Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Point of It All

From the shade of his leafy hut, the prophet morosely and absent-mindedly snacked on a handful of dates as he took in his hateful westward view, in which the great pagan city Nineveh, for a moment delivered from disaster, sat front and center. When we left Jonah last week, his preaching had – much to his displeasure – resulted in a reformation of Nineveh's whole way of life, and he'd realized that the LORD had opted to mercifully spare them as a result – a decision that not only threatened Jonah's own reputation, not only diluted Israel's privileges under the covenant by sharing them with others, but even spelled doom for Israel's future and made hay of any hope of living in a fair world where long-standing habits have real consequences. And so Jonah was furious, looked on divine mercy as a great evil, and fumed a complaint at the LORD for being the same God he'd described himself as so long ago to Moses. And where Moses had interceded and laid his life on the line to win mercy for Israel because of those words, now Jonah wanted to lay his life on the line to win judgment for Nineveh in defiance against those same words that were the foundation of his very own existence.

For just that reason, Jonah had cut the LORD off in mid-conversation. Questioned by God about his hotly burning anger, Jonah had silently walked east from the city and sat down on the ground to watch Nineveh. Jonah intended to coerce the LORD into making a choice: either Nineveh dies, or Jonah dies. Jonah knew the LORD had already shown mercy and compassion to Nineveh; he wanted the LORD to change his mind, to take back the mercy, to pour out wrath instead. Maybe it'd happen because Nineveh would quickly revert to their old ways, and the LORD would promptly reactivate his threat and act right away. Or maybe it'd happen because, no matter what Nineveh did, the LORD would rather keep his prophet than some foreign city. Whatever the reason, Jonah aimed to move the LORD to take back mercy and pour out judgment on the city instead.

And to that end, when Jonah picked his spot east of Nineveh, where he could imagine far-off Israel distantly in the background behind the hateful city, Jonah built himself a shelter – and not just any shelter, but a hut or booth called in Hebrew a sukkah, the kind they had to live for seven days every autumn as part of the Feast of Booths. It was how Moses and their ancestors had lived at times in the desert, and they went back to them each year as a reminder of how the LORD had protected them. Indeed, after Jonah's day, a later prophet named Isaiah would set out a hope that, when Jerusalem was finally cleansed of sin, the LORD would restore his desert presence of cloud by day and fire by night, and so “there will be a booth” – or sukkah“for shade by day from the heat and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain” (Isaiah 4:6). It was just such a booth that Jonah built for shade by day from the heat – even though a sukkah by definition has to leave some gaps in the palm-leaf ceiling to see the sun and stars through. In building it, Jonah was silently calling on the LORD to protect him – just as he protected Moses in the desert, which is how Jonah still sees himself. Besides, the feast when they built these booths was a harvest festival – and it was high time to put the sickle in Nineveh, if you asked Jonah.

So Jonah has issued an ultimatum. He's cut the prayer lines to the LORD. And the LORD is looking down from heaven at this sad, bitter prophet, the very opposite of the heroes he's trying to emulate. Jonah's no Moses. And Jonah's no Elijah. For although Elijah once sat down under a tree in the desert and prayed for death, Elijah did so in the face of persecution and weakness and was readily restored (1 Kings 19:4). Jonah needs to see that he's no Moses, and he's no Elijah – that instead, he's a lot more like the city he so quickly condemns. Perhaps a demonstration is in order, to illustrate a powerful lesson.

The next thing we're told is that “the LORD God appointed a qiqayon and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head, to deliver him from his evil” (Jonah 4:6). Just like in Genesis 2, when we read how “the LORD God” made a garden grow in Eden, now “the LORD God” makes a plant grow right over Jonah and his flimsy little hut. And the kind of plant – well, the book calls it a qiqayon, that's its name. And people have had lots of guesses what a qiqayon is. In the early church, we even hear of riots breaking out in churches over different guesses for this plant! So please, let's stay calm as I hazard a guess that it's the castor bean plant. And where its name in Hebrew points us back to where the LORD delivered Jonah by having him vomited out by the great fish, now God delivers Jonah again by assigning him a castor bean plant – and even back then, castor oil was a popular laxative. Anybody wonder if the LORD's hinting something about Jonah's attitude?

I hope none of your parents fed you a spoonful of castor oil as punishment or medicine when you were kids. But Jonah needs a dose of something. And so God, kindly and maybe a bit sarcastically, appoints this plant and makes it grow up overnight over Jonah and his hut. With its big leaves and rapid growth, it compensates for any gaps in Jonah's roof – especially as his palm leaves dry out – and gives Jonah's head some much-needed shade. That way, God gave the plant to deliver Jonah from his evil – meaning, at one level, his misery in the heat. But at another level, the plant's goal is to deliver Jonah from the evil in his heart.

Okay, so now Jonah is under some extra shade. And Jonah is thrilled! Jonah is so happy! We read that “Jonah rejoiced with great joy for the qiqayon” (Jonah 4:6). As greatly miserable as Jonah was over God's mercy for Nineveh, that's the extent to which Jonah's celebrating this plant. He's never seen anything so beautiful as this one plant! He wonders if maybe the plant is a sign, a sign that God so regards his life that he's made a choice of Jonah over Nineveh. But regardless, Jonah feels so much more comfortable under this nice plant. And so from the deepest anger and depression, Jonah turns on a dime to ecstatic glee. Jonah feels emotions, and he feels them intensely and shallowly, with barely any ability to self-regulate. And you know what that reminds me of? The years I worked at a daycare, with a class full of Kindergartners, first-graders, and second-graders. Some of them actually seemed more mature than Jonah, come to think of it. And this whole story makes a lot more sense if God is looking down at Jonah and seeing him as a spoiled child in need of a basic lesson about life.

Jonah, this overgrown toddler of a man, is immensely content with the leafy plant shading him and his hut from the heat outside, even though Jonah had just the day before been filled with a greater heat of unrighteous anger on the inside. And so a day goes by, in which Jonah watches Nineveh to his west, but in luxurious comfort and confident presumption. But the lesson is not done. For while Jonah might be delivered from the physical evil of misery, he isn't delivered from the inner evil of his immaturity and pride. Something else must be done.

And so the next verse says, “And God appointed a worm as morning dawned the next day, and it attacked the qiqayon so that it dried up” (Jonah 4:7). Just as the plant had grown up in a night, now a hungry worm came to chew through its stem, and when Jonah wakes up, he's going to find that the mercy of the plant sheltering him has been withdrawn. And it's all thanks to a simple worm – a symbol of death, since ancient Hebrew didn't have different words for a fruit grub and a maggot. First, God had given Jonah this plant, a merciful shade and a vivid symbol of life. Now, God's sent a symbol of death to take it away as quickly as it came. It's sobering.

But what's all this getting at? Well, here's another clue, and bear with me here. All throughout the book so far, the author has been very careful about what names he gives to God. When God is interacting with Jonah, God has always been referred to as 'LORD,' in all-caps (as our English Bibles print it). That's his covenant name, the name he revealed and explained to Moses from the burning bush. So everywhere the book is talking about how Jonah and God interact, it uses the name 'LORD.' But everywhere the book talks about God relating to non-Israelites, like the sailors on the ship or the people of Nineveh? There, God isn't referred to as 'LORD' but as 'God,' a more general name, like in Genesis 1 when God was creating the whole world and not focusing in on any one part of it. And this is a consistent pattern throughout the whole book! Except... here, God is dealing with Jonah, and the author calls him 'God,' not 'LORD.' Why? Because Jonah is being treated to a taste of what it's like to be a Ninevite – and not just a Ninevite, but a Ninevite in the kind of world Jonah wishes this were.

See, what does Jonah want? He wants Nineveh, which has received mercy, to have that mercy taken away. So God puts Jonah in Nineveh's shoes. Jonah gets mercy: a plant that shades his head and delivers him from evil. And then Jonah sees that mercy abruptly die, just as he wants to see Nineveh's mercy abruptly die. God is giving Jonah a chance to understand how somebody in Nineveh would feel if God acts like Jonah wants him to. The mercy has now been eaten up by the deadly little worm.

But Jonah barely has any time to grieve the loss of protection before he begins to suffer from it. The next words we read, we hear that “it came to pass that, when the sun arose, God appointed a cutting east wind” (Jonah 4:8) – from the east, just as day begins, God assigns the east wind to sweep in from the desert. It's dry, hot, full of desert sand. This is no pleasant wind. With the plant cut off from its roots, this wind will make the leaves fall right off. If there's still anything left to the hut's roof, this wind is cutting enough to blow the leaves away. Coming from the east, it comes from behind Jonah – it hits him before it ever gets to Nineveh's city walls.

In Exodus, it's this same “east wind” that God sends to part the sea for Moses (Exodus 14:21). But the point is that Jonah is no Moses. This same east wind is the one the LORD uses throughout the Old Testament as a tool of judgment. Jonah's young friend Hosea compares Assyria to the east wind that blows against Israel (Hosea 12:1). Hosea hears the LORD saying: “Compassion is hidden from my eyes. Though he may flourish among his brothers, the east wind – the wind of the LORD – shall come, rising from the desert, and his fountain shall dry up, his spring shall be parched, it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing” (Hosea 13:14-15).

Before Nineveh could become the east wind (as Hosea predicted it would), Jonah wanted Nineveh to be blown down by the east wind. And Jonah is getting a taste of what it's like to live in Jonah's world. So then, as Jonah feels this dry east wind cutting into him, “the sun attacked Jonah's head so that he wilted, and he asked his soul to die” (Jonah 4:8). Jonah thinks he's Moses, he thinks he's Elijah. Well, Elijah called down fire on soldiers who came to arrest him (2 Kings 1:9-12). That's what Jonah wishes he could to to Nineveh. So Jonah gets a taste of the heat of the sun becoming a fire from heaven. And the fiery sun attacking Jonah's head returns him to misery, and now that Jonah's so uncomfortable, he wants to quit on life.

Now, Jonah could've escaped by walking back into the city, knocking on any Ninevite's door, and asking for refuge. But Jonah, faced with discomfort, is angry enough to die. Jonah's anger is looking a lot less principled and a lot more petty in the bright light of the sun. So Jonah repeats to himself what he'd said earlier to the LORD: “It is better for me to die than for me to live” (Jonah 4:8). And that marks the perfect place for God to try to resume the conversation that Jonah had cut off earlier. God asks Jonah, “Is it good for you to be angry about the qiqayon?” Jonah says yes: “It is good for me to be angry, even to death!” (Jonah 4:9). Jonah got attached to that plant; it's unfair for the plant to die so soon, so suddenly! Jonah doesn't want to live in a world where God gives life and yanks it away so soon, where God's mercy can dry up and die for no reason!

And now God has Jonah right where he wants him. And so, for the first time since this object lesson began, the author refers to God as “LORD again – Jonah is stepping back out of Nineveh's shoes, and the LORD wants to give him a different perspective on what just happened. Now Jonah has to understand, not just how it would feel to be Nineveh in Jonah's world, but how it would feel to be the LORD in Jonah's world. And just as Jonah launched this debate with a 39-word speech in Hebrew, and kept matching the LORD word-for-word, it's the LORD's turn to balance the scales by wrapping things up in thirty-nine words.

Here's what the LORD says, as he drives his point home: “You've had compassion for the plant, for which you didn't work, nor did you make it great, which as a son of a night came to be and which as a son of a night died” (Jonah 4:10). It's as if the LORD's telling him: “Jonah, just look how emotionally invested you got in that plant. Take a good look at your intense feelings about the plant and what happened to it. And then look at the facts. It was a plant. Its life spanned a single day, from the mystery of one night to the mystery of the next night – sprouting and growing up out of nowhere by my grace, and dying out of nowhere by my judgment. And you had no role in its life. You couldn't be proud, you had no responsibility for it. You put no work or effort into its creation. It grew so great with zero input from you, Jonah. And yet you're upset – you're thinking that, if you'd been in my shoes, you would've loved it and spared it. Oh, that's what you think! But would you really?”

For now the LORD questions him. If that's how Jonah felt about the plant, how must the LORD feel about Nineveh? All that, Jonah, “and I shouldn't have compassion on Nineveh, the great city, in which are more than twelve myriads of humans who don't know between their right hand and their left hand – and beasts aplenty?” (Jonah 4:11). What's the LORD saying? “Nineveh is as great among cities as the qiqayon was among plants. Is it a faceless monster to you, Jonah? Not to me! My Israel (which I showed mercy again and again) had twelve tribes, but Nineveh is more than twelve ten-thousands of human lives. And where your Israel receives my patience when they sin against what they know, these people in Nineveh never had the advantage of being instructed by Moses and the prophets, to teach them left from right. Morally, they're little more than children – and are you, Jonah, any less childish? As if that weren't enough, didn't you hear their bulls and horses and sheep mooing and neighing and bleating their mournful prayers to my name? Can you even count them all, Jonah? And yet each one, even the feeblest little lamb, is a higher and more precious form of life than that plant over which you've spilled your hot, salty tears and your hot, salty words. Aren't they a pitiful sight? Jonah, you've shown that you're capable of emotionally investing in and compassionately pitying a simple plant that you didn't make, didn't grow great, and didn't know for more than a day of hopes and dreams. So how can you begrudge me my right, as the Author and Lover of life, to pityingly spare this city I've known and grown?”

And on that question, the book's credits roll. We're left with silence, with a void. Because it's up to us to hear the LORD's words and speak for Jonah now. Jonah's opening complaint, the two halves of their exchange, and now the LORD's clinching question – each allotted the same number of words to make their case – are finished. And with the LORD and Jonah having both spoken their piece, the author invites us to judge for ourselves. Will Jonah continue to resist? Does Jonah have a comeback? Or does God's analogy expose Jonah's heart wide open – and is Jonah, at last, delivered from the evil of pride that lurks there? Can Jonah now grow up? Elijah heard the LORD's double question and returned, renewed, to make disciples. Now Jonah has heard the LORD's double question, and is faced with the choice: Will the Prophet Jonah make of it what the Prophet Elijah did?

As for the Ninevites, Jonah was probably right about one thing: their repentance wouldn't last. But even so, the threat Jonah had cried out in her streets wouldn't immediately reactivate. God really had spared Nineveh, had given Nineveh a reprieve rooted in sincere compassion. And so God had somewhat reset the clock. For God had purposes for Nineveh. Less than forty years after this story draws to its close, armies are going to march out from Nineveh and wipe Israel off the map, blowing in like the east wind. Nineveh's reprieve will last for generations. But not forever. Nearly a century and a half after Jonah, in 612 BC, finally Nineveh's reversion to evil would catch up to her, and not all the excuses of ignorance and the beauties of life would stop judgment.

And yet Nineveh's story isn't done there, either. For over six centuries after Nineveh's destruction, God sent his Son into the world – an act of far greater compassion than his temporary sparing of Nineveh. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Jesus Christ laid down his life as an act of compassion, and as he hung on that cross, the face of every man, woman, and child in this great city surely passed through his mind. Like a plant cut down at the prime of its greenness, Jesus died. But he rose from the dead to flourish again, and be a shade to deliver all the world from evil, if only we gather under him. He sent out his twelve apostles to the world's myriads to invite them under Christ's compassionate shade, and as this good news was relayed from land to land, it reached the sons and daughters of Assyria. Within a few generations at most, the gospel had begun to root itself in the ruins of Nineveh. Nineveh became a seat of a bishop, a successor carrying out the apostles' mission in that place. For in the wake of judgment centuries before, the LORD's compassion persisted in pursuing the city. He was simply “patient toward them, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

When the winds of judgment were blowing in, Jonah could point to the direction they came from. Jonah was of the opinion he had God all figured out, had analyzed the balance of mercy and judgment. But Jonah couldn't guess he'd learn how Nineveh felt. Jonah couldn't guess he'd learn how God felt. And Jonah definitely couldn't see the gospel coming. For when Jesus ascended into heaven, he poured down his Holy Spirit in the sight of a crowd that included Jews descended from the Israelites carried back to Nineveh (Acts 2:9). And this Spirit “blows where it wishes,” Jesus said, “and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). The Spirit is a wind who preserves his mystery. But the Spirit descended to fulfill the words of Joel that God would “pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:29). And now the mysterious, merciful Spirit of God blows in us, flourishes in us. We, far more than Jonah, have been given the “mind of Christ” to appreciate the LORD's compassion (1 Corinthians 2:16), and so to be truer heirs of Moses and Elijah in our day and age as we gather to Christ (Mark 9:4). And so to the God who spares us and makes us grow up great in grace be all glory and honor; and may his Spirit blow us to see with his pitying eye and entrust to his wisdom each creature he has made – each human face and name, and all those beasts aplenty. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Resenting Mercy

It was an awful day in Israel. The covenant was dead. Moses was still on the mountain when the LORD told him the news – the news of what his own brother and the whole people were doing down below, worshipping around that golden calf. Moses heard the LORD speak of his fury, his offer to overthrow Israel entirely and to start over with Moses as his new Abraham (Exodus 32:10). But Moses had led the people thus far, and though he'd soon go down and chastise them, he begged the LORD not to wipe them out: “Turn from your burning anger, and relent from this evil against your people!” (Exodus 32:12). Moses got what he asked for, and then he came down the mountain burning with anger that day. But the next day, his feelings for them softened. He went back to the LORD, begged for their forgiveness, put his own life on the line for them: “If not, please blot me out of your book that you have written” (Exodus 32:32). As for the LORD, he ignored Moses' deal, sent them a plague, and told Moses to lead the people without him, to leave God behind (Exodus 32:33—33:3).

But Moses stepped in again. He had found grace in the LORD's eyes, and he couldn't bear the rest of the journey without the LORD's presence. “If your presence will not go with me, don't bring us up from here!” (Exodus 33:15). And the LORD assured him, “My presence will go with you – 'you,' as in Moses alone (Exodus 33:14). But what about them? What about the people who'd lost their covenant. Can Israel come back from the golden calf? Moses hints at his request: “I and your people” (Exodus 33:16), take us as a package deal. And it looks like he's talking the LORD into it. So Moses takes a further step: “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18): I want to see you, I want to catch a clear glimpse of who you are, to dispel all this confusion once and for all.

But Moses wouldn't be able to handle all that. Yet the LORD will give him the next best thing. He won't parade his infinite glory in front of Moses, but he'll “make all my goodness pass before you” – all the virtue that God is, that Moses can see. And he'll do so while God unpacks the meaning and significance of his covenant name. “I will proclaim before you my name, 'LORD,' and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). “You can't bend me into it, Moses, neither can Israel bend me out of it. Here's what you need to know: I set the terms for what gets grace, what gets mercy.”

By the next morning, Moses was to have chiseled out two replacement tablets of stone, waiting to receive the words of the covenant all over again. Moses climbed back up that mountain again. And there, in a cleft of the rock, the LORD passed by, shielding Moses from lethal glory but displaying his goodness by announcing at last what it means for the LORD to be the LORD: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity on the fathers of the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). There it was! In the commandments, when the LORD described himself, he led with power and justice; here, he leads with mercy and grace – the mercy and grace he'd outsourced to Moses in their dialogue so as to achieve his real goal, that of displaying who he is. On this basis, Moses asked forthrightly for Israel's full pardon and re-adoption – and it was granted. A new covenant was born (Exodus 34:9-10)! 

Later, at the border of the promised land, when they planned to turn back to Egypt, the LORD again suggested wiping out Israel and starting over with Moses alone (Numbers 14:12). But Moses again prayed for them: “I beg you, let the power of the Lord be as great as you promised in saying, 'The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression... Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt until now” (Numbers 14:17-19). To save Israel once again, Moses quotes the LORD's own self-definition back to him! So the LORD pardons them, spares them, only disciplining them with a delay of their inheritance until a new generation can enter in to receive it (Numbers 14:20-38).

Jonah's ancestors were among the people for whose lives Moses had been willing to lay down his own. And yet I wonder whether Jonah heard that story growing up. Long before him, the northern kingdom of Israel where he lived went back to making golden calves (1 Kings 12:28-30); even the regime change in the days of Jonah's parents didn't stop it (2 Kings 10:29). Jonah was born between golden calves to the north and to the south. But maybe he did hear this story as a boy, and maybe little Jonah learned to sing some of the Psalms of David which turned these words to Moses into music: “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:8-9).

Jonah grew up in the days of the Prophet Elisha – you know, Elijah's successor – and I wonder if maybe, just maybe, Jonah was one of Elisha's disciples, the “sons of the prophets” (cf. 2 Kings 9:1). When Elisha died, we hear that “Hazael king of Aram oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz” (2 Kings 13:22). These were the days Jonah was beginning his ministry. “But,” we're told, “the LORD was gracious to them and had mercy on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has he cast them from his presence until now” (2 Kings 13:23). In spite of Israel rebuilding golden calves, even still the LORD proved gracious and merciful. Announcing that to them might've been the very first act of Jonah's career as a prophet in his own right – pointing back to the LORD's words to Moses, of grace and mercy for Israel in spite of herself, because that's just who the LORD is to them, for Abraham's sake!

But now look at an older Jonah. Reluctantly, he's preached to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, threatening them with an overthrow like Sodom and Gomorrah. But not only did they believe and respond, but even their head honcho, the 'king of Nineveh,' preached repentance to his own people. Unwittingly, this 'king of Nineveh' took on the job of an Assyrian Moses, leading Nineveh to reject its evil (Jonah 3:8), in hopes that the God in question might “turn from his burning anger” and “relent of the evil he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:9-10). Those are exactly the things Moses had asked as soon as he heard about the golden calf (cf. Exodus 32:12).

It's in the midst of this decree going out that we can meet Jonah again, standing in the city gate, facing outward, fuming. You see, we're told that “it was evil to Jonah with a great evil, and he burned with anger” (Jonah 4:1). Nineveh gave up its evil; now Jonah's the only one in the story still associated with that word. Jonah has, in a way, replaced Nineveh in the eyes of God. The LORD relented of his threats of 'evil' to match Nineveh's evil, and turned from his burning anger, but now Jonah's the one who burns with anger.1 It's as though Jonah is taking on himself the LORD's rights, as if he's saying: “Well, if you won't keep feeling the way you're supposed to, I'll have to step in and feel this way for you!” Jonah's subtly setting himself up as if he were God, almost. But even the LORD hadn't described the great city's evil as a 'great evil.' So what's a 'great evil' to Jonah? The fact that the LORD isn't following through on threats of evil to the no-longer-evil city!

If I had to surmise what has Jonah so steamed, it's probably put together from four things. First, he went in and preached to Nineveh that they'd be destroyed, so if God doesn't destroy them after all, what will that do to Jonah's reputation? Oh, sure, Jonah knows, and many Ninevites will understand, but won't there be some who scoff that Jonah's a false prophet? Does this shame spell the end of Jonah's career? And did God even think about that, huh? But second, wasn't it for Abraham's sake that the LORD had been so gracious and merciful to Israel in these recent years? Well, the Ninevites were no children of Abraham! Isn't this forgiveness business supposed to be special treatment for covenant partners only? Third, Jonah surely knows that Assyria is a threat. He's not hoodwinked into thinking they'll be a partner in peace now. If this day of repentance doesn't last, Nineveh will be the source of Israel's downfall as a nation. Sparing them now might sound well and good, but just think of the Israelite lives at stake down the line when Nineveh finds itself seven new demons and becomes so much worse than before (cf. Luke 11:26)! Surely mercy here is a zero-sum game. Nineveh is too dangerous an enemy to let off the hook when you've got him on the ropes now – so isn't mercy foolish? And fourth, again, just look at how evil Nineveh has been! Sure they've repented – for, what, forty days? Can forty days be enough to wipe out centuries of bloodshed? Where's their comeuppance, where's their lasting lesson? Where's justice in all this mercy? Jonah's confidence in a fair world is shattered by every breath the Ninevites take.

So what does Jonah do, in his fiery rage, when the LORD's decision looks like a great evil? He prays – and it is not a happy prayer. “Wasn't this my word when I was in my country?” We're on the edge of our seat to finally find out what earlier was glossed over in silence. “That's why I got out in front to flee to Tarshish,” he says. Irony alert! When Jonah says he 'got out in front' or 'hastened,' the Hebrew word he uses is related to the word 'east' – as in, the direction that Nineveh was, and Tarshish wasn't, from Israel. Jonah 'easted' all the way west! – the Bible is here very subtly reminding us what a ridiculous hypocrite Jonah is.2 But get to the point, Jonah! Tell us what you said, what's your trouble, why you ran! Here it is: “For I know that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in steadfast love, and one who relents from evil” (Jonah 4:2).

There we have it! Jonah turns back to that age-old description of the LORD's character, the LORD's own words given to Moses, the words with which Moses pleaded for the lives of Jonah's ancestors, the words which in Jonah's own day had been literally the only thing in Israel's favor – and Jonah throws them back in the LORD's face as an insult, as a complaint! What the LORD had described as his 'goodness' – that is what Jonah is so twisted as to see as 'great evil.' It's a great evil, it's infuriating, that the LORD is this kind of God, a God who's so willing to put mercy and grace and compassion up front, and so consistent in his own character that he'll be the same kind of God outside the covenant that he is inside it. After all, isn't that what Jonah had prayed earlier, crowing about how pagans who worship emptiness (as the Ninevites do) “forsake their steadfast love” (Jonah 2:8)? Yet what they forsake, what they have no claim on, the LORD abounds in so much that he'll give it anyway – and that makes Jonah just sick. Jonah knew the LORD was slow to anger, and to Jonah that means that God can't be trusted to follow through on justice. All this 'grace' and 'mercy' junk get in the way of a safe world. God should be gracious and merciful only to Israel, only to Jonah and the people he approves; anybody else can just go to hell (and he'd mean that literally) – especially Nineveh. But Jonah knew that the LORD would insist on being his typical Old Testament gracious and merciful and forgiving self, with nary a thought to Jonah's reputation, Jonah's safety, Jonah's interests, Jonah's sense of fairness and propriety.

That's why Jonah, a man named for a gentle dove, is spitting fire from both his nostrils.3 That's why Jonah is accusing his God of being too soft to get the job done. And it's why Jonah is about to lay down an ultimatum. “I beg you, O LORD – those were the words he started his prayer with, just like the sailors did on the ship when they begged the LORD to keep them alive (cf. Jonah 1:14). But now, as Jonah gets around to what he's begging for, it's the opposite. He's begging to die. “Now, LORD, please take my life from me, for it's better for me to die than for me to live” (Jonah 4:3). If this is the kind of world God's going to run – a world where evil enemies can evade justice for past and future crimes just by giving up evil, and where the chosen people can't lord their privileges, where good prophets risk their reputation – then Jonah doesn't want to live in that world. He doesn't want to live in a world that still has Nineveh in it. So he presses God to choose.

And here's where things start to get clear. The Bible is painting its picture of the king of Nineveh by shading him in the colors of Moses. But what's it doing with the figure of Jonah? Where Moses begged for the LORD to turn away his anger, Jonah is furious when the LORD does exactly that. Where Moses heard, reveled in, and invoked as a blessing the great words of the LORD's goodness, Jonah quotes them back as a complaint. Where Moses interceded for the people to whom he'd been sent, Jonah imprecates, trying to intervene not for them but against them. And where Moses had stepped in the breach to lay his life on the line, so now does Jonah – not to say, “I and this people,” a package deal, but “I or this city,” limit one. What we're meant to see here is that, as Nineveh's king gets more like Moses, Jonah turns into a parody of Moses.4 By this verse, we're looking at Jonah the Anti-Moses. And the Anti-Moses wants judgment to triumph over mercy. That's key to what's going on.

What should the LORD do with the Anti-Moses? By all rights, he could smite him with every pestilence and fire that Moses had turned away from Israel. But that would be giving Jonah what he wants. Instead, the LORD questions Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). Moses was angry at Israel's sin; Jonah is angry at the LORD's mercy. Is that right? The LORD isn't setting out here to lecture Jonah, but to start a conversation, to gently steer him toward a heart check. But Jonah will have none of it. Jonah steps out from the city gate, he walks east – as if mocking the LORD's command to go east to Nineveh by going exaggeratedly beyond it – and starts building a booth, a makeshift hut for his accommodations. And when he sits down there to watch the city, it's as if he's saying to God: “You have my terms. This is not up for discussion. Either Nineveh dies, or I do.”

And that's where we leave Jonah, at least for this week, as he waits for the LORD to give in to his terms. What Jonah is missing out on – well, there's a lot Jonah's missing out on – but one thing is what the LORD said in advance of his great self-definition: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Exodus 33:19). The LORD is sovereign when it comes to bestowing grace, mercy, pity, compassion. Jonah wants to lay down directives for how God can choose – directives to ensure it makes sense to Jonah's mind and fits his feelings. But God long ago had said that he's a God who unilaterally writes his own terms and conditions,5 and does so in favor of giving grace and mercy wherever possible – covenant or no covenant, risk or no risk. In the days of the golden calf, the LORD implicitly was inviting Moses to play 'good cop' to God's 'bad cop' routine with Israel – Moses was given the honor of representing the LORD's own gracious and merciful approach, so that the LORD could publicly reveal it as winning out over the arguments of strict punitive justice. But the LORD never invited Jonah to play 'bad cop' to God's 'good cop' – that was never part of the playbook! When the LORD moves for grace and mercy, he means it. And he stops for no one.

In later years, Paul – like Moses – was willing to be blotted out if only Israel could be saved (Romans 9:3), if only they too could be made, not merely Abraham's physical descendants, but Abraham's heirs by the promise, just as Gentiles were becoming on the grounds of their believing God as the Ninevites did. And Paul had to face his share of Jonahs, yelling out, “Unfair! Injustice!” So what did Paul say? “Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses: 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion'” (Romans 9:14-15). Not even a prophet – much less a Pharisee – is in a position to pump the brakes on the LORD's grace train, no matter what station it's chugging towards.

But sometimes, Jonah is awfully relatable, isn't he? Have any of us really never had a Nineveh – someone for whom we're at some level hoping to watch judgment triumph over mercy? It might be a former friend who betrayed you. It might be a relative who caused some family drama. It might be this whole corrupt world, in all its relentless perversion. And at some point, the Jonah in us says, “God, it's time to set aside these grace and mercy niceties and get around to the judging! I've been offended – let's see some anger! Teach them a lesson, be mad at them!” Like Jonah, when we look at them, we want God to back us up – to vindicate us here and now, to show them why we're special, to quell our fears by protecting us from future harm, to satisfy our anger and assure us the world is a fair place. When we're this upset, we might even be bitter toward God if we sense that he isn't as mad as we are about what we're mad about – or whom we're mad at.

I've been there! I bet you have too. And yet God continues on – patient with a corrupt world, indulgent toward scoundrels, seemingly satisfied by token gestures, letting people who aggravate us off with scarcely a slap on the wrist. The LORD remains “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and who relents from evil” (Jonah 4:2). In doing so, the LORD is being perfectly himself. What we have to see is what good news that is for us – because just as that's the only foundation Jonah could stand on, without which he'd have never have been born, without which he'd have no relationship to God at all, so it is for us in Christ. And we have no standing to resent God's mercy, to call out his grace, to object when he's slower to anger than we in our passion are. We can't dictate terms to the LORD, nor are we meant to try. And certainly there's no place to sit and sulk, refusing to share a world with those whom God has, in his curious wisdom, placed beside us. As much as there are people you or I might wish we didn't share a world with, we do – and, if they repent and believe, we might have to choose between heaven with them or hell without them. For as James said, “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy: mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). So don't be a Jonah, when Moses is the one who “was faithful in all God's house” (Hebrews 3:2). Be more like him, insofar as he was like Christ. And in this way, “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life; and... show mercy without fear” (Jude 1:21-23). Thanks be to our God who is – always and forever – gracious, merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2022


As Adad-etir walked through Nineveh's streets, he still couldn't help but be astonished at its size – and its inner darkness. He hadn't always lived here, on in this metropolis on the swift river's eastern bank. His parents had settled in the countryside near Guzana, out west between the rivers, after those parts had formally become a province of the empire. His mother was pregnant when things had started to go awry there. The drought in Guzana must've surely been the fault of some sacrilegious crime, so King Adad-nirari had sent a decree to Guzana's governor at the time, Mannu-ki-Ashur, telling them to spend three days praying to their god Adad with tears of lamentation, to sacrifice burnt offerings, to ritually cleanse mountain and meadow, with an exorcist with torch and incense.1 An odd thing for a king to order? Odd times call for odd measures.

Born then, and now in his thirties, Adad-etir had always lived in odd times. Even before Adad-nirari came to the throne, Assyria's kings had been losing grip on their empire. When Adad-nirari died and left the throne to a succession of his sons, his top general Shamshi-ilu amassed more power than the kings themselves. Yet campaigns abroad were growing scarce. Life felt... unnatural now.2 The other June, they'd seen the heavens go dark in midday. Plague stalked the land. People had a sinking feeling the gods had abandoned them. They began to grow restless and rebel – in Inner City, in Arrapha, even in Guzana.3 That's why Adad-etir had moved to Nineveh. But relocation proved neither refuge nor reformation. Everywhere were people resentful of this sham of a government, sick and tired of being so sick and tired. Life was rough, and Adad-etir – like so many around him – was getting rough with it. Adad-etir sighed to himself: “Who is there who is guilty of no sin against his god? Which is he who kept a commandment forever? All human beings there are harbor sin.”4

As Adad-etir walked, he bumped into someone unexpected. Since when do prophets quit temple and palace to walk these lowly streets? Adad-etir paused next to the stranger when he opened his mouth and, a grimace on his lips, shouted: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). And, as if his job were done, the odd man slipped away into a darkened alley, to be seen no more. Any other time, Adad-etir might've readily dismissed the crackpot. But omens had been unsettling, plague was in the land, and Adad-etir felt a light falling on his heart, as if breaking through a thick fog. Looking around, tears in many an eye betrayed they felt it, too – the weight of guilt, the moral clarity of conviction, the urgency of imminent danger, the mysterious sense the words bore a weight heftier than all heaven. The words rang in his ears, echoed in his soul, etched his liver, pierced his heart like the sun risen at midnight. Confusion and complacency gave way; obviously a god had spoken through the foreigner. Which god, Adad-etir couldn't say – a mighty god, a heavenly god, a god who cared about more than cultic missteps, a god who hated all the corruption and perversion, the broken promises and betrayed trusts, the unseemly deeds and bloody violence. Adad-etir felt he was gazing at his face in a mirror after a disfigurement, he knew his own hands had done it, he could neither bear to look nor manage to tear his gaze away. But he trusted, if not the shady messenger, then surely this thunderbolt lodged in his gut, surely this unknown god whose wrath was iron and fury and flame. He believed. All who heard the words did.

Adad-etir ran to his neighborhood, repeating the words as he went, telling the news of Nineveh's peril. He looked into their eyes as the same thunderbolt burst their souls asunder, too. In the square, a man threw his food to the ground in disgust, wailing, “No more, no more! Can we not fast for our city?” The idea caught on. For his part, Adad-etir had lost his appetite. It felt like his children were all pushing up daisies. Slinking home, he found the roughest fabric he could – woven of coarse black goat hair – and put it on his skin. It itched, it burned, it chafed. Good! – why should Adad-etir's soul get all the discomfort, why not give his body a share? Why ought a man of bloody hands and unjust dealings like him walk the streets in comfort and at leisure?5

Over these next days, Adad-etir lived his life penitentially: hungry, “his nose downcast, his face gloomy, dressed in a mourning garment, his hair unkempt..., his tears flowing...”6 He met fewer and fewer people perplexed by his look; they, too, had heard the word. “The men of Nineveh believed God: they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5). Such a message would ordinarily have gone straight to the palace, but here it worked its way up from the grassroots. Only then, “the word reached the king of Nineveh,” as we're told (Jonah 3:6) – though that's like saying word got to the president of Philadelphia. Maybe the Assyrian king – be it Ashur-dan or his successor Ashur-nirari – was in town that day. Maybe this is Nineveh's governor Nabu-mukin-ahi. Maybe it's General Shamshi-ilu. Maybe it's somebody else.7 But when he heard the word, what happened to other hearts happened to his. He stood up from his throne and took off his robe; he traded it, not just for common dress, but for that scratchy goat-hair sackcloth that signaled woe. And he traded his throne to sit in the dust, like a corpse in a grave, helpless without a resurrection.8

The men of the city had beaten the king to proclaiming a fast. What more could he say? Only that it wasn't just a fast from food, but a restriction on both food and water (Jonah 3:7). The men of the city had beaten him to putting on sackcloth. What more could he say? Only that sackcloth was for not just the men, not just women and children, but for livestock, to dress up in sackcloth and mourn and pray – a picture so extravagant, it'd be comedic, were it not so desperate. And the king could urge them to go beyond fasting and sackcloth. He could tell them to turn all their strength to crying out, not to Adad or Ishtar or Nabu, but to the foreign God who now seemed closer than them all. And he could tell them to change their ways, give up their calamity and chaos, to unclench their fists and drop their daggers (Jonah 3:8). “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, that we not perish” (Jonah 3:9). The king couldn't presume it – nobody could. Their part was to repent and try to convince God to show mercy. It was God's business to relent from what he'd decreed.9

Adad-etir heard the herald read out the king's decree, much as a herald had read Adad-nirari's decree in Guzana. But Adad-nirari had asked no moral change, just rituals and exorcisms, sacrifices and gifts, tears and prayers. This time, save the tears and prayers, all was different. All around him, Adad-etir heard his neighbors sob to the mystery god: “O my god! Clear, forego, dispel your ire; disregard my iniquities, accept my entreaties, transmute my sins into good deeds.”10 “Though my crimes be numerous, clear my debt; though my iniquities be seven, let your heart be calmed; though my sins be numerous, show great mercy and cleanse me!”11 “My god, absolve my sin! My god, look steadfastly upon me from your abode! Take pity on me. May your angry heart be calmed. May your heart, like a real mother's, like a real father's, be restored.”12

Now, take a step back. The Ninevites were the last people on earth Israel could've expected to turn over a new leaf. But, faced with Jonah's message, there are plenty of things they do. They fast so they're hungry – even so that they're thirsty. They wear dark sackcloth, which is gloomy and unfashionable, scratchy and uncomfortable. The king sits in ashes instead of a throne, reconnecting with the dusty dirt of death. They cry out loudly, likely with tears and laments. What do all these things have in common? They're how people in the ancient world looked and acted at funerals. The Bible says so. What did Jacob do when he thought his son Joseph was dead? “Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:34). What did Israel do when Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle? “They mourned and wept and fasted until evening” (2 Samuel 1:12). What did David tell people at Abner's funeral? “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn before Abner” (2 Samuel 3:31-32). David didn't eat anything that day (2 Samuel 3:35).

These were behaviors that ritually communicated sadness. They were the opposite of celebrating. If rejoicing meant lots of tasty food, dark days called for plain food, minimal food, even no food. If rejoicing meant getting dressed up, dark days called for dressing down, down to your dreariest. If rejoicing meant anointing your head with oil, dark days called for dust and ashes in its place. If rejoicing meant laughter, dark days called for crying tears and letting loose your lamentations. If rejoicing meant enjoying yourself in comfort and ease, dark days called for abstaining from pleasures, being deliberately uncomfortable, not turning from the horror of death.13

If that's how Assyrians and Israelites and everybody acted at funerals, then they could extend it to other times of crisis. So one psalmist says that when his friends were even just really sick, “I wore sackcloth, I afflicted myself with fasting, I prayed with head bowed on my chest” (Psalm 35:13). The idea was that, by treating his friends' illness like it was already a funeral, his behavior would tell God how serious the situation was, and that intense care would infuse his prayers with power. But if that can go for death and sickness, why not danger? And if of the body, why not of the soul? When Jerusalem's on the brink, Jeremiah tells people to “put on sackcloth and roll in ashes,” to “make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (Jeremiah 6:26). They were to act like they were at their only child's funeral – that's how seriously they should take the situation, like the Ninevites did. Decades later, when Daniel does the math and something's gone wrong, they aren't leaving exile on schedule, he sees Judah hasn't given up her sin, so what does he do? “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas of mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Later, the people “assembled with fasting and in sackcloth and with earth on their heads..., and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:1-2).

Daniel and Ezra and Nehemiah clearly believed that these dramatic displays of mourning were acts of penance. They were intended to reinforce a mental and spiritual link between sin and pain, sin and disgrace, sin and death – acting like it was a funeral for their souls helped them feel the seriousness of their spiritual condition, and acts like these gave outward expression to that feeling. The acts were no good unless they were really contrite and aimed to separate themselves from sin (cf. Isaiah 58:3-10); but when they were contrite, the acts were plenty good. The severity of penance could drive the lesson home. They offered these sufferings and humiliations to God as a token reparation, showing God how sorry they were, in hopes he'd accept their chosen penance as a substitute for what they really deserved. They humbled themselves, lest they be humbled by force. They gave a right reaction to the horror of sin. It's like Job said: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

In the coming centuries, as Jews retold Bible stories, they imagined dramatic penances for the patriarchs. Judah had sinned, but it was “forgiven him because he made great supplication and because he mourned and did not do it again.”14 Reuben sinned, so “for seven years I repented before the Lord” by giving up alcohol, meat, and any pleasurable food, but “rather, I was mourning over my sin.”15 The brothers sinned in selling Joseph into slavery, so they must've then put on sackcloth, prayed, spent years fasting in penance.16 They said a righteous person would “atone for sins of ignorance by fasting and humbling his soul.”17

Now, Jesus has provided, by his death and resurrection, an atonement for all our sins! But still he held up cities that “repented... in sackcloth and ashes” as a model (Matthew 11:21). Paul urged people to “repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance” (Acts 26:20). Paul's co-worker Clement told believers who seriously sinned to “accept chastisement for repentance.”18 A generation later, Hermas says that a sinful Christian who repents well is one who “humbles his own soul and torments it because he sinned.”19 We get stories of a woman who, repenting from sins as serious as heresy and adultery, spends her time “doing penance amid weeping and lamentation.”20 Church discipline asked a repenting Christian to “lie in sackcloth and ashes..., nourish prayer by fasting..., sigh and weep and groan day and night to the Lord your God.”21 And in the middle of the third century, we hear a preacher telling fallen Christians to “beg and pray assiduously with weeping and lamentation..., lie on the ground amidst clinging ashes, toss about chafing in sackcloth..., choose to fast, apply yourselves to good deeds which can wash away your sins.”22 Because that's what they saw in Nineveh. As they read Jonah's story, they saw that “Nineveh freed herself from death by fasting,”23 that their “total response won the favor of the Lord of all,”24 that “the Ninevites... used their brief penitence to blunt the sword that was hanging over the neck of their sinning city. … They successfully interposed appropriate penance as a shield.”25

And by now we'd better get to the point of all this. Hopefully, once we've been born again in Jesus, once we've started walking with the Lord, we never commit any truly death-dealing sins. But... some of us probably have. And surely all of us commit sins that sicken and weaken the spiritual life with which God has graced us. When you and I realize that we've sinned, do we think it's a problem? Do we take it seriously? Or do we think it's no big deal? Do we just press a thorn into Jesus' brow and then whistle on our way? Do we make the leap from assurance to presumption, and suppose that God is an automated forgiveness machine – just push the button, and all's good? The early church was pretty clear that at least death-dealing sins called for very drastic reactions – not light restoration. But today, I dare say that, in our celebration of free grace, we've tended to comfort our conscience with cheap grace. And maybe that's a sign that we think a lot less of God than they did then – that we figure God's content with empty apologies, scraps none of us would accept from each other; that God helps us when we refuse to help ourselves; that God prefers our comfort over our contrition; that crosses must never be heavier than the air pressure of the cultural atmosphere.

But then what of the words of Jonah? What of the preaching of Jesus? What of the common practice of God's people under covenants old and new? What of the moral seriousness with which they treated sin as a crisis that, at its extreme, could call for radical redress and reparation? When we sin, shouldn't we hate that sin because of how it hurts us, how it weakens us, how it deprives us of the fullness of life we were created and redeemed to have? Shouldn't we hate that sin all the more for how it offends God, displeasing the One we aim to love more and more perfectly through all eternity? And if we hate our sin, shouldn't we show it somehow, even in private?

Our penitential gestures might not look like Nineveh's – we don't celebrate the same as them, so why would we mourn the same as them? And such severe measures were for the greatest emergency. But the Ninevites might have something to teach us about repentance after all, for Jesus pointed to their example, that rather than sinning boldly, we should be repenting boldly. Realizing our sins, we can better cut them out of our lives by re-training ourselves in the way we should go. By practical actions, we can stir up godly grief that leads us to saving repentance. So maybe the modern church would be healthier if 'penance' were a less foreign word to our vocabulary. God wouldn't speak of it if it weren't, in the end, good for us to feel how sickly sin can make us.

If anyone would be my disciple,” says the Lord, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). For “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). If the Ninevites repented, did penance, at Jonah's preaching, how much more should we when Someone greater than Jonah is here (Luke 11:32)! For if God showed mercy when he saw a changed heart shining through the Ninevites' deeds (Jonah 3:10), can we not cast off presumption yet hope humbly for mercy if we, too, seek mercy with all our strength as they did? May our hearts break for all that breaks the heart of God; may we mourn the weakness of love that falls short of his glory. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6), so “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy” (Hebrews 4:16). Amen.