From the book of Jonah, we’ve seen some of the basics of idolatry and made the point that, unlike the prophet, we should be willing to expose our idols. In this post, we want show that when our idols are exposed, we shouldn’t defend them but attack them.
We pick the story up after the entire city of Ninevah repents of their sin and God relents from sending judgment for their sin. As Christian readers we’re ecstatic! We’re like, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord and pass the offering plate!” But Jonah isn’t so happy. We read that “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (4:1-3)
Jonah should have felt a spiritual whack against the idols of his heart. He should have seen how he was sinfully serving them instead of God. Instead, he defended his idolatry. In the midst of this, the first thing we read about is his anger. Jonah actually gets angry at God because he saves pagans. Why? Because it attacked his idolatry. He was an Israelite—a member of the covenant people of God. He was part of the people who received the Law and experienced redemption from Egypt to be the chosen people of God. The Ninevites were pagans plain and simple—they warred against Israel and worshipped false gods. They didn’t deserve salvation. That was Jonah’s thinking; that’s why he got angry.
But then, Jonah experiences despair. He says, “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). What an amazing thing to say! Some have tried to say he’s just like Elijah in saying this. But there is actually a huge difference. Do you remember 1 Kings 18 where Elijah called out the wicked King, Ahab, and the prophets of the false god, Baal? They had this context and though the idol Baal didn’t show, Yahweh did. He incinerated the offering and the false prophets were killed. Ahab is flabbergasted and—in chapter 19—goes home and tells his wife, Jezebel, what happened. She is furious and sends word to Elijah what she will kill him within the day. What does Elijah do? He runs off and hides. He thinks he’s the only prophet of God and left and he runs away, fearing a wicked woman more than God. Elijah realizes what he has done and he despairs—he says ‘I’m a sinner just like everyone else; no better than my fathers.’ And in his despair over his sin, he asks God to take his life.
Now that’s very different than Jonah. Elijah feels unworthy to live as God’s prophet. He feels the weight of his sin and lack of trust in God. And this leads him to want to die. But that’s not Jonah. Jonah despairs because he’d had it with God. He doesn’t want to continue living if his idols are going to be taken away like this. Calvin is surely right when he comments on these verse and comes to the conclusion: “This is monstrous.” I mean, what else can you say? Jonah is angry with God because he saved sinners and he tries to argue with God that he’s justified in his sin! It’s crazy! But that’s how we naturally react when we are challenged in our idolatry. We’ll do just about anything, make just about any to continue in our sin.
Just this week, I read about a 17 year-old Chinese man, named Xiao Zheng, who a sold his kidney on the black market to buy an iPad 2. According to People’s Daily Online, he received the equivalent of $3,300 US dollars for one of his kidneys. Since such organ sales are illegal in China, his mother reported the incident to police when she found all the stuff he had bought with the money—an iPad and two laptops. When asked why he did it, Zheng said, “I wanted to buy an iPad 2, but I didn’t have the money.”
Anyway you cut it, that’s just crazy. And though the details will surely vary, the sad truth is that our own sin and idolatry is no different. We can’t see the insanity of our sin as we run from God and all that he offers in favor of the puny, lifeless, impotent gods we think will give us pleasure and make our lives better. Tim Keller is right when he says, “When an idol gets a grip on your heart, it spins out a whole set of false definitions of success and failure and happiness and sadness. It redefines reality in terms of itself.”
So what’s defining your reality that shouldn’t be? What thing are you defending—perhaps even now—whenever the God’s word or God’s Spirit or God’s people bring it to your attention as an idol in your life? What will you scheme and plan, who will you manipulate in order to hold on to your idols? What is that one thing that causes you to get so mad, so indignant and angry when someone challenges you on it?
Don’t be like Jonah. Don’t run your life into the ground trying to defend and hold on to something that’s never going to bring you what you want. Jesus is the only Treasure that will truly satisfy the deepest longs of your heart. And if you reject him for your idols, then like Bono you’re just going to be singing, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”