There was joy in heaven over Nineveh's salvation.
God rejoiced. The angels rejoiced, congratulating one another, saying: "Nineveh has believed and repented, and one hundred and twenty thousand persons have 'joined the kingdom of God in one day."
However, amidst the rejoicing of heaven and the exultation of the angels there was one man who was miserable on account of this great salvation, and that was Jonah the Prophet.
He was very displeased because God had forgiven those people, had mercy on them and spared them. The Holy Bible expressed Jonah's displeasure in an amazing or rather a shameful sentence, saying: "But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry" (Jon. 4:1). How shocking! Does the salvation of people displease the prophet, and displease him exceedingly, and make him angry? All because those thousands were saved from perdition!
What then is the prophet's work other than the salvation of people? What joy is the prophet's other than joy over people's salvation?
Jonah with this attitude reminds me of the elder son who was displeased and refused to enter the house because his brother had been dead and was alive again; and had been lost and was now found and was received gladly by his father. That elder brother was exceedingly displeased and became angry, exactly like Jonah. He tried with his anger to disturb the rejoicing, exactly like Jonah.
What was the secret hidden behind the Prophet Jonah's anger?
Jonah was still egocentric, thinking only of himself.
He did not think of Nineveh, nor of its repentance, nor of the great salvation that had taken place, nor of the kingdom of God and its edification. He was thinking of one sole thing, that was his ego. He was just like the elder son who thought of himself: how he had served his father for so many years, how he did not have a goat and had not made merry with his friends... (Luke 15). On a lesser level of self-centeredness was Martha who was upset at the beautiful contemplative moments which her sister Mary enjoyed at the feet of Christ. She was thinking of her own comfort and how she was not getting any help from her sister.
Jonah's thinking, however, was of a more serious type. He was still thinking of his dignity and of his word which was not carried out. It was the same thinking of old which had formerly induced him to flee from the presence of the Lord. Due to that thinking he deprived himself of the fellowship of heaven's exultation. He separated himself from joining the hosts of angels in their joy over Nineveh's salvation, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. He proved by his anger that his way of thinking was subjective and not spiritual, and proved that his will was incompatible with the will of the heavenly Father "who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4).
By his anger Jonah proved that he could not benefit from his past experience. He forgot the price he had paid in the belly of the great fish and in the ship threatened by drowning.
That lesson which he received from God had no effect on him, if, after that experience, he obeyed God outwardly yet remained unchanged from within. He did not rid himself of his egocentric nature nor of his personal dignity. God's ministry was not in his inner depths, neither was the love for people. These matters were just on the surface of his thoughts. As for his depths they contained the ego and its dignity more than all else!
It is amazing that Jonah prayed to God whilst in that spiritual downfall! How could he pray when he disagreed with God in the means and in the ends? How could he pray with such a heart void of love, and angry from God's dealings? I do not know. The matter is clarified and becomes even more amazing when he prayed to complain and to justify himself, grumbling against God's treatment and requesting death for himself because death to him was far better than losing his dignity.
He sinned and did not confess his sin, but on the contrary he grumbled! Thus he prayed, saying: "Ah, Lord,...". But Ah rather from you, Jonah, who are concerned only with yourself and your dignity! What do you wish to say? Jonah continued his prayer, saying: "Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I previously fled to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, One who relents from doing harm" (Jon. 4:2).
How does it ail you, Jonah, that God is merciful? Be sure that unless it was for His mercy, you also would have perished. His mercy has embraced everyone. As it embraced the people of Nineveh who repented and humiliated themselves before Him, it also embraced you who have not yet repented nor humiliated yourself and even your prayer involves self-justification, complaining and grumbling.
Jonah cried out in his grumbling, saying: "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!"
Has your anger reached that extent, Jonah, because your word was not carried out, that you saw death better for you than life? First of all. you ought to know that it was God's word and not your own. You were but a deliverer of the message. The owner of the message was God Himself. If God in all His sublimity, greatness and dominion has accepted that to happen, why do you not accept it and you are but dust and ashes!
Who said that God's word which you proclaimed had been disproved or altered? God pronounced the judgment of overthrowing and destruction on the sinful Nineveh and not on the penitent Nineveh.
The sinful Nineveh was worthy of death according to God's justice, because "the wages of sin is death". But the sinful Nineveh is now no more, that the Lord should punish it by destruction. It was actually overthrown when 'It was reformed to its new condition. The new Nineveh bears no relation whatsoever to the sinful Nineveh which has indeed died and its image vanished from before people's eyes. The new Nineveh is a new creation, born of the Holy Spirit, a pure and unblemished creation, having a new nature and a new spirit, and having new attributes ' . It is unjust to pass sentence of death on this new creation. Therefore sparing Nineveh was one of God's righteous acts, and not only one of His merciful acts.
If Nineveh had continued in its wickedness and evil ways and God allowed it to subsist in this condition without executing His judgment on it, then it may be said that the word of warning had been disproved and was not carried out.
Jonah, however, did not apprehend this logic and considered the literal meaning of the judgment and not its spirit! That was why he became angry and it was not right for him to become angry.
One of the amazing matters was that, after his prayer in which he blamed God, grumbling at what had happened, Jonah was still hoping that God might return and destroy the city, to honor His prophet and gratify his angry heart! Thus the Holy Bible says that Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, "till he might see what would become of the city" (Jon. 4:5).
God saw that Jonah was miserable and angry, Hence He wanted to do him an act of love. Whilst Jonah was thinking of himself, God was thinking of people's salvation. God did not think of His own honor as Jonah did. He did not think of how Jonah had disobeyed Him and grumbled at His judgment, but He thought of how to comfort Jonah and save him from his misery. How wondrous God's love is!
Indeed God had a great work which He needed to do for Jonah. He was seeking Jonah's salvation also, lest when he had preached to others, he himself should become disqualified before God (1Cor.9:27). This person who preached repentance to people, needed himself to repent also. He needed to rid himself of his obduracy, pride and self-esteem. As is always God's way, He began the reconciliation. When He saw Jonah miserable He prepared a plant and made it come up over him, that it might be shade for his head "to deliver him from his misery" (Jon. 4:6).
Many a time do You labor for us, O Lord! You labor for our comfort, for correcting us and for reconciling us. We thought that You rested since the seventh day, but You are still working for our sake. You rested from creating the world but concerning its care, You are still working.
You wanted to deliver Jonah from his misery, but it was he who incurred misery upon himself by his wrong attitude.
Yes. This is true, but I want to deliver him from the two things together, from his misery and from his wrong attitude. He is My son no matter what.
I shall uproot obduracy from his heart by the merciful deeds which I shall work with him, so that he may perceive and learn. Just as I had compassion on Nineveh I shall have compassion on him, because compassion is My nature. I had compassion on him when he was cast into the sea; I had compassion on him when he was in the belly of the great fish. I had compassion on him in all his lapses and sensitivities, and I shall have compassion on him now in his misery. I have prepared for him a plant that it might be shade for his head because I know that he will greatly rejoice over it. I seek his joy no matter how much he grumbles at My judgment and no matter how much he becomes angry with My deeds.
It happened as God willed, and "Jonah was very grateful for the plant" (Jon. 4:6). Believe me, when I read of the great joy which Jonah had over the plant, I was stunned. It is indeed an embarrassing phrase!
Do you rejoice greatly, Jonah, over the plant which gave shade to your head and did not even hardly rejoice, but rather became angry, at God's mercy which overshadowed one hundred and twenty thousand persons? Would it not have been more appropriate that you should rejoice thus over the salvation of Nineveh?
You rejoiced over the plant because you thought of your own personal comfort, of your self, and not of the kingdom of God on earth. And it pleased God to gladden you after your own heart to show you that He cares for you and deals with you not according to your deeds but according to the abundance of His loving kindness. God descends to your materialistic level to raise you up to the spiritual level befitting a prophet. He deals with you with such compassion whilst you are sinful to sow in your heart compassion for sinners. Thus He cures your obduracy and unmercifulness towards the Ninevites.
The plant which God prepared for Jonah had two aims:
The first was to show compassion on Jonah and give him shade for his head. The second was to teach him a beneficial spiritual lesson for his life. By the growth of the plant God did a merciful deed for Jonah and by its withering God gave him guidance and teaching so that he might benefit bodily, mentally and spiritually.
In Nineveh, Jonah by his preaching was working with God in spreading His kingdom. And outside Nineveh, God was working for Jonah to save his soul and deliver him from his misery.
God continued to work, quietly and in silence, without Jonah noticing. When Jonah rejoiced over the plant it was for its shade and not for the lesson it gave, because he had not yet received it. He rejoiced over the plant and not because of God who was working for his sake from behind the plant.
When God's design started to bear fruit, He prepared a worm and it damaged the plant. The role of the plant ended and remained for God to use it as an element for teaching!
The plant was gone and the shade was gone, and the sun beat on Jonah's head so that he grew faint and wished death for himself. All these happened according to God's plan in order to give Jonah a useful lesson for his salvation.
Indeed God disposes everything for good, the shade for good and the sun's beating for good as well. The body may grow faint yet this may be for good, that the spirit may become refreshed. Jonah might grow miserable and his soul troubled and he wished death for himself, and this affliction and trouble could be part of God's design, good for saving his spirit and cleansing his heart.
God desires our salvation and is ready to use any, useful means even if it sometimes involves trouble for the body or the soul.
Throughout all these spiritual designs Jonah was immersed in his materialistic thoughts; he rejoiced over the plant and became angry when he lost it, without thinking of his own salvation and without caring for reconciliation to God.
When Jonah grew faint from the sun's beat, he wished death for himself, and said "It is better for me to die than to live... (Jon. 4:8). That was the second time he wished death for himself. The first was when he was vexed because of his dignity and the disproof of his word, and the second was when he became angry because of the sun's beat and the dying of the plant. The first was due to a personal reason and the second was due to a physical reason, there was no part for the spirit in the matter.
Many persons desired death for sacred spiritual reasons, but Jonah desired death for paltry (worldly) reasons springing from grumbling and lack of long-suffering.
Saint Paul did not err when he said: "..having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Phil. 1:23). Simeon the elder did not err when he said: "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word, for my eyes have seen Your salvation" (Luke 2:29 & 30).
As for Jonah, he did err when he said to God: "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me for it is better for me to die than to live!" (Jon. 4:3). He said that whilst grumbling and at a time when he was not ready to die. If God had answered his prayer at that time and taken his life from him, Jonah would have perished. Is it not of God's mercy that He sometimes does not answer our prayers if we ignorantly pray for our hurt? The Apostle rightly says: " You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss" (James 4:3).
When Jonah reached the stage of praying for his death, God started to talk the matter over with him. He said to him: "Is it right for you to be angry?"(Jon. 4:4) Are you angry because of God's wisdom and mercy?
Jonah replied: "It is right for me to be angry, even to death” (Jon. 4:9)! I lost my word and my dignity, and now You have deprived me of the shade of the plant, and You do not expect me to be angry that?
Although that manner of speech on Jonah's part was not nice from the spiritual point of view, yet it indicates his honesty with God and his revealing of his true inner depths.
God began to reason with Jonah and convince him. He said to him: "You have had pity, on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand person?" (Jon. 4:10 & 11).
As for your word, or rather My word, which you thought had fallen to the ground, know for certain that it has not fallen nor have I changed. For with God "there is no variation or shadow of turning" (James 1:17).
I did not set out to destroy the people of Nineveh, but to destroy the wickedness in them. I sentenced them to be destroyed when they were mingled with wickedness and had become one entity with the wickedness. But having been separated from wickedness there is no reason in destroying them because there is no wickedness in them deserving ruin. They have joined My side and become with Me against evil.
H. H. Pope Shenouda III
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