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12. Jonah


12-3 Jonah And The Gourd

This incident was to make Jonah understand how God valued Nineveh. God had made each of the Ninevites to “grow” (4:10,11), just as He had made the gourd grow (4:6). Jonah was so grateful for the gourd; he valued it. And this was to show him God’s value of Nineveh. Yet Jonah was angry with the worm, who had made the gourd perish. The perishing of Nineveh (3:9) and the perishing of the gourd (4:10) are clearly parallel. He was being led to realize who he really was- a worm, who unthinkingly had sought to fell and cause to perish a wonderful and beautiful part of God’s creation. Jonah’s anger that Nineveh had been preserved is set against his anger that the gourd had perished. He was being shown that he was not in step with God’s thinking / Spirit here. If Nineveh had perished, God would have been angry and sad and depressed, just as Jonah felt on the perishing of the gourd. This was the whole purpose of the gourd incident, and it is the purpose of many incidents in our lives- to show us how God feels. Jonah was angry that Nineveh had been preserved, when instead he should have been angry if it had perished. His anger, his feelings, were not in step with God’s. And the gourd incident beautifully brought this out to him.  

Jonah “fainted” as a result of the gourd perishing, just as he “fainted” [s.w.] when he refused to preach to Nineveh initially (2:7; 4:8). Circumstances so often repeat in the lives of God’s people, and this is in order to seek to teach us something. It seems that Jonah only preached on the outskirts of Nineveh and then gave up; for it was only word of his message that reached the King (3:3,4). Jonah couldn’t maintain the intensity; he wilted as the gourd did. He couldn’t maintain a sense of God’s grace, of His tremendous desire to save, and his motivation waned. And so, circumstances repeated. His half hearted preaching was like his refusal to preach; and he fainted as a result of each of these things.  

Sharing Heaven’s Joy

As thousands of people repented, there was joy in Heaven. But there was sadness on earth, because Jonah would not walk in step with the Spirit, reflecting Heaven’s joy on earth. Right at the start, he had been told to go to Nineveh because “their wickedness is come up before me” (1:2). This was exactly the language of Sodom, to whom Angels had been sent, as Jonah was now being sent. Note how both Sodom and Nineveh were to be “overthrown” (Gen. 19:21,25,29) as Nineveh was. The implication was surely that he would be walking in step with an Angel in going to Nineveh. But he fled from the presence of the Lord (1:3)- perhaps a reference to a literal Angel who appeared to him. Another likely possibility is that the presence of the Lord refers to Jonah’s own conscience. For whenever the Lord touches our conscience with the call of the need of others, we are in His presence. Jonah knew his Bible well; his poem is absolutely full of references to the Psalms. And yet Ps. 139 had clearly stated that we cannot flee anywhere from God’s presence; for even in the deep sea, He will find us. Jonah knew this; and yet he didn’t know it. He had to learn what this meant in practice. And so, incident by incident, blow by blow, our theoretical knowledge is turned into flesh, into reality for us; for the same God who worked so hard in Jonah’s life is at work in ours. 

Our community has failed tragically in this, in the same way as Jonah did.  This is the lesson of Jonah and the gourd. Let's imagine a brother we dislike or another fellowship makes a convert in China. Or anywhere. What should our response be? I get the impression from some that the response would be anger and sadness, because ‘they’ are ‘getting a foothold there!’. But look at this from God's perspective. There is joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents. We should share that joy. Phil. 1:17,18 RV are directly relevant. Paul rejoiced that Christ was preached, even if the motive was " faction" .  I have to assume that each of my brothers and sisters is preaching Christ from a pure motive. I wouldn't dare impute any other motives to any preacher amongst us. But even if it happens they are preaching from a motive of what Paul calls faction, then, what should our response be? To rejoice! 

Nineveh repented; thousands repented, and there must have been a party of joy in Heaven! But on earth, God's preacher, Jonah- didn't share Heaven's joy. He was angry. He didn't walk in step with the spirit. He didn't reflect Heaven's joy on earth. The Lord said: " Is your eye evil [i.e. are you clouded by a mean spirited feeling], because I am good?" . We are all prone to this; to respond to God's grace by being evil-eyed, by our worldview, our " eye" , becoming narrower and clouded because of the extravagance of His grace. By these comments I do not in any way underestimate the sadness and urgency of resolving divisions in the body of Christ; but we must remember that all true Christians who are in the one body preach, by that token, the same true Gospel. Their baptisms are valid-  so, we can rejoice. For who, after all, is Paul or Apollos, or Steve Z or Steve A, or Andy A or Andy Z, or any of us, but ministers. The essence is Christ. 

Jonah didn't share Heaven's joy. He was angry. He didn't walk in step with the spirit. It is apparent from the lesson of the gourd, and God’s final approval of Nineveh’s repentance, that His motive in asking Jonah to preach judgment to come upon Nineveh was because God wanted their repentance. Jonah’s initial response had been to refuse to preach, because He feared God’s grace might incorporate them too (4:2). We need to probe the motives for our reticence in not preaching as we might. It’s too easy to excuse it as our personal shyness. Can there not be a sense in us too that we actually don’t want our potential audiences to share in God’s grace, even though we may not express this to ourselves directly? And another lesson arises for our preaching. It was God’s intention, surely, that an upfront confrontation of Nineveh with their sins and the reality of God’s coming judgment if proclaimed with love in the heart and a sense of our own unworthiness would bring about their conversion. We must ask whether we have perceived this in our approach to preaching.  

The Meaning Of Persons

“Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than 120,000 persons” (4:11) reflects the tremendous value that God places upon people. The greatness of the city was the basis for His feeling of compassion, His desire that they would not perish [although they were worthy of it] and come to repentance. This enables us to read 1:2 in a somewhat different light: “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against”. When God described Nineveh as a “great city”, the very fact of its size elicited a desire to spare it. And of course we meet the same phrase in Revelation (Rev. 18:21), where a condemned Babylon is described as a “great city”. This was not God gleefully preparing to destroy a huge city. He surely had Nineveh in mind when He inspired those words. This was, and will be, a God whose very heart is touched by the tragedy of sinners having to be punished, and who is open to a change of purpose if they will repent. Thus the latter day appeal to “Come out of her!”, whether we understand ‘Babylon’ as false religion, the Moslem world, the world of sinners or whoever, is rooted in God’s spirit of passionate love towards Nineveh. As Jonah “cried” against Nineveh, so God ‘cries’ against Babylon (Rev. 18:2). We who make that appeal in these last days should be reflecting here on earth the mind of God in Heaven; not merely pronouncing doom and gloom against ‘Babylon’, but warning them of God’s stated intentions towards them with a heart that bleeds for them and seeks their repentance. The heart of God Almighty responded in harmony to the hearts of the Ninevites- brought out by the repeated word play in Jonah 3:8-10, whereby the ‘turning’ of Nineveh in repentance is reflected in how God ‘turns’ and repents of what He had said He would do to them. 

The Pattern Of The Preacher

In all true spiritual endeavour and genuine spiritual progress, there seems almost inevitably to be a process of two steps backward and three forward. Consider the pattern of Jonah’s life: 

-   Encounters the presence of God

-   Flees from his preaching responsibility; faints

-   Saved by God’s grace

-   Repents and obeys the call to preach

-   Loses his intensity

-   God shows Jonah how He feels about Nineveh

-   Jonah faints

-   Repents and obeys the call to preach by writing up his poem and writing the book of Jonah. 

Within the course of a few hours, we can go through the essence of this process, learning again the lesson of Jonah and the gourd. We are encountering the presence and call of God to minister every hour; for the need of the world around us is the call.