A Prophet Who Doesn't Understand Grace
What symptoms show we don’t understand God’s grace? The first symptom is that we are angry when others don’t get the bad they deserve. The second symptom is that we are angry when we don’t get the good we think we deserve.
Katie and I schedule yearly physicals with our doctors. It’s an annual checkup and the doctor goes through their normal stuff. They check heart, breathing, reflexes, eyes, ears. They make sure everything is healthy. If they see a symptom showing something might be off, you are happy they caught it. But you don’t go to a physical because something is wrong. You go to make sure nothing is wrong. You do the tests to make sure everything is healthy. But sometimes, you go through the tests and discover something is wrong in your body that you didn’t know was wrong. But if you hadn’t gone through the tests, you would have never known.
Today, we are finishing our four week series in the biblical book of Jonah. This whole book is designed to administer a spiritual health test to us. The author has masterfully crafted it to help readers diagnose a spiritual problem that can easily go undetected.
In chapter 1, we met Jonah who is supposedly a prophet for God - a spokesman who delivers God’s messages to God’s people, Israel. God speaks to him directly and gives him the assignment of delivering a message to another nation. He wants him to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. But Jonah runs the opposite direction. He wants nothing to do with this assignment. He boards a ship to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Tarshish. But God sends a storm on the boat to thwart his plans. Jonah tells the sailors, “Toss me overboard and the storm will calm.” They do and the storm calms.
In chapter 2, we find Jonah drowning in the sea. Running from God only led him down and farther away from God. But God rescues Jonah from his own mess. He sends a giant fish to scoop Jonah out of the sea. Jonah is extremely thankful and committed himself to obeying God.
In chapter 3, back on dry land God gives Jonah the same assignment: go to Nineveh and deliver a message. This time, Jonah obeys. He gives Nineveh God’s message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The people are evil and God is going to punish them for their evil. But Jonah’s message is met with a crazy response. Everyone in the city grieves their sin, asks God for forgiveness, and turns from their evil. God doesn’t give them what they deserve. He sees their repentance and he relents from the disaster he warned them about.
If the story had ended without chapter 4, it would carry a very different message. It would be the story of a prophet who resisted God’s will but eventually had a change of heart, carried out his mission, and saw a whole city repent of their evil. He was wildly successful! Instead, chapter 4 shows us what has been going on in Jonah’s head and heart this whole time. Chapter 4 is where we get the true message of the book.
The big question this passage answers is: what symptoms show we don’t understand God’s grace? What symptoms show we don’t understand God’s grace?
Here’s a definition of grace you can write down: grace means free and undeserved favor. It means you get what you don’t deserve.
As we read this book, we are stepping into the doctor’s office. With each chapter, the doctor is checking our health, asking preliminary questions and checking over the basics. In chapter 4, the most vital test is administered: he checks our heart. The author wants to make sure we understand God’s grace and does not want us to be as unhealthy as Jonah.
We’ll cover over the narrative in three parts then come back to answer our big question: what symptoms show we don’t understand God’s grace?
Last week, we left off with God seeing how the Ninevites repented of their sin so God relents from the disaster he said he was going to bring on them. What’s Jonah’s response? Let’s take a look at the first section of this chapter in verses 1 through 4.
Jonah’s Prayer (4:1-4)
4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. (Jonah 4:1)
Jonah expresses deep emotions over God sparing Nineveh. The word here for “displeased” could actually be translated as “it was evil.” “It was exceedingly evil to Jonah.” He sees God’s grace toward the Ninevites as evil - it is questionable character on God’s part. He is angry with God. He thinks God is wrong. And he tells it to God in a prayer. Look at verse 2.
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 4:2-3)
Ah, so now we know why Jonah ran to Tarshish. In the opening verses of this book, God called him to go to Nineveh. But instead of going east to Nineveh, he goes west to Tarshish. We weren’t given the reason. The best we could imagine was perhaps he was scared of the Ninevites because they are ruthless toward other people and he didn’t want to get impaled on a stick and left in the sun to die. But now we find out the real reason. He just knew God would relent from destroying them. He says, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah knew his God is the kind of God who gives people what they don’t deserve. And Jonah wants no part in seeing Nineveh saved. He wants them to get what they deserve. He wants them to be overthrown.
This description that Jonah throws in God’s face is a famous one. These words are first told to Moses, which we heard in our first Scripture reading. These are the words God uses to describe himself. He is a God who is gracious. Yes, he is just and will not let the guilty go unpunished. But for those who turn to him, he is gracious and merciful. This description of God is quoted throughout the Old Testament and Israel held onto it as a comforting description of who God is.
But instead of holding onto it as a comfort, Jonah is deeply troubled by his God who would spare the wicked Ninevites. He hates it so much that he just wants God to take his life. He would rather be dead than live in a world where people like the Ninevites don’t get what’s coming to them. The irony in his prayer is that just two chapters ago, Jonah was in the same boat (get it). He ran from God and was drowning in the sea. But God rescued him and Jonah praised God for his gracious character.
Which makes God’s question in verse 4 understandable:
4 And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)
Is it right for you to be angry, Jonah? Or even, do you have the right to be angry? For now, we don’t hear Jonah’s response.
These four verses show us Jonah’s response when he sees that God doesn’t destroy Nineveh after 40 days. Verse 5 flashes back to right after Jonah does his one day preaching trip through Nineveh. He is supposed to take three days, but it only takes one because the people are so responsive. Jonah’s message spreads like wildfire and soon the whole city is mourning over their sin. Verse 5 is what Jonah does right after that.
God’s Lesson (4:5-9)
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. (Jonah 4:5)
A “booth” is a hut or lean-to. And don’t imagine this being a very great structure. There weren’t really trees in the Middle East so Jonah is scraping together whatever he can to get some shelter - sticks, weeds. He is waiting east of the city to see what is going to happen. He has delivered his message that in 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown. Now he hopes to see some good destruction happen. He sits back with his bucket of popcorn and large Cherry Coke and waits. As he does so, God teaches Jonah a lesson. Look at verse 6.
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. (Jonah 4:6)
As has been the case throughout this whole book, God is in control of the natural world. He sent the storm on Jonah’s boat in chapter 1. Then he appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah and save him from the sea. Notice, the same word is used here. God appointed the great fish to rescue Jonah, here he appoints a plant to grow up and provide shade for Jonah to rescue him from his discomfort. He is sitting in the hot Middle Eastern sun with hardly any shade. So God makes a plant grow up for him.
Like I said last week, there is a miracle in every chapter of this book that makes people question its historicity. A plant sprouting up like this to give Jonah shade leads people to question. But remember, we believe in a God who spoke the entire universe into existence out of nothing. And he upholds and sustains the universe as it is. For a God like that, making a plant quickly grow up over Jonah’s head is no big deal.
How does Jonah feel about the plant? It says, “Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.” Jonah was exceedingly displeased by God’s rescue of Nineveh. Now he is exceedingly glad by God’s rescue of him. You seeing any irony here? Let’s see what happens next in verse 7.
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. (Jonah 4:7-8)
Jonah gets his relief. But then dawn comes and things go downhill. Here’s that word again. God appointed a worm to attack the plant and it withered. Then, the sun comes up and God appointed a scorching east wind. And the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he was faint. The worm attacked the plant. The sun attacked Jonah’s head. This scorching east wind is actually a well known thing in the Middle East. It comes in the dry season, usually in June. Everything is dry then this hot wind comes in and it feels like you are in an oven. So Jonah is out in the sun with his little lean-to shelter that feels like an oven. No wonder he feels faint. His emotions quickly change at the end of verse 8.
And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah is back to wanting death. God spared his life from drowning but now Jonah just wants it to end. God responds in verse 9.
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.” (Jonah 4:9)
Again, God asks, “Should you be angry Jonah? Is it right for you to be angry for the plant?” This time, we get Jonah’s response. “Yes, I’m justified in this anger. Angry enough to die.”
God gets the last word in this book. He responds to Jonah’s anger in verses 10 and 11.
The LORD’s Last Word (4:10-11)
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?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
Jonah pities the plant. He is troubled by its death. But he did nothing for this plant. He didn’t make it grow. It was here for less than a day then it perished. God wants Jonah to compare his concern for the plant with God’s concern for Nineveh. Shouldn’t God pity Nineveh? Shouldn’t he be troubled by the great city of Nineveh in which there are more than 120,000 people who have no moral discernment? And if not for them, how about at least the cattle? God’s point is this: “Jonah, you are troubled by this plant perishing that you didn’t even create. How much more troubled should I be about all these people and animals perishing that I did create?”
Jonah has things backwards and he is totally inconsistent. The plant is used to fully surface Jonah’s inconsistency. He is extremely joyful about God’s salvation for him but extremely displeased with God’s salvation for others. But it also points out how he is more concerned for the loss of the plant than for the loss of life in Nineveh. Which one should burden him more?
The story is told so that we recoil at Jonah’s attitude, which opens up the question: are we like Jonah? Do we enjoy salvation for us but not for others? Do we feel entitled so much so that we are angry with God when he doesn’t give as we demand? This final chapter puts Jonah in Nineveh’s shoes. God shows him, “Look Jonah, you also deserved to perish when you ran from me but I saved you because I’m gracious. Nineveh is in the same situation. They deserve to perish because of their evil but I saved them because I’m gracious.” Jonah is very happy when God’s grace benefits him but very angry when it benefits others.
This chapter also compares Jonah with God. God is gracious so he doesn’t give people what they deserve, including both Jonah and the Ninevites. But Jonah really wants to see people get what they deserve.
The big question this passage answers is: what symptoms show we don’t understand God’s grace?
Remember, grace means “free and undeserved favor.” God is gracious, which means he freely gives to us his favor which we do nothing for. It is a gift. It is unmerited. That is simply the kind of God he is. He is generous and merciful not because of anything we do but because of who he is.
This whole book has been about God’s grace to the least deserving. By the end, we are wondering: “Man, who’s the least deserving here? Jonah or the Ninevites whom he was sent to?”
The Ninevites deserve destruction. They are evil and wicked. In the court of law, their sentence is that they should be destroyed. When we are found guilty in the court of law, you can’t just say, “Ok, I’m really sad I did this. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I will stop doing evil.” That won’t get you off the hook. You still broke the law and did evil and need to serve your sentence. That’s what they deserve. That’s the law.
But God doesn’t give them what they deserve. God doesn't require Nineveh to serve their sentence. And that is scandalous to Jonah. He is outraged. But he should realize that God didn't require him to serve his sentence either. God had compassion on Jonah in his distress and saved him.
Jonah is outraged with God, but we are supposed to get to the end and be outraged with Jonah. We should want to say to him, "Dude, you're mad that God saved 120,000 people? Why are you mad about that? You should rejoice! And you're mad that he's gracious? That's the same reason you're still alive!"
The big question this passage answers is: what symptoms show we don’t understand God’s grace? Jonah obviously shows that he doesn’t understand God’s grace. What are the symptoms?
First, we are angry when others don't get the bad they deserve. We are angry when others don’t get the bad they deserve. A symptom that shows we don’t understand God’s grace is we are angry when others don’t get the bad they deserve.
Jonah was angry that Nineveh didn’t get the bad they deserved. They deserved to be overthrown. That was their sentence. But God showed compassion on them. He is gracious so he spared them from their sentence. He gave them what they don’t deserve. The bible teaches that God is not pleased with the death of the wicked. He doesn’t desire for people to perish and serve their sentence. But they must if they do not turn to him. However, when we turn to him, he forgives us because he is gracious.
Jonah thinks this characteristic of God is borderline evil. He is displeased God spares them. He is angry that God didn’t wipe all these people out. Thankfully, God is not like Jonah.
Know that God’s grace means others get what they don’t deserve. God is gracious. That means sometimes evil people get what they don’t deserve. They get rescue instead of destruction. They get blessing instead of curse. They get good instead of bad.
But we don’t always like that. Bad people shouldn’t get good things. They deserve to have it all taken away. But if we only looked deeper within ourselves, we would realize that we aren’t good people either and we have been given good things we don’t deserve. God’s question to us is: do you do well to be angry? Is it really right for us to be angry at God’s grace when it’s that same grace that we enjoy?
So here’s a question: Who are your Ninevehs? Who are the people you look at and say, “I wish they would get what’s coming to them.” You feel no compassion, no pity. You aren’t troubled by their hardship. You aren’t troubled that they don’t know God. There are two ways we act like Jonah:
We actively hope bad comes to people because they deserve it. Jonah really wanted the people in Nineveh to perish. Maybe there are people in our lives who we want to fail, who we want to see fall, who we want to see humiliated, who we want other people to dislike.
We passively do nothing to relieve the bad that has come to people. This is probably more common. We see homeless people and think, “They are just bums addicted to drugs and alcohol. They aren’t doing anything for themselves. Why should I? They deserve to be where they are.” We have no compassion. We aren’t troubled. Or we do it with people who don’t know Jesus. We aren’t troubled that people we pass every day are headed toward eternal destruction. We have no compassion for them. We think, “That’s the choice they’ve made. They deserve their sentence.”
When we do either of these, we show that we don’t understand grace. We want people to get what they deserve and aren’t troubled by it. God is troubled by it. He has compassion on those far from him. He has compassion on those ruining their lives with sin. Jesus was God in the flesh and he showed this better than anyone. He looked at people and had compassion on them. The people whom society rejected are the people Jesus hung around with. The people others walked past and looked away from to avoid eye contact are the people Jesus knelt down to love. Jesus was full of grace. He gave people what they didn’t deserve.
The big question this passage answers is: what symptoms show we don’t understand God’s grace? The first symptom is that we are angry when others don’t get the bad they deserve.
Second, we are angry when we don't get the good we think we deserve. We are angry when we don’t get the good we think we deserve. A symptom that shows we don’t understand God’s grace is we are angry when we don’t get the good we think we deserve.
Not only was Jonah angry and wishing to die when Nineveh didn’t get the bad they deserved, he was angry and wishing to die when he had his plant taken away. God sent this plant into his life to relieve him and he was filled with joy. But when God took it away, he completely flipped. He feels entitled to this plant. How could God take it away? He would rather die than live in a world where others don’t get the bad they deserve. He would rather die than live in a world where he doesn’t get the good he thinks he deserves.
Know that God’s grace means we don’t deserve the good in our lives. Anything good we have is because God gives us what we don’t deserve. Jonah ran from God and so do we. None of us is even deserving of life, but God gives it to us. None of us deserve for God to forgive us of our sins and promise us a bright future with him, but God gives it to us. That’s because he is gracious. We don’t deserve it. It is free, undeserved, and unmerited.
But like Jonah, we can begin to think we are entitled. We begin to think God really owes us good things. We deserve them. But it simply isn’t true. God doesn’t owe us anything. He is God and we are not. He created us; we didn’t create him. We are dependent on him. And we’ve all run from him. We’ve all broken his holy law. For that we deserve nothing but his condemnation.
We may think, “Yeah but I have lots of reasons I am deserving of good from God.” We may list them all. Jonah thought he deserved God’s rescue more than Nineveh. He’s an Israelite. He reads God’s Word. He prays. He goes to temple services. He tithes to God. He lives a pretty good and moral life. God owes him! We can do the same things When we think we deserve something from God because we are church people, or because we've done good things or lived a good life, we’ve gotten grace wrong. When we think we deserve good things because we have been faithful and obedient, we’ve gotten grace wrong.
Or maybe we admit, “Ok I have flaws. I have sinned. I haven’t been perfect. But I’m better than those people so don’t I deserve good more than them?” God could say to Jonah, “How are you more deserving? Sure Jonah, you have the credentials. Even the right theology. But you ran from me." Perhaps Jonah’s response would be: "Yeah, but they're way worse!"
In either case, God would ask us: do you do well to be angry? Is it right for us to be angry that we don’t get everything we think God should give us? If we don’t deserve any of it, we don’t have a right to be angry.
What are your “Jonah plants”? What are those things that you say, “God, if you don’t give this to me, I’m going to be angry with you”? Or what are those things that you say, “God, if you take this away, I’m going to be angry”? You need to recognize that God gives good to us out of his grace and you are not entitled to it.
The big question this passage answers is: what symptoms show we don’t understand God’s grace? The first symptom is that we are angry when others don’t get the bad they deserve. The second symptom is that we are angry when we don’t get the good we think we deserve.
Jonah didn’t deserve to be rescued. Nineveh didn’t deserve to be rescued. And neither do we. Jonah wanted his enemies to perish. But Jesus, when he was being crucified for our sins, looked at the people crucifying him and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That is what God’s grace looks like. Forgiveness for his enemies. Each of us walks into God’s law court with the sentence of guilty. But when we surrender ourselves to Jesus, we walk out free of our sentence in a restored relationship to God because Jesus took on himself the punishment we deserve. That’s grace. Jesus took a punishment he didn’t deserve so that we could have a relationship with God we don’t deserve. We do nothing for it. It’s grace.
Grace is something we often want for ourselves but not for others. As Christ’s community in Woodstock, we can show people what grace really means. We can show God’s grace to the least deserving because we were the least deserving when he came into our lives.