Jonah Throws Shade (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Exodus 34:5-7
Matthew 9:35-38
Jonah 4:1-11

We are concluding our study of Jonah.  As chapter 3 ends we learn that the result of Jonah’s message to Nineveh is that God relents of the disaster that He said He would do to them, and He does not do it.  Now as chapter 4 begins we find out Jonah’s reaction - it displeases him exceedingly and he was angry.  The force of the language is much stronger.  Literally the texts says, “and it was evil to Jonah, a great evil and it was burning to him.”  Jonah, a prophet of God, actually describes God’s action in sparing Nineveh as evil.  

Evil is one of those words that has recurred throughout the book of Jonah.  Jonah is called to go to Nineveh because Nineveh’s evil has risen to God’s presence.  The sailors on the ship Jonah boards to flee Nineveh twice call the storm evil.  The king of Nineveh urges his people to turn from their evil.  The Lord relents of the evil that the Lord said He was going to do to Nineveh.  Now Jonah calls the Lord’s sparing of Nineveh evil and even calls it a great evil.   Nineveh was the great city, the fish that swallows Jonah was a great fish, and now the Lord’s action is called a great evil.  

After the sailors’ actions lead to the sparing of their lives from certain doom, the pagan sailors respond by sacrificing sacrifices and vowing vows the Lord.  By contrast Jonah responds to the sparing of the lives of the inhabitants of Nineveh from certain doom, by calling it evil.  In chapter 3 verse 9, the king of Nineveh hoped the Lord would turn from his fierce anger and now the turning on Nineveh angers Jonah.  

It is here that we finally learn what it was that made Jonah flee to Tarshish.  This information has not been revealed to this point in the story.  In our first sermon in Jonah, I made the point that Jonah fled because the Ninevites were part of the Assyrian Empire which was a very brutal and violent regime.  The Assyrians were the equivalent to the Nazi regime or ISIS and it was understandable that Jonah would be scared and run away.  However, here we learn that while this is true, it is only part of the story. 

In fact, if we look at Jonah with fresh eyes as an ancient Israelite who understand exactly who Jonah was dealing with, we would be sympathetic toward Jonah.  God sends Jonah to Nineveh with a message of doom because God is wrathful.  As an ancient Israelite you would think this wrath is appropriate since you would know it was the Assyrians who destroyed the Northern Kingdom and you knew they were terrible people.  You understand why Jonah would go the other way. Who wouldn’t?   Then you read that God would not let Jonah run away and miraculously intervenes so Jonah can deliver this message of a wrath to Nineveh.  You are not surprised then when you read that the message God gives to Jonah is, “forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  Here Jonah delivers God’s message of wrath.  So until this point then we have a picture of a scared Jonah and a wrathful God. 

In fact, when we look back into the text, we see Jonah purposely undermining God’s message.  Jonah says yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.  The word yet is ambiguous, you cannot tell if it means during the next forty days or at the end of forty days.  Also, the word for overthrow is also ambiguous it means overturned which could be for good or bad.  In fact Jonah’s whole message breaks the standard pattern. Typically we expect a prophet to begin an announcement of judgment by stating that it is the word of the Lord.  Even though the phrase “the word of the Lord” is found throughout Jonah, Jonah neglects to state it here.  Also the whole point of delaying judgment for forty days is to allow time for repentance.  Jonah’s message does not make this possibility clear at all, to the point where the king of Nineveh says, “Who knows? God may turn and relent” as if there is only an outside chance.  

Breaking the pattern seems to be a trend throughout Jonah.  Jonah receives the standard prophetic commission and does the opposite.  When Jonah composes his song of thanksgiving in the guts of the fish, he uses a standard formula but leaves out the confession of wrongdoing.  Then Jonah breaks the pattern of the judgement prophecy.  Interestingly, in the next section of chapter 4 verses 2 and 3, Jonah prays a prayer that perfectly follows the pattern of a prayer of lament or complaint.  Previously Jonah had avoided prayer, now Jonah rushes to prayer.  Jonah is not good at a lot of things, but one thing Jonah is good at is a complaint prayer.

The most telling part of the whole story about Jonah is found in Jonah’s complaint.  Here we learn that Jonah fled because Jonah knew God was gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love and relenting from disaster.  Jonah suspected that Nineveh just might somehow change God’s mind and Jonah knew God would do so.  

Now we learn that we have it all wrong, God is actually merciful and it is Jonah that is wrathful.  Jonah does not want to go Nineveh because he is afraid.  Rather by announcing doom, there is a small chance that Nineveh might repents and disaster would be avoided.  However, if Jonah does not go then there is no warning and disaster will fall on the people of Nineveh because they will inevitably persist in the violent, evil ways having no chance to reflect on their actions.  

Sharp eared listeners will know that this description of God in verse 2 is not something that Jonah just came up with.  In our first reading, Moses is interceding for the Hebrews after the Hebrews built a golden calf and began to worship it.  The Lord wants to wipe out all the people and start over again with just Moses.  Moses asks for mercy on behalf of the Hebrews and offers his life in their place.  Moses then asks God to show His glory.  God places Moses in the cleft of the rock because if Moses experienced the full depth of God’s glory, Moses would die.  Moses shares with us what he experienced, “the Lord the Lord merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and faithfulness.”  

These are the very words Jonah uses in his complaint before God.  However, unlike Moses, Jonah has not interceded, he asks for death to relieve himself of his anger and not in place of the Ninevites, he does not seek God’s glory but flees.  Shockingly, what Jonah is actually angry about is the very essence and being of what makes God who He is that was revealed to Moses in Exodus 34.  Jonah is angry not because God does something unexpected, but because God does exactly what Jonah expects because God’s actions are perfectly consistent with His character and that character is one that shows grace and mercy.  

Knowing this, we see that Jonah’s complaint is super offensive to God.  Jonah has rejected God for being God and yet look at how God responds.  God responds not with justifiably harsh words and actions as we might expect, but with a question inviting Jonah to examine himself.  God is showing Himself to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness by trying to persuade Jonah of his error rather than condemning Jonah.  God wants Jonah to answer the question, is your anger really so intense that you want to die?  

Jonah never answers the question.  Again he tries to flee from God building a shelter east of Nineveh to shield him from the sun hoping God may change His mind and wipe out Nineveh.  However, God will not leave Jonah alone just as God did not let his flight to Tarshish become the final word.  God still intends to instruct and challenge Jonah but now God does so indirectly as Jesus almost always does in the gospels when instructing others.  In fact we can think of this episode with the vine and the worm as an enacted parable.

The question the parable is trying to address is whether Jonah’s anger over God sparing Nineveh is justified.  Jonah is in the desert and so had constructed a small structure to protect him from the sun.  However, the booth was inadequate because the plant that God caused to grow provided better shade and protected Jonah from discomfort - the word for discomfort is evil.  Rather than being exceedingly angry, now Jonah is exceedingly glad.  That is until a worm God appointed just as God appointed the plant and just as God appointed the great fish, kills the plant.  God then appoints a scorching wind and again Jonah finds himself desiring his death.     Jonah is then asked the same question, do you do well to be angry with the plant?  This time Jonah answers the question.  Jonah feels his anger at the plant is justified.  

What this parable has done, as parables do, is remove the person from his immediate circumstances allowing the subject to examine an issue or question more objectively.  Good literature or film does this all the time.  Huckleberry Finn is on one level an boy’s adventure story but it forces the reader to confront issues about race because it takes the issue out of its normal context.  

So in this parable, the plant is like Nineveh.  God made the plant grow and become big enough to provide adequate shade and protection for Jonah.  Throughout the book of Jonah, Nineveh is described as a great city and in chapter 3, Nineveh is described as a great city to the Lord.  What God has done is helped Jonah see the world through God’s eyes rather than his own.  It makes sense to Jonah to be sad over the destruction of the plant.  What God is trying to explain to Jonah is that destroying Nineveh would anger God just as the death of the plant angered Jonah.  As the creator and the one who is sovereign over His creation, God is connected to His creation and that is why God desires its salvation and not its destruction.  

God specifically asks Jonah is he right to be angry with the plant.  In other words, is Jonah right to be angry with Nineveh?  The question is revealing, because it was God who appointed the plant and God who appointed the worm and God who appointed the scorching wind.  It makes no sense for Jonah to be angry at Nineveh.  What the parable has revealed is that Jonah is actually angry with God and specifically God’s character.  Again we go back to verse 2 when Jonah admits that the reason he fled was because He understood God’s character.  What God is trying to have Jonah understand is the reason for God’s desire for grace and mercy is because God is intimately compassionate for Nineveh and all His creation because He is the creator and He is sovereign. 

That is why their is such an emphasis on animals throughout the book of Jonah and why Jonah ends by mentioning all the cattle saved by not overthrowing Nineveh.  In fact verse 6 uses the name Lord God.  This is actually a pretty unusual way to refer to God usually one or the other is used but not both.  The only other time the Lord God is used together is in Genesis.  So what the book of Jonah is trying to do is again try to connect this story to creation.  

In fact you may notice another connection to Genesis.  God questions Jonah about his anger and is asked if it is good.  In Genesis 4, Cain is also warned about his anger and asked to do good.  After Cain’s murder, Cain lives east of Eden just as Jonah moves east of Nineveh.  Cain builds a city for protection after spurning God’s promise of protection.  Jonah builds a booth to protect himself for shade.  Shade is often used in the Old Testament as an image of God’s protection.  Both Cain and Jonah are upset over God’s acceptance of another.  They both want the other to die.  Cain kills Abel, but Jonah has only the option to kill himself.  Both desire to limit and control God’s favor for their own concerns.  Jonah’s anger, lack of compassion, and self pity have revealed him to fit the mold of Cain the murderer and the great villain of the story of the Old Testament. 

Now one of the great curiosities of Jonah is that the book lacks a conclusion.  We never learn how Jonah responds to God’s argument.  In fact, the book of Jonah exhibits an amazing amount of symmetry.  Chapter 1 and Chapter 3 parallel each other very well with the sailors confessing the Lord as a result of Jonah and are then saved from the storm.  The people of Nineveh also fear the Lord as a result of Jonah and are saved from being overturned.  Chapter 2 and 4 deal with Jonah and his prayers to the Lord.  Many charts have been made outlining these parallels and they show a very neat and ordered book.  Except there is no parallel for verses 5-11 in chapter 4.  So we are already set up for this section to be a little unusual.

There are several examples in the Bible where the conclusion is not supplied.  For example, I recently preached on the book of Ruth and we never learn if the ending led to any sort of change for Naomi who describes her life as bitterness. Mark ends with the Mary and Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Jesus Christ silenced by fear.  We never learn how the older brother reacts after confronting his father over the love he shows his younger brother the prodigal son.  The history of the Old Testament ends with some measure of restoration of Israel but mostly just future promises.  

An incomplete ending often functions as a question for the hearer.  We are meant to insert ourselves in the story and reflect on ourselves.  When confronted with God’s blessing after difficulty will we remain bitter?  Will we be afraid or tell the world about the resurrection?  In the face of grace will we welcome others or will we persist in our anger?  Here the question we are left with is will we have compassion and love for others as God does?  Do we understand that God’s character is about mercy and graciousness?   Do we understand that God is the creator who loves His creation and if we are followers of God then we should love creation as well - including Assyrians and also much cattle.  

The book of Jonah raises the stakes on these questions even further.  Throughout the book of Jonah there are multiple references to the first 11 chapters of Genesis.  For example, in chapter 1 the evil of Nineveh rises up to the presence of the Lord.  In Genesis 11, the tower builders who live in the vicinity of Nineveh build a tower to reach heaven.  God issues judgment against Nineveh and the tower.  Nineveh is central to the story of Jonah especially its reputation for violence. Genesis 10 mentions the founding of Nineveh by the violent warrior Nimrod.  Genesis 6-9 records the story of Noah who survives a watery cataclysm by means of the ark.  Jonah 2 has Jonah surviving the great storm by means of a great fish.  The flood is a form of judgment and last forty days, Nineveh has forty days before judgment is issued.  Lamech brags about his violence, the Ninevites repent of their evil.  Both Jonah and Cain are questioned about their anger toward another and move east to flee God.  Adam and Eve make clothes from leaves to cover their nakedness, but God provides better clothes.  Jonah builds a booth to protect him from the sun, but God provides a plant that does a better job.  Adam and Eve are tested by a tree and a serpent is involved. Jonah is tested by a plant and a worm.  Adam and Eve are sentenced to death for eating from the forbidden tree.  Jonah wants to die after the plant withers.  Genesis has man and beast being created in the same day.  Jonah shows God concerned for his creation, both man and beast.  None of these are probably enough to make a case individually, but added together we can hear a lot of echoes from Genesis 1-11.

The reason I point this is out is because there is a pattern to these Genesis references.  The book of Jonah starts with references to Genesis 11 and ends with references to creation in Genesis 1 & 2.  So in Jonah we have a reversal of the events of Genesis 1- 11.  That means the clock is being wound back because God wants to remind Jonah that He cares about the salvation of His world because He is the creator.  This also means that Jonah’s anger and lack of compassion for others is not just disobedience, but it is the fundamental sin equivalent to Adam’s and Eve’s sin in the garden.  Adam and Eve also decided it was their prerogative to decide what was right and what was wrong as if God was not the creator.  Now Jonah wants to decide who receives compassion and mercy and who does not as if God was not the creator.  This is despite that fact that Jonah has received compassion and mercy in the face of his own disobedience and it even led Jonah to confess that salvation is the Lord’s.

Throughout this sermon series I have reiterated our need to think of Christianity in a bigger way with more imagination than we typically do.  One of the places we are guilty of this is in the gospels.  We usually read the gospels as the story of the incarnation which is really cool but then what’s really important is the crucifixion and resurrection.  All the stuff in the middle with the miracles is just Jesus trying to prove He is God.  However, if we think of the kingdom of God as the big story and one that encompasses more than sending souls to heaven after they die, we will begin to see the gospels stories as more than that.  

If we look at our second reading from Matthew 9 we see that Jesus is going around announcing that the kingdom of God is here.  What Jesus sees when He encounters people are people who are broken and lack any hope and have no teacher who will show them a different way.  In this way they are like the people of Nineveh who God describes as those who do not know their right hand from their left hand.  Jesus’s response then as someone who comes to begin the establishment of the kingdom of God is to have compassion for them.  Jesus heals because He sees that His creation is broken.  Jesus feeds because He see that His creation is in need.  Jesus announces the kingdom because He has compassion for His people.  Jesus then commissions His disciples to make the implementation of the kingdom their mission and right after this passage we have the twelve disciples named who are reconstituting the twelve tribes of Israel.

As God’s people we must have the mind of Christ who loves His creation.  Who looks at others and has compassion.  To understand that Christ’s desire is for everything to be redeemed and restored.  A concern for ourselves and our special relationship with God and lack of concern for others is not just wrong, it is THE fundamental problem.  We should care for our brothers and for our enemies and even the cattle because God cares for all of these and sees them and has compassion. We are not called as ministers of God’s vengeance, but as God’s emissaries delivering God’s message of hope to a broken world that is harassed and helpless and that does not know its right hand from its left hand.  Deliverance is the whole theme of Jonah - deliverance of the sailors from the storm, deliverance of Jonah from the guts of the fish, and deliverance of Nineveh from destruction.  Let us be a people who provide deliverance and proclaim deliverance and demonstrate deliverance - because as Christ tells us the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.