The Mercy of God in Jonah

I have been preparing to present Jonah from memory in about a week and a half.  I truly love memorizing Scripture and preparing to present it.  It forces me to slow down, think through what was written and what the author intended, and ponder how best to present the text.  It makes me think about tone of voice, attitude, and what we truly see about God, others, and ourselves in the text.  I’m not sure I would have originally thought that I would enjoy Jonah as much as I have been.  Let’s face it, many of us tend to focus more on the New Testament than we do the Old Testament.  There are good reasons to focus on the New Testament, of course; but I have been finding out what treasures we miss when we neglect the Old Testament.

Because of the study I put into memorizing, a lot of what I say here is pulled together from other authors and commentaries, I’m sure, even though I cannot remember who in particular may have contributed to my thoughts. One of the biggest ideas I have been taking away from my study and memorization of Jonah is just how merciful God truly is.  The whole point of the narrative is to contrast God’s mercy with Jonah’s condemnation.

It starts when God tells Jonah to call out against Nineveh, a city known for its cruelty and wickedness.  Jonah refuses, trying to run away from God instead.  When Jonah tries to run, God providentially causes a storm that leads to Jonah being thrown into the water.  He providentially causes a great fish to swallow Jonah, where Jonah reflects and realizes (in part) his error.  God then providentially causes the fish to vomit Jonah out, where God gives Jonah a second chance to take His message to the people of Nineveh. (Even this is a mercy of God, as He didn’t have to reach out to Jonah so much to help him see the errors of his ways.)  This time, Jonah goes and preaches, the people repent, and God withholds judgment.

I’ve heard it taught that Jonah ran because he feared the people of Nineveh, but that doesn’t seem to be the case according to Jonah himself.  We see in chapter 4 why he runs away.  Jonah explains, “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.” (Jonah 4:2, ESV)  Jonah ran away primarily because He knew that God was a gracious God who would show mercy to the horrible people of Nineveh!  In other words, God was merciful, but “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” (4:1, ESV)

Jonah sits and waits to “see what would become of the city.” (4:5, ESV)  The way the text reads, this is no casual waiting; this seems to be an anxious expectation of the destruction that would come.  Jonah is almost excited to see the wicked people destroyed.  While he is trying to keep himself cool in a booth he makes, he is waiting for the people of Nineveh to receive the judgment of God.

We see the contrast most plainly at the end of the story, when God destroys a plant that He caused to grow quickly to provide a shade for Jonah.  Jonah is “angry enough to die” over the plant’s destruction (4:9, ESV).  God points out to Jonah the hypocrisy in this attitude.  The story ends with a statement and a question from God to Jonah:

“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:10-11, ESV)

The end.  That’s it.  Jonah is left with a question hanging in the air, and we, the readers/hearers, are left with the same question.  We don’t know if or how Jonah responded; we are not meant to.  We are meant, rather, to ponder the depth of the contrast.  The contrast between Jonah’s concern for a plant over the concern for so many people (and even animals).  The contrast between the gracious mercy of God and the condemning judgment and despite of Jonah for the people of Nineveh.

But we are not meant to merely think about how Jonah should have been gracious like God.  We are meant to see a bit of Jonah in ourselves, I think.

We say that God loved the world enough to send His Son.  We acknowledge that our God is a merciful and gracious God.  But what is our attitude when considering certain groups of people that we find overly wicked?  What is our view toward abortionists, or the homosexual activists who seem to be increasing pressure on those who disagree with their stance?  What is our view toward terrorists groups, such as ISIS?  What about serial rapists or murderers?  Fill in the blank with whatever person, people, or group that others tend to look down upon.  Are we more like God, who extends mercy in every possible way before judgment comes, or are we more like Jonah, acknowledging that God is gracious and merciful, but making the judgment call that certain people deserve the judgment of God rather than His offer of mercy?  I have been asking this of myself a lot as I have read and reread Jonah.  Obviously, judgment for sin is a reality, hence God’s warning to Nineveh.  But the warning itself is a sign of mercy and grace.  That is the focus of Jonah, not judgment.

Let us learn from Jonah’s story.  Let us have pity and extend grace and mercy rather than condemnation.  After all, God’s mercy and grace was extended to us.

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