Jonah: A Lesson on God’s Mercy (Part 3)

by Jacob Juncker

These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, August 28, 2016, as part of “The Message.”  The discussion was based upon a reading from Jonah 3:10, 4:1-11 where Jonah grows angry with God about the mercy God has shown the Ninevites.

Nineveh was situated in what is today Northern Iraq.  The ruins of this ancient city lie beneath two mounds in the city of Mosul.  Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire from 700 BCE to 612 BCE.  The Assyrians were particularly brutal toward the Israelites.  Judea and Palestine were marching grounds for Assyria’s assault on Egypt in the East and Babylon to the South.  Assyrian kings waged taxes and the army used fear as a tactic to subdue the people.

For nearly 100 years, the Assyrians held control with brutal force and propaganda.  It’s no wonder then that the prophet Nahum, prophesying about Nineveh’s destruction would ecstatically proclaim (Nahum 3:15a, 19, Common English Bible):

Fire will consume you there [Nineveh]…
There is no remedy for your injury;
your wound is grievous.
All who hear the news about you clap hands over you.
Who has not suffered from your continual cruelty?

The Ninevites were cruel oppressors.  They worked “evil” (see Jonah 1:2).  The Jewish people were terrified of them.

I wonder, in our day, who are the people we are most afraid of? the fear might be rooted in ignorance, prejudice, or lived experience—but, its fear nonetheless?  Who are we afraid of?

Those are the people Jonah was sent to share God’s word with.  Jonah was sent, kicking and screaming, to share God’s word with the oppressors who had terrorized his people.  It’s no wonder he chartered a cruise to the opposite side of the Mediterranean.  Nineveh was the last place a Judean would want to go proclaiming God’s judgment.  The fear of death was real.  Jonah runs.  He charters a cruise in Joppa.  After some time, the ship is hit by a terrible storm.  Jonah is tossed overboard.  The ship is saved.  Jonah, perhaps flailing for his life, is swallowed by a giant fish.  Jonah in the belly of the fish; and, God commands the fish to vomit Jonah up.  Jonah makes the long journey from the sea to Nineveh where, having walked just a third of the way through it, the Ninevites (all of them! from the least significant all the way up to the king) repent of their evil ways.  God forgives.  God decides not to destroy the city.  Jonah is pissed (angry isn’t a strong enough word).

Jonah, rather hesitantly, has just proclaimed that in “just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4, Common English Bible).  He has pronounced judgment on the people of Nineveh; and, God refuses to uphold Jonah’s judgment.  The people of Nineveh have changed their hearts and lives; and, God refuses to do what Jonah has proclaimed.

Jonah is angry, “Come on Lord” cries Jonah, “I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy” (Jonah 4:2, Common English Bible) but these people have worked evil.  You made me stand up to their evil. I didn’t want to, but I did.  Now give them what they deserve!  And, if you’re not going to do it, just strike me dead (see Jonah 4:3),”because it would be better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3, Common English Bible).  Jonah can’t believe that the Ninevites have changed.

Jonah can’t believe that God’s mercy can be extended to the worst of the worst.  He can’t fathom that God’s mercy would be extended to those Ninevites.

In an article entitled “Why Jonah Scares Me,” Richard Cornell writes:

Jonah scares me because he knows God. Yet, for all of his knowledge, experience, and even obedience, his heart was not one with God.  He knew of God’s mercy, had received God’s mercy, but did not want to be merciful himself, especially when it involved showing mercy to “those” people.

This “man of God” would rather die than see God be God to the Assyrians. I’m reminded at this point of Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s great book, Les Miserables. Convinced that Jean Valjean cannot be reformed, because true reformation is impossible, he eventually faces the hard truth that Valjean is in fact reformed. This so shakes his worldview that he chooses death rather than change. Jonah is like Javert. I fear that I am as well.

Will I call the good work of God “evil” when mercy gets costly and explodes my categories of grace, and who deserves it, and who does not? Can those who know God so well be so resistant to God’s work, so resistant to having God’s heart. [sic]”[1]

It must be a special kind of torment to see God’s grace extended to those to whom we don’t think deserve it.  Perhaps, that’s what hell is: having to bear witness to God’s grace wrapped around those we despise and refuse to understand.  And, perhaps, that’s what heaven is: an acceptance of God’s grace knowing that we don’t deserve it.  If true, we can most certainly experience hell and heaven here on earth.

The power of Jonah’s story is that we don’t know how it ends.  We don’t know how long Jonah sat in that hell, waiting for God to punish a people who had repented; waiting for God to punish a people Jonah thought deserved it.  Perhaps, he sat there forever; perhaps he got up and turned away from Nineveh and God yet again; perhaps he got up, walked back into the city and rejoiced with the people.

Regardless of what Jonah did, the lesson is ours to learn.  God’s mercy and forgiveness extends to all; and, we can either embrace that fact and rejoice in heaven, or sit in our own personal hell as others rejoice in receiving a grace they didn’t deserve.  And, quite frankly we don’t deserve either.

[1] “Why Jonah Scares Me” by Richard E. Cornell posted at <> Accessed July 1, 2016.