July 10

by Pastor Jim
Devotion 4 of 4 on the book of Jonah
Yesterday’s devotional may have ended with a jolt for you when I noted the RSV translation, “God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to” the people of Nineveh.  Other translations soften readings like this — and there are several — by saying that God “relented” or “changed his mind.”
I like the RSV because it grabs my attention and gets me to reflect upon the fact that even the idea of God changing his mind is a pretty radical one.  But then we also saw that these texts — and there are a number of them — really emphasize God’s grace.  They come only after God has first told a person that he is about to drop the hammer of judgment on someone and then challenges this person to ask him not to.  Apparently, God desires thereby to draw us into the conversation and thus into relationship with him, into concern for others and, ultimately, into prayer.
But then there’s Jonah, who so far has proven remarkably resistant to this approach.  When God “repents” of destroying Nineveh, we read:
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
Jonah 4:1
Why?  Well, remember our first devotional on Jonah 1 where I suggested that there was a hidden conversation that took place between 1:2 and 1:3?

[Jon 1:1] Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, [2] “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” [3] But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. 

Now, in chapter 4, that conversation is revealed to us.
And he prayed to the LORD and said, “I pray thee, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.
Jonah 4:2
Wow.  Jonah understood God’s “game” and wasn’t willing to play it.  Basically, Jonah is saying, “LORD, you’re threatening to destroy Nineveh — and I’m really good with that.  I hate those people; they destroyed your people.  But, LORD, I also know that, when push comes to shove, you end up folding and just being merciful … and I just know you will back off and somehow not destroy those folks.  So I’m outta here.”
That’s what he apparently said in chapter 1, between verses 2 and 3.  Now, here in chapter 4, he is saying, “See LORD, isn’t this just what I said would happen?”  And even more:
Therefore now, O LORD, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live. And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.
Jonah 4:3-5
So Jonah says he’d rather just die than see Nineveh spared — and then he doesn’t even answer God’s question about the appropriateness of his attitude.  Instead, he leaves Nineveh in a huff, goes out and builds a little booth where he can sit and watch and hope that the LORD doesn’t go soft on him.
Well, earlier God “appointed” a great fish to help give Jonah a nudge; now he is about to do some more appointing.
And the LORD God appointed a plant, and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.
Jonah 4:6
Because the plant helped Jonah.  So the LORD moves on to his next two appointments:
But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm which attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a sultry east wind, and the sun beat upon 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.”  But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
Jonah 4:7-9
Once again … as soon as Jonah finds not all the stars aligning for him he goes back into his funk and says he’d rather die.  Life for Jonah is really all about Jonah.  But there’s even more going on here, and God is about to drop the second shoe, so to speak.  I often note that Jonah is one of those books of the Bible in which “the sting is in the tail;” for this is now how the book concludes:
And the LORD said, “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 not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Jonah 4:10-11
You see, Jonah’s issue was really an issue with the nature of God.  Whereas Job struggles with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” Jonah is greatly troubled by the question, “Why do good things happen to bad people.”  He hated Nineveh because Nineveh  was the capital of Assyria which had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel around 722 B.C. The thought that God could have mercy on such folks — and Jonah knew enough about God that he was pretty sure God would — really stuck in Jonah’s craw.  Enough that he would rather die than see that happen.
And God, from the beginning of the book to the end, tries repeatedly to get Jonah to accept the fact of God’s mercy.  After all, were it not for God’s mercy we would all be in deep trouble.  But Jonah wouldn’t have it.
God’s final word: “Jonah, if you can’t bring yourself to have any concern for 120,000 people, most of whom know nothing about the awful things their armies have done — can’t you at least think of their cattle?”
We aren’t told what Jonah’s answer was; the reader is left to guess.  The book is written in the third person — that is, it is about Jonah, not by Jonah.  Most think that the author, a Jew, intends Jonah to represent Israel and the negative attitudes of many of his fellow Jews toward Nineveh in particular and sometimes toward Gentiles in general (though we noticed his concern for the Gentile mariners in the first chapter).
Jonah is one of the books which I sometimes call the “subversive literature of the Old Testament”: books which, like Genesis and Ruth, challenge the popular theology of the day which claimed that God loved only Israel.  These books — like what we are also hearing in our sermon series on Acts — respond with the message “Gentile Lives Matter.”
But Jonah also raises the question of God being “too merciful.”  What if God turns out to be merciful to those you find the most despicable, the most unacceptable, the most sinful?  Do you struggle with the idea of God doing so?
  • How do you understand the complex relationship between God’s judgment and his mercy?  How does the Cross figure into your understanding?
  • At the end of Jonah, we find this resistant prophet still sitting outside Nineveh with arms crossed and narrowed eyes waiting to see Nineveh’s fate.  How do you imagine him answering God’s final question?
  • Think for a moment of that “other” person or group that, for you, is simply “beyond the pale.”  (Today, in our severely polarized age, it may be a particular politician or party!) Can you imagine God having mercy on that person or group?  Would you be “angry enough to die” if he did?

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