Jonah’s Anger and God’s Amazing Grace
Nick Esch, 1/27/2019 Cornerstone Baptist Church
So far we’ve seen God call Jonah, His prophet, to go to Nineveh and proclaim His Word; but instead he tried to run from the Lord, getting on a ship in Joppa, and heading towards Tarshish, the opposite direction of Nineveh. But there is no running from the Lord; so God brought a great storm upon the boat, and before long Jonah finds himself stranded in the sea destined for ruin. But as he sank down to the depths of the sea he cried out to the Lord with a repentant heart, and God in His grace saved Jonah by way of a big fish. A fish came and swallowed Jonah and took him to shore. When he got there the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, and this time he obey the Lord and went and preached God’s Word to Nineveh. And as we saw last week, all of Nineveh believed God and repented of their sin and cried out to God for mercy; and God in His mercy poured out revival upon Nineveh instead of wrath. And that brings us to our passage today.
In verse 1 we read, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” So the “it” here that Jonah is angry about, is the mercy and grace of God upon Nineveh. And this is what we see in verse 2. There Jonah prays to the LORD, saying, “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; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Here Jonah is actually referencing God’s Word…
In Exodus 33:18-19, Moses said to the LORD, “Please show me your glory.” And in response to this God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” And then in Exodus 34:6-7 He does it; and when the Lord passed before Moses, gives him a glimpse of His glory, and proclaims His name, He doesn’t just say, “I am the Lord,” but He says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…”
God doesn’t just say a name, but He says all of this about Himself while giving Moses a glimpse of glory, because this is tied directly to who He is in His glory. This is the nature and character of God. God is merciful and gracious—He has mercy on whomever He wills; but He’s also just: He doesn’t simply ignore guilt. He doesn’t simply clear the guilty, or look the other way and just grant forgiveness to sinners. Because of His steadfast love; or as John puts it in 1 John 4, because, “God is love” (verses 8 and 16). He makes a way to be merciful and gracious even to the most vile of sinners, while remaining just; for His glory and because He is love, He is both just and the justifier of those who have faith. And He does this in and through Jesus.
Friends, God doesn’t simply forgive sinners. because He is holy and just He can’t: sin must be punished. So in Christ God came to earth, took on flesh, and lived the perfect life we have failed to live. God the Son became a man—the perfect man, so that He could give Himself as a sacrifice for His people. He died a sacrificial wrath-absorbing death. On the cross the just wrath of God was poured out upon Jesus in the place of sinners like you and me. And after dying in our place He rose from the grave showing that justice had truly been served for all who will turn from their sin and trust in Him. He doesn’t ignore sins, or merely clear the guilty; Jesus took our sin, our guilt, and the punishment due our sin upon Himself. “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Through the person and work of Jesus God shows Himself to be both just and the justifier of His people. If you trust in Christ you are not merely forgiven, you are a blood bought child of God. Because, Jesus paid it all! But that’s only true if you’re in Christ; if not, justice will be served on you because God’s wrath will be poured out on you in hell. Someone must pay for your sins: you or Jesus. So, if you haven’t already, repent and believe—trust in Jesus; He is the only way to be saved…
Now, though Jonah and the Old Testament saints didn’t know about the person and work of Jesus the way we do, God could be gracious to them for this same reason: because of Jesus. And though Jonah doesn’t know about Christ at this point, He still knows the nature and character of God—that God is glorious and infinitely lovely and loving, and His love leads Him to be merciful and gracious; and here Jonah is displeased and angry over this fact. He likes it when God is merciful and gracious to him, but he’s filled with anger when God is merciful and gracious to Nineveh.
Jonah is so angry that in verse 3 he tells God, “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” He would rather die than see Nineveh saved by grace. What a sad sight… Jonah has received grace upon grace. He’s a child of God by grace alone; even though God didn’t need him, in His grace He chose to use him for His glory in Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled; then by grace God pulled Jonah out of his rebellion and granted him repentance; than the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, giving him yet another chance, and even more grace. So you’d think Jonah would be ecstatic to see God’s amazing grace poured out on others the way it had been poured out on him, but instead he’s filled with anger. He should have been filled with awe, but instead he was filled with rage.
So, Jonah fled from the Lord because he knew that God is sovereign and good, and would likely shower His sovereign grace on Nineveh. But, Jonah repented and obeyed God’s call to go to Nineveh and preach. But now that Jonah sees that God is indeed being gracious to Nineveh, he’s reverted back to where he was when he ran from God’s call: filled with anger and ready to die—he’d rather die than see God be merciful to this great city. So God responds to Jonah in verse 4, saying, “Do you do well to be angry?” In other words, God asks Jonah if it’s right for him to be angry that the same mercy and grace that he received from the Lord is shown to other people… And of course the answer has to be no… But Jonah says nothing; he just leaves.
In verse 5 we read, “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 clearly thinks he’s justified in his anger here; so when he goes out of the city and sets up a spot to wait and watch to see what becomes of Nineveh, it’s like he’s assuming that the people of Nineveh will show themselves to not be truly repentant, and then the Lord will go ahead and destroy them. It’s like he’s saying, “Just you wait God… You’ll see that these people are total wretches who deserve your wrath…” So in a sad case of irony, Jonah is waiting to see if Nineveh shows itself to not be truly repentant, and in his actions and in his anger he’s showing that he’s not truly repentant—at least not anymore… Jonah is in great sin here…
Jonah’s major problem is that he thinks he knows better than God. It’s like he’s telling God, “You think You’re wise and just in Your actions, but You’re not. Trust me God… I know better than You. You shouldn’t give Nineveh grace, but wrath…” Jonah here is putting himself in the place of God. He’s questioning God’s good sovereignty… And aren’t we prone to do the very same thing? Honestly, every time we sin we’re doing the very same thing. When we do something that we know is sin, we’re telling God that we know better than He does… Every time we go against His Word we’re saying that our word is better than His. Every time we sin we are attacking the very rule of God, we’re seeking to dethrone Him. Every sin is an attack on the King of the universe. But Jonah missed this, and all too often so do we… Friends, do not believe the lie of small or respectable sins… Every sin is cosmic treason… Every sin is an infinite offense against an infinitely holy God.
No doubt, Jonah knew he was not perfect, but he also was sure that he wasn’t near as bad as the people of Nineveh. But that’s not how God looks at things. We are called to live for His glory, and sin is anything and everything we do that falls short of that call. So God’s glory is the scale that measures how bad our sin is. And He is infinitely glorious; so every sin falls infinitely short of His glory, and is thus an infinite offense. So when Jonah seeks to measure sin his own way he deceives himself and puts himself in sin. Once again he’s trying to put himself in the place of God, not only because he’s making judgment calls on who’s sin is worst, but also because he’s making himself the standard instead of God. And don’t we all do this? We look at certain people and think that they are unsaveable because of their sin; but our sin is just as grievous to the Lord. Or we look at people who are Christians who still struggle with sin and we think, “They’re what makes Christianity look bad…” But the truth is that we all are what make Christianity look bad. Jesus is what makes Christianity look good, not us… We have to stop trying to make ourselves the standard of holiness… God’s Word says that we are to be holy as He is holy… We are not the standard of holiness, Jesus is… But Jonah missed that…
Jonah misunderstood so much, so it’s no surprise that he misunderstood God’s grace as well. He thinks that he deserves grace, while Nineveh deserves wrath… But, grace by definition is undeserved—it’s undeserved favor; because we are all sinners who haven fallen short of God’s glory, we all deserve wrath, yet because of God’s great love—indeed, because He is love—He gives grace to His people… Grace is never deserved… Grace and entitlement are opposed to each other. I mean, God’s Word says as much: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5). If we find ourselves feeling that we are somehow entitled to, or deserving of grace, while we constantly focus on the undeserving nature of others, we ourselves are in opposition to God’s grace; and that’s the last place we want to be. No one deserves God’s grace; and this is in part what makes it so amazing. We’re all great sinners who could never deserve grace, and so we all should be unsaveable, as it were… but God’s grace is greater still… God’s grace can save even the worst of sinners; no one is too far-gone. And because no one deserves it, yet in Christ God is justified to give it to whomever He wills, we should rejoice when God gives mercy, especially when He lavishes His mercy and grace on the worst of sinners. Grace is not to be horded up, but to be shared freely and rejoiced over… And this is what God seeks to teach Jonah next.
In verses 6-8 we read, “Now 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. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 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.’” Now first let me point out that God is indeed teaching Jonah something here: through a blessing and through a hardship. God has not given up on Jonah; God never gives up on any of His people.
This is some of our favorite parts of Romans 8 in action: like in Romans 8:38-39 where we’re told that nothing in all creation is able to separate God’s people from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. If Jonah is truly a child of God than nothing can snatch him from God’s hands, not even his own stubbornness… If God is after him, He will get him… And if God already has him, He will keep him, always… And that’s true for every child of God—for everyone who turns from their sin and trusts in the Lord. But, also here we see Romans 8:28 in action: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is working for the good of Jonah here in the blessing and in the hardship—He’s working through his comfort and through his discomfort. Both the good and the bad are serving a purpose; God never wastes an experience. He’s always up to something; in pleasure and in pain… Here He’s working to open Jonah’s eyes to what true grace is and how amazing it is, and He’s working to grow him in grace. He’s working to change Jonah’s heart. So, let’s look and see what He does here.
Just as the Lord appointed a fish to come and save Jonah, now He appoints a plant to grow up over Jonah to give shade from the hot middle-eastern sun… Jonah had made a shelter, but in that harsh climate you need all the shade you can get… Now notice what’s happening here: just before all of this, when Nineveh was rescued from discomfort and disaster Jonah was exceedingly displeased; but when he is rescued from discomfort we’re told that he was exceedingly glad. Here he’s experiencing a small taste of what Nineveh just experienced, and yet he’s responding in the exact opposite way—he’s responding with self-centered hypocrisy.
After giving Jonah a taste of this the Lord then takes it away. God in His great sovereignty now appoints a worm to destroy the plant, and then He appoints—or sovereignly ordains—a scorching east wind, and causes the sun to beat down on the head of Jonah in such a way that he fell faint… God in His sovereignty can give comfort and He can take it away; indeed He is the sovereign King of all… And He doesn’t merely take comfort away here, but He brings such heat from the sun and such scorching winds, that it was as if Jonah was sitting in an oven, and he’s fast headed towards disaster. Once again Jonah is on his way to ruin. So at this point we would hope that Jonah would be reminded of what happened in the sea, and that he would see what God is doing here and repent of his wicked ways. At this point he should cry out, “Lord! Discomfort and disaster are awful things! I shouldn’t wish these things on my worst enemies, nor should I do anything to bring them upon myself… Please save me! Have mercy!” But that is not the cry of Jonah here. Instead of crying out for mercy, he cries out for death…
Again, here we see a sad case of irony. Earlier Jonah wanted to die because Nineveh was spared, and now he wants to die because a random plant, and his comfort weren’t spared. He should’ve seen what God was showing him with this living illustration, but his eyes are so fixed on himself and his precious plant that he misses the point… So in verse 9 God asks Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” But this time Jonah answers God’s question. He says, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” Jonah thinks he has every right to be angry. It’s like he’s saying, “Of course I’m angry! That plant meant so much to me; I can’t believe You’d let it be destroyed! Shouldn’t this plant receive Your mercy and grace?” And with that, the Lord has Jonah exactly where He wants him.
Look at verses 10 and 11. There we read, “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 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’” Notice that the first part of the Lord’s response points out how little the plant should mean to Jonah; and truth be told, Jonah wasn’t really upset about the plant, but about himself and his own discomfort. Jonah’s problem is his pride, not a plant… Jonah didn’t work to make this plant grow or care for it in any way, so he shouldn’t be attached to it. And again, he wasn’t; he was attached to his comfort. It wasn’t about the plant, but about what the plant provided him… It was all about him…
Jonah thought he was at the center of the universe, as it were; but God really is at the center of the universe… Everything exists for Him and His glory; and yet, look at how different God looks at this situation than Jonah. He has every right to unleash wrath on Nineveh, yet He looks upon them with mercy and compassion. Essentially what He says here is, “Jonah, you think you’re justified in having pity on a weed that sprung up in the night; am I not then justified to have pity on more than 120,000 people created in my image—for my glory? I get that you don’t like Nineveh, but they are people created to glorify Me… Yes, they are great sinners, but they are lost, they are dead in their trespasses and sins. They don’t know their right from their left; Satan has blinded them to the truth… But My grace changes all of that. So don’t they matter more than a plant? Or, if you can’t pity the people, think of the cattle… Don’t these animals matter more than a plant? Aren’t they more worthy of your pity? Should I not grant them mercy and grace?… Do you really think a weed matters more than all of these people and all of this cattle? Can you not see your foolishness and your sinfulness?” And after questioning Jonah this way the book ends with no response…
We don’t know for sure how Jonah answered; though I myself think he saw the errors of his ways and once again repented and trusted in the Lord. I think this because of the way Jesus speaks of Jonah, but also because the book of Jonah reads as though he wrote it; and I think he gives us an honest account of how things went down to display the amazing nature of God’s sovereign grace. He shows the depths of his own sin and the lengths to which God will go to save His people from their sin… But, it seems as though the book of Jonah ends with an unanswered question because we’re supposed to answer it. We’re not supposed to wonder about Jonah’s response, but to focus on our own. In his sin Jonah only cared about himself, and this was meant to be a picture of Israel at the time. Israel was supposed to care deeply for the world around it, and work and pray in hopes of seeing salvation go to the ends of the earth; but, they had no compassion for the world, just as Jonah had no compassion for Nineveh. So the question we’re meant to ask ourselves is, do we care for the world? Do we want to see the gospel advance to the ends of the earth, and salvation to come to even the worst of sinners, even our enemies?
We live in a world marked by division and hate. Democrats and Republicans, white and black, rich and poor, Americans and Mexicans, and on and on I could go. Racism, nationalism, and hate of all kinds… There is division all around us; and unfortunately the church is not immune to it. But, the book of Jonah teaches us that God’s people simply cannot live this way. We cannot be marked by selfishness, by hate, racism, nationalism, division, or pride and anger… We must be marked by compassion, by humility, grace, and mercy. Because of the love we have received we must live lives marked by love. Because of the grace we have received we must give our lives to advancing God’s grace to all peoples. That is the only proper response to God’s grace.
In Jonah we see a God that is so gracious and sovereign that He is willing to move heaven and earth to save His people. He goes to great lengths to saves sailors, all of Nineveh, and even a rebellious prophet. He mightily pursues His people, and then shows Himself mighty to save even the worst of sinners… He truly is a gracious God and His grace is truly amazing. And when we rightly understand this grace, when we’re truly amazed by it we can’t keep it to ourselves. We can’t help but praise the Lord for it and call others to do the same. We can’t help but seek to pull as many people as possible into God’s grace, just as He sought us and pulled us into His grace. So may the Lord give us grace now to love Him and His world the way only a sinner saved by grace can…