After God asked him if he was right to be angry, Jonah left the city of Nineveh. He was angry that God would show such terrible people mercy and grace when they repented of their wickedness and sought after him in faith. He knew God would do this, which is why he tried to go to Tarshish instead. By going the other way he could—so he thought—thwart God’s plan of salvation for the people of Nineveh. Then he preached only a message of judgment, intentionally leaving out the offer of mercy, yet God drew the people to himself anyway. Jonah told the Lord he knew this would happen and that it would be better for Jonah to die than for him to see Nineveh saved.
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.”Jonah 4:5–8 ESV
After God asked him if it was right that Jonah should be angry, he no doubt pouted as he stomped out of the city and found himself a nice spot to wait. He built a small booth, ordered a large popcorn and diet soda, and waited for the show. Even now he’s hoping for fire and brimstone to come down from heaven to destroy this massive city filled with people Jonah despises, the very people God had already shown grace and mercy.
Notice God’s careful activity. He appointed a plant to grow and for its huge leaves to provide shade for Jonah. Think of that: Jonah is sitting in his lawn chair, defiantly waiting for God to do what he’s already shown he would not do, yet God appoints a plant to grow for his comfort. God’s grace is amazing! Jonah was very glad for the plant. As he told the sailors in chapter 1—reluctantly, of course—he is the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. If he can appoint a great fish, he can appoint a great plant. As with the fish, this appointment serves a purpose for Jonah. He enjoyed its shade all that day, but when morning came, God appointed another of his creatures to destroy the plant. A worm attacked its roots and it withered. Then the God of heaven, the one who made the sea and the dry land, appointed a scorching east wind. That, combined with the hot sun God also appointed, wore down Jonah. He was angry and exhausted, and as any parent of a two-year-old knows, this is not a good combination.
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?”Jonah 4:9–11 ESV
Once again Jonah longs for death. This time it isn’t because of the salvation of the Ninevites, but because of the loss of a plant. Once again God asks him a direct question: “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” The correct answer is a resounding “No.” Jonah’s insolence toward God is on full display in his answer. “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” God’s mercy for Jonah’s wickedness is also on full display, for he does not destroy Jonah in that moment. Instead he points out that Jonah has pity for the plant that he had no part in creating or causing to grow and therefore had no vested interest in, beyond a few hours of shade. Should not God have pity on Nineveh, a great city, a city that God appointed to grow just as he appointed the plant and the sun and the east wind and the worm that destroyed the plant? God’s point is that Jonah could not have any any real, deep, lasting connection to the plant. It was here one day and gone the next. Jonah was only concerned with his own comfort! Jonah is not like God.
God sent Jonah to this great city, this city filled with evil and wickedness, a city whose culture is one of violence and brutality. Notice the compassion God has for them in his final words to Jonah: “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?” Who does not know their right hand from their left? A little child. Ignorant children do not know their right hand from their left. God has chosen to have compassion on a people who were spiritually and morally ignorant. They hadn’t grown up with parents who taught them well. They didn’t have the advantages of Jonah, whose parents clearly taught him about the God of Israel, yet whose knowledge of the God of Israel had not sunk very far into his heart.
A cursory reading of the book of Jonah almost inevitably causes the reader to focus on God’s great mercy to the people of Nineveh, and it should. God’s plan from the beginning was to save people from every tribe and language and people and nation. We see this in his promise to Abraham, a promise to bless all the families of the earth through his Offspring. We see this at Mount Sinai when the “mixed multitude” was with ethnic Israel and received the covenant. We see this concern for the nations throughout the prophets and we see this concern in Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. We must recognize, however, that nations are made up of people, individual people who, like Jonah, need God’s mercy and grace.
Our city is filled with people who don’t know their right hand from their left hand, and this is in a city filled with Christian churches and Christian schools and Christian radio stations and Christian colleges and Christian seminaries and Christian businesses and Christian non-profits and Christian publishers and Christian doughnut shops, yet we have thousands upon thousands who have not heard the gospel and don’t really know why Jesus died.
New City Church, we have been appointed by God for this. He intends to show mercy to many. As Jonah acknowledged, our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—and relenting from disaster. God intends to have pity on many in our city and he has given us the message to proclaim, and that message is good news. Let us not value our comfort more than the lives God intends to save. Let us pray for our city and for those God brings into our lives and let us remain faithful to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ.
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.2 Timothy 2:10 ESV