Reflection: Jonah 4: 1 – 11
The Assyrians were well known for their brutality in war, as well as during peacetime over their vassal states, and Jonah’s ethnocentricity fed his perception on how his enemies ought to be judged and condemned. There were no second chances for them in his theology. We begin this familiar story towards the end of the Jonah narrative, after the Ninevites repented as a result of his preaching, and he retires outside the city, and sulks at God’s forgiveness to them. A fast growing plant is used to draw out Jonah’s compassion, and God paralleled how Jonah felt for its demise, with His concern for the Ninevites: a self-revelation of His divine character.
The word ‘compassion’ is an intense word, meaning to pity, to share in someone’s suffering, to mourn or grieve over someone who is loved and had departed: i.e., to have your heart broken. Jonah’s emotional attachment to a plant was psychologically predictable in order to cope with his own disillusionment over God’s compassion for the Ninevites. He projected his compassion onto a multicellular eukaryotes (organism) rather than souls, to pacify his own distorted conscience. We do not know the outcome of Jonah’s exchange with God, as the book left it unanswered. But the point is that often, like Jonah, our identities are wrapped up with our attachments, whether they are things, animals, people, work, or activities, thereby affecting our contentment and purpose in life, and they may draw us away from God’s goals for us.
God, however, does not need to be attached to anyone or anything; He is completely at ease with and fulfilled in Himself. But He chose to identify Himself with the Ninevites, to mourn and grieve over their sins, as He did with Ephraim (Hoaea 11:8, “How shall I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? My heart is turned over within Me, all My compassions are kindled”), and Jerusalem (Matt 23:37). It was quite telling to review the basis for God’s compassion: Nineveh was a great city with 120,00 people (huge in those days), who were desolate spiritually (v.11: do not know the difference between their right and left hand). He got involved and made Himself vulnerable, and He did it voluntarily. He was affected, troubled, grieved, heartbrokened by their condition, and desired to change it. And when the Ninevites repented and promised to turn from their wicked and violent ways, He forgave them (vv.5-10). That is God’s compassion. Jonah was possibly upset that God did not covenant with them to safeguard Israel’s national interest, as the Assyrians would remain a threat.
What are the lessons for us as we look at God’s compassion? God did not criticize and judge Nineveh without mercy. He sent Jonah to warn them. It is incredible that Assyrians would pay any attention at all to an Israellte serf, spouting about judgment from a God whom they do not worship. It must have either been some extraordinary preaching or divine intervention, or both! How we see issues and people around us, will often determine our views and conclusions. His eyes chose to focus on the Ninevites’ future, and even though they did not know Him, He forgave readily as soon as they repented, bearing no grudges. I wonder how many did follow Yahweh after this incident. Be quick to forgive, without any grudges, and we will be at peace with God and ourselves. He also grieved over Jonah’s attitude. The mercy of God will test our heart’s responses, as He did with Jonah, in order for us to discover aspects of our motivations that fall far short of divine rectitude (vv. 9-10). Be ready for our heartstrings to be challenged by God as we interact especially with the lost and the poor, and when He does, be sensitive to the leading of His Holy Spirit.