Jonah chapter 3 records one of the most incredible (and most unlikely) events in all of human history. We’re told Jonah enters the city of Nineveh and delivers a simple but direct message from the Lord… Jonah 3:4, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
What follows is really astounding… Jonah 3:5-9, “So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying…
‘Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.’” Reasoning, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”
While vague on specifics, there is no doubt God was communicating through Jonah two simple ideas to the citizens of Nineveh (one direct with the other being implied). First, God is crystal clear that the wickedness of the Assyrians could no longer be tolerated.
In Jonah 1:2, God commands Jonah to “arise, go to Nineveh, and cry out against it” explaining that “their wickedness had come up before” Him. Since God is by His very nature holy and just, He can only allow human injustices to continue unabated so long. In regards to the wickedness of the Assyrian people divine judgment could no longer be withheld.
And yet, realizing this to be the case (that God’s judgment was not only just - but warranted), the Ninevites came to see this “forty day” delay as being evidence of God’s mercy and a manifestation of His amazing grace (the opportunity to repent and be saved).
Don’t temper the magnitude of what results… The promise of judgment coupled with the existence of God’s mercy and grace cause an entire city of a million plus wicked Assyrians to repent of their sin and collectively appeal for the salvation of the true and living God! Indeed Nineveh was “overturned” for what had been upside-down was flipped right-side-up.
One of the most amazing aspects of the communal repentance of the Ninevites to the revelation of God’s coming judgment and the extension of His grace is the fact they had zero guarantee the Lord would actually forgive and spare them His wrath. In actuality, this question posed by the King of Nineveh in verse 9, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent” reveals a deep uncertainty as to what would come at the close of these “forty days”.
You see the fact these Ninevites repent not knowing if God would still judge or extend His forgiveness illustrates the genuineness of what was occurring. As a nation they decided to “cry mightily to God” and “turn from their evil way” not in order to deter God’s wrath, but out of an authentic grief concerning their sin. As such the Ninevites repented, not to escape an immanent judgment. They repented because it was a logical reaction to God’s Word.
In 2 Corinthians 7:10 Paul observed that “godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation… but the sorrow of the world produces death.” His point is that there is an intrinsic difference between “being sorry concerning the consequences of sin” and genuine “sorrow over sin.” We know with certainty these Ninevites were genuinely sorry over their wickedness because they immediately repented.
Well, as a result of all this we read… Jonah 3:10, “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”
In the Bible repentance is a word that describes a changing of the mind that leads to a change in direction. Repentance begins with a choice, but is then made evident by an action. God knew they repented because He “saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.”
Note: Actual repentance is something that can be actually seen! By its very definition repentance yields a tangible evidence manifesting from an individuals life. J. Allen Blair remarked concerning their repentance, “Their works proved the reality of their words.”
Keep in mind, it was not “works” that saved the Ninevites from God’s wrath. What saved the Ninevites was what their “works” revealed about their hearts. They end up being saved from judgment because repentance flowed from the fact they “believed God.” It was a belief in what had been communicated through “the word of the Lord” that manifested a genuine repentance - a “turning away from their evil way.” Repentance yielded a real result.
And yet, repentance is not simply a turning from something, it’s a turning to Someone.
Sadly, most sermons on repentance wreak of legalism because they miss this point entirely. When pastor’s speak of repentance only to then emphasize the ceasing of a sinful behavior they’ve inadvertently minimized the power of the Gospel by focusing on the wrong action.
Repentance (in the New Covenant context) isn’t an exhortation for you to stop what you’re presently doing; rather, it’s an appeal that you come back to the cross. The primary focus of repentance is returning to a relationship you’ve presently departed from.
To this point Pastor David Guzik writes, “In the Christian life, repentance does not describe what you must do to turn to God; repentance describes the very process of turning to God. When we truly turn to Him, we turn away from the things that displease Him.”
Friend, if Nineveh repented on a hope that just maybe God would relent from His judgment, how much more should you be willing to repent since you’ve been given a guarantee? In Acts 3:19 Peter issues this appeal, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
And Christian, always remember, if repentance began when you first came to Jesus it will always manifest through a decision to return to Jesus. The key when you stumble is simple… Come back to your Savior knowing His love is not deterred by your failure!
In his book The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins writes a scathing rendition of God as he sees Him in the Old Testament. Dawkins says, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a homophobic, racist, genocidal bully.” The truth is that I’m not sure Richard Dawkins has read the book of Jonah.
One of the macro-lessons from the story of Jonah is how God lovingly pursues sinners for it directly contrasts this misconception. Aside from His patient dealings with Jonah, the grace God demonstrated to these wicked Ninevites who deserved to be punished illustrates how His chief desire for all of humanity is salvation and restoration, not judgment.
In 2 Peter 3:9 we’re told that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” In Ezekiel 33:11 the prophet actually quotes God as saying, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live!” Aside from the fact I take solace knowing that God’s patience with wickedness can last only so long, it’s simply a fact of Scripture that God's judgment is always a matter of last resort!
As we seek to transition to the final act of this story, it’s important you keep in mind this great awakening in Nineveh intended to stir an awakening within Jonah. The prophet should have been in awe of God’s love and amazed at His mercy. Sadly, the repentance of the Ninevites and the extension of God’s grace stirred something else entirely.
Jonah 4:1, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.”
What a reaction from someone who’s just been used by God to bring about the greatest spiritual awakening in human history! Jonah’s response is raw and real… The very fact the Ninevites repented, God forgave, and judgment was spared “displeased Jonah exceedingly.”
The idea presented in the Hebrew is that these things caused him to literally tremble or be broke up with a violent action. Jonah’s perception was that God’s grace being demonstrated towards these wicked Ninevites was flat out evil. Jonah believed God had allowed His compassion to supersede His justice. It wasn’t right therefore Jonah “became angry.”
In the original language this phrase indicates Jonah’s wrath was kindled. The word means he become very hot. Literally, Jonah is stewing at what he’d witnessed. Note… Who was Jonah mad at? He wasn’t angry with the Ninevites. Instead his anger was directed towards God.
What a contrast between Jonah’s heart towards the Assyrians and that of the Lord’s. Jonah wanted judgment - God desired salvation. Jonah hated these people - God loved them. Jonah craved vengeance, but God pursued forgiveness. The truth of the matter is that Jonah’s reaction demonstrated he was completely out of touch with the heart of God.
Pastor J.D. Greear made this observation of Jonah. He said, “A spirit of unforgiveness and a lack of generosity is the indication you are out of touch with the grace of God in your own life.” Jonah’s anger to God’s grace being demonstrated to these undeserving Ninevites was actually evidence he’d failed to experience the grace of God for himself.
Have you ever noticed the longer a married couple lives together slowly overtime they begin to look alike? There’s actually science that explains why this phenomena occurs. Married people who share a myriad of life experiences with one another (laughing, crying, sorrow, frustration, etc) end up mirroring and developing the same facial features as their partner.
Aside from this it’s simply a truth that human beings are incredibly impressionable. Because we’re creatures of comfort it’s only natural that we end up seeking out people that foster the most comfortable environment. We gravitate to people who share our like interests and passions, which then only serves to reinforce these same character traits.
Consider attire… If you dress like a biker, it’s highly likely everyone you’re friends with also dress like bikers. If you’re sporty, my guess is most of your friends wear athletic gear. If you’re outdoorsy, you can expect most of your associates to be deck out in camouflage and Carhartt. Shoot… It’s easy to tell when Atlanta United has a Sunday game, because half the congregation is all geared up in either AU jerseys or at a minimum black, red, and gold!
Understand… This reality is the brilliance of the New Covenant. Whereas the Law gave you rules to obey in the attempts of manufacturing Godliness, because grace affords you the opportunity to hang out with Jesus, Godliness can now be attained through the natural manifestation of a relational association with God.
If you naturally immolate the people you spend the most time with, it’s then only logical that the more time you spend with Jesus the more of Him you’ll reflect. And since Christ-likeness is the natural result of a relationship with Christ, the implications are profound. (1) If you’re failing to reflect Christ, the key isn’t to try harder but to spend more time with Him. And (2) If your life looks nothing like Christ, then maybe you don’t have a relationship with Him at all.
Such was the case with Jonah. This prophet’s reaction to the Ninevites in contrast with God’s heart for the Ninevites was designed to emphasis a serious disconnect. Because Jonah saw his rightness with God being based in his religious obedience to the law (Jonah 2:9, “I will sacrifice, I will pay what I have vowed”), the salvation of the wicked Ninevites manifesting simply because they “believed God” and received His grace was an affront to his moralism.
Jonah “became angry” because he perceived what had taken place was not fair or just. The Ninevites had been given something he’d spent his whole life earning. Faced with this reality Jonah was left with really only one of two conclusions: Either salvation is a gift from God to be received and not earned - meaning he needed to repent of his moralism and experience God’s grace or God was completely inequitable and he was justified in his anger.
Sadly, because Jonah was not willing to let go of his moral-rightness, he chose the later and “became angry” with God. Jonah did not believe God was being equitable. Because Jonah’s anger was ultimately rooted in religious moralism in place of a transformative relationship with God, what would immediately follow was all designed to address this core issue!
Jonah 4:2-3, “So Jonah prayed to the Lord, and said, ‘Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!’”
How audacious that in his anger Jonah finds himself upset over five things he knew to be true concerning God? Look at this list… Jonah’s upset because God was “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abundant in lovingkindness,” and was “One who relents from doing harm.” Jonah would be the guy sitting in a pew during worship fuming over God’s goodness!
Jonah is not only upset at what God has done, but he actually accuses God of being a victim of His own nature. And the grand irony is that Jonah’s anger is based in a correct understanding of who God is! “God, You just can’t help Yourself! I knew You’d forgive the Ninevites if they repented which is why I wanted no part of Your plan from the beginning!”
How interesting Jonah’s ultimate conclusion is the same as the one he’d had on the boat… “God, if You’re determined to be this way just kill me! I’d rather die!” What a punk! And yet, though no one would have blamed God for taking Jonah up on his request, God instead poses a question aimed at getting Jonah to think through this situation more fully.
Jonah 4:4, “Then the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’”
Because Jonah’s anger manifested from his own sense of moral rightness and was based in what he viewed as an inequity within God, the Lord immediately challenges Jonah’s perception of self. In light of the events of the first two chapters this question “Is it right for you to be angry” pricked a nerve. It’s as though God is asking, “How can it be right for a recipient of My grace to then be angry when that same grace is extended to someone else?”
Jonah 4:5, “So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city.”
Jonah was far from a righteous man. In actuality, apart from God’s grace Jonah would have perished in the sea. Clearly, Jonah had no “right to be angry!” Sadly though, he refuses to admit this because he knows what the implications would be… Instead of repenting, Jonah declines to answer the Lord’s question and intentionally gives God the cold shoulder.
Aside from this, since it was clear God wasn’t going to grant him his request to die, the prophet decides to leave the city and basically throws himself a pity-party! Though I’m sure he knew Nineveh would be spared, Jonah is still holding out hope God would judge anyway!
Jonah 4:6, “And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant.”
Because Jonah is still resisting grace and is giving God the silent treatment, the Lord employs a new strategy… He’s going to provide an object lesson for Jonah with the specific intention of illustrating the emptiness of religion and rightness of grace. On a side note, you can’t help but see the relentlessness of God. He’s still not giving up on Jonah.
Notice, while Jonah has built himself some type of “shelter” aimed at providing “shade”, it would seem his best attempt ends up failing to yield relief from the intense sun and heat of this region. Though Jonah “made himself a shelter” he still finds himself miserable.
Enter God… Seeing Jonah’s “misery” and the inadequacy of his “shelter” we read “the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery.” There are three interesting words being used here…
First, this Hebrew word “misery” is a loaded term. In it’s context there is no doubt the word describes the physical discomfort Jonah is experiencing under the intense heat of the sun; and yet, the word means so much more. Of the 663 times the word “ra” is used in Scripture in more than 500 instances it’s translated as either “evil” or “wickedness”.
Secondly, notice “God prepared a plant.” In the Hebrew this is the identical word we find describing the “great fish” at the end of chapter 1. No doubt we find a deliberate contrast being established between the “shelter” Jonah “made” and the “plant God prepared.”
Which leads to the third word that explains the purpose of the plant… We’re told God “prepared a plant” to “deliver Jonah from his misery.” Once again in the Hebrew the word “deliver” means “to rescue or save” and implies an act done on one’s behalf.
Consider the underlying lesson… Jonah is completely miserable, but his “misery” is much greater than a physical ailment caused by the sun. Jonah is miserable on account of his sin, his evil, and the alienation he’s experiencing with God. Jonah knows he’s not right!
So what does Jonah then do… In seeking to remedy this “misery” he’s experiencing Jonah builds for himself a “shelter”; and yet, it doesn’t take long for his best attempt at providing relief to prove inadequate. His “shelter” failed to “deliver him from his misery.”
Still hopelessly miserable God then intervenes by “preparing” a supernatural covering. Not only is this “plant” a result of God’s direct involvement - completely independent of Jonah, but it accomplishes what his “shelter” failed to remedy… The covering God “prepared” proved to be able to “deliver Jonah from his misery!” Are you picking up on the larger theme?
Jonah 4:7-8, “But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” After the failure of his own “shelter” God gave the plant to deliver Jonah from his misery only to the very next morning “prepare a worm” to destroy the plant He had made. Not only does Jonah immediately find himself back in the miserable conditions he’d been in before - with “the sun beating on his head”, but couple it with this “vehement east wind” and Jonah’s reaction is understandable.
In a matter of hours Jonah goes from being “very grateful” to now once again despairing of life itself - he’s absolutely miserable. Because of the loss of this plant and the deliverance it afforded, Jonah has grown so “faint” we’re told “he wished death for himself.” His misery is so great and his outlook so bleak Jonah concludes life is no longer worth living!
Jonah 4:9, “Then God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’ And Jonah said, ‘It is right for me to be angry, even to death!’”
Keep in mind all of this has occurred between these two questions. Jonah ignores question one, the scene takes place, then God asks a second question intending to build off the first. In verse 4 God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Was Jonah’s anger at the grace God had extended to the Ninevites righteous in light of the grace he’d received?
Now after this object lesson God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” to which Jonah replies, “It is right” or literally in the original language, “Damn straight I have every right to be angry!” Jonah is so direct in his response he boarders on the profane!
Please realize Jonah’s answer has nothing to do with the plant and instead seeks to answer the original question. Such a strong response is only understandable when you realize the very basis for his moralism is under attack. Jonah justifies his anger because he refuses to accept that the basis of God’s favor is grace and not a rightness to be earned.
Jonah 4:10-11, “But the Lord said, ‘You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left - and much livestock?’”
In order to understand the larger point, don’t forget Jonah didn’t want the plant to die for one reason: It delivered him from his misery. And yet, God is pointing out that the plant itself was a manifestation of His grace alone. God had given Jonah the plant in spite of him, not because of him. His covering was a work of God in place of the failure of his “shelter”.
It’s not an accident the Ninevites were saved - not because of the “sacrifices, vows, or promises” they made to God like Jonah in the “belly of the fish”, but simply on account they were willing to receive God’s grace and the salvation that grace affords. “Jonah, the effective covering came not because you labored or made it grow. It came because I gave it!”
Jonah was holding fast to his works because he felt right, but God was trying to get him to see that his works were inadequate and he was wrong. Jonah was religious and self-righteous, but he was miserable. The irony is that Jonah was angry with God for delivering the Ninevites from their misery when God was more than willing to deliver him from his misery. The same grace God had shown the Ninevites was equally available to Jonah!
One of the more incredible aspects of the story of Jonah is that while his final words record him seeking to justify his anger, the book ends with God presenting an open-ended question. “Should I not pity Nineveh?” What makes this question so telling is what his answer would reveal… If Jonah answered, “Yes!” then what basis did he have for God pitting him?
Resisting the salvation of someone else calls into question the basis for your own salvation! It’s interesting but the book closes without recording Jonah’s reply. Aside from this there isn’t even a mention of what follows next. The book ends abruptly with God asking Jonah whether or not His desire to save the Ninevites through an act of grace was just.
Historically, there seems to be ample evidence the story of Jonah didn’t end here. According to Jewish tradition following verse 11 Jonah fell to his knees and said, “God, govern your world according to the measure of mercy.” Then he got up, went back into Nineveh, and proceeded to spend the rest of his days ministering to these people. Note: Near the site of ancient Nineveh you’ll find what is believed to be the location of Jonah’s tomb.
Aside from this the very fact we even have the book of Jonah at all implies the prophet ultimately repented and received God’s grace. Truthfully, the only way the story could have been recorded would have been from Jonah’s first-hand account. With that in mind, only a man who finally got it would write with such candor and transparency. Jonah tells the story as it occurred. He does not excuse any of his behavior. He’s completely honest.
As it pertains to the Ninevites there is no doubt God worked mightily in this generation. And yet, it didn’t take long for this people to revert back to their wickedness. The prophet Nahum would warm them of a coming judgment. Sadly, this time they failed to head the warming and 100 years later, in 612 BC, Nineveh would be “overthrown” by the Babylonian Empire.
One of the other bits of irony is that the book was written by Jonah for those living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Not only did this story seek to emphasize God’s love for all of humanity, but its purpose was to draw the Israelites away from their religious moralism and into the power of God’s grace. Like Nineveh, the Lord would withhold judgment if His people would “believe God”, repent of their sins, and return back to their relationship with Him.
Tragically, this message would not be received and the Northern Kingdom would be judged by God using none other than the Assyrians! Even today, at the close of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) the Jewish people read the book of Jonah declaring at the end of the reading with one voice, “I am Jonah.” I’m not sure they even know what they’re actually saying!
As we close our study there are four points that need to be made… First, in no way can you say the sovereign will of God trumped Jonah’s ability to make his own freewill decisions. Jonah was free to run, but Jesus was free to pursue. The tempest and fish were instruments of chastening, but Jonah still had to respond to the second call to go to Nineveh.
From my perspective this is what makes the end of the book so brilliant. God wrestles with Jonah every step along his journey, but you can’t say God determined how the story ends. The tale closes with God asking Jonah a question - he still must make a decision.
Secondly, how you respond to God’s grace being demonstrated to people you don’t believe deserve it will always reveal where you stand with God. How do you know if a person’s relationship with God is based in a work God did or a work they're seeking to do? Watch how they treats others. Grace received will always manifest in a grace bestowed.
Third, resisting grace leads only to greater misery. Jonah resists grace and was worse for it. His life went down and even when he decided to be obedient his life lacked joy! Like Jonah you can seek religion to be a substitute, but it will fail to deliver. Religion does nothing but alienate you from God, fosters a prejudice towards others, and makes you miserable.
As I consider Jonah I’m struck by the similar way his story closes with another told by Jesus… The Parable of the Prodigal Son. As you read the conclusion of this tale the story-arch of this parable takes a fascinating twist at the end… One son (the Prodigal Son) rejects the father for carnal reasons only to return and enjoy the grace of his Dad.
Then because the obedient older son perceives his father’s grace as being unjust and unfair he proceeds to reject his father’s invitation to the feast on moral grounds. Jesus ends the story with the prodigal restored to his father and this religious older brother now alienated.
While it made sense to the Prodigal to repent and come home and even greater sense to enjoy the feast, the truth is this older brother rejected his father and his invitation because he wouldn’t accept the terms for entry. Hearing that his father had given his brother something he’d been working so hard to attain was more than he could stomach.
You see the fundamental problem with religion is that it presents salvation as a reward, not a gift… Something we work hard to attain, not something God lovingly bestows. This is why grace is such an offense to the moralist like Jonah… The only prerequisite for salvation is that you receive something you could never have earned on your own.
For the Prodigal Son (the failure, sinner, Ninevite) this is wonderful news. And yet, sadly for the Prodigal’s Brother and men like Jonah this reality was simply a bridge to far to cross. The story of Jonah ends with the same challenge… Do you want your relationship with God to be based on what you deserve or on a free gift you’re offered to receive?
Finally, true deliverance is only found in a Deliverer! Jonah sought deliverance in a shelter made by man, when true deliverance can only come from a work of God. If you’re miserable and it’s the result of your wickedness (the Ninevites) or your false sense of moral standing (Jonah), God wants to set you free! Jonah’s misery was one of his own making!
Friend, one thing is clear - “Jesus is a better Jonah!” In his pride Jonah resisted grace and would rather die than see the Ninevites saved, while in His humility Jesus willingly laid down His life so that the grace of God might be made available to all mankind!
Jonah closed his hands and with a raised fist resisted God’s grace making, in the process, a mess of his life, but Jesus willingly opened His hand to be nailed to a cross so that sinners like you and I might be able to receive a grace no sinful man deserves.
In a profound sense, I believe Jonah deliberately ends the story with this grand question left unanswered for we all must reach our own conclusion. Will you continue resisting a grace that saves or will you humble yourself and receive a grace that changes everything!
No Additional Links.