God told Jonah to go to the enemy capital of Nineveh and preach to them. Jonah didn’t like the idea, so he bought a ticket to a distant city in the opposite direction. God found him and provided free transportation back to his own country.
As soon as Jonah got back on dry land, God spoke to him as if nothing had happened: I want you to go preach to Nineveh. This time, Jonah decided maybe he just would (Jonah 3-4). The Bible says it took three days to walk through Nineveh.
It’s only about a mile and a half in diameter, but ancient cities were not laid out in a nice grid. Streets were narrow and crowded. Street signs and address numbers hadn’t been invented yet. It might very easily have taken a stranger on foot three days to find the way from one side to the other—especially with frequent stops to preach.
Jonah’s message was, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown,” but surely that’s only a summary. It doesn’t even mention who says so. However many more words he actually spoke every place he stopped, people heard his message and took it to heart.
Everyone repented. The Assyrian king, arguably the most powerful man in the known world, called a fast that even extended to animals. No living thing could eat or even drink water. Everyone had to cry out to God for mercy. God heard their prayer and relented.
You’d think any preacher, especially if he had truly repented of past rebellion, would be thrilled that his words led to such an outpouring of grace. Jonah was really ticked off, however, and God had a personal conversation with him about it.
Actually, Jonah started the conversation. He essentially said, “I knew when you told me to come in the first place that you’d have mercy on these despicable creatures. That’s why I headed the opposite direction. I’m right, and you’re wrong.”
Jonah decided he just wanted to die and headed to the hills to sulk, hoping perhaps that God would change his mind again and wipe them all out. He made himself a shelter, but it must not have done him much good.
God caused a plant to grow up very fast, and it provided nice shade. Jonah was pleased, but the next morning a worm came along and ate enough of the plant to kill it.
Then after it withered and could not provide any more shade, the sun came up along with a hot wind. Jonah again felt so sorry for himself he wanted to die. God asked the second time if he had a right to be angry, and for the second time he told God, yes, he did have a right to be angry.
But then comes the whole point of the story. Jonah cared about a plant that he did not plant or take care of simply because it was convenient to him. How shameful not to care about a hundred and twenty thousand people that God so obviously loved! How shameful to prefer that they die violently rather than repent to God! How shameful not to extend God’s love to them after they repented!
But here’s where the Bible stops just telling a story and starts meddling. As Christians we cannot judge Jonah’s attitude without judging our own. We must not allow ourselves the luxury of following the example of his sin. Moses never said to love your enemies, but Jesus did. As Christians, we have no human enemies—no enemies at all except Satan.
Our country is at war now. The Bible says that there’s a time for war, so I’m not prepared to make any blanket anti-war statement. But if God tells someone to go visit a bunch of armed and angry Islamic terrorists and preach the gospel, and if they repent of their sins and ask God for forgiveness, how dare we get mad at God for loving them?
Shouldn’t we rather accept anyone who repents of sin and call on the name of the Lord as brothers in Christ? That goes for drunks, junkies, criminals, prostitutes, and anyone else who seems undesirable who might walk in the church door.
God’s love knows no boundaries. When all is said and done, he fully intends to forgive everyone for everything. Some folks will refuse to accept forgiveness or even the fact that they need it. It’s called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; they have spurned the only means of forgiveness and therefore cannot be forgiven.
But otherwise God will forgive. He has already decided to forgive and accept someone we don’t like or approve of on the same basis as he forgives us and people like us. So what if we don’t like some of the people who repent of their sins? We ought to accept them anyway. It’s called conforming our lives and hearts to the image of Jesus Christ.
For my post on the first half of the book, see Jonah the Disobedient Prophet.
Photo credit: Jonah window. Some rights reserved by Merry_Meet (links doesn’t work as of 3/15/16)