A STRANGE PLAN

JONAH 4

- Jason Procopio

The prophet Jonah has just witnessed a miracle—God called him to preach to the foreign city of Nineveh; he didn’t want to go, so he ran away, but through a series of events (during which he ended up taking a three-day trip in the belly of a huge fish), he finally ends up going. He says what God told him to say, and he sees an entire city come to faith in the one true God, even though this city is not in Israel, and these people are not members of God’s covenant people. 

This is a monumental event; as Sinclair Ferguson writes, “[This event] was in fact a kind of foretaste of the Day of Pentecost, when once again God would grant ‘repentance that leads to life’ to the peoples of the Gentile world (cf. Acts 2:5-12; 11:17-18)… How many [of us] would sacrifice everything to have seen those revival days in Nineveh! What would we do if a Day of National Repentance were declared in our own land or if the leaders of the nation clothed themselves in garments of repentance and began to cry to God?”[1] Reading chapter 3, with no idea of what comes after, leaves us feeling incredibly hopeful and optimistic—chapter 4 will surely be a simple postscript to tie up loose ends to this surprising story.

But no—there are more surprises in store. In chapters 1 and 2, Jonah was the center of the story; then in chapter 3, the story focuses on the people of Nineveh and God’s forgiveness of them—Jonah is barely present. And we’re moved by what happens in Nineveh, so when we finally come back to Jonah, we can’t believe how he reacts. It’s one of these reactions that should not be, but that is, and it rings true with us, because so many of our own reactions are just as incomprehensible and unexpected.

1) JONAH’S ANGER (V. 1-3)

V. 1: But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. The “it” the author is referring to is the conversion of Nineveh. God calls Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, the Ninevites repent…and Jonah is angry. An entire city of people has just come to know the one true God, repent of their sins and turn to him in faith, and Jonah, God’s own servant, is angry! 

Our first week we talked about motivations. Chapter 1 doesn’t mention any reasons why Jonah fled from God, so we did a bit of imagining, supposing that he must be afraid, possibly of retribution from the Ninevites or hostility from his own people. And while these fears surely factor in to what Jonah did—it’s what any logical human being would feel at such a call—we now discover that that’s not all that was going on in his head. Remember that Jonah is part of a society that has become extremely nationalistic—God had made a covenant with the people of Israel, and because of this Israel had a profoundly negative view of outsiders. So the idea that God would want to extend grace to an foreign, idolatrous, enemy people was abhorrent.

Look at what he says (v. 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.”

Jonah says here that when he received God’s call, he fled because he knew what would happen if he obeyed. He essentially says, “See? I knew this would happen! I knew that you can’t resist anyone who repents!” This is the same advice a woman would give to her girlfriend who can’t resist a beautiful but fundamentally stupid man: Don’t go to him, you know you won’t be able to say no, and you’ll do something you shouldn’t do! The tacit criticism in what he says is that God is either weak, because he relents of his punishment; or that God is foolish, because it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. God wasn’t supposed to do this! He was supposed to elevate his chosen people of Israel, and crush their enemies, not save them! As Mark D. Futato writes, “Ironically, this standard confession of the compassionate character of God is the root of Jonah’s anger. Steadfast love, when extended to Jonah, filled him with thanksgiving (Jonah 2:8), but when extended to the Ninevites, filled him with anger.”[2] In v. 3, Jonah says, “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

V. 4: 4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” You can almost hear the humor in God’s voice—like, “Really? Do you really think this is a good reason for you to be upset?” But we’re not told Jonah’s answer to this question—it’s a question God will repeat later on.

2) JONAH'S SIN EXPOSED (V. 5-11)

At this point the story shifts just a bit: we enter into a kind of afterward to the book, which is characterized by the same sort of weirdness we saw with the big fish. 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.

So we see something happening here that is similar to what has happened before, but there is one big difference: God appointed the fish to swallow Jonah, in order to bring him safe and sound to the people of Nineveh. In other words, when God exercised his power over nature in the case of the fish, he was doing it not mainly for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. Here, the same thing happens three times—God exercises his sovereignty over nature—but in this case, he’s doing it all for Jonah, to teach Jonah a couple of lessons.

And God will teach these lessons by putting Jonah in a situation where he is forced to admit what he’s really like. 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. [In other words, Jonah’s waiting and watching, on the off-chance that God changes his mind and decides to destroy 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.

Remember what happened with the fish. Jonah had sinned, he had run from God, the storm came, Jonah is cast out of the boat, God sends the fish to swallow him and save his life. What was his reaction? When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple… Salvation belongs to the Lord! (Jonah 2.7, 10). In other words, Jonah took God’s sending the fish to mean that God now approved of him, and that all was well! He took comfort in God’s goodness, not realizing (as Paul says) that God’s kindness is meant to lead him to repentance (Romans 2.4). 

That’s what happens here too—Jonah has acted in an atrocious manner: he’s actually hoping that God changes his mind, and he’s sitting outside the city to get a front-row seat for when God finally comes to his senses and blows up the town! And yet when the plant comes to give him shade, he is exceedingly glad, which shows that he's still blissfully ignorant of how twisted his own heart it—you don't feel joy when you have sinned against God and made aware of it...no matter how comfortable you may be!

So this plant is not there to show Jonah how happy God is with his work—it is not a sign of God's approval. This plant is there to tear the rug from under Jonah’s feet, to make him finally admit what’s actually going on in his heart: he’s just as hard-hearted as ever. V. 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. 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.” 

These are the grumblings of a petulant child. From the beginning of this story we’ve seen Jonah acting in ways that reveal the sin in his heart. But when we hear him pray in chapter 2, what do we hear? We hear a prayer that seems to deny that sin: a prayer that seeks to affirm communion with God when there is none. So now, for the first time in the book, God brings Jonah to a place where he finally says aloud what he didn’t want to admit to himself: “All the grace you have displayed here means nothing to me. I don’t want what you want, no matter how good it is—I want what I want.”

To which God will respond, “Exactly. But surely you can see that what I want is so much better than what you want. You want the crumbs left on the table after the meal; I’m offering you the joy of the meal itself.” 

See the ridiculousness at work here: Jonah pities the plant (he pities a plant!), but he clearly pities it for his own sake: “It is better for me to die than to live.” Besides the fact that it’s intensely stupid to pity a plant when death and destruction hang over human beings just a few miles away, even more ridiculous is the fact that even his pity for the plant is fake: he feels pity over the plant only because his own well-being is compromised by its death.

And now God will expose the essential, hard-hitting lesson of this whole final episode. V. 10: 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?” God pities too, but his pity is altogether different. He pities the people in the city—120,000. He sees that they are ignorant and sinful, and that they could never get out of this situation on their own. He pities them for them.

So here’s the second lesson: “There are bigger things than you, Jonah. Bigger than your agenda, your comfort, your life… I did not create you for you, but for something much bigger than yourself.” 

3) GOD’S UNEXPECTED PLAN

The book of Jonah is never resolved. This question God asks Jonah in v. 11 is the last thing written. There is no end to this story! We’re left wondering, What happened to Jonah? How did he respond? Is this the last time God ever spoke to him? It could well be: we have no idea what happened at the end of Jonah’s life. And that’s exactly why I love that this story is never resolved: it puts us right where Jonah is. As we read this story, we are all living in a point of our lives before the end. We don’t know what will happen with us; we don’t know when will be the last time God speaks to us on this earth. It’s a sobering thought, for like Jonah, there is sin in us, and prejudice, and rebellion. And God speaks to us too, like he did to Jonah. We’re left in the middle of this story because we are in the middle of our lives, and we will struggle with the same sins Jonah struggled with, and we haven’t yet decided all that we will decide, haven’t yet fought all the fights that will present themselves to us.

So how does this final chapter put the rest of the book in perspective? How does it help us, at this point in our lives (whatever that point is), to understand what God would have us understand? Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes: this nationalistic Israelite believes in God’s plan and wants it to come to pass, and he has a very clear idea of what that plan should look like. But it doesn’t—what happens here is something Jonah would never have chosen himself. 

And things are always this way. God has a plan, and he implements his plan in remarkably unexpected ways. The unusual nature of God’s plan can be seen all over the Bible. It’s strange that God would let his people be sold into slavery, then rescue them miraculous from the clutches of a wicked king. It’s strange that the greatest warrior-king in his people’s history would be a former shepherd, a musician and a poet. It’s strange that the exile of his people for their sins would in fact be an integral step in the process. It’s strange that he would send his Messiah to be born of a peasant girl delivering her baby amongst barnyard animals. 

It’s strange that this young man would grow up to be the most renowned teacher of all time; a miracle worker unlike any other before or since; a carpenter who claimed he was God himself. It’s strange that the means by which God would forgive his people would be by being punished in their place. It’s strange that the means by which he would declare his people righteous would be by giving them his own righteousness, as if it were theirs. It’s strange that the way he would draw all people to himself would not be through might or force, but through humility and grace.

God will accomplish his plan, and he will rarely go about it in a way which man would think of or see as appropriate. This is the fundamental problem Jonah has in this book. God tells Jonah to do something, to accomplish his plan to show everyone he is a gracious God. Jonah says, “I love the idea—but surely you’re not going to do it like that. You can’t do it like that!” To which God responds, “But Jonah, I’m God—can’t you see that my way is better?” 

Brothers and sisters, the importance of God’s plan transcends any one person. God’s plan is ultimately not about any one of us—it’s about him. God’s ultimate goal is to display his glory for all of creation to see. In his grace, he has compassion on us and loves us and brings us into that plan, but accomplishing his plan is indeed his goal. God in his wisdom knows how best to accomplish that plan, and sometimes, those means by which he brings his plan about will not fit our dreams or desires. Things won’t always go as we want because what we want is not the most important thing for him, and what we want is rarely what is best for us

4) FINAL QUESTIONS

Jonah sees what God wants him to do, and it’s unthinkable to him—it goes against everything he thinks is right, everything he thinks should happen. He finally does what God tells him to do, but out of compulsion, knowing full well that God is going to do something Jonah finds abhorrent. And when God finally proves him right, Jonah becomes angry—“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist!” Jonah never responds rightly to God—we’re left with this very ambiguous ending in which God poses him a question he should be ashamed to hear: Can you not see that my way is better? If you have pity on a plant, for your own sake, should I not much more have pity on all of these people? And we’re left there, never knowing how he responded to God’s wisdom.

So the first question God calls us to ask ourselves is quite simple: Do we want what he wants? God’s desire is to make his glory known to all nations and peoples of the world through the salvation of many. This is where his heart is; this is what he loves to do. Do we want this? Are we engaged in God’s mission to make disciples of all nations? Or are we more concerned with the plan we have for our own lives, the things we want for ourselves? In our consumer culture Christians have become conditioned to think their own happiness and their own security and their own comfort are first and foremost on God’s list of priorities, but they’re not. On the top of God’s list of priorities is the glory of his own name, being seen and rejoiced in and loved by all the world. And sometimes, in his wisdom, he wills that this top priority come to pass in ways that are strange, surprising or even shocking to us. And that of course leads us to our final question:

How will WE respond when God’s plan goes against what we want? When all the plans you make fall through—because they might well fall through—how will you respond? When you don’t understand why God has opened the doors he has opened, or closed the doors he has closed, how will you respond? When you see what he has called you to do, and how hard it seems, and you have a hard time imagining how obeying his call will ultimately mean more joy for you than heartache, how will you respond? Will you mourn what you have lost? Will you pout over your unachieved plans? Or will you bow your head and say, “Lord, I don’t understand why you’ve done things this way, and I can’t see how this could be better than what I wanted, but I trust you—do your will in me, and help me to believe that seeing your plan fulfilled, seeing your glory displayed in something infinitely bigger than my own life, will be the greatest joy I can imagine”? 

Ultimately we probably won’t be convinced by the logic of God’s plan, because we won’t understand the logic of God’s plan—we don’t see how all the puzzle pieces fit together. And the good news is, we don’t need to trust his plan—all we need is to trust him. We don’t know all the inner workings of his will; but we know God. We know who he is. We know enough to believe that whatever he chooses to do with us is far better than anything we’d do with ourselves. And knowing that, we can hold firm, and keep the faith.

I like to believe that this is the lesson Jonah learned. As we said in our first week, we believe this book presents events that actually happens, which means that either Jonah wrote this book himself, or recounted these events to someone else who wrote them down. And the way this book is structured shows us that the author clear sees Jonah as being in error throughout this entire book. If I tell a story about myself in which everything I do is described as ridiculous or humiliating, you can conclude that I understand now that what I did was wrong, and that I’m trying to convince you to do things differently. This is what I hope is happening with Jonah, and I pray that's what happens for all of us—that when we are devastated by God's plan, "Lord, I don't understand why you've chosen to do things this way. But I know you, and I trust you. Do what you will."

NOTES

[1] Sinclair Ferguson, Man Overboard! (The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2008), p. 78.

[2] Mark D. Futato, in The ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, Wheaton, IL., 2008), p. 1690.