Jonah and the Cost of Mercy

We're going to read together from Jonah chapter 1 verse 1 to 3 and then Jonah chapter 4. And while you're turning there, I'll just say Jonah is a great story, a truly great story in the Old Testament, and it's very well-known, not only in the church but also outside of the church. And because of its role in the popular imagination, there's oftentimes misunderstandings with a passage like this. And one of the big ones is that Jonah is a hero, that Jonah is a good guy in this story. And we're going to see that every single story has a protagonist and an antagonist and in this story the antagonist is Jonah. He's a messed up prophet. And the protagonist is God who is full of mercy and patience. And so let's read Jonah 1:1-3 and Jonah chapter 4. But before we do, I'll pray.

 

Our Lord and God, help us to see the truth of Your holy Word. Teach us, O Lord, by the Spirit. Open our eyes. We for help, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

This is the Word of the Lord in Jonah chapter 1:

 

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.”

 

And then chapter 4:

 

“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly,” - that’s that God had forgiven Nineveh and relented from His wrath against them - “and Jonah was angry. 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. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Do you do well to be angry?’

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

 

The Kingdom of Mercy

We’re going to learn three things tonight. Jonah teaches us about the kingdom of mercy, the God of mercy, and the cost of mercy. So first, Jonah’s problem in chapter 1 teaches us about the kingdom of mercy. Jonah in verse 1 is called by the Lord to be a prophet and we know that from 2 Kings 14 Jonah was from the north, from Israel. This was a time when Israel and Judah are divided into two nations, north and south, and he’s from the north; a prophet from the north. And we also know from 2 Kings 14 that this is sometime between 800 BC and 750 BC. And also, all the Old Testament scholars agree that this book couldn’t have been written any earlier than about a century later after Jonah’s ministry because of the uniqueness of the Hebrew text and different things like that.

 

And that’s really important because if you were to pick up a Jerusalem Times newspaper of the day it would say Nineveh, the great power of the north, the empire is building. Everybody knew at this time that Nineveh, which is the capital of Assyria, is the great empire of the entire world and really has been since about the year 1,000 BC - growing and growing and growing. God even says here, “that great city.” He says it twice in this book. It was truly great. It went all the way back to Genesis chapter 10. The original founding of all the cities of the world, the table of nations founded Nineveh, was founded by one of the brothers, Nimrod, one of the sons of Canaan. And it’s so great that in chapter 3 it says it would take three days to walk straight across it, which you can think of 12 to 20 miles a day depending on how fast and fit you are. That’s a really enormous cityscape - up to 40, 50 miles wide. It’s a huge city for the ancient world.

 

And the people of the time who are reading this book a century later from Jonah’s ministry would have known something. And that’s that one little generation after Jonah ministered in Nineveh in 722 BC, the Ninevites are going to march south and destroy the entire kingdom of Israel. They’re going to burn down Samaria where Jonah’s from. They’re going to kill probably Jonah’s sons and family and enslave them. They destroyed Jonah’s people just a generation after Jonah’s ministry. And so when God says, “I’ve smelled this evil aroma come up before me. Jonah, go. Talk to them about repentance so that they might not feel the wrath of God,” Jonah does exactly what the reader, the Israelite reading this a generation later, would expect Jonah to do. And they’re shouting and cheering Jonah on saying, “Jonah, don’t go! Don’t go up to those Ninevites because they’re going to kill us all! They’re going to come down in just a generation after you do this and destroy our city, and they’re still evil today.” And they’re saying, “Don’t do it, Jonah!”

 

And so Jonah not only historically runs but he also embodies the very attitude of Israel towards Assyria and towards other nations in general. He, it says, gets up and goes down to catch a boat to Tarshish. And you have to understand that Nineveh is in the very, very far north -which direction is this - east for you, yes, northeast. And Tarshish is the farthest shore southwest. Even in Isaiah 60, it calls Tarshish "a faraway place." Old Testament scholars don't even know where it is. This was a long time ago and Tarshish was a place far, far away to the Israelite mind. And Israelites don't get on ships, not in the Mediterranean Sea. It's absurd. Jonah is going in the total opposite direction to a place that's like Neverland that he doesn't even know if it really exists. And in doing that he's representing exactly the attitude of Israel towards Nineveh, towards Assyrians, a generation later. Robert Alter says this. "To send Jonah to Nineveh in the minds of the original audience would be like sending a Jewish preacher to Hitler's Germany and calling on the Nazis to repent of their evils in 1936, just before the atrocities begin." God Himself, twice in this book, even says the Ninevites are "evil." That's the word God uses. And we know, actually, that Nineveh, Assyria, is the place where crucifixion first began. A simplified form of crucifixion started in this great city of Nineveh.

 

So Jonah in chapter 4, the reason we were reading just the beginning of 1 and 4, is because Jonah in chapter 4 gives us the exact reasons in his own mind for running away. If you look down at verse 2, this is what he said. "O Lord, is this not what I said when I was in my own country? This is why I fled to Tarshish." Now this book oftentimes is meant to be absurd to the point of comedic. And he says, "The reason I ran away from You, Lord, is because I knew that You are full of mercy and gracious and abounding in love. In that, if I went, You might actually forgive, that You might actually do what You're saying and show the people mercy!" You see, Jonah is so angry he's putting God in the dock like C.S. Lewis would call it. He's shaking his fist at God for God's attributes of love and mercy and kindness to the Ninevites.

 

But it’s even stronger if you look in verse 1. In the ESV that we’re reading from, it says, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly that God would show Nineveh mercy.” But there’s probably a footnote in your Bible because the literal translation, and very important to know, is that it literally says, “But Jonah saw this as very evil.” So in other words, what it’s saying is that Jonah looked up at God and said, “I’m so angry at You,” this is anger of hatred, “because You are so merciful and kind and what You have done is evil.” Jonah is telling God that He was evil for forgiving and relenting from His wrath poured out at Nineveh.

 

Now, why? You see what he's saying? He's saying, "Yeah, You're full of mercy and love, I know about Your attributes of love, but where is the justice? Aren't You a God of justice?" And what that teaches us is that Jonah, the prophet of God, the prophet of Israel, he is more like a pagan than a true Israelite at heart. You see, he thinks that true religion is based on deserving it. And that's why he's charging God with this crime. That you can't show mercy to people who don't deserve it. And so he believes in a religion of good works, just like the Ninevites and all the other nations would have believed in. But even more than that there's also a hint throughout this book, and all sorts of details, that Jonah, representing the attitude of Israel, had not only bought into a false religion of works, a pagan mindset about that, about what it takes to get into God's kingdom, but also a sort of nationalism that was really common in the ancient world.

 

You see, in the ancient world, every single people group had their own god. Philistia had the principal god, Dagon. Dagon is who they worshiped. The Jebusites and Hittites and others worshiped Molech before any of the other deities they believed in. And sometimes through the Old Testament, Israel falls into this trap of thinking Yahweh, the God who saved them, is merely their nation's God. "While Philistia has Dagon and the Hittites have Molech, we have Yahweh." So he's thinking that God is bound by a geography, that God is enclosed with a singular bloodline, one people group. And so he's a pagan at heart. He's the prophet of Yahweh, of God, of Israel, but he believes that you can't get into God's kingdom unless you deserve it and that God's kingdom is bound to a certain geography - the location of the temple and no further. Everything else is outside the camp and outside of God's presence.

 

God is Not Bound

Now there's two big lessons to learn from this and I'll go from the lesser to the more important. The first is that the true God, our God, Father, Son, and Spirit, is not bound to nations, to institutions, to geographies, to people groups, to denominations, to local, even local expressions of churches, to cultures, to skin color, to anything. And that's really one of the central points of the whole book. It's actually built into the very structure of the book. In chapter 1, God speaks to and controls the seas. In chapter 2, God speaks to and controls the creatures, the sea creature. In chapter 3, God brings back a people that didn't belong, that wasn't obedient to Him. In chapter 4, God raises us a plant and then puts it to death again. You see the message - that God is the God of the sea, of the creature, of all peoples, and of all plants and earthly things. In other words, the big message is - everything belongs to Him. The whole structure of the story has been trying to teach Jonah that all of it belongs to God. And again, the comedy of the book in chapter 2 verse 9, Jonah says to the pagan sailors, "I am a Hebrew and I fear the LORD who is the God of the sky, the earth, and the seas." Jonah said that, but not "the Ninevites." Not other people groups in his mind.

 

Kevin DeYoung puts it this way. This is a paraphrase: "We must always make it clear that the church is not for Scottish people or for American people" - I'm glad he put Scottish first in this list! "It's not for Scottish people or for American people or for people of one race or of a particular political persuasion or for middle-class people. It is a church for Jesus' people. And we have to do everything we can to make sure everyone knows that is what the church is about. That is the banner over the church. The banner is the cross of Jesus Christ, high and lifted up. The only hope for all is the true eternal city that transcends every culture, every people, and every single institution."

 

Obedience versus Disobedience

Now the second big lesson is this - that there is a great irony at the center of this passage, really throughout the whole story. And that is that at the very beginning, God says to Jonah, "Arise, go up to Nineveh." And it says immediately, "Jonah got up and he went down," because you gotta get up to get down - right? And that meant for the rest of the book there's a motif, a theme, where going up in the book is obedience and life. There's a lot of language of going up. And then there's a lot of language of going down throughout the narrative, which is disobedience and death. And five times in the book Jonah chooses to go down, down, down, down, down, at every time choosing the way of death, not life. He chooses to go down to Joppa, down into the ship, down into the sea, down into the belly of the sea creature, and then in his prayer in chapter 2 he says, "I've gone down into the depths, to Sheol, to the place of the dead." Down, down, down he went. In other words, at every single turn, he disobeyed and he had no patience for people who were not like him, for these pagans of the north.

 

And God, looking at a missionary who had chosen death and disobedience, raised him up from the dead and gave him life again three days later. He was spit up out of Sheol, he says, the place of the dead. You see, he had received an immense mercy when he had shaken his fist at God and said, "No, I will not go. I will choose death." He says, "I would rather die than see them live," in chapter 4. And God was so patient with him. God showed him an incredible mercy. And what's the great irony? That he's now standing here, the prophet who has received mercy to the extent of being brought back to life from the dead, and he is merciless. His heart hasn't been changed. He is like a Pharisee. In the gospels, in Matthew chapter 12 in fact, Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and they had demanded a sign to prove that He was truly something special. And He turns to them and says, "I will not give you a sign, but on the day of judgment the Ninevites will condemn you." Because when Jonah preached to them they repented. In other words, they saw that they needed mercy and Jonah couldn't see it. He had received a great mercy and in his heart, he was totally merciless.

 

Look, here’s what we learn. It is not the horror of your sin that can keep you out of the kingdom of God, because the Ninevites were worse. They invented crucifixion. But neither is it a good reputation, a bloodline, your geography, being from Mississippi, and manners and church attendance and good deeds, anything that can get you into the kingdom of God. And this is exactly what Jonah couldn’t see. It is nothing. What we learn here is that the kingdom of God is a kingdom of mercy built on the ground of nothing but mercy alone. It comes when our hearts cry out to God and say, “I am a Ninevite at heart.” They were evil on the outside but Jonah couldn’t see that he was evil on the inside. And so God builds a kingdom from the ground of mercy.

 

The God of Mercy

Now secondly, and point two and three are much briefer than point one, Jonah gets rebuked in chapter 4 and that teaches us about the God of mercy. He gets rebuked twice actually in this book - once is by the pagan sailors, but we'll focus on God's rebuke in chapter 4. And the details are that in chapter 4 verse 5, Jonah goes out of Nineveh and makes a tent in the desert overlooking the city. Why does he do this? Well, because he actually simply said to the Ninevites, "In forty days you will be judged." He never called them to repent, if you look at the text carefully, but they did anyway. And God relented from the disaster. You see, what Jonah is doing is he's hoping, hoping beyond hope that God will still destroy them. He knows that God's relented but he's hoping that when the forty-day timeline hits maybe there will be fireworks. And so he builds a tent, he probably pops popcorn - he's wanting to see a show here.

 

And it’s likely that his tent was not very good at all, and so God gives him a gift. And in doing this, this angry, merciless heart, God gives him a mercy that becomes a true parable for all time, a lesson to teach all generations. And here’s what it is. He gives him a gift, a plant. The King James Version says that God gave Jonah a gourd, but we actually don’t know what the plant was. It’s the word הַקִּֽיקָי֖וֹן and nobody knows what this plant actually was. But most scholars think that it might have been a castor oil plant which were common in that area because it seems as if this plant gives a totality of life to Jonah - shade to cover from the heat, but castor oil plants give seeds that are fire starters, medicinal oils, perhaps even water being brought up from the ground; all sorts of possibilities. But then God judges the plant and kills the plant in the morning. 

 

And in this very sassy, verbal fight with God, God asks, “Jonah, are you angry?” and Jonah says, “I’m so angry I want to die.” Meaning, “I hate You,” is what he’s saying. “I don’t want to live or live with You. I would rather die.” That’s what he’s saying here to God. And then you get the most enigmatic moment in the whole book, in verse 10 and 11, when God asks that strange question that ends with the cattle. What’s the lesson? What’s the parable? What’s He trying to teach Jonah? And really it has two levels to it.

 

Jonah’s Repentance

And the first is this. In Jonah chapter 2, Jonah was at the bottom of the sea wrapped in seaweed saying, “I am at death’s door. I am at the pit of death, of Sheol.” And he cried out for mercy. He asked for it. He repented. And what did God do? He raised him up from the depths and He gave him life. In chapter 3, the Ninevites were at death’s door and they repented and they asked for God’s mercy. And what did they do? He gave it to them. In chapter 4, Jonah was dying in the desert and he didn’t even ask for it and God gave him a plant that would give him his life back. And now it’s been taken away.

 

You see the pattern of the narrative? What is it that we want Jonah to do in this moment when he is now again at death's door? What is God trying to tell him? "If you would just ask for mercy, I would give it to you. If you would just realize you're poor in spirit, like the Ninevites did, like you did when you were at the bottom of the ocean, I would show you mercy." And instead, he says, "I would rather die than ask for forgiveness and mercy" he was so angry.

 

God’s Compassion

And then the second level of what’s going on here is this. In verse 10 God says, “You loved this plant and you didn’t make it, you didn’t plant it, you didn’t water it. You didn’t do anything. I raised it up. Do you not understand the whole point of your story? Everything, everything belongs to Me! I have total rights over this. You have no rights. You pity a plant that you did not make.” And that makes sense of the question in verse 11, “Should I not show compassion to 120,000 people that I did make, and also all the cattle too?” You see what He’s saying? “You loved the plant but you didn’t make it. You didn’t do anything. Do you not think that I have the right to show love and mercy to the creatures that I brought up from the dust? Plus, they’re people, Jonah! You loved a plant; this is people - 120,000 people that are all redeemable! And also the cattle too. I made all of it and I can save it. I can raise it up from the pit just like I did your life.”

 

And so we’re left. The book just ends. And what He’s saying is, “Jonah, the problem is your heart.” Will Jonah realize that he’s a Ninevite in heart if he’s not one externally and repent? That’s the question that the book hangs on. You see, this is a story just like Luke 15, the prodigal son story. It’s a story written to elder brothers and to insiders and to lifelong church attenders. And the question it’s asking of all of us, the Sunday night crowd at First Pres, “Have I forgotten the mercy that I received when I first believed?” Or to put it positively, “Am I now full of mercy to those who don’t deserve it because I remember the mercy that I have received?”

 

The Cost of Mercy

So let's close, thirdly, with thinking about that mercy - the cost of mercy. You see, Jonah couldn't see something. He couldn't see something so great about his life even in disobedience. Even in his disobedience, there was something truly great about his life that he couldn't understand that we can now see 2,800 years later. In Matthew chapter 12 when Jesus says to the Pharisees, "The Ninevites will condemn you on the day of judgment," He also says something else to them. He leaves them with hope. And He said to His whole audience, "But look for the sign of Jonah." And that means that Jonah's life, his story, is a drama, a sign, a shadow, a post pointing at something that Jonah couldn't possibly understand. And this is what it is. Remember at the end of the book Jonah said to God, "What You have done is evil. Yeah, You're full of love, You're full of mercy, but where is the justice? You're not a God of justice because You forgive willy nilly. You might be a God of love but You're not whole, You're not one, You're not a God of justice." But Jonah couldn't see something. Jonah couldn't see that his own life was the very shadow of the justice he was demanding of God.

 

Death unto Death

Just think about it. Jonah says, “I would rather die than see those pagans live.” And so he chooses to go down, down, down, down, down all the way to the point of death. He chooses to die so that they might not have life. And in that choice to go down to the bottom of the pit of darkness so that they might not have life, God raises him up from the dead and makes him the agent of salvation. Jonah became the Gospel that he did not want to be. Jonah became, in dying and rising again three days later, the agent of salvation that he never intended to be. He didn’t want it. He was the most reluctant good news that has ever walked this earth!

 

But I know a better than Jonah who chose to go down to the depths, depths, depths, depths, down, down, down, down, all the way to the bottom to the chaotic waters of death, who let Himself get wrapped up by the weeds in the belly of the great beast, death itself, who was forsaken, and He chose for it not so that pagans like us might die, but He wanted to do it so that we might live. You see, there’s a better than Jonah that Jonah never could have realized he was the shadow of. He was the signpost - that death, three days, and life, what it would mean 700 years on.

 

Death unto Life

Look, the better Jonah, Jesus Christ, is the meeting place of God's love and mercy and graciousness to Ninevites and God's justice that will not relent, that cannot be stepped aside from. And that's the very thing that Jonah missed when he shook his fist at God - that justice would be served. We, tonight, have to look up and listen to Jesus in Matthew 12 and see the sign of Jonah, which is the Son of Man in weakness, in humiliation, on Calvary's cross and the Son of Man raised to life again at the empty tomb if we are going to be what we are called to be. And that's Jonahs, missionaries. Tomorrow is Monday and that means tomorrow we become agents of the Gospel and of good works in Jackson, called, raised up from the Lord to go from this place. And if we're going to have the power, it only comes if you desire it. You can't speak the Gospel to people and have the boldness and the desire for good works and neighbor love if it doesn't pour from a heart that wants to be on mission for God. And how do you get it? It's by waking up tomorrow, tonight, and seeing the sign of Jonah - that the cost of mercy was the death of the Son of God. O how much I need mercy. That's what we have to see. May God help us to know the cost of mercy and live in it. Let's pray.

 

Father, turn our eyes towards Jesus so that we might behold the beauty and the great cost and horror of the mercy we have received. Help us, O Lord, to live in a disposition of humility because we have been forgiven of much because we are Ninevites at heart. We pray this in Christ's name, amen.



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