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The Quality of Mercy

Jonah  3,4

One of the blessings of the Scripture is that we can see ourselves in its mirror – and learn.

Jonah 3

1Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2“Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

3Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days. 4On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” 5The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10When 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.

Jonah 4

1But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

4But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

5Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

9But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

10But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”


Repentance is far more often preached than practiced.

We are very concerned with the sins of others, sure of what they need to do – and finding that it seems very difficult to them. Why the difficulty? If we would but examine ourselves, we could see the difficulties very clearly.

The nature of repentance

Most of us are quite convinced that, in large part, we are doing the right things in the right way. “Change is good – you go first” is our motto. But see the types of change required by repentance:

  • Change of mind. At the very least, we must recognize that what we are doing is wrong; we must say so and be convinced of it. There is no repentance if I still think I did it right.
  • Change of heart. Equally, however, I must have a change of heart. Simply acknowledging that I did it wrong is of no use unless I turn my will in the right direction. Sometimes this needs help from God.
  • Obedience. If you are now pointed in the right direction, step on out. Anyone can say “I’m sorry.”
The successful repentant

Have you ever wondered why your repentance seems so shallow and fruitless? Perhaps you have not considered the lessons the Bible gives you on the subject. Repentance, after all, is a skill, if nothing else. Evidently we are meant to practice that skill until we get it right. Like most skills, success lies in balancing between the extremes.

  • Dare not presume. When you repent, do not presume upon your Lord. Don’t start with, “Well, I know you’ll forgive, so I really can make this quick.” Remember you are dealing with Almighty God.
  • Dare not despair. Some come to repentance with an attitude of hopelessness. “I’ve done this so many times before…. How can God every forgive me this time?” Do not despair; he is God, he is the unchanging and eternal one who loves you.
The intensity of repentance

Do you see how the Ninevites went about this? Their attitude was one of true repentance. See how intensely they sought God’s mercy:

  • Focus on God. They stopped their daily activities – even to the point of not feeding their animals. Nothing was allowed to get between them and God.
  • Outward display of inward change. Many of us hope the world never notices our repentance. They, on the other hand, sought the assistance of those around them. How? By taking the traditional signs of repentance on themselves, they implicitly asked others to hold them accountable. If you proclaim your repentance, it creates social pressure on you to follow through.
  • Put aside their possessions. The animals were used here only as bleating reminders that their lust for possessions had driven their sin. They threw out the things that were causing them to sin.
Restoration to service

Jonah himself teaches us a lesson here. Many of us fall into the pit (of our own making) which holds that once we have sinned, we can never regain the relationship we had with God. We could never go back to serving him in the same way. But God paints a different picture. After Jonah’s repentance, God does not find some quiet backwater for him – he sends him on to Nineveh. What can we see in this?

  • Same task, same esteem. God regards Jonah just as he did before. He goes to Nineveh in the same rank – prophet – that he was before.
  • Same task, no relief. Just because Jonah has repented does not mean that he gets a new assignment. No, God wants to show the world that all are sinners – but repentance restores your relationship.
  • Same task, God’s acceptance. If God gives you the same task that you had before your repentance, then handing that same task to you is a sign that he has accepted your repentance as real.

It’s interesting to think about. If you were told you had 40 days to live, what would you do?


Jonah, of course, is not done teaching us by his mistakes. He now discovers the sin of wrath. We need to study this sin carefully, for it is the root of much separation from God.

The nature of wrath

The first thing you must see about wrath (or anger) is that it arises from hatred – and therefore cannot withstand love. You can be sad over a loved one’s mistakes – but vicious wrath takes hatred.

Worse, when wrath arises, its sure sign is that it is feeding itself – at your expense. Wrath loves to rehearse the wrongs done while you are awake in the middle of the night.

Ultimately, wrath consumes the wrathful. Have you ever met someone so swallowed up by his own anger that his life purpose is revenge? It is a terrible fate for a human being, made in the image of the loving God.

Wrath – the barrier to mercy

Have you ever tried to forgive someone while you are still mad at them? Rather difficult, isn’t it? One of the first steps in reconciliation is to get both parties to calm down. If left to itself, wrath will become the excuse we use to avoid forgiving. “How can I forgive that dirty rotten….. when he did ….”

But understand one thing: if you will not forgive, you will not be forgiven. If your wrath stands between you and forgiveness, then rush to God in prayer and ask him to remove your wrath.

Anger with God

Sometimes our anger is not with our fellow human beings; sometimes it is with God himself. When things don’t go the way we expected, we are tempted to blame God – even to become angry with him, as Jonah did here. Even God’s virtues became a cause for our wrath (“I knew you were quick to forgive…”). Such anger is a failing with us.

  • Failure to recognize his righteousness. In our anger we forget who He really is: the righteous one. When we feel ourselves wronged by God, we are saying that we know more than God does about righteousness. Is this wise?
  • Failure to recognize his sovereignty. He is, after all, Lord of all things. When you are displeased with what he has done, do you then deny him the right (as he certainly has the power) to do
  • Failure to recognize his mercy. When at long last our enemy repents, and begs forgiveness, do we, like Jonah, become angry? This is a failure to recognize the mercy of God – mercy upon which we all depend.[1]

Sometimes we must remember that God has mercy upon whom he has mercy – and be simply grateful that we are among the “whom.”

OBS – Older Brother Syndrome

If you would understand Jonah’s attitude toward the Ninevites, you need to look back to the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. To refresh your memory:

25“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

(from Luke 15)

The older brother

May I point out three things which the older brother teaches us?

  • The attitude that the sinner should not be allowed restoration after repentance is a very common one. Each of us understands the older brother’s point of view. He, after all, is the one who did the hard work.
  • This point of view is based upon our own righteousness. The older brother is undoubtedly the more righteous. But it is not the prodigal’s righteousness which is the standard of judgment – it is the Lord’s.
  • Note, please, how the father gently corrects his son. Those of us who try to live holy lives day by day need to be alert for the gentle correction of God. (See the same with Jonah).
Mercy and judgment – a relationship

One reason we act like the older brother is that we want judgment. We want the father to declare that we behaved righteously while the prodigal did not. But do you not see that mercy declares judgment? How can the judge announce an act of mercy for the innocent? If you didn’t do the crime, how is it merciful not to punish you? Mercy declares judgment – but does not take vengeance. That, in honesty, is our problem. We want mercy – but only for the worthy. But consider:

  • Is there such a thing as a sinner who deserves mercy? It is an oxymoron.
  • Even our Lord made no attempt to distinguish the worthy sinners from the unworthy. He knows that all were unworthy – and therefore is merciful to all who will come to him.
  • Consider too that even the vilest of sinners has a place in the kingdom – and even in the judgment to come. These same Ninevites will rise up on the last day to condemn the generation to which Christ came.[2]
Forgiven much, love much

Perhaps our troubles stem from this: we know that those who are forgiven much, love much. But is it not equally true that those who are forgiven little, love little? Do you not see the peril for the Christian? If I’m forgiven little, I love little. If I love little, I forgive little. If I forgive little, I am forgiven little. The spiral into wrath and hatred is always before us.

What is the Christian to do, then? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. How can I do that? It is no accident that Jesus told the sinners to repent – and told the righteous Nicodemus that he must be born again.

[1] See the parable of the vineyard owner, Matthew 20:1-16

[2] Matthew 12:41

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