Lesson Focus: God is a gracious God, merciful and slow to anger while abounding in steadfast love. He is ready to relent from punishing. Most of the time, this is not who we are.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:
Identify one of Israel’s core beliefs about God as “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Examine their lives to see if they identify with Jonah in any way.
Repent for the ways in which they have not viewed their enemies with the eyes of God.
Catch up on the story: Jonah has finished preaching God’s message of repentance to the people of Nineveh and they have responded favorably. The destruction that God had planned to do to the city, he will not do. Jonah decides to sit on a hill overlooking the city to see what happens to it.
Told you so! Jonah begins to see the people of Nineveh repent. His fundamental belief that God is, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2) is confirmed. Normally, when a prophet finds his belief in God validated it is met with great joy. God has done a great thing on the behalf of the people of Nineveh, Jonah should be happy. But he isn’t. Instead, he is hopping mad. Not just kind of miffed but smoking mad. The kind of mad that makes you want to break things. The kind of mad that might just cause you to say things…bad things. For Jonah, he is so mad he doesn’t want to live any longer!
We are told once again why it is that Jonah ran away in the first place. All of his life he was taught that God was a God of mercy and grace, who looked kindly upon those who are repentant sinners. But this promise was solely directed toward his people, the people of God, Israel –or so he thought.
Deep down inside Jonah knew that if he went to preach to the people in Nineveh they would respond, they would repent, and God wouldn’t destroy them, giving them the end Jonah thought they should have. And he was right. Jonah went and preached. Nineveh repented, and God spared them.
Keep in mind, in Jonah’s day, Israel has been going through great hardships. They have suffered under foreign power, had great economic difficulties, both of which severely affected life and heath. And here it is that while Israel continues to suffer, God now offers salvation to the wicked people of Nineveh (Fretheim, 120-21). It is from this context that Jonah’s call and his subsequent resistance comes.
Fretheim points out that if anything is sin, Jonah’s response this entire time has been sin –it has been a rebellion against grace. “Resistance to God’s gracious activity on behalf of others, however evil they may be” (Fretheim , 118-19). How often in life do we have the same kind of attitude about God’s grace toward others? On a global scale, sometimes we would rather see God’s wrath poured out on the enemies of the United States, than see any kind of attempt to love them as ourselves.
How do we respond when we see our enemies, both personally and nationally, as not getting the punishment that they deserve? Are we like Jonah, do we get mad? I don’t think any of us would get mad enough to ask to die. Or do we rejoice because God’s grace is at work in our enemies’ lives? Wesley said, “No one is a stranger to God’s grace.” I think we can confidently say his grace is at work.
After Jonah states that he was right from the very beginning about how things were going to turn out God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah doesn’t answer, he only climbs a hill overlooking the city to wait and see what happens to the city. He still holds the perverted hope that destruction will come to the people of Nineveh. While Jonah doesn’t quite get it yet, that he really doesn’t have a right to be angry over Nineveh receiving God’s grace –he, after all had been a recipient of God’s grace just two chapters ago– the reader is left to answer God’s question.
Jonah then sets up for himself a little shelter, which is apparently inadequate to provide protection from the sun and hot wind. So God, being merciful and gracious to this stubborn and sinfully angry man, causes a small bush to grow to give him protection. Jonah goes from being crazy angry, to being ecstatic. Perhaps the offering of shade and protection gave him hope that Nineveh would be destroyed, instead of it being a display of God’s grace toward Jonah, even when he does not deserve it! By the next day God sent a worm to destroy the bush. As the sun began to shine and the wind began to blow, Jonah once again wants to die.
God gets the last word… Once again God asks Jonah if he is right to be angry. This time, however, it isn’t about Nineveh, but about the bush. God is wondering if Jonah has a right to be angry about a bush that he did not cause to grow or even ask for, but which was given to him. We are shown that Jonah hasn’t been changed a bit by his experience of being in the belly of a whale or watching God’s grace at work in the lives of a foreign people. Rather stubbornly Jonah replies, “Yes, angry enough to die!”
The final two verses of the book of Jonah are God’s response to Jonah. If Jonah should be concerned about a bush, which he did not cause to grow, then why shouldn’t God be concerned about the well-being of an entire city filled with people and animals, all of which are God’s creatures?
The point has been made. God’s grace is available for all of creation because God cares for what he has made. This is regardless of what “God’s chosen people” have to say about it. Yes, God should be concerned about the city of Nineveh and so should we.
The final question rings in Israel and Jonah’s ear through this book, “Why is God saving Nineveh when we are in such a mess?” God does still care for Israel, but they had many, many chances to escape punishment. Finally, they had to be punished, and at the time of Jonah, were still reaping the consequences of their sin. Nineveh, however, responded right away. Ultimately, God cares for all his creatures, and his grace is available to all.
So What? The story of Jonah ends with a question. “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” It’s a rhetorical question, to be sure, but we never get a hint of how Jonah might have responded. Did he begrudgingly answer that, of course, God should be concerned about all that he has created? Or did he respond with continuing recalcitrance that, no, God should not care for those wicked ones when he has not properly cared for Israel?
The author of Jonah wants us to identify, not with the people of Nineveh or even the sailors on the boat Jonah used to try to escape God. The author of Jonah wants us to identify with Jonah. He wants us to examine our lives and our attitudes to see if there is any Jonah in us. Are we perhaps bitter about our own rough spot in life, even though we are trying our best to be faithful? Do we look at the way in which the wicked prosper, when by all accounts God’s judgment should be upon them, and become infuriated? Do we get angry when God’s grace and mercy is extended to those who have committed great acts of evil? Do we see our enemies as we want to see them, or do we see them as God chooses to see them?
We are often caught seeing our enemies in the way that we want to, ways that cause us to demand our own brand of retributive justice, justice that demands a payment. On the other hand, God gently calls us to see our enemies, indeed all people, in the way that he does, with the eyes of a creator.
Critical Discussion Questions:
How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
God cares for all of his creation, cares enough to give them grace particularly when they do not deserve it. God even gives grace to those who have been stubbornly rejecting the giving of it to others.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Salvation looks like God giving grace to those who choose to repent, even if we don’t think they deserve it. Salvation looks like not being destroyed even after being extremely evil.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
This text calls us to examine how we understand God’s grace. Are we greedy with it? Should only those who think and act like us, or those who are willing to think and act like us, receive grace? The book of Jonah calls us to comprehend and share the magnitude of God’s grace. It calls us to give grace, to share God’s love with those whom we would just as soon see dead. And as hard as this may be, it calls us to rejoice when others receive grace and divine favor, even when it seems like we, who have been faithfully following God, have not received grace.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
At the beginning of the chapter, we are told that Jonah prayed to God. What is the content of Jonah’s prayer and what does it say about how he understands God?
Why is Jonah so very angry that Nineveh is saved?
Jonah climbs a hill to watch what happens to Nineveh. Then, God causes a plant to give him shade. Later, God causes the plant to wither. Why does God provide the plant and then take it away?
Is Jonah’s response to the plant withering appropriate? Why or why not?
In the end, God questions Jonah. Jonah is concerned with a plant that he did not plant. Should God not also be concerned about a city whose inhabitants he created? Why does God ask this question?
Imagine yourself in Jonah’s place. How would you respond to God?
Are we like Jonah, do we get mad? Or do we rejoice because God’s grace is at work in our enemies’ lives?
Works Cited: Terence E. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah: (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2000).