Good News for Villains
God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.
But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
The LORD responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.
Then the LORD God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.
God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?
Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”
But the LORD said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
(Jonah 4, CEB)
And that’s the end of the book of Jonah. You’re not missing a page in your Bible—your Bible app didn’t glitch it up—it just ends like that. With that question from God just hanging there… “Can’t I pity Nineveh, Jonah?” It’s a bizarre end to the story.
But let’s get real, it’s been a bizarre story—the prophet of God ran from God (ch1), sang the greatest hits from the psalms from the gut of a fish (ch2), and then caused a repentance stampede with a five-word sermon (ch3). It’s a bizarre story so its ending might have been more bizarre if it had been normal, neat-and-tidy.
If it had just ended in verse 10 of chapter 3, with God deciding not to bring disaster. That would have been perfectly comfortable and perfectly forgettable. But no. It ends like this. With this question. “Can’t I pity Nineveh, Jonah?” And this question hangs at the end of a chapter so strange that most cartoon versions of the story cut it out completely.
But we’re near the heart of the book of Jonah. With this question, we’ve hit an artery. And as we think about the way the book ends—with a weird chapter anda hanging question—it’s helpful to remember that Jonah is situated in the middle of the Book of the Twelve—what we often call “the Minor Prophets.”
This bizarre story is explicitly a work of prophecy. It’s a story meant to breathe God’s life into his people. It’s not a story meant to be listened to, analyzed, or debated. It’s a story meant to be inhaled.
It’s meant to come into us, to hit our lungs, to get into our bloodstream, to change the way we’re living. The prophetic edge of the book has finally arrived with this hanging question. “Can I not pity Nineveh—these twelve ten-thousand people—these animals? Can I not pity them, Jonah?”
The whole book has been driving toward Nineveh from chapter 1, verse 1:
“Hey, Jonah, go to Nineveh—to those people who don’t think or look or act like you. To that superpower that threats your national security and your way of life. To that capitol city of the Assyrian Empire. To the center of state-sponsored terrorism and brutality and cruelty. Go to Nineveh, Jonah. I want you to deliver a message for me.”
And when Jonah finally does—the city is transformed. The city of Nineveh—from the king to the commoners to the cattle—they all repent in sackcloth.
They all turn from evil—from ra’ah (3v10). And so God halts the plan to destroy them—to bring ra’ah or “disaster” on them (again 3v10). It’s the same word—ra’ah—and it roughly means “badness.” They turn from ra’ah (bad actions) so God doesn’t bring ra’ah (bad circumstances) on them. And now we’re arriving at the heart of the book—the prophetic edge—to the place where the story is meant to be inhaled. Because…
The Ninevites stop their “badness.”
So God won’t bring “badness.”
And Jonah thinks “bad big bad.”
That word hooks chapter 3 together with chapter 4. And this all looks—vayira ra’ah gedolah—to Jonah “it was an evil, great evil”. This is a “bad big bad” to Jonah (4v1).
And he’s angry.
The Hebrew for “angry” literally means “hot.” It’s like one of those cartoons where Donald Duck’s face turns bright red and someone cracks open an egg and cooks it on top of his head. He’s fuming. He’s sizzling. The heat is radiating off of him. God isn’t going to let loose on Nineveh, so Jonah lets loose on God in verses 2-3:
“You know, God—this is why I wanted no part of this from the beginning!—This is why I fled to Tarshish! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God—
This is actually the central covenant identity of Yahweh revealed to Moses in the cleft of a rock in Exodus 34—
“I know you’re the covenant God of Israel—that you’re a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy…
…and at the end of verse 3, he literally says something like:
“My death is more good than my living.”
In verses 2-3, Jonah basically says: “I knew you God—I knew you were a dirty rotten forgiver. You’re NOT going to bring badness on them. And this is bad big bad. Your mercy is bad. Them continuing to live is bad. And I’ve got 20/20 vision at this point, so I’ll tell you what’s good: my death.”
That’s Jonah’s complaint.
In Hebrew, Jonah says all of that in precisely 39 words. And the book will end in verses 10-11 with God responding to Jonah’s complaint… with precisely 39 words.
Now, we know that we’re landing at something important. The book’s prophetic edge. The author of Jonah wants us to stop and pay attention: “Jonah is complaining to God. Watch carefully because God is engaging our complaints.”
And between beginning and end—between Jonah’s 39 words and God’s 39 words—there’s a weird, strange, surreal scene with some kind of “plant”—a qiqayon—some kind of vine or tree or shrub. I’ve told a lot of people that the book of Jonah is the book of the Bible most like a Monty Python sketch, and this just backs that up: There’s a scene with a shrubbery.
After that shrubbery, God gives his full response to Jonah, but here he asks his ending question in miniature: “Is your anger a good thing?” That’s how the Common English Bible translates it. The Hebrew is tightly packed, almost poetic prose:
Is it good that you’re angry? Does your anger please you? Is your anger good to you? You’re so angry that you want to die. So are you angry over a good thing? Something pleasing? Something worthwhile? Over the right thing?
Jonah gives no answer. Instead, it says (v5) that he marches out of the city. Evidently Jonah had been standing in the middle of Nineveh—in the middle of revival, in the middle of salvation—complaining to God:
“See all these people surrendering to you? I wish they wouldn’t. I hate them.” (Which is a bit awkward if you’re Frank the Ninevite… “What did we ever do to him?”)
And this is the moment—as Jonah is marching to the east of the city—we need to be very sympathetic to Jonah. Because Jonah’s anger is like all of our anger—it feels really worthwhile.
Yes, he’s angry, and he’s right to be angry. It does please him to be angry, because he *IS* angry about the right things. He’s on the side of good. The Assyrians were barbaric—objectively terrible—trained in terror—bent on world domination. The Ninevites are the Nazis of the ancient world. (“What did you ever do, Frank the Ninevite? Well, Frank… this is a little awkward… you’re a Nazi.”)
Jonah doesn’t want the Ninevites off the hook for all the evil they’ve already done. For all the atrocities they’ve already committed. For all the cities they’ve pillaged, all the men they’ve killed, all the women they’ve ravaged, all the babies they’ve butchered. For all the pain they’ve caused, and now…the idea that now they’re stopping—that they would turn from badness—that God would not allow their badness to overtake—the idea that God would show them mercy… that is horrible. “Yes it’s good that I’m angry God—rain down fire—burn the city—burn them all to hell.”
That’s what’s going on with Jonah here.
He marches out Nineveh (v5) and sits down EAST of the city. Which—it’s brilliant—just by giving us his direction the story is telling us something about Jonah and his anger. By the time Jonah’s story gets told, the Eastward point on the compass had become profoundly symbolic:
The East is how you leave Eden in Genesis 3 (v24). The East is where Cain—covered in his brother’s blood—settles down in Genesis 4 (v16). The East is where the tower of Babylon gets built in Genesis 11 (v2). Lot heads to the East and winds up in Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 13 (v11). East is exile. From love. From land. From life.
And all of that might seem like coincidence… except… when God gives the Tabernacle (and, later, the Temple) to Israel—the symbolic way you go back into God’s presence is always a westward movement. You’ve got to leave the East to come home to God.
Jonah, I know you FEEL justified in your anger. I know you ARE justified in your anger. I know they’ve been horrible. I know they’re Nazis. But Jonah… this anger inside you… you’re marching… the wrong direction.
Jonah sits down and makes some kind of makeshift hut—a booth—a sukkah—and he’s sitting in his anger. This is the ancient equivalent of keeping tabs on their Facebook Profile. He’s sitting there, hitting refresh, hoping that—maybe just maybe—something bad will happen to them. And for any of us who have hated someone from a distance—which is all of us—this is a profoundly uncomfortable place to be. He’s burning with anger… and the sun isn’t helping with the heat.
The middle of this chapter is all surreal and strange and dreamlike. God “provides”—or “appoints”—that shrubbery (v6). It springing up overnight according to verse 10, and the leaves of this plant save him from his ra’ah—from the “badness” of his situation. Evidently this shade is better than his makeshift hut. And it’s the only time when we see joyful Jonah. For a brief moment—sitting in his anger—Jonah is content and happy. But alas there’s no lasting happiness in the east.
Because God “provides” again. This time it’s a grub—a worm, a maggot—that eats the plant (v7). Suddenly Jonah is profoundly uncomfortable again. And it’s not by chance. God is behind this. God provided that darn plant; now God also provides that darn worm.
And then—one more time—God “provides.” This time a scorching east wind (v8) that evidently tears down his hut. And now… Jonah is hotter and more angry and more sizzling than ever—and he blurts out his complaint once again:
“My death is more good than my life” (4v8)
It’s like God is providing Jonah a moment of crisis. The only other time in Jonah where God “provides” was the end of chapter 1, where God provided a great fish to save Jonah from a crisis. This time, God is bringing the crisis. (That’s what we need a lot of times… isn’t it?)
Jonah has this death-wish for Nineveh, and he’s gotten comfortable in it. So it’s like God has to strip Jonah of his comfort—God has to get Jonah to crisis—so that maybe—just maybe—God can save Jonah. So that God can finally deal with what’s going on inside of Jonah.
God asks his question again (beginning-of-v9):
God: “Is it good that you’re angry… about the plant, I mean?”
Jonah: “Yes, my anger is good—to the point of death good.”
And then God has his 39 words: “You care about this plant. You think it’s horrible that you’ve lost this plant… but wouldn’t it be horrible if I lost this city? I know the Ninevites are Nazis, but they don’t have to be—they won’t always be. Shouldn’t I care them?”
And the question just hangs there as the credits start to roll. The book of Jonah ends like Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son: it ends with a cliffhanger. It ends with us asking questions… Will the older brother come back in to his Father’s house? Will the older brother join the party with his younger brother?
It’s an ending that lingers with us. An ending that haunts us. It’s an ending that says: God loves the villains of our story.
God loves the people we hate. The villains. Not merely the people who annoy us. God loves the people we feel justified in hating. They’re barbaric, they’re rude, they’re condescending. They’re hurting the country. She tore up the State of the Union. He is tearing up the Presidency. He’s a corrupt communist. Yeah, well, she’s a heartless capitalist. That entire group of people is the problem—and I hate them—and I talk about them like they’re idiots—and bigots—and like they’re all the same—and I watch Cable Television that reinforces how right I am and how wrong they are.
Or perhaps it’s closer to home. She betrayed me. He abused me. They hurt me. They hurt my family. They knew what they were doing.
And here comes the prophetic edge of Jonah… the ending that haunts us. Because it says God loves the villains of our story. But thank God. That’s really good news. Because we’re the villains in someone else’s story.
When we’ve been hurt—like, legitimately, actually desperately hurt—we fall into the trap of that Jonah’s in. We want God to be the Godfather. We want to tell him about our pain and have him send some angel-goons to break their kneecaps. But sooner or later, if God kept smashing kneecaps, if God gave just deserts to everyone, if God rained down fire, and burned to hell every villain…. there would be no one left.
We’re NOT saying everything is morally equivalent. We’re NOT to say that Mr Hitler and Mr Rogers are the same—they’re obviously not. The point is simple: we’re all hurting each other. But, somehow, in our pain and anger… we think God should be taking our side more than anyone else’s. We want God to be our secret weapon to inflict fiery hellfire-vengeance on our enemies.
But—notice—who is the only one in this story who feels like they’re on fire? Who’s alone and burning and sizzling in the sun? It’s Jonah.
There are good things to get angry about in this world. But when we hold on to anger—when we sit in it—when we set up a hut and stay there—when we let anger seep down into our soul and become hatred and contempt and “I-wish-they-were-dead”…
….the only person burning is us.
If God is Love, then hatred is hell. We’re invited out of the heat.
We’ve all been wounded. Some of us in the room—desperately, impossibly, unthinkably. And what they did matters. Your being abused, your being betrayed, your being sexually violated, your being lied to—it matters. It all desperately matters. It matters. AND. And. And you don’t have to be defined by it.
There is a path out of hell—a path out of hate. And here we’re approaching the very heart and mystery of the gospel. As Christians, we understand that God deals with every darkness and injustice and brutality and horror, by bearing it all—shouldering it all—himself. God makes our sin his own. God makes our suffering his own. There is nothing that any of us experience—no crime, no loneliness, no tragedy, no darkness—that God has not entered into and made his own. God has taken the sin done to us AND the sin we’ve done to others onto himself.
We’re talking about the cross, and what do we see there? God crucified seeks the good of his killers. Even in the midst of agony, Jesus is praying forgiveness over his enemies. And that’s because God is inexhaustible love. If you’ve seen the Son, you’ve seen the Father. That’s what God is like. That’s the deepest power in the universe on full display. That’s the deepest joy in the universe on full display.
God isn’t our secret weapon to hurt other people. God the Father isn’t the Godfather to break the knees of our Ninevites. God the Father is our good Father—deeply, desperately concerned about the ways we’ve been hurt. More concerned than we are ourselves. AND. And he’s deeply, desperately concerned about every one of his wayward children. God is at work to save and rescue and restore everyone—including the Ninevites.
And so, as Christians, we trust that on the cross Jesus has both carried evil and neutralized evil. And then Jesus came walking out of the grave. Evil has been carried, evil been neutralized,and Jesus is smiling through the scars. The worst of kinds of wounds can be healed, transfigured, even made beautiful.
There’s a path out of hell’s hate, and God himself has blazed it. Because of Jesus, none of us have to be forever defined by what we’ve done to others or what others have done to us. We can get out of the scorching east wind. Something new is possible.
We can head West. We can release. We can forgive. We can hope. And ultimately—this is the Christian hope—we begin practice living toward a world where our villains eventually become our friends.
Resurrection life eventually involves a party with the Ninevites. I don’t know how—but this is what Jesus compels me to believe—there is a day coming when our enemies won’t be enemies anymore.
And we become most alive when we begin aching for this. Most of us can’t even imagine this—some of us don’t even want this to be true—but if we’re following Jesus this is where he fixes our eyes. Jesus wants our hearts to burst with love for our enemies.
Jesus wants our hearts to dream about it even when circumstances literally don’t allow it. I’m haunted by this… and it fills me with hope. I’m like you. I’ve got broken relationships that I don’t know how to make right this side of the New Jerusalem… but I hunger for them to be made right. We may not love the villain yet, but—if we’re serious about following Jesus—that’s our destiny. To be made like God—fully and forever alive full of endless joy and inexhaustible love… even for our enemies.
As we come to the table this evening the Spirit wants to empty us of hell, to empty us of hatred. And the Spirit wants to fill us afresh with love, with peace, with hope, with new life. The Spirit wants you to be defined by love. NOT by what you’ve done. NOT by what others have done to you. By inexhaustible love. Spirit help us join the party—and make us the kind of people who want to meet everyone there.