I write this at a time when compassion seems too hard to imagine. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, and San Bernardino, California, justice is probably in the forefront of our minds, not compassion. For me, this calls to mind the thoughts of Jonah when God called him to preach to Nineveh—a land he hated.
Why Jonah Hated Assyria:
Jonah hated the Assyrians because they were also notorious for their brutal and heinous treatment of their enemies, and Israel was their enemy. Author James Bruckner asserts, “The Assyrian Kings were proud of their cruel and terrible reputation and went to a great trouble and expense to record their exploits for posterity.” They dismembered their victims, displayed their heads on poles, skinned prisoners alive then displayed the skins. Bruckner adds, “they pulled out the tongues and testicles of live victims and burned the young alive.” Their reign of terror lasted two hundred and fifty years. By the time of Jonah, several decades had passed without a word from Assyria. So while Assyria was not a threat during this time period, Nineveh, an important city in Assyria, was still Israel’s worst enemy. Israel had not forgotten Assyria’s past reputation and neither had Jonah.
When God calls Jonah to go to this vicious city of Nineveh and proclaim the message that Nineveh is going to be “overturned” in a matter of days, Jonah is less than enthusiastic about his new assignment. He is not interested in participating in the redemption of Israel’s worst enemy. He knows that preaching to Nineveh means risking his life. It could also mean that his own country, Israel, would no longer accept him. Author John MacArthur reminds us that, “This is the only recorded instance of a prophet refusing God’s commission.”
Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh, and in response to what they hear, the people of Nineveh demonstrated their belief in Jonah’s message by declaring a fast and putting on sackcloth. As a result of their repentance, God did not bring destruction on them. Jonah was angry because he thought God should have destroyed them.
God’s compassion is not only the crux of chapter four but of the whole book of Jonah. This is evident by the last question in the book, which is an expression of God’s love for us. The verse reads, “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” What God is saying here is that the people of Nineveh are ignorant about Him and for that reason He is concerned and wants them to know His love and compassion. This is an expression of how God feels about all of His creation, including the wicked. It also illuminates our struggle with the wicked who are forgiven. We don’t like when God extends the same grace to the wicked that he extends to us as believers. But we must remember the thief on the cross.
Today in America:
It would be fair to say that today in America, we feel the same way about the Muslim terrorists and ISIL as Jonah felt about Nineveh. But Assyria was at least as wicked if not more wicked than ISIL, or Iran, or Syria. God thought they were worth forgiving. If our enemies today were to repent and turn to God, we would see them in heaven. Is that fair? It’s no different than the Assyrians. The twenty five hundred year distance between Jonah and us makes it much easier for us to say that Jonah was wrong and ignorant to be angry with God for forgiving the Ninevites and he should be happy that Assyria repented. Today is no different. God has concern for the wicked now just as He did in Jonah’s time. But we have a desire to limit and control God’s favor for our own political or economic advantage.
Because God is merciful, He doesn’t punish us right away. Some may see this as weakness. Because of this, we might think that we can live the life we want if God is merciful anyway. But what God offered to Nineveh was not weakness. It was the preaching of judgment followed by repentance (not simply confession), which resulted in God’s compassion.
God’s patience is not weakness. He has not returned yet because he wants to make sure everyone has heard the gospel of grace and salvation. What Isis is doing is evil, yes, and it will not go unpunished, unless they repent. Then God will have the same mercy on them that he did with Nineveh. The question is, if and when they do, and God has mercy on them, how will we feel about it? Will we have the same theological struggle with God that Jonah had?
Our Part in God’s Plan:
Since the terrorists only represent a small percentage of Muslims, it is my belief that the radicalization of the few has caused some Muslims to rethink their religion. If that is the case, then that opens doors for Christians with compassion to share the gospel with them.
It takes an average of 21 encounters with a disciple to bring a non-believer to Christ. That’s 21 links in the chain. You could be one of those links.
One of my Biola professors told our class about a Christian he knew of in the middle east who was about to be beheaded by a terrorist. Just before it happened, he handed his Bible to the executioner. That executioner came to know Christ. That is radical love.
There are lost people in the world that need to know the compassion of Jesus. Are we Christians strong enough to obey what Jesus commands us to do regardless of our feelings? How much do we identify with Jonah? Think of God’s patience, the compassion He showed to Nineveh, and what He wants us to do to model that and show others Christ through us. If Christ is in us, we have the power through the Holy Spirit to do this—even to our enemies. Pray for opportunities to share the gospel with the lost, pray for boldness and then let the Holy Spirit do His work.