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Jonah VI: The Great Mercy of God - Jonah 4:5-11

In Jonah 4:5-11 God uses an object lesson to go to work on Jonah’s heart, acting out a drama in Jonah’s own life to expose the hard-hearted hypocrisy that led Jonah to hate God’s mercy. Jonah will be given a taste of a merciless God, and when God shows him his reaction, Jonah will be confronted with a glimpse of his own withered-up heart.

In his anger at God’s mercy, Jonah exiles himself from the place of God’s blessing and heads for the desert, where there is no natural shade and where the sun will kill you. And so the Lord God intervenes, appointing a plant just like He had appointed the whale to come and save his angry prophet. When Jonah receives this unexpected mercy, he rejoices with joy, completely opposite his reaction to God’s mercy on Nineveh.

When appointing the plant, the name used for God is Yahweh Elohim, which highlights God’s role as Sovereign Creator of heaven and earth. Jonah tries to set the covenant as his frame of reference for mercy, but God’s mercy includes all of His creation! In addition to covenant mercy, God also has creational mercy, which is shown by the way the creation itself plays so many roles in the book of Jonah: the sea, the desert, the wind, the whale, the sun, the plant, the worm, and even the cattle of Nineveh. God’s mercy extends as wide as His creation.

But when morning comes, God commissions yet another creature, and Jonah wakes up to find that the worm of judgment has mercilessly eaten his beloved mercy-plant so that it has withered, and no longer provides the life-giving shade from the burning sun and scorching east wind. Jonah’s reaction is the inverse of his previous response: now Jonah wants to die because God didn’t show mercy to the plant. But notice that even though the plant wasn’t God’s “covenant plant” with special promises of mercy, Jonah furiously expects God to be merciful to the plant anyway.

God then brings the discussion back to Nineveh, and argues from the lesser to the greater: “Jonah, if you are blazing with righteous anger when a short-lived soulless plant doesn’t get mercy, how much more should I care for a great city full of lost people and also much cattle? You’re mad at me for not having mercy on the shrubbery, but you won’t let me have mercy on a whole city?”

Jonah knew that mercy is meant for sinners, but here’s what he missed: God has compassion for everything He has made, and His mercy comes not by covenant-keeping, but by faith. The Ninevites believed God, and so God had mercy on them.

This is the gospel breaking through in the book of Jonah: you cannot earn mercy by law-keeping. You receive mercy as a gracious gift when you believe God, like Abraham did, like the Ninevites did, and like everyone who lays aside any claim to have merited God’s mercy, and simply trusts in Christ alone for salvation.

And what a phrase to end the book on: “and also much cattle?” Why should the livestock that Nineveh cares for suffer? Who’s going to feed and milk the cows when all the Ninevites are dead? The argument is simple and devastating: If a plant should receive mercy, then an animal should receive mercy. If an animal should receive mercy, then a man should receive mercy. If a man should receive mercy, then a great city full of men should certainly receive mercy. God cares about plants and sparrows and cows and whales; God cares so much more for you, and for all people created in His image.

Why does Yahweh Elohim, the Sovereign Creator, have mercy on Nineveh? Because He made each and every Ninevite in His image, labored to care for them, called them to repentance, and because they have laid hold of His mercy by faith.

And what a blessing it is for us to know not only covenant mercy and creation mercy, but to have seen the fullness of God’s mercy displayed in Jesus Christ, who entered into creation to announce the gospel of mercy, to suffer and die in our place, and to rise again and ascend to God’s right hand, where He now stands asking God to show mercy to you.

And so as Christians, recipients of God’s mercy in Christ, you are called to share Christ’s heart of mercy for everything that God has created, especially for a city full of people who don’t know God. God has poured out His mercy on you; should you not also pity Annapolis, and take God’s message of mercy to your neighbors?

Posted on Thursday, March 14, 2019 by CJ Bowen