The wickedness of Nineveh caused God to send Jonah to preach against it (Jonah 1:1). He was prepared to judge it. But Jonah’s disobedience and anger got more attention than the sins of Nineveh. They repented; Jonah did not. At the end of the story, we don’t know if the reluctant prophet came around. It was the anger of James and John that impacted Jesus and brought the rebuke, not the resistance of the Samaritans. The brothers were ready to torch the place, and they thought Jesus would be pleased (Luke 9:54). Wrong!
The confession of the Assyrian king and his people is one of the most impressive signs of turning ever. They honestly acknowledged what they were known and hated for—unspeakable atrocities. The king had an astounding revelation of the righteous anger of God and their impending death. Remarkable. That is what the Holy Spirit can do—anywhere, anytime! The repentant king exhorted the people to “call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:8,9). They knew that God was angry, but in the book of Jonah we do not see the anger of God as much as the anger of a self-centered prophet.
Christians who have a knee-jerk reaction to wickedness and call down judgment are probably closer to Jonah than to God. What we see in his book is what Jonah did not want to see—heaven’s love: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). According to James, “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful” (2:13). Then he adds the powerful statement, “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” Jonah wanted judgment to triumph over mercy, and that meant he got judged.
It triumphed in the case of the Ninevites, and we will meet them in heaven (Matthew 12:41). It did not win with Jonah. The letter began with a word aimed at Nineveh. At the end the word of judgment was aimed at an intolerant prophet uncomfortable with compassion.
To Jonah’s credit, he did three things right: 1) he obeyed and went (the second time around). 2) He boldly preached to people who could have easily killed him. Call it courage. 3) He gives God the final word in the letter he wrote, a strong word indeed, phrased as a question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” God was attempting to reason with his messenger who wanted them wiped out. He was saying to them in effect, “Go to hell,” when God already had plans for them in heaven.
We can take God’s closing words and apply it to any city on the globe. Hear the Lover God ask, “Should I not be concerned about Moscow, about Mexico City, about San Francisco?” How fortunate we are that a holy God declares, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).