The Lord commanded the ancient prophet Jonah to preach to the wicked people in the city of Nineveh, part of the Assyrian Empire, the enemy of the people of Israel. Deciding instead to flee from the Lord, Jonah boarded a ship to Tarshish, the furthest city from Nineveh by sea. Angered, the Lord sent a storm to stop him. Jonah, at his own request, was thrown overboard, where he was swallowed by a whale or "great fish." He remained underwater for three days, following which " the fish...vomited out Jonah upon the dry land" (Jonah 2:10).
"And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord." (Jonah 3:1-3).
Jonah preached to the Ninevites, who repented in fasting and sackcloth, led by their king. But instead of rejoicing for the Ninevites return to righteousness, " it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry" (Jonah 4:1). Upset, Jonah left the city and constructed a shelter to sit in, to wait for God to destroy the city as He had promised. A vine grew there, giving him shade as he waited for the Lord's judgments. Wishing to teach Jonah a lesson, the Lord caused the vine (KJV: gourd) to be destroyed, which only irritated Jonah more.
"And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the [vine]? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death [that is, I am so angry I could die] Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the [vine], for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons?" (Jonah 4:9-11).
The message of the book of Jonah is expressed in its last verse: Should not I spare Nineveh? That is the Lord's question to Jonah, and that is the Lord's question to each of us. We never learn what Jonah's response was, nor what happened to him after hearing the Lord's question. We get to write the story's ending on our own, in our own lives. We get to decide, like spectators at a gladiator match, whether the foe lives or dies. And as we consider that weighty matter, we are struck with the overwhelming burden that judgment always carries--the knowledge that we are unworthy to judge even the most rebellious sinners, that because the Lord has shown us mercy in our rebellion, as He did for Jonah, so we must show mercy to all, even to our enemies.
I remember a conversation I once had with a friend that changed my perspective on judgment and mercy. Deeply angered at those who produce products that enslave others for personal profit, and filled with what I had labeled "righteous indignation," I asked my friend if we would get to stand at the judgment bar and testify against those whose shear wickedness and greed had destroyed the lives of those we loved, because, by golly, I was looking forward to it. He thought for a minute, and then replied, "No, Amy, I don't think we will. I think that if we are people who belong in heaven, we will be filled with so much love for all of God's children that it will pain us to know that some people, because of their actions, won't be able to join us and be truly happy."
That let all the air out of my "righteous indignation" balloon, and made me feel about two inches tall. My desire to see offenders brought to justice was much like Jonah's desire to see the city destroyed. And with the heavy burden of judgment staring me in the face, I am driven to consider the Lord's question: "Should not I spare Nineveh?"
The Lord has been merciful to us. He has spared us and upheld us and rescued us, even in our rebellion. Should He not also spare Nineveh?
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