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My list is not an exhortation to let people off the hook so they do not have to be held accountable for their actions. It’s an admission of truth: we are unaware of God’s thoughts and unable to do what He can do. We need help. We can be clueless, necessitating God’s intervening mercy. You see our cluelessness in the words of the Savior as He was dying on the cross. I am sure the people of that day felt assured of what they were doing. Not so, from God’s perspective; they were woefully clueless and needed Him more than they imagined.
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
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 4:11)?
Cluelessness is the point that we have reached in our study of Jonah. The last verse of the book provides the key to the whole book while appealing to Jonah and us. Because Jonah did not answer the Lord’s question—the book ended abruptly—the query is left dangling at the end of a short story about a hard-hearted and racist man. We are left to speculate about how Jonah answered the question. We can also assume and apply the question to ourselves. How would you answer it: Should the Lord pity the clueless? Should the Lord pity you? The context of the book and the exegetical implication of this verse seems to say the Ninevites were clueless people. They did not fully understand what they were doing and needed the Lord’s intervention.
If you read the whole book in one sitting while trying to understand the point, it appears the Lord wanted to help the ignorant Ninevites, and He was using a clueless man to carry His message to clueless people. The Lord said the Ninevites did not know their right hand from their left hand. The Lord had been appealing to Jonah to participate in His redemptive rescue of these wayward and blind people. From the first two verses of the book, the Lord was considering these people and their need for Him to intervene in their lives. We see God as a relentless, grace-giving, mercy-offering Redeemer from the beginning to the end. Jonah is a self-centered and angry prophet who would rather die than see the blind Ninevites enjoying the grace of God. He wants them to stay clueless and lost.
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:1-2).
Jonah did not want to live in a world that extends grace to his enemies (Jonah 4:3). What was implied in the first three chapters is said explicitly in chapter four. God comes as the wonderful Counselor and the relentless Redeemer, asking Jonah some challenging questions (Jonah 4:4). Jonah did not like his question-asking God, so he left the scene to sit under a shelter. He hoped to take a wait-and-see attitude toward the Ninevites. There is no question about what he was hoping for: it was not pity, mercy, or grace. The gospel irony in this passage is that the Lord was showing the same mercy to Jonah that He was offering to the Ninevites. God was not just a relentless Redeemer for the Ninevites. They were not the only clueless people who needed His help.
I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Romans 9:15).
God would not let the Ninevites go, and He was not about to let go of His prophet. Even when you run from God, He runs hard after you. Even when you give up on God, He will not give up on you. God’s grace is the only thing in this story that is more shocking than Jonah’s sin. Nobody will be as patient and kind to you as God will. No matter what your sin is, God’s grace is greater still. Jonah blows off God’s question and leaves the scene. But his sinful action does not deter God; He comes back to him another way—He gives Jonah a plant to make him happy (Jonah 4:6). Jonah seems to have it made in the shade. Then God comes right back and takes away the plant. Jonah loses his comfort, and he wants to die. Again (Jonah 4:8).
And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry (Jonah 4:4)?”
Initially, God appointed a storm and a whale to get Jonah’s attention. Though it was a wake-up call, it did not wake him up. In this passage, God appoints a plant and a worm to get the prophet’s attention. Jonah was happy with his plant, and things were going well. When the worm came along, Jonah was back to being mad. Jonah did not seem to understand how God used the plant and the worm to draw out his anger. The Lord was turning up the heat, using one of His tiniest creations. Do you see what was happening to Jonah? He was an angry man. The longer he resisted God, the more upset he became. Even the little discomforts of life were becoming significant annoyances. When you continue to resist God, you will continue down a self-destructive path to where anything and everything will cause you anger. Take note of Jonah’s sinful progression:
Do you see the progression of sin for the angry man? What are we talking about here—weeds, worms, and wind? Jonah was coming unglued. He was a mess. The most minor things were setting him off in anger. This problem was not so much about the Ninevites anymore as it was about Jonah’s worship dysfunction. It is as though the Lord was saying, “You are the cause of your misery.” God kept asking Jonah questions. He wanted Jonah to see how this was not primarily about pagan people getting saved. Jonah could whine and whine about the Ninevites, but he was missing the point. If a man goes from being angry at a people group to angry at worms and plants, I think we can safely conclude he is an angry man.
But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant (Jonah 4:9)?”
Jonah was the cause of his misery. His anger was not primarily about what was happening in his external world but about what was happening inside him. Our anger is the same. When we go from anger over big things to anger over little things, we have bigger problems than we realize. These little annoyances are God’s small ways of teaching us about His extravagant grace. Isn’t this how most arguments go? We get angry at a traffic light, not realizing our anger hurts our spouses, children, and possibly other motorists, not to mention defaming God’s name.
We get angry over spilled milk, and our children are left to absorb the mess of our sins. We lose a paper due to a software malfunction, and three people are on the receiving end of our sin. Our spouses disappoint us again, and we let them have it—and we are only talking about a minor infraction. A husband says something unkind, but at that moment, the heat of his words negates the redemptive possibility the wife could exhibit. What I am identifying is the jostling of our comfort, which was Jonah’s problem. An entire people group was going to Hell, and Jonah was worried about his happiness in his lean-to. A significant difference between how we can love and how God loves is that He will always value people over personal comfort. Worms and plants are not the objects of His affection, but they can be ours.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Romans 1:22-23).
Here are a few plants and worms that can get in the way of our affection for people. These things can mean the most to us, even sinning against God and others when something rattles our idols: reputation, convenience, health, preferences, materialism, and appearance. Augustine said, “The city of God is a place where the inhabitants love people and walk on gold. The city of man is a place where the inhabitants love gold and walk on people.” The entire book of Jonah comes down to this final question. If Jonah cared so much about a plant he had nothing to do with, shouldn’t God care about a lost and hell-bound city of people?
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. 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 4:10-11).
They have gone astray. They have lost their way. Without God, they have no idea what living for Him or each other means. The book stops with an open-ended question. We do not know how Jonah answered this query, but the open nature of the question leaves us with a similar appeal. Shouldn’t I care about the people who appear to be enemies of God? Let’s get personal. Are you okay with the fact that God passionately cares for and wants to show grace to people you cannot stand? How God interacts with Jonah seems to indicate how the presence of enemies in his life is not random. God was inviting the prophet into a deeper understanding and experience of His grace. God, the question-asker, was exploring Jonah’s heart, helping him to understand how the enemies of God could be used redemptively in his life. Perhaps a few well-placed questions would benefit us at this juncture.
Be careful how you think about them. If you focus more on what they did and who they are, your starting place is wrong. The Ninevites consumed Jonah’s mental state to where he could not see himself. If our first thought is what they have done to us rather than what we have done to Christ, we will not be able to think and act redemptively toward them—especially at the moment when we need to respond redemptively. This backward thinking is what happened to Jonah. He could clearly tell you what was wrong with the Ninevites, but he seemed to have amnesia regarding how he saw himself. If the gospel were actively guarding his heart and mind, he would have begun redemptively rather than reactively.
Years ago, I asked a lady how her husband had failed her. She met this first question with a list that went on for about five minutes. When she finished, I asked her to tell me how she had failed her husband. She met my second question with a perplexed and blank stare. She went from articulate to dumbfounded in a matter of seconds. If this is how we think about others, especially those who have hurt us, redemption is not our goal. The gospel is not the primary thing in our lives. Maybe your enemies are not obstacles to keep you from growing in grace but a means by which you can grow in grace. You will know if they are obstacles by how you think about and respond to them.
Sometimes, our enemies are God’s instruments of grace to draw out who we are and what is wrong with us. Your enemy could be the most clarifying mirror for the brokenness in your soul.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).