“Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil ways; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry” (Jonah 3:10-4:1 NKJV).
Ask the modern reader of the Bible what he or she knows about the Old Testament book of Jonah, and the answer is likely to be, “Isn’t that the man that got swallowed by a whale?” Most casual students are familiar only with the story contained in chapter 1. While this miraculous event catches our attention, it is at the end of the book (especially chapter 4) that the most important lessons are revealed.
God sent Jonah to preach to the citizens of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Because of the wickedness of Nineveh God had determined to destroy it (Jonah 1:2, 3:1-4). Yet, being a gracious deity (Jonah 4:2), he instructed the prophet to go and preach to the city to warn them of their fate. Reluctant at first, Jonah eventually fulfilled his mission so effectively that the people repented (Jonah 3:6-10) and God forgave them and relented from the intended punishment.
That change of plan did not make the prophet happy. He became angry with God and sat on a hill above the city to see what would transpire. This brought about an exchange between Jonah and God in which God taught Jonah the importance of mercy (Jonah 4:5-11). We are not told how the prophet responded to that lesson, but the implication seems to be that he humbled himself and submitted to God’s will.
This story has direct significant relevance to our own times. It is not reaching too far to consider the kingdom of Assyria as “The ISIS of the eighth century BC.” For several hundred years this Mesopotamian Empire had expanded through violent conquest. They were noted for cruelty and inhumane treatment of those whom they conquered. Such practices as disemboweling enemy soldiers and the merciless killing of women and infants were intended to demoralize armies and reduce them to a state of panic even before battle was begun. News reports of the past few months remind us that this philosophy still exists today.
Though Jonah’s thought processes are not revealed to us fully, it seems evident enough that he viewed Assyria as a great threat to his own nation of Israel, and therefore anything bad that might happen to Assyria would be good for Israel. Most commentators believe that his initial refusal to go preach in Nineveh indicates that he wanted the city to be destroyed and had no interest in giving them opportunity for repentance. Chapter 4 seems to confirm that analysis.
Do we not share that point of view as we view modern terrorists? Would it not be wonderful if God chose to intervene and remove them from the earth? How many of us would rejoice to hear that he intended to do just that? How many of us would be eager to go and warn them of their danger and give them a chance to avoid it?
God told Jonah, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left, and also much livestock” (Jonah 4:11).
The simple fact is that God is a gracious, loving creator (Jonah 4:2). It is his nature to desire sinful humans to repent and be saved (2 Peter 3:9). It is also a fact that even wicked people are his own creation, just as are we. It is perhaps natural for us to wish harm to those who declare themselves our enemies. We are acting normally (for humans) when we wish them to be judged harshly for their barbaric actions.
Yet there is a better, godlier, way. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21).
Eventually Assyria returned to her wicked ways, and God sent just punishment upon her. But it was and is his nature to first offer mercy. So should it be ours. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).