In our last post, we noted the sovereignty of God as one of the themes highlighted in the book of Jonah. We must always remember that the Scriptures reveal the nature and character of God to us. God is rightly known, understood and worshipped through the revelation given of Him in the Scriptures. The book of Jonah declares to us, “God is sovereign!” But it also shouts out the sweet truth, “God is merciful!”
Before we explore His mercy, the early backdrop of the book declares, “God is just and holy.” The book opens with God commanding Jonah to go preach to Nineveh “for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). The evil of this pagan people was coming up before the face of God. His holy gaze was repulsed by their violence and idolatry. Like all Scripture, this small book is telling us that God hates sin. He is strongly opposed to it. Furthermore, God has the right to say so! In our culture, it is out of step to think like God thinks. One can almost imagine an arrogant reply to Jonah 1:2, “What right does God have to say that Nineveh was doing evil?” But, that is what Scripture clearly reveals: as Creator, God has absolute authority to rule and govern His creatures. He has every right to declare that which is evil and that which is good. We have noted the holiness and justice of God here, because without seeing them, we cannot fully appreciate His mercy. His attributes don’t compete with one another, but seen all together they give us a clear gaze at the beauty and majesty of the Almighty. It’s not God’s mercy in one corner, and His holiness in another corner. Rather, we look and see He is at the same time righteous, pure, holy, gracious, merciful and just. All these attributes together display the majestic character of God.
With that said, we will highlight here how this book reveals God’s mercy to both Jonah and to Nineveh. Jonah was a prophet of God. In this high calling, Jonah had received blessings and privileges others had not. He knew what it was to, in some sense, hear the voice of God. Yet, Jonah refused to obey God. Rather than go east to Nineveh, Jonah went and found a ship to travel across the Mediterranean Sea in the opposite direction! Jonah was abandoning his role and gift as a prophet in refusing to go speak to the people to whom he was sent. Three times in chapter one the expression is used of Jonah that he ran away “from the presence of the Lord” (1:3, 10). Jonah fled from seeking the face of God. He turned away from the place of blessing.
Of course, we immediately ask the question the sailors onboard the ship asked Jonah, “Why hast thou done this?” (1:10). Interestingly enough, the reason Jonah ran away from God’s command was related to the merciful character of God! You see, Jonah knew what kind of people he was being called to go preach to. He knew the Assyrians to be cruel, vicious and violent. Jonah also knew something else: the merciful character of God. His motives for not going to Nineveh were revealed in chapter 4 of the book after Nineveh had repented and God had spared them. Jonah, in sinful anger, said to God, “And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah is essentially saying, “I know how you are, God. You are disposed to forgive. You are patient and merciful. I knew if I came to preach to Nineveh, they might repent and it would be just like you to show them mercy!” Jonah knew God well, but Jonah was not as merciful as God was. Jonah did not want Nineveh to be given mercy. He did not want God to relent from bringing judgment upon them. I wonder if there are individual people or certain people groups from whom you would strongly prefer that God withold mercy. We are not talking about God condoning sin or denying His just character. We are talking about the need for us, unlike Jonah, to reflect more of the character of God. The Almighty hates sin with all His being; yet He also delights to show mercy! Pray against evil, certainly. Hate wickedness as God hates it. But, also pray that God would send an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in grace and mercy upon our communities and nation today. Pray that He would capture the hearts of violent, bloodthirsty and idolatrous people of the 21st century even as he did all those centuries ago. He is able. It is truly breaktaking that God would give repentance and show mercy to a whole city of violent, evil sinners. To save any one sinner is amazing. To deliver a whole city is awesome!
Back to Jonah. He ran in the opposite direction from where he should have been going. God could have just let him go and be miserable the rest of his life. But God is merciful. His mercy can be scary; it came in the form of a violent storm on the Mediterranean Sea that threatened to snuff out the lives of the men onboard the ship. Yes, Jonah ran away from God. But God ran after Jonah. He wouldn’t let His disobedient prophet go. He overtook him with this storm. When the sailors cast lots (similar to rolling a dice) to determine whose guilt brought on the storm, God saw to it that the lot fell on Jonah. Painful mercy that put Jonah in this awkward spotlight, but mercy indeed. God’s mercy will confront us with our sins in order to convict and restore us. Mercy sometimes hurts before it heals.
Eventually, Jonah had the sailors throw him overboard to calm the sea. Chapter 2 records a prayer of Jonah crying out to God for deliverance. Jonah felt to be not only in the depths of the sea, but also far away from God. He felt to be in the darkness of Sheol, the place of the departed, a place of gloom (2:2). He was being overwhelmed by the literal waves of the sea threatening to terminate his life (2:3). He felt to be cast out of God’s sight (2:4). He felt closed in and surrounded and it seemed like it would go on forever (2:5,6).
Sin had brought Jonah low. Running and sailing from the presence of God had not been a good course, to say the least. He was in a bad place, all alone and seemingly without hope.
But, God is merciful! One thing Jonah did right in this context: he cried out to God! “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple” (Jonah 2:7). I am amazed by this mercy of God. A prayer comes from somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea by a disobedient prophet crying out to God and that prayer goes all the way before the holy throne of God! Believer—no matter how badly you have messed up, no matter how scary and complicated your present circumstances seem to be, know this: God, through Christ, always receives the cries that arise from a genuine heart seeking His mercy. In verse 4, Jonah said, “Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.” I have a hard time thinking Jonah was trying to figure out which direction Jerusalem was so that he could look that way and offer prayer. I could be wrong, but I believe Jonah was looking (by faith) beyond the physical temple to what that temple represented. The Old Testament Temple with the priests and their sacrifices all pointed to Jesus Christ. Mercy is found in the pure offering of Christ for sinners. Mercy is found in there being a great High Priest who makes intercession for His people at God’s right hand. Did Jonah deserve mercy? Of course not. Do you and I? Far from it. Yet, in Christ, we are welcome to come again and again before God’s throne. There we find forgiveness, cleansing and restoration.
God’s mercy had brought Jonah from a place of running away from His presence to once again seeking the face of God. God’s mercy broke down the sinful pride of Jonah bringing him to humility before the Lord. Not only was Jonah saved from drowning in the sea, but something also happened in his soul. He was restored. Who knew such blessings could be experienced and such a beautiful prayer offered up from inside the belly of a great fish!
In deep gratitude to God’s mercy and with fresh resolve to do God’s will, Jonah proclaimed, “But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.” (2:9). This must be the response of those of us who have received the undeserved mercy of God. A commitment to do His will and to be genuinely and profoundly grateful to God for this mercy.
More on the mercy of God in the Book of Jonah next time…