I began last week by declaring that the entire story of the Bible is about reversal—about how God has taken that which is bad and is turning it for good. And I believe what I said, but that does leave us staring at the dilemma of how we live in these moments where wrongs wiped clean sometimes feel like there is no justice to be had. We all have situations like this in life. Some are intensely personal, and some are geopolitical. These situations make us angry because we want to see good come from them, but sometimes the good result doesn’t feel very satisfactory.
That all feels very theoretical, so let me give you an example. About a decade ago when I was living in coastal Georgia, a lady rear-ended my 1999 Honda Accord. I was stopped at a light. She was not paying enough attention, and her car struck mine. It was not a big accident. No airbags deployed. Both cars were drivable. We pulled into a bank parking lot. We got out to look at our cars. My bumper had some hairline cracks in it. Hers was about the same. This should be no big deal, except we really didn’t have the money to replace our bumper. As we’re talking, she finds out I’m a Presbyterian pastor and immediately throws this at me, “I go to the Presbyterian church in town.” Now, this was not my church, but what she meant was, “Look, we’re both Presbyterians. You wouldn’t really want to hold me accountable for hitting your car, would you? You’re a pastor, after all. Give me grace, not justice.”
Justice here, of course, would be that she’d pay for my repair. She wronged me, and she should make it right. Grace would be that the crack was minor—more cosmetic than anything—and I could live with my bumper being imperfect. Now, I opted to let it go. I never had the bumper fixed, but what made me mad was her assumption that, as a pastor, I wouldn’t want her to make it right—that I wouldn’t want justice. I was angry, but what was the good result here?
On a very small scale, that’s the point of Jonah. What is justice? How does God take what is wrong with the world and make it right? Also, what is gracious love? How can a just God be “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” when we perceive so much needing justice? Last week we covered Jonah 3. The prophet does what the Lord told him to do. He went to Nineveh. He pronounced God’s judgment and all the people repented of their wrong. God changes his mind and does not destroy Nineveh. Chapter 4 begins with Jonah’s anger. It reads, “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry,” but a more literal reading of the Hebrew here is that Jonah sees God’s not judging the Ninevites as “evil.” That is, Jonah views God’s inaction as evil. It is that persistent question we all face—why does God allow the wicked to prosper, to not get what they deserve? It’s a good and fair question for Jonah and for us.
The story finally gets us back to why Jonah fled the Lord’s call in chapter 1. You may recall that Jonah doesn’t really speak in that chapter; he just does the opposite of what the Lord commands. Why? Because Jonah knew that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and to relent from punishing” (4:2). Jonah’s quoting Scripture to the Lord, words found in Exodus, the Psalms, Nehemiah, 2 Chronicles, Numbers, and Nahum. They’re words we love when we’re the ones in trouble. They’re words that trouble us when we want someone to get what they deserve. And that’s Jonah’s point. Nineveh is wicked. Its armies have invaded his land. They’ve deported his people. They’ve done terrible things, and is God just going to let them off? Jonah would rather die than live in such an unjust world.
This chapter focuses on the question the Lord asks Jonah in verse 4, “Is it right for you to be angry?” The word for “right” in the Hebrew is literally “good.” Is it good for you to be angry? Does your anger lead to good for you and for the world? With those words, Jonah heads east of Nineveh to watch events unfold. If God can change his mind about relenting, maybe God can change his mind and rain fire down on wicked Nineveh. After all the going down Jonah did in chapter 1— going down to Joppa, going down to the ship, going down to the hold of the ship, going down into the sea, going down into the belly of the fish—Jonah goes up to watch what will happen. It’s a drawing near to God even in the midst of this argument.
Jonah builds a little booth to shade himself. He’s vigilant—the opposite of his sleeping in the ship during the storm. Like God appoints a great fish to rescue Jonah, the Lord appoints a bush to grow miraculously to provide Jonah relief from the sun. (Apparently, Jonah’s not much of a builder since his booth isn’t enough.) This miracle plant shades Jonah and makes him happy. But then the Lord appoints a worm that attacks and destroys the plant. Adding insult to injury, the Lord sends a slashing east wind that relentlessly pummels Jonah. Once again, Jonah despairs of his life. These verses, along with the whole of this book, drive home the point that the Lord is in control of the universe. It does what the Lord wants. The winds the Lord sends cause a storm. The fish the Lord sends rescues Jonah. This plant, the worm, and the wind all do the Lord’s bidding, which raises the question as to why humans seem to be so bad about doing what the Lord wants, including Jonah who flees the Lord and the Ninevites who are so wicked.
In verse 4 the Lord asks, “It it right for you to be angry?” and in verse 9 the Lord asks again, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah’s response? “Yes, angry enough to die.” (Jonah sure doesn’t mince words!) And so we come to the conclusion of Jonah. The Lord uses the bush as a parable for Nineveh. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.” And here comes the open-ended conclusion to this story, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” This is an ending not just for the prophet Jonah but for all who read this story, but there are at least two ways to read this ending. Our translators have opted to read the final verse as a rhetorical question, something that should make us all pause and wonder. But it can also be translated as a declaration.
Let’s think together about the meaning of each ending. If the final verse is a statement, not a question, it reads more like this, “But as for me, I will not pity Nineveh the great city, which has in it more than 120,000 people who do not know their right and from their left and many animals.” Read this way, the Lord is telling Jonah that justice is coming, not right this moment as Jonah seethes on the hill east of the city but eventually. By the time this story of Jonah is written, Nineveh is gone. The city has long ago been destroyed. It’s uninhabited. Reading it this way, the bush becomes an interesting parable about what is to come for Nineveh in the near future. For a short time it will thrive, but the Lord will send a worm and a wind to destroy it. In some ways this is the Lord answering Jonah’s charge that God’s delaying of justice is evil. Rather it shows that the Lord’s patience will result in justice. It’s like the Lord is saying, “Don’t worry, Jonah. This is temporary, but I’m bringing good to bear ultimately.” Jonah is angry about God’s apparent disregard for justice, but God is promising that justice is coming. That’s a word that we all would like to hear.
But our Bible translates this last verse as a question. It’s a good question, and one that resonate deeply for us. “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” the Lord asks. It’s easy to see why that’s a way we’d like to read this ending because we can fill in the blank at the end of this question with any situation needing grace. Should I not be concerned about the lady who rear-ended you, Troy? Should I not be concerned about Central Americans fleeing gang violence? Should I not be concerned about your neighbor who is fighting you in court over a property dispute? Should I not be concerned with Russia? With Ukraine? With the boy who punched your son on the playground? With the person who stopped going to church in the pandemic?
As Christians we like this ending because it includes us. Shouldn’t God be concerned with us too? God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. That’s true of the Lord. It’s something we declare in worship every week as true for us. But let’s not forget that God is a God of justice. Evil will get what is coming to it. Maybe not at the moment. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but in God’s time it’s coming. So these two endings reveal something that is consistently true about God—that God is both just and gracious. “Jonah encourages us to ask hard questions about the balance of divine mercy and justice, about what extreme divine sovereignty looks like and what its costs might be.”
There are three thoughts I’d like to give you as takeaways for the story of Jonah. The first is this: God’s patience is a gift. God showed patience with Nineveh, something Jonah didn’t think they deserved. But God’s patience allowed them a season of reflection and a chance to do better. We can be impatient. We want things fixed. We want justice. We want to be in the right. It’s a sentiment that is found throughout the Bible, captured nicely by 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” We all benefit from the gift of God’s patience, and we would do well to mirror it.
Second, God’s justice is real. Just because God does not operate on our schedule or because we see real injustice in the world does not mean God is uncaring. God cares deeply. God calls us to act justly because we should know better. God calls us to trust that God is making all things new. But we should welcome God’s judgment. Why? Because we should want what is fair. If someone stole my car, I’d want the legal system to get justice for me. If people act wickedly, we should want consequences for that. Jonah tells us that God’s justice is real, but that it’s in God’s time and in God’s control, not ours.
Finally, God’s grace is ultimate. God has spoken into all of human history through Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus bore in his body the weight of all of our sin and shame. It’s by grace that we’re all saved—Presbyterians and Ninevites. It’s a gift, and receiving that gift leads to transformed lives. So, know God’s grace for you is real. Know that it is real, also, even for your enemies. This Jonah story tells us that justice matters, that God is ultimately sovereign over all things, and that grace is the final word of the God who loves the world. Grace is the heart of God.