LEARNING FROM THE BOOK OF JONAH
Number 39
JONAH'S PROBLEM
"But Jonah was greatly displeased and angry. He prayed to the Lord, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That 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 form sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Jonah 4:1-3
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IN our last sermon we looked at Jonah in his trouble with the Lord and considered how this can effect every Christian from time to time. We meditated on the fact that although Jonah trusted in the Lord and affirmed that his ways were all righteous and good, yet in his heart and mind he had difficulties with the way of God in his life and ministry. As we continue to consider these verses we will look more closely at verse 2 to see what we can learn about the problem Jonah was stumbling over.

Jonah is quite open with the Lord which is very good. He brings his problem to the Lord. In prayer to God we should always feel that we can bring to God, our Father through faith in Christ, all that is on our minds, specially those things that trouble us. We can see the rightness and wisdom of such action from a human perspective. How often parents find it so difficult to come to terms with the fact that their children are afraid to bring a problem they have to them, and how destructive such lack of confidence in parents is in the life of children. If only children had been able to tell their parents all about the thing that troubled them, how much sooner the problem would have been resolved. The fact is that if we are afraid to bring our problems to God, even our problems with God and his ways, this surely is a profound defect in our faith and spiritual understanding. After all God knows our problem before we tell him, so silence before God about a problem is silly. God is our Father in Jesus, and we are his beloved child. It should be natural for us to speak with God about everything, even our sinful thoughts and actions.

As we hear his conversation with God in prayer we can glean an inkling of what troubled Jonah. From the very commencement of his ministry to Nineveh, Jonah clearly had problems about it. As soon as God told him he wanted him to minister to Nineveh, and take God's message to this Gentile city, Jonah discovered his problem. The problem was so great that he ran away from God.

Then as we read on in verse three we can deduce more about the problem. Jonah tells God that he knew that he was a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. From this we can deduce that Jonah knew the outcome of his ministry to the people of Nineveh, and this outcome would be that they would repent, and God would relent from the threatened judgement and the people as a whole would turn to God and be saved. Jonah was clearly troubled about this outcome in the lives of this Gentile city. He felt it was all wrong. He did not want it to happen. He did not feel Nineveh should receive such grace and love from the Lord.

Such was Jonah's concern about God's compassion for Nineveh, that he felt that his life now was not worth living and useless. Jonah felt it was better for him to die than to live. This seems totally incomprehensible. How happy any true minister of the Gospel would be to see God blessing in ministry in such a way, and in ministry an outcome in conversion on the scale that it occurred in Nineveh. The fact that Jonah felt his usefulness would be at an end if Nineveh received this blessing from God, holds the clue to the problem which Jonah was troubled with.

We hear of Jonah's ministry other than to Nineveh in chapter 14 of 2 Kings commencing at verse 23. Jonah lived in the reign of Jeroboam 2, who was the son of Jehoash the previous king of Israel. We see Jonah's ministry was to the Northern kingdom of Israel, that is the ten break-away tribes which separated from Judah after the reign of Solomon. Jonah was sent to Jeroboam to tell him that he would be successful in restoring land in Israel that had been taken away from them. However this historical narrative tells us that Jeroboam did evil in the sight of God all his 41 years of reign. From this we can see that Jonah's ministry to his people was not blessed with much success, for the king and the bulk of the nation remained in rebellion with God.

The other fact that was relevant in the life of Israel was the fact that they still knew the word of the Lord, and still presumed on their pedigree as the chosen people of God. They assumed that God was for them and would bless them even though they did not turn from their sins. The fact that Jonah told them God would give Jeroboam victory in his cause to get Israel's land back from their enemies would have enhanced in the minds of Jeroboam and the people that God was with them and pleased with them. Together with all this Israel looked down on the Gentiles and felt themselves to be superior as the chosen people of God, and that Gentiles were outside the grace and blessing of God.

Here we have the background to Jonah's problem. Jonah cared for his own people. He plainly struggled to bring them to be reconciled to God, and plainly his ministry had had little effect. The King still went his evil way.

When Jonah was sent to minister to Nineveh with the knowledge that his ministry there would be heeded, and God's compassion would be poured out on the people, the state and condition in Israel would have been seen in contrast with the blessing of God in Nineveh.

When we understand this we can see that it is not surprising that Jonah found himself so troubled. It would have grieved him so much that God was prepared to bless a Gentile and heathen city and yet withhold similar blessing to Israel. Jonah would naturally ask the question how God could leave his chosen people in their sin, and instead save a Gentile city. Because he was an Israelite, and loved his own people, and desired so much that they would turn to God, he would naturally feel unhappy when Gentiles were brought to repentance, and his own people left in their sins.

Our deductions can go further even though we can't be dogmatic about such further deductions because we are not specifically told. Jonah would ask himself, and ask himself before God in prayer, what effect it would have on Israel if they saw their prophet preaching to Gentiles, and seeing that the preaching was made so successful by the hand of God.

So we begin to see the predicament Jonah found himself in when God sent him to minister to Nineveh and his knowledge that God meant to bless that ministry. No doubt Jonah had prayed and prayed to God for his blessing on Israel and his prayers seemingly had been without result. This would exacerbate his trouble over going to preach to Nineveh. Jonah, even with all his spiritual knowledge, was not immune from the feeling of the Israelites to all who were not Jews, and this would be something he had to struggle with before God.

But why did Jonah now feel it would be better to die, now that Nineveh had received such blessing. The answer can only be that he saw something of the effect that his ministry to Nineveh and its success would have on Israel, and their attitude to him as their prophet. No doubt he would have felt that they would hate him, and refuse to listen to him more than they had refused before, and because of this his ministry to his own people would be useless. But also it is likely that Jonah would not have been immune to the feeling of unhappiness that God should bless Gentiles and not his own chosen people.

From all this we can see how easily Jonah could become critical of God's actions and his wisdom. We can easily see how he would feel that God had let him down. He would ask the question why should God be gracious to Nineveh and not his own people.

From all this we can see how easily Jonah found himself with problems and become unhappy about the ways and wisdom of God. The fact is that Christians today are not immune from such questions as Jonah had to face. We may pray so hard for God's blessing in the fellowship and ministry that we are involved in. We see blessing being given to others and not to us. It is easy to become disillusioned and questioning. Then there are the bigger difficulties that there are such large areas of the world which are seemingly deprived of Gospel witness, and so people there have no opportunity to believe and be saved. Similar problems may be even nearer home, when we have prayed for someone or something which we feel is so good and desirable and yet we do not see any blessing.

However explainable Jonah's problem was and however understandable, yet still it showed sin and failure in the heart and mind of this dear servant of God. How should he, and we also in similar situations, face such problems as these. There is only one way, and it is so simple, but in practice so hard.

The way to face such dilemmas is to submit in trust to God. God is sovereign and he has a right to do as he pleases. God is all wise, and so his actions and ways must be right, the best, and for the blessing of his people. God is a righteous God and all his ways are righteous. God has a sovereign plan which in eternal wisdom is righteous, good and holy. God is working out his purposes of love and salvation perfectly, and all he does will promote this goal. WE CAN TRUST HIM in all his ways.

Jonah should have submitted to the will of God and submitted his own desires and wishes into the hands of God. Jonah should have left his problem with the Lord in the terms of Paul's words in Philippians where Paul tells the Philippians not to be anxious but by prayer and supplication make their request known to God, and so resting on the Lord find God's peace filling their mind and heart. The fact is faith should believe that all God's ways are good and the best in every circumstance, and if we see difficulties in God's ways, faith understands that God has already seen all of them, and in his wisdom and purpose they are already resolved. Nor does faith stop here. Faith accepts the will of God even if it seems to deny such good and blessing as we feel are needed.

How does this apply in Jonah's case. The fact was that the Ninevites were in different circumstances to Israel. They did not have the spiritual privileges that Israel had been given, so grace was poured out on them. In the case of Israel God had poured out his grace for years and years, and still Israel had turned against God, and presumed on their special relationship with God. God had been gracious to Israel so many times in the past, yet they turned from him again and again. The provocation which Israel gave to God was enormous. In the light of this it is not surprising that God withheld his continued blessing from them.

The fact is that God's compassion, though infinite, is dependent on repentance from sin. This we shall address more fully in the next sermon.