Grace to Nineveh

I am doing a terrible job of blogging my reading.  The biggest thing that struck me this week, though, was as I was reading through the book of Jonah: God is gracious.

The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look–something greater than Jonah is here!

Matthew 12:41

Jonah is one of those stories many of us know from childhood.  Our four-year-old could probably give you the bare sketch; there’s a Veggie Tales of it, after all!  And yet as I read it this time, I found myself struck by many things I’d never really thought about before!  I love how the Spirit makes even old stories have fresh applications. 🙂

First: God sent a messenger to Nineveh rather than just annihilating them.

We are talking about a wicked people, so wicked that their wickedness was said to have “confronted” God (1:2).  God would have been just to have rained fire on them like on Sodom and Gomorrah, or any of the other many pagan kings.  And yet God—who knew they would repent—sent a messenger.

Second: Jonah’s disobedience indirectly led to the eternal salvation of the sailors in the boat.

Here, again, God could have picked an obedient prophet!  But Jonah disobeyed and tried running off to Tarshish.  When the seas grow stormy (another act of God!) the sailors demand of Jonah, who are you? What is your country?  And Jonah answers with a great little piece of evangelism: “I’m a Hebrew.  I worship Yahweh, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9 hcsb)

So, they’re in the middle of the storm, and Jonah tells them there’s this God named Yahweh who made the sea.  Important piece of information, there, because in Jonah 1:14, these very same men—who apparently couldn’t even recognize an Israelite beforehand—are praying to Yahweh.  They are affirming His sovereignty, and appealing to Him for mercy.  Jonah 1:16 says they “feared the LORD” and they offered a sacrifice and made vows.

God used even Jonah’s disobedience to bring new sheep into His fold—Gentiles, no less!

Third: Jonah’s message was not one of hope.

Jonah 3:4 tells us the very bleak message Jonah gave Nineveh from God: “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!” Nothing about “unless you repent,” and in fact not even anything about “because you are so wicked.”  These people are so evil that their evilness has come up against God, and Jonah foretells their destruction.

Fourth: Despite this, the people repented.

The message was not one of hope, and they weren’t sure hope was in the offering (“Who knows? God may turn and relent,” they ponder in Jonah 3:9), and yet they saw their evil, named it as evil (Jonah 3:8), and stopped doing it!  Jonah 3:5 says every single man fasted and dressed in sackcloth, even the king.  They even made their animals fast.  They even fasted from water.  They repented, very thoroughly.

And God relented.  And these same Ninevites will rise up on the last day as witnesses for Him.

Fifth: Jonah knew there was hope.

This was the most significant thing to me.  It’s so easy for me to read the Old Testament and see that “smiting” God that athiests poke fun of—many, many wicked people are indeed punished, and often without a lot of extra chances, at least that we see.  And even here, Jonah’s message didn’t seem to offer an extra chance—and yet, Jonah, who was surely aware of Israel’s own history and the history of the way God had dealt with lawless people throughout it… Jonah says, “I knew You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster!” (Jonah 4:2, hcsb)  He’s complaining, but that these words of God’s mercy come so quickly to his lips—that he is so confident that God is merciful that he fled to Tarshish from the beginning—this is so insightful and wonderful that someone sent to preach destruction to a city was still so sure that God relents from destruction!  He preaches a message of punishment while cradling in his heart (even if he wasn’t happy about it) the certainty that God is merciful.  His conviction of God’s mercy had to be so incredibly strong.

Sixth: God cared about Nineveh.

He compares Nineveh to the plant that grew over Jonah (Jonah 4:10), and asks Jonah, if you cared about this plant, even though you weren’t even the one who labored for it, how much more should I care for Nineveh (which was, of course, His own creation)?

This, again, is an amazing testimony of the mercy of God. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” God asks in Ezekiel 18:23.  “Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives?”  Nineveh is a beautiful illustration of this verse.  This incredibly wicked city—Jonah himself is revolted—and yet God “cares” (Jonah 4:11).  It tells us He even cares about their animals!  And so He sends a prophet, and rejoices over their repentance, and keeps them till the last day.

So much mercy and encouragement in this little book!

Judges: God uses broken people.

I just finished my study of the book of Judges, and, wow, so many thoughts.

The stories that have stuck out to me: Deborah and Barak.  Gideon.  Abimelech.  Jephthah.  Samson,  Micah, Gibeah.  With a few others stuck in.  Every single story is about the failure of people to do the right thing. 

First we have Barak (Judges 4), who ought to have obeyed God’s command to go to Mount Tabor… but doesn’t, until Deborah summons him and reminds him of what God already commanded.  Then he still refuses until Deborah agrees to go with him, at the cost of losing all honor for the victory, and Jael kills Sisera.

Then we have Gideon, who is a pretty decent if highly-doubtful guy, who actually meets YHWH (Judges 6) in the flesh, continues asking God for extra confirmation at every step, but basically, fears God and does well… until the end, when he collects booty from everyone and makes an idol which leads his household astray.  He also has tons of wives and children.

This doesn’t bode well for Gideon’s son Abimelech (Judges 9), who kills every last one of his brothers except the youngest, Jotham, who manages to escape.  Abimelech names himself king after this mass slaughter, and various other atrocities and mass-murders ensue, until God “turns back” the evil Abimelech had done on his head.

Then we come to Jephthah, who fears God and judges pretty well, but does this awful hideous thing of promising to human-sacrifice something (which turns out to be his beloved daughter), and then… he follows through on his oath (Judges 11).

Then Samson (Judges 13), whose parents have an encouraging and unblemished testimony of fearing God, and who is himself filled with the Spirit incredibly constantly, but Samson himself makes a ton of foolish decisions, is vain, is a womanizing partier, is prone to fits of incredible temper, revenge, and wiping people out, breaks his vows, lies, gives into nagging women repeatedly… and dies.

Then Micah (Judges 17), who steals from his mother, then creates a completely invalid little shrine in the name of YHWH but with false gods abounding, bribes a Levite priest into lending it some legitimacy.  But along comes the tribe of Dan, which steals his little shrine, his priest, and his false gods, and carries them off to set up in Dan, where it remained for “as long as the house of God was in Shiloh” (18:31, hcsb).

Lastly, there’s Gibeah, which is really just… unspeakable.  Atrocity compounding atrocity, one after the other.  I’m not sure there are more revolting chapters anywhere in Scripture than Judges 19-21.

And yet, through all of this, God is accomplishing His ends.  Israel  has no king.  Joshua, the faithful leader, has died, and the tribes have continually (chapter 1) failed to take control of the land from the Canaanites.  A lot more of that is accomplished through these stories.  And the Israelites are disciplined again and again, and forced to return to God and beg for mercy and assistance, again and again.  One time God denies them—I’ve rescued you before, and you went away again, “cry out to the gods you have chosen” (Judges 10:14, hcsb), but they persist in their repentance and God “became weary of Israel’s misery” (10:16, hcsb), which is one of the most startlingly beautiful phrases in Scripture.  Another time—after Gibeah—the Israelites consult Him for help, and He tells them what to do… only to have them be considerably wiped out, beginning with Judah (Judges 20).  It is only after they come to God again with fasting and sacrifices and weeping that He delivers the rebelling tribe Benjamin into their hands.

So we see here, first of all, how remarkably God works.  This is both justice and mercy tempered together, love and discipline.  But what I found incredibly encouraging—and surprising—was how very screwed up the “good guys” are, and yet they are included in Hebrews 11 among the faithful and righteous.  We point to David as an example of how fallen Christians can be, but here we have Barak, who ignores God’s explicit calling; Gideon, who doubts God repeatedly and falters at the end; Jephthah, who murders his own daughter in the name of God; and Samson, who seems in many ways to live a really, really depraved lifestyle filled with women and drinking and hedonism and lawbreaking.  And yet these are the people God called, used, and justified.

It’s also scary the reality of God’s judgment here.  Barak loses the honor of the victory.  God repays Jephthah’s rash vow with the loss of his daughter.  Gideon’s whole family is massacred by his own son.  Samson loses everything he seems to strive after, and then his own life.  The nation of Israel as a whole loses many of their men in the skirmish with Benjamin (not to mention nearly the entire tribe of Benjamin itself), then because of their own rash vow-making, they end up losing another entire town of people, and basically inviting the remaining Benjaminites to come along and kidnap and rape innocent women in Shiloh with no consequences.

Judges is a really easy book to read.  But a very hard one to process.