Jonah 4:5-11 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. 6 Then 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. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 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." 9 But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die." 10 But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 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?"
I am all in favor of people getting what they have coming. When people dent my car in the store parking lot or overcharge me on car repairs or make me slam on my brakes after my car has just been fixed, I fantasize – just like you – about divine vengeance coming done on them. I am all for quick and severe justice – but only on other people, of course.
God’s judgment has never been a problem for me. In fact, it always seems right. Lightning bolts on Sodom. Fire on Gomorrah. Good job, God. Egyptians swallowed in the Red Sea. They had it coming. Forty years of wandering to loosen the stiff necks of the Israelites. I would have done it, too. The earth swallowing up Korah and his followers. That was creative.
Discipline is easy for me to swallow. It is meted out and appropriate. It is logical to assimilate.
I’ve never been surprised by God’s judgment, but I am still stunned by His mercy.
Can there be such a thing as too much mercy? Jonah thought so.
The book of Jonah begins with God commanding Jonah, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Jonah was a tad reluctant to go. Instead, he sailed in exactly the opposite direction.
Why was Jonah so opposed to preaching in Nineveh? Jonah knew what these Assyrians were like. They were a cruel, ruthless, and violent society. He also knew what the Assyrian nation would do to his people, the Jews. God would use Assyria as His instrument of punishment on Israel for its wickedness and rebellion and idolatry against Him. But first God had to spare the capital city from the punishment they deserved from Him.
We don’t realize how difficult it was for Jonah to go to Nineveh, to call the people to repentance and then to offer them God’s forgiveness. He didn’t want to go and he didn’t want them to repent. He wanted them all dead. Jonah wanted justice. He desired destruction. He pondered God’s punishment. These were the enemies of Israel. These were his enemies. It would be like being a Jewish Christian being sent to evangelize inside Nazi Germany; or your father who saw so many of his buddies killed in the jungles of South Korea being sent to be a missionary to North Korea; or you going to Iraq to preach the Gospel of Christ to the jihadis of ISIS.
Jonah wasn’t afraid to go to Nineveh because the people were so wicked – even though they were. No, it was much worse. Jonah was afraid to go to Nineveh because God is so merciful – which He is. Jonah later admits to God, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
No, God, please. No! Anything but too much mercy! Give me a god who exercises his power to unleash pestilence on all the bad people in this world. Give me a god who hates the ideas, organizations, and people I hate. Give me a god who offers people one chance to get it right, but the minute they mess up he pulls the lever on the trap door and they plunge to their eternal peril. But, no! Not a God of too much mercy!
After Jonah finally preaches repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh, his worst fears come true. His preaching converted the Ninevites’ souls. “When God saw what they 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). These infidels who didn’t practice kosher dining habits, didn’t read from Moses, didn’t go to church or offer charity to find a cure for breast cancer — God had mercy on them.
When the city repented, Jonah lamented.
After his work of preaching was done inside the city, Jonah found a nice seat outside the city to watch the fireworks show. But when it didn’t come, he pouted. He actually got angry with God. 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.”
Jonah wasn’t concerned with what concerned the Lord. Though he had earlier confessed, “Salvation comes from the LORD,” Jonah was unwilling to share that salvation with outsiders, especially those vile Assyrians.
Jonah didn’t get it, so the Lord used an object lesson. Jonah’s shelter outside the city failed before God’s compassion did. “Then 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.” This is the only time we see Jonah actually happy, but the object lesson wasn’t over.
“At dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered.” God wasn’t done yet. “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…” The loss of that vine crushed Jonah. He had been so concerned about what made him comfortable, that he didn’t realize what God was teaching him. Again the Lord asked him a question, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” Jonah replied “I do … I am angry enough to die.” Jonah’s disappointment with God’s mercy had turned into despair over a vine.
The time had come for the Lord of mercy to finish His lesson. “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 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.” The Lord pointed out how foolish Jonah’s bitter anger really was. He had not planted or tended that vine, but only cared about the comfort it provided. With its loss, he was filled with self-pity and self-righteous resentment. Compare that concern for the vine to the Lord’s concern for the hundreds of thousands in Nineveh, including about 120,000 infants and many animals. God had created them and cared for them. “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
And that’s where the book of Jonah ends. Jonah does not record his response.
Sadly, we, like Jonah, take God’s mercy for granted. Somehow we have the mistaken belief that we are somehow lesser sinners than others and therefore better people. We are in some way supposedly more qualified as recipients of God’s mercy. We must be afraid that God will show too much mercy on those whom we don’t think should qualify for mercy.
There has to be some reason why you fail to share God’s mercy with others? Why don’t you talk about God at work? Why don’t you confront your grown child’s sin? Why don’t you forgive your sister? Why do you keep silent about the Good News of Jesus as your Savior? Why are you not concerned about the fires of hell that are waiting for those who do not believe in Jesus?
What is the reason?
We are tempted to be like Jonah. We are afraid to leave our comfort zone. Our desires are filled with apathy. Our rear ends are filled with laziness. Our hearts are filled with prejudice because of another person’s skin color or language or background or lifestyle. We don’t like to admit it, especially out loud, but there has to be some reason why you and I do not share God’s mercy with others – others who need God’s mercy.
Is it because God shows too much mercy?
When we believe that others do not qualify for God’s approval like we do, then we are like the workers in the vineyard who complained that they should have received more compensation for working longer hours. What they miss is that the landowner isn’t paying them for their work. He’s paying them because he is generous.
Fellow sinners, we are not worthy of God’s mercy – no one is.
Fellow failed prophets, we cannot pick and choose those to whom God should show mercy.
Fellow complaining workers in the vineyard, we do not deserve first class treatment from God because we have been life-long Christians.
Any inkling that we are better before God than terrorists, deranged murderers, and perpetrators of hate crimes, leaves us sitting outside the vineyard.
We are uncomfortable with God’s concern for other “egregious” sinners. But that’s because we have become so comfortable with our lack of concern for our own “mild” sins.
Jonah actually said it best when he was most uncomfortable — in the belly of the fish, “Salvation comes from the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). Though we deserve God’s righteous anger for our subtle sins of self-righteousness, “it was through the obedience of [Christ] the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). Though we deserve God’s just punishment for our lack of concern for the souls of the lost, the Lord showed His great concern for the entire world: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The Lord is a gracious and compassionate God, who in spite of us, sent His only Son Jesus to deliver us. Jesus was perfectly concerned only about His Father’s will. “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). That will moved Jesus to give up heaven and all its comforts – and all the comforts of this life – to suffer and for our salvation. Thanks be to God that Jesus didn’t care how comfortable He felt or for what could’ve concerned Him. His only concern was what concerned His heavenly Father – the salvation of souls.
The Lord wasn’t just concerned about the Jews of Israel or the Gentiles of Assyria. He wasn’t just concerned with the 120,000 of Nineveh, but also the 120,000 in our ministry area. He doesn’t care at all about a person’s skin color or language or background or lifestyle. He doesn’t classify anyone as “little” sinners or “big” sinners. His Son died for everyone. His mercy is for everyone.
His mercy is for that crusty old next door neighbor. His mercy is for the baby born with Down’s Syndrome. His mercy is for the teenager struggling with addictions. His mercy is for the child molester and the rapist in prison. His mercy is for the scared atheist on his deathbed. His mercy is for the person whose music is too loud, whose pants are too low, whose arms have too much ink, whose skin has too many piercings, whose lifestyle or looks or language make us uncomfortable.
You and I may think we like God’s justice, but our souls love God’s mercy. His mercy is never too much. It is simply more than our sins. He is a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Jonah 4:2). God chooses to treat us – all of us – the “big” sinners and the “little” sinners as works in progress. And because God has shown mercy to us, now we are inspired to share God’s mercy with other sinners around us. Because there is no such thing as too much mercy. Amen.