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The Heart of God in the Heart of the Sea

Devotion One

April 1, 2024

The Wicked City, The Runaway Prophet, The Big Fish, and The Merciful God

Daniel Barta

The story of Jonah opens abruptly with immediate action. God speaks. He gives his word to Jonah and commissions him to carry His message to Nineveh - a foreign city and its suburbs (3:3).

The message when delivered would not compliment or affirm the more than 120,000 residents of that great city (4:11); instead, the message read like an indictment - an account of all their wrongdoing. Jonah was to “call out against” them in order to make plain their guilt (1:2). He was to deliver to Nineveh the news that they stood condemned by God and that in "forty days they would be overthrown” (3:4).

Without more than a few details about the message, the prophet, and the intended recipients, the story of Jonah unfolds with one surprise after another.

  1. The prophet runs away from the place God sent him in an attempt to keep Nineveh from hearing God's message. We expect the sun to shine, the fire to give heat, what goes up to come down, and the prophet to preach the message he received. Failing to meet our expectations, Jonah runs away from the task assigned (1:3).

  2. God spares Jonah's life. When Jonah finds himself sinking to the bottom of the sea surely, he thought “This is the end” (2:5-6). What else would a defiant messenger of God deserve? But, against all odds and reasoning, God, through the instrument of a giant fish, resurrected Jonah from the depths and brought him again to the safety of dry land (2:10). 

  3. The city of Nineveh believed and repented. Rather than responding to the truth about their sin by cutting off the head of the messenger (see Mt 14:1-12), these evil men and women heard and believed and called out to God (3:5) in hopes that He would relent of His wrath and spare them (3:9).

  4. God did not overthrow them. Indeed, God relented of his wrath. He "saw what they did,” and He chose to let them remain. Justice leaves us thinking Nineveh will get what they deserve, but rather than justice God shows mercy.

  5. Jonah knew all along that God would show mercy. This prophet did not run out of fear that the message would not be received. Rather, Jonah fled because He knew God as "gracious... and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and relenting from disaster " (4:2). He did not want to preach the message because He did not desire to see Nineveh spared by mercy.

  6. God intended all along to show mercy. His speaking to Jonah. His sending Jonah. His rescuing Jonah. His recommissioning of Jonah. His announcing judgment to Nineveh - all aimed at their salvation. God saw the people of Nineveh in their sin and He felt "pity." His heart knew compassion. He was moved to show mercy, and from pity He took action so that the many in Nineveh might believe and repent.

God Pities Evil Men and Women

God's experiencing of pity astounds, amazes and even offends when the recipients of such pity are considered. Timothy Keller in his study on Jonah helps us:

Nineveh [was] the capital of the Assyrian empire… one of the cruelest and most violent empires of ancient times... Assyrian history is ‘as gory and bloodcurdling a history as we know.’ After capturing enemies, the Assyrians would typically cut off their legs and one arm, leaving the other arm and hand so they could shake the victim’s hand in mockery as he was dying. They forced friends and family members to parade with the decapitated heads of their loved ones elevated on poles. They pulled out prisoners’ tongues and stretched their bodies with ropes so they could be flayed alive, and their skins displayed on city walls. They burned adolescents alive. Those who survived the destruction of their cities were fated to endure cruel and violent forms of slavery. The Assyrians have been called a “terrorist state.”

A study of the Ninevite people reveals why Jonah ran away from, rather than toward, Nineveh, and why the thought of their receiving mercy "displeased [him] exceedingly" (4:1). The Ninevites represent the worst of the worst. They deserved damnation. They earned God's wrath and indignation. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, they should have been purged from the earth with "sulfur and fire" (Gen 19:23-25).

But Scripture reveals to us the God whose heart moves with pity when He looks out and sees evil men and women languishing, struggling, and perishing. He notices each sinner's lostness. He sees each one not just as a guilty sinner but as those also ensnared, trapped, and in need of rescue. Though He knows the fullness of man's wickedness and corruption, He weeps over their condition. The knowledge of man's evil does not strip God of His compassion; instead, our sinful condition arouses His great mercy.

It is because of this great mercy that God the Father sent His Son to die for the sins of the whole world. Like those in Nineveh, each man and woman deserves to be overthrown by God, exiled away from all that is good and left under the domain of Satan, sin and death. But, in the death of Jesus, the sins of all who believe in him and repent of their evil ways will escape the wrath of God and enjoy eternal life.

We, Too, Should Look upon Sinners with Compassion

The story of God's mercy for evil sinners and the lengths to which He went to show them such pity should cause each of us to examine our own minds, hearts, and actions. Do you experience deep, heartfelt compassion for sinners? Does your heart grieve over the trouble men and women create for themselves by their own evil acts or do you think in your heart, "They made their bed now they must lie in it." Or, “They had it coming to them." Or, "Thank God, we are not like them!" Would you rather see the wicked in your city, state, and country get what they deserve or by mercy experience forgiveness, deliverance, and restoration? 

Those who look upon sinners with pity and mercy are moved to act. They, like Jesus, willingly go above and beyond to see those ensnared and enslaved experience rescue. The heart moved with compassion cannot remain indifferent to the plight of the wicked even when they deserve the ruin for which they head.

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