RPM, Volume 17, Number 28, July 5 to July 11, 2015

Man's Justice

Jonah 4:3-11

By D. Marion Clark


Parents, have you ever heard a version of this statement? "My life is so terrible, I wish I were dead!" God had to deal with such an attitude from his prophet Jonah.


We saw Jonah's initial reaction last Sunday.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

Jonah is upset with the Lord's mercy being shown. Though on the surface his reaction seems shocking, when we considered what Nineveh represented, namely, a pagan nation that would one day conquer and destroy Israel, such a reaction made sense. We can even sympathize with Jonah. Mercy is good, but should it interfere with justice? That is Jonah's concern, or so it seemed. The remaining text suggests that Jonah's sense of justice is not so just after all.

3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."

Jonah is getting a bit over dramatic now. It was one thing to be angry because of feeling that one's sense of justice is being betrayed, but really, it is better to die than to live? Something is not right about Jonah, and God is going to bring it to surface.

4 And the LORD said, "Do you do well to be angry?"

The NIV translates the question, "Have you any right to be angry?" Is there any justification for Jonah to be angry with the Lord's decision to relent and show Nineveh mercy? That is a possible understanding of the verse, and it is how many commentators understand it. But the Hebrew term translated as "right" in the NIV and "well" in the ESV is translated most often as to do something well or pleasing. And the root for the word translated "angry" is "to burn" or "to kindle." Put those words together and the ESV's translation gets closer to what God is asking Jonah. He is not so much asking if Jonah has the right to be angry, but whether Jonah is getting carried away with his anger. No, Jonah does not have the right to be angry with God; no one does. But the Lord can handle anger. Psalmists and other prophets get angry with God, but Jonah is pushing things here, so much so that God is giving warning that Jonah is letting his anger cloud his sense of judgment. He is about to give Jonah an object lesson about this.

5 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.

Just as when Jonah fled in chapter one, I cannot help but think of God looking down and having a chuckle over Jonah. My mother told me that she found me one time when I was little hiding behind a bush with my cowboy gun waiting for my friend next door to come by. Evidently I was very angry with him and ready to do him in. Here is Jonah acting the same way. He still hopes for the destruction of Nineveh. He throws up a make-shift shelter that offers partial shade from the intense rays of the sun. He sits down and waits for something bad to fall upon the city. Little does he know that he is falling into a setup.

6 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. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 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."

Note that three times the word "appointed" is used. (It is "provided" in the NIV.) God appoints a plant to grow; he appoints a worm to attack the plant and kill it; and he appoints a scorching east wind. It was noted in 1:17 that the Lord had appointed the fish. Back in 1:4 he is credited with hurling a great wind on the sea. Nature is under God's control and used by him for his purposes, and he had to be enjoying himself with using nature to teach Jonah lessons about his sovereignty and mercy.

Again, Jonah wants to die. This time the cause seems to be the suffering he is experiencing. He is in desert conditions and possibly suffering from heat stroke. It is understandable how one's suffering can lead to wanting death to put an end to such pain, but God's question to Jonah reveals a different cause.

9 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." 10 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. 11 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 is upset for the fate of the plant. He pitied the plant. Was Jonah a horticulturist who had a particular love for plants? No, his affection for the plant lay in the plant's capacity to provide him comfort. He valued the plant for what the plant did for him, and nothing more.

Now the Lord moves in. He points out to Jonah that he did not labor for the plant nor made it grow. It is one thing to invest oneself in something and then lose it, but Jonah had done nothing. Furthermore, the plant had lasted but a day. We will develop attachment to a possession that we have had for a long time, but typically we need more than a day's awareness of an object or even of a person to grieve over their loss.

In contrast, Nineveh is a city that has existed for hundreds of years, and it exists precisely because the Lord labored to bring it into existence and to grow, as he does with all of his creation. He is deeply invested in all living things, but especially mankind that he has made in his own image. And if Jonah has pity on a single plant that does not know of its own existence, should not the Lord have pity on a city filled with people who do not have true knowledge of what is real? I take the last verse to speak of the spiritual condition of the Ninevites, rather than of children, as some commentators interpret it. The odd reference to cattle would not be odd to an agricultural people and contrasts well Jonah's concern. If Jonah is concerned about one plant, should God not be concerned about much cattle?

And so ends the book of Jonah — with a question. We do not hear Jonah's response. Indeed, he is the one person who leaves us hanging. The pagan mariners fear God. The king of Nineveh repents, and the people of Nineveh repent. It is the prophet Jonah, the only person who truly knew God, who is stubborn to the end. Ultimately, it is his negative behavior that is more instructive to us than his teaching.


One thing evident about the story of Jonah is that his assignment to Nineveh was not so much about what Nineveh needed to learn as what Jonah needed to learn; so it is with us. "Not the preacher, not the sinner, but it's me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer" so goes the old spiritual. I assure you that this preacher needs prayer, but you see the point. Though we ought to be concerned about others learning the gospel and its spiritual lessons, and though we ought to be engaged in ministries that teach and apply the gospel, the Lord has much for us to learn even as we are in the act of helping others to learn.

It was Jonah who needed to have the sovereignty of God impressed upon him. It was Jonah who needed to learn obedience to his King. It was Jonah who needed to experience salvation from death. And it was Jonah who needed to learn what God's mercy truly entailed. Jonah had the head knowledge. He knew the Scriptures in his head. He needed to have what he knew in his head be driven into his heart.

How about you? Even now, as you think about others who need to hear this sermon, is there something God wants you to learn? Here are some lessons.

1. How anger leads to sin

Jonah is an object lesson of how anger leads to sin. It is Jonah's anger with Nineveh that prevents him from teaching repentance. I noted in the previous lesson that Jonah would have scoffed at the Ninevites' feeble show of repentance. They did not turn from their gods, not that we are aware of. Unlike the mariners, we are not told that they feared and worshiped the true Lord God.

Okay, then why did Jonah not teach them how to repent? He never brings up the subject. He only preaches doom. Repentance was the teaching of the pagan king, not the prophet of God. If one is a prophet of the true God, ought he not to give instruction about the true God, how to repent before him, and how to worship him?

We need to be careful of not falling into the same sin due to our anger. Can you think right now of brutal nations and terrorist groups and wicked leaders for whom it would be a disappointment to hear of them repenting to a point where they turn to the Lord, or at least forsake their violent ways? Or do you have a heart, such as many WWII soldiers had who returned to the land of their enemies so as to win them to Christ?

Jonah had no intention of winning anybody to anything, and so, though he could never have had a better opportunity to convert pagans to following the one true God, he walks away from his call. He walks out of the city that has responded favorably to his preaching. His anger at God led him to abandon his post. God was not acting the way Jonah wanted, and so Jonah forsook his assignment. He turned back to his original disobedient self at the beginning of the story.

Jonah's sin also caused Jonah to lose his common sense. This childish temper tantrum leads to folly. "It is better for me to die than to live." Give us a break. Last week I hopefully showed why Jonah would have been angry with God's mercy. His anger was reasonable; it seemed reasonable until the "better to die" routine. Other biblical characters complained to God. Abraham challenged the Lord — "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Genesis 18:25) He was trying to forestall the destruction of Sodom. Moses complained to God. The psalms are filled with complaints about how God lets the wicked get the upper hand. But underlining their complaints is a desire to understand the ways of God. Jonah is simply sulking and blowing everything out of proportion.

So we are culpable if we let anger burn in us. As we go through trials; as we go through heartache, we are liable to get angry with God. To be sure, no one in truth has a right to be angry. Even so, it is understandable in our human frailty. And God can handle it. Oftentimes it is that very anger that leads us to a deeper understanding of our God and eventually to a deeper trust in him. But oftentimes our anger can embitter us against God as we let that anger burn within us. As we are surprised by God; as we are taken aback by unexpected hard events, how will we respond? How will we let our emotions run? If we initially are possessed with anger, will we let it force us to deal with our own misconceptions and superficial beliefs, or will we let it lead us away from our Lord? I have seen it happen both ways. There are some whose tragedy awakened them to how comfortable and superficial their faith really us, so that they experienced God's mercy at a new level. On the other hand, there are some who have walked away from the faith even after years of faithful service. God disappointed them. Be careful of letting anger take you the wrong way.

And then, through his anger Jonah lost his sense of justice. He became more compassionate for a day-old plant than he did for a city filled with the images of God. And what controlled his sense of justice was how justice or injustice impacted him personally. He was "exceedingly glad" to have his plant, since it provided much needed relief from the sun. If the plant had not provided good shade, he could have cared less for it.

This, more often than we like to admit, is what skewers our sense of justice. We hear about awful acts of injustice, even barbarism. It bothers us. We think that we are appropriately appalled by the injustice. Then we watch a game or TV show and think no more about it. But if a friend shares a story about bad service, maybe bad restaurant service? Let me tell you how terrible I was treated years ago in a particular restaurant. I still cannot believe how bad it was. The waiter should have been fired. No, the owner should have lost his license! But that's the way all businesses are today — giving shoddy service. It is so unjust! I am ready for the Lord to return and not to have to put up with so much injustice.

Hhmm…I am sounding like Jonah now. Where were we? Oh, yes, justice. But then there are the nice plants that provide us with shade, and those plants are the best plants of all. They should be protected at all cost. I can think of a guy who had a reputation for being rude, but he always treated me well. When I think about it, I bet those who complained about him were just being petty. They were probably jealous of him. That's the real reason he got fired. Poor fellow; it just makes me so angry at the injustice of it all. Hhmm…that sounds like Jonah too.

You get the point. Anger clouds our sense of justice. Either we already have anger in us and it prevents us from knowing when justice or mercy is called for and from even knowing what is justice; or else, we become angry when something impacts us negatively and then we blow the incident out of proportion. Anger simply is not a good passion to guide our sense of justice.

There is such a thing as righteous anger, but more often than not that anger has more unrighteousness mixed in it than righteousness.

2. God desires mercy, not sacrifice

So anger too easily leads to sin. I think the primary theme of Jonah's story can be found in a comment by Jesus when he was questioned about his ministry. The incident takes place in Matthew's house after he had obeyed Jesus' call to follow him.

And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 12 But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:10-13).

The Pharisees had the same distaste for "sinners" as Jonah did for the Ninevites, and the idea of actually befriending "sinners" for the purpose of winning them to the Lord was as alien to them as winning the Ninevites was to Jonah.

Jesus teaches the Pharisees what God was teaching Jonah. Mercy is what sinners need that they might forsake their sin and turn to the Lord. And when one does turn to the Lord, it is mercy, more than sacrifice, that the Lord desires to see in his people. Jesus made his sacrifice on the cross so that mercy might be given to us. That is the gospel, and that is the gospel for us to display in our lives to sinners and to enemies. We who have received mercy may now give mercy.

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