Getting young kids ready for school in the morning is memorable. One morning, I told my two-year-old to leave his book and put his boots on because it was time to leave. He shut his eyes, whined a little, and then walked right into a door. At that point, he turned to me, crying, looking for compassion. If I saw a kid on America’s Funniest Videos do what Levi did, I would laugh. But (at least in the moment), I did not. Instead, I picked him up, hugged him, kissed his ouchie, and gently told him to watch out for doors. Why did I show compassion? For one simple reason: he’s my son.
The book of Jonah highlights the mercy and compassion of God. He is merciful to Jonah, the sailors, and the Ninevites. The last group is a problem for Jonah. He cannot fathom why God would show mercy when he should condemn. He says in 4:2, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Most people lament disaster, but Jonah laments God’s mercy.
God’s Mysterious Mercy
Why God shows mercy to Nineveh is a mystery Jonah cannot solve. Nineveh was the capital city of the cruel Assyrian empire. The Prophet Nahum gives us a picture of what Nineveh was like: “Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder—no end to the prey!” (Na 3:1). What possible reason could God have for showing mercy to such a place?
When he finishes preaching in the city, Jonah finds a place to sit and wait for God to destroy Nineveh. To protect him from the sun, God appoints a plant to give him shade. To teach him a lesson, God appoints a worm to eat the plant. This is too much for Jonah to handle, and he asks God to kill him. God’s response reveals his motive for showing mercy to Nineveh. “But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.’ And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night” (Jon 4:9–10).
Jonah was angry that his beloved plant died. God points out the irony here: you love a plant you did not make, “and should not I pity Nineveh, 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?” (Jon 4:11). He argues that if Jonah pities a mere plant, should God not pity Nineveh? If Jonah has compassion for what he didn’t make, why would God not show compassion to people he created?
God’s mercy is the compassion of a creator for his creation. His mercy is a mystery because – by all appearances – the recipients do not deserve it. Neither Jonah nor Nineveh should have received mercy from God, but they did. If we want to know the motive for mercy, we cannot look at the receivers; we have to look at the giver. God gives mercy because he is merciful (Ex 34:6-7). His heart towards us is compassionate. A two-year-old walking into a door because they refused to open their eyes deserves a laugh. But if they are your two-year-old, they will get a hug.
God’s Mercy and Us
Scripture shows that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3:23). There is no visible reason why God should show us mercy. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace, you have been saved” (Eph 2:4–5). Every Christian is a testimony to the mystery of God’s mercy.