What comes to your mind when you think of the word "God" and "mercy"? What does it mean that God is a God of mercy? In Jonah 4, we read of a God who is merciful, but also Jonah's struggle with this God! As we come to this passage, let us not approach Scriptures and leave in a disengaged manner. Rather, let us come ready to commit to let the Word speak to us, and walk away changed.
(A) Contrast to God’s mercy: satirizing the prophet’s displeasure (Jonah 4:1-4)
The chapter begins with Jonah being greatly displeased (Jonah 4:1). Here, most Bible translations (i.e. NIV, ESV, NKJV) have all tried to capture the adverb which shows the scale and extent of anger. Jonah wasn't just generally sad or unhappy and we know that his displeasure was targeted and specifically directed at someone.
But why? In Jonah 3:10, we read of God relenting of the "disaster that he had said he would do to them". Remember that Bible characters are not caricatures, symbols or ideas. Jonah was a real person and here, we are told that he was upset because God forgave the Ninevites, who were enemies of Israel. Have you ever been as upset as God? Have you tried waiting for something great and then it goes to someone else, maybe someone you don't think deserve it? Has God done anything to you that has really displeased you? This is what we're talking about here. Jonah is a Christian who is frustrated and upset with his God. We know what this is like because we know what it feels like to be angry at God.
In Jonah 4:2-3, we read of earlier events as told from Jonah's perspective. Let us compare the accounts and descriptions.
|Point of contrast||Chapter 4||Chapter 1|
|Manner||"Made haste to flee" (Jonah 4:2), which emphasises the haste
|"Rose to flee" (Jonah 1:3), where Jonah rebelled because he disobeyed the command in verse 2|
|Destination||Tarshish||Tarshish via Joppa|
|Reason||Displeased by God's mercy and grace and character. He was upset because he knew God's character!||He wanted to leave the presence of the Lord.|
|Motive||Because God relented from disaster||Rose to flee and did not know or planned what was going to happen|
|Jonah's heart/ spiritual state||Self-righteous and justifying his sin (where he did not want to be near his God)||Wanted to flee from the presence of the Lord|
There are some differences between both descriptions and accounts. What can we learn from here? Rebellion takes on different forms!
God replies to Jonah in the form of a question (Jonah 4:4) -- "do you do well to be angry?" (Jonah 4:4). God doesn't merely want to know why he's angry, but He also asks Jonah if his anger is justified. God knew that Jonah could not throw God into a law court without first implicating himself. This also seems to satirize Jonah's anger. Jonah's anger was specifically tied to nationalistic and racial issues, but for us, it can be anything that our hearts are angry about. Jonah 4 takes that and we are confronted with the same question. What does our anger show who we really are? What is it that you care about that would make you that angry at God? Or, so who is really your God? Jesus got mad in really clear ways only twice. Both times, He tossed out the money changers and the sales people from the temple. We see what He really cared about -- the zeal of the Lord Jesus for the glory of God and the sanctity of the temple. Jesus' top care is His God and that drove Him to anger. Anger is not a sin, but exposes what you really love. God is asking us to look into our hearts to examine who our God really is.
(B) Provision of God’s mercy: comfort for the sulky and blind (Jonah 4:5-9)
Jonah "went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there" (Jonah 4:5). He exiled himself and wrapped himself up in his robes of righteousness in the booth that he has made for himself, waiting to see what God will do. This man has so little mercy in his heart that he is ready to stand in judgement of his God for the mercy that He shows. Doesn't this sound ridiculous? This was written intentionally in this way to bring out how ridiculous this situation is. In so many ways, we do the same thing with God when He gives the job we want to another person ("Is he even that good? That job might not be that good anyway.") or the relationship to someone else ("Do they deserve it? Let's see how long it'll last.". This account in Jonah was written because the Holy Spirit anticipates that God's people will do that to their God. Jonah shows us what happens when we come into God's mercy, but intentionally chose to distance ourselves from it.
From beginning to end, the book of Jonah continues to show us how God appoints and provides for Jonah.
|Chapter 1||Chapter 2||Chapter 3||Chapter 4, part 1||Chapter 4, part 2|
|God appoints||Great wind (Jonah 1:4)||Great fish (Jonah 1:17)||Jonah (Jonah 3:1-2)||A plant (Jonah 4:6a)||A worm (Jonah 4:7) and wind (Jonah 4:8a)|
|God provides||Storm as a symbol of God's judgment (Jonah 2:3-5)||Rescue from the waters (Jonah 2:6)||A prophet (Jonah 3:3-4)||A plant (Jonah 4:6a)||Scorching east wind (Jonah 4:8b)|
|The result||Jonah's death (Jonah 1:12)||Jonah's repentance (Jonah 2:7)||Nineveh's repentance (Jonah 3:5-10)||Jonah was saved from discomfort (Jonah 4:6) and the way it is written intentionally draws attention to the fact that the shade is the focus.
Jonah was exceedingly glad (Jonah 4:6b) and this was a contrast to his exceeding anger in verse 1. The irony and sarcasm is clear!
|What a worm! The wind also tortures him with the sun and it makes him want to die.
But nothing changes for Jonah because the story stops. We don't know what happens to him after that.
In chapter 4, God first appointed a plant to provide shade. However, He also appointed a worm to destroy that plant, and also appointed a scorching east wind. By this point, Jonah was faint and "he asked that he might die" (Jonah 4:8). God replies with another question with a familiar opening and structure -- "Do you do well..." (Jonah 4:9). Now, Jonah was upset because God did not pardon the plant. Earlier on, he was upset because God pardoned the people. What inconsistency! In both cases, his anger and frustration revolved around himself and God was trying to help him see that.
Throughout the book of Jonah, God has brought about Jonah's repentance and Nineveh's repentance, and also worked out Jonah's comfort. But we are left hanging at the end of the book because we do not know the result of Jonah's response. This is the genius of the book. It is the same reason why in Luke 15, Jesus tells 3 stories, where in the first 2, someone goes in search of the missing item but this is not so in the third. This is meant to prompt thought and elicit further response from the listener or reader. But what can we learn from here?
God is being a coach here, asking the questions and getting him to find the answer, instead of being a teacher where He just tells Jonah everything. God refuses to answer with propositional statements here! Why? When we're angry at God and want answers, all we want is the outcome to change, for Him to do what we really want Him to do. When God turns back with questions, He is turning our moment of trial to a moment of mercy. Don't you see how God is so patient? Do you know this story? Do you recognise yourself in this story?
The words of the hymn "I asked the Lord that I might grow" might be familiar to some. Written by John Newton, the hymn opens with a prayer that many of us might have prayed at some point -- a prayer for growth.
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
But, John Newton goes on to write, God answered this prayer in an unexpected way. The third, fourth and fifth verse goes:
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
The blasting of gourds is a reference to this account in Jonah and this hymn ends with God's reply:
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.
The full hymn can be found here, but what this and Jonah 4 shows us us that God is at work on our hearts. He answers our prayers for growth by showing us our heart and upsetting our plans or even destroying the plant that gives us comfort. Could it be, then, that right now in your life, things are not going as you wished/thought, but God is working to help you let go of lesser things that you are holding on to, to give you more of Himself? Does it surprise you that the Bible is full of stories of men like Job whose life was turned upset down so he could find his sufficiency in God? Or the best example -- Jesus Christ -- who was stripped of everything so we could have everything? Why would we expect anything less?
(C) Heart of God’s mercy: learning about ourselves, God, and others (4:10-11)
The book ends with God questioning and even mocking Jonah. Jonah cares for the plant, but God cares for the cows and the people (Jonah 4:11)! God wanted to show Jonah the extent of His mercy and Jonah's small heart. This is because God cared for Jonah!
As we've mentioned earlier, this passage doesn't end with a proper resolution. We don't know how Jonah responded. But this text has been clear in showing us God's mercy in contrast to Jonah's small heart. And we are not much different from Jonah!
In the New Testament, we read of the same God of mercy that has mercy on the Gentiles too (Romans 15:8-9). This would but away all doubts that God was only a God for the Jews! Recipients of this mercy would also live different lives. In Jude 22, the same mercy is to be shown to those who struggle with doubt. Those who have experienced this mercy would also worship and praise God, just like what Paul did in 1 Tim 1:12-17, where he bursts into a hymn of praise because he thinks about the mercy that he has received.
Jonah has received so much mercy in the last 4 chapter and the book closes with a question for him. What about us, recipients of a greater mercy, displayed for us in Christ! If your heart does not beat with the same mercy of our Savior, you are sitting in your own little booth outside the city, exiling yourself from the mercy of God. But what does it mean? Thank Him for His mercy and ask God for the help to show and share mercy to those around you!