Jonah 4: the Rebellious Prophet

Posted on 02 September 2008

Jonah: 4

As the story of Jonah has unfolded, we have been introduced to one of the LORD’s spokespersons who (for some reason hitherto not explicit) seeks to evade the latter’s call upon his life. This proves impossible and, though Jonah might prefer death and hell than obey, he
• Is forced to recognise life with God is better than death in hell;
• Experiences ‘salvation’ from death in a quite remarkable way;
• Receives a fresh commissioning to service without any divine recrimination for his past failure;
• Proceeds to undertake the task appointed for him and with quite extraordinary success.

The reader is, understandably, excited! What an incredible God who in mercy and grace demonstrates he is far more willing to save than to punish and is ready to respond to the repentance of each and every one of the most abject of sinners!

Thus, we are absolutely astonished (or ought to be) when we read of Jonah’s response. Bluntly, he tells the LORD that the reason he fled in the first place was his recognition that this is exactly what he expected would happen: he knew the LORD would be ‘gracious and compassionate… slow to anger and abounding in love’, one far more ready to forgive than to judge (after all some such had been repeated time and again in the confessions of the people of God). While Jonah doubtless affirmed such a belief,  quite simply, there was something about the application of this truth with which he did not approve and (consequently) he returns to his earlier death-wish, despite the fact that suicide was anathema to the people of God (1-3).

Students of Jonah have come up with all sorts of reasons as to why Jonah had such a problem… but we do best to let the story unfold so as to explain this remarkable enigma.

With remarkable forbearance, gentleness and (perhaps) understanding, the LORD asks Jonah whether his attitude is appropriate (4). Petulantly, Jonah refuses to answer and (possibly hoping against hope) takes up a position that will give him a grandstand view of what takes place (5). However, it is Jonah’s need that is fore-grounded and we quickly learn that while Jonah has apparently given up on the LORD, the LORD has not given up on him and, rather than destroy the prophet (or allow him to self-destruct) the LORD shows mercy to him and seeks to enlarge his understanding ogf his ways (6a).

The incident that follows leaves us with many unanswered questions. It might suggest that Jonah believes the LORD’s actions to be
• either capricious: the LORD saves ‘on a whim’;
• and/or applied beyond the limits of the reasonable and right such as to justify his opting out;
• and/or (possibly saying the same thing but in a different way) reflect a belief that that LORD’s mercy to him was proper but that such mercy extended to the wicked Ninevites was wrong (6b-9)!
Whichever, it reveals that Jonah has a fundamental problem with God’s grace. Somehow or other, grace is to be limited to the deserving or must be dispensed along lines determined by the human perception of ‘right and proper’.

The final two verses (9,10) are significant. The LORD makes no attempt to justify his sovereign freedom to ‘save’ those he will, but does emphasise that his compassion far exceeds the ‘right and proper’. Humankind and even beasts (the last word in the Hebrew text) touch his heart and prompted his sustained and every attempt to deliver them from his wrath.

We do not know how Jonah responded, probably we are deliberately ‘kept in the dark’. For the question is one we ourselves need to ask and answer for ourselves. Specifically, we need to ask ourselves:
• do we realise that we are all objects of God’s grace?
• do we acknowledge the freedom of God to save all those he wills?
• is our perception of his grace one that is big enough to embrace us … and to embrace all?
The sacrificial self-offering of the Son of God on the Cross demands the answer ‘Yes’ to each of these questions. Are we ready to agree and live accordingly.

An outline by Stephen Dray
Ferndale Baptist Church, North Avenue,
Southend-on-Sea, Essex, SS2 4ET. A recording of the spoken message may be obtained at:
http://www.ferndalechurches.org.uk

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