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.Jonah 4:5-11
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.”
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?”
Poor, pitiful Jonah. So angry with God for showing mercy to Nineveh that he goes east of the city (further away from Israel) and builds a temporary home there, perhaps still hoping to see Nineveh burn. The fact that the Scripture uses the term “suka” for “booth” suggests that this was also in keeping with the Jewish Festival of Booths or Sukkot, which occurs in late September as summer transitions into autumn. It is the first festival after the Jewish New Year of Yom Kippur, which is why it is also referred to the Feast of the First Days. As part of this festival, Jewish families are instructed to construct a temporary dwelling and to live in it for 3 days, as a reminder of the temporary dwellings of the Israelites as they sojourned through the wilderness of Sin towards Mt. Sinai.
As this is likely some of the hottest days of the year (the dog days of summer), God miraculously provides a shade tree to help keep Jonah comfortable – a tree that sprouts up overnight and Jonah was “exceedingly glad”. Overjoyed at the mercy that God had provided for him. Excited for the grace that God had extended to him in the midst of the glaring heat. So Jonah got comfortable. He relaxed beneath the shade of that tree. Until the dawn of the new day.
With the new day brought a different challenge as the tree withered away and Jonah was again angry and filled with self-pity. A tree that was miraculously provided for a night, that he did nothing to cause to come into being yet casually enjoyed the benefits of its presence, was taken away and he was left wanting. Interestingly, Jonah was not angry at God, but he was angry at the tree. The Father, knowing the motivations of the heart, challenged Jonah with a rhetorical question: “Are you right to be angry at the tree? A tree that you did nothing to cause to grow. A tree that just sprang up overnight, and because the benefits of that tree didn’t last more than a day you want to die?”
Are we not the same way? We expect the easy, casual benefits of grace for ourselves while we scornfully look down upon those whom God also desires to know His grace. We bask in the shade and comfort of His mercy, yet we sit in judgment upon the very ones that God calls us to go to and serve with an open heart. We take the benefits of His grace and mercy for granted and then when the Father brings discipline in an effort to get our attention, we withdraw into an emotional malaise and become paralyzed by our disillusionment.
The grace and mercy of God are not yours for your own enjoyment and selfish benefit. They are extended to you so that you might extend further to those around you. And when we hoard His gift to ourselves, blinded by our own warped sense of justice and self-righteousness, we quench the Holy Spirit of God and choke out the benefits of His grace in our lives. The tree of mercy withers in the baking sun of our discontent and self-righteousness.
If God chooses to have mercy on a repentant city of 120,000 people who are ignorant of the one true God, but demonstrate a heart seeking after Him, what right do we have to withhold mercy ourselves? The mercy of God is His alone to give. The grace of God is His alone to extend. He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe and if He chooses to extend grace to our enemies who come forth in repentance, who are we to stand in His way.
I am reminded of the story of Corrie ten Boom, celebrated survivor of the Nazi concentration camps for hiding Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland in World War II. She endured unimaginable horrors and lost all of her family, including her beloved sister Betsy in those camps, which she chronicled in her book “The Hiding Place”. Upon her release, she spent the remainder of her life telling the world “There is no pit so deep that God’s love isn’t deeper still.” After one speaking engagement she was approached by a man whom she recognized as one of the cruelest of the guards at the camp she and Betsy were interred at. He confessed his sin to her and begged her for her forgiveness. It took everything in her to not walk away in anger, disgust, and self-righteousness, but she had just spent the previous hour speaking on the power of forgiveness and to walk away would undo everything she had stood for. She took the guard’s hand and said “I forgive you…brother.”
Jesus said we are to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44, 45). Do not take His grace and mercy for granted. Extend that same grace and mercy to those around you. No, they don’t deserve it, but neither did you. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be grace. This is the ultimate lesson of Jonah and it is the ultimate lesson that we all must take to heart.