“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…” So wrote John Newton, after being saved from a violent storm whilst aboard a ship in 1748, and redeemed from being an active participant in the slave trade. I’m sure that after his miraculous rescue from disobedience and shame, Jonah would have been happy to stand alongside Newton, or me, in church and belt out that hymn. But wretches like them?!! Those Ninevites?? He could not rejoice in their salvation. Not only is he not happy but he complains that this is the very reason he didn’t want to come in the first place; he knew that God was gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and he didn’t want to see this extended to the Ninevites.
Perhaps he thought himself more worthy than they. Yes he had intentionally ignored God and run in the opposite direction, but as someone who knew God’s voice it seems likely that Jonah was a devout Jew who sought after God. He wasn’t on the same level as those wicked Ninevites. It is so easy to measure ourselves up against others and often we see the negative in ourselves, but we can also find those who are less worthy than ourselves. Maybe they don’t work as hard as us, maybe they aren’t on any rotas at church, maybe they have so many skeletons in their closet that you can safely say you will always be a notch or two above them. None of us are worthy and none of us can ever measure up to God’s standards, let’s remember that when we get caught up in the mindset of trying to measure our righteousness by works or by the world’s standards.
Perhaps Jonah thought that the Nineveites’ evil was too great for God’s mercy. Is there anyone you would be angry to see in heaven? A slave trader/ people trafficker? A dictator who has ordered the death and torture of millions? A paedophile? Someone who has abused or deeply hurt you or someone you know and love? The things all these people have done are evil, they rightly cause anger. They invoke God’s wrath. Just as in this story God said that the city of Ninevah would be overturned, there is a price to pay for wrongdoing. But Jesus paid it all. Even though they don’t deserve it, just like I don’t deserve it, God loves them and longs to show them grace. Jonah would not have chosen to extend the gift of God’s grace to these people if it had been his choice. Is there anyone you don’t want to see receiving God’s grace? In Matthew 6 v 44 Jesus commanded, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” As difficult as this is, start by trying to pray for them, and see what God will do from there.
Perhaps the story of what happened in Nineveh just didn’t meet up with Jonah’s idea of justice. As a Jew who was familiar with the laws that had to be followed and the sacrifices that had to be made to remain in right relationship with God, where was the justice in a Gentile nation known for their wickedness just being able to do a bit of fasting and weeping and going scot-free? Where were their storms and 3 days inside the belly of a fish?! Praise God that he has always sought to show mercy. He sees the heart and knew that in the hearts of the people of Nineveh was true repentance. Whilst he saw sin that needed dealing with, he also saw “120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left” (v11) and as a loving father he had pity and granted them mercy. Thank God that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”(Isaiah 55v8-9) One of my favourite verses in the Bible sums up how God’s sense of justice does not meet with our earthly understanding of what should happen to those who do wrong, or look like any system for dealing with sin that we could have come up with: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1v18) Thanks to Jesus’ incredible love and sacrifice we can all stand and belt out the words to Amazing Grace, alongside the slave trader.