Compassion for the Lost (Jonah)

Exactly two weeks from today, the Jews will celebrate one of their most important holidays of the year – Yom Kippur, or as we know it in scripture, the Day of Atonement.  It is a day when Jews repent of all the sins they have committed over the past year, and they turn to God to find forgiveness.  On that day, Jews will fast, they will confess their sins, and they will go to the synagogue to pray and to hear God’s Word read.  And they will listen to the rabbi read from Moses and Isaiah.  But then, strangely enough, they will listen as he reads to them the story of Jonah.

            We’re familiar with the story of Jonah, that reluctant prophet who hopped on a boat to try to run away from God’s call for him to go to Nineveh only to be thrown overboard, swallowed by a fish, spit up onto dry ground, at which point he finally decided to obey God and go preach to the people of Nineveh.  It’s an interesting story, but it seems to me that it’s a rather strange choice of reading on Yom Kippur.

            On the most solemn day of the year, the most holy day of the year, of all the passages that could have been chosen, somebody years ago decided to start the tradition of reading the story of Jonah.

            Rabbis have different explanations for why Jonah is read on the Day of Atonement.  One rabbi says the story of Jonah is more about repentance than it is about the fish, and I would certainly have to agree with that.  Some rabbis explain that Jonah is evidence that no one can escape the presence of God, even while trying to run away from him.  

            Other rabbis believe that Jonah is read on Yom Kippur with the hope that listeners might learn from Jonah’s mistakes.  As one rabbi put it, “God cares for everyone.  Jonah cares only for himself.   God wins.”  And that actually serves as a pretty good outline of my lesson this morning.

            But, before we get into that, let’s take a look at this overview of the book of Jonah and then Ill be back to talk about God’s compassion for the lost.

            Watch VIDEO (Jonah)

            Let me ask you a question — If money were not a factor and you could pick anywhere in the world to live and raise your family, where would it be?  I think the ideal for many Christians would be to live in a beautiful, remote area where they could live in isolation and raise their kids apart from all the crime, pollution and problems that go along with crowded cities.  Many Christians dream about retiring to some beautiful spot where they can get away from people.  We don’t want to be bothered with the problems of this messed-up world! 

            But I’d like to suggest this morning that as appealing as that sort of isolationist mindset may be (and, if I’m being honest, I find it as appealing as anyone else), but that kind of mindset goes against the very heart of God and removes God’s people from the very people God wants them to reach with his good news.

            If you had been a Jew living in the 9th century B.C., you would not have wanted to live in or even visit the city of Nineveh.  It was inhabited by a godless, wicked, violent people — the Assyrians.  In the book of Jonah, when the king of Nineveh calls on his people to repent, he specifically mentions their violence (3:8). 

            Much of that violence was aimed at the surrounding nations, such as Israel, which Assyria tried to conquer and, about 125 years later, did conquer.  It was to this violent, wicked enemy of Israel that God called the prophet Jonah.  It would be like calling a Jew during World War II to go preach to Nazi Germany.  And so, I think we can all understand why Jonah boarded the next ship headed in the opposite direction!

            But, when you read this book, you have to wonder: Why did God pick Jonah, someone who was unwilling to go to Nineveh?  Weren’t there any willing prophets in Israel who may not have been excited about the idea, but at least they would have said, “All right, Lord, I’ll go”?  Why pick Jonah?

            And I think it’s possible that God picked Jonah because Jonah reflected the attitude of so many of God’s people down through the centuries.  The Israelites were God’s chosen people, the people that God made a covenant with, and they were supposed to be God’s means of salvation for all people.  But the Israelites tended to bottle up all those blessings for themselves. They lost God’s heart for the nations.

            But before we condemn the people of Israel, we need to see that there are times when we’re all a lot like Israel, a lot like Jonah.  That is, we often value our own comfort above the souls of lost people who need to hear about God’s judgment and mercy.

            It’s important for us to see that Jonah was someone who believed all the right things about God.  He had his theology straight.  In chapter one, we learn that Jonah knew that God created the earth, both the sea and the dry land (1:9).  Jonah even says that he feared God (1:9).  In chapter 4, Jonah said he knew that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2). That’s a paraphrase of Exodus 34:6, which tells us that Jonah knew his Bible.

            But the problem wasn’t with Jonah’s knowledge or his beliefs.  The problem was with Jonah’s heart:  He didn’t have God’s heart for lost people.  The message of the book of Jonah is summed up in the question God asks Jonah in the very last verse of the book: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city…?” (Jonah 4:11, NASB).

            How would you answer that question: Should God have compassion on a bunch of wicked, violent people?  Be careful how you answer that question, because your answer will affect the way you ought to live!  Let me make three points this morning.  The first is this,  

1.  God does have compassion for lost people.

            God’s heart for the people of Nineveh comes through in Jonah 4:11, where he refers to Nineveh as “that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle.”  In fact, every time God mentions Nineveh to Jonah, he calls it a “great city” (1:2; 3:2, 3; 4:11).   

            Now I’m sure that Jonah would have used some other adjectives to describe Nineveh: that rotten city … that wicked city … that evil city … but God called it “that great city”.  And while that term probably had reference to Nineveh’s size, God also viewed Nineveh as a great city because there were many lost people there that he deeply cared about.

            Commentators are divided over the meaning of these 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left.”  Some believe that this refers to the total population of Nineveh, and in the eyes of God, these people just didn’t know any better.  In support of this view, it can be argued from archaeology that Nineveh couldn’t have been much larger than this, since the inner city wall was only about eight miles around.

            But in Jonah 3, we read that Nineveh was “a very large city; it took three days to go through it.” (Jonah 3:3, NIV).  This probably refers not just to the city within the walls, but to the population in outlying areas (the “suburbs”, if you will).  And if that’s the case, then the 120,000 may to young children who were not yet old enough to know their right hand from their left.  

            If that’s the case, then God seems to be appealing to this hardhearted prophet, who had compassion on a plant.  He tells Jonah that he needs to share God’s compassion toward the people of Nineveh.   “Jonah, even if you can’t stand the adults, look at the children!  Look at the animals!  Jonah, if I wipe out Nineveh like you want me to, 120,000 small children and many animals will die.  Is that really what you want me to do?”

            It’s significant to me that God knew all about that the city of Nineveh.  He even had the infants and toddlers numbered.  He knew all about the animals!  He also knew about the wickedness of Nineveh.  But in spite of that, he still had compassion on it.

            Some people who are lost are wicked and violent, just like those in Nineveh.  But not all the lost are like that.  The book of Jonah shows us that God also had compassion on the pagan sailors in chapter 1, who seem to have been rather nice.  They had to throw their cargo overboard to try to stay afloat in the storm.  When they finally figured out that Jonah was the cause of the storm, no one would have blamed them if they had flown into a rage and said, “Throw the bum overboard!  Look at all the trouble he’s caused us!”  And yet they did everything they could to avoid throwing Jonah overboard.

            There’s so much irony in this story!  Here’s a man of God who is more concerned about a plant that provided shade for him for one day, than he is for a whole city full of people who are about to perish.  And yet here are these pagan sailors who are concerned about the life of one man, even though that one man has caused them to lose their cargo and almost lose their lives!  But even though they were nice guys, they still needed to repent and believe in the one true God, which they eventually did when God calmed the storm (1:16).

            The point is, God has compassion on all people who are lost, whether they are outwardly wicked or “nice”.  God wants us to see that he “does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9, NLT).  Jesus said that his mission while he was here on this earth was to “seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10).

            And God wants all people to see that he is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).  But, point number two…

2.         God’s people don’t always share his compassion for the lost.

            You would think that those of us who have received God’s mercy would be quick to extend it to others.  But it doesn’t always work that way.  Like Jonah, we would sometimes rather that God judge other people that we dislike, forgetting that apart from God’s grace, we would be just like them.  We often think to ourselves, “Judge them, God, but don’t judge me!  I’m one of your children!”

            And let’s be honest: we’re all just like Jonah, in that we all have people that we dislike.  Maybe it’s those noisy, rude neighbors who blast their stereos and throw empty beer cans on your property.  Maybe it’s people you know who are ungrateful and unappreciative.  Maybe it’s people who are guilty of racial prejudice, or people who have no regard for human life, either in the womb or out of it.   I can just imagine Jonah complaining to God, “Lord, these people are wicked, they deserve to be punished.  Why should I do anything to try to help them?”  I can imagine him saying that because I’ve often felt the same way.

            And it’s just a short step from disliking someone to disobeying God.  Like Jonah, it’s easy for us to turn our backs on the very people God wants us to reach out to.  And it’s always easy to justify our disobedience with all sorts of excuses. I can imagine Jonah saying, “It wouldn’t be safe for a Jew to go to Nineveh; they’ll probably kill me.  Besides, the people of Nineveh would never be receptive to God’s message.  They’re a lost cause.  If I go there, they’ll laugh me out of town.  Besides, there are so many other people who need God’s message in Israel.  Why go hundreds of miles away to Nineveh?”

            So, instead of heading east like God told him to, it’s as if Jonah picked up a map and went as far as he could in the opposite direction.  He headed to Tarshish.  In the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, when things get really bad for Alexander, he says, “I think I’ll move to Australia.”  And the truth is that some of us are so stubborn, or frustrated, or scared, that when God wants us to face difficulties head-on, we’d rather turn in the opposite direction instead. 

            But, after his detour by way of a fish’s stomach, Jonah finally went to Nineveh.  But, even then, he went reluctantly.  His preaching must have been about as exciting as hearing somebody read through the phone book.  But, incredibly, everybody from the king on down believed God and repented!  It was an evangelist’s dream!  As many as 500,000 conversions in one short gospel meeting!  You would think Jonah would be elated.

            But we read that “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” (Jonah 4:1).  If he had gone and preached judgment, and God had rained down fire and brimstone on Nineveh, Jonah would have returned to Israel as a national hero, with a ticker tape parade through Jerusalem!  Maybe he would have made it out of the minor prophets into the major prophets!  But to his surprise, they repented. 

            Jonah was angry and he justified his anger by saying, “God, I knew this was gonna happen. I knew it!  That’s why I didn’t want to go there in the first place.  I didn’t want to go, because I don’t care about the lost like you do.”

            Have you ever thought about the fact that Jonah, sleeping in the ship while the sailors were about to perish, is a graphic image of God’s complacent people?  The captain’s rebuke to Jonah was as pointed as you can get: “How is it that you are sleeping?  Get up, call on your god.  Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6, NASB).   But isn’t that sometimes what we do — we sleep comfortably while the world around us perishes and wonders why our God doesn’t seem to care?

            And, even after Nineveh repents, Jonah is more concerned about his own comfort than he is about the people in this city.  You’ll notice that we don’t have any record that God ever told Jonah to leave Nineveh.  He may have wanted Jonah to stay and teach those people his word. 

            But Jonah was still holding on to his hope that God would destroy the city.  So, he goes a safe distance outside of town and pulls up his lawn chair to watch the fireworks (4:5).  It’s a bit warm, so God sends a plant that grows up overnight to shade the pouting prophet.

            And for the first time in the entire book, Jonah is happy.  He was unhappy about God’s command to go to Nineveh; he was unhappy about the storm; he was really unhappy while he was inside the fish; he was unhappy about the repentance of Nineveh.  But, now, he is very happy, “exceedingly glad” (Jonah 4:6) about this plant that gave him some temporary comfort from the heat.

            But just as Jonah is getting ready to pour himself a cool glass of lemonade, God sends a worm to destroy the plant and a hot wind to make Jonah even more miserable.  So, Jonah gets angry about the plant, so angry that he tells God that life just isn’t worth living anymore. 

            Notice how God deals with his angry prophet.  He asks him three questions which lead to an unstated, but implicit fourth question:

1)         In verse 4, he asks Jonah, do you have good reason to be angry (4:4)?

2)         In verse 9, do you have good reason to be angry about the plant (4:9)?

3)         In verse 11, should I not have compassion on Nineveh … (4:11)?

            And then, the implied fourth question to Jonah and to us is this:

3.         Shouldn’t we share in God’s compassion for the lost?

            The book of Jonah could have ended quite nicely after chapter three: Everybody repented and lived happily ever after.  But there was still a problem with God’s reluctant missionary.  In chapter one, God had Jonah’s mind.  He knew the truth about God.  His theology was straight.

            In chapter two, God got Jonah’s will. He repented and agreed to do what he had vowed.  In chapter three, God got Jonah’s body, as he went to Nineveh to preach in obedience to God’s renewed command.

            But as chapter four shows us, God still didn’t have Jonah’s heart. God’s final question is, “Jonah, should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” The implicit question behind it is, “Should you, too, not have my compassion for Nineveh?”

            The book ends with this unanswered question. Did Jonah get the point and repent?  I’d like to think that he did.  But the abrupt question at the end catches us a bit off guard.  As we’re reading along, we tend to think, “How could Jonah be so hard-hearted and selfish?  How could he be so concerned about his own comfort while a whole city was on the verge of being destroyed?” 

            But just when we’re in the midst of judging Jonah, God ends the book with a bit of a blow to the gut.  He says to us, in essence, “Your problem is that, like Jonah, you’re also self-centered.  You also lack my compassion for lost people!”

            Notice how God gets Jonah to see his petty selfishness. First God asks him, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). At this point, Jonah may have thought, “Well, yes!” After all, he was angry at God for showing mercy to Israel’s enemy. That sounds noble enough.

            But God’s next question, after the incident with the plant, was, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” (Jonah 4:9). Being angry about a silly little plant and a worm isn’t quite as noble as being angry about a “just” cause!  God basically says, “Jonah, the fact that you’re angry over such petty little annoyances shows that you’re totally caught up with yourself.  You care more about your momentary comfort than you care about the eternal destiny of thousands of lost people.”

            And, in the end, God’s question to Jonah is God’s question to us: “Since I have compassion on lost people, shouldn’t you?”  I would guess that most of us have put our faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  We hold to orthodox theology.  I hope that most of us have publicly declared that Jesus is our Lord.  Many of us are involved in serving him in some way or another.  

            But, like Jonah, we’re sometimes so caught up with pursuing our own comfort that we’re insensitive to those around us who are perishing without Christ.  And the question that I need to ask myself frequently is this, “Do I have God’s heart of compassion for the lost?”

            We want this to be a burden that God puts on our hearts.  So, I hope that you will pray for your own heart toward the lost, that God will break through any apathy or selfish focus that you may have fallen into and give you his compassion for the lost.  As one rabbi put it, “God cares for everyone.  Jonah cares only for himself.   God wins.”  Since our God has compassion on those around us who are lost, shouldn’t we?

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