Monday, October 24, 2011

A Lesson in Right Affections (Jonah 4:6-11)


A portion of this final section of Jonah was at the center of an infamous fight between two remarkable Christian leaders in the late 300s and early 400s. During that time period, the two most well known Christians were Augustine and Jerome. Both left indelible marks on the church that are still evident today. In 390, Jerome began to translate the Old Testament into Latin directly from Hebrew. Prior to that time, Latin Old Testaments had been based on a Greek text, the Septuagint. Augustine feared that Jerome’s version would create confusion and controversy because the wording of some familiar texts would undoubtedly be changed. This was somewhat like more recent situations in which newer Bible versions depart from the familiar wording of the King James Version. When Jerome’s version began to grow in popularity and common usage, a twelve year war of letter writing took place between the Jerome and Augustine over the issue. At the heart of the debate for some period of that time was the identification of the plant found in Jonah 4:6. The existing Latin Bibles of the day, based on the Greek Septuagint, had identified the plant as a gourd. When Jerome translated it from Hebrew, he used a word that means “ivy.”

In a letter to Jerome in 403, Augustine tells that a certain pastor had begun to use Jerome’s version, and in the course of expounding the book of Jonah, he came upon this word, which in Augustine’s words, had “a very different rendering from that which had been of old familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers.” Augustine relates, “Thereupon arose such a tumult in the congregation, … correcting what had been read, and denouncing the translation as false,” that this pastor, “was compelled to correct [Jerome’s] version in that passage as if it had been falsely translated.” Had he not done this, Augustine assured Jerome that the pastor would have been terminated from his position.[1]

In John Calvin’s reflections on this embarrassing episode in church history, he states that Jerome had been slandered and accused of sacrilege over the translation of this plant.[2] It is interesting that today most Bible commentators are content to say that we do not know, nor does it matter, what species of plant this was. Calvin says concerning the entire affair: “Those men were certainly thoughtless and foolish who were so offended for a matter so trifling.”[3] So much emotionally fueled rhetoric, and for what? A plant!

That is not only the point of the debate concerning the translation of the word referring to the plant; it is also the point that God sought to teach Jonah by way of the plant. He might well be saying to the prodigal prophet, “Jonah, you are certainly thoughtless and foolish to be so offended for a matter so trifling.” Like those who would argue vehemently about the identification of the plant centuries later, Jonah had some raw emotions on display concerning the plant. Through the entire ordeal, God was seeking to teach Jonah a lesson in right affections. Jonah is a man who is driven by his emotions, from the beginning of this book until its end. But thus far, his affections and emotions have not corresponded to those of the Lord. What brings joy to the Lord brings anger to the prophet. God desires to transform Jonah. He doesn’t just want Jonah to do the right things; He wants him to have the right heart—to love the things that God loves and to share in the compassion of the Lord.

Like Jonah, we also need to have our affections shaped by the Lord. We need to learn to be angry at what angers Him and to rejoice over what brings Him joy. So, if Jonah’s experience with the plant and the lesson God sought to teach him there can inform us, we may avoid having to learn the lesson through more direct and personal ways. It would be better for us to learn the lesson in right affections through his ordeal than through our own!

 I. We must beware of misguided affections.

Emotions are part of what makes us human. We all have them and we cannot escape them. They are the gifts of God, and they can serve as important messengers for us. Emotions are powerful motivators in our lives. They lead us to do certain things and to think certain ways. But our emotions are corrupted by our sinful nature, therefore they cannot always be trusted. Just because something feels right to us, that doesn’t mean we should do it. Just because something prompts anger within us, for example, this does not mean that our anger is the right response to the situation.

Back in June of 2003, we went to Phoenix for the Southern Baptist Convention. I had reserved a rental car on the internet, and I went to the agency’s counter to pick it up only to have the agent tell me that they didn’t have any more cars. Now, I thought this was a joke. I had seen this bit before on Seinfeld, so I played along. I explained to the agent the meaning of the words “reservation,” and “confirmation,” but I was assured that there was nothing they could do for me. I could feel the anger rising up within me. I did what many other Christians would do in that situation: I took a deep breath, looked around to make sure there were no other preachers I knew nearby, and then I absolutely uncorked it on the agent. After a few moments of my unbridled fury, I noticed someone trying to get my attention. I looked slightly to the right, only about five feet away, and there was an agent from another company pointing to the sign on his counter that said, “We have cars available.” I did one of those hard swallows, the kind you do when you are trying to get all of your pride down in one gulp, and I walked over to that counter where I very politely asked if I could rent of their fine vehicles.

Later on that night, I became so convicted that I cared more about a stupid car than I did about the soul of that rental agent. No need to wonder what she thinks of Christians and Baptist preachers after her run-in with me! Instead of unleashing my anger on her, I could have helped her through what was obviously a very difficult shift by telling her the good news of Jesus Christ! But my emotions were misguided. Do you want to hear more stories like that? I have a whole bunch of them I could tell! See, I have been learning the hard way for many years that my emotions are not to be trusted, and when I forget that, I begin to be led astray by them.

That is the lesson that God is trying to teach Jonah here in this passage. He teaches him this lesson by three divinely appointed instruments. He “appoints” a plant, then a worm, then a scorching east wind. All of them do exactly what God appointed them to do, just as the “appointed” fish did previously. In fact, in this entire book, only Jonah refuses to do that for which God has appointed him.

The first thing the Lord appoints here in the text is a plant. What kind of plant was it? What do you want to do, start another war in the church? It doesn’t matter what kind of plant it was! One commentator has said that it was a castor-oil plant, and that is what Jonah needed: a good dose of castor oil![4] Like the fish that swallowed Jonah, it is futile for us to debate the meaning of the Hebrew word here. The point is that God appointed the plant, and it grew up miraculously (“overnight”, verse 10) and provided shade for Jonah. You can buy this product called “Miracle-Gro,” but it doesn’t work like this. This is real miraculous growth. The shelter he had attempted to construct for himself was insufficient to provide him comfort. In the loving providence of God, He graciously provided Jonah with a better shelter “to deliver him from his discomfort.” And this delighted Jonah. For the first time in the whole book, Jonah is a happy man!

Now, here comes the hard question: Was Jonah happy in God, or was he happy in God’s gifts? The average person will say, “What does it matter? If he was happy, that is all that matters!” No, that is not all that matters. To be happy in God’s gifts without being happy in God is idolatry. It is an inversion of true Christianity which focuses on seeking the blessings of God rather than seeking God Himself. This is why God’s people have engaged in fasting throughout the centuries. In fasting, we give up the gifts of God in order to attune our affections toward the Giver; to seek the glory of God’s face rather than the gifts of God’s hands.

So, which was it for Jonah? Was he happy in God or was he happy in God’s gifts? There’s really only one way to find out – take the gift away. After Jonah had enjoyed a full day of joy in the shade of the miracle-grow plant, God took it away. He appointed a worm, and before the sun came up the next day, the worm “attacked” the plant and it died. How does this expose whether Jonah’s joy is in God or in His gifts? If his joy is in the Lord, then he will say what Job said. He knew what Job said; he had that book of the Bible during his lifetime. Job said, when all that was precious to him in this world had been taken away from him, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).  Jonah didn’t say this. He didn’t say anything, at least not yet.

The next thing that happened was that the Lord appointed a “scorching east wind” to blow. In addition to the blast of the wind, the heat of the sun began to beat down on Jonah’s head. The Hebrew word is the same for what the sun did to Jonah’s head as for what the worm did to the plant. The sun attacked his head. So intense was the burning heat of the sun and the hot blast of the wind that Jonah became faint and delirious. Some have speculated that the wind appointed by the Lord may be the same kind of wind that blows in the Middle East still today which is known as a scirocco. Stuart writes that the scirocco wind blows with “constant hot air so full of positive ions that it affects the levels of serotonin and other brain neurotransmitters, causing exhaustion, depression, feelings of unreality, and, occasionally, bizarre behavior.” In some Islamic countries, he notes, “the punishment for a crime committed while the scirocco is blowing may be reduced at judicial discretion, so strongly does the prolonged hot wind affect thinking and actions.”[5] This may be why Jonah begins to beg with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.” He might have literally been “crazy from the heat.”

What is it with this prophet and his recurrent death wish? He became suicidal on the ship when he asked the sailors to throw him overboard. When Nineveh was spared from destruction, again he asked for death in 4:3. And now that God has taken away his little plant and let him feel the heat of the desert with full intensity, again he pleads for death. This brother has got some issues! Remember that he didn’t even have to be out in the desert in the first place! He could have stayed in Nineveh and enjoyed a hero’s treatment. He could have labored there, training the people in the ways of God. He could have gone home to Israel and reported the amazing work of God to his countrymen. But he chose to pout in the desert, and now he is mad because God is making him feel the heat. Have you ever done that? Have you ever wandered out into the deserts of life on your own volition, and then cursed God because it was hot?

As in the previous cases, it is a demonstration of grace that God doesn’t grant his death wish! Rather than just zapping the prophet, God asks him with tenderness, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And Jonah responds, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” In other words, “Yes, I am angry enough to die! I will die for my right to be angry about this!”

Now the scab has been ripped off so we can see the cankerous sore on Jonah’s soul. He has misguided affections. He has found delight in the gifts of God without delighting in the person of God. He has rejoiced over a plant – a plant! – that he did not plant, did not tend, and did not cause to grow. He thinks he has every right to be terminally angry about this plant, but obviously he does not. Through this little object lesson, God has shown Jonah that he is just an angry little man. He started out being angry at God because he didn’t get his way, and now he is angry about a plants and worms.

Misguided affections lead us astray like this. We begin to think they are trustworthy guides, and we allow them to direct our thoughts and actions. How many of us have ever been mad at one thing, which we may have had the right to be angry about, only to find that we are then getting mad about everything? James Boice describes the process:
First we are angry with God. Next we express our anger at circumstances, then minor circumstances. Finally, our shoelace breaks one morning, and we find ourselves swearing. God was showing this to Jonah, saying, in effect, ‘Look where your anger has taken you, Jonah. Is this right? Is this the way you want to live? Do you want to spend the rest of your life swearing at petty annoyances?[6]

This is not the way Jonah wants to live. In fact, it seems that it is the way he wants to die. He seems more willing to die like this than to change his heart and live a different way. What about us? Do we want to live this way, being led up and down a tumultuous rollercoaster by our unbridled emotions? Rejoicing one moment because we have received something good, only to wallow in misery the next because it has broken, or been lost, or been taken away? If our joy was in the Lord rather than in the gifts He gives, there would be more constancy in our affections for He is unchanging. If we are in right relationship with Him and He is the object and source of our joy, then we get off the rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs and we begin to find joy in the ordinary things of life here on the flat ground. I don’t know, maybe you like living on the rollercoaster? I doubt it, but you may say that you do anyway. And given the chance to get off the rollercoaster of misguided affections, will you accept it, or will you insist on staying on through the rest of your life and even unto death?

There is a lesson here in Jonah’s predicament concerning misguided affections. We can learn it from his experience, or we can learn it from our own. But be sure, God will have us learn it in life or in death. He desires to move our affections away from the things of this world and place them where they belong – in the only place they can be satisfied – in Him. When that happens, we can say when our loved one dies, “My joy is in Christ.” When the doctor says we have cancer, we can say, “My joy is in Christ.” When the house burns down, we can say, “My joy is in Christ.” When the cellphone dies, or the car crashes, or the stockmarket plummets, “My joy is in Christ, and He is enough!” And once He becomes the object of our delight and joy, our misguided affections begin to be transformed to reflect His affections.

II. We need transformed affections that reflect the heart of God

Rumors concerning the death of Muammar Gadaffi began to circulate early on the morning of October 20, 2011, and by midday it was confirmed. One comment on Twitter summed up the emotions of many people around the world. It said, “Hell has been busy this year.” Now, before you say “Amen” to that, let me remind you that hell is busy every day. And the big question we need to ask is not “How does this make us feel?” The big question is “How does this make God feel?” The death of a ruthless tyrant is good for the world and good for the people who have suffered under his violent and oppressive regime. Therefore, the end of his reign is the cause for some measure of rejoicing. But if our rejoicing is not tempered with another reality, then we have not understood the affections of the God who said, “As I live! … I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). If our affections are undergoing transformation to reflect His, then there is a gravity in our emotions – a joy for the opportunity of the people to live in a freer society and for the world to be a safer place, mixed with the real horror that another lost soul has joined the population of hell for eternity. You may say, “Well, he got what he deserved!” But, please remember, you also deserve it, as do I. If you think that you are not as great a sinner as Gadaffi or any other ruthless tyrant in the world, then you have not grasped the sinfulness of all of our sin and how it is viewed in the affections of a just and holy God.

Let me throw out another case study. Most of us remember Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer whose grisly and perverted crimes tallied seventeen murders from the late seventies to early nineties. To read of the things that this man did to his victims is gut-wrenching. At some point during his imprisonment, Dahmer testified that he had become a born-again Christian. The pastor who baptized him in the prison has stated repeatedly that he is sure that Dahmer’s conversion was sincere and genuine. If that is true, then when Jeffrey Dahmer was brutally beaten to death by a fellow inmate, he went to heaven. How does that make you feel? How do you feel when you think that Dahmer might be in heaven, but your neighbor who is a nice and friendly unbeliever will go to hell? Are you more outraged that Dahmer could be saved, or more sorrowful that your neighbor has not been saved?

We’ve migrated into the crevasse of weighty issues here. This is visceral stuff, but these kinds of questions are exactly the kinds of questions that God was asking Jonah to teach him about right affections. He asks, “Jonah, do you have a good reason (or a right) to be angry about the plant?” God caused the plant to grow with no help or permission from Jonah. God didn’t need Jonah’s permission to take it away. He gave, and He took away. Was Jonah able to bless His name? No, he was wrongfully angry.

Jonah’s emotions are the same concerning the plant as they are concerning Nineveh. He was terminally angry about the repentance and salvation of Nineveh as well. God had already asked him in verse 4, “Do you have good reason to be angry” about what took place in Nineveh? Jonah didn’t answer that time. But the answer he gave concerning the plant exposes the fact that Jonah felt like he did have a right to be angry about Nineveh. In fact, Jonah’s tirade against God and his silence in the face of God’s questions indicate that Jonah felt that God had no right to spare Nineveh. Now God has Jonah in the place where He wants him to teach him a lesson about right affections.

“Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” Unlike Jonah’s cherished plant, God had a good reason and a right to have compassion on Nineveh. He “planted” this seed. This city was filled with human beings whom God had created, and as such they bore His divine image. They were the objects of His love – the love of a Creator for His creation. Should He delight in their destruction, or does He have the right to spare them if He chooses?

If Jonah is unwilling to acknowledge God’s right to have mercy on the adult population of Nineveh, many of whom (but certainly not all) have been guilty of heinous crimes against humanity, would he object to God sparing Nineveh’s children? These may be the ones God is referring to when He speaks of more than 120,000 who cannot tell the difference between their right and left hand. If He wipes out the whole city, it will include these children who have committed no crimes against Jonah or Israel. Should God have mercy on them? Many commentators believe that this statement does not refer exclusively to the children of Nineveh, but to the entire population of the city. Not knowing their right from their left might speak of their moral and spiritual ignorance. Nineveh has been wicked because they didn’t know any better. If that is so, should God not have mercy on them now that they have repented of their sin and turned to the Lord begging for mercy? And what of the animals? What have the cattle or flocks of Nineveh ever done to Jonah? If fire and brimstone should fall on Nineveh, they will be destroyed as well. Does God not have the right to spare Nineveh, if for no other reason than to spare these animals? Does God, or does He not, have permission to have mercy on whom He will have mercy and to show compassion to whom He shows compassion (Romans 9:15; Exodus 33:19)? Does God need Jonah’s, or anyone else’s, permission to save the lost wherever they may be found?

“Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” the Lord asks. And then the story ends. Jonah gives no answer. If he wrote the book, or provided information to another writer (as he must have done unless he wrote it himself), then we know that he didn’t die there. He lived long enough to record the ordeal or provide the information to one who did, but we do not know how he answered the Lord, or if he ever did at all. Did he learn this lesson of right affections? I guess we will find out when we get to heaven.

There is a sense in which we really don’t need to know how Jonah answered. What is more important for us is whether or not we have learned this lesson. What is our response? Does God have the right to save whosoever He desires to save, wherever and whoever they are? Does God need your permission or mine to do what He desires to do? Does He have the right to give and to take away, and shall His name be blessed when He does? If our affections are misguided, we will be angry at the Lord about things that should cause us to rejoice. We will be happy with His gifts when we receive them, but envious and angry when others receive them. But if our affections are being shaped to reflect the affections of the Lord, we will be angered by what angers Him, and we will rejoice over what brings Him joy. If there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:7), then is that reflected in our affections? If so, it will be manifest in how we conduct ourselves in this world. We will be zealous proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus, and we will be glad when even the worst of sinners finds the saving mercy of God. We will be burdened when anyone departs this life without the hope of heaven that is found in Jesus. It will trouble us deeply that a significant percentage of the world’s population has no access to the message of Jesus! And we will acknowledge that God is God, and God is good, and it will be our delight to join Him in His mission to spread His fame to the ends of the earth!

Jonah was not the first to wrestle with the question. And he won’t be the last. Someone here today may be wrestling with it even now. Thomas Carlisle’s poem “You Jonah” concludes with these words:

And Jonah stalked
to his shaded seat
and waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs
in their comfortable houses
to come around
to His way of loving.[7]

He is waiting patiently for you. He longs to transform your affections so that they will reflect His. If you are struggling with the same burden that Jonah was, call out to the Lord and offer Him all of your misguided affections that He might transform it for His glory.

But maybe you are struggling with the burden of Nineveh instead. Convicted of your sin, turned off by a host of hypocritical Jonahs you have known in life, you wonder if there may be any hope. The Gospel tells us that there is hope, and it is only found in Jesus. He is the One who is greater than Jonah (Matthew 12:41). He has taken your sin upon Himself and carried it to the cross where He received your penalty in Himself and He has conquered sin and death through His resurrection. He is alive today and will save you if you turn to Him. He is a God of mercy, and He will show it to whomever He chooses. He has announced that He will show His saving mercy to all who come to Him through repentance and faith in Jesus.

[1] Accessed October 20, 2011.
[2] John Calvin, Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Jonah, Micah, Nahum (trans. John King; reprint, Forgotten Books, 2007), 104.
[3] Calvin, Jonah, 103-104.
[4] Sinclair Ferguson, Man Overboard! (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 2008), 81.
[5] Stuart, 505-506.
[6] Boice, 309.
[7] Quoted in John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! (Second Edition; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 175. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Good Advice from Spurgeon

"Brother, if you preach God's Word as He gives it to you, you have nothing to do with the consequences that come of it. God will justify His own truth; and even if it should seem that the worst rather than the best consequences ensue, it is for you still to go on in the name of Him who sent you. Whenever you and I begin to try to manage God's kingdom for Him, we find the divine scepter too heavy for our little hands to hold."

- From Spurgeon's Exposition on Jonah 4.