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The Heart of God in the Heart of the Sea

Devotion Twenty Five

May 3, 2024

Should I Not Pity Nineveh?

Daniel Barta

Those who desire nice clean endings in which all the story lines find satisfactory closure are left frustrated when the story of Jonah comes to an end. The book closes without a word concerning Jonah's final position.

Did he repent of his sinful anger? Did he finally come to rejoice in the mercy of God? Did God's word eventually break through and change Jonah's heart? What became of Nineveh long term? Did their belief and repentance last? The author of Jonah leaves us in the dark.

Rather than tying up all the loose ends in the story, the author ends with a statement from the LORD. His word draws a contrast between Jonah's pitying the plant and the LORD's pitying the city of Nineveh, and with persuasive force He rhetorically asked,

You [Jonah] pity the plant... should I not pity Nineveh? - Jonah 4:9-10 (ESV)

His convincing argument through comparisons and contrasts included at minimum three points:

  1. The plant was not Jonah's labor, but the city was God's work. Jonah invested nothing into the plant. He did not plant, water, fertilize, or prune it. The plant just happened (by God's sovereign providence) to grow up in that very spot to provide shade for him. God, on the other hand, established Nineveh just as he does every city, state and nation. It is by his labor and work that a small number becomes a great city. He established it.

  2. The plant was comparatively insignificant, but the city was comparatively great. The plant sprung up "in a night and perished in a night" (Jon 4:10). Jonah knew the plant and drew comforting shade from the plant for a brief season. The city on the other hand existed in comparison for an incalculable amount of time. The city transcended the plant. It came into existence long before the plant and remained long after. Yet, this fleeting plant and its shade, which Jonah lived most of his life without, now after just a short moment has left Jonah's heart in such turmoil and grief and pity that he longs to die rather than to spend a night without the plant.

  3. The plant is a plant, but the city is 120,000 persons. Plants and persons are not in the same category, and persons rank higher on the list of most valuable. Plants exist to serve persons. They give shade. They serve as food. God gifted plants to persons for their use, their benefit, and their enjoyment. God created persons higher than birds and beast, trees and shrubs. He made them in His image. For this reason, they have value. For this reason, God pities them when they come into trouble even if that trouble comes through their own evil and wicked ways.

God Values Persons

In a moment of reflection, David, the Israelite King, wrote these amazing words,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,  what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?  Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.  You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet,  all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,  the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.  - Palm 8:4-8 (ESV)

Unlike the rest of His creation,

God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them. - Genesis 1:27 (ESV)

When God authorized the death penalty - a certain expression of the value He places on human beings - God offered up this as his reasoning:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. - Genesis 9:6 (ESV)

In the eyes of God, man possesses great value. This value is attributed to their unique privilege to bear the image of God. They were made by God to not only know him but also to participate in making him known. Each individual man and woman carries this value no matter to which tribe, nation, or people they belong and no matter what evil they have committed. This value is inherited. It is not earned; therefore, it cannot be lost.

Value Men and Women (Even the Wicked Ones)

We look on the suffering and trouble of others with compassion and pity in our hearts if and only when we view those same individuals with value. We do not experience much pity for ants as we watch them shrivel up moments after we spray insecticide on the little intruders. Why do we lack pity for the dying ants? Because we do not value them. The same is true for the abortionist who with no compassion in his heart, tears apart a baby limb by limb before discarding her dismembered body into a bag designed for waste. So too racism first strips the value from a particular people and then makes one cold and indifferent to the suffering of the devalued.

Many aspects of the current cultural climate strips people of the inherent, God-given value. For example, evolution demotes humans from creatures uniquely valuable as image bearers to mere products of random biological processes. Men and women are nothing more than matter not unlike plants, fish, asteroids and ants.

Christians, however, should not succumb to such error. The community of faith should stand out as a people who place supreme value on human life. This should be seen in a fight to protect the vulnerable such as babies in the womb, a humble offer of service to the marginalized in society, a repudiation of racism in all its form, and a refusal to use one's mouth as an instrument to both praise God and belittle men - even those men with whom they disagree.

Above all, the church's ascription of value on all men and women should be seen in their heart felt compassion towards those who experience pain and sorrow in this world, even those whose difficulty comes as a byproduct of their own sin. If the church values men and women as God does, they should be moved to act by a heart moved with mercy.

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