Saturday, January 23, 2021

Mining the Minors: Jonah (18)

When God gives a mission to one of his servants, there is always more than one thing going on. He is not just sending a message or getting a job done, but also teaching his most faithful followers more about himself.

We should expect this. He is God, after all. If anyone is equipped to play multi-dimensional chess, it is the Divine Mind.

From the very beginning God has sought fellowship with men. When he created Adam, he didn’t just turn him loose to govern creation. The Genesis narrative implies that the first man and woman were familiar with “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day”. God made a habit of coming around and engaging with his creations personally. The fall of man disturbed that fellowship, but God never stopped seeking it and working to make it happen.

Accordingly, we find in the closest of God’s relationships with men the repeated effort on his part to bring them into a deeper understanding of what he was doing and feeling. All good relationships involve understanding one another, right?

These are not academic lessons. They are movements toward inculcating and reinforcing shared thoughts, purposes and emotions in those the Lord loves  … at least, that’s how I read it.

Jonah’s story is just more of the same. God is teaching his prophet to think and feel as he does, very much against Jonah’s natural inclinations.

Jonah 4:9-11 — Here Endeth the Lesson
“But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.’ And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’ ”
God’s Second Question

God’s second question sounds very much like the first, which, if you remember, was “Do you do well to be angry?” The first question was rhetorical. God was asking Jonah, “Is it a good thing that you continue to wish judgment on Nineveh when I have given them a reprieve?” The implicit answer is No, it is not. Adele Berlin makes what may be a valid point here: that Jonah’s anger may be less nationalistic and more personal. He has been forced to prophesy against his will, after which his prophecy has entirely failed to come true. Jonah may have felt his prophetic career was in the dumper, his reputation shot, and that God was making sport of him, forgiving the Ninevites at his servant’s expense.

Be that as it may, Jonah has no response to God’s question, and the reader has no way of knowing whether in this moment Jonah is beginning to rethink his vindictiveness and desire for revenge on the enemies of his people. We suspect he is not, because God moves to stage two of his lesson.

Having sent a worm to destroy Jonah’s only source of shade, and a hot wind and sun to make the prophet increasingly uncomfortable, God then asks Jonah another question that sounds similar to the first, but really means something quite different: “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” Here the implicit answer is not no, but yes. Yes, it makes me angry that the world is the sort of place in which perfectly useful living things may be wiped out in a moment, especially when this regrettable feature of reality affects my personal comfort. It makes me so angry that I don’t want to live in it anymore.

This is the answer God is looking for. It is the most tentative of beginnings to an empathetic response.

Creation Groans

After all, there is something wrong with our world, and we all know it. It started in Eden and has continued for the entire life of our species on this planet: God’s creation was subjected to what the apostle Paul refers to as “futility”: a sort of perverseness in which random, arbitrary, horrible things happen not just to people, but to the entire planet. The ground is cursed. Weather patterns turn unpredictable and destructive. Nature is “red in tooth and claw”, as Tennyson famously put it. It’s not nature’s fault. For reasons we will have to leave to the philosophers, the fate of nature itself is inextricably knotted up with the fate of mankind, and so “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God”. Scripture teaches us that the restoration of mankind in Christ carries with it the seeds of the restoration of all things.

Meanwhile, creation groans. When God appointed a worm to destroy the plant that provided Jonah’s shade, he was doing something that happens all the time around us, and simply speeding up the natural processes of a fallen world. Jonah responds to the Lord’s little illustration of a much larger and more important spiritual truth with a reaction that is a little closer to God’s own: he instinctively recognizes the wrongness of pointless destruction. When God’s righteous judgment against sin touches Jonah personally, he is stricken to the core and wants to die. But notice that the cause of Jonah’s anger is completely reversed now. First he complained that God was too merciful, which made him angry enough to die. Now he complains that God has not shown mercy to the plant which protected him, and this too makes him angry enough to die. Such is the fickleness of the human spirit.

That said, as petulant and childish (and horribly familiar) as Jonah’s responses have been so far, at least his thinking is headed in the right direction. Wishing for miracles of destruction doesn’t seem like such a great idea anymore.

Five Reasons the Lord is Patient

Now, Nineveh certainly deserved destruction, and its destruction would still come. The city was full of wicked people doing wicked things, and their repentance in the face of coming judgment, while apparently sincere, would turn out to be a momentary thing, a blip in the annals of history.

A hundred and fifty years may seem a long time to you and me, but in 612 BC, the allied armies of the Medes and Chaldeans would besiege, plunder and burn to the ground the greatest city of its day, after which Nineveh would become so de-urbanized and depopulated it would effectively cease to exist. Had he witnessed them, these events would undoubtedly have sated the bloodlust of the Jonah we read about in chapters 1-4, but I like to think Jonah eventually processed the lesson God was teaching him through the destruction of his plant, and came to think differently about the judgment of God. Judgment is a last resort. God is patient toward men, not wishing that any should perish, as Peter would later put it. But so as not to leave Jonah out of his counsels, God shares with him five reasons for his current policy of restraint.

1. God is invested in his creation. (“You did not labor, nor did you make it grow.”) Jonah didn’t, but by implication, God did. And if we can speak of God laboring and investing himself in the growth of a mere plant, how much more is God invested in a city full of human beings, all of whom reflect the image of their Creator, no matter how poorly they may do so? Can we fault God for wanting a return on his investment and on the patience and generosity he had displayed to these people over the years? Surely not.

2. History matters. (“… which came into being in a night and perished in a night.”) The entire life cycle of Jonah’s plant came and went in a single day. Again, by implication, Nineveh did not. In fact, Nineveh’s growth to become the largest city in the world for a period of at least fifty years was a process that took over two thousand years. Men and women forget their history rather easily. God does not. He defended Jerusalem against Sennacherib’s Assyrian army “for the sake of my servant David” when David had been in the ground for something like 300 years. We see only the surface of a matter, whereas God knows, weighs, and takes into account every contributing factor, every cause and every consequence, and every reason why the Ninevites were who they were.

3. Size matters. (“120,000 persons”) It is unlikely God would mention such a number unless it was significant to him, and unless he expected it to be significant to Jonah. If we think twice about the killing of a single man or woman — and we certainly should — how much more does God reflect before acting as the numbers of potential objects of his judgment increase. That does not mean God will indefinitely withhold his anger against sin. It does mean that the judgment of God, when it finally comes, is never capricious or merely emotional. God weighs up the iniquities of those he judges, and deals with them at the most appropriate time and in the most appropriate way.

4. Ignorance is a mitigating factor. (“… who do not know their right hand from their left.”) We find this principle in the New Testament as well. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” the Lord Jesus asked. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” cried Stephen as he died. He likely had similar reasons in mind. God’s judgment is always strictest against those who have been given the greatest insight into his will. “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Israel had no excuse for its behavior. Neither did Nineveh, but God was reluctant to treat the Ninevites worse than he treated his own people, whose behavior was much worse given the unprecedented revelation of God they had been granted.

5. Collateral damage is undesirable. (“… and also much cattle’’) I love the last four words of the book of Jonah. I know some people find them funny, but they reflect God’s concern for a creation that was not limited to mankind. Man was the peak of creation, certainly, but that doesn’t mean the lesser beings God brought into this world are without value. The Law of Moses contained multiple provisions concerning the care of animals. A disciple may be worth “many sparrows”, but not one of them will fall to the ground apart from our Father. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were offered because they taught necessary spiritual lessons, not because God is bloodthirsty or uncaring.

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