The post below was inspired by this sermon though I have collected other information and it is in my own words.
Many in the Evangelical world (those who write commentaries and those who preach) insist that Jonah’s sin for not wanting to go to the Ninevehites is a early world example of the Racism that God hates. For example, John Piper does just that in this quote from one of his sermons. Piper here has imagined God speaking to the prophet Jonah ,
“Jonah, forsake your racism. Forsake your nationalism and follow me.”
Earlier, in the same sermon, Piper had explicitly said,
“Jonah was a racist, a hyper-nationalist. He did not want to go to Nineveh because he knew God would have mercy on his enemies.”
Now, Piper isn’t alone in this error of reading the 20th century sin du jour back into the ancient world and on to the Prophet Jonah but he is a glaring example of it.
We should note here that “Racism” has become the sin that most preachers love to hammer. It is a politically correct sin to hate and it makes for great points among the Politically Correct indoctrination crowd. It’s become so bad that I have in my memory a ordination from years ago where the candidate up for ordination, though knowing literally nothing regarding the doctrine of the Christian faith, passed the exam because he could impressively denounce racism.
Now, the points for calling Jonah Racist that many of the commentaries give are as follows,
1.) Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh.
This by itself proves that Jonah was a Racist. If Jonah hadn’t been a Racist he automatically would have had no problem in going to Nineveh.
2.) Jonah did not want the Ninevehites to Repent.
This is construed to mean that Jonah did not want them to repent because he was an evil racist.
3.) Jonah was disappointed and angry when Nineveh did Repent.
This clinches the “Jonah was a Racist” argument.
However, when examining matters more closely it may be that modern commentaries and modern preachers like Piper are wrong.
There are ways of understanding that allow us to not call Jonah a “Racist.”
Jonah’s sin is not found in his putative “racism” but in his falling into the sin of Rationalism. Jonah lifted his well intended reasoning above God’s Revelation. God had told Jonah to go to Nineveh. That is all Jonah needed in order to go. Instead Jonah reasoned that God would be dishonored by his going to Nineveh and by the Assyrians repentance. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew that God would give repentance to Assyria (Nineveh) and Jonah reasoned that would detract from God’s glory if the God haters who were not God’s people repented while the Northern Kingdom who Jonah labored in calling to repentance did not repent. Jonah understandably believed that if those who were not God’s people repented it would blacken God’s glory because those who were God’s people (Northern Kingdom) did not repent. Jonah had labored all his life in Samaria among his own people calling for repentance with no fruit. Those of the Northern Kingdom were God’s people. It was there that repentance should have been expected.
Secondly, Jonah did not want “to be the instrument that God would use to bring Nineveh to repentance, because such a action would make Jonah look like a traitor to his own people. The rabbis held a similar position. According to M. Avrum Ehrlich, many rabbis concluded that “their actions (Nineveh’s repentance) would show the Hebrews to be stiffnecked and stubborn.” Another Midrash explains that “Jonah… chose to disobey God so as to save his own people.”
So, contrary to modern evangelicalism’s knee jerk insistence that Jonah was a racist, we might instead see Jonah, whose sin was not Racism, as committing a sin of a rationalism that found Jonah lifting his own ratiocination above God’s explicit command. Jonah’s sin was born of two instincts gone wrong,
1.) A wrong headed desire to protect God’s glory that defied God’s explicit command
2.) A desire to protect his own people, born of love now misguided, from being shamed
This great affection of Jonah’s for his people is something that was shared by others in God’s Revelation. Paul could say in Romans 9,
1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing me witness in the holy Ghost, 2 That I have great heaviness, and continual sorrow in mine heart. 3 For I would wish myself to be separate from Christ, for my brethren that are my kinsmen according to the flesh,
And Moses uttered this same desire, that somehow his death may be the propitiation for his people when he said in Exodus 32:32, “Therefore now if thou pardon their sin, thy mercy shall appear: but if thou wilt not, I pray thee, raise me out of thy book, which thou hast written.”
So if we are going to fault Jonah, let us fault him for the proper reason. Jonah’s fault was found not in some kind of 21st century version of racism. Jonah’s fault was that he loved his conception of God and God’s glory above the God of the Bible. Jonah was zealous for God’s glory according to his fallen human reason as opposed to being zealous for God’s glory according to God’s command. Secondarily, Jonah’s fault was that he loved his own people, just as Paul and Moses had done, above loving God’s command. Jonah’s sin was the sin of a wrongly directed love. Jonah’s sin was not the sin of a wrongly directed hate. Not wanting to go to Nineveh had to do with Jonah’s falling into the same kind of Rationalism that Adam and Eve fell into when they lifted their reason above God’s command.
In God’s economy the repentance of Nineveh was a delay to the upcoming judgment on Israel by the Assyrians. Jonah should have known the prophecies of Amos (3:11) and Isaiah (7:17) concerning the upcoming Assyrian invasion.
Amos 3:11Therefore thus saith the Lord God, An adversary shall come even round about the country, and shall bring down thy strength from thee, and thy palaces shall be spoiled.
Isaiah 7:17 The Lord shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy Father’s house (the days that are not come from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah) even the King of Assyria.
Jonah knew that these Ninevehites would repent as a result of this missionary trip (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah 4:2 And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? therefore I prevented it to flee unto Tarshish: for I knew, that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
Jonah should have been keenly aware that the generation which would invade Israel would be a generation who would have returned to its wickedness (Isaiah 14:25).
Isaiah 14:25 That I will break to pieces Assyria in my land, and upon my mountains will I tread him under foot, so that his yoke shall depart from them, and his burden shall be taken from off their shoulder.
This would mean that the same generation which heard Jonah’s message would not be the generation which would invade Israel, because Israel was not invaded by a righteous nation, but rather by an evil nation. This means that the Assyrian invasion would happen, at its earliest with the succeeding generation. As such God’s grace to Nineveh was God’s grace to the Northern Kingdom as Ninevah’s repentance would therefore buy Jonah and the Northern Kingdom some time and would give his own people, Israel, perhaps another 40 – 100 years (the time of a generation) to repent before God.
Jonah should have trusted to God’s reasoning and not his own fallen reason.
Jonah’s sin was not racism. Jonah’s sin was rationalism. Before we try to out think God we should remember Jonah’s attempt to do so. We should remember that obedience to God’s explicit command is our charge above our thinking that obeying God would lead to bad consequences. We should remember that God’s ways are higher than our ways and that God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.