GOD OF COMPASSION Jonah 3–4
“Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11)God has compassion for all. We need to develop an attitude that mirrors His—not Jonah’s!
When Jonah preached in Nineveh, the Assyrians repented (3:1–10). Jonah, upset and angry, asked God to let him die (4:1–4). Instead, God used a vine to teach Jonah a lesson in values (vv. 5–11).
Understanding the Text
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” Jonah 3:1. Jonah had willfully disobeyed God’s call to preach in Nineveh. Now God gave him another chance. We need to remember three things about second chances. God’s will is going to be accomplished. God intended to warn Nineveh, and Nineveh would be warned, whether Jonah or some other person was God’s agent. Jonah’s disobedience merited discipline, not rejection! God gave His prophet a second chance. Usually He gives you and me many opportunities to respond to His guidance. It is much better to respond to God when His word first comes to us. Jonah would have avoided the terror of being thrown into the sea and being swallowed by the great fish if only he had been willing to do God’s will when he first learned it. Let’s not count on second chances. But if we do fall into disobedience, Jonah’s experience reminds us that we can still turn back to God and be used by Him. “Now Nineveh was a very large city” Jonah 3:3–4. The size of Nineveh at this period has been established by archeologists as a maximum of 175,000. This compares to 30,000 in Samaria, the capital of Jonah’s nation. The figures match well with the mention in Jonah 4:11 of 120,000. The reference to three days to go through Nineveh may mean it took Jonah three days to go through the fields and suburbs that surrounded Nineveh, rather than through the walled part of the city. The point made in the text, however, is a simple one. Jonah’s mission was to a metropolis: a city teaming with human beings. This emphasis helps us see why Jonah’s mission was so important. Thousands of lives were at stake. “The Ninevites believed God” Jonah 3:5–9. Amazingly, Jonah’s warning of imminent destruction was taken to heart by all in Nineveh. The king abandoned his throne to publicly sit “in the dust” in the rough clothing which in that culture indicated sorrow and grief or repentance. He issued a decree that summoned all to fast, to call on God, and to “give up their evil ways and their violence.” Given the dating of Jonah to the time of Jeroboam II in Israel, the Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was then seriously threatened by warlike northern tribes known as the Urartu, Mannai, and Madai. The enemy had pushed its borders to within a hundred miles of Nineveh, and the very existence of the ancient empire was threatened. A sense of weakness and of impending doom may have helped create openness to Jonah’s message. Yet the spontaneous response of the whole population to a foreign prophet who wandered unannounced into the city with an unpopular message, underlines the fact that response to any word of God has supernatural roots. God was working in the hearts of the pagans of Nineveh. When they heard, they believed. We need to count on a similar work of God when we preach, teach, or share the Gospel conversationally. God may well have been at work preparing others to hear His Good News. His Spirit can bring that Good News home to their hearts in a compelling way, whatever the inadequacies of the messenger. “He had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened” Jonah 3:10. One of the most clearly established principles in Old Testament prophecy is that most prophetic warnings of doom are contingent. They invariably come true—unless the people to whom they are addressed repent. We see this principle in earlier incidents, such as those recorded in 2 Samuel 12:14–23; 1 Kings 21:27–29; and 2 Kings 20:1–6. Repentance can cause God to relent. This should not be misunderstood as a change of the divine mind. It’s more like the red flashing lights and ringing bells that warn of a train’s approach. Anyone on the tracks will be crushed. But a person who gets off the tracks will be safe. When Jonah preached, he said in effect, “You people of Nineveh are about to be run over!” When the people of Nineveh repented, they in effect got off the tracks! The juggernaut of divine judgment rushed on—and passed them by! What an object lesson for Israel. The prophets of God, not strangers but fellow countrymen, had shouted out warnings of impending doom for decades. Here, in the experience of Nineveh, a pagan nation, was an object lesson for God’s own people. If only Israel would listen to the prophets and repent, God would relent in their case too. The tragedy is that the people of Israel did not repent. The object lesson was wasted on them. The irony is that the very people that Jonah’s preaching saved, the Assyrians, were the agents God used to bring judgment on an Israel too hardened to heed. “Now, O Lord, take away my life” Jonah 4:1–4. When the city was not destroyed, Jonah was upset and angry. Like many of us, Jonah thought God should behave as he wanted Him to. More was involved in Jonah’s case (see DEVOTIONAL), but isn’t such a reaction all too typical? We have it all figured out, and are sure that God should solve one problem this way, and another that. When He doesn’t do it our way, we sulk or become angry. What we should do in such a case is thank God that He didn’t do it our way! Our notion of how things should be is limited by our lack of knowledge—and often by our lack of caring. God not only knows what is best, He loves always. Thanking God even when His decisions do not reflect our first choice is a sign of spiritual maturity. And common sense. “Jonah was very happy about the vine” Jonah 4:5–6. Sullen and angry about Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah settled down on a distant hill overlooking Nineveh, to wallow in self-pity and see what would happen to the city. As he sat under a typical desert lean-to shelter, a vine sprang from the ground, and grew large enough to provide shade. Jonah was happy for more than the shade. Such a little thing, and yet here was something green and living, and Jonah was comforted by its presence. Often God provides some similar little thing to comfort us when the big things in life seem to have gone wrong. Jonah was right to be happy about the vine. And we are right to be happy about the little things that remind us of God’s love. If we’re wise, whenever suffering comes we will look actively for some such little thing, let it remind us of God’s love, and let it bring us some happiness despite our sorrow. “God provided a worm” Jonah 4:7–11. The end of the Book of Jonah at first appears strange. God took away the vine that gave Jonah that little bit of happiness, and when Jonah became even more despondent, God asked, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” We can understand why Jonah answered, “Yes!” But God had a reason. Jonah had “been concerned about this vine” that sprang up one night and died the next. Jonah had been happy that it was there beside him. But Jonah had cared nothing at all for the lives of the thousands upon thousands of people of Nineveh, to say nothing of the cattle there. What a contrast with God, who is concerned about all His creation, and cared for the thousands of Nineveh. Even though they were idolaters, and the enemies of His own people, they were important to the Lord. The challenge to Jonah was clear. Jonah, you cared about the vine. Why don’t you care about other human beings? You were happy for the vine’s existence, even though it was fleeting. Why aren’t you happy about the life given to the thousands in Nineveh, rather than eager to see all those lives taken away? There is a challenge here for us. What do we care about? What makes us happy? Is it the insignificant things of life? Or do we share God’s values, and care about what is important to Him?
Right, but Wrong(Jonah 4)
Christians correctly tend to place emphasis on right doctrine. After all, we are to hold fast to what the Bible teaches. But the story of Jonah reminds us that we can be totally right, and very, very wrong. Jonah 4 begins with a statement by Jonah of some of the rightest doctrine there is. “I knew,” Jonah said, “that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (v. 2). That statement by Jonah is one of the Old Testament’s central affirmations of faith; a characterization of God found first in Exodus 34:6–7, but repeated in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; and Joel 2:13! And the phrase “gracious and compassionate” is found many, many more times in Old Testament descriptions of the Lord. So Jonah’s doctrine was about as pure as can be. There was only one problem. Jonah said, “I knew . . . that is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish” (Jonah 4:2). And that’s why Jonah was angry now. Those rotten people of Nineveh went and repented! It would be just like God not to destroy them after all. And again, Jonah was right. His doctrine was as pure as can be. It was just like God not to destroy Nineveh, and He did not. In fact, it is because Jonah was right that he was so wrong. You see, the believer is not simply called to know about God. The believer is called to be like Him. We are not simply to know God is compassionate. Because God is compassionate, we are to be compassionate too. It’s not enough for us to know that God cares for the pagan or the poor. We are to care for them too. The doctrinally correct Jonah was about as far from harmony with God’s heart as a believer can be! What a reminder for you and for me. A person who is totally right about God intellectually can be totally wrong. Knowing about God is no substitute for being like Him in character, values, and concern for others.
Ask God for heart as well as head knowledge as you study His Word.