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Jonah V: Angry at Mercy - Jonah 4:1-4

Here’s the danger we face when we hear the story of Jonah: we can make the prophet into such an irrationally prideful, selfish, and angry man that we can no longer see ourselves in Jonah. We’re all standing over on God’s side; we love mercy and grace, and so we’re shaking our heads at the stubborn prophet, instead of looking for reflections of Jonah in our hearts. But we won’t grow spiritually by shaking our heads at Jonah. We will grow if we recognize the roots of our anger in Jonah’s story, and open ourselves up to embrace the scandal of God’s mercy.

So why is Jonah so very angry at something so wonderful as mercy? There are three aspects that feed into Jonah’s anger: first, Jonah feels personally betrayed by God. He begins his complaint by going back to the past: “Isn’t this what I said would happen?” Jonah thought that he and God had worked out an understanding through the whole fleeing and being swallowed incident, but Nineveh escapes judgment through her repentance.

Second, the mercy that God showed Nineveh seemed to Jonah to completely undermine God’s justice. Nineveh was not made to suffer or sacrifice or face any serious consequences for their sins. How is that just? How can that be right? Because they don’t face any consequences, Jonah is angry at Yahweh for showing them such undeserved grace.

Third, by showing mercy to Israel’s enemy, Jonah thought that God was abandoning His special covenant love for Israel. He reproaches God using the covenant name, and he throws God’s own self-description from Mt. Sinai back in His face, because what he sees is a God who is pouring out special blessings on people who are not only strangers to the covenant, but enemies of the covenant people. If God is going to help Israel’s enemies, then what good is it being a covenant member? If that’s the case, Jonah thinks, then he needs to force God to make a choice: either kill Nineveh, or kill me!

Why is God’s world no longer a fit place for Jonah to live in? Why should God refuse to show mercy to Nineveh, ignore her repentance and bring disaster on her anyway? Because, Jonah says, “It’s better for me.” And this is the sentiment that lies at the heart of all human anger: “God, you’re not running the world in the way that’s best for me.”

Because it’s better for you that God shows mercy to you, you praise God for the mercy He gives to you. But when that mercy also goes to someone who has hurt you or wronged you, someone who doesn’t have the same close relationship with God that you have had, then your response to mercy is fierce and furious anger. You feel betrayed, wronged by God, because what He has done isn’t better for you. Mercy in general to sinners in general is great, but when that mercy is shown to people who have sinned against you, that’s when mercy makes you angry.

This is not a children’s story about a big fish. The book of Jonah throws the scandal of God’s mercy into sharp relief, highlighting a reality that we need to reckon with: God shows mercy to wicked people who hurt us, and it’s not better for us. The problem of mercy is real, and it drives you to the cross of Jesus Christ. If you do not find the answer there, then you will not find any answer better than burning anger and a desire to die.

Verse 4 introduces a very powerful question from God: “Do you do well to be angry?” Jonah, is your anger appropriate? Is it justified? In light of the gospel we see the fundamental truth that any good that you experience in this life comes to you as undeserved mercy from God, and any suffering that you experience at the hands of others is less than the judgment that a Holy God would bring against you if He operated by a standard of merciless justice. Even though we lose sight of this truth, it is better for you that God is merciful.

And at the cross, we see the only righteous and good man who ever lived receiving no mercy from God, bearing the punishment for the sins of the world on his shoulders, so that you, a sinner whose offences against God are far more morally serious than any wrong that you have ever suffered here in this world, may be forgiven. Because of Jesus, you receive mercy that flows solely from the heart of a God who relents from bringing disaster upon you because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Posted on Thursday, March 07, 2019 by CJ Bowen