Godly Compassion: Jonah 4.5-11

Do you know somebody who doesn’t know their right from their left? That is, do you know someone who is clueless about God? Then, what does your response to them say about your heart for God?

This week at Woodland we’ll leave Jonah behind, but not the lessons learned. In fact, we’ll see that Jonah (fish and all) is a fine entryway to Christmas.

Jonah 5.5-11, Episode 7 in the book, stands alone as a kind of epilogue. Not parallel to any other scene (as every other scene is), this post-climactic scene provides the account of how God schools Jonah to leave him with something about Himself to ponder. The result of God’s object lesson revealing Jonah’s double-standard is the vindication of God’s justice and the demonstration of God’s compassionate mercy.

Jonah puts God’s compassionate mercy to the test (:5). Following God’s decision not to destroy Nineveh, “Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city …” (:5a). Jonah’s immediate departure from his most recent dealings with God harken back to his original flight from God (1.3). He’s back to his old ways, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether he goes west in a ship or east of the city to sit; Jonah has run from God.

In a device of his own making, Jonah constructs a makeshift booth, and enjoys its “shade,” a word used elsewhere in the Hebrew to describe God’s protection. Such an effort would have reminded Jewish readers of Israel’s wilderness wanderings.

What’s Jonah after? He’s awaiting the fate of the city, and this seems strange in light of God’s recent pardon of the Ninevites. There’s two possibilities. Either Jonah is waiting for Nineveh to fail in its obedience, so that God will judge the city, or Jonah is daring Yahweh to choose Nineveh over him. “Either them or me, God!” we might hear Jonah say. In either case, Jonah continues to believe that God’s mercy is compromising His justice, and he doesn’t like this aspect of God’s character one bit.

The LORD God provides an object lesson to vindicate His justice and show His compassionate mercy (:6-8). While Jonah begins to cook in the east wilderness, ” … the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah …” (:6). This is God’s mercy, and God has “appointed” the plant, just like He once appointed the fish. Both serve as props in the story to save Jonah, the first to save him physically, the second spiritually. (Literally, the text reads, ” … to save him from his evil”.)

Jonah is “exceedingly glad because of the plant …” Jonah likes mercy when he receives it, but he wants everybody else to get what they deserve.

Then, God appointed a worm to show Jonah justice (:7). This worm “smote” (a military term) the plant, and God’s provision of mercy withered and died. The irony here, of course, is that God (for the purpose of argument and instruction) has done to Jonah the very thing Jonah wanted for the city. “Here’s the justice you want!” God might be heard to say.

God’s appointment of the east wind simply shows Jonah the condition of his own heart. The sun “smote” him (since God’s instructional mercy is removed), and Jonah is ready to die again. “My death is better than life!” Jonah complains. Jonah has turned inward, even as God looks outward.

God poses a question and leaves Jonah to ponder His compassionate mercy (:9-11). “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” God asks Jonah. Notice, they’re no longer discussing the city. “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die!” Jonah responds. Notice, they’re now not even discussing the plant.

They’re actually discussing God’s character. Jonah is right in that God is being arbitrary in removing His mercy from him. What Jonah doesn’t get is that this is what he wants God to do in removing mercy for the city. Jonah has just experienced a small dose of what he’s demanding for the city, and he doesn’t like it one bit. What is in play here, really, is not God’s character even, but the condition of Jonah’s heart.

Then, Jonah is left to ponder God’s compassionate mercy (:10-11). You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow … 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?

The Torah warned Israel not to turn to the right or the left. These were those who received divine revelation. But, the Ninevites hadn’t even heard from God! Shouldn’t God have mercy on the clueless? And, when his compassionate mercy extends to all His creation? … And, much cattle. 

The approach to our final major lesson from Jonah yields a number of implications. First, Israel was indeed God’s covenant people, but not at the expense of God’s own glory. In time, God would use Assyria to judge His own people, Israel. And then, God would judge Assyria, as the Book of Nahum recounts. In the end, God shows mercy—to nations and to people. But, God is on no one’s side; He is holy to Himself, and on His own side. Jonah came to understand this; he just didn’t like it.

Second, God’s mission is broader than Jonah wanted to imagine. The Book of Jonah anticipates our New Covenant relationship with God in that it anticipates a time when all those united by faith in Christ will receive God’s mercy, despite nationality or ethnicity. Again, Jonah didn’t want to go there.

Finally, there is a narrowness in God’s mercy, even as there is a wideness. The Apostle Paul, in addressing both Jews and Gentiles in the Book of Romans asks, ” … did they [Jews] stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles …” (Rm 11.11a). Jonah’s stubbornness, and the stubbornness of those like him, resulted in God’s character being revealed to the nations. “Hardness” for the physical sons of Abraham will continue, we’re promised, until all the spiritual Ninevites have come in (Rm 11.25).

Important to grasp is that God’s mercy, wide as creation though it be, is not universal. This salvation is found in Christ! And, it is Christ’s obedience that merits mercy rather than justice for all those who rest in His “shade”.

For those who are “in Christ” the message of Jonah challenges us to show the very compassionate mercy of God to those who don’t know Him. This will involve both God’s justice and mercy, seen in the work of Christ and representing the very character of our compassionate God.

My response to God’s merciful plan must involve representing the LORD God who justice and compassionate mercy is seen in the Gospel. 

Here’s a few aspects of Jonah’s final scene that can be talked about in a small group:

How is Jonah’s final attempt to get away from God just another example of man’s age-old attempt to operate apart from God? 

How does God’s lesson for Jonah instruct us regarding the way we, sometimes, want God to judge others while showing us mercy?

Who are those in your life who “don’t know their left hand from their right hand”? 

How does the Book of Jonah help you understand how you’re to interact with those you’ve identified above? 

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