Sitting Outside the City

By Ira Hall

Shouldn’t I have compassion?

The book of Jonah is an amazing book that, for too many Christians, has been reduced to a children’s story or a mere illustration of the importance of obeying God. However, the true message of the book of Jonah in the Biblical narrative is far deeper and more perilous for God’s people. In this current moment of American Christianity, I think we would do well to step back & take a deeper, more critical look at what God is telling us through His so-called reluctant prophet.

Jonah begins with little preamble, telling us that God instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh, a great city of great evil, and one which happens to belong to a crucial enemy of God’s people, Jonah’s nation. As we know, Jonah immediately tries to flee as far away as possible.

Despite what many narrative pieces have said, Jonah’s motives are not fear of the people he was sent to nor reluctance to trust God. Rather, Jonah himself explains in chapter 4 that he flees because he does trust God; to be forgiving & merciful. Seeking to prevent any risk of repentance & salvation by Nineveh due to God’s propensity for wanting to save, Jonah fled. Chapter 4 finds Jonah angry and despondent over the mercy shown to his enemies.  He tells God he’d rather be dead.

If God ended the story right there, it would be convicting enough to all of us who desire justice & vindication over our enemies. Yet God isn’t done exposing how deep the rot of our souls can go. God allows a plant to grow up to provide Jonah shade while he waits for hoped destruction and then allows the plant to be killed by a worm.

Often, this twist in the story is seen as God trying to awaken Jonah to the realities of his heart, but something far more rests in this additional step. The text makes this moment parallel with Jonah’s earlier reaction as he declares his desire to die. These parallel phrases in Scripture are both a hallmark of Hebrew construction and a signal of special importance. Twice in this section, Jonah is ready to embrace death. The first time because people didn’t die, the second time because a plant did. The text is careful to make it clear that it is the death of the plant Jonah mourns to the point of death. God says, “you had compassion on the plant…”

This is far more indicting than simply seeing Jonah as a man with a bit too much nationalistic fervor or not quite enough compassion. Jonah isn’t suffering from a lack of compassion but rather a lack of godly compassion. He cares deeply and passionately for things that affect him, but not for things that either do not affect him or affect him negatively, such as the people of Nineveh.

This is the uncomfortable highlight of God’s message from the book of Jonah, and we would do well to use this book to examine the logs in our eyes more closely.

First, having a fulsome and accurate understanding of the heart of God is meaningless without a corresponding response in our own hearts. Jonah is very clear that He understands God’s heart, God’s desire to forgive the lost, and God’s mercy. He goes to great lengths to try to make sure that these truths about God unfold in a way that is most advantageous to himself & his tribe. He has embraced a faith in God that is leveraged toward his own comfort and security. There is little wrong with his stated theology. We see this in his prayer in Chapter 3. He understands & believes all the right things. He has the language of confession, dependence, and a high view of God. His only problem is that He desires that all those marvelous attributes always unfold to his earthly good.

Second, his passion and compassion are triggered by things that apply directly to his sense of comfort and security. Nineveh is an enemy and a threat to his people, so he is not motivated by compassion for them. They are rightly deserving of judgment, and Jonah is eager for the righteous judgment to be executed. His correct theology of justice is his passion to the point that he fears that God’s compassion will get in the way of that justice. When it comes to the shade plant, however, his heart is suddenly strongly engaged. The text links these two moments unmistakably. He is as mad for the plant as he was for the deliverance of Nineveh. The plant’s life mattered more to him because the plant gave Jonah something he wanted & needed. Since Jonah has now been affected negatively, he cares deeply.

All the good theology in the world does not change the sinfulness of the human heart. We are all, in our humanity, motivated first and foremost by those things which touch our day-to-day life experience. This is a universal human condition. Like Jonah, we are often ok with our selective compassion because we feel a comfort and security that we know God and are right with Him. The text of the book highlights in each chapter two contrasting realities. Everyone in the book other than Jonah doesn’t know Yahweh, yet everyone in the book other than Jonah is willing to repent. The men on the boat fear this God of Jonah and pray for throwing Jonah into the sea. In Nineveh, everyone down to the cows is said to be repenting. This hyperbole further demonstrates that the one person in the story who knows God best is the one that is most confident in himself instead of being dedicated to the mercy of God.

We live in a time in our American culture where there is a lot of focus, not only on how bad things are but just how wrong many of the leaders in our nation have become. The voices of the media sources directed toward us (as opposed to the “mainstream media”) are full of appeals to action based on how much our life, heritage, culture, way of life, and freedom are under threat. The one thing I do not hear us being pushed toward by these voices is greater compassion, mercy, and grace. Instead, the language is to fight & condemn. We have good reason to be upset. Someone is killing our shade plant.

We must return to the main reason the story of Jonah is included in God’s Word. It does not sit in the canon in isolation. God’s people in the Old Testament were called to be a light to the nations, a kingdom of priests who would reach the whole world for Yahweh. 

“He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

Jonah is not the story of one failed prophet but a rebuke of the tendency of God’s people to adapt God’s attributes, character, and purpose to our own comfort and desires. Our compassion becomes based on our own hearts and sympathies, not the heart of God. We allow political, social, national, and most especially personal interests to dictate the level of our passion and compassion and how we will pursue our identity & calling in Christ.

In a culture that is eager to tell us who the enemies of God are, we forget that we are part of that group. There are no “friends of God” in the human race. There are merely those who have been forgiven for being enemies and those who have not yet been freed. The parable of the unforgiving servant drives home the dangerous dichotomy we can construct for ourselves where we forget that our only claim to freedom is the very mercy and grace that we are withholding from our enemies.

God’s final line ending Jonah should echo powerfully in our hearts & minds. “Should I not have compassion?

Let us step back, especially those of us who are church leaders, and first examine our own hearts before God in the light of Jonah. What are the shade plants that you are mad about while you sit outside a city full of enemies? What are ways that your compassion has become tied to your personal situation to the point that you’re ready to question how God is working in this lost world? Are there ways in which your confidence in your knowledge of God has allowed you to pursue an agenda that is ultimately more rooted in your kingdom than God’s?

Let us challenge our own hearts and then challenge our people to avoid the traps that Jonah shows us so that we might truly be a light to the nations and proclaimers of the Good News.