A Bible Lesson on Jonah 3&4

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This is the second of two lessons on the book of Jonah.

The LORD speaks again.

Jonah 3:1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying,

2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”

“Up, go!” The basic commission hasn’t changed. God’s intentions are the same, to be gracious to the Ninevites. We are fickle, but God is consistent. He is consistent in His intentions towards the Ninevites. He is consistent in His dealings with Jonah. Despite rebellion on the parts of both, He is merciful. William Banks said, “We are moved to speak of Jonah’s God as the God of the Second Chance. But honest sober reflection compels the saint to speak of Him as the God of the 999th chance! Such gracious mercy as was extended to Jonah here, and to David, and to the thief dying upon the cross, and to Peter—surely it has been granted to all believers through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”

Jame Boice wrote, ” … when the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, it came with the same commission he had received the first time. We often think, when we are on the verge of running away from God, that if we run away and if the Lord should nevertheless speak to us again, he might take note of the fact that we have run away and therefore change the command. He does not. When we think or act in this disobedient way, we are acting like children who do not like what they are being told to do and who therefore throw a tantrum, thinking that this might get the parents to change their minds. An indulgent or foolish parent might fall for this manipulation, but a wise parent will not. Nor does God! Consequently, after he has dealt with the tantrum, sometimes by means of a spanking, God returns to us with the same commission as before. Why try to resist it? Learn that if you try to run away from God, sooner or later he is going to catch up with you and that when he does you will have to face the very thing you are running away from. Experience his grace now instead of judgment.”

3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.

We’ve got here the prophet obeying in deed, even if his heart and attitude aren’t in it. He grudgingly goes to Nineveh and grudgingly speaks what God has told him to speak. In Hebrew, the description of the city is apparently clearly meant to say that it was large. It is not “great” for some other reason. It is so large that to either go across it or perhaps around it would take 3 days. Apparently it was common to reckon not only the size of a walled city, but to also include the surrounding villages in a statement like this. In any case, Nineveh was a big place.

4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

“overthrown” is the same word used to describe what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. Jonah is not preaching success in life, or the power of positive thinking, or some easy route to a happy eternity. Instead he’s simply declaring to these folks what is their real condition. They are in a world of hurt, and their sin is going to bring God’s wrath on them inside 40 days. The Ninevites take this message for what it is. Contrast this to what happens a century or more later when Jeremiah preaches this kind of message to Jerusalem. He winds up in prison. In Matthew 12 Jesus contrasts this wonderful reaction of Nineveh to that of Judah when He came.

5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

They believed God. Jonah said what God told him to say, and these pagans, moved by the Holy Spirit, believed. There is much post-modern drivel making the rounds about how complicated it is to communicate the Gospel these days in our sophisticated urban societies. The truth is that man was created by God, is in rebellion against Him, and stands guilty and under His wrath. That’s pretty simple. The warning spoken by Jonah in verse 4 requires only 5 Hebrew words. But the Ninevites believed when they heard it. They took God at His word and obeyed. From Genesis 3 the fundamental human problem has been that we don’t take God at His word or simply refuse to obey. Not so the Ninevites.

They declared a fast and put on sackcloth. The point is that they recognized that they were undone. The circumstance was beyond their own ability to handle it. They were effectively saying “God, we admit we’re wrong. There’s nothing we can do to justify ourselves. We throw ourselves on your mercy.” That is real faith, and it extended to the highest circles.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

The king here is probably the king of the city-state of Nineveh, not the emperor of Assyria, but he’s still the most powerful guy around. He comes down from his throne and sits down in the dust with everybody else.

7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water,

8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.

“Call out mightily to God. Turn from evil ways and violence.” The king knows that more is needed than just going through the motions of fasting. He calls for real change of behavior. The Ninevites don’t blame someone else for their sin or stonewall the situation. Instead, they repent.

Violence is disregard for what is right by those who are too strong to be brought to account. The Assyrians pretty much figured that might made right. The fact that they were strong, in their minds justified their cruel treatment of those they conquered. And the Ninevites are called on to repent of this.

9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

It’s interesting here that the word this Ninevite uses for God is “Elohim,” God Almighty. He, unlike Jonah doesn’t know God by his personal name, Yahweh. But he does understand enough about God from the fact that He’s the Creator to hope that He might have mercy on Nineveh. And indeed, God relents. His promise to annihilate Nineveh being conditional on continuation of the Ninevite sin, when they repent, He cancels the destruction. (Here, “God” is Elohim, God Almighty, Creator, but not fully revealed as the great “I Am” who made Himself known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.)

Jonah 4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.

God has Jonah’s outward obedience, but He still doesn’t have his heart. God’s anger against Nineveh is cancelled by the city’s repentance. Jonah becomes angry because the Ninevites repent. The ESV rendering is probably not strong enough to convey the depth of Jonah’s rage. Baldwin renders verse 1 “But Jonah was deeply offended and furious.” He’s in a real snit. Jonah’s heart is for what Jonah wants, not what God wants. Now when Jonah begins to pray, he uses God’s personal name, Yahweh. Jonah should understand and glory in the workings and intents of God. But he wants what he wants.

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.

This is pagan. To know and love the one true and living God is to desire what He desires, to ache for His will to be done, and His glory to be seen. To desire to manipulate or thwart Him is pagan. Jonah ought to listen to what he’s saying and reel in horror at what’s coming out of his mouth. It’s ludicrous, for sure, but what is more is that it’s terribly wrong-hearted.

Like the fallen human he is, Jonah decides that since he can’t have things his way, he’ll sulk. In his silliness Jonah actually wants to tell God “see, I told you so!” He maintains that all along he was justified in his refusing to obey! Look what’s happened, these people didn’t get the judgment that was coming to them! If God has just listened to him. There’s a hint here that maybe even Jonah is accusing God of treating him unfairly, that he Jonah could see this was coming and was only looking out for God’s best in disobeying, and look what it’s gotten him … 3 days in the belly of the fish!

Look at the contrast between what the king said in 3:9 and what Jonah says here. The king, not knowing Jonah’s God, says “Who knows?” while in contrast, Jonah “knew.” But as Boice said, “… he is not reconciled to the will of God even yet.”

3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

This is amazing stuff. Rather than tell the sailors to turn back, he prefers what he thinks is sure death in the sea. Rather than see the glory of God demonstrated in mercy, he’d again rather be dead. Jonah’s memory is short, like those of most of us. He called to God from the belly of the fish, and was grateful for mercy. But when God is consistent and is merciful to Ninevah, and doesn’t do as Jonah wishes, Jonah is unhappy.

4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

“Do you do well to be angry?”/”Are you right to be angry?” God’s point is not so much that Jonah is out of line (of course he IS terribly out of line and presumptuous) as it is that he’s wrong on the facts. He wants God to give Nineveh what Nineveh deserves. But that is not the heart of our gracious and merciful God. Rather than yield and admit that God is right and he is wrong, Jonah heads out of the city. He quits. Without any such direction from God, he abandons his post. These people have next to nothing of God’s word. Yet, as they embrace what they do know, there is an amazing reformation exploding. People are willing to hear the truth, and Jonah walks off, wishing rather to be dead. He’s in no mood to admit that his perception of the character and will of God just might be less than perfect. Maybe God will “get it” if he stomps off like a spoiled child.

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.

He’s sitting out in the desert, waiting to see what happens, hoping that after all, God will send some fire and brimstone (seemingly oblivious to the fact that if the fire falls, he’s every bit as deserving of destruction as are these Ninevites). It’s a, hot, miserable wait. But it’s JONAH’s chosen wait. Jonah is by himself on his own terms. Notice that he’s not even camped on the west side of Ninevah, as if he were headed for home sometime soon. Jonah has taken up the role of spectator (and rooter against repentance) rather than servant. He’s waiting and hoping for the revival to die and the judgment this wicked people deserve to fall. And even in this, God has mercy on Jonah and sends him some shade and prepares to get his attention yet again.

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’s happy for the shade. He’s also cheered by the growth of something green out there in the desert.

7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered.

God “appointed” the worm. God appointed the worm, in the same way that he appointed the vine in verse 6, in exactly the same way that he appointed the fish in 1:17. God orders all of the universe, from the greatest of sea creatures to the bug that kills the plant. He sends shade when it suits His purposes for us. He takes away the shade when He deems it best to do so.

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.”

The sun beats down on Jonah. The verb is actually the same one used in verse 7 to describe the worm’s action on the plant. The worm attacked the plant; the sun attacks Jonah. The scorching desert wind comes up, a sirocco. There’s no shelter, unless of course, Jonah would perhaps like to go back into Nineveh and appeal to the Ninevites for aid! But, as he says, he’d rather die. Going back into the city wouldn’t be on his terms. It would be on those of God.

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.”

“Do you do well?”/”Are you right?” Again, God is dealing graciously and patiently with an impudent servant. He’s not so much putting Jonah in his place here, as He is again saying that Jonah’s wrong on the facts. Jonah’s mad about the death of a plant, a plant that he didn’t make and doesn’t own. He’s angry that it has been destroyed, while at the same time he’s still hoping that God will destroy people that God has made and rightfully owns, people that are infinitely more valuable than a mere plant, beings created in the image of God. Jonah is in such a snit that he won’t see it. Again, he justifies his foolishness. It’s ominous that his last word is “die.” He’s questioning and quarreling with God, justifying himself, insisting that he has reason to be furious, and the end if it is the loss of everything that makes life worth living.

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 had the first word in Jonah. He also has the last. “Jonah, these folks in Nineveh are morally clueless. Shouldn’t the God of the universe look with compassion on them? And shouldn’t you have compassion on them as well?”

We’re not told directly how Jonah eventually reacted, but we may infer (given that this could only have come from Jonah) that he did come around to see his own sin and foolishness and understand God’s great compassion.

The book has in it the sailors, the fish, and the Ninevites. It shows us God’s great power over the whole of creation and teaches His universal love and mercy for humanity, even those who have practiced violence and idolatry. But it’s fundamentally about God and Jonah. It’s about a servant who is disobedient and insists that he knows better than his Master, but who that Master loves and will not let go. Thank God that this is the truth about Him. The fact that we can read this in spite of Jonah’s foolishness, knowing that in the end God must have gotten His heart, ought to give our souls great comfort. God is not like us. You or I would simply have been done with Jonah and moved on to another servant. But the LORD is “… a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”

Here is a .pdf of a lesson on all of Jonah.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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