Resisting God’s Mercy

Posted: July 27, 2017 in Jonah, Uncategorized

Jonah 3-4, “Resisting God’s Mercy”

Perhaps the only size numbers that receive more exaggeration than fish stories are church attendance figures.  Pastors (and deacons, etc.) sometimes get a bit zealous with the numbers, and move from evangelistic fervor to “evangel-astic" stretching. 

Whatever records are kept by some churches regarding attendance and conversions, surely no ministry has ever had the singular success of Jonah.  He had one outreach to one city, and the response rate was 100%.  Jonah wasn’t even preaching to an easy crowd, but to complete pagans happy in their sin.  More than that, Jonah didn’t even want them to repent!  Yet they did, much to the prophet’s chagrin.

That set off a series of events between God and Jonah in which Jonah received a first-hand lesson from the Lord about the nature of true compassion and pity.  As a prophet of the Living God, Jonah should have done more than simply repeat the words of God; he should have reflected and modeled the character of God.  He didn’t.  Instead, he was angry & vindictive, going so far as to blame God concerning His goodness.  As had been the case at other times, the pagans acted more godly than the prophet…and that was a problem.  Yes, God was merciful towards Nineveh, but He was also merciful towards Jonah.  None of them deserved God’s mercies…but that’s what makes it “mercy.”

Remember what had led up to this point.  In the midst of the rise of the Assyrian empire, not long before Israel’s fall to the Assyrians, God called Jonah to go to one of the capital cities of Assyria and preach a message of judgment to them.  It was unusual enough for a prophet of the Lord to be sent to another country, but it was even more strange to have a prophet sent to an outright enemy of God’s people.  Jonah didn’t want to do it, and he rebelled, fleeing in the opposite direction.  Instead of going 550 miles northeast by land to Nineveh, Jonah hopped a boat out of Joppa and sailed due west to the furthest port known to the sailors: Tarshish (perhaps on the coast of Spain).  Jonah was so consumed with himself and his rebellion that he was willing to endanger the lives of those travelling with him, if it meant he could avoid going to Nineveh.

As Jonah would learn, no one can forever avoid God.  It is impossible to run from the God who is everywhere.  God prepared a terrible storm, and the sailors were forced to make a choice between their lives & Jonah’s, and (per Jonah’s instruction) they tossed the prophet overboard only to find a supernatural calm.  The Scripture indicates they came to faith, all while Jonah was splashing in the sea.

Jonah wasn’t afloat long, as God prepared a giant fish-like creature (perhaps a whale, perhaps a shark) to swallow Jonah & give him the first submarine ride in recorded history.  The prophet was supernaturally protected within the creature’s gullet, and Jonah prayed a humble prayer of repentance and faith towards God.  Three days later, he was vomited up on land, and that’s where the story continues.

At this point, the question is: what will Jonah do now?  When initially called by God, he ran.  This time, he would physically obey, but his attitude wouldn’t improve.  Jonah still hated these people, seeing them as deserving of God’s judgment, despising the mercy he was certain God would give. What Jonah didn’t understand was that he was just as deserving of God’s judgment, and it was only due to God’s wonderful mercy that he was alive.

Don’t despise the mercy of God; instead, rejoice in His goodness!

Jonah 3

  • Jonah’s 2nd chance (3:1-4)

1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.”

  • God gave Jonah a second chance.  God had spoken to Jonah once, and Jonah ran.  There was no earthly reason for God to speak to Jonah again, but He did.  In the counsels of God, He had a purpose not just to use Jonah for His word, but to teach Jonah His character.  God had more than one purpose for this prophet, and He was going to see it done…even if Jonah was resistant along the way.
    • Praise God for the mercy He showed Jonah!  Praise God for the mercies He shows us!  Just be sure not to presume upon those mercies.  Just because God sometimes gives us second chances doesn’t mean He always gives us second chances.  Certainly, we always have the opportunity to repent and receive the mercies and grace of God – but we might not get the chance to relive an opportunity we once missed.  Sometimes we have to start anew from wherever we find ourselves, and the consequences we’ve received.  Someone convicted of a crime is not automatically released upon his/her conversion to Christ; they simply have to start living for Jesus from their prison cell.  Likewise for us.
    • That said, sometimes God does give second chances.  Treasure them!  Don’t waste them!  When God gives you an opportunity, go for it!
  • What was the message?  We find out in vs. 4, but for now notice the difference between this calling and Jonah’s initial calling.  Jonah 1:2, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me."  Then, Jonah was commanded to generally cry out against the city for their wickedness.  Now, Jonah would be given a specific message from the Lord God.  It’s quite likely that if Jonah had been obedient the first time, God would have revealed to him a specific message along the way, but it is explicit here.  Jonah was to proclaim God’s word, and God’s word alone.  No commentary from the prophet was wanted nor needed.
    • People still need the word of the Lord rather than the thoughts of men. This is why we place such a high value upon the Bible.  It is God’s word that changes lives; not our opinions.

3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent.

  • How big was it?  Pretty big!  Scholars are divided over the reference to “a three-day journey in extent.”  If 20 miles is a days’ journey, it seems unlikely that it was 60 miles in circumference.  One ancient writer declares it was indeed that size, but archaeology has shown foundations of a much more reasonably-sized city.  That said, if the reference is to the general area surrounding Nineveh, as opposed to just what was contained within the city walls, this is certainly a possibility.  Or, perhaps it is a reference to the total length of the streets & alleyways contained within, which Jonah may have walked.  Whatever the precise reference, the bottom line is clear: this was a big city!  This was no minor village with a small population; this was a major city, even by ancient standards.
  • In contrast to what happened earlier, this time Jonah obeyed.  When he “arose” from wherever he had landed, Jonah made his way to Nineveh.  Jonah’s attitude still needed a lot of work, but he at least took the first steps of repentance in actual obedience.
    • Sometimes (though not always, as seen with Jonah) our attitudes follow our actions.  If we have a difficult time feeling loving towards someone, start by acting loving.  Actually make the effort to show compassion, and quite often we’ll begin to experience that compassion along the way. 
    • On the flip side, if we never act according to repentance, can we truly say that we’ve ever repented?  Words are never a substitute for obedience.

4 And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

  • That was it.  That was God’s message for Nineveh.  Was this all?  Perhaps not.  Jonah surely summarized the message for his writing, and almost certainly he proclaimed it more than just once during his three-day journey through town.  Even given those possibilities, there’s still not a lot here.  This isn’t exactly a barn-burner of a message.  It is a mere 5 words in Hebrew (though it’s unlikely the Hebrew was used for a bunch of Assyrians).  There is no identification of God, nor any mention of the possibility of grace.  All Jonah gives (or, at least, all that he recorded) was a message of judgment.  The people had 40 days to prepare themselves, and then the whole city would be overthrown/overturned.  Life was about to change drastically for the people, and it was only be the mercies of God (though unidentified) that they were even told this at all.
  • Is there mercy in the proclamation of judgment?  Yes!  Think of it: God doesn’t have to warn anyone at all.  He could (and has every right to) judge anyone and everyone on the very first occasion of sin.  He is not under any obligation to allow anyone to wake up tomorrow morning.  Those who have sinned (i.e. everyone) deserve immediate judgment.  But God gives mercy.  He allows people the opportunity to wake, to seek His face, and to ask His help for change.  His proclamation of judgment is exactly what we need to awaken us to our need for change.  As Paul makes the point to the Romans, we wouldn’t even know what sin was, unless the law had been given. (Rom 7:7)  God’s declaration of judgment is what lets us know that we face His judgment, and that in itself is His mercy!
  • Beyond that, even if God’s mercy isn’t explicitly proclaimed, it is inherently implied.  After all, why warn anyone 40 days prior to destruction, unless there was an opportunity for the people to avoid death?  Obviously, the city could be evacuated, but that doesn’t really solve the problem.  God could bring judgment to the city as a congregation, or He could bring individual judgment if the people were dispersed.  The only reason for so much warning to be given is for people to turn from their evil and repent…and that was exactly what the people did.
    • That said, even though Jonah never spoke of the mercies of God, we should!  We have been given more than five words to proclaim to the world; we’ve been given the full gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We can, and should, let people know of the grand mercies and grace available to them in Jesus.  Do we tell them the law at all?  Yes – it brings conviction.  But when the time is right, we can move on from the law all the way to grace.  It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. (Rom 2:4)  Let people know of His goodness!
  • Nineveh’s repentance (3:5-10)

5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. 6 Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes.

  • How many people responded to Jonah’s lackluster message?  All of them!  “From the greatest to the least of them,” from the king of the city on down to the lowest of servants – every single one of the people came to a point of repentance.  As prolific an evangelists as DL Moody, Billy Graham, or Greg Laurie have been, not a one of them have ever seen 100% response.  The repentance of Nineveh is the greatest Gentile revival in all history!
  • Notice their repentance had two parts: (1) they believed, and (2) they acted.  Even with as little as Jonah said, they still “believed God.”  Different theories have been proposed as to why they believed.  Perhaps Jonah had the scarring and stench of being left in a fish for three days, and the people who worshipped a fish god (Dagon) were awed by the power of Jonah’s God.  Perhaps they had heard the story of Jonah’s revival from the fish, and they put their faith in the God who could raise a man from the dead.  Or perhaps Jonah said little to nothing about his story, and it was just the sovereign work of God among the people of Nineveh.  Whatever the case, they did believe, and it drastically changed them.  Beyond believing in their hearts, they took definitive action: humbling themselves through fasting and wearing sackcloth.  Thus internally they believed, and externally they took action. 
  • Apparently it began as a grassroots movement, but it made it all the way to the nobles and leader of the city.  All of these actions were detailed in the proclamation of the king.  Vs. 7…

7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?

  • They proclaimed a fast.  They willingly gave up their food in order that they might seek the Lord.
  • They demonstrated humility. As with their food, they gave up their comforts, understanding that their position needed to be one of mourning.
  • They cried out to God in prayer.  The first two actions mean nothing without prayer.  Fasting & sackcloth are not magic rituals that force God into action; they are external indications of an internal attitude – one that is dependent upon the Lord for sustenance and life.
  • They instructed the need for repentance.  More than prayer was needed; action was required.  The explicit decree of the king was for people to “turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”  The king & people were (by this point) well aware of their sins, and they understood it needed to stop.
  • They held out hope in God, having faith in Him.  Even though this was the opposite of the proclamation of Jonah, this was the desired outcome for the Ninevites.  And, it was reasonable to hope for – after all, sincere repentance and mercy is at the heart of God. Ezekiel 33:11, "Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’"  Contextually, this is a word given to the Jews, but the principle applies to all.  It is far better in God’s eyes for people to repent, than for Him to judge them in His wrath.  He will judge, when necessary – but He prefers to show grace.
    • And praise God that He does!  If God did not desire to show mercy, none of us would be saved!

10 Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

  • Nineveh repented; God relented.  God “saw their works,” and God showed mercy in response.  Nineveh turned from its path, and God turned from His own. … God responds to repentance!  This is His desire for us, and what He explicitly commands us to do.  Why would He not respond if we actually did it?  How it all works together in the eternal counsel of God is something that cannot be answered from this side of eternity.  All we can definitively say is that God commands us to repent, and He responds to people who do.
    • The problem is that most people don’t do it!  God gives the opportunity for people to receive mercy – He wants people to respond to His offer of mercy…but He isn’t going to force anyone to do so.  We’re the ones that need to make the choice to repent.  But when we do, we find that God is good to His word.  He will respond to our repentance.
  • Question: Did God’s response make Jonah a false prophet?  No.  While it is true that Jonah proclaimed certain judgment upon the city, remember that there was an implicit offer of mercy simply by the time-window of 40 days.  Thus, the promise of judgment was conditional; not unconditional.  If the city had not repented, the wrath of God would have surely been poured out.  As it was, the city responded to God’s message to them, and He responded in kind, through His mercies.
    • Beyond that, Jonah’s word of the city being “overturned” (literal translation) is still true.  40 days had not passed by before the city was turned upside-down in repentance.  They weren’t the same people as they were before.  They had experienced a glorious transformation – which is what God desired for them all along.

Jonah 4

  • The response: Jonah’s anger over Nineveh (4:1-4)

1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.

  • The Hebrew is interesting here.  A more wooden word-for-word translation of this might be: “And it was evil/bad to Jonah, great evil, and he burned [with anger].”  God’s goodness was evil in Jonah’s sight.  How backwards things had become! The Gentiles were repenting in faith, while the Hebrew prophet was responding with anger, basically accusing God of evil.  (This is what selfishness does to us.  It consumes us!)

2 So he prayed to the LORD, and said, “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.

  • What was Jonah’s complaint?  God was too good!  Jonah knew the truth about God’s character, and God was so good that it displeased him.  What Jonah said about God is what God basically declared about Himself to Moses: Exodus 34:6–7, "(6) And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, (7) keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”" Jonah was hoping a bit more for the latter part, and less of the former!  In actuality, God’s nature cannot be so easily divided.  His mercy does not exist without His judgment – His wrath is not known apart from His love.  How do we know?  The cross.  At the cross of Jesus, the nature of God is fully revealed!  His wrath towards sin must be satisfied by a sufficient death, and His love is demonstrated in the fact that He sent His own Son to be that sufficient death for us.  What might seem impossible to reconcile in God’s character is fully reconciled in Jesus!  (Which is why Jesus is the only way to God!  We cannot be saved apart from Him!)
  • Jonah understood this, even in his ignorance of Jesus.  Jonah understood that God’s mercies are greater than can be imagined, and that if given the opportunity, God would turn from the harm He otherwise promised to bring.  Without the message of judgment, Nineveh would have never have known to repent, and they surely would have been destroyed.  That was the entire reason Jonah didn’t want to go in the first place.  He never wanted his enemies to know the goodness of God.  All he desired was their destruction.
    • Is there anyone you want to see destroyed?  Is there anyone you believe should never hear the message of the gospel?

3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” 4 Then the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

  • How much did Jonah hate the Assyrians?  He would have preferred death than for his enemies to experience the mercies of God.  Jonah would have rather drowned in the Mediterranean Sea than to live to see the day that Nineveh escaped judgment.  
  • That’s when God asked Jonah a probing question – one which He will come back to later on.  Was Jonah “right” in his anger?  Was this morally & ethically correct for a supposed man of God?  The answer ought to be obvious (and the question obviously rhetorical), though apparently there was nothing obvious to Jonah about it.
  • Before we get to the lesson, stop to consider the irony of all of this for a moment.  Yes, Nineveh had been spared the judgment of God, which was infuriating to Jonah.  But why had they been spared?  Because they had a message proclaimed to them by a prophet, who himself had been spared the judgment of God!  Did Nineveh deserve destruction?  Yes…but so did Jonah, the moment he disobeyed God.  Yet God allowed him to live while upon the boat – God allowed him to live the moment he was cast overboard – God allowed him to live when swallowed by the giant fish – God allowed him to live even when spit back up on the shore.  God even gave Jonah a second chance at preaching His word.  And even after all of that, Jonah objects at the fact that God allowed an entire city to live and have a second chance of living apart from evil.  For a prophet of the Living God, Jonah was a hypocrite of the highest proportions!
    • Knowing that we ourselves are the recipients of God’s mercy & grace, how can we possibly deny it to others?  Beyond that, how can we possibly refrain from sharing it with others?
  • An object lesson: Jonah’s anger over the plant (4:5-9)

5 So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city.

  • Apparently, Jonah still held out hope for judgment.  Perhaps he thought that God might rain down fire & brimstone, as in the judgment of Sodom & Gomorrah.  It seems that he picked out a prime spot for viewing, and waited for it to come to pass.  He’d be waiting a long time! 
  • God used the opportunity to teach him a lesson. Vs. 6…

6 And the LORD God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. 7 But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. 8 And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

  • Notice the repeated word “prepared.”  It is the same word as used in reference to the giant fish (1:17).  God had ordained all kinds of things for this moment.  He prepared (ordained/appointed) a plant, a worm, and a wind.
  • Jonah was grateful for the plant, but not so much for the worm, and he downright hated the east wind.  All the comfort that he had experienced from the previous day was gone, and he was now baking under the hot desert sun, being blasted by this wind from the east.  It surely felt as if Jonah was in a furnace, and it made him miserable.  Ever-prone to exaggeration, Jonah thought it better “to die than to live.”  Keep in mind that he had been in this place barely 24 hours, and already he’s wishing for death.  It just underscores how self-centered Jonah had become by this point.  From a literary standpoint, he has become a ridiculous figure – almost comic-relief.  That’s a pretty sad position for a prophet of God!
    • That said, it’s difficult for us to point too many fingers.  How many times do we start whining when things don’t go our way?

9 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!”

  • God asks the same question to Jonah about the plant as He had about His mercies.  This time, Jonah responded, saying yes, it was morally right for him to be angry.  Jonah believed he had every reason to complain about the death of the plant, even though it had been an obvious gift of grace, one that Jonah freely acknowledged had come from the Lord.  If the plant had been there, Jonah would have been sheltered from the sun & the wind.  Jonah surely knew that just as God had provided the plant, God had also provided the worm & the wind.  In essence, Jonah wasn’t angry about the plant; he was angry with God.  He was upset that God would choose to remove a blessing from his life – even if it was a blessing Jonah did not deserve, nor even one that he requested.  Jonah was upset at God’s sovereignty and the application of God’s mercy.  He was upset that God was God, and he was not.
  • If we’re honest with ourselves, isn’t this the main reason we find ourselves upset with the Lord?  God has chosen to act in a certain way, and we wanted Him to do something else.  And like a child throwing a temper tantrum, we throw our tantrum with the Lord.  Never mind that the Lord has been nothing but gracious with us – never mind that He has showered us with mercies, and made us His children – never mind that we have the seal of the Holy Spirit and a guaranteed eternal future with Jesus.  We didn’t get our way, so now we’re upset.  We think we know better than God, and He should have done things the way we wanted Him to do.
    • Oh, the foolishness of men!  How dependent we are upon the grace of Jesus!  If it weren’t for His ongoing mercies towards us, none of us would be saved!  Beloved, never forget that God is always good, and that He is always right.  He knows the end from the beginning, and He knows what fits best within His eternal plans and counsels.  God is God & we’re not.  We need to trust Him.  He knows what He’s doing!
  • This is the point God drives home to Jonah.  Vs. 10…
  • The moral: God’s pity for Nineveh (4:10-11)

10 But the LORD said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?

  • God points out the selfishness and foolishness of His prophet.  Jonah had more pity on a withered plant than he did on a city full of ignorant people.  The plant lasted less than a day, yet God had known all of the individual Ninevites since before the foundation of the world.  So many people in that city were desperately lost.  They knew nothing of God, apart from what Jonah had revealed to them.  They were so spiritually ignorant that it was as if they didn’t know the difference between their right & left hands.  (Some believe this is a reference to the number of young children in the city, but the number seems a bit excessive.  Either way, the picture is one of ignorance.)  These were people doomed to destruction.  Where was Jonah’s love?  Where was his compassion & pity?  If he had so much care for a single plant, did he not even care about the animals in Nineveh?  At the very least, he should have considered all of the death of the livestock.  Yet he didn’t.  Jonah was consumed for himself & his selfishness, and the prophet of God demonstrated none of the character of God.
  • That’s not the way we ought to be!  As God’s people, we are to be His representatives – His ambassadors.  We ought to care about the things God cares about, and show mercy the way God shows mercy. 

Conclusion:
And that’s how the book ends.  The narrative leaves off with Jonah being chastised by the Lord God in the middle of the Assyrian desert outside the city of Nineveh.  The last words spoken by the prophet were words of selfishness, with no sign of repentance.  There’s no wrap-up, no happy ending. 

At least, there was none that was written.  The fact that this book exists at all is evidence that Jonah lived to tell his story, if not write it down himself.  And in all likelihood, he did write it himself, because no one else would have been able to write his prayer inside the fish with the same detail Jonah did.  Thus, something happened in the life of Jonah after this encounter with the Lord, and the evidence points to a sincere change of heart for the prophet.  He didn’t write any more to the story because God did not have him write further – but what he wrote was refreshingly honest.  Jonah never attempts to whitewash his attitude or make himself look better than he was.  He shows himself in all of his selfishness and sin, and provides a great example to the rest of us of what not to do.

Beloved, be like Jonah in who he became; not who he was.  Don’t be upset at the goodness of God, rejoice in it!  God’s mercies are incredible, reaching out to people who do not deserve them at all.  We ourselves are living proof!  We didn’t deserve God’s love & grace, yet we received it.  We didn’t deserve the sacrifice of Jesus, yet He gave Himself for us.  If we can be saved, anyone can be saved.  They just need to be told.  Tell them!  Don’t hold the good news of Jesus back from anyone.  Even the least likely of people still have the opportunity to come to faith in Christ – so let us be those who give them that opportunity.

What’s the opportunity?  Repentance.  God responds to repentance!  When an entire city demonstrated sincere repentance, God relented from His judgment, and they were saved.  Sadly, this wouldn’t be a lesson that Nineveh would remember for long – the book of Nahum speaks of their confirmed judgment and destruction.  But it is a lesson that we shouldn’t forget.  When God gives us the opportunity to repent, take it – and remain in it!

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