Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mining the Minors: Jonah (17)

If the book of Jonah were simply a historical account, by all rights it should finish at the end of chapter 3: Nineveh repents, God relents, end of problem for the next 100 years or thereabouts.

Except it doesn’t end, and we should be glad it doesn’t, because chapter 4 is the real point of the book. After all, Nineveh’s repentance was temporary, the salvation of its individual citizens only a matter of their avoiding their inevitable dates with Sheol for five, ten, twenty or seventy years, depending on their age at the time God held back his wrath against their city. If any of the reprieved Ninevites sought out the God of Israel and became proselytes, we never get to hear about it.

No, the Ninevite repentance bought them nothing more precious than a little time. But something very important was happening between God and his prophet Jonah, which would later be recorded for the edification of 2.5 thousand years’ worth of believers who still need to learn the lesson God taught Jonah. And this lesson is the subject of chapter 4.

Jonah 4:5 — Jonah, Go Home
“Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.”
We must ask ourselves why Jonah didn’t simply pack up at this point and trudge back to Israel. His job was done. He had “fulfilled his vow”, said his piece and reluctantly obeyed his God. Other than this solitary episode, Jonah’s prophetic ministry was primarily to the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom of Israel. The logical thing to do would be to head back to people whose individual and national survival he cared about passionately, right?

Wrong. Or, at least, Jonah didn’t do the logical thing. Instead, he built himself a little structure some distance outside of Nineveh — a reasonable precaution for someone who was still hoping for a sudden earthquake, mega-tornado, or maybe fire from heaven to fall on his enemies.

So first God couldn’t get Jonah to go to Nineveh, then he couldn’t get him to leave. Even if Jonah had not spoken a word out loud, his presence outside the city told the story of his obduracy.

Jonah 4:6-8 — God Makes Three Appointments
“Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ ”
The Natural Order

When God created the natural world, he designed it to operate more or less independently of him. Not independent of his ongoing life energy, of course: we read that the Lord Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” and that “in him all things hold together”. Nothing at all could continue if God did not maintain it at every moment.

That said, God’s intention was that the natural world, having once been created, would continue to operate on its own, much the way that back in the day we would pick up a mechanical alarm clock, wind it, and then put it down and let it tick away. Like those alarm clocks, which do not require their owner to move the hands from second to second and minute to minute, our world largely operates mechanistically and predictably without its Creator and Owner hovering over it at every second, according to the laws of nature as God ordained them. At least, such is my understanding of what the Bible teaches us about these things.

Making Exceptions

All of this is to say that when we read in scripture words such as “God appointed”, the Holy Spirit is drawing our attention to an exception to the normal mechanistic operation of the world. As noted in an earlier post in this series, there are seven things in Jonah that God is specifically said to have done, none of which would have happened naturally. For those who do not believe in miracles, the belly of the great fish is going to be only one of many problems you have with the book of Jonah.

There are three “appointments” in chapter 4 of Jonah, and each of them is something that happens in the natural world all the time. These are not so much inversions of the natural order as they are special interventions into that order for the specific purpose of instructing Jonah. In the natural order, plants grow, worms nibble away at plants, and scorching east winds blow by from time to time. There was nothing miraculous about these events in that sense. The miracle was the precise timing according to God’s purposes, and in the case of the plant, the accelerated growth: I do not know of any plants that grow naturally to a height that would provide shade in a single day.

But when God appoints, that’s the sort of thing that happens.

One Hard-Headed Prophet

In Jonah 4:4, God had posed the first of his three questions to Jonah: “Do you do well to be angry?” Jonah had not responded. God’s next move is an act of grace. He sees that his truculent prophet is determined to sit out interminably in the hot Middle Eastern sun waiting for a miracle of destruction that is not going to happen, and so God provides him protection which he doesn’t deserve and hasn’t asked for. Jonah is understandably pleased ... until the next morning, when God appoints a worm to destroy his source of protection.

Now, I can’t speak for you, but if this had been me, I’m off to Nineveh for the day to find whatever shelter I can. After all, it’s right there in sight, and it’s not like the Ninevites haven’t seen you walking around their streets already. Moreover, they have recently humbled themselves before God and repented, so you have nothing to fear from them. That’s the level of sheer obstinacy the Lord is still dealing with in Jonah, who would rather expire than be seen on Nineveh’s streets in a state of need. God forbid one of those newly-repentant Ninevites might take pity on him and offer him a cup of water or a bite to eat, and then he’d be in their debt. No, better to die in the sun, thinks Jonah. And this is exactly what he says, except that once again he asks God to please speed up the process.

This is one hard-headed and hard-hearted prophet.

Miracles of Destruction

Jonah had been hoping and praying for a miracle of destruction, but not this particular miracle, and especially not compounded by a scorching east wind and a sun like a furnace. But this is the problem with wishing and praying for a special intervention from God in judgment against the things and people we perceive to be wrong in the world. Most of us do not have much of a clue where the really important and far-reaching wickednesses lie, especially when they lie within our own hearts. When we call for God to come close and judge evil, we need to remember our own limited understanding, and the fact that judgment begins with the household of God and works outward from there. The danger of wishing for miracles of destruction is that you just might get what you are asking for. Our God is a consuming fire.

This is precisely what happened to Jonah. If God’s grace had outer limits, you might think the prophet would be bumping up against them at this point. Thankfully, if it does, we are not very good at estimating them.

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