By Drew Zuverink
Our church just got done going through the book of Jonah this past Sunday and as our senior pastor joked, “I want to defend Jonah but it’s just so hard sometimes.” I’m sure I am paraphrasing that but it’s true, when we read the story of Jonah he does not come off as someone that we would like to imitate. He is reluctant to be a missionary, he tries running from what God wants him to do, and at the end of the story he even gets angry at God because God forgave the Ninevites instead of doing what Jonah wanted - which was to destroy them all.
During our five week study of Jonah we also noticed that we are all a lot more like him than we would like to admit.. We too are often reluctant to share the message that God has given us with unbelievers. We too try to escape our responsibilities of what God is calling us to do. We too often need a “belly of the fish” moment to wake us up and bring us back on track, but if there is one part of the story that we probably struggle to understand it’s when Jonah is angry at God for not destroying the city of Nineveh. How could Jonah not be glad that the people repented and were forgiven by God? How could he want an entire people group killed and wiped out? For most of us we can see ourselves in Jonah but not when he does this.
I was doing some reading yesterday in a book titled, “How Not to Read the Bible,” by Dan Kimball, and by chance I came across a section of the book where Dan describes what the Ninevite people were like. Here is what he writes;
“The Ninevites were also known as extremely wicked leaders, described in this way: ‘Records brag of live dismemberment, often leaving one hand attached so they could shake it before the person died. They made parades of heads, requiring friends of the deceased to carry them on elevated poles. They boasted of their practice of stretching live prisoners with ropes so they could be skinned alive. The human skins were then displayed on city walls and poles… They commissioned pictures of their post-battle tortures where piles of heads, hands and feet, and heads impaled on poles - eight to a stack - were displayed. They pulled out the tongues and private parts of live victims and burned the young alive.”
These people had reached depths of depravity to the point of reveling in the tortures of other human beings and Jonah would have known all of this.
I don’t know about you but I do not find Jonah’s desire for them to be destroyed strange. In chapter 4 of Jonah, the prophet sees that God has forgiven the people of Nineveh and it says that to Jonah this seemed wrong. This too I don’t see as a strange way of thinking that is foreign to how I might think myself. The Ninevites were terrible people who certainly deserved to be punished for their violence and their enjoyment in other people’s pain. When they don’t get what they deserve it seems unjust to Jonah, almost like they got away with it. Perhaps you are more forgiving than most but the thought of a group of people who killed and tortured people for fun receiving forgiveness does seem kind of wrong. Now certainly it wasn’t wrong for God to forgive them and he was perfectly just in doing so - and the point of this short message is not to argue whether God is just in this situation or not - I’m simply trying to show that we are all so identically similar to Jonah. In fact, I’m not sure if there is another Biblical character who serves as a better representation of most Christians than Jonah.
Jonah very well might be included in scripture so that we can all see ourselves in him, but the moral of the story is still that Jonah did not share the same heart as God. Jonah is not the hero of the story even if he serves as a representative for all of us. God is the one who is right not him.
If God truly did not want to bring destruction upon a group of people who were that wicked then there must not be a single type of person out there who God would enjoy punishing and sending to hell. In fact Ezekiel 33:11 says this, “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’”
The applications of this are endless and I hope that your mind is racing with many of them but let me quickly share just two.
1) If God takes no pleasure in the death of even the most wicked person then neither should we. We can be glad that the torments of that person will be over and that no one will be hurt because of their wickedness ever again, but we should not take any pleasure in their death and instead should always pray for their redemption.
2) If God would have taken no pleasure in the death of the Ninevites but truly wanted them to repent and experience his forgiveness then you can be confident that God truly and genuinely wants his relationship with you restored to forgiveness, peace and love as well. God was incredibly patient with the Ninevites. They had been wicked for a very long time and God continued to withhold his judgement in hopes that they would repent and change so that he didn’t have to punish them. In fact, the reason that God seems to allow certain wicked people to continue instead of just destroying them is because he is hoping that they will repent and be saved! He is slow to anger and slow to send someone to hell - he would much rather save them and bring them to heaven with him. Praise God for this! Do not ever feel like God is hesitant to forgive and restore you to a right relationship with him. He is not hesitant at all but instead he is actually eagerly waiting to do just that.