The Pity of God

“Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”

Jonah 4:10-11

The little book of Jonah is filled to the brim with the deep things of God, including the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:38-30) which pointed to the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. But the one aspect of Jonah’s adventures that has always fascinated me is the final episode with the gourd. After Jonah has finished preaching to Nineveh and the people of the city repent in sackcloth, the prophet sulks out of the city “till he might see what would become of the city” (4:5). Why is he sulking? He is angry because the people of Nineveh repented, and their city was not laid waste by the anger of God (4:1-3). This may seem strange to us, but let’s recall some of the history surrounding this event.

Jonah was a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23ff), who was one of the most powerful kings of Israel. Remember that the Jews no longer enjoyed a united kingdom, but that they were divided into two separate states: the northern kingdom was the kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom was the kingdom of Judah. The two kingdoms were constantly at war with the Gentile kingdoms surrounding, and the northern kingdom in particular was incessantly having to worry about threats from the kingdoms of Syria and Assyria. Eventually, the Assyrians would conquer the kingdom of Israel and disperse many of the Jews throughout their empire. So when Jonah received the commission to go and preach to the people of Nineveh (the capital of Assyria), it would have been similar to an American being told to preach to the people of Moscow in the 1950s, or Pyongyang (the capital of North Korea) today.

Jonah fled to Joppa to escape the call of the Lord rather than preach in Nineveh; we find out later that his reasoning was downright despicable. He knew that it was entirely possible for the Lord to show mercy to the Assyrians (4:3); in other words, his desire was that the city and all its inhabitants be destroyed by the wrath of God. We all the story of how his escape attempt utterly failed, and how Jonah was kept alive in the belly of the fish. Eventually he submitted to the decree of God and preached in the city. Lo and behold, the people repented and the destruction was turned from the city. And then we are given this episode of a sulking prophet and his gourd.

God raised up a gourd to give Jonah some shelter from the sun, for which he was “exceeding glad.” But overnight, God sent a worm to eat up the tree and take away the shade. He then sent a “vehement east wind” to blow in hot air from the desert. That, in combination with the beating sun, led our emotional prophet to wish “in himself to die” (4:8). Then the Lord inquires of Jonah, “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” (4:9) Of course, in his eyes, Jonah had a right to be angry over losing his source of comfort. But our eyes are often deceptive. This question leads to a remarkable statement from the Lord God. He reminds Jonah that the man performed no work for the gourd, neither did he cause it to grow. Yet he still despaired over the destruction of the tree, though for selfish reasons. Then the Lord asks a rhetorical question: “Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand [120,000] persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”

The Lord God created the men, women, and children who lived in the city of Nineveh. He labored over them with his providence, supplying their food, water, even the very air which they breathed. His desire was to bring about their repentance, so he sent his prophet to preach to them. Not only did his care cover the people of the city, but even the animals and (by inference) other created things in the city. And what is the reason for such marvelous care? These persons “cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand.” This is hyperbole, an exaggerated statement that drives home an important point. Obviously, the people of Nineveh knew their right from their left. But they were spiritually blind. Remember, these were Gentiles who had no experience with the Lord God of Israel. In other words, God had pity on the ignorant sinners of Nineveh, and his pity led to their deliverance.

This is why we, as Christians, are commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ (not suggested, but commanded) to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. God has pity on his enemies, and his method of their deliverance involves the preaching of the gospel through his church. The Lord takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). Is this our mindset? Do we desire that abortionists repent and believe the gospel, or do we desire their destruction? Do we pray for the repentance of drag queen activists who are promoting filth in libraries, or do we desire their condemnation? Do not mistake me: I am not advocating for “tolerance.” Jonah’s sermon consisted of nine words: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). Proclaiming the sinfulness of sin and its dire consequences are necessary aspects of preaching the gospel. But do we preach those truths with fear and trembling, pleading with men to repent? Or do we proclaim those truths with laughing and jest, longing to see our enemies burn in hell? One of those is godly, the other is wicked. If we are to be like Christ, then we must have pity on the wicked. After all, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

*This article is also being published at the Sovereign Grace Messenger.

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