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13 January 2020

This is the last week of the 2019 blog series. The new 2020 blog series will start on Monday 20 January.

Jonah 3-4

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

‘By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals 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.’

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah’s anger at the Lord’s compassion

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’

‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’

10 But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?’

 

Does God really change his mind? Does God give everyone ‘a second chance’, even beyond death? Those are lively talking points, but they’re not the point of today’s reading. The point we need to grab hold of is not theoretical. It’s all about repentance, that necessary deep shift in our psyche, our behaviour, values and lifestyle. 

It’s about repentance. And the grace of God. As Peter remarks: the Lord ‘… does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent’ (2 Peter 3:9).

It’s about mercy and grace as big as Nineveh. Yes, even for Assyria, that cruel and militarised state that skinned enemy leaders alive, impaled them on stakes outside Lachish in Judah, and deported populations into exile. You’ll see this displayed in the palace wall carvings if you visit the Lachish galleries in the British Museum.

Yes, each generation is on their own when it comes to repentance. We can’t repent for our children, only for ourselves. So right now, let’s pause to pray once again for those near and dear to us who have not turned around to the Lord and discovered His amazing love in Jesus.

Whether Jonah is being altogether honest in saying that he ran off to Tarshish because he knew that God would be outrageously gracious to Nineveh, we can only guess. After all, we like to present ourselves in the best light possible, even when we talk to God. We come up with motivations that seem excusable if we can.

God is unperturbed at Jonah’s vented emotion, and calmly asks him an open question to ponder: ‘Is it right for you to be angry about this?’ ‘I’m angry enough to die!’ Jonah retorts. Hmm… a bit extreme. 

The story ends with another of God’s pastoral questions. It points us to God’s merciful heart, animals included. 

Will Jonah let go of his bitterness? God will not force him to. The Lord asks us questions too about what we harbour and whether it’s doing us any good. Thankfully, when He asks us questions, it is with our interests at heart and our freedom to be more like Him.