The story of Jonah and the whale was one of my favorites as a kid. I loved following Jonah’s journey—from fleeing from God to living in the belly of the big fish to, finally, preaching in Nineveh. I read Jonah many times as a child. However, if I’m honest, I didn’t really understand it. Today the book remains amongst my favorites, but for a different reason. What I didn’t understand as a child, I do now. Jonah confronts us with a question that probes the deepest recesses of our hearts: Are we OK with our enemies receiving mercy?
Jonah is an Israelite. He’s put at a crossroads when God calls him to go to Nineveh and warn of God’s coming judgment. Nineveh was a great city belonging to the nation of Assyria, the enemies of Israel, and Jonah knows well that if God relents his judgment upon Nineveh, it will be only bad news for the nation he loves. So, he flees.
After being tossed overboard in a storm and mercifully (though unconventionally) rescued from the perils of the sea, Jonah is called by God—again—to go and warn the Ninevites. Jonah reluctantly obeys. Despite his half-hearted warning, the Ninevites are convicted and the people from the greatest to the least (including the king and even the animals!) go into a time of fasting and mourning (Jonah 3:5–9). In seeing the Ninevites’ positive response to the message, God relents his judgment. And Jonah is very angry.
The Lesson in Jonah
Jonah falls prey to the same problem many of us do today: We forget that we’ve undeservedly received mercy (Jonah 2:2–9, 4:2). In not wanting others to receive mercy, we fail to recall the great unmerited mercies we’ve been shown in Christ. We fail to remember that we don’t deserve mercy more than another person.
The book of Jonah ends with a profound question that seeks to illustrate this point. God asks Jonah, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). We don’t get to read Jonah’s answer, so the question comes to us today. It calls us to reflect on God’s right to show mercy to whomever he chooses, even our enemies. How we answer this question not only affects our hearts and lives but also the lives of others. If we’re not first persuaded of our own need for mercy, we won’t be willing to extend mercy to others. As Protestant Reformer John Calvin writes, “Hence no one will be a willing Prophet or Teacher except he is persuaded that God is merciful.”
The Paradox of Mercy
God’s mercy doesn’t operate on our terms. In our logical minds, mercy and grace don’t make sense, but praise God they don’t! Even in the face of our sin and rebellion, Christ reconciled us to the Father. Having been lavished with his mercy, we’re now freed to love and forgive our enemies. We don’t extend mercy to our enemies in vain; we do so as sons and daughters of a loving God, who in his Son demonstrated the ultimate act of love, compassion, and mercy for his people at the cross. Jesus cried out for his enemies—the ones who mocked, beat, and crucified him—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We entrust ourselves into the hands of such a merciful Savior as we seek to be obedient to his command to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]” (Matt. 5:44).
Over the years, I’ve found how easy it is to nurse a grudge against other people, even my brothers and sisters in Christ. Jonah challenges my hard and bitter heart with the reality that I don’t deserve God’s mercy more than anyone else.
If you’ve been a Christian long enough, it’s easy to lose sight of how unworthy of God’s grace and mercy we are. It’s tempting to think we’re in a neutral state in the eyes of God, that we’re not as bad as we think. But the great reality of the gospel is that Christ died for us when we were God’s enemies (Rom. 5:1–11). It’s precisely because Christ died for us while we were his enemies that his great unconditional love for us is shown. He didn’t come and die for those who had it all together—for those who were more righteous than their neighbors—he came for sinners (Luke 5:32). This is the lesson Jonah fails to remember. May the Lord grant that we never forget.