‘But Jonah was greatly displeased and very angry’ (Jonah 4:1). How sad that Jonah’s chapter four should begin this way. He’d just witnessed a great revival, a mighty turning to God. We’d expect the prophet to be rejoicing, ecstatic at the people’s response to God’s Word, yet Jonah’s reaction reflected not joy but hostility.
‘Isn’t this what I said while I was still at home?’ he blurted out. ‘Before I left I said you’d do this. That’s why I ran away. I know that you’re a compassionate God, and I told you that you’d let them off. I was right in the first place.’
The Ninevites had repented, but Jonah had not. He hadn’t changed his mind about anything. ‘Get me out of this fish,’ he’d cried to God when he was in distress. But when God released him, he didn’t change inwardly. He hadn’t come into line with God’s view at all. All this wayward prophet wanted to do was justify himself.
You can have the same experience. ‘God, please get me out of this!’ He releases you only to discover that your repentance is superficial. It isn’t enough for you to feel the pressure of a situation. You must repent, change your heart and say, ‘Lord, you spoke to me clearly. I used to justify myself, but I’m not going to argue any more. I won’t be like Jonah – out of the pressure but inwardly unchanged. You want me to be different deep inside. When I cried to you, it was the beginning of a consistent change in my life.’
‘In forty days you’re all going to be condemned,’ Jonah told the Ninevites, but in his heart he knew that God would show them mercy. Jonah had no love for them. He was more concerned about his own self-importance. At the same time as he was declaring ‘You’re all going to die,’ he was thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to my prophetic ministry when the people don’t die?’ This man was more concerned with the vindication of his prophetic gift than with the overall purpose of God. ‘My ministry! My ministry! I must protect my ministry!’
The apostle Paul was thrown in prison, and from there he wrote to the Philippians, ‘Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill … But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice’ (Phil. 1:15,18). Paul didn’t feel remotely threatened by others who were preaching the gospel outside his prison walls. He recognised that God’s purpose was far bigger than his personal ministry.
We have to choose whether we adopt a ‘Jonah attitude’ or a ‘Paul attitude’. The Jonahs among us complain, ‘I’ve got a really important ministry but there’s no room for it here. I’m fed up waiting to get my voice heard, so I think I’ll leave the church.’ But the Pauls among us say, ‘Lord, I know you’re accomplishing your purposes here. I want to be part of this, so I’ll just serve you wherever I can. I know you’ll open doors for me if I’m not so much taken up with my ministry as I am with you.’
Once Jonah had given God’s message to the Ninevites, he sat down outside the city and said to himself, ‘OK, let’s see what happens to them.’ How cold and unfeeling can you get? This man had just been walking through a vast condemned city. He’d passed children in the streets, men and women going about their daily business, cripples and beggars. ‘Forty more days and that’s it for you!’ he’d declared in his professional prophetic way. There is no hint of compassion, no saying to himself, ‘They’ve only got forty days. I must get among them. Perhaps I can do something to help.’
When Jesus came to be baptised, John the Baptist protested, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ (Matt. 3:14). But Jesus wanted to identify with us. He wanted to be the sort of friend who wouldn’t just stand and watch us suffer God’s imminent condemnation. So he went through our experiences with us. He walked alongside us, served us and died for us.
Jonah made himself a shelter, and God caused a plant to grow over his head to ease his discomfort. Jonah was ‘very happy about the vine’ (Jonah 4:6). ‘Super,’ he said to himself, ‘a vine! The sun’s off me – marvellous!’ Amazing isn’t it? Jonah was more concerned about a plant than about the whole city. And when the vine died and the sun blazed down on him, he fell again into depression and wanted to die.
This man was like a yo-yo. One minute he was up, the next he was down. While he was inside the fish he cried out, ‘Help, Lord! Save me!’ then, when God rescued him, he said, ‘I want to die.’ When the vine grew over him, he was happy, but when it withered, he withered along with it. Talk about living by your emotions.
We can be the same way. We cry out, ‘Lord, just get me out of this. I’ll be obedient to you. I’ll change.’ And God is merciful. He releases us and for a while we’re very happy. But after a few weeks other pressures come and we begin to lapse into self-pity. ‘Why did you command the worm to eat my vine?’ we protest to God. ‘It isn’t fair. You don’t love me any more. I think I’ll leave the church.’
What pathetic attitudes we sometimes adopt. How will we feel when we meet the Lord and he uncovers them all? Happily for Jonah, his feet were still on the earth. He wasn’t yet meeting with God as his ultimate judge, but as one who was still showing him amazing mercy and trying to win his heart. God certainly strives with his children, but in the end we’ll have to account for what we did on earth.
‘Man’s basic problem is preoccupation with self. He is innately beset with narcissism, a condition named after the Greek mythological character Narcissus, who spent his life admiring his reflection in a pool of water. In the final analysis, every sin results from preoccupation with self. We sin because we are totally selfish, totally devoted to ourselves, rather than to God and to others.’
John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7, Moody, 1985, p.447