By Dr. Mark Scott
God’s love is pervasive (expanding, spreading, and permeating). Jonah’s love was narrow, miserly, and shrunken. The angry prophet desperately needed to get on the same page with the Lord when it came to his wide embrace of all people. That is the story of Jonah 4.
Last week’s lesson dealt with forgiveness. Jonah could announce the forgiveness of God—but he could not live it. Lewis Smedes said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner was you.”
Anger and Pervasive Love
Is there room for anger when love pervades? In Jonah’s heart love had not pervaded. Jonah had anger issues. This seemed very wrong is translated “displeased exceedingly” by the ESV. The phrase goes back to the first word for “evil” in the Bible. The word angry means to burn, kindle, or be incensed. It appears three times in this chapter (vs. 1, 4, and 9) with another word appearing in verse 2 concerning God’s character (slow to anger).
Whether Jonah wanted God’s grace to be shown only to Israel and not other nations or whether Jonah knew that if Nineveh repented then he had no message to take home to Israel—either way his anger blocked God’s pervasive love. In his prayer he justified his efforts to go to Tarshish and complained about God’s loving nature. The prophet, who earlier wanted to live (Jonah 2), now wanted to die (see also 1 Kings 19:3, 4). Jonah had a problem with the grace of God (compare Matthew 20:1-16; Luke 15:25-32). He knew the fivefold character of God (spoken of in other places, such as Exodus 34:6)—gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, and relenting from sending calamity—but it made no difference in his life. God rebuked him with a question. The anger of humankind never produces the righteousness of God (James 1:20).
Provision and Pervasive Love
Jonah needed to be converted as much as (or more?) than the Ninevites. He needed a crash course on the sovereignty and love of God. Calvin Miller said, “Prophets don’t prepare messages. Prophets are messages.” More than one prophet became an illustration for God or had illustrations happen to them (think of Isaiah walking naked down the street, Ezekiel’s wife dying, or Hosea’s wife being unfaithful). Jonah got a lesson from a fast-growing plant (vine or shrub).
No matter how bleak things seem, God is never out of control. Earlier God sent a storm, then he sent a fish, and then he provided (appointed, numbered, or ordained—the word appears in 4:6, 7, and 8) a plant. Jonah had set up shop east of the city in a makeshift shelter. (Was his attitude, “Half of the fun of Heaven will be to watch the sinners roast in Hell?”) God supernaturally caused a plant to grow quickly to give Jonah some shade. Jonah was very happy about the plant (the only time in the book where Jonah was happy about anything—except when he was rescued from the fish). The plant eased his discomfort (a form of the word for evil). The next day was a different story. God provided a worm that ate the plant and wind that bore down on Jonah unbearably. Once again he wanted to die.
Concern and Pervasive Love
Even God’s rebuke of this angry prophet was framed in the form of questions. God’s method of dealing with Jonah reflected his character. God was concerned for Jonah as well as Nineveh. God noted a lesson from the plant. Jonah did not tend it or make it grow. God oversaw its birth, growth, and demise (see also Mark 4:26-29). God’s concern (pity or compassion) was what motivated his response to repentant Nineveh.
The Ninevites’ knowledge of God could be put in a thimble. Like little children they did not even know their right hand from their left. But for that moment in history, their hearts were genuine, and God responded with his pervasive love. When humans respond rightly to God, all of the rest of creation (including the animals) also respond (Romans 8:18-25). The book has an open-ended conclusion. What happened to Jonah? Did he repent? Did he grouse until he died? How does your life write the next chapter on the pervasive love of God?
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.