Sermon on Jonah 4:1-11 – “God Challenges Jonah”

Sermon on Jonah 4:1-11 – “God Challenges Jonah”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, June 23, 2024 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Sermon Text

[Jon 4:1-11 ESV] 1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 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; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” 5 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. 6 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. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 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.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 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. 11 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?”

Introduction

What is the story of Jonah?

If you ask someone to tell the story of Jonah, they are likely to give you the story of the first three chapters. God commanded Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, but he fled on a ship to Tarshish, God sent a storm and then a giant fish, Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed by the fish. He was in its belly for three days, then thrown up onto dry land, from where he then went to Nineveh obeying God’s original command, and it all ends with “Nineveh repented,” praise the Lord.

But we have another chapter. And I don’t know if the liberal critics think this chapter is added to the original or not. They get their Ph.D’s by coming up with a new theory about their being 2 Isaiahs, or 4 authors in Genesis, or additions to Job. So probably you could find someone arguing that Chapter 4 of Jonah is added to the original.

But to think that the book should end at chapter three is a serious problem. For one, it denies the Word of God sent down to us. (And there is no known copies of Jonah with anything less, or more, than these four chapters. And then, to think that chapter 4 is added is to overlook the important truths it conveys.

That truth: the views and attitude of men and trumped by those of God. HE is truth.

That is my best attempt at putting down a conclusion of the chapter: the views and attitude of men and trumped by those of God.

But there is an extent to which I find Chapter 4 of the Book of Jonah to be “enigmatic,” which is a fancy word to say “I don’t understand what is going on.”

Well, that’s not entirely true. I understand some of what is going on.

But here is what is strange. Don’t we talk about Jonah’s repentance, his change of heart? He changes from going away from God to then obeying God. Should we now question whether Jonah’s repentance was genuine? Here in chapter 4 he laments what God has done in sparing the Ninevites. Is Jonah now opposed to God? Jonah even wishes to die, which must be considered a sin.

Well, lets look into the text and come to understand it better.

I’ve divided into five sections:

I. Jonah’s prayer. (v. 1-3)

II. God’s challenge (v. 4)

III. A shady plant rises and falls (v. 5-8)

IV. Jonah’s prayer repeated (v. 9)

I. Jonah’s prayer

This is the first prayer of Jonah in this chapter. Of course, we had the longer prayer of Jonah in chapter 2. So you might call this prayer now the second prayer.

And it is simple: “I want to die.”

2 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; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah takes this “I knew all along” approach. Not a good idea to talk to God like this. He even quotes from the Scriptures, from Exodus 34:6

[Exo 34:6-7 ESV] 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

We have a role reversal.

Nineveh is repentant.

Jonah is repugnant.

But why is Jonah so angry? After all, he just had the most successful preaching tour in world history. If the angels rejoice over one sinner coming to repentance, imagine the day when Nineveh repented. It is the dream of all preachers to convert a whole city! The entire city of Nineveh repented.

But that is not what he wanted. He wants God to destroy Nineveh, but the Assyrians are the enemies of Israel. They are evil people, wicked and cruel. And Ninveh is a threat to Israel. They will one day destroy Israel and take away the ten tribes into captivity.

And so Israelites like Jonah despised Assyria. So much so that when the Jewish people came back from Assyria but were then mixed blood, these were called the Samaritans, who continued to be despised as we see in the New Testament. The good Samaritan is an anomaly.

So Jonah says: “it is better for me to die than to live.” He doesn’t want to live in a world where the Assyrians are forgiven of God.

But his anger is not justified. He should acquiesce to God’s will. If God wants to save Nineveh, then glory be to God. And if God wants to destroy Nineveh (as he does in Nahum), they glory be to God. And it is dangerous and wrong to go against the Lord.

II. God’s challenge (v. 4)

So we then have God’s challenge.

There is actually a two-fold repeat of this pattern in the chapter: Jonah prays to die, God challenges him saying “Do you do well to be angry?”

Rather than responding by making some direct point, God asks a question: “Do you do well to be angry?”

This is actually a really good way to respond. With a question. Try to get them thinking, because you know in Jonah’s anger he will deflect any truth that comes at him from outside. So it may be better to get to him on the inside; getting him to think.

Does Jonah have a right to be angry?

He does not. And it is really more than anger. It is a grudge. A long-term anger against the people of Nineveh.

But God is not like Jonah. God is quick to forgive. Gracious. Abounding in steadfast love.

So we see the juxtaposition of God and Jonah. And that, in a sense, is the focus of this chapter. We see the grace of God all the more clearly against the lack of grace in man.

This juxtaposition may be likened to buying some new white tshirts. You think your old shirt is white; but you put it up to the new one, and it is downright dingy. So it is with the prophet Jonah. He’s a good guy, right? Well, let us look at him next to God; now we really see his sinfulness.

Matthew Henry says: “Man’s badness and God’s goodness serve here for a foil to each other, that the former may appear the more exceedingly sinful and the latter the more exceedingly gracious.”

So chapter 4 gives us that juxtaposition more fully. We don’t end with Jonah as a hero, but Jonah as a sinner in need of God’s grace, just as the Assyrians are in need of God’s grace. And you think the Ninevites are the bad guys! Now Jonah plays that role.

III. A shady plant rises and falls (v. 5-8)

But God’s question to Jonah doesn’t get through on the first try.

Jonah now goes outside of the city. And this is the part that I’ve long thought more “enigmatic” than the rest. What is Jonah doing there? Well, I think a particular insight I recently heard may help explain it. The text itself says he sat east of the city under a booth to “see what would become of the city.” The idea is, it seems he’s hoping that Nineveh will go back to its evil and be destroyed. And he’s got a front row seat. He’s hoping they repent of their repentance. That what I think is going on.

And this gives God an opportunity to use Jonah as an object lesson for Jonah’s own benefit and for ours. God (miraculously) makes a plan to grow to give Jonah shade. God is showing mercy on Jonah, and Jonah is glad for the plant. Then, what God gives, God takes away. A worm attacks the plant, it dies, and a scorching wind and hot sun comes upon Jonah.

IV. Jonah’s prayer repeated (v. 9)

So Jonah repeats his prayer again: “I want to die.”

V. God’s final challenge (v. 9-10)

Then, God gives his second and find challenge to Jonah, again in a question:

“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. 11 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?”

So God’s point in strongly made: Jonah, don’t you see your hypocrisy. Jonah is willing to have concern for a plant, but not for a people. There is an application here for anti-environmentalism. People are more important than plants!

And this is referring to people, even children. That’s what is in view here, when it says “there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left” those are young children who do not yet know which side is which.

Of course we shouldn’t overlook a major point here: God is gracious.

But that point is used only secondarily to get to another point: Jonah’s anger is not righteous, and he is found to be against the Lord.

Jonah’s view and Jonah’s attitude are trumped by those of God. Jonah needs to correct; not God.

Conclusion: What Happens to Jonah?

And so it is asked, “what happens to Jonah?” The text ends there, with the phrase “and much cattle.” What an ending! There is much cattle in Nineveh. Good to know.

But let us consider the fact that the book of Jonah is written at all! Presumably it was written BY JONAH. This means that it’s very existence implies that Jonah does hear God out; Jonah does repent finally and fully, and Jonah recognizes that his anger is sinful, and God is always right and true.

So that leaves us on a happy note. Jonah repents. As does Nineveh

So I want to note one applications.

Application 1: Can you be happy for your enemies?

God may very well bring to faith those who have been enemies to you. Bullies from school. Bullies from work. Those who have stabbed you in the back. Those who have robbed you.

Will you then be OK when you learn that God has poured out His love upon them and brought them to faith and that you’ll be together in heaven! Your (former) enemies may be in heaven. Do you see now the struggle of the prophet Jonah? God loves THESE people?! Yes, and so should you. We are indeed to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

That is a tall order.

But this book is addressed to you: Are you ok with the fact that God may love your enemy?

And if so, how can that person remain your enemy if God has called them friends.