Sometimes we pray “wrongly” as James says, “to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). We want what we want, not what God wants. Some time ago I ran across a wedding prayer that illustrates how subtly this can be done. This is a girl praying on her wedding day:
Dear God. I can hardly believe that this is my wedding day. I know I haven’t been able to spend much time with You lately, with all the rush of getting ready for today, and I’m sorry. I guess, too, that I feel a little guilty when I try to pray about all this, since Larry still isn’t a Christian. But oh, Father, I love him so much, what else can I do? I just couldn’t give him up. Oh, You must save him, some way, somehow.
You know how much I’ve prayed for him, and the way we’ve discussed the gospel together. I’ve tried not to appear too religious, I know, but that’s because I didn’t want to scare him off. Yet he isn’t antagonistic and I can’t understand why he hasn’t responded. Oh, if he only were a Christian.
Dear Father, please bless our marriage. I don’t want to disobey You, but I do love him and I want to be his wife, so please be with us and please don’t spoil my wedding day.
That sounds like a sincere, earnest prayer, does it not? But if it is stripped of its fine, pious language, it is really saying something like this:
Dear Father, I don’t want to disobey You, but I must have my own way at all costs. For I love what You do not love, and I want what You do not want. So please be a good God and deny Yourself, and move off Your throne, and let me take over. If You don’t like this, then all I ask is that You bite Your tongue and say or do nothing that will spoil my plans, but let me enjoy myself.
Have you ever tried to move God off his throne and put yourself there instead? Have you ever tried to disregard everything that God has said about himself and his commands, because we thought we knew better? You know, every time we sin, that is exactly what we are doing. We are telling God that he does not know what is right and good, and we know better, and so we are going to do our own thing.
Well throughout the book of Jonah, we have seen Jonah doing this exact thing.
In chapter 1, we saw Jonah trying to run away from God. God gave Jonah a mission, and Jonah tried to decline the mission, but God would not let him. God’s will in this mission is sovereign. He is in perfect and complete control, and he will not allow some patriotic, Jewish prophet to keep him from performing what He wants to do. In this case, God’s will is irresistible.
So in chapter 2, we saw Jonah running smack into God. You cannot run away from God and what He wants so Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, and prayed a prayer that was self-centered and lacked a repentant attitude.
Then in chapter 3, we saw Jonah somewhat grudgingly obey God. We saw that he did not give the Ninevites all the information about God that he could have. Jonah was running with God, but not whole-heartedly. Throughout the book, we seen Jonah try to run God. Jonah has been thinking throughout the book that he, like the bride-to-be in the prayer, knows better than God what should happen to the Ninevites, and so Jonah hat been trying to put himself on God’s throne.
In the last chapter of the book, we hope that Jonah finally learns his lesson. We hope that Jonah finally repents, and finally agrees that God can be gracious to the people of Nineveh, and that he does not deserve grace any more or less than they do or we do.
Remember that we had three unanswered questions that we asked from the text.
As we come today to the end of the story in Jonah 4, we want to come at it with the three questions in mind.
First, Jonah was told to preach fire and brimstone to Nineveh in chapter one. He knew, as we do, that generally in the OT, when God sends someone to preach judgment against a nation, that nation is destroyed. But Jonah, instead of quickly doing what God asked, fled in the other direction. So we asked our first question:
1. Why did Jonah not want to go and preach fire and brimstone to Nineveh?
Also in chapter one, it seemed to us that Jonah would rather die than obey God. And so our second question was
2. Why would Jonah rather die than obey God?
And finally, in chapter 3, we saw that while God did love and care for the people of Nineveh, that was not his primary concern in the book of Jonah. It appears that God was after something else, and we suspected that it had something to do with Jonah. So our third and final question is:
3. What is God trying to teach Jonah?
All three of these questions get answered in this last chapter of the book. The fact that they are answered indicates that they were appropriate questions and that the author intended us to be asking them all along. Now before we go to the text for answers, I want to review the different theories on what different scholars think the purpose of the book of Jonah is. This will help us answer question number 3.
We agree that God has a plan to accomplish, but we have not yet seen what that plan is.
Today we are going to see what God’s plan is and what the purpose of Jonah is. Before we look at the text, let us look at some of the theories about the purpose of Jonah: 
1. Some think it is a book about how to know a false prophet, for as Deut 18:22 points out, a prophet whose prophecy does not come true is a false prophet,
2. Some think that Jonah is to show that some prophecies are conditional.
But AGAINST 1 and 2, we learned that his prophecies did come true, later at the time of Nahum in 612 BC.
3. Some think the book is intended to get the Jews to repent.
4. But the MOST POPULAR throughout history is the idea that the book of Jonah is about God’s missionary concern for all people (not just the Jews). This was held by men like Augustine and Luther. Most modern writers have followed suit.
So those are four of the most popular theories about why Jonah was written. We are going to see that these four theories are not the real purpose of the book of Jonah. Theory 3 and 4 are definitely part of what Jonah teaches, but they are not the purpose of the book as whole. We begin to see all of this as we pick back up with the story in 4:1 and how Jonah responds to the repentance of the people of Nineveh.
By the way, if you preached to a city, and every person in the city repented of their sin, how would you respond? Most likely, not the way Jonah does. But that depends on the city…
Look how Jonah responded when Nineveh repented.
The Response of Jonah (Jonah 4:1)
Jonah 4:1. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.
Why did Jonah respond this way? Remember, Israel and Assyria were rivals in a contest that could leave only one nation surviving. Jonah was a popular prophet in Israel, and if it appeared to others that he was helping the enemy, his career would be over. Also, the Ninevites were quite wicked and cruel, and so Jonah probably hated them, or at least hated what they did. And so he was hoping that God would destroy them.
We should not be too hard on Jonah here. We all sometimes wonder why God doesn’t judge a certain person or group of people. In World War II people were wondering why God didn’t just destroy Hitler. Maybe today, you sometimes wish your boss would get in an accident, or a really annoying coworker would get fired. Maybe you have a neighbor who, if their house burned down, you might say “Well, he had it coming.”
I will confess a similar attitude in my own heart. This past week as hurricane Katrina ploughed through New Orleans, for a minute I thought, “Well, with Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras, they had it coming.” The book of Jonah is about to speak to me.
We judge Jonah, but we judge too quickly. If we can relate to what Jonah is feeling here, then the rest of the chapter is for us. Sometimes we might pray as Jonah prays here in verse 2-3.
The Honest Prayer of Jonah (Jonah 4:2-3)
Jonah 4:2-3. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”
Here, at last, we have answers to two of our three questions, and finally, an honest prayer from Jonah.
We see why Jonah would rather flee to Tarshish than preach fire and brimstone to Nineveh, and why he would rather die than obey God. The answer to both is that he knew God was gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Jonah is actually quoting from Exodus 34:6-7 here.
Jonah knew his Bible and knew that God was gracious. He did not want God to show compassion on Nineveh. He did not want the heathen nation of Assyria to receive blessing and forgiveness from God. In fact, it seems that Jonah disagrees with how God handled the situation. Jonah is trying to tell God how to behave. God’s love and grace is wonderful when it is directed toward Jonah and toward Israel. But God showing love and kindness toward Israel’s enemies? They don’t deserve it!
Jonah knows God’s character and is telling God that he was wrong to give grace to the Ninevites. Jonah, in his anger, is attacking God’s actions saying that the people of Nineveh do not deserve God’s grace.
What Jonah forgets, or does not know, is that no one deserves God’s grace. Maybe sometimes we expect things from God, thinking we deserve it. If so, we are forgetting Romans 3:10-12:
There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.
Jonah apparently thinks that grace is earned and that God is obligated to give grace to those who merit it. Jonah has come to expect grace from God because after all Jonah is one of the chosen. Well, Jonah seems not to realize that God is being more than gracious with him as well. God could and maybe should squash Jonah like a worm, but God wants to teach Jonah a lesson.
Jonah knew that the power struggle was so close between Israel and Assyria that if God ended up not destroying Nineveh, that would be the end for Israel. And indeed it was. The Nationalistic, patriotic Jonah was the instrument God used to help Israel’s enemies, who later destroyed Jonah’s homeland.  This is exactly what happened. About 40 years later, an Assyrian King by the name of Tiglath-pileser III began the conquest of Israel, and by the end of two years, had completely destroyed Israel and deported the people. It is possible that Jonah may still have been alive, knowing that he had played a part in the collapse and defeat of Israel.
But all of that is beside the point here in the story. Jonah doesn’t know exactly what will happen if Nineveh is not destroyed, although he can probably guess. But he hates the Ninevites so much that he wants God to destroy them anyway. In fact, now that God has been compassionate on Nineveh, Jonah would rather die. He is probably seen as a traitor in Israel, and God was now blessing the people that he saw as the scum of the earth. So Jonah was angry with God. So angry, he says in Jonah 4:3 that it would be better for him to die.
The Question of God (Jonah 4:4-8)
Jonah 4:4. Then the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
This is the question I’m sure God sometimes asks us when we think our way is better than God’s. God is asking Jonah the same question we would ask of him. It is as if God is saying: “Jonah, I had every right to kill you for disobeying me. In fact, I had more right to destroy you than I did the Ninevites, because you knew about my righteous requirements and chose to disobey anyway. They did not know, and although they were living in sin, they were ignorant of my requirements. Now that they know, they have repented of their sin and so I have turned from my wrath. You still have not repented of your sin, and I am still being gracious and patient with you. Have you any right to be angry?”
Well, Jonah, in typical Jonah fashion, does not answer God, and instead goes to pout outside the city.
Jonah 4:5. So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city.
Apparently he hoped that maybe God would destroy the city after all, and he wanted to be there to watch it when it happened. He might have been waiting to die as well (1 Kings 19:4). While he was waiting, God was still at work with his goal.
Jonah 4:6-8. And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
The Second Question of God (Jonah 4:9)
Jonah 4:9. Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
God asks his question again. He asked it the first time in Jonah 4:4, and Jonah did not answer God. God is still trying to get through to Jonah. Well, Jonah did not answer God in Jonah 4:4, but here he does, because the question is no longer about the city, but about the vine.
And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!”
With all this talk of death, if Jonah were living today, he would be considered suicidal. He would be put on suicide watch.
And why does he want to die now? Because his plant died. Jonah is furious about a plant. He liked the vine, and wanted to enjoy its shade, and here God had killed the plant, and so Jonah was angry. He is so angry with God he wants to die.
When do Christians get angry with God?
- Whenever we think we deserve something from God and we find him guilty for not giving it to us.
- Whenever we think someone else to be unworthy, and we are angry with God for giving them blessings they don’t deserve.
- Whenever God takes away some blessing from us, which we think He had no right to remove. a pet, our health, our money, our job, a loved one, our dreams, our plans
- Whenever we are self-righteous.
All of these things were true of Jonah here, and he was angry with God. So now, since God finally got a response out of Jonah, God is going to teach Jonah a lesson.
The Lesson of Jonah (Jonah 4:10-11)
Jonah 4:10-11. But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left — and much livestock?”
And with that, the story ends.
What a strange ending. Why is the vine there? Why does the story end this way. It seems like the story should have ended after chapter 3. God has mercy on Nineveh. The End.
But that wasn’t the end. Why not? Because the story is not about Nineveh.
It is about God and his dealings with a man whose heart is cold. Jonah wanted the city to be destroyed, and did not care for anyone in the city. But he did care for a plant. And God is saying, “Jonah, look what you are saying. You did not cause the plant to grow, and yet you loved it and wanted it to survive. Neither did you cause Nineveh to grow, and yet you want it to be destroyed. And Nineveh is full of 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left. In other words, they are ignorant about me and about my requirements. They do not know good from evil. Yet if you had to choose between 120,000 people and a plant, you would pick the plant? The book closes with one final question from God: “Shall I not be concerned with that great city?”
And that is how the story ends. It leaves the reader hanging.
We do not get an answer from Jonah. We do not know what his response was. We do not know if God got through to Jonah’s heart. We do not know if Jonah repented of his ways. We do not know if Jonah learned his lesson.
Why does the text not tell us?
Because the text is not primarily about Jonah. Most people think this story is about God’s love for other nations. It isn’t about that, or the story would have ended after chapter 3. A few people think that this story is about God working on the mind and heart of a prophet of Israel. The story is not about that either, because we are not told how Jonah responds.
What is this story about?
The story is about you and me. The text leaves us hanging because it asks the question, “What about you? What would you do if you were in Jonah’s place? What does God see in your heart?”
Who do you hate? What do you love? What are your priorities? Do you love your car, sports, or making money more than you love your family? Are you more concerned with how you look, or the clothes you have than the welfare of you neighbors? Are you more concerned with your personal security or comfort than helping others who might be overseas or who might need to hear the Gospel?
Here is the question the text asks of you: What are you concerned about? What is God concerned about? Do these match? If not, you better look at your heart, because God’s concerns do not change, and he is on a mission to change your heart. He is not so much concerned with where you are, or what you do, but in who you are. The question is not “Where can God use me the most, but where can God change me the most?” God’s will is not necessarily a place, but a heart or a character. Who do you hate? What does God want of you in regard to them?
I once did what Jonah does here. When I was in high school I played tennis. I was on the varsity team, but at the bottom of the ladder. I was not very good. In one match, I played a guy who was actually worse than I was. But I had had a terrible night sleep the night before, and so was playing worse than usual, and I lost.
I used to carry tracts around in my tennis bag so if I had the opportunity, I could witness to my opponents. Well, after I lost to this player I should have beat, I was so mad, I decided to give him the Jonah Gospel. I got out a tract and said, “If you don’t do what this says, you’re going to hell.” I am not proud of this. I still pray for that opponent of mine that he was not completely turned off to Christianity because of me. That God sent someone to him to love him into the Kingdom by sharing with him the real good news. I was Jonah.
In college I ran into a guy who had this as his normal method of evangelism. He went around campus with a reader board on his body which said “God hates sinners” on one side, and on the other side, it said, “All sinners are going to hell.” And then all around these two loving slogans, were the various sins. He had things listed like liars, cheats, drunks, faggots (that was his term). He told people that he had not sinned for over 16 years and that his daughter, who was 13, had never sinned in her whole life.
That man was a Jonah. So caught up in his own self righteousness that he could not see that he was a sinner too, and that God loves all people, especially sinners, because that is what we all are.
Jonah was patriotic and knew that if he prophesied to Nineveh and then God had mercy on them, it would seem like he had helped Nineveh. He did not want to help his enemies. It would seem to all Israel that he had betrayed them. It would seem that their God had betrayed them. But God was not out to uphold his own reputation, and he definitely was not out to uphold Jonah’s reputation. God was after a man’s heart.
The real reason for the book of Jonah is NOT letting Gentiles know his mercy, as most teach.  Jonah is about God’s mission to the heart of a man. This is often the most difficult mission to undertake. The text leaves us hanging on whether the mission was successful or not. The reason: what about you? What is your heart condition? Sometimes God asks us to do things, not necessarily because he wants them done, but because he wants to first and foremost work on our heart, and teach us something about him and his character. 
Look into your own heart today. Examine your motivations and fears. Examine your willingness to obey God. Is God after your heart? Do you harbor resentment and hard feelings toward a specific person or group of people?
Americans tend to think we have been “blessed” due to our intelligence, creativity, hard work, and our devotion to God. We excuse ourselves from sharing our wealth and prosperity with others by convincing ourselves that other nations suffer because they lack the righteousness we have. While other nations, such as Indonesia that we are going to hear about this week, lavish is poverty and starvation, we assure ourselves that they poverty is a result of their worship of false gods. We think it’s simple, but in the final analysis, it is self-righteousness. 
We Christians condemn many sins in America today — sexual immorality, lying, drug and alcohol abuse, pornography, crime — but we tend to tolerate, even praise someone who is self-righteous because we see it as having a good “self-image.” We must remember that Christ came to seek and save the lost, and those that disdained and avoided Christ were those Pharisees and religious leaders who were self-righteous. They had their act together, and yet they missed the One who was the reason that this act was put together. Do not miss out on God’s grace because you think you have deserved it. Grace is not earned, but is given to those who know they do not deserve it.
This is the lesson of the book. It is the same lesson Jesus taught in Matthew 5:44. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This is well illustrated by a story Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological seminary tells. He and some students picked 10 people who they couldn’t stand, who were mean to them. And decided to pray for them. Over the course of a few years, all ten became Christians.  That is the proper way to love those we’d rather hate. That is how Jonah should have responded. That is how we should respond as well.
Notes on Jonah 4:
 T. Desmond Alexander, Jonah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D.J. Wiseman (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988), 83-85.
 Ibid, 81.
 C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 44-50.
 Alexander, Jonah, 83.
 Bob Deffinbaugh on Jonah 4.
 Howard Hendricks, Moody Bible Institute Founders Week Message, tape on the power of prayer in my personal tape library.