When I was young I used to think I wasn’t an angry person. But now, having lived through just a few years short of half a century, I realise that it was just that I hadn’t been on the receiving end of much provocation. That, and no doubt something of the typical male inability to figure out what’s actually going on with my emotions anyway.
Now I know that I get angry easily. I prefer to call it irritation most of the time, but irritation is just anger over something so obviously trivial that it would be embarrassing to label it ‘anger’. So, for instance, I get angry when the tea towel is just stuck on the rail any old how and not neatly laid over it to dry. Can you believe it?! I was angry a while back when half our brussels sprouts, loving cultivated over several months, were stolen by some so-and-so who no doubt didn’t even like brussels sprouts anyway.
I see I’m not alone in this kind of anger. Grumpy old men and women now get their own TV series. ‘Grumpy’, of course, is another of those words like ‘irritable’ that attempts to make anger over trivialities seem a bit more loveable.
Maybe, just maybe, you too get angry at times. Try and think of something now that you are, or have been, angry about. And then think about what the reasons are for your anger… And then hold that thought so you can come back to it later.
Jonah was irritable and grumpy too. Well, much more than that actually. Jonah was livid. Jonah 4.1:
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.
Jonah 4 is the chapter we’re on this evening. We’ve already heard it read, of course, but it would be great if you could have that open in front of you. It starts on p 928 of the Bibles in the pews. And if the person next to you isn’t sharing their Bible with you, don’t get angry – just ask. Then you should also have an A5 sheet with my heading for this evening – ‘Jonah’s Anger’ – and my three headings: first, ‘Jonah is very angry with God’; secondly, ‘God challenges Jonah’s right to be angry’; and thirdly, God teaches Jonah to share his concern’. So:
First, JONAH IS VERY ANGRY WITH GOD
Here’s a quick reminder of what’s been happening so far. Jonah the prophet was commanded by God to go to the great and pagan city of Nineveh and preach against their wickedness. Jonah says ‘no’, runs off in the opposite direction, and boards a ship to take him out of reach – or so he hopes. God will not take no for an answer, so he arranges, by means of a storm and some terrified sailors, to have Jonah thrown overboard and then swallowed by a fish. But instead of dying, Jonah is sicked up on the beach. When God repeats his command, not surprisingly in the circumstances, Jonah says ‘yes’ and gets on with the job. He finally arrives in Nineveh (which was in what we now call Iraq, by the way), and he warns the city (this is 3.4:
“Forty more days and the city will be overturned.”
3.5 is perhaps one of the more surprising verses of the Bible. It says:
The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
Even the King joined in, saying (3.9):
“Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
Here is one of the many stinging ironies in this short book. The pagan King of Nineveh at this point has a much firmer grasp on the heart of God than does God’s appointed spokesman, Jonah. And God, consistent with his character, responds to the Ninevites’ change of heart. 3.10 (just before our chapter):
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
And how does Jonah respond to God’s response? Does he overflow with praise to the merciful God he supposedly serves? Does he rejoice in the success of his evangelism? Not a bit of it. He resents what God has done – or not done, perhaps we should say. Jonah is very angry with God.
Notice, then, the extent of Jonah’s wrath. One translation of 4.1 has it that Jonah was ‘deeply offended and furious’. Even Jonah wouldn’t pretend this was mere irritation. He was boiling. He was seething. This was life and death anger, as we shall see. This was a profound, intense, deeply felt rage.
Then let’s be clear about the object of Jonah’s wrath. His rage is directly against God himself. Verse 2:
[Jonah] prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?”
In other words, “I knew you’d go and do this. I told you so. I was right all along. I just knew it.” And he hasn’t finished with God yet:
“This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
“The problem here,” says Jonah to God, “is you”. Jonah is angry with God.
But do you see the nature of Jonah’s wrath? It is self-righteous (“Is this not what I said?”). It is self-justifying (“This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish”). It is self-deluding (“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God” he says, completely failing to see that he has himself just been on the receiving end of God’s mercy when he was in the bowels of the big fish, his life hanging by a thread). And what is more, Jonah’s wrath is self-destructive. Verse 3:
“Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Self-righteous, self-justifying, self-deluding, self-destructive anger is all too painfully familiar to me – and maybe to you too. And that’s what Jonah’s anger was like.
And that’s bad enough. But things only get worse when we step back and look squarely at the reason for Jonah’s wrath. He is angry with God because God didn’t destroy the Ninevites. That is the long and the short of it.
Why does that make him so angry? Jonah wanted the Ninevites dead. From his point of view, they were the enemies of his people, and therefore his enemies. They were the enemies of his religion. They were the enemies of God. They were wicked. They deserved to die. Jonah was right about that. Let’s not forget that. God himself describes the Ninevites as wicked back in 1.1. That’s not the point at issue. He even understands, at least in his intellect, that God is compassionate and merciful. But that’s what he objects to. Why should they get away with it? If there’s any justice in the world, they should perish.
And from Jonah’s point of view, no doubt, there’s another problem with the fact that the threatened judgement hasn’t taken place. It is this: in his eyes, Jonah has been humiliated. Against his better judgement, he’s stuck his neck out, risked his reputation, perhaps even risked his life. Who knows what these wicked pagans might have done to him if they had reacted differently. So maybe part of what is going on here is that Jonah would rather that the Ninevites die than that he should be humiliated. If that is the case, that is another irony, because that would put him firmly in the wicked category as well. But he can’t see it.
Have you seen the record-breaking musical Les Miserables? Or maybe two or three of you have even read the very, very long book by Victor Hugo? One of the central characters is a man called Javert. He is a Jonah. He believes in justice and not in mercy. He cannot tolerate a world where mercy wins out. When he sees that happening, he rages at God and destroys himself.
Some of us here this evening, I have no doubt, are angry with God – perhaps furious with God. I’m not talking here about being angry with someone else. That’s not the issue here. That’s a different thing. The issue here is anger with God himself. If that is us, we need to step back from our anger and ask ourselves why. We need to try and analyse what it is we think God has done wrong. And we need to listen hard to the question that God puts to Jonah. Which brings me to my second main heading.
Secondly, GOD CHALLENGES JONAH’S RIGHT TO BE ANGRY
God listens to Jonah’s furious prayer, there in verses 2-3, ending as it does with this desperate plea:
“Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And God responds. Verse 4:
But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”
Now it’s clear that the answer that the Lord is looking for from that question is “No”. Jonah does not have a right to be angry with God. But it’s important that God doesn’t just say to Jonah, “You do not have the right to be angry with me.” He asks him the question. Why? Presumably because he wants to give Jonah the space to come round to seeing things from God’s perspective - just as he gave the Ninevites space to turn away from their wickedness before judgement fell. He is treating Jonah with the same grace that Jonah is complaining about in relation to the Ninevites. But once again, Jonah doesn’t see that.
So let’s step into that space ourselves, so to speak, and ask ourselves why it is, exactly, that Jonah doesn’t have the right to be angry with God.
We need, for a start, to think a bit about the nature of anger in general. One of the most helpful books I’ve come across on anger, how to understand it and how to deal with it, is a book by Gary Chapman. It’s called ‘The Other Side of Love: Handling Anger in a Godly Way’. There’s a good deal of sanctified common sense and biblical insight in the book. And he points out what is obvious, really: that there are two kinds of anger.
He calls them definitive and distorted anger. We might, more simply, call them good and bad anger, or right and wrong anger. But the reason for talking about distorted anger is the fact that anger flows from what is essentially a right response. Anger is important. Anger is good – though not when it is distorted by our ignorance and sinfulness.
Chapman’s definition of anger is this:
Anger is the emotion that arises whenever we encounter what we perceive to be wrong.
That is, if we think something is unfair, unjust, then anger arises within us.
Anger is good when we’re right in our perception that what we’re looking at is unjust, and when our response to the anger we feel is constructive and Godly. God gets angry. Our anger at injustice reflects that fact that we’re made in his image.
When we are faced with injustice, rightly directed loving anger is the right response. Take the example of slavery, which is in the news at the moment because of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. Godly anger about the sufferings of the slaves lead Clarkson, Equiano, Wilberforce and the others to take loving, persistent action to do something about it. Go and see the film ‘Amazing Grace’ for an inspiring introduction to that campaign.
God’s anger is perfect. When God is angry, he’s always right to be angry, and what he says and does in response to his anger is always, without exception, right – because God is perfect in his holiness.
The trouble is we’re not like that. So a good deal of our anger is distorted anger. It is bad anger. It may be that we think some wrong has been done to us, and our perception of what has happened is distorted or just plain wrong. It may be that what we say or do when we are angry is wrong and ungodly in some way. One destructive response to anger is verbal or even physical explosion. Another destructive response to anger is to turn it in against ourselves – what we might call implosion – by withdrawing and brooding.
Bad anger may be some combination of both wrong perception and wrong response. But so much of our anger, in some way or other, is bad anger.
Back, then, to Jonah. Jonah’s anger against God was bad anger. We’ve already seen how it was self-righteous, self-justifying, self-deluding and self-destructive. Jonah thought that God had done wrong, because God was compassionate towards the Ninevites and showed them mercy. But Jonah was wrong about that. Jonah was the one in the wrong – not God.
And there is a very challenging truth that lies behind that specific example. It is this. In the final analysis, anger against God is always unjustified. Why? Because God never acts unjustly. God never does wrong.
Now there is an important to add to that. When we are angry with God, he treats us with grace, compassion and patience. That is the kind of God he is. Jonah is right about that (v 2):
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love…”
When we feel angry with God, the right thing to do is to take that anger to God, and pour it out to him in prayer, and to be aware that our anger against God must be distorted in some way, and to ask him to straighten out our thinking and to help see things with his perspective. When we do that, God does not condemn us for our anger. Instead he is compassionate, patient and gracious. And he teaches us to see things differently. That’s what he does with Jonah. Which brings us to my final heading.
Thirdly, GOD TEACHES JONAH TO SHARE HIS CONCERN
That’s what’s going on here in verses 5-11. God doesn’t condemn Jonah. He doesn’t just rebuke him. He gives him a lesson on how to look at the lost. He uses this visual aid of the sheltering vine. Jonah takes himself off into the desert east of the city. He makes a shelter but seems to have been lacking roofing materials so he’s short of shade in the blazing sun and he begins to bake. God grows a vine that gives him shade. Jonah’s happy about that. Then the next day God sent a worm that chewed the vine and caused it to wither away. Then (v 8):
God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Do you have the right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said, “I am angry enough to die.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Now, I do have some sympathy with Jonah here, because I know what it’s like to have worms destroy a crop. I remember when we dug up our potato crop one year. They looked great. I thought we had our best crop of potatoes ever. You have no idea how exciting that is, after several failed attempts. But then we started cutting them open when it came time to cook them. And we found that every single one of them was riddled with worm holes, and they were completely useless. They all went on the compost.
But we did at least plant the potatoes and tend them as they grew. Jonah didn’t do that with the vine. All he did was enjoy it. And Jonah is angry at the destruction of the vine. Jonah is concerned that the vine should survive for his own benefit. The vine itself is of little value in comparison to even a single human life – it’s just a plant. It was only one vine. And he didn’t create it, or even cultivate it.
So God’s lesson is this. If Jonah is concerned about the loss of this relatively insignificant vine, how much more is God rightly concerned about the prospect of losing the people of Nineveh.
God’s concern for the Ninevites is for their sake, not for his. It is not a selfish concern like Jonah’s – quite the opposite.
God’s concern is for people who have far more worth than a plant.
God’s concern is for large numbers of people – not one plant. God says (v 11):”Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people.”
God’s concern is for people who are ignorant about the right way to go. That may be their own fault. But they are still ignorant. Verse 11 says they “cannot tell their right hand from their left.” If, for instance, you are learning to drive and taking instruction, knowing your right hand from your left can be a matter of life and death. In life, knowing right from wrong is a matter of life and death. God is concerned not to condemn them in their ignorance but to rescue them out of it, if they will only listen to his voice.
And unlike Jonah who had not tended the vine, God’s concern is for those he created and cared for. The loss of just one you have nurtured for years is a terrible thing. I was reminded of the depth of concern that parents have for the children they nurture recently when I read of the response of one mother to the news that her son had been killed in battle. She fainted. Within two months, her hair had turned white. It had been coal black before her son died.
We all too easily get angry over self-centred concerns that in the perspective of eternity are relatively trivial. And all too often we don’t get angry over what really matters – the evil that keeps large numbers of people, created and cared for by God, are ignorant of the way and the truth and the life – ignorant of Jesus.
So what is the lesson for us, as it was for Jonah? It is not only that God has the right to save people in large numbers by the preaching of the gospel of warning of hope – whatever we might think of them, and whatever they’ve done to us. It is also that we should share God’s concern ourselves.
I asked you at the start to think about something that has made you angry. How does that look in the light of this lesson that Jonah was taught? Whether he learned the lesson we aren’t told. We need to. We need to learn to direct our anger not against God – who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love – but against the world, the flesh and the devil that keep people in bondage to sin and death.
We need to share God’s concern for the lost. And as a result we need to be ready to report for duty - whatever assignment God has for us. Jonah had to go where he did not want to go. We need to be ready to do the same. We need to be willing to down our lives for the sake of those who are unlovely, different and Godless – just as God himself has done in the person of Jesus.