In chapter 3 we saw Jonah conducting one of the greatest revivals ever to hit the earth. Because Jonah had obeyed God and conducted a 3-day preaching tour in Nineveh, no less than 120,000 people repented and turned to God. That is impressive. Billy Graham may have preached to 120,000 people at one time; however, most of those people were already Christians. He never recorded this # of conversions in a 3-day crusade. I thank Jesus for the people He's allowed me to lead to Him for salvation; however, even the remote possibility of me bringing 120,000 people to Him during my lifetime is slim indeed. Jonah got to experience what few before him or after him have ever experienced. Chapter 4 details for us his response to this miraculous revival.
JONAH COMPLAINS TO GOD (4:1-4)
What is Jonah's response to the Nineveh revival? He is ticked. Here for the first time he openly describes why he fled from the Lord after the Lord told him to preach to Nineveh (Jonah 1:2). Jonah tells the Lord, "I told You so. I told You that this very thing would happen: the people of Nineveh would repent, and You, Lord, would in turn relent from destroying them. You are not only compassionate, You relent from destroying people when they truly repent. Since I wanted Nineveh destroyed, I refused to preach to them initially so that You would destroy them!" Jonah is so mad that he just wants to die.
God responds to Jonah: "Do YOU have good cause for such an attitude?" Literally, God is asking Jonah if he is right to have this attitude. He's not asking if it was right to forgive Nineveh. It wasn't right. Nineveh had sinned deeply and deserved destruction. God was not addressing this issue. That issue remains to be addressed by the death of Christ on the cross. God was asking Jonah if HE had the right to wish this death and destruction upon Nineveh, an important distinction.
We will look at God's response a little later on upon concluding the chapter. Look though at the different names used for God in chapter 4. Jonah addresses God as "Lord." The word "Lord" is a translation for the Hebrew name for God "Yahweh." It was the divine personal name God gave to Moses when Moses asked for God's name. It revealed God to be the loving, compassionate God Jonah described earlier. Israel though believed that God revealed this name only to Israel for Israel's exclusive, personal use. God was to be the loving, compassionate Yahweh only to Israel, not to the rest of the world. With regards to the rest of the world, He was to be nothing more than God, a God who brought wrath upon a rebellious creation.
Why did Israel want God to be only Yahweh to her and not to the rest of the world? Because the Jew felt that this special relationship with Yahweh made him superior to the rest of the world. So much of his value depended upon this exclusive relationship. In other words, it was not enough that God valued the Jew in order for him to feel special about himself; God also had to hate the rest of the world. That attitude is sick (it's also an attitude some people have in their relationships with other people). Although I love and value Nathan, I don't have to hate Molly in order for me to love or value him more. True love is limitless. When you love somebody, you are not subtracting from the love you have. Love multiplies, never subtracts.
It is sad that even though God had revealed Himself to Israel in a special way, Jonah did not want God to care for the rest of His creation. In fact he wanted God to hate the rest of mankind. Maybe he had misunderstood certain passages in the OT in which God commanded Israel to destroy certain nations. Although God had commanded the Israelites to destroy some of the heathen nations surrounding them, He did not command Israel to destroy all the pagan nations. The ones He targeted for destruction had sunk to such depths of depravity that there was no hope of redeeming them. Instead all that God did showed that He cared for the rest of mankind. When God sent the rains to replenish the earth, He did not send them just to Israel; He sent them to every nation upon the face of the earth. The land of Israel was not the only nation which enjoyed sunshine and cool breezes; even pagan Assyria enjoyed these blessings. Through nature God shows us that He loves all of creation, even unconditionally. [Jesus develops this same theme in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:43-47).]
Moreover, be careful what you ask for. Sometimes when we pray, we want God to control another person. We ask God to make that person do something we want him to do. Well, in order for God to be consistent, He might just turn around and make you start doing what that other person wants you to do. You can't have it both ways. God is consistent. Jonah is going to find this out. He wants God to be a destroying-kind of God. That is just the exact kind of God the Lord is going to be in the next section, much to Jonah's chagrin.
LESSON FROM THE CASTOR OIL PLANT (4:5-11)
Jonah has gone to the east of Nineveh and builds a hut made of branches to shield him from the elements. Just maybe God might once more change His mind and destroy Nineveh. One can always hope. Most likely the hot Assyrian sun dries up the branches so that they wither and fail to provide the shade they initially provided for Jonah. God then miraculously has a ricinus plant (castor oil plant) spring up from the ground and grow so rapidly that it provides instant relief for Jonah. The next morning though a weevil attacks the plant so that the plant is destroyed with 24 hours. Jonah now is really ticked. He didn't have a right to be because God has given him exactly what he had asked for. Jonah had wanted God to act like a loving Yahweh only to the Jewish people. Well, the castor oil plant was not a Jew, and therefore, for God to be consistent He needed to destroy the castor oil plant. The only problem was that this non-Jewish plant was providing relief for Jonah. We need to be careful what we ask for.
How ticked is Jonah? He is so ticked that He wants to die. Apparently he knew the story of Elijah because he quotes almost verbatim Elijah's cry of despair in the wilderness when he was sitting under the broom tree: "I want to die!" Jonah though had a lot of gall in quoting Elijah. Why did Elijah want to die? Because like his fathers before him, he felt like he had failed in bringing Israel back to the Lord. He had preached repentance to Israel, and yet nothing had changed. He was depressed because he was an abject failure in his own eyes. Jonah, on the other hand, had been a raging success. Over 120,000 people had been converted. When people act like Jonah and misquote Elijah or apply Job's situation to themselves when they unlike Job are guilty as sin, they thoroughly cheapen the stories of Elijah and Job. Jonah has absolutely no right at all to classify himself with Elijah.
God once more asks Jonah if he has the right to demand the destruction of Nineveh. The question is not whether it was right (just) for God to spare Nineveh but if Jonah himself had any right at all to call for her destruction. Just who did Jonah think he was that he could call for the destruction of anybody because of their sin? When God spoke to Jonah in chapter one, he disobeyed God and fled for Tarshish. On the other hand, when God spoke to the Ninevites, they obeyed by repenting and turning to God. It took a near-death experience and a rescue operation involving a whale for Jonah to repent. All it took for the Ninevites was a 3-day sermon. Even if others have the right to call for Nineveh's destruction (which they don't), Jonah certainly did not.
Jonah should have shown mercy. Jesus picks up just this same theme in His parable of the ungrateful servant. A master once looked at his books to evaluate his accounts. He discovers that one servant owes him a massive amount of money (in today's currency it would have been over a billion dollars). When the master discovers that the servant cannot repay him, he orders him to be thrown into debtors prison until the debt has been repaid. Since the debt is so massive, the servant will remain in prison forever. When the servant begs for mercy ("Think about my wife and children!"), the master relents and forgives him the debt. Upon leaving the presence of the master, the forgiven servant encounters a fellow servant who owes him approximately $20,000. His fellow servant begs him to forgive him his debt because he too has a wife and children to care for. The first servant though grabs his fellow servant by the throat and tells him that he will serve time in prison until the debt has been repaid. When the master discovers what this servant has done, he is filled with RAGE. He once more summons the servant to his presence and asks him why he did not forgive his fellow servant a small debt after he had just experienced forgiveness from a massive debt. As a result the master orders the first servant to be thrown into prison until every last farthing has been paid (Matt. 18:23-35). If the God of the universe has forgiven us our massive debts, who are we to hold anything against anybody? If Christ has not condemned us for our sins, how can we condemn others? (Notice that God is speaking here about personal relations, not about the role of government in maintaining a well-ordered society by punishing law-breakers.)
One who has been mercied should show mercy. If I refuse to show mercy, it is probably because I have not appreciated sufficiently the depth to which Christ has mercied me. When it is all said and done, most of us think that your sins are terrible while mine are not all that bad. Oh, they are sin alright; it's just that they don't sink down to the depth yours does. Pride though is the root of all sin. It required the death of Christ just as much as the sins of abortion, homosexuality, promiscuity, etc. I may not be as bad as Hitler; however, I am just as bad off as he was. The possibility also exists that if I do not show mercy, it is because I was never mercied in the first place. The only acceptable response to the mercy I have received is for me to show mercy likewise.
Look at the reasons God says that He reached out to Nineveh. The first reason is presented as a type of argument called from lesser to greater. God does not reproach Jonah for griping about the destruction of the castor oil plant. If Jonah was right in caring for the castor oil plant, how much more right was God in caring for Nineveh? The image behind this is that of a gardener. A gardener cares about his garden because he has shown great care in tending his garden. He has thought out the way he wants to design his garden; he has spent hours in preparing the soil, tossing out rocks, tilling the soil, and fertilizing it. He has carefully planted the seeds and watered them to insure growth. When the plants sprang up, the gardener continued to weed the garden so that the weeds would not choke the plants. He continues to water them; he prays for a right mixture of sunshine and rain. He just hopes and prays that an early frost does not kill the plants before he has time to harvest them. A good gardener cares for his garden and the plants in them.
Jonah too cared for his plant, and God does not reproach him for caring for the plant. He just asks Jonah why he would criticize God for caring for His garden of Nineveh which He has spent so much time on while Jonah cares for a plant he had not spent any time or effort on. If Jonah cared for his plant (which he had just known for a day), why shouldn't He care for His garden of Nineveh when He has spent years and years upon her?
Next, God informs Jonah that destroying the people of Nineveh would be like killing 120,000 children. The Ninevites unlike the Jews had not received the OT. Everything they knew about God came from what God had showed them in creation and in their consciences. They were like little children in their knowledge of God and in their knowledge of right and wrong. It is terrible whenever an adult kills another adult; however, what kind of monsters are we when we intentionally kill children? Whenever a U.S. bomb accidentally kills an Iraqi child, Arab T.V. is all over the news showing what kind of monsters Americans are. Only monsters kill children. Well, God is not a monster and refuses to destroy His "children" unless it can no longer be avoided.
It is hard for most of us to relate to the story of Jonah because we don't hate anybody (unless of course they have wronged us and deserve it). We do care about those overseas who have not yet heard the gospel and have not had the chance to receive eternal life. What we have though is apathy, not hate. Why is this classified as apathy since we care about those overseas? It is apathy because we don't do anything about it. C. S. Lewis once said that hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is the opposite of love. We are apathetic towards people God has spent so much time on cultivating and trying to bring into a loving relationship with Himself. We are apathetic towards children who do not know "right from wrong" and who will perish unless we do something about it. Martin Luther King said that the great crime of his generation was not committed by the KKK and other white supremacist organizations; it was the silence of the good people who refused to step up to the plate and put an end to racism. The Osama Bin Ladins of this world may not be the real problem; it may be us who could do something wonderful for those who are perishing and yet can't quite seem to find the time, money, or effort needed to keep them from perishing.