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.

1  Philip Peter Jenson, Obadiah, Micah, Jonah: A Theological Commentary (T&T Clark, 2008), 83-84; JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, EEC (Lexham Press, 2019), 499.

2  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic, 2019), 159.

3  Daniel C. Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation, and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah (IVP Academic, 2011), 125.

4  James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea—Jonah (Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 446.

5  Brian J. Abasciano, Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.10-18: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis (T&T Clark, 2011), 178.

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