There are days when I sympathize with Jonah. The story of the prophet who ran from an assignment from God and spent three days inside a special creature God created for the occasion must have made an impression on my little boy too. In one of those moments for quiet reflection in church he felt obliged to rescue the preacher from embarrassing “dead air.” He stood up on the pew and shouted in the most authoritative voice a three-year old could muster, “God said to Jonah. ‘GO TO NINEVEH!!’” Everyone laughed. Perhaps we should have listened.
Sometimes it feels like God gives me a “GO TO NINEVEH!” command and, like Jonah, I suddenly have a desire to check out vacation rentals in Iceland.
Our minds tend to snag on the big fish part of the story. (My little boy did a hilarious impression of a barfing fish when he got to this bit, after Jonah changed his mind and the creature regurgitated him on land.) It is not until the final chapter that we learn the reasons why Jonah zipped over to Joppa to board a ship heading elsewhere.
The Assyrians in Nineveh (an area on the outskirts of a city now known as Mosul in Iraq) had a reputation for being a highly militarized society who humiliated those they conquered. They treated captives with particularly nasty cruelty. It didn’t take a prophet to see them as a serious threat to neighbouring countries. Jonah didn’t run because he didn’t want disaster to befall them. He ran because he was afraid disaster would not befall them.
The Ninevites heard the message and took it seriously. They admitted their wickedness and dramatically demonstrated a desire to change. They repented. God relented. It’s not until the final chapter that we hear a re-cap of Jonah’s earlier discussion with God.
“This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry.
So he complained to the Lord about it: ‘Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish!
I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.
Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.’”
The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?
(Jonah 4:1-4 NLT)
Yesterday, someone said something to me which provoked thought about Jonah’s story. He said, “Prophecy is not fate. It’s not always set in stone. Prophecy can be an opportunity to align with God and actually change your future.”
Somehow it is easier to believe that those who hatefully oppose our political, cultural, or philosophical positions deserve disaster. God’s mercy messes up the plotline created in our vain imaginations. God tells us to leave revenge to him because, as illustrated in many Bible stories, his favourite form of revenge is transformation, redemption, restoration and renewed relationship.
Jonah resents God’s response. Not only did the Creator change the future of the people of Nineveh by not wiping them out, the action left a dent in Jonah’s pride as an accurate prophet when what he predicted did not happen.
In a culture where a web search for films with revenge themes turns up a list 44 pages long and a list only one page long for films with forgiveness or redemption themes, mercy is obviously not our usual response to offense. When we demonstrate, through acts of every day cyber-revenge like boycotts, cancellation, banishment, and censorship, that the acknowledgement of being right holds more value than the search for God’s truth, we have to admit we are not seeking restorative justice motivated by love.
God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. All of us have rebelled against his ways. After three days and nights of less than stellar accommodation, Jonah confessed and asked for forgiveness for his rebellion and decided to obey God. That act made a way for the people of Nineveh to do the same.
This morning I read Psalm 32. This was King David’s experience after acting in a cruel ungodly way himself.
Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time,
that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment.
For you are my hiding place;
you protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of victory.
The last question God asked Jonah causes me to examine my own heart. God does not offer the cruel compassion of dealing with sin by justifying evil and leaving us to continue in hurtful ways with their eventual unpleasant consequences. He extends his love and mercy to offer a way out.
Now here is my confession. I didn’t want to write this. I’ve had enough doom and gloom God-is-going-to-get-you-for-that preaching in my life to receive a very distorted picture of God. I lost many years to an image of an angry vengeful deity before I realized Jesus Christ came to show us what the Father was really like. I didn’t want to risk being misunderstood or judged as unloving. I argued with him that the blogs I write about obedience don’t attract much response anyway. When I prayed about an alternate topic nothing came to mind. Blank. For nearly three weeks. Then it dawned on me that I was acting like Jonah and that I didn’t want to extend the same mercy to some people as he extended to me — and still extends to me when he points out my hurtful choices and I respond to a good Father’s correction.
Transformation, redemption, restoration and renewed relationship. That’s your revenge, Lord. Thank you for your great mercy.