. Deut 18:21-22). Oddly enough, Jonah actually hoped for the failure of his ministry.

Another translation of the words “greatly displeased” (v. 1) could be, “it was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” The pronoun “it” refers to God’s actions, which meant that Jonah vehemently disagreed with the Lord demonstrating mercy toward Israel’s enemies. The immense corruption of attitudes and values is evident in that Jonah believed saving Nineveh was evil, and his death would be good. He attacked God’s action by stating that the Ninevites did not deserve to receive the Lord’s grace and mercy. The truth is that no person deserves God’s compassion (cf. Rom 3:10-12)!

God’s mercy is always undeserved. All genuine compassion from the Lord must be unconditional, because deserved mercy is a misnomer for justice. No sinner deserves the saving mercy of God. All sinners are born dead in “trespasses and sins,” and are thus “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:1, 3c). If all of fallen humanity were condemned at once to eternal retribution, every person would have justly merited the damnation.

Sovereign grace alone is the cause for any sinner to be delivered from divine wrath, for there is nothing within the sinner to merit salvation. “For He says...‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom 9:15-16). There would be no hope of redemption apart from the mercy of God. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23); and, “the wages of sin is death” (6:23a). Repentant sinners do not receive what they deserve, solely because of divine mercy.

The Hebrew adjective rachum, translated “compassionate” (Jon 4:2), means “merciful” (in the sense of saving or sparing). The noun rechem means “womb” in Hebrew, indicating that God’s compassion is comparable to the depths of love a mother has for her child. Jonah had compassion for the plant that shaded him from the sun (v. 6), but none for the people of Nineveh. Jonah’s problem is all too common. People often have “compassion” for people or things that have intrinsic benefit or value to them personally, yet are entirely lacking in that mercy toward what does not (in their eyes). Nevertheless, the Lord God is gracious and compassionate, and this is not based upon some benefit He may gain. Therefore, the book of Jonah instructs people of all ages in compassion.

God’s compassionate nature is again evident in how he confronted Jonah kindly by asking him questions (vv. 4, 9, 11; cf. Job 38—39). Jonah condemned God for relenting in His anger, and the Lord challenged the prophet for his fury. The Lord then confronted Jonah with his sinful attitude (Jon 4:5-9). Jonah did not reply and departed petulantly (v. 5). God had “appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17), and now the Lord “appointed a plant” to deliver the prophet “from his evil” (the Hebrew word ra’, “bad, evil,” is translated “discomfort” in the NASB).

God’s sovereignty is evident again in that He next “appointed a worm” (4:7) and “scorching east wind” (v. 8) to discipline His prophet and teach him a lesson. For the first time since verse 4, God spoke again with the exact same question (v. 9a). Jonah answered the rhetorical question wrongly (v. 9b). The repeated question (vv. 4, 9) is certainly fundamental to God’s intended message. The climax of the book of Jonah is not the Ninevites’ repentance; rather, it is God challenging Jonah to recognize the immense error of his bitter nationalism, and how proper it was for the Lord to express His compassion toward the Assyrians in Nineveh.

“Compassion” (vv. 10-11) is the fundamental attitude. God’s compassion extends not just to plants, but even more so toward people. Jonah’s knowledge of a gracious, compassionate, and sovereign God should have made him more responsive to God’s will—which meant being compassionate toward people who lacked such knowledge and a relationship with the Lord (cf. Matt 20:1-16; Luke 15:25-32). When a person neglects God’s love for others and becomes consumed with personal desires and prejudices, life becomes self-centered rather than God-focused.

Midnight Call - 03/2021

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