God’s Word for You
Jonah 4:2-3 a gracious and compassionate God
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, January 7, 2019
2 He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, isn’t this what I said would happen when I was still in my own country? That was why I first tried to flee to Tarshish, since I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in mercy, who relents from sending disaster. 3 So now, LORD, please take my life, for death would be better for me than to go on living.”
Jonah was angry with God. Why? He admits: It is because God is gracious and compassionate. His mercy (hesed) “abounds.” Jonah didn’t want God to be merciful to the people of Nineveh; he wanted them to be destroyed, brought down in flames and fire from the sky like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Jonah had not lost his faith. He was still praying, although his prayer was that God would take his life. He wouldn’t take his own life—that would be a sin against the Fifth Commandment. But he could pray for death. Let’s address that detail before we go on to Jonah’s sin.
A believing Christian, nearing the end of life, can pray for a peaceful death. Luther’s evening prayer, part of our regular Catechism instruction, ends this way: “Into your hands I commend my body and soul and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.” A Christian in such a position that their pain is great or there is other suffering that is hard to bear should pray, first of all, that God would give me strength to bear up under this pain, but also that, if it is his will, he might rescue me from my suffering through a peaceful death—but again, only if it is his will.
Luther finds Jonah at fault for failing to repent after God has shown him so much mercy. This is because Jonah specifically pointed to that same mercy to find fault with God. He wanted God’s justice to come quickly! But God is not just. He is not fair. He is patient beyond all human endurance and reason when he forgives our sins, and he only condemns when someone rejects him in unbelief.
Jonah’s words, “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger,” etc., come from God himself when he passed before Moses in the cave (Exodus 34:6-7). This is the forgiving, gospel nature of God, who wants to show his grace and mercy to all mankind.
There is a legend in the Jewish Talmud about the angels Gabriel and Michael, alluded to in the Confessions of St. Augustine. The legend is that Gabriel has two wings, but that Michael only has one. Why? Gabriel has two so that he can “fly swiftly” (Daniel 9:21) to bring the message of peace (the gospel), while Michael has only one wing so that he will have to struggle and labor in his flight when he comes to bring justice (the law). While this is nothing but a made-up story, it nicely pictures God’s urgency with the gospel, which should be our own urgency.
By blaming God’s urgent kindness and mercy, Jonah had fallen into the same sin as Adam and the same sin as the Israelites who had been rescued through Moses. This First Commandment sin blames God for man’s troubles. Why did I sin? Adam answered God by saying: “It was your fault, God. The woman you gave to me—the one you gave me—she led me to sin. I didn’t ask for her, even though you knew my heart and my growing loneliness and you knew that I saw all the animals with their mates and understood that there was no mate for me. She was ideal, but I blame you, Lord God” (Genesis 3:12). And Israel said, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt? We cried out to you there and begged you for a deliverer, but you, O God, you actually sent one. And now we don’t trust you, so we think we’re going to die out here in the desert!” (Numbers 21:5). So Jonah also says, “I sinned and ran away from you because you are merciful.”
Jonah pleaded for mercy in the belly of the whale, but now he turned into the unmerciful servant in Jesus’ parable. In the parable, the master says, “You wicked servant! I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33). If this is an extra temptation for many of us, Jesus helps us remember it every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sin, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Holy Father, keep us from becoming hypocrites. Let us see your forgiveness for us and reflect it in our love, patience, and forgiveness of the people who surround us.
Pastor Timothy Smith