‘I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’ (Jonah, chapter 4, verse 2)
Lovely words, but not said in love. No, Jonah was furious…
His instruction amounted to an act of betrayal: it was to travel 500 miles east from Galilee to Nineveh, the vast Assyrian capital (population 6 – 700,000) to warn Israel’s enemy of what they did not know: God was sending judgement on them. So he went 2000 miles west instead. After various nautical adventures he got the message and did as he was told. Perhaps two plagues and a solar eclipse prepared the Assyrians for the ominous message of a reluctant stranger, possibly bleached white in appearance from the stomach of a sea creature, e.g. whale, shark… because the effect was astounding.
Was Jonah thrilled by a sudden, inexplicable show of sincere repentance from a feral people whose hearts were stained crimson with innocent blood? Not one bit. He was furious… with God. The Assyrians deserved no mercy. Wrath and judgement, yes! And so, Jonah turned what he knew about his own experience of a loving God into a furious accusation. He told God that he was so wrong!
Somewhat subdued in Jonah’s day (782 – 753 BC), Assyrian was nonetheless greatly feared and hated for its reputation. Its capital, Nineveh, is Mosul; its cruelty towards captives, legendary: the heads of the slaughtered were piled into huge pyramids. No wonder Jonah was appalled by his mission.
We understand. Why should barbaric men of unspeakable cruelty ever get the chance to be forgiven? ‘Someone has to pay!’ we cry when we sense injustice. We want judgement, not mercy… except when we want mercy for ourselves… and not judgement.
As Jonah sat on a hillside hoping to witness Nineveh’s destruction in spite of its repentance, he was given a plant under which to shade himself from the aggressive heat. And when it died, Jonah’s excessive sorrow shone a searchlight into his own self-centred darkness. The Old Testament book concludes with a blistering attack on Jonah’s misconceptions about himself and about God: so Jonah, all you care about is that your plant had died… and you dare to attack me for caring for the animals and people of Nineveh with its 120,000 people?
Jonah cast himself as judge and jury, blind to the state of his own heart. He failed to understand that God’s love can reach the dark parts of every heart. Because someone has paid in our stead – Jesus, God calls all people everywhere to acknowledge the gulf between their hearts and his, to feel genuine sorrow for those dark recesses they don’t like to acknowledge and to burn with a desire to be different (what the Bible calls repentance)… and so, to receive not judgement but mercy – generous and free – without discrimination.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of our mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
F W Faber