John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
It would certainly be wrong to credit Jonah for what he did not do. But it would also be unfair to accuse him of sins which he did not commit. He is to be rebuked for fleeing to Tarshish when called to go to preach in Nineveh. God’s visitation upon him in that raging storm at sea and his own words to the sailors reveal his sinfulness. He may also be rebuked for not going to Nineveh as soon as the fish spewed him out on dry land. But we err if we say that he did not rejoice in the fact that there were converts in Nineveh, men and women who received God’s word and repented of their sins.
In the first place, let it be stated that only a small fraction of the people in Nineveh did turn from their sins and unto God. It was by no means a wholesale conversion of the city. It is true that the whole city was ordered by the king to repent and put on sackcloth and pray for the sparing of the city. But that does not mean that all were sincere and did turn to God. Jonah certainly had reason to doubt that such a widespread conversion would take place. He knew of isolated conversions of Gentile individuals such as Rahab and Ruth, but not of a whole Gentile nation or city. To be sure, the whole city was filled with fear of destruction. They believed that it could and even would happen, if they continued on their sinful way. But that is not conversion, or saving faith. Do not forget that the devil also believes, and has seen thousands of times that God punished sin. And he does not want to go to hell. But he has not the smallest fraction of saving faith.
Many unbelievers have been told by their physician that they have but a few days to live. These unbelievers do not doubt that death is coming. They feel it themselves in their bones, that is, in the disease which brought them to that physician. That they believe his word is plain from the fact that they make out a will and try to set their house in order. But this does not mean that they believe in Christ. They may believe that God is going to take away their lives, but there is no sorrow in their hearts over their sins. There is no desire for salvation in the blood of Christ, and that they be delivered from their sinful nature. In the days of Ahab and Elijah the people were convinced when God sent fire down upon Elijah’s altar, while Baa1 could not even hear his prophets cry for fire upon their altar. They even cried out, “Jehovah, He is the God; Jehovah, He is the God.” And they waited for rain, but not for salvation. They wanted to be delivered from the drought, but not from the power of sin that held them.
So it was with most of Nineveh after Jonah’s preaching. And the very fact that we never hear again after this of Nineveh as a place where there were believing children of God, shows that it was a very small minority of people who did sincerely repent and separate from their sins. And remember that God told Abraham that if there were only ten righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, He would not send hail and fire down upon them. Do not forget likewise that in Numbers 14:2 we read that the Israelites said, “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt!” or “Would God that we had died in the wilderness.” This was after the report of the ten spies who told Israel that they could not capture the land because of the giants in the land. Yes, even in Israel at times there was only a figurative handful of true believers. When then the leaders urge the whole nation to put on sackcloth and pray this does not mean that there is a mass conversion and turning to God in true faith. And there is nothing strange from that point of view in Jonah’s actions and disappointment when the city is spared. He had reason to believe that some of this, yea much in this heathen nation, was only outward appearance and fear of punishment, but not fear of God in the sense of faith that wants deliverance from the power and love of sin.
Besides, it is not true, as pointed out in a previous installation of this series on the book of Jonah, that Jonah fled to Tarshish because of a sinful nationalism which preferred Israel from a fleshly, carnal point of view. He did not limit, or want limited, the salvation in Christ which God had promised to Abraham and his seed. As a prophet of God he did want to see Gentiles brought to the faith and saved from God’s holy wrath. And he did rejoice in the salvation of Gentiles in Nineveh. His prayer recorded in Jonah 4:2 reveals that he realized very emphatically that his preaching could be used by God to turn Gentiles from unbelief to faith, and from sin to repentance and worship to God.
No, Jonah’s problem was that the ungodly element in Nineveh was such a great threat in his eyes, not to Israel as a nation, but to the Old Testament Church. He was looking at the Jews as the church of God, not as the nation that descended from Abraham and his seed. Granted that even the king repented and could order a city-wide putting away of sins, this would not insure the conversion of the majority of the nation, nor that in the coming years this nation would not be a threat to Israel. Do we not read in II Kings 15:29 that Assyria, whose capital city was Nineveh, carried away as captives Israelites from parts of the Kingdom of Israel such as Gilead, Galilee and all the land of Napthali? Jonah had reason to fear what Nineveh could do to Israel. And we may be sure that, when after forty days there was no visitation by God, the unbelievers went back to their evil ways and considered Jonah to be a false prophet. Jonah may even have seen some of this after the forty days, and went out of the city thinking that God would still destroy it.
Jonah’s foolish cry that it was better for him to die and not to live was not due to an accusation of the Ninevites that he was a false prophet, and because he was ridiculed by the unbelievers for presenting to them a false warning. His very message indirectly contained the possibility of the sparing of the city, if they repented. He preached fully aware of the fact that a mass repentance would bring a continued life to the city. It was not personal embarrassment that brought forth his cry for death. All he would have to do is to go back to Canaan, not build a booth outside the city to see whether God would still destroy the city.
Jonah was angry because a wicked city was spared. He did not despise God’s grace, mercy, and slowness to anger. He did not accuse God of injustice. In fact, he attributed Nineveh’s continued existence after the forty days as due to God’s grace, mercy, and slowness to anger. He confesses that God is all these. And he does not want God’s grace upon any but those whom God brings to repentance. No mercy does he want shown to enemies of God. And in this he is correct. God’s grace and mercy come to man through Christ and never apart from Him. He told man, in the very first sermon preached to man after he fell, that salvation would come only through The Seed of the Woman, Whom Paul in Galatians 3:16 points out is Christ. To Adam God also clearly indicated that all God’s grace and mercy comes through the cross of Christ, when the seed of the serpent bruises His heel. Jonah was absolutely correct in believing that the unbelievers in Nineveh, the enemies of the church of God, can have no grace and mercy shown them, for Christ did not die for them. The human race is divided into only two classes of people: those who bruised Christ’s heel and have no use for His church, but instead have enmity towards all who show faith in Christ, and those whom Christ saved by His blood and Spirit, and who hate sin of every kind. There just is no legal basis for the just and righteous God to show grace, mercy and slowness to anger unto those who do not belong to Christ, are not connected to Him by God’s sovereign, eternal, unchangeable election. That Jonah does not question.
Jonah does not accuse God of being unjust. Would he dare to pray to God, as he did, that God would take his life away, and say that it is better for him to die than to live, if God is unjust, and he would have to appear before that unjust god? The very fact that he prays to God shows that his trust is still in God as the God of just mercy, grace, and slowness to anger. And it is exactly because of these that Jonah is not smitten right then and there for such anger.
But put yourself in Jonah’s shoes for a moment and try to understand his problem. Would you not rather die than see God’s church wiped off the face of this earth by the antichrist, who is coming and will kill the saints left and right, burn down the churches, or hand them over to the ungodly to use as places of carnal, lustful entertainment? Would you want to see God show the antichristian forces some “common grace”? and make their eyes stand out with fatness? Would you not rather with Jonah want to be lifted out of those awful days and be brought into the glory of Christ’s kingdom?
To die in sin is to go to hell. Jonah was not praying for that when he prayed that his life might be taken away. His problem was that he could not see God’s wisdomwhen He spared this “great city” that was such a threat to the church of that day.
No, Jonah was not unconcerned about the wellbeing of those who did repent. He knew how God saved Rahab and her family, when the walls of Jericho all around their house fell down. He had every reason to believe that God would spare the believers. In fact he did not even know the exact way that God would destroy the city, if there was no repentance. But to spare such a fierce enemy of the church, to spare the capital city of a nation that a few years later did attack the Kingdom of Israel did not seem wise to Jonah.
And before we in pride lift ourselves above Jonah and speak of his folly, let us, who on this side of the cross of Christ and with far more enlightenment than Jonah had, look at ourselves. You never questioned God’s wisdom? You approved of every work He performed that touched your life? What about the so-called Christians who attack the church today with false doctrines and try to lead your children away from the truth, and to look for the antichrist to save them from the curse instead of looking to Christ and His cross? What about the nations that have, and even today are denying the believers sabbath-worship services and cast into prison or exile the faithful? You like to see that and see God’s wisdom in it?
And even apart from that, we say with Paul that all things work together for good to those that love God. But were there not many, many things in your life that you wanted done differently? Did it all look at that timeas though it was working for your good? A loved one who manifests a strong faith in God and has been a power in His church is snatched away in what we call mid-life, while an enemy of the church is still very active and healthy beyond the fourscore years of the strong, and is able to harass and lead others against those who hold to the truth and fight the good fight of faith? You never said that God was unwise and did foolish deeds. But did you always praise Him for every work He performed, and did you confess His wisdom as well as His grace, mercy, and slowness to anger? We fight our anger by God’s grace. But we too, if we are honest, will have to admit that we were often angry because of what God did. And it is that grace, mercy, and slowness to anger which are rooted in Christ’s cross that forgives our anger and saves us from God’s holy wrath.