Jonah #3: The Surprise of God’s Mercy

I preached this message on Sunday, September 25, 2022.

Here’s the link to Jonah 3.

Introduction

A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death. “But I don’t ask for justice,” the mother explained, “I plead for mercy.” “But your son does not deserve mercy,” Napoleon replied. “Sir,” the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” “Well, then,” the emperor said, “I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman’s son.

Last week we talked about God’s grace to Jonah. Grace can be described as getting what you do not deserve. This week we’re looking at God’s mercy for Nineveh. And mercy can be described as not getting what you do deserve.

“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time”

So Jonah has been vomited back onto dry land. He’s been delivered by God from the depths of both the sea and the belly of the great fish. And our chapter today begins with a very simple statement: The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time (3:1).

Chapter 3 is parallel to chapter 1. Except this time Jonah obeys. He’s at least learned that running from God is futile. Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the LORD’S command (3:3).

We’re told that Nineveh is a great city. We’re told it’s a three day walk. Possibly this means how long it would have taken Jonah to preach his message throughout the city so everyone would have the opportunity to hear it. Now, consider how we’re told Jonah set out and on the first day of his walk in the city and proclaimed, “In forty days Nineveh will be demolished!” (3:4)

Some point to this and suggest Jonah preached only on the first day of his three day task. If this is true, it would seem his obedience was rather half-hearted. He didn’t want to do what God had called him to do. The Ninevites were his enemies and he wanted God to hate them as much as he did.

But even apart from this, we know that Jonah didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites and for them to repent. First of all, he tried to run from God’s call. And as we’ll see next time in chapter 4 Jonah is furious that the Ninevites repent and that God shows them mercy. He actually says that he is angry enough to die (3:3, 4:8, 4:9).

And yet despite all of this, God still called Jonah. God delivered Jonah. God gave Jonah a second chance to obey his call. God didn’t only call him in order to change him and to teach him a lesson about loving his enemies. He had another reason.

He also called Jonah to preach to the Ninevites. Right? He purposed to use Jonah specifically to bring this pagan nation to its collective knees in repentance. God took this stubborn, angry, and intolerant prophet and used him to reach out in mercy to the people of Nineveh.

So then: The surprise of God’s mercy is that he uses deeply flawed, sinful, and unexpected people for his purposes.

One of the things this shows us is that the power of God’s message here does not depend on Jonah. God used Jonah’s preaching despite Jonah.

So, let’s ask: If Jonah still hated Nineveh, why did God call him a second time to preach there? What is significant about the fact that God used Jonah and will use imperfect, even sinful people for his purposes? Have you ever felt that because of your past mistakes God could never use you again?

“They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth”

Now, like we’ve already said before, we know the Ninevites were not peace-loving people. They were not kind and compassionate. No. They were violent and war-loving. They tortured prisoners. We actually have archeological evidence to this effect.

God refers to their evil at the start of the story. In his decree, the king refers to Nineveh’s evil ways and wrongdoing. Left to themselves, they were on a path of self-destruction.

So let’s be honest: they did not deserve a chance to repent. They did not deserve God’s mercy. And in fact when you read this chapter, you also notice that the king decreed that not only all the people needed to fast and put on sackcloth, but the animals did too.

Here’s what the decree says: Both people and animals must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God (3:8). All the livestock of the land were included in the king’s decree. That seems strange, doesn’t it?

That their response also included animals is an indication of how seriously they were convicted about their sin and how serious the sin was. All people and all livestock fasted and put on sackcloth in response to Jonah’s message.

Notice, too, that the repentance called for here is not about the discrete, personal sins of individual Ninevites. It was a call of repentance to the whole city. Their entire society was corrupt and wicked. We would do well to remember that God brings judgment to nations and cities.

Yet the whole point of this story is that God did not want to leave them as they were. Did you notice how God refers to Nineveh as a great city? He does this both times he calls Jonah to preach there. Go to the great city of Nineveh (1:2, 3:2).

Obviously, when God calls Nineveh great, he probably doesn’t mean it’s wonderful or that it’s a great spot for tourists on vacation. It could mean great in size. Or it could also mean that as a city it is actually important to God. That is, what happens in Nineveh and what happens to Nineveh is something which matters to God. Because God cares for the Ninevites.

And we know how much God cares by the message he gives Jonah to preach: In forty days Nineveh will be demolished! (3:4) In the Bible, the number forty (forty days, forty years) often refers to a time of testing or judgement. And we see here God giving the entire city an opportunity to repent. It’s as though God is saying, “Alright, Nineveh, now’s your chance. Repent. Turn yourselves around. Throw yourselves on the mercy of God with all your hearts.” And all of Nineveh responds to Jonah’s message. All fast and put on sackcloth—showing their repentance and their desire for God’s mercy.

This means: The surprise of God’s mercy is that it can even transform the worst of the worst. God can change hearts. God can transform lives. In Romans 2:4 Paul says that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.

So let’s ask ourselves: Can we think of anyone who doesn’t deserve God’s mercy? Do we think there is anyone God doesn’t have the power to save? Who do you know who needs to receive God’s kindness and mercy?

“God saw their actions . . . so God relented”

So when our passage begins Jonah once again is called to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. And miraculously they respond. They repent! The king even issues a decree to make it official. People and animals alike!

And what happens? God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster he had threatened them with. And he did not do it (3:10).

In other words, God did exactly what Jonah knew he would do: I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster (4:2).

The surprise of God’s mercy is that God is as God acts. His character is consistent with his actions. He shows mercy because he is merciful.

Consider for a moment what God tells Jonah at the end of the next chapter. Jonah is upset that Nineveh repents. And he’s upset about a plant that had provided him some shade in some scorching heat that God then took away (we’ll get more to that next time!).

Then God says this: You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. But may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals? (4:10—11).

Think about what God is saying here. He’s saying to Jonah: “You care about yourself and your plant, and your comfort, but what about Nineveh? I created them. Each person in that city—no matter how sinful they are—is made in my image. They have worth and value. I care for them, Jonah, infinitely more than you could ever care for your plant.”

The surprise of God’s mercy is that he is like this at all, that he is merciful, that he will show his mercy to us—and that he will do this again and again. God gave Nineveh forty days to respond. Each of us has our whole life. Our loved ones have their whole lives.

So let’s ask: Are you surprised by what God is like? Why or why not? How have you experienced God’s mercy? How might we see other people if we were to see them as God does?

Conclusion

In Lamentations 3:22—23 we read this: Because of the Lord’s faithful love we do not perish, for his mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness!

Lest we think ever think we deserved God’s mercy, we would do well to recall Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:3—5: We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!

Jonah announced God’s mercy to Nineveh. Jesus not only announces God’s mercy. He embodies God’s mercy. He is mercy in flesh and blood. It’s a surprising kind of mercy—because God in his love shows it—indeed, gives it—to us.

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