God is at work in His messenger to form in him His own heart.
Not long ago I got my first pair of prescription eyeglasses, and that experience has been amazing. If I take my glasses off while I’m speaking, people in the front rows are a blur, like the hazy figures in a painting by Claude Monet. But when I put them back on, I see everyone, even people in the back rows, with the clarity and detail found in paintings by the great Dutch masters. I can hardly believe the difference.
Before I got glasses, I was clueless about my need for them. I thought I was seeing just fine. Then I went to see an ophthalmologist. As he began a battery of vision tests, he asked, “Are you seeing well these days?” “I think so,” I replied. As the doctor examined my eyes, he asked more questions: “Do you have trouble seeing things from a distance? How is it when you’re driving at night?” It wasn’t long before he said, “Todd, you need glasses.”
When I picked them up a few days later and put them on, I could not believe my eyes! I was seeing twenty-twenty. Until I put on those glasses, I had no idea how poor my vision had become, no idea of how much I was missing.
There’s a parallel here between physical sight and spiritual sight. In the same way that glasses help us to see physical things more clearly, God’s Word helps us see spiritual things more clearly. When we look through the lenses of His Word, a whole world opens up to us. We see things about ourselves and about God that we never knew before. Now that is scary, but it is also exhilarating. So I want to invite you on a journey through the book of Jonah. I challenge you to be scared—and exhilarated. I ask you to take a look at a world that has faded from sight or, perhaps, that you never knew existed.
Some time ago my wife and I decided to downsize the library of our young children. We had not done that before, but it was clear that we needed to do so. One by one we reviewed the books. Then I picked up one that told the story of Jonah and began to read it. I must admit that I lacked enthusiasm from the start. But by the time I finished, I found myself frustrated. In an attempt, I suspect, to make the story more understandable to children, the author softened the sharp edges. As he brought the story to a climax, he asked, “Did you know... Jonah knew he never wanted to run away from God again, and he happily obeyed Him?” The book’s illustrator did his best to support the writer’s description. There is a beaming Jonah in vivid color, knapsack over his shoulder and walking stick firmly in hand, as he gleefully makes his way to Nineveh, eager to preach God’s Word.
Is that the way it really happened? In this case, the author, whether consciously or unconsciously, came dangerously close to turning the story of Jonah into a fairy tale that ends “and he lived happily ever after.” I don’t mean that he doubted the historical authenticity of the book, but he was probably unaware that he was guilty of something far more subtle. As he softened the sharp edges of the story, he robbed it of its bitter sting.
Jonah chapter 4 shows us the real condition of Jonah’s heart, a condition that has existed all along, but doesn’t become clear until we get the rest of the story:
Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not
what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than
to live.” (4:1-3, NIV)
Do these sound like the words of a happy, obedient man, one who knows he never wants to run away from God again? No, Jonah is “greatly displeased and . . . angry” (4:1, NIV) He isn’t jumping for joy at Nineveh’s repentance. He is not on the road because he cares about what matters to God or because he shares God’s heart. He is there because he has exhausted other alternatives and has found it futile to flee from the living God. The bitterness locked in his heart erupts, and he openly admits its presence. It was there from the start, and it held Jonah hostage to the end.
My wife and I ended up removing that storybook from our collection, but that experience made us ask, What is the book of Jonah really about?
If you were to ask a young boy to identify the main character of the book, he might well answer, “The big fish,” and who could blame him? After all, to describe this “fish story” as incredible, extraordinary, or even astounding would fall far short of what Jonah actually experienced. The fish is larger than life, and what he did defies description. And yet he does not show up until chapter 2, sand once he has made his appearance, we never see him again. The great fish is pretty great, but like an actor in a cameo role, his role is significant only in that it is part of a much bigger plot. Other “characters” in Jonah do this as well: a vine (4:6), a worm (4:7), a scorching east wind (4:8), and a blazing sun (4:8). These are not nearly as fantastic as the fish, but they still play significant roles.
The logical answer to the question of who the main character is would be “Jonah.” After all, he plays the “title role” since the book bears his name and he appears in every chapter. We meet him in the opening scene, and he is still there at the end. As we read, we engage with what this man is thinking and feeling. We are drawn along as he takes the roundabout route to Nineveh (1:1-3; 3:1-3) and then waits, disgruntled, to see what God will do (4:5). The evidence seems compelling that Jonah is the most likely candidate to be called the main character, but there is more to it than what first meets the eye.
As I reread Jonah, I discovered something that revolutionized my thinking and brought me squarely in line with the book’s knockout punch: The story of Jonah is not about the great fish or the vine or the east wind or even, primarily, about Jonah himself. It is first and foremost about God and about what He chose to do in His messenger. We could sum up the message of Jonah this way: God is at work in His messenger to form in him His own heart. This, or something close to it, is the melody that flows out of the book of Jonah. We hear it in the story. It draws us in, builds with each refrain, and leads us to its climax. It captures us and calls us to respond.
Let’s take a closer look at each part of that summary statement.
The first part is that God is at work throughout the book. As we begin to look at the details of the story, take note of the opening words: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah” (1:1, NIV).
Notice that Jonah is present, but he is not center stage. That place is reserved for “the word of the LORD.” We must not underestimate the value of this verse, because it, along with the words of Jonah 3:1—“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time”—form the structural framework for the book as a whole: God is the initiator. And His word, not Jonah’s, carries the book to the end. In other words, God is in the driver’s seat. Jonah is His passenger and is along for the ride until God stops the car. No sooner does the car leave the garage than Jonah begins to learn this lesson. He tries to flee, but God “stops him in his tracks” “The LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent wind arose that the ship threatened to break up” (1:4, NIV).
Later, as the sailors feverishly attempt to row to shore, “they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before” (1:13, NIV). Finally, after Jonah is hurled into the sea, “the raging sea grew calm” (1:15, NIV). Who is driving the torrential winds and the raging sea? There is no doubt in the sailors’ minds: “At this, the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him” (1:16, NIV).
All this would seem to be more than enough, wouldn’t it? But the writer continues: “The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah,” (1:17, NIV) and “The LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (2:10, NIV). The last chapter picks up right where chapter 2 left off. Now the Lord provides the vine (4:6), a worm (4:7), and a scorching east wind (4:8). We see God everywhere in this book. He is at work from start to finish. He is the main character.
The second part of our summary sentence describes the object of God’s work: “God is at work in His messenger.”
What kind of book do you think Jonah is? We typically classify it as one of the prophetic books. A prophet speaks God’s words for Him. He receives God’s message and then delivers it to people who have rebelled against God and gone their own way. When we read the prophetic books of the Bible, that is what we expect to find.
When I began studying Jonah, that is what I expected too. As I read, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai” (1:1, NIV), I thought, “Just as I expected. Jonah is a prophet. God’s word came to Him, and now he will speak it to a rebellious people.” But as I read, I didn’t find Jonah speaking. I found him fleeing. So I made a mental note of that and continued to read. Soon something else struck me: Only one verse in the entire book records what Jonah said to the people of Nineveh. This is what it says:
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (3:4, NIV) That’s it—the sum total of Jonah’s sermon—all that is recorded in the book that bears his name. If one of my sermons were to have been recorded in the Scriptures, I would have hoped for a little more press. But one line is all Jonah gets. What insight does this give about the nature of the book? Just this: Jonah is not so much about the prophecy of the book as it is about the prophet of the book. It is not so much about Jonah’s words as it is about Jonah himself. In other words, it is not about the message; it is about the messenger. To get right down to it, the messenger is the message. That’s why we get so many details about Jonah and so few words from Jonah. That tells us that God is concerned about the lives of His messengers.
I don’t mean that Jonah’s words are unimportant. God did something astounding through Jonah’s words that day in Nineveh. God’s message had hardly fallen from Jonah’s lips when repentance broke out everywhere. Eager to respond, the Ninevites believed God, declared a fast, and put on sackcloth (3:5). All of them, from least to greatest, responded to what Jonah said (3:5). Even the king’s heart was pierced, and he bowed his head, bent his knees, and urged everyone within the borders of his kingdom to repent. Here is the eyewitness report:
When the news 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. Then he issued a proclamation in
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste
anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast 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.” (3:7-9, NIV)
What a remarkable response on the part of the king! It is amazing that one so used to making demands of others demands nothing from God. Everything about his demeanor and his words drips with unqualified repentance: Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish (3:9).
Can this be the same king and the same Assyria who some fifty years earlier swooped down on the northern kingdom of Israel and wreaked havoc on her people? Who would ever have believed that such a wicked king could demonstrate such profound repentance? But that is exactly what happened—by God’s power through the words His messenger preached. What does your own repentance look like? If I’m honest, I suspect that mine is often characterized by the secret thought that God owes me something in response to my repentance: that if I take a step toward Him, He should take a step toward me. But we see nothing of that attitude in the king’s words. He knows God owes us nothing.
Now, as amazing as the Ninevites’ response was, that is not the stand-alone message of the book. In fact, it was a setup, part of God’s plan to reveal the coldness of Jonah’s heart. We even see a touch of humor here as Jonah arrives in Nineveh. Picture it: He reluctantly walks into town, pulls out his notes, and almost before he begins to preach, people fall all over him to repent. That should make him happy, but it is the last thing he wants. In fact, it is what he feared all along:
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:1-3, NIV)
Now we discover why Jonah fled to Tarshish in the first place:
(1) He hated the Ninevites.
Jonah’s ancestors had, no doubt, been ravaged by their violence. Some from his family had likely tasted death at their hands. The resentment he had held on to for years more than explains his refusal to go.
But Jonah’s hatred for the Ninevites wasn’t his only reason. There’s more.
(2) Jonah was stingy with the mercy and compassion of God.
He did not want his enemies to taste or enjoy it.
Jonah’s coldness of heart toward the Ninevites is certainly understandable, but it is also unacceptable. For years Jonah had basked in the pleasure of God. In recent days he had experienced a phenomenal outpouring of it. What right did he have to live, let alone be the servant of God’s grace? When he fled from God, God lovingly pursued him. When he flagrantly disobeyed God’s voice, God did not slay him; instead He showered Jonah with mercy and compassion. Even while Nineveh repented, God’s blessing was falling on Jonah’s own soul.God’s mercy is the reason Jonah lived to see another day. God’s compassion is the reason God used Jonah in Nineveh. God is at work in His messenger. What kind of work is He doing?
Now we come to the third part to our summary sentence: “God is at work in His messenger to form in him.” The second part pointed out where God is working: in His messenger. This third part unpacks the work He is doing: He is forming something in His messenger.
Have you noticed that the writer of the book of Jonah has a specific “take” on the events he describes? He is not concerned primarily with information, although he gives us a lot of it. He is also not taken up primarily with facts, although he is certainly factual. Instead, he carefully selects both information and facts to reflect a particular focus.
A number of years ago my brother-in-law invited me to go shoot some clay pigeons –small clay disks that are launched high into the air. Since I had never shot a gun before, much less clay pigeons, I was excited to give it a try. He launched a disk into the air then I shot. But each time the clay pigeon simply fell to the ground. My brother-in-law kept saying, “Look through the scope. Let the pigeon fall onto the cross hairs then pull the trigger.” But each time I continued to miss. In retrospect, I think I was trying to lead the pigeon much like a quarterback would throw a pass in front of a receiver. Finally, I got his point. The pigeon fell onto the cross hairs of the scope and I pulled the trigger. Wow! What a difference! The pigeon shattered into a million pieces. I shot again, and again, each time making proper use of the cross hairs and hitting the mark.
In many ways, this is an apt description for the book of Jonah: In God’s determination to shape His messenger, it is as if He looks through the scope of a “spiritual rifle,” sets the cross hairs on Jonah’s heart, and relentlessly pursues him until He “gets His man.” The difference is that He is not out to shatter Jonah’s heart but to change it.
When I was young, I thought Jonah was a story about obedience—and it is. Later I believed it had to do with how one man’s obedience effects change in others—and it does. But the story of Jonah could simply have ended with the Ninevites’ repentance—but it doesn’t. And we have to ask why.
Chapter 4 is the key that unlocks the whole. There the writer focuses on Jonah’s reaction. He is furious: “Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry” (4:1, NIV).
He is angry not only because the people of Nineveh repent but also because he knows how God will respond to their repentance: “When God saw what [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened” (Jonah 3:10, NIV). In fact, Jonah knows God will respond that way even before it happens because he knows God’s character:
He prayed to the Lord,
“O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee toTarshish. 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, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3, emphasis added)
It is God’s nature to forgive. He takes joy in giving His mercy and compassion. This is the way God revealed Himself to Moses: “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). This was the God who threatened to destroy the people of Israel for their ingratitude and rebellion, and yet in the end,He responded to Moses’ plea on the Israelites’ behalf and poured out His mercy and compassion on them. Jonah knows that God will do it for Nineveh, too, because he knows that is just like Him. So Jonah erupts in anger and he runs headfirst into the brick wall of God Himself.
Ravi Zacharias tells the story of his meeting with the daughter of Joseph Stalin. As they talked,she described the day her father died. Stalin was lying on his bed and had not spoken or responded to anyone for some time. Suddenly he stood up on his bed and shook his fist toward heaven, then lay down and died. He could not come to grips with the sovereign authority of God. Only death forced him to acknowledge it.
Jonah, too, “shook his fist toward heaven.” We have already seen something of Jonah’s cold heart. But just how icy his heart has grown becomes apparent only in the unfolding of chapter 4. It’s alarming to note the intensity of Jonah’s hatred—he asks the Lord to take his life (Jonah 4:3). In response, God asks him: “Have you any right to be angry?” (4:4, NIV).
The answer would seem as plain as day to any levelheaded observer, but Jonah chose to bury himself in bitterness and refused to respond. Instead, “Jonah went 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” (4:5, NIV).
Why does Jonah stick around? Why does he bother to wait and see what God will do? He already knows God will extend mercy, so he might as well pack it up and head for home. Does Jonah secretly hope that Nineveh’s repentance will prove less than sincere or that God will fail to see the people’s response? Regardless of the condition of Jonah’s heart, God gives him something completely undeserved: The Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine (4:6).In spite of Jonah’s ingratitude, God graciously provides for his physical comfort. But that’s not the end of God’s work to shape Jonah. There is more. God graciously and lovingly gives His servant an object lesson:
At dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine 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.” (Jonah
Jonah is so self-absorbed that he misses the point of this perfectly designed visual aid. He recognizes no one but himself, not even God. Ungrateful for the grace he has received, he doesn’t want his enemies to enjoy it either. He refuses to acknowledge that God’s grace is God’s to give. He, too, “shakes his fist toward heaven.” He is angry enough to die. How could this attitude come from a prophet of God? The very idea makes us recoil. But if we are honest, we have probably been stingy with the mercy and compassion of God a time or two. And the truth is, this is God’s world, not ours. He is totally free to work His will as He sees fit.
A second time God asks, “Do you have a right to be angry,” and adds, “about the vine?” (4:9, NIV). Still unmoved, Jonah responds exactly as before: “‘I do,’ he said, ‘I am angry enough to die’” (4:9, NIV). Is it beginning to look as if God’s compassion will be lost on him?
So, God is at work in His messenger to form something in him. That leads us to the next question: What is God forming?
The last part of our summary sentence asserts “God is at work in His messenger to form in him His own heart. Why does God bother? Why does God refuse Jonah’s death wish? This is one of the astonishing mysteries to which the book gives no clear answer. But could it be that the reason God refuses to grant Jonah’s wish is that He prizes Jonah’s heart more than He would his death? I think that is precisely the case. God wants Jonah’s heart more than He wants his hide.
I love the way this book ends. God uses a question to probe and to astound Jonah:
“You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang
up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand
people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be
concerned about that great city?” (4:10-11)
God uses this probing question to prick the bubble of Jonah’s self-absorption and get him to think about something outside himself. There he is, sitting and stewing, disgruntled and disgusted at Nineveh’s repentance—and even more at God’s response. He knows God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2, NIV). Yet Jonah longs for Nineveh’s destruction. When a vine appears and grows to shield his head from the sun, now, at last, there is something for which Jonah has a use. The vine complements his existence and brings pleasure to his heart. But no sooner does Jonah begin to enjoy its comfort than God takes it away. In its place come a scorching east wind and a blazing hot sun. Again Jonah is deeply angry. But he did not create the vine. He did not tend it or cause it to grow. Yet he is again furious. When we boil it down, we find that the thing that brought Jonah pleasure had been stripped away. That is the reason for his fury.
What a pity! Jonah has so much concern for things that do not matter and so little for things that do. He has no use for Nineveh and no place in his heart for her citizens. For Jonah, pleasure would mean Nineveh’s destruction, not its deliverance. Yet there are so many people there—not to mention cattle who, like children, don’t know their right hand from their left. They understand so little about the living God. No wonder God asks, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:11, NIV). Jonah was a prophet of the living God and claimed to worship Him (1:14-16,1:9). Could he possibly imagine that God would not be concerned or that God would not respond in mercy and compassion? When we consider the value of the vine and then the value of Nineveh’s citizens, there is no comparison. Shouldn’t Jonah be concerned as well? Shouldn’t he share God’s heart of mercy and compassion? Or did he hope to win God over to the feelings of his own heart.
We can appreciate the power of this ending most when we look at it in light of the structure of the whole book. Jonah falls neatly into two halves, chapters 1 and 2 and chapters 3 and 4, each half introduced by the same phrase: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah” (1:1 and 3:1, NIV).
Let’s take a look at the first instance:
The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh andpreach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (1:1-2, NIV)
As we have seen, Jonah fled from the word of the Lord. More precisely, though, he fled from the Lord of the word. Chapter 1 records the futility of his flight, and chapter 2 describes his path back to God. And although Jonah spared no expense in fleeing from God, in the end, God spent much more to get him back.
The second time this phrase occurs is in chapter 3:
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh andproclaim to it the message I give you” (3:1, NIV)
This time when God tells Jonah to go and speak the word He gives him, Jonah obeys. He proves faithful to the task. But when the Ninevites respond, Jonah is angry. He knows God will extend mercy and compassion, and this reality horrifies him more than death, so he asks God to end his life. Instead, God graciously rebukes him and instructs him. What, then, does chapter 4 tell us about the message of the book as a whole, and why does it leave us with a question? It tells us that the book of Jonah is really all about God and His desire to form His own heart in Jonah. The first half is about how God gets Jonah to go to Nineveh. The second half is about how God gets to Jonah’s heart. The first half is about obeying God. The second half is about obeying Him with the right heart attitude. That is what God wants from Jonah. It is what He wants from us as well.
I have long admired the parenting ability of a friend and his wife. Their children, now adults,have always been a delight to be around. So when my friend once shared with me his thoughts about raising children, I was eager to hear what he had to say. This is what he told me: “We found that the first part of training children was to get them to obey. The second part—by far the most difficult—was to teach them to do it with the right heart.”
I felt as if someone had turned on the lights that day. Not only did I see the task of training children more clearly, but the message of Jonah also made sense: It is not enough for us to obey God. He calls His messengers to obey Him with the right heart, His heart.
The question that ends the book of Jonah, “Should I not be concerned?” (Jonah 4:11), leaves us begging for something more: “Please, tell me. I want to know the rest of the story.” Does God’s question ever penetrate Jonah’s icy heart? Does Jonah repent? Does he ever share God’s heart? Like parents who stop reading at an exciting point in a story so their children will be eager to listen to more tomorrow, the writer disappointingly refuses to satisfy our curiosity. He simply leaves us with God’s question. And like an echo bouncing off canyon walls, it continues to reverberate through the centuries: “Should I not be concerned? Should I not be concerned? Should I not be concerned?”
What an astounding question! The more I hear it, the less I think about Jonah, and the more I think about myself: Do I share God’s heart? God is at work in His messenger to form in him His own heart.
At the beginning, I invited you to look at the story of Jonah through the lenses of God’s Word. I said you would see things about yourself and about God that would be both scary and exhilarating. Now that we’ve made a trip through the book, let’s look at those two aspects.
First, Jonah is scary. When I think about the message of Jonah I am frightened, terrified to the core. It forces me to look deep within, to ask hard questions: What things concern me? Do I obey God? Do I ever run from Him? Who are my enemies? Do I want them to know and experience God’s mercy and compassion? What effect does good theology have on the thoughts and motives of my heart? Do I willingly take risks so that others will come to experience eternal life? Do I share my Father’s heart? Honestly, I don’t like the answers I find. I look at the wonder and beauty of God and realize there is an infinite chasm between His heart and mine. Jonah and I make a good pair.
As I studied Jonah, I couldn’t help but think about America’s enemies. Since 9/11, we have become much more aware of names such as Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. But America is not the only nation with enemies. In every part of the world, hatred leads to bitterness of soul. One day, seemingly out of nowhere, I was confronted with this question: What if God called me to take the gospel to the Taliban? What if He called me to preach the Good News in a country where the government sanctions the arrest, torture, and execution of believers? Would I be willing to go? What would I hope the outcome to be for that nation—God’s wrath or His mercy?
Although it has been some time since 9/11, the memory is still fresh in our minds. In light of what we’ve seen in Jonah, we need to ask ourselves some honest questions:
What kind of prayers have I prayed?
Have we asked only that God protect our loved ones and bring justice to our enemies, or do we also plead with Him to pour out His mercy and save the souls of those who are our enemies?
Do we really see ourselves as fellow sinners who need just as much mercy and grace
as those who are our enemies?
Although nations must implement protective measures for the safety of their citizens, it is easy to allow the spirit of patriotism to blind our eyes to our real enemy—Satan—and the real issue,our common need for forgiveness and eternal life. We have all rebelled against God, and without the mercy of Christ, we all stand condemned before Him, no more and no less than Osama bin Laden does. As long as we reject that truth, we will not be able to minister the mercy and compassion of God to others.
Do you find it difficult to identify with these thoughts? Are you thinking, “God would never call me to minister in such a distant place or to such a difficult person. I think I’m safe—and I do not need to stretch.” Well, maybe God won’t call you to a distant land, but you don’t need to travel across the globe to find enemies. What about people who live close to home? Is there anyone you consider an “undesirable”? Maybe it’s someone you would rather not be around. Someone who rubs you the wrong way. Someone who has violated your trust. How do you feel when you picture that person’s face? The way you feel when you think about that person may be an indication that deep down you consider that person an enemy. Is God calling you to minister His mercy and compassion to that person or to stand ready to do so when He does call you? What would that mean? What would it look like in that situation?
I’m not asking these questions because I have all the answers. In fact, it’s hard to even know the right questions to ask. I do know that when I consider these things, I realize that my own heart is not where it should be. I do not care enough. I do not weep enough. And I certainly do not give enough. I am often unfeeling and self-absorbed and have nothing to give to others and nothing to say to them. The truth is, I have no resources of my own. And the story of Jonah is scary because when I look at myself, I see that often I do not share the heart of God. My heart needs the same kind of work Jonah’s did. Left to my own devices, I am doomed.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. There is hope—hope beyond me and hope beyond measure. That brings us to the second aspect of the book of Jonah.
Jonah is exhilarating! I am struck by Jonah’s words: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2, NIV).
This is the electrifying, exhilarating truth of Jonah: God is gracious and compassionate. Now,this is not merely good theology. It is good theology that has profound and practical significance.Just ask the people of Nineveh: They deserved nothing from God, but they enjoyed the reality of His good name. Ask Jonah: He deserved death, yet he experienced an abundance of God’s generosity and grace. This is not just good theology. It is truth in which the lost and rebellious can revel.
When I read these words and see how God delights in forgiving, relenting, and showing mercy,my heart says, Yes! This God is worthy of my praise. He deserves my affection. He deserves all my heart. I stand in awe.
This God is like no other. No one else is so forgiving. No one else shows such compassion and grace. No matter how long you search, you will find no one else with a heart like His. He is truly one of a kind.
So while it frightens me that I am not like God, I am exhilarated that He is not like me! I want to taste and know Him, to bask in His compassion and grace. Indeed, the more I know of Him, the more I want to know Him and the more I desire to be like Him.
There is one more thing: the question God raises at the end of the book:
“Should I not be concerned . . . ?” (4:11, NIV)
At this, Jonah falls silent. He knows he has failed the test of sharing God’s heart. At this point we might wonder, If this prophet doesn’t share God’s heart, then who will? Years pass, and still no one fits the bill, no one wholeheartedly shares all of the Father’s concerns.
Then we meet Jesus. In Him the Father gives us the definitive answer to that question. Consider the way He lived: Suffering the pain of countless rejections, He still cried out:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34, NIV).
As He approached the city before suffering His ultimate rejection on the cross, He wept and said, “‘If you, even you, had known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41-42, NIV).
Mercy and compassion characterize not only the way Jesus lived; they also characterize the way He died. He voluntarily and willingly accepted the humiliating death of the cross. He became like a capital criminal in order to unleash the limitless depth of the Father’s concern for those who are lost. Look at the way the apostle Paul describes this wonder:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:6-10, NIV; emphasis added)
Paul is amazed at the thought of God’s mercy and compassion. He attempts to convey his wonder by piling descriptive upon descriptive: “When we were still powerless . . . while we were still sinners . . . while we were God’s enemies,” God saved us through Jesus Christ. The wonder of God’s grace, at least in part, is in the timing of the cross. He extended His mercy and grace to those who were His enemies.
“Should I not be concerned?” God asks in Jonah. “Who will share My heart?” The answer is Jesus. His life and death forever proclaim just who Jonah said He is: “. . . a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (4:2, NIV).
That is an exhilarating truth! If you want God’s heart for your own, then bask in the message of Jonah: God is at work in His messenger to form in him His own heart.