Should God Not Have Pity?
Passage: Jonah 4:1–4:11
Should God Not Have Pity?
Everyone, it seems, loves a storybook ending. Whether it is a fairy tale that ends happily ever after or an underdog that somehow dethrones the champion, we’re drawn to narratives that end with a satisfying sense of closure. You know the stories I’m talking about – where things work out, problems are resolved, lessons are learned, and desires are fulfilled. We’re drawn to those kinds of stories, in part, because they make us feel good. We like storybook endings.
Our passage this morning, however, is not a storybook ending. Last week’s text, Jonah 3, would have been the storybook ending, would it not? The once-wayward prophet becomes the faithful evangelist, whose ministry results in revival in one of the most wicked cities on earth! There’s a lot that will preach from that conclusion. Mercy for the wayward, grace to the undeserving, incredible revival – all of that happens in chapter 3, and it would have been the ideal storybook ending.
And yet, that’s not where the book ends. After the revival of chapter 3, there is the letdown of chapter 4. As you heard in our reading, there is no happily ever after for the Lord’s prophet in chapter 4. Instead, this final passage is jarring. It’s unsettling, disturbing even. Jonah is hot, both literally and metaphorically. He camps outside the city, where he bakes in the desert sun and fumes against God. Jonah is hot, and the bulk of the chapter is taken up with his heated conversation with God. Twice, the Lord confronts Jonah with a question, but both times Jonah holds on to his anger. But then, even as God has the final word in the end, the dialogue between the two remains unresolved. Notice how the book ends with God’s unanswered question in v10. There is no storybook ending. This is a real-world ending that confronts the ugliness that remains in Jonah’s heart.
And that, brothers and sisters, is the value of this unsettling conclusion for God’s people today. You see, not only is Scripture inspired by God to communicate divine truth, Scripture is also masterfully composed in ways that expose who we are. In fact, that’s why chapter 4 ends with an unanswered question. It’s puts us in Jonah’s shoes and then forces us to answer the question about ourselves. Where do our allegiances lie – with angry Jonah or with the merciful God? What do our hearts desire – vengeance like the spiteful prophet, or salvation like the gracious Lord of all the earth? It’s not a storybook ending. It’s actually better. Jonah 4 is a final act of mercy from God – mercy that leads us to examine our hearts, to change our attitudes, and to then take up the mission to proclaim God’s mercy to the undeserving, even to the ends of the earth.
As we look at the details of the chapter, you’ll notice there are three sections to the passage. The chapter begins and ends with a conversation between Jonah and God, and then in the middle, there is the powerful object lesson with the plant. From those sections, then, I’d like us to note three instructive failures from Jonah’s life. That’s right – three failures – but these are failures that teach. In vv1-4, we see Grace Misunderstood. In vv5-8, we see Mercy Misinterpreted. And then in vv9-11, we see Compassion Misguided.
We begin, then, in vv1-4 with Grace Misunderstood. As the chapter opens, it is quite clear that something is wrong. You may remember that chapter 3 ended with God’s incredible mercy in sparing the city of Nineveh. The people heard Jonah’s preaching, they repented of their wickedness, and God then relented from disaster. It was a remarkable turnaround, so remarkable in fact, that we might expect to find a song of praise like we did in chapter 2. Do your remember that? When Jonah was spared from death at sea, what was his response? Chapter 2 – he wrote a psalm of thanksgiving for what God had done. We might expect to find praise here in chapter 4.
But Jonah is in no mood to praise. He’s angry, very angry in fact. Notice that first line of v1 – “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” That translation is almost too tame. We could also put v1 like this – “it was evil to Jonah, a very great evil.” You see, the author is using a play on words to expose Jonah’s hard heart. The Ninevites were bad people who did bad things, and therefore, they deserved something bad to happen to them. But divine mercy changed the situation. The bad people put away their bad deeds, and God did not bring anything bad on them. All the bad stuff is gone! And yet, how does Jonah respond? It’s all bad, very bad, evil in fact. Do you hear the connection? At this point, who’s the only one holding on to something bad? Not the Ninevites, but Jonah. Something is wrong.
But the picture gets even more concerning in v2. Jonah decides to pray, which might give us some hope that the prophet is going to come clean. But instead, Jonah uses his prayer to blame God. Notice v2 – “And he prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish.’” That is a bold prayer but not in a good way. Jonah essentially says, “I told you so, God. I knew this would happen, and that’s why I ran away.”
In fact, Jonah even goes so far as to say that his word was more correct than God’s word. Notice that phrase ‘what I said’ in v2. That’s literally ‘my word.’ So Jonah is saying, “My word, God, was right.” Now, do you remember how the book began? Ch1, v1 – “the word of the Lord came to Jonah.” Do you see what Jonah is doing here? He has the audacity to claim that his word was more accurate, more appropriate even than God’s word. “Your word caused this mess, God. If only you had listened to my word.” Again, something is wrong.
Still, the concern goes deeper. Notice the rest of v2 and Jonah’s reason for telling God “I told you so” – “for,” Jonah says, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” You may know that what Jonah says here is one of the more important confessions of faith in the entire OT. Jonah quotes, almost exactly, from Exodus 34, where God passed in front of Moses and declared his name. Do you remember that from Exodus 34? God had just shown mercy to the nation of Israel by not destroying them for worshipping the golden calves, and then he passed in front of Moses and proclaimed himself to be “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” It was one of the highpoints of Israel’s history, and it became almost a confession of faith for God’s people in the OT. Who is God? He is the One who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
But here in v2, Jonah offers this confession not as worship but as blame. Jonah has already questioned God’s word, and now he blames God’s character. On some level, Jonah understands what has happened in Nineveh – God has been true to himself! He has shown mercy and grace. Jonah gets it, on some level. But on another level, Jonah misunderstands what God’s mercy and grace entail. In Jonah’s mind, God’s mercy and grace are for Israel but not for anyone else.
Jonah finally gets to his despairing request in v3. What does Jonah want God to do? V3 – “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” That’s a very dark statement that comes from a very hard heart. If the Ninevites are allowed to live, then Jonah chooses death. As one commentator has said, Jonah would rather die than live in a world where God spares the people Jonah deems undeserving. Something is wrong.
But, as we’ve seen throughout the book, God isn’t finished with Jonah. Instead of striking Jonah down for his arrogant claims, God asks Jonah a question. Notice v4 – “And the LORD said, ‘Do you do well to be angry?’” Understand, this is mercy, mercy once more for wayward Jonah. Of course, Jonah does not do well to be angry. He is dead wrong, but God won’t let him go. This question is actually the beginning of God’s work to expose the hypocrisy that still infects Jonah’s heart.
But before we get to the rest of God’s work, I do want to pause here and point out a sobering takeaway from Jonah’s angry prayer. You’ll notice, brothers and sisters, that Jonah’s theology is accurate. He gets his doctrine right. V2 is a true confession of God’s character – he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And yet, that accurate theology has left Jonah’s heart unaffected. Or, to say it another way, it’s not enough to simply affirm the correct doctrine. You also have to apply that doctrine in ways that are consistent with who God is. That should get our attention, brothers and sisters. By God’s grace, I pray we are a church that loves sound doctrine, but we need to remember that affirming sound doctrine is only half the battle. What we affirm, we must also apply.
And here’s the key – we must apply those truths even to people and situations we might not always like or be comfortable with. A church member wrongs you but then asks for forgiveness – do you extend grace? What if they do it again? Is there grace for repeat offenders? What about a person who has different political or social views than you – do you treat them charitably? Are they welcome to receive God’s grace along with you? What about someone from a different culture or a different class – does our doctrine apply to them like it applies to us? Is the gospel for Americans and Iranians, for example? Or what about someone whose past involves a sin you find especially repugnant, a sin they’ve repented of, but still a sin that occurred in all its ugliness? Is that person who did that sin fully justified by faith, totally cleansed by the gospel, and completely adopted as a child of God? You see, that’s the real test of sound doctrine, brothers and sisters. We must both affirm and apply. Do we believe the truth about God, and do we apply that truth consistently, even to people and situations that don’t fit our mold?
That’s Jonah’s first failure. It’s grace misunderstood, and from his failure, we should examine our hearts and lives as well.
As we come the second section of the chapter, we find that Jonah’s failures continue. Beginning in v5, God provides an object lesson for his angry prophet, but Jonah sadly fails to make the connection. This is Jonah’s second failure – Mercy Misinterpreted. You’ll notice in v5 that Jonah is still angry. He heads outside of the city to wait for what will happen. Apparently, Jonah remains hopeful that God will change his mind and give the Ninevites what he believes they deserve. Jonah builds a small shelter from the sun, and he sits down to wait. It’s really a sad picture, isn’t it? Scripture tells us that the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents, so imagine the heavenly outburst at Nineveh’s repentance. You would think that at some point, Jonah would come to his senses and join in. But he doesn’t. Jonah is like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son we read earlier. He sits outside the celebration, and he sulks.
But as we’ve noted time and time again, God is not finished with Jonah. The Lord engineers an object lesson that should open Jonah’s eyes to the truth. It begins in v6, where God appoints a plant to spring up and provide Jonah some additional shade. It’s hot in the Middle Eastern desert, so some shade would be welcome.
Now, as much as we might have questions about what kind of plant this way or how it grew so fast, those questions miss the point. The plant is the latest example of God’s mercy to wayward Jonah. When Jonah was drowning in the sea, the Lord appointed a great fish, and Jonah was saved. Now, as Jonah is baking in the sun, the Lord appoints a shady plant, and Jonah is spared from the heat. You see, that’s the important connection here. Jonah does not deserve this plant, but God is merciful to him. The Lord is free to show mercy to whomever he will.
And then notice Jonah’s reaction, end of v6 – “So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.” As you’re reading that, part of you is screaming out, “Then why didn’t you rejoice over Nineveh, Jonah?” There’s a sad inconsistency here, isn’t there? When Nineveh received mercy, Jonah was exceedingly angry, but when Jonah himself receives mercy, he is exceedingly glad. The inconsistency, the hypocrisy even, is not hard to see, and that is part of God’s point.. He is exposing Jonah’s hard heart. The plant should remind Jonah of the truth he proclaimed in the fish’s belly – that salvation belongs to the Lord!
But then the Lord’s object lesson takes a striking turn. Notice what happens in v7. Not only is God free to provide mercy, he is also free to withdraw it, v7 – “But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered.” A fish obeys God, a plant obeys God, and now a worm obeys God. What is God doing in all of this? He’s giving Jonah a real-world reminder of who he is. He is the sovereign God of all the earth. He is free to give mercy, and he is free to withrdaw mercy. Salvation belongs to the Lord, not Jonah.
But Jonah doesn’t see it. Notice his response in v8. The Lord adds another layer to the lesson, but Jonah’s anger clouds his vision, v8 – “When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’” The fish obeys God, the plant obeys God, the worm obeys God, and now the wind obeys God. He is the Lord of all the earth, and mercy is his prerogative. But Jonah objects. He’s angry, and again, like in v3 he asks to die. But there is difference between v8 and v3, and it’s the difference God has been driving at the entire lesson. Do you see the difference? Why did Jonah want to die in v3? Because God showed mercy to Nineveh. But why does Jonah want to die here in v8? Because God withdrew mercy from him. You see, Jonah’s problem is not with Nineveh at all. Jonah’s problem is with God.
And yet, despite Jonah’s hard heart, has God crushed him in judgment, which is what Jonah deserves? Has God utterly cast Jonah away? No, he hasn’t. Instead, God has orchestrated this situation to expose Jonah’s sin. Remember that sin always blinds us – it keeps us from seeing the truth. And that blindness is most often experienced in how we view God and how we view ourselves. That is Jonah’s trouble here in v8. He can’t see God rightly, and he certainly can’t see himself rightly.
What does God do? He confronts Jonah’s blindness. He exposes Jonah’s heart. This is why the writer to the Hebrews can say that God’s discipline is for our good and that it leads to a harvest of righteousness for those who have been trained by it. This is God training his prophet! Jonah doesn’t love mercy – he loves himself! So God mercifully does whatever it takes to break Jonah’s hard heart, to pierce his blindness, and to bring him to a right knowledge of God.
Brothers and sisters, you may be in a season right now where God’s hand feels heavy on your life. It may be that God’s object lesson for you is exceedingly difficult. How should you respond? Unlike Jonah, we should respond with humility. Ask God to help you see anything you’ve missed. Ask God to open your eyes to any area where you may be blind. And then, unlike Jonah, believe that God is working for your good. Trust him that even when his hand is heavy, it’s because he loves his children enough to train them for righteousness. Jonah misinterprets mercy because he misinterprets God, but by learning from Jonah’s failure, perhaps we can grow in our understanding of who God is.
That brings us to the last section, vv9-11, and Jonah’s final failure – Compassion Misguided. In v9, God again asks the question from earlier that Jonah did not answer, but this time, God specifically asks about the plant, v9 – “But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry at the plant?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.’” It’s so petulant, isn’t it? Jonah basically accuses God of wrongdoing. In Jonah’s mind, God had no right to withdraw mercy and take the shade from him. God had no right to destroy the plant. And yet, isn’t that what Jonah wants God to do with Nineveh – to destroy the city? Isn’t that why Jonah is waiting outside the city – because he wants God to withdraw mercy? You see, this is actually the wisdom of God. God has convicted Jonah with the prophet’s own words.
And that’s how the book ends – with the hammer-blow of God’s question, a question that turns Jonah’s words back on him. Notice God’s question in vv10-11 – “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Now, we get the conclusion to God’s object lesson with the plant. Jonah has convicted himself. He had compassion for a measly plant that lasted all of one day and that he did nothing to create. But if that measly plant deserved Jonah’s pity, then shouldn’t God pity the mass of humanity that lives in Nineveh? If the plant stirred Jonah to compassion, shouldn’t 120,000 souls stir God?
And the answer is yes. It’s not God who is inconsistent with mercy – it’s Jonah! And now he’s been convicted by his own anger! In fact, Jonah stands convicted by the events of the entire book. Jonah didn’t deserve to be spared from God’s judgment, but the Lord showed mercy with the fish. Jonah didn’t deserve a second chance to serve God, but the Lord gave him the same commission to preach a second time. Jonah didn’t deserve the shade of the plant, but the Lord gave it for a time. Why, then, can God not show mercy to Nineveh? What reason does Jonah have to be angry? There is none. If salvation belongs to the Lord, then God’s people must praise him even when his mercy confounds what we expect and even when his grace convicts us of our hard-heartedness.
But I want to press this a little further. We need to see the case that God has made for his own compassion. In these final verses, God makes it clear that his compassion is right:
The Ninevites are a wicked people, but nevertheless, they are people made in God’s image. They belong to him as the Creator. Therefore, it is God’s right as the Creator to care about those whom he has created. 120,000 souls, made in the image of God! He’s right to have pity.
What’s more, God’s compassion is right because of his work of common grace. Jonah did not work for the plant; he did not make it grow. But God has caused Nineveh to grow and prosper. It was God who brought rain to water their crops, and it was God who gifted people to construct and manage a city of such great size. Jonah didn’t work for the plant, but God did work for Nineveh in common grace. And therefore, why shouldn’t God pity these people for whom he has cared?
But even still, God’s compassion is right because the Ninevites are child-like in their moral understanding. Notice in v11 where God says the people do not know their right hand from their left. What does that mean? It means Nineveh did not have nearly the spiritual advantages that Israel had. Nineveh did not have God’s revelation in his word. The Ninevites did not have God’s written law, the priestly sacrifices, or the ministry of God’s prophets. Compared to Israel, the Ninevites were like mere children in their understanding. And if God has been so long-suffering toward Israel with all its advantages, then why shouldn’t he pity the Ninevites who do know their right from their left?
I hope you see the gravity of this. Chapter 4 is not simply an object lesson for Jonah. This is about understanding the heart of God. It is his right to show mercy, and it is right for him to do as he pleases. Even Ninevites are made in his image, recipients of his common grace, and in need of greater revelation. This is who God is, brothers and sisters. Whether it is Nineveh, Amsterdam, Vegas, or Little Rock – God has pity on those whom he has made. Yes, he will judge the world in righteousness – that is certainly true. But even so, God has pity for his creation. He extends mercy so that sinners might come to repentance before that great and final day.
And therefore, the question that confronts us at the end of this book is this – Whose heart do we share – Jonah’s or God’s? You’ll notice the book ends with God’s question unanswered. That’s the point, brothers and sisters. Our first concern is not with Jonah’s answer; it’s with our own. Whose heart do we share – Jonah’s or God’s?
When we look at the world around us, full of so much heartache, wickedness, and evil, is our inclination only judgment, or is there mercy too?
When we see people rebelling against God in thought, word, and deed, is our first instinct to hope for their downfall, or is it to speak with them about the mercy of God in Christ?
Are we quick to point out all the things that are wrong with our culture, but then slow to engage with our neighbors, co-workers, and friends who need the mercyof God?
Are we willing to stand on the corner and pronounce that God will soon overthrow the wicked, while at the same time refusing to go into the trenches of this fallen world to demonstrate God’s heart for those whom he has made?
As we sing songs that declare that salvation belongs to the Lord, do we also recognize how that same truth should compel us to take the good news of God’s mercy even to the farthest reaches of the globe? Whose heart do we share – Jonah’s or God’s?
Brothers and sisters, there is so much we could say in response to this final chapter. There is self-examination to be done. There are questions to be answered. There is so much we could say. But perhaps the best place to start is by asking God to do for us what he did with Jonah – to expose where our hearts are hard, where our eyes are blind, and then to help us live out the mercy he delights to show. If God pitied Nineveh, should we not also pity those around us as well? I pray that we would.
We said it at the outset – it is not a storybook ending, is it? It is challenging on many levels, but I trust that is actually better for us. It’s always good, brothers and sisters, when our hearts, minds, and actions come more in line with who God is. He is the God of mercy and grace. As believers, we have received that mercy and grace in Christ, and now we have the privilege of being messengers of that grace until the day Christ returns. May we be faithful, and may we rejoice at every instance of God’s mercy, even the ones that confound us. Amen.