God’s Lesson On Sovereign Mercy

Previously, we considered the Lord’s threefold appointment in preparation for the lesson that He was going to teach Jonah. In this article, we will look at His lesson on sovereign mercy.

The Lord is pictured here as a very patient teacher seeking to lead His student, who is not very teachable, to see the truth. He condescends to reason with him and to help him to arrive at the right way of thinking and looking at things.

Jonah 4:9 says, “And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.” Earlier in verse 4, the Lord asked Jonah if he had any right to be angry with the Lord’s decision to spare Nineveh. Jonah said nothing by way of response to the Lord. Instead, he simply walked out of the city, erected a booth and sat in it, and waited to see what would happen.

The Lord now puts another question to him, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” or “Do you have a right to be angry for the plant?” This time Jonah answers the Lord’s question. But sadly, he did not give the right or godly answer. Instead, he responded in haste and in defiance. He essentially said, “Yes, I do well to be angry,” or “Yes, I have the right to be angry.” “In fact, I am angry enough to die.”

Jonah was very angry because the plant that had suddenly sprung up and provided him such wonderful shelter and given him such joy and delight had been suddenly taken away from him. Ultimately, Jonah’s anger was directed at the sovereignty of God. Previously, Jonah was angry that God had sovereignly chosen to deliver the people of Nineveh. Now, he is angry that God had sovereignly chosen to destroy the plant.

Clearly in Jonah’s mind, the Lord had gotten things the wrong way round. Instead of sparing Nineveh, He should have destroyed it. And instead of destroying this lovely and useful plant, He should have spared it. If Jonah were God, then the plant would still be standing whereas the city would have been totally flattened and overthrown. But Jonah was not God and because his perspective of things was not aligned with God’s perspective, he became very angry and frustrated. 

That’s true of Jonah and that is true of anyone of us, isn’t it? If we are going to stubbornly refuse to bow to God’s will but instead choose to resist it, then we are going to end up very miserable and frustrated. And perhaps like Jonah, we are going to request to die and to forgo the opportunity to live. Jonah was angry about the wrong things. He was the one, not God, who had gotten things the wrong way round.

And now in the final two verses of the book, the Lord was going to show Jonah the foolishness and unreasonableness of his way of thinking and looking at things. “Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”

The absurdity of Jonah’s position is clearly seen when we compare and contrast his attitude towards the plant with his attitude towards the city of Nineveh. Jonah had great compassion on a mere plant which he himself had not laboured for nor caused to grow. In other words, it was not as if Jonah had put in a great deal of effort into cultivating this plant. God was the one who was totally responsible for its miraculous growth. Jonah had no hand in it at all. Furthermore, this plant had sprung up overnight and it died overnight. There was little time for feelings of long term attachment to develop – here today, gone tomorrow.  On the other hand, there was the great and famous city of Nineveh, which had a population of at least 120000 people.

Now the phrase “that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” has been variously interpreted. Some say that it refers to the number of children or infants since children or infants are indeed unable to discern their right from their left hand. If that is true, then we would be looking at a population of well over half a million in the city.

Others say that it simply refers to the fact that the people of Nineveh were morally and ethically naïve or inexperienced or immature. They were not very wise or mature or discerning when it came to making moral judgments. But on either interpretation, two things that are clear: first, the inhabitants of the city were many, and second, they were to be pitied for their immaturity and lack of discernment.

But not only does the Lord mention that there are many in the city who could not discern right hand from left, the Lord also adds the words, “and much cattle” as if to say, “if you don’t care about the people in the city, perhaps you could spare a thought for the great number of cattle there, which would be lost if the city was destroyed.”

Well, Jonah’s great compassion for this mere plant is contrasted with his total lack of compassion for that great city of Nineveh. How can that be? The first is but a tiny part of God’s creation whereas the second is a large mass of people all created in God’s image. If you had to choose between the two, the choice should be easy. But Jonah wasn’t thinking clearly, and so the Lord showed him the absurdity of his way of thinking by asking him those questions.

If Jonah could have pity and compassion on a little plant which did not belong to him, which he had expanded no effort to grow and which has no soul, how much more should God have compassion on over a hundred thousand human beings all created by Him in His own image and all with an everlasting soul. Surely one plant cannot be worth more than one hundred thousand human beings. In fact, the opposite is true. One human being is worth much more than a hundred thousand plants. The LORD’s line of reasoning is very clear and easy to follow. It cannot be refuted.

How did Jonah respond? What could he now say? Or did he say anything at all? And did he eventually repent of his foolish and sinful attitude, and turn to the Lord and view things from a godly perspective? We are not told. But I don’t think it’ll be too far off to assume that he did repent and turn to the Lord or else he probably wouldn’t have written the book of Jonah. 

Jonah began in chapter 1 verse 1 with the word of the Lord coming to him and he ends in chapter 4 verse 11 with the word of the Lord to him again. The Lord, not Jonah, will have the final word in this book, for in the end, it is the Lord and not Jonah, who is the most important person in this book. But since this final word is given in a form of a question, it remains for everyone reading it to answer the question for himself or herself. Everyone reading this book will have to confront the question of whether he will accept and submit to the sovereignty of God in all things, particularly in His bestowal of mercy on those whom He chooses.

—Linus Chua