Summary: This message helps us to understand and to feel how troubling the mercy of God can really be. For if we do not have such understanding, we will take too lightly the mercy we are to possess and the mercy that has been shown to us.
Jonah 3:10-4:2 God’s Mercy
11/16/14 D. Marion Clark
When one thinks of Jonah fleeing from his assignment to preach in Nineveh, the assumption is quickly made that Jonah was afraid of Nineveh. We feel for Jonah. After all, who among us would relish the call to walk into the capital city of North Korea and proclaim judgment against it? Our text this morning reveals the real motive behind Jonah’s flight.
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
The king of Nineveh’s efforts worked. He had ordered rituals of contrition and wide-spread repentance throughout the population for the very purpose of averting God’s judgment. “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” Lo, and behold, God did turn from his anger and spared the city.
It is at this point that a question is raised, namely, does God change his mind? The Hebrew term
“relented” is the same as for “repented.” Does God actually repent? To be honest, I don’t find this to be an issue considering the context of the passage. The presumption is that God never had intention or desire for Nineveh to repent, but Jonah ran away precisely because he suspected God intended to display mercy.
But why pronounce doom when mercy is intended? Why not have Jonah proclaim that judgment would come only if the people did not repent? Any veteran parent can explain. If you want your kids to settle down and behave, tell them you’ve had enough and pronounce their doom. They quickly stop their misbehavior, and you are now in the position to be benevolent and spare them. The kids think they changed the parent’s mind, but you know better.
What then is Jonah’s response to God’s benevolence?
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And 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.
Don’t you love this? Of all the responses to expect toward a city repenting; of all the motivations to expect for Jonah’s effort to get out of coming to Nineveh in the first place, this response of Jonah would never have come to our mind. Jonah is angry. He is not angry at the Ninevites; he is angry at God. He is angry at God for what? For being gracious and merciful! This is better than the fish story. Let’s see if we can figure out Jonah.
To understand Jonah, we need to understand what Nineveh represented. It likely was at that time the capital of Assyria. Nineveh represented Assyria, just as Washington represents America, so that what is said of Nineveh is the same as speaking of Assyria.
Assyria was the dominant power throughout much of the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. Jonah comes along during the beginning of the eighth century. This is how he knows Assyria – a northern power ever threatening the stability of his country and even collecting tribute. He knows Assyria to be a ruthless power. Perhaps he even foresees that this power will destroy his beloved nation of Israel. Can you understand now Jonah’s displeasure at seeing his God relent from destroying the nation that will show no mercy to his own nation?
The only other assignment we know that was given to Jonah is in 2 Kings 14:25. There we read that the king of Israel, Jeroboam II, was able to restore Israel’s boundaries, according to the word of the Lord as spoken by Jonah. That’s the kind of prophesying work that Jonah liked. It is a much better assignment than being sent to Nineveh. Yes, he was sent to pronounce judgment, but he knew the Lord God, and he had what proved to be just cause to suspect God to use him to show mercy.
What was it that Jonah knew? He knew the scriptures.
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exodus 34:5-7).
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15).
Jonah knew that the Lord is a holy God. He knew that the Lord is righteous and demands justice. But he also knew that the Lord is merciful, and it was that mercy Jonah could not trust.