We left Jonah standing on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, dripping wet, seaweed dangling off of him, and a three day experience inside a huge fish that literally turned his world upside down and inside out.
So, when Johan hears the word of the Lord a second time saying, “Go to Nineveh,” there’s no hesitation – Jonah goes.
500 miles away, the Ninevites continue with unrelenting wickedness.
· They were particularly infamous for their sacred cult prostitution. Nineveh was the center of the pagan cult fertility rites, and prostitution was approved, encouraged and sponsored as a part of the religious rituals.
· The Assyrian army was also feared and despised for their treatment of their prisoners of war. They were treated brutally – tortured and skinned alive.
· Nineveh had a reputation as the capital of the most wicked nation on the face of the earth.
Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, three times is called “the great city.” Archaeology has confirmed the enormity of the city. Nineveh was really a metropolis of four cities grown together. The population of the four cities is estimated at over half a million. The last verse of Jonah tells us there were at least 120,000 in Nineveh proper. A three day journey was required to walk from one side to the other.
But, it wasn’t Nineveh’s size that intimidated Jonah.
It wasn’t Nineveh’s wickedness that he feared.
Why did Jonah so rebel against God’s command to go to Nineveh? I mentioned last week Jonah’s pride and arrogance that surrounded Israel’s relationship with God. He was their God and no other nation should receive his attention or blessing.
But now, wait a minute… What was Jonah going to Nineveh to accomplish? Jonah arrives at the city gate and walks a day’s journey into the center of the city. He stands up in the city square and begins to shout. His message is straightforward and harsh – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”
His message is for their destruction, not their salvation. It prophesies their imminent doom. No back doors, no exemption clauses, no escape hatches. The countdown has begun.
What better message could Jonah have to deliver than that the Israelites’ dreaded enemy would soon be a big scorched spot on the Assyrian plains. Sodom and Gomorrah – the sequel.
If that’s the message, how could Jonah be anything but delighted? We’ve read the story before. The ending is all too familiar – maybe so familiar that we are dulled to the powerful lesson to be learned from it.
The unexpected turn in this story comes in 3:5 (I should say unexpected by everyone except Jonah) – “The Ninevites believed God.” Not only did they believe, but they decided to do something about it.
Jonah hadn’t mentioned any options, no offers of mercy, no dialogues or negotiations. But from the king himself down to the lowliest servant, they declared a fast, covered themselves in sackcloth and sat in the dust in repentance. The royal decree went out:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:7-9)
It must have been some sight – an entire city – men, women, children and animals. It pleased no one more than God – it displeased no one more than Jonah.
God’s heart is touched by this repentance (a kind of repentance, I dare say, he had never seen from his people Israel). And in compassion, God relents and turns from destroying the city.
As we noticed before, the only one it would seem who was not surprised by this turn of events is Jonah. He had seen it coming and now he is going to let the Lord hear his complaint: But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)
Jonah is so angry and bitter that he says he would rather die than live to see this people be spared. And then the Lord asks Jonah a penetrating question – “Have you any right to be angry?”
To prove his point, Jonah goes to the side of a hill overlooking the east side of Nineveh and waits to see what is going to happen. Maybe the Lord will come to his senses and go ahead and destroy them.
A side story begins on that hill overlooking Nineveh, and as important as Nineveh’s repentance is, the drama of God’s interaction with Jonah is perhaps as much or more significant for our own instruction this morning.
While Jonah waits in the heat, the Lord God, “provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine” (vs. 6). But less than a day later, at dawn, we are told, “God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered” (vs. 7).
Then, to add to the intensity of Jonah’s discomfort, vs. 8 tells us, “God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint.” Once more, Jonah becomes so angry that he says, “It would be better for me to die!”
So, what’s going on here? Is God just messing with Jonah’s head and toying with him until he breaks? No, God has a point in all of this, and here’s his point:
These things haven’t happened just for Jonah’s discomfort – God has a lesson to teach him – one that is integrally tied into his compassion toward Nineveh.
He asks Jonah a second time, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” And here is the rub. Jonah is concerned about a vine that springs to life and then dies – without any effort or assistance from Jonah. He is so concerned that he is angry enough to want to die.
But, the Lord says, here are 120,000 people, so ignorant about God that in spiritual matters they don’t know their right hand from their left. God has both created them and cared for them. And so God asks Jonah, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
You and I need to hear the lessons Jonah learns. And I believe Jonah learned them – after all, as I suggested last week, it is Jonah who wrote the book, and Jonah shares his own story with us. It is Jonah who exposes his own sin and arrogance, but who has now grown beyond the rebellion that brought God’s discipline into his life.
The first lesson is found in God’s tremendous compassion. Nothing moves God so quickly to forgive as true repentance from the heart.
And I choose that distinction carefully. So many of us substitute cheap imitations for real repentance. When Paul called the Corinthians to repentance in 2 Cor. 7, he wrote: Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. (2 Cor. 7:8-11)
There is a real difference between simply feeling regret or feeling guilty, and repentance that touches the compassionate heart of God.
True repentance is the combination of heart and life. We are first sorry for what we have done, but then sorrow is followed by a change of life – and abandonment of the sin that separates us from God.
David wrote out of the midst of his own struggle with sin and restoration:
Ps. 32:1-5 Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”— and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Ps. 51:1-4,7-12 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
And yet, we see the Ninevites, as wicked and sinful as any people who have ever lived – confronted with their sin – who spontaneously reach out to God with repentance and change of heart and life. Jesus said in Matt. 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.”
God’s heart leaps with joy, but Jonah is angry and bitter. Like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son returned home, he begrudges God’s kindness and compassion. Do you and I more resemble God or Jonah as we respond to the world around us? Do we pray for a change of heart? Do we delight in repentance? Or do we smugly congratulate ourselves that we are not like everyone else?
The second lesson is found in God’s reaction to Jonah’s hard-hearted prejudice toward Nineveh. Nothing brings God’s discipline so quickly as purposeful rebellion.
There is a difference between failure and rebellion. Look at children – making mistakes is normal, expected and should be treated with patience and instruction. On the other hand, when your son or daughter looks you in the face and does exactly what you told them not to do, and they know they’ve done it – they are begging for discipline. They are asking, “Do you mean what you’ve said – are my limits still there?
We adults aren’t so very different. Like Jonah, we sometimes look at God, with rebellion in our hearts and say, “God, I know what you’ve said, but I’m going to do it my way.” Perhaps we don’t see the immediate consequences of our sin, as Jonah did. But be assured that God will do everything possible to discipline us and bring about a change of heart.
John tells us, we are sinners and should freely admit that. But to use that as an excuse for rebellion is to scorn God’s grace and Jesus’ blood shed upon the cross.
The final lesson is one so beautifully woven throughout the book of Jonah. God continually provides for and sustains his creatures with daily care.
Whether it is a storm and a fish that God provided to bring about a change in Jonah’s heart – or forgiveness and reprieve from the destruction in response to Nineveh’s repentance. Or even the combination of a vine, a worm, a scorching east wind and the blazing sun to teach Jonah a lesson about compassion.
The point is that God is working in our lives. Too often we take the everyday things for granted. We rush past them so quickly that we never notice. We don’t pause long enough to hear God’s voice in it all.
And more than that – when we hear God’s voice in scripture – how often it is sending us out into the world, not with a message of destruction, but with a message of his saving grace. And the condition of our heart makes all the difference in the world with how we deliver it.
Illust – 2 grains of rice
Sometimes God’s blessings are limited by the capacity of our hearts to receive them.