Jonah 4: 11 “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
On June 24, 1984 I preached a message from the book of Jonah. I was living in Memphis TN. This week I discovered the manuscript of that sermon and it really spoke into my spirit; so much so that I want to share it with you. The core message speaks very much to where we are or to where we are going to have to be in relation to the cultural and societal issues relevant to our place and time in history.
But let’s begin with the Organization of the Book; and I will give you three structures to consider.
Chapter 1 – Jonah & The Storm
Chapter 2 – Jonah & The Fish
Chapter 3 – Jonah & The City
Chapter 4 – Jonah & The Lord
Chapter 1 – Jonah’s Disobedience
Chapter 2 – Jonah’s Preservation
Chapter 3 – Jonah’s Proclamation
Chapter 4 – Jonah’s Correction
Chapter 1 – Fleeing From God
Chapter 2 – Praying Two God
Chapter 3 – Speaking For God
Chapter 4 – Learning Of God
The Nature of the Book:
The book of Jonah is not a prophetic utterance but it is the utterance of a prophet. And yet, it is not so much an utterance at all in the sense of proclamation or a message preached. It is in fact an autobiographical sketch of a prophet’s experience and God’s dealings with him. What we have here is Jonah’s own story about a highly personal experience.
The first three chapters contain the main body of the story. The last chapter (chapter 4) contains the interpretation of that story. In that interpretation is an eternal, unchanging truth concerning the heart and attitude of God regarding repentant man. And this is the lasting value of the entire book. If you miss this you have missed the whole purpose of the book.
What is clear is that God speaks through the personal experiences of men, and He speaks not only to the man or woman involved in the experience but to all who will read their stories.
The Purpose of the Book:
Not a fish; not a storm; not a rebellious prophet; not a gourd; not a worm; not a hot east wind, and not a city repenting. In this book we see the strong sovereignty of God. We see the severe disciplines of God. We see the persistent dealings of God.
But the whole book is written to tell us one thing about God – to establish one eternal fact regarding the nature and attitude of God. That core fact is expressed in five words in the form of a question: “Should I not have compassion...?”
A View of the Prophet:
To understand Jonah, we need to answer one simple question: ‘Why did he disobey the command of God?’
Growing up in Sunday school I was told it was all a fear issue; he was afraid of the Assyrians. I now know that his disobedience had nothing to do with personal fear. He was not afraid to preach in Nineveh.
Jonah 4: 1 -2 makes it clear what his problem was. He did not disobey because of what he knew about Nineveh; he disobeyed because of something he knew about God. Listen to what he knew: “... I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and One who relents concerning calamity.”
Jonah knew that if Nineveh repented God would show mercy, and this he did not want. He wanted God to “get them” – to judge them with all kinds of devastation and calamity.
What does this reveal about Jonah?
He was bitter, narrow, a bigot; he was exclusive and arrogant, and most of all he did not know the heart and nature of the very God he served.
But what about Nineveh?
It was the capital of Assyria and the rising world power. It was destined to take Israel into captivity. The excavation of her ruins reveal that she was indescribably cruel especially in matters of war. Nothing and no one was spared in the day of slaughter. They actually blanketed their military garrisons with the corpses of their victims. They cut the tongues from the mouths of those they conquered. Others were skinned and the skins wallpapered the walls of the cities. Victims of the Assyrians were (by the thousands) pinned to the ground by sharp stakes driven through the base of the chest.
I share this to establish some context. It is easy to love a friend but could we love people like this? This does not justify Jonah’s heart but it does help to explain it: He was called to minister to those he hated.
Who is it we struggle most to love this morning? Is the prisoner? Is the homosexual? Is it the abuser? Or perhaps it’s the children who have absolutely broken your heart. Perhaps it’s the spouse who has violated and broken your trust without conscience.
No matter who our personal “Assyrians” may be, it is our heart that is being exposed in relation to them.
Five Major Activities of Deity:
1:4... The Lord hurled a great wind on the seas.
1:17... The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah.
4:6... The Lord God appointed a plant.
4:7... But God appointed a worm.
4:8... God appointed a scorching east wind.
The disciplines of God come in strange forms and we can curse the enemy all we want but life is not about what the enemy is up to – life is about what a Sovereign God is up to. The issue is not the methods of God’s discipline; the issue is, are we hearing what God is saying in the storm, in the fish, in the plant, in the worm, and in the sweltering east wind.
The prophet obeys. The city repents, and from the king to the cattle everyone is clothed in sackcloth; everyone fasts and mourns. God responds to their repentance, and notice that the record states God saw their deeds. Repentance is more than an attitude; it’s an attitude that affects behaviour and produces action.
4:1.... But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
4:3... “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” This is what I call the insanity of pride and anger.
Next he builds a shelter high above the city in which he sits to watch and see what God will do – hoping, of course, that He sends judgement.
God appoints a plant of shade in the night and we are told that Jonah was ‘extremely happy about the plant.’ In the morning God destroys it with a worm. Now unprotected and without shade Gods sends a blistering east wind.
In the words of the text Jonah ‘begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.” And then we make this strange discovery: Jonah actually had compassion upon, felt sorry for and mourned the loss of the plant. He was now set up for the God-lesson.
‘Jonah, if you can mourn over and have compassion upon a dying plant in which you have absolutely nothing invested, should not I, the God of the universe and Creator of all things, should not I have compassion upon man in whom is invested my very image and glory.’