Mighty God, Tender Heart

Bible Focus: Jonah

The water engulfed me up to the neck; the watery depths overcame me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. I sank to the foundations of the mountains, the earth’s gates shut behind me forever! Then you raised my life from the Pit, LORD my God! As my life was fading away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple.
  Those who cherish worthless idols abandon their faithful love, but as for me, I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation belongs to the LORD.
Jonah 2:5-9 CSB

On the first day of fourth grade, I and my classmates settled down at our desks and proceeded to meet our new teacher. She introduced herself as Miss Johnston, and she made a special point of emphasizing the “t” in her name. “My name is not Johnson,” she said, which was probably a point that she’d had to emphasize all of her life. It was the first thing I learned from Miss Johnston, but I would learn many more things from her. Miss Johnston quickly became my favorite elementary-school teacher.

Miss Johnston had some good training and talent. She managed the class well, and I had no problem learning my subjects. But I didn’t just admire Miss Johnston for her teaching ability and class management skills. What I found extraordinary was her kindness. It was obvious that she loved kids, cared about her students, and enjoyed spending her weekdays with us. As a result, I thoroughly enjoyed fourth grade.

But fifth grade was quite different, and I’ll refrain from mentioning the name of my teacher that year. She likely had some good training and talent as well. However, she didn’t seem to enjoy teaching children. She had a tendency to be harsh, and would quickly pounce on errors that I and other kids would make. I’m sure she was just trying to do a good job, and in the end, I still learned my subjects. But it was a joyless experience, and more than once I wished that I could somehow replace her with Miss Johnston. I was glad when fifth grade was finally over.

In a similar way, I don’t believe that we are primarily persuaded to follow God because we believe in his almighty power, spotless character, and unrelenting justice (although each of those things are important). We are won over to God when we are convinced of his tender heart. God longs to show us his kindness and he wants us to understand his mercy. He also wants us to love others in the same way he has loved us.

God longs to show us his kindness and he wants us to understand his mercy.

After the nation of Israel split into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, both kingdoms failed to be faithful to God. God finally proclaimed through his prophets that Israel would be conquered by their enemy Assyria. The Assyrians were a wicked, merciless people who posed a constant danger to Israel and Judah. The thought of being conquered by Assyria would have created great fear and loathing in the hearts of people in Israel.

In the middle of Israel’s strife with Assyria, God commanded the prophet Jonah to visit the Assyrian city of Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. Jonah was probably afraid of the Assyrians. However, what Jonah most feared was that the Assyrians would believe his preaching and repent of their evil acts. If Nineveh repented, God would likely show them mercy instead of destroying them. Jonah couldn’t stand the thought of his sworn enemies receiving God’s mercy, so he decided to run from God and not tell the people of Nineveh about God’s judgment.

Jonah boarded a ship heading away from Nineveh, and settled down in the lower deck to rest. In the meantime, God sent a great storm that threatened to sink the ship. The ship’s sailors were deeply distressed, and they cast lots in an effort to find out who among them might be responsible for the deadly storm. The lot fell to Jonah, and when they confronted him, he admitted that he was to blame. Jonah told them to throw him into the sea to calm the storm.

The sailors tried to keep Jonah on the ship, but they found they could not return to land, and the storm was getting worse. So they prayed that God would not hold them guilty for Jonah’s life, and they tossed him overboard. The storm stopped, and God sent a large fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah stayed alive in the fish for three days.

Jonah finally repented, and God had the fish vomit Jonah onto dry land. Jonah went to Nineveh and preached God’s message of judgment to them–and things went just as Jonah had feared.

Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the LORD’s command. Now Nineveh was an extremely great city, a three-day walk. Jonah set out on the first day of his walk in the city and proclaimed, “In forty days Nineveh will be demolished!”

Then the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth—from the greatest of them to the least.
God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster he had threatened them with. And he did not do it.
Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious. He prayed to the LORD, “Please, LORD, isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster. And now, LORD, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
The LORD asked, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah 3:3-5,10,4:1-4 CSB

Jonah hung around Nineveh a bit longer, watching to see what might happen. Perhaps he thought God might change his mind and destroy the city anyway. But instead, God caused a quick-growing vine to sprout up and shade Jonah’s head. At first, Jonah was very glad about the vine, but then God sent a worm that caused the plant to wither. Jonah quickly became angry again. Then God said this to Jonah:

“You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. So may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than a hundred twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?”
Jonah 4:10b-11 CSB

Those words of God conclude the story of Jonah. We don’t know what Jonah’s response was, or if he ever became a more merciful person. But here’s the good news: Jonah was right about God’s compassion. God is a merciful God. He longs to show us grace, not wrath. He sent Jesus so that we would have an opportunity to reconcile with him, and he wants us to proclaim the same message of reconciliation to those around us.

Featured image from Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash.

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1 thought on “Mighty God, Tender Heart

  1. My favorite one so far. (My fifth grade teacher must have been a clone of your fifth grade teacher. Ha! Like you, I was thrilled to get that year over with.) Thanks for your continued good work here and at HBC.

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