When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." 4 And the LORD said, "Do you do well to be angry?" 5 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. 6 Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, "It is better for me to die than to live." 9 But God said to Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" And he said, "Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die." 10 And the LORD said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"
If the only feeling that you have toward a person is the feeling of disgusted anger, you probably will not be able to minister to that person. I say "probably" because you might use all your will power for some reason other than love—like fear of God's judgment—and say something or do something for a person you despise, and God might use it to bless the person. That's exactly what happened to Jonah. He detested the Ninevites. But he did not want to face another fish-swallowing. So he delivered God's message, and God used it to convert the whole city.
God Can Use a Jonah
So yes, God can use people who do right things for wrong reasons. God can love through you even when you are not loving through him! But the point of the book of Jonah is: that's not good. You do not do well, Jonah, to feel the way you do about Nineveh. The point of this book is to show us what kind of heart for the city urban prophets are supposed to have. And the way God shows us what kind of heart we should have toward Minneapolis as a city is to show us his heart.
When we head out of this building in half an hour and walk through 1.7 miles of this modern Nineveh, even if every person felt only disgusted anger at the godlessness and sin of this city, God might use our words to bless this city with spiritual awakening and salvation. That's exactly what he did for Jonah. Isn't that amazing! Have you ever heard anyone say, "God won't use a dirty vessel"? It's well meant; but it's overstated. What was Jonah if he was not a dirty vessel? He was dirty with selfishness and hardheartedness and pitilessness. And God saved the whole city through his preaching. The power of God is not limited to our purity.
Don't ever forget that, because Satan, between now and 30 minutes from now, is going to say to some of you, "You are an out and out hypocrite to walk in that praise procession. You can't love this city, you don't even love your wife! You better just go home and leave public praise to the pure in heart." Now when Satan says that, here's what you say back to him, "God saved Nineveh through the words of a selfish prophet. This much I know: God is God, and I need God and this city needs God, and I am going to go say so. So, in the name of Jesus, just go jump in the lake, Satan."
God Wants to Change Your Heart for the City
That might be all you can say. But I think God has more for you this morning. So come with me now for a few minutes into the heart of God. God is going to take us where we are in our heart for the city this morning and he's going to use us just like that. But I believe that in the next hour God's going to change hundreds of hearts for this city.
He is going to work on us the same way he worked on Jonah. So let's watch him and let him do it to us. Just put yourself in Jonah's place as much as you need to.
Four Areas Where God and Jonah Agree
God shows at least four areas where he and Jonah agree. Jonah is not a theological liberal. He holds fast to biblical truth.
- First, they agree that Nineveh is wicked. In Jonah 1:2 God says to Jonah, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." And in Jonah 3:9 the king of Nineveh admitted that God had a fierce anger against Nineveh for their evil and violence.
- Second, he agrees that God can save rebels miraculously, because that is what happened to him. His song about God's rescue from the belly of the fish ends in 2:9 with, "Deliverance belongs to the Lord!" So Jonah knows that God can rescue disobedient rebels who are about to die.
- Third, they agree that it's God's nature to be gracious and merciful. Jonah 4:2, "I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."
- In fact, fourth, Jonah agreed that God would very likely act this way in the case of Nineveh. So in 4:2 he confesses very openly that this is why he fled to Tarshish in the first place, not because he feared the Ninevites, but because he knew God would show mercy to them. "Is not this what I said when I was yet in my country; that is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew you are a gracious God."
So the first thing God does in dealing with Jonah is to reveal agreement. The prophet and his God are at odds. But not totally. God lets the agreement show. And that's true for every person in this room. You are not totally at odds with God. There are some points of agreement.
Where God and Jonah Disagree
God makes the key point of disagreement clear. It isn't theological, it's experiential. The theological agreement Jonah has with God is not producing a heart agreement. They do not have the same heart toward Nineveh.
The book closes with the words of God, "Should not I pity Nineveh?" Jonah's attitude of contempt and vengeance is shown to be far from God's. Jonah's anger consumes whatever pity may have been there. God's pity modifies his anger.
God Treats Both Nineveh and Jonah with Mercy
But notice how God not only treats Nineveh with pity and mercy, but also treats his stiff-necked prophet that way too. He is slow to anger and ready to relent in his wrath toward Nineveh, and toward Jonah. How does this show itself?
First, through the fish: God could have let Jonah drown. But he saved him and gave him another chance.
Second, through the plant in 4:6: Jonah had gone outside the city in anger when the Ninevites repented. He was sulking outside town while God was rescuing the city. It's just like when he was thrown overboard. He saved the men on the ship by telling the truth and was thrown overboard. And he saved Nineveh by telling the truth, and then went outside the city to pout. In the sea God appointed a fish to save him. And look at what God does in 4:6, "And the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah that it might be a shade over his head to save him from his discomfort." Isn't that amazing mercy? When we shout in the city in a few minutes, "Let mercy triumph over judgment," this is the sort of thing we will mean.
Third, God treats Jonah with mercy and pity not only with the fish and the plant, but also by asking questions instead of giving indictments. Look at 4:4: After Jonah said in verse 3 that he would rather die than see Nineveh saved, God does not explode with rage at such a merciless attitude, he asks a question. The Lord said, "Do you do well to be angry?" Then in verse 9 after Jonah got more angry at the death of the plant than at the possible destruction of Nineveh, God again asked a question: "Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" God could have blasted Jonah with tremendous indignation. But he treats Jonah the same way he treated Nineveh. So Jonah's life was hanging on the very mercy toward himself that he resented being shown to Nineveh.
Reasons God Has Pity on Nineveh
Now finally, the fourth thing God did to change Jonah's heart was to stoop down and give Jonah some reasons for why he has pity on Nineveh. This is why I said the head-agreement between Jonah and God was limited. There are things Jonah does not realize about God. And if he thinks about them—and we think about them as we go—he and we may find our hearts pitying and loving Minneapolis more than we ever have.
Take them as they come in 4:10–11.
1. A Worm Factor
And the Lord said, "You pity the plant." What did he mean by that? Verse 9 said he was angry about the plant. But why? Because this worm had attacked the plant and killed it. Do you see what God is doing? He is helping Jonah see where his pity for Nineveh comes from. He says, "You pity the plant, should not I pity Nineveh?" But a worm destroyed the plant! Yes, Jonah, and a worm has been at work to destroy Nineveh ever since I planted this city. Reckon with the worm-factor, Jonah—the Satan factor. The god of this world is blinding the eyes of people in every city. Pity comes from reckoning with a worm factor when somebody—or some city—lets you down and falls short of God's laws.
2. God's Labor over It
The second reason God feels pity for Nineveh in verse 10 is that he labored over Nineveh and made it grow. "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor nor make it grow." The point is the contrast: I did labor over Nineveh; it was I who made it grow.
Here we need to see that our strong belief in the providence and sovereignty of God should give us a glimpse of God's pity for cities. Cities are not autonomous. They do not grow without God. Even though the people in them may think that they are building a monument to human independence, they aren't. They depend on God at every minute and not a single building in this city was built without God's work. The waterworks, the sewer system, the electricity, the traffic plan, the government structure, the laws and ordinances, the educational and cultural and technical and entertainment institutions—they are all there because God's gifts and God's power and God's wisdom have been used. Minneapolis is God's city. He has labored over it and he has made it grow. Cities are not any more autonomous than people are. They live and move and have their being in God. And so God does not quickly or easily destroy the work of his hands.
3. Its Age
The third reason God gives Jonah for his pity in verse 10 is that Nineveh is a very old city. Again the contrast with the plant is the point: "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor nor make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night." In other words, its life was brief, unlike Nineveh's.
Nineveh is referred to in Genesis 10. It is a very old city. God has been involved with Nineveh a long time. It's institutions and buildings and laws bear the marks—no matter how distorted by sin—of God's image. All these humans who for centuries have planned and organized and built have been people created in the image of God, and what they have made carries the imprint of that image.
The work of God in Minneapolis goes back for centuries into the Indian culture long before any white men came. But the city we know today took its start in 1680 when Father Louis Hennepin (a Belgian priest) was the first white man to set his eyes on St. Anthony Falls. One of the paintings that survives shows him holding a cross over his head and blessing the falls and the region of Minneapolis. Who knows what blessings this city has reaped because the first Christian man who came held a cross over it and asked God's blessing. This does not excuse the sins of white people. It only means that we may be the heirs of a work of God that may be greater for his glory than any of us realizes.
4. The Weakness of Moral Confusion
The fourth reason God gives to Jonah for pitying Nineveh is weakness of moral confusion. Verse 11: "And should I not pity Nineveh that great city in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?" This might refer to little children who are not old enough to know right and left. But there's no other place in the OT where children are described like this, and the generic word for human (adam) is used, not a word for child.
This is what Jesus meant when he prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they do" (Luke 23:34). Yes, they were guilty. This ignorance does not make one innocent. It is owing to real corruption and sin. But there is also a weakness component. "He knows our frame," Psalm 103 says, "he remembers that we are dust."
Knowing the right hand from the left is basic to following the simplest instructions. "Go to 11th Avenue and turn left; then right on Franklin, and right again on Park and right again on 8th Street." So what God means is that the people are so morally adrift that they can't even follow the most basic moral instructions: like thou shalt not kill. God looks at the moral confusion and pities the city.
5. Many Cattle
Finally, God closes his reasoning on an utterly unexpected note: besides he says, "there are many cattle." Now don't get the idea that this is the basis of some sentimental vision of animal rights. God ordains that cattle be killed for sacrifices every day. He ordained them for meat according to Genesis 9:3.
Then what's the point? I think the point is: God made cattle and hundreds of other things to be useful to man. And the tragedy of judgment is made worse when things which are meant for good uses are simply swept away in judgment. When fire and brimstone fell on Sodom and Gomorrah, everything was consumed.
The Point for Us Today
The point for us in all this is that in spite of all the sin and rebellion and immorality and cynicism in our city, God pities Minneapolis; he has compassion on our city. He wants us to feel that compassion with him as we sing and march today. I believe the Lord will use your involvement today wherever you are in this matter. And I think that by participating, God will give us his heart more fully than we have ever experienced.
Sing praises to the Lord
for he has done gloriously.
Let this be known in all the earth
Shout and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion.
For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.