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The wideness of God’s mercy

A sermon by Rod Benson

Grace and mercy are well known characteristics of God. They are distinctive characteristics of the God who is revealed in the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace is one of the ways in which God demonstrates his amazing love. When we talk about the grace of God, we mean the way in which God deals with people not on the basis of their merit or worthiness, but simply according to their needs.

Mercy is another way in which God demonstrates his amazing grace. Mercy is God’s tenderness of heart toward people in need. “If grace contemplates humans as sinful, guilty and condemned, mercy sees them as miserable and needy.”[1]

We are all of these things, of course. And each of us needs to receive and experience divine grace and mercy.

Mercy comes to the fore in the book of Jonah, as God reaches out to avert the destruction that is about to befall the great city of Nineveh, and as he reaches out in a similar way to Jonah, miserable and needy as he is, cast in the sea, and imprisoned in the belly of the great fish; and later in his little shelter outside Nineveh where he waits to see if God will change his mind and destroy the city.

nineveh-jonah-waiting

Psalm 86:5 says, “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you.”

Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”

Psalm 119:64 declares that “The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love.”

Psalm 106:1 says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his mercy endures forever.”

Jonah knew his God. He knew about God’s mercy and grace toward Abraham and his descendants. He thought he knew who deserved it, and who didn’t. That is why, in chapter one, he tried to run away from God and his sacred commission to go to Nineveh and warn of impending destruction.

Look at 4:1-2. Here, in brief form, is the essence of Israel’s understanding of God and his ways. Jonah knew this well. And he felt very uncomfortable sharing his God with people from another culture and ethnic group. He does not want God to be the God of the Ninevites as well as the God of Israel. He doesn’t want God to forgive Nineveh. He believes that the universe operates according to justice, and justice demands that Nineveh be destroyed on account of its sins.

If God does not uphold this universal and timeless principle of justice, then Jonah can no longer be confident that it exists, and there can be no meaning to right and wrong, and no trustworthy guide for faithful living.

So when God responds in grace to the need of the Ninevites, and offers salvation, Jonah is dismayed. And when God acts in mercy to them, and averts the destruction he had threatened, Jonah is angry.

It seems so wrong (4:1)! It seems so unfair! And if that is the way the universe is ordered, says Jonah, I’m better off dead (v. 3). And the Lord gently replies, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (v. 4).

Even here, God is acting in mercy. There is no rebuke, no rejection, only words of mercy, compassion, love, relationship, and healing. And Jonah walks off into the desert, east of Nineveh, and builds a little hut to shade himself from the hot sun as he waits for God to change his mind and destroy the great city.

If only the story of Jonah had concluded at the end of chapter 3! But we can be grateful for the continuing story of chapter 4. It provides a lot of new information, and potentially transforms the purpose of the book.

So what is the purpose of the book of Jonah? Many people have tried to identify an over-arching theme in the book. Often the character of Jonah is seen representing Israel, in the context of addressing a missionary obligation to declare to the nations the existence and demands of Israel’s God, calling the nations to the sorrow of repentance and the obedience of faith (cf Ex 19:6).

Christians who take this view of the book see Jonah as an inspiration for Christian mission, specifically word-centred evangelistic mission, among the diverse ethnic and cultural groups in the home country, and mission in foreign lands.

So Jonah is meant to inspire us, and spur us on to love and good works in the name of Christ, praying for effective evangelism and mission, giving generously to the missionary cause, and (for some) going to the mission field as missionaries. And the warning is not to be like faithless, lazy, contrary Jonah, but instead to pray, give and go.

Then there are those who view the book of Jonah as instructing Israel that God has compassion and mercy not only for Israel but also for the pagan nations and all their people; and therefore God’s own elect people should also love and respect, forgive and welcome even their enemies – whoever may be identified as “the Ninevites of our lives.”

This too is commendable sentiment, and biblically justified, and faithful obedience to the message and mission of Jesus, as he reminded the Pharisees in Matthew 22:37-40:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

There is nothing wrong, and much that is right, in seeing these themes as the purpose of the book of Jonah.

But the chief purpose and meaning of the book, and the primary reason why it is included in the biblical canon, is to help us to better understand the nature of the sovereignty of God, who reserves the right to destroy, or to act with compassion, or to take no action, according to his own perfect wisdom, knowledge and love.

The object of God’s sovereign activity is Jonah, and Nineveh, and Israel. All are involved, all respond to God’s initiating and prompting, all are responsible for their actions in response to God’s sovereign and gracious activity.

Yet they are all secondary characters in the narrative, and the primary character is God – which is why we see God present and active in the world of Jonah, and through all four chapters of the story; and why the book ends on a startling and seemingly incomplete note, with a rhetorical question from the mouth of God to Jonah:

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals? (Jon 4:11)

There is a subtle clue supporting this view in 4:6. Up to this point in the narrative, God has been identified as “the LORD” (Yahweh, Israel’s God, revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:1-15). Now, in Jonah 4:6, we read about “the LORD God” (Yahweh Elohim), the compound name for God – linking the distinctive Israelite name for God and (in the same divine person) a more generic term for deity easily recognisable in Nineveh and elsewhere.

Why does the narrator suddenly use this compound name for God? It is quite possible that the narrator is drawing attention to the fact that the God who commanded Jonah, and the God who relented from destroying Nineveh, is the one supreme God who works both redemptively and creatively to fulfil his sovereign purposes, since “Yahweh” reminds Israel of the personal redeeming work of God, and their particular elect identity in God; and “Elohim” relates to and recalls the fact that God is the universal Creator to whom every person born is ultimately accountable. The mercy of God is wide enough to encompass all, without exception.

But more than this, “Both Jonah and Nineveh faced an impending calamity: Jonah, the climate; Nineveh, destruction. Both sought to avert the calamity by taking what action they could – Jonah building his hut [4:5], Nineveh repenting [3:10].”[2]

And God responded by removing the threat of disaster brooding over Nineveh, and by causing a leafy plant to grow over Jonah’s hut, to provide shade from the harsh desert sun.

But in verse 7, the narrative takes a sudden turn, and God sends a worm to eat the plant, and withdraw the comfort, and Jonah is back to his physical suffering, the heat from the hot sun now made worse by a scorching east wind, along with his continued indignation at God’s audacious mercy toward the Ninevites. And Jonah desires death (v. 8).

Notice that there is no parallel in Nineveh’s experience to the worm destroying the plant providing shade to Jonah. God sovereignly removed his instrument of grace from Jonah, but not from Nineveh. And now, ironically, Jonah experiences the kind of treatment that he had previously wished for the Ninevites.

We read about Jonah’s intense anger twice in chapter 4 (vv. 1, 9b). In both cases, his emotion was focused on the means of God’s grace.

Jonah thought it profoundly wrong for God to show compassion toward the Ninevites, and to relent and withdraw the promised destruction that had been coming their way (v. 2). And in verse 9, Jonah’s anger arises from the fact of the withered plant.

In both cases, he wished himself dead – a strong morose aspiration, reflecting the depth of his sense of injustice. Jonah knew intuitively that Nineveh deserved no second chances, but he was convinced hat he did. Jonah completely misunderstood God’s sovereignty.

And the time has come for God to tell Jonah some hard truth (v. 10). Jonah had done nothing to warrant God’s mercy. He had done nothing to earn the right to enjoy the shade offered by the plant. That was not God “paying his dues” to the Israelite prophet: it was pure grace.

Jonah had to learn the hard lesson, as we also need to learn, that God is much bigger and wiser than we will ever imagine; and God’s sovereignty, being absolute, means that he is free to dispense mercy and grace wherever he wishes, and withhold disaster wherever he desires, and apply or allow both hardship and blessing on whomever he wills.

There is a wideness in God’s mercy, and an inscrutability in his counsels, and we his children fare best when we let God be God, and bow to his will, and serve him out of the love that comes from trust and fellowship.


Sermon 751 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 29 October 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (third edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 266.

[2] Andrew E. Hill & John H. Walton, Survey of the Old Testament (third edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 633.

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