Many of us have heard the story of the prophet Jonah.

Some people think it’s history; others think it’s more of an allegory. Either way, it’s a great story. In the opening line of Jonah’s autobiography, we read that the word of Yahweh came to Jonah son of Amittai:

“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Assyria was the dominant empire of the day and the archenemy of Israel. They’d been at war with the Hebrews on and off for centuries. And the Ninevites were the stuff of legend. A few decades ago, archaeologists found a Ninevite library. Their writings are crazy.

Speaking of a city he just destroyed, King Shalmanesar II had this to say:

“A pyramid of heads I reared in front of his city. Their youths and their maidens I burnt up in the flames.”

So he made a giant pile of heads by the front gate and burned the women and children alive.

His son, Sennacherib, had this to say about a king he defeated:

“I flayed [him], his skin I spread upon the wall of the city.”

On the top ten list of things you don’t want to happen if you’re an ancient king: getting skinned alive.

One of Sennacherib’s descendants, King Ashurbanipal, was true to the family name. Writing about another king, and another war, he said, “I pierced his chin with my keen hand dagger. Through his jaw…I passed a rope, put a dog chain upon him and made him occupy…a kennel.”

These were not nice people.

If you’re Jonah, Nineveh isn’t exactly a place you want to plant a church.

Which is why the next line tells us that Jonah ran away from Yahweh and headed for Tarshish, the Hebrew equivalent of Timbuktu.

So Jonah runs in the exact opposite direction. But notice that odd line in the story. As terrifying as the Assyrians were, he’s not running from Nineveh; he’s running from Yahweh. Why? We don’t find out until the end of the story.

After a run-in with a storm and a fish with digestive issues, Jonah finally ends up in Nineveh. He goes around the city preaching a one-sentence message:

“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

That’s it. No three-point sermon. No cute story about his kinds. No altar call. One sentence: Yahweh is going to kill all of you.

But in a shocking twist, the Ninevites repent!

The turn away from the worship of other gods and the violence and injustice that come as a result; they turn to the worship of Yahweh, the Creator. Even the king repents. He calls for a day of mourning, and the people put on sackcloth and beg for Yahweh’s mercy. Then we read, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened.”

He was going to destroy the Ninevites, but when He saw genuine repentance, He had mercy and changed His mind and the city went on to enjoy a long life.

But that’s when the story gets even more interesting…

You would think Jonah would explode with joy, right? He had front-row seats to one of the greatest moves of God in human history. But instead, he goes into the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum.

He vents to Yahweh: “This is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish.” His worst fears have come to pass.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now LORD [Yahweh], take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Ha! This is so good!

Jonah is mad, seething with anger at Yahweh. Why?

Because Yahweh was compassionate and gracious to his enemies.

Because God, by nature, “relents from sending calamity” – he responds to all sorts of people.

Here’s the point of the story: we all love that God is compassionate and gracious with us. Or with our friends.

But what about when He’s merciful to our enemies? To people who skin our kings like an animal hide and burn our women alive and carry off our children into slavery?

What about when God shows mercy to people who hurt us, stomp on us, gossip behind our back, lie about us to the boss, betray us, divorce us, and abandon us?

What about when God is merciful to them?

That’s the problem with this God Yahweh – you just can’t trust Him to keep back blessing from people who don’t deserve it. He goes around blessing all sorts of unsavory characters. People who aren’t religious or spiritual or even good.

Because He’s compassionate and gracious to everybody.

Most of us want mercy for ourselves – and justice for everybody else. But it doesn’t work like that. God shows mercy to all.

He goes around blessing all sorts of people who don’t deserve it. And I’m living proof of that.

The odds are, so are you.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. - Luke 6:36
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