“And it was evil to Jonah—a great evil—and he burned over it.” (Jonah 4:1)
In case you hadn’t noticed Jonah’s attitude toward the Ninevites by his lackluster sermon in Nineveh, the true feelings of our wayward prophet come out as we move to the final chapter of this story. Most of our English versions water down the wording of this verse some, putting Jonah in a little better light; only Young’s Literal Translation seems to grasp the full strength of the situation when they translate it, “It was grievous to Jonah.” Literally, the Hebrew reads that it was evil to Jonah and then emphasizes again that it was a great evil to Jonah! Just as the Ninevites’ idolatry was evil in the eyes of God; God’s mercy toward the people of Nineveh was evil in the eyes of Jonah. And not only that, his anger burned toward God on account of this mercy. You can almost picture Jonah, standing at the edge of the city with clenched teeth and fists, his face red with rage, and steam coming out of his ears. This guy is about to explode.
It is easy to want to find excuses to water this image down a bit. Nobody likes to see one of the Biblical heroes completely lose his cool—especially when it comes to God’s mercy. But the reality is that Jonah was human and Nineveh was the winter capital of the Assyrian Empire, people that the Jews desperately hated. These two nations were fierce enemies and no good Jew in his right mind would want to see the people of Nineveh blessed. These people of Nineveh were violent pagans and idolaters; there was nothing in them that seemed redeemable in the eyes of Jonah. Yet, these people repented and God showed them mercy. This kind of thing was just simply not right and proper! God had some teaching to do with his prophet.
It is easy to jump on Jonah’s case and start wagging our fingers in accusation. Oh, how sophisticated we have become in sending missionaries to all the corners of the earth. See how we have such a broad view of God’s mercy toward the nations! At the same time, what about those ministries to people groups we don’t particularly like? What about ministries to the street people in our culture or to the prostitutes? What about ministries to the drug users in our culture or to the gay community? Sometimes we are a little less comfortable about the mercy of God when dealing with these folks. Probably about the closest we can get to how Jonah felt toward the Ninevites would be the feeling of a black pastor working with Ku Klux Klansmen or that of a white pastor working with Black Panther members. Jonah was more than out of his comfort zone; he was in enemy territory.
Yet, beloved, that is exactly the way God works! When Jesus gave the apostles the great commission, he did not qualify what “all the corners of the earth” meant—he simply said, “go.” When we begin to come to terms with just how grievous our own sin is, then how can we who have already received the mercy of God begrudge another from receiving it? Oh, how we are like Jonah, though, when we see God’s blessings poured out somewhere other than on ourselves. Beloved, let us keep Jonah always before us as a reminder that we should rejoice in the mercy of God to all who would repent and believe—let us rejoice as the angels rejoice when one sinner comes to faith—even if that sinner is one we don’t particularly like.
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be;
Let that grace now, like a fetter,
Bind my wandring heart to thee.
Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—
Prone to leave the God I love:
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for thy courts above.