2 So he prayed to the LORD, and said, “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.
3 “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”
Put the logic together in today’s verses and it might make you scratch your head as a reader. Let’s sum this up very briefly and then explain a bit more: Jonah is saying here that he knew God would act in accordance with His kindness and mercy and that he suspected that God’s calling him to preach to the Ninevites was because of God’s end intention of relenting from doing them harm.
Note that he moves from there in a more conclusive fashion: therefore (on the basis of God’s kindness), please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. Jonah is asking for God to take his life because of his bitterness and sense of a lack of appropriate justice doled out. To say that Jonah was consumed with anger and a deep desire for Israel, or his family, or himself to be avenged would be an understatement.
God may at times in our lives call us to forgive those we feel incapable of forgiving and releasing from our sense of justice and even our minds. Long after someone is gone, it’s amazing how long they can still live in our thoughts, isn’t it? St. Augustine, who is claimed somewhat both by Catholics and Protestants (his testimony is the testimony of a Gospel-believing Christian) is quoted as saying, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” As we read through the book of Jonah, it appears that many times over this poison was sipped by Jonah in a desire to see the Ninevites destroyed, but it is Jonah in the end who looks like the fool, not the Ninevites.
I’m reminded as I was told years ago to remember that it was Jonah who wrote the book of Jonah; that may sound a bit silly at first, but let it sink in because Jonah was putting in written record his own bad attitude but not in a positive manner. Jonah never records that he was justified for poor behavior, and that’s good, because we should never find ourselves having succumbed to the blame game or to the justification of our own sins in lieu of our pain or opinions of others. Refusing to handle our issues with others in a godly manner will always take its toll on us and our relationship to God.
What should be said about Jonah 4:2-3? We all need to learn to let God be God in our lives. When we pray for something and God doesn’t answer in the manner we approve, or the timing, or it just seems unheard, remember that this is a testimony back to us that we do not have control over God just because we ask Him to do things. In fact, it’s quite good to know that God can and will do as He pleases in His time, and that we are reliant upon Him. He doesn’t get worked up when we’re out of sorts and He doesn’t fret over our disapproval. He is bringing His children where they need to be, not where He needs to be, because He’s already perfectly there. God’s end game is not about serving the wishes of people, but it is about the fame of His name, which we often refer to as His glory.
Why does God forgive Ninevites who have been completely wicked and hurtful to His chosen nation, the Israelites? Why does God forgive, period? God does as He does to reflect who He is both to those He shows His grace to as well as those He pours His wrath upon. Romans 9:22-24 says these words:
22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,
24 even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Captured in the heart of those verses is the intention of salvation and wrath: the magnification of God’s character. Both ends give a more a holistic picture of who He is, though in a limited sense. You see, God would have been right to forgive the Ninevites and He would have been right to have destroyed them; it was completely whatever He chose to do that was the best course of action.
It’s a deep principle to ponder, but consider this: we often think that God does what is best and what is right, as though He was bound to only do what best and right are, but the best way to understand what “best” and “right” are is whatever God does. God defines good and beautiful and right by whatever He does; He is not bound by the concepts, but rather, the concepts are bound by Him.
Was Jonah right in his desire to die? The short answer is an emphatic “no!” Why? Jonah’s definitions of what was right and just and appropriate were curtailed by his emotions and his sin. He did not allow God the freedom of forgiving others, nor did he allow God to place suffering in his own life. Atheists often have a similar dilemma themselves as many reject God on moral grounds, concluding that if there is evil in the world then God cannot be good nor can He exist, for if He did, surely He would stop it. The problem is a limitations of what a good God can do and what He would do if He were good, when in fact God is good and has done what is right all along. (By the way, He doesn’t fret over the opinions about Him of atheists or anyone else for that matter. He loves people, but He’ll never be undone by the false assumptions they place upon Him).
I wonder, if we’re honest, if there are areas of our own lives that we have failed to allow God the freedom of: placing painful events, broken relationships, long-standing misunderstandings, unappreciated service or sacrifices for others, or anything else for that matter? If we don’t allow God to let us get hurt, we will hold it over Him in our bitterness that essentially He did us wrong. Pride often leads us to think that we are above certain treatment or circumstances, that our service or sacrifice or kindness or commitment have somehow granted us a free pass from certain levels of pain, but it just isn’t so. In fact, it often seems that harder things come as we grow more in our Christian walk.
On a positive note, though, remember too that just because difficulty befalls us, it doesn’t mean that it’s a reflection of our own failures or our value in the sight of God. This is one of the most common conclusions drawn in the Scriptures and by people today when it comes to a person and their lot in life. Truth be told, if we were to get what we deserved, it would be way worse as we found ourselves suffering under His wrath in Hell. It could always be worse and we have it way better than we deserve.
God uses really hard things sometimes to refine us, to teach us, to train us for godliness and eternity, and to further His mission, which is bigger than any one of us who are a part of that mission.
Jonah’s story didn’t end with God taking him up on the offer. No, Jonah was brought specifically to be used to deliver the message, probably because he so badly needed to deal with his own sin of bitterness himself. Tarshish would have afforded the chance to let Nineveh slip into the back of Jonah’s mind, but Nineveh forced Jonah to face his own ugliness within, which would not have been washed away by a sunny day at the beach in Tarshish. God’s like that: He doesn’t just use us to show mercy, but He also shows mercy to us in refusing to cease refining us from the sins within us still troubling our own souls.
Jonah may have tried to draw the line with serving God by using his own life as a line in the sand, but God wasn’t going to take the bait. Jonah needed to preach the mercy of God as much as the people of Nineveh needed to hear it. Once again, I ask you (and myself), in what ways are we refusing to let God have control in our lives? It’s no great merit if you or I only accept the blessings of God but refuse the adversity He may want us to undergo as well. Job basically says something to that effect to his wife in Job 2:10: “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?”
Pray that we might grow both to accept what we perceive to be good as well as what we often are trying to pray out of existence in our lives: God uses both to mold His people into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28-29). Praise Him for the good and the bad, the easy and the hard, the desirable and the detestable, for all things in the hands of God are meant for good and all things will be used to bring glory to Him. It’s this kind of thinking that can help us to combat the common problem of bitterness, and it’s a problem that seems to become easier to fall into the older we get and the more we experience life in a sin-cursed world as sinners rubbing shoulders with other sinners. It’s inevitable that events will occur where bitterness could be harbored, but will we allow God to be big enough to be good and allow difficulty as part of His plan for us in the process? Think on this and pray about it, too.
I wish you well this evening as I write this. May God be with you!
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.