Recently I have been preaching through the book of Jonah at Westminster and last Sunday I was dealing with the final chapter that focuses on Jonah’s self-centredness and incredible reaction to the mercy of God on Nineveh. It has been said that “anger is only one letter away from DANGER.” Jonah’s anger had initially been toward the evil Assyrian empire and its hub, Nineveh, and this had plunged him into a dangerous ordeal. Jonah neither felt nor exhibited any mercy or pity toward the Gentiles – hence his fleeing God’s presence and resigning his commission as God’s prophet. Now at the end of the book, after his watery ordeal, we find his misplaced anger being turned toward God himself because of his grace and mercy to a pagan culture - Nineveh! The final chapter of Jonah actually begins by telling us that Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry when his prophecy of destruction was not fulfilled and his personal desires not realised when the city turned from its sin. In fact the force of the Hebrew idiom here reveals that Jonah was not just frustrated, he thought God’s actions were wrong. In short, he was displeased the Ninevites were granted repentance and displeased God did not smite them. The first verse of chapter four literally reads, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and it burned to him.”
It seems strange indeed that a believer in the Lord God of all creation, a man in possession of the covenant of promise, could be displeased about the moral reform of this Gentile city and their repentant response to God’s word – from the head of state down to the commoner. Jonah witnessed what many a servant of God has longed for; a national repentance that reached up to the king himself in a humanistic state that was not in a unique relationship with God as Israel was. Indeed Jonah represented Israel in his mission to Nineveh since Israel was called to be a light and model to the nations. Nineveh’s repentance actually became an indictment of Israel’s rebellion and idolatry, since lacking the privileges and signs Israel had received, the Assyrian city was nonetheless receptive to the preaching of God’s word. Israel on the other hand was not. As long as Israel continued in rebellion and idolatry they were failing to fulfill their calling to the nations.
Jonah’s reaction to the moral reform of king and commoner in repentance and faith is however not as uncommon as we might imagine. Jonah was not being motivated by love to God and his kingdom, he just wanted to be seen to be right; he wanted his theological vision of justice, his own will, carried out on these unbelievers. When it didn’t happen he was mad. Yet we have not only individuals but movements in today’s church that similarly don’t want to see a city or nation repentant and morally reformed, brought into conformity to God’s covenant law, with leaders and heads of state transformed and a rebellious culture changed. In fact to some, just as Jonah indicted God with injustice, for a Christian to even desire such a thing is wrong or even heretical! Many Christians today would expect and even prefer that things just degenerate in the culture to death and that we escape from the world so that we can feel vindicated in our theology or eschatology. There is no mercy or compassion on the city or nation with multitudes who cannot tell their right hand from left in such thinking. Others would prefer that the humanistic and pagan state just works out its own view of law and justice irrespective of God and his gospel. These take the view that the nations are not accountable to God’s standards laid down in his word. Indeed many Christians just don’t want a new Christendom and the victory of the gospel in men’s hearts and lives, period. They don’t want the ‘restrictions’ of a Christian order any more than the unrepentant sinner does; they want the public field left open and prefer a ‘private’ faith that doesn’t impact culture. Such people would rather be seen to be right about their pessimistic outlook on the world, vindicated in their theological dogma and escape the responsibility we have now as God’s church for the nations. But Jonah shows us that God’s purpose is the transformation of peoples, cities and nations in terms of the gospel (Matt. 28:16-20).
In the final analysis, Jonah does not want God to be true to himself (Ex. 34:6-7). Jonah was not reconciled to the will of God. This shows us that zeal for truth or for doctrine in one sphere, and enthusiasm for church reform and ecclesiastical propriety, is not the same thing as love to Christ and his kingdom. Moreover Jonah had been in service to God and a preacher of the word of God and yet did not love his nature or purposes as he should. If we do not want God to transform our family, city and nation from the least to the greatest, we need to ask ourselves why. If we refuse to embrace God’s mission we will, like Jonah, discover God is more concerned with us as his servants than he is with our service. He is well able to discipline us or use someone else to do his will and pass over us. Or we may have the painful experience of being made to do his work, again like Jonah, against our will. God’s arm is not short that it cannot save. Our past service to God does not mean a right heart toward God. If we don’t want the repentance of prime minister, president, postman and prostitute, and the moral transformation of our society, perhaps we don’t love the purposes of God as we should? Perhaps we prefer a world that revolves around our own desires?