God’s Compassionate Heart

God’s Compassionate Heart

In this season of Epiphany, of being reminded how the God who made the entire universe revealed himself not only to his chosen people, Israel, but also to non-Israelites, in our morning’s passage we are provided with yet another glimpse into the LORD’s compassionate heart.

The story of Jonah is well-known to many who grew up in Christian homes and heard, since the time they were children, about the man who lived in the belly of the whale—more accurately a big fish—for three days. And at least in the western world as well, this story is part of our cultural literacy for even those who weren’t raised in the Jewish or Christian faith are probably familiar with this account, at least to some degree. But though the focus of this story is often—and understandably—the account of Jonah’s being thrown overboard by sailors and then being swallowed up by that fish, on this third Sunday after Epiphany, I’d like to focus on what I believe is the real point of this account, namely, that the God who made heaven and earth desires that his image-bearers come to know, love, and serve him. For even in the Old Testament, it’s evident that God never intended to reveal himself only to Israel, but even at the time at which he called Abram, that call included a promise that he would a blessing not just to Israel but to all peoples.[1] And though with the coming of Christ to earth and his later sending of his Holy Spirit it’s clear that Gentiles, non-Jewish people, are grafted into the tree of God’s chosen people, we often overlook the fact that, again, even in the Old Testament anyone who acknowledged that the God of Israel, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the LORD, Yahweh, was the one, true God was welcomed into God’s family.[2] So God’s people, whether Israel or us, have ever been intended by him to be the means of extending his family. And this point comes out powerfully in the story of Jonah.

Now though some have suggested this story couldn’t have happened given some miraculous components, the way in which this book is written and the many historical details contained throughout suggest it did. As to Jonah[3] himself, he was a prophet who lived in the 8th century BC when Jeroboam II (782–753 BC) ruled in the northern kingdom of Israel.[4] And our passage begins by stating, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’” Now it’s helpful to remember that the first time God spoke to Jonah, he used similar words—and these words, in fact, are what open the entire book as recorded in the first verse of the first chapter: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’”

I want to take a moment to consider this first time the word of the LORD came to Jonah because it helps us better understand the second time we’ll be focusing on. Now there are times when our familiarity with a particular biblical account can actually keep us from appreciating the peculiarity of what is taking place—and I don’t even mean what ends up happening with the great fish. For Jonah, despite the fact that he was a prophet, someone called to proclaim God’s truth, had some deep flaws. And one of his flaws was that he hated the Ninevites.[5] But even though he hated the Ninevites, when God called him to preach against them, Jonah disobeyed and fled in the complete opposite direction from Nineveh. Now let’s pause a moment to consider the logic of all this. Again:

If, one, Jonah hated the Ninevites;

And, two, the word of the LORD came to Jonah telling him to preach against Nineveh because its wickedness had come up before him;

Then, three, what should have Jonah’s response been to being asked to perform such a task? Shouldn’t he have rejoiced? Isn’t this what he had been hoping for all along—that God would judge this wicked nation? Shouldn’t Jonah have been thinking, “Finally God has come on board and is going to do what he should have done a long time ago—destroy those horrific Ninevites! And how wonderful that God would choose me to carry out such a task! For there’s no one better than I to share this news of God’s judgment upon them. So let me get myself to Nineveh as fast as I possibly can!”

Again, had that been Jonah’s response, this whole initial account of God sending him to preach against Nineveh would have made a whole lot more sense. But we know the story. When the word of the LORD first came to Jonah, rather than make haste to get to Nineveh ASAP, Jonah, “ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.”[6] Again, Tarshish was in the opposite direction from Nineveh. So Jonah, God’s prophet, had disobeyed God, doing everything in his power to avoid doing what God had commanded by attempting to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.

So we have to ask ourselves: Why, if Jonah hated the Ninevites and was told by God to preach against them because of their wickedness, wasn’t delighted when told to carry out this task? Why wouldn’t he have embraced such a call of preaching judgment to his enemies?

The answer lies in the fact that though Jonah was a flawed prophet, he was nonetheless a true prophet of God. For as someone who was called to serve God by proclaiming his word to those who needed to hear, Jonah knew God. He understood how God worked. Jonah knew how prophecy worked for, again, as a prophet of God he had no doubt witnessed before the results of God’s prophetic word going forth. This wasn’t his first rodeo. Now whereas we tend to think of prophecy as simply foretelling or predicting the future, Jonah understood that prophecy involves far more than this for the judgment involved in prophecy is a contingent one. If those receiving God’s prophecy ignored it and continued in their wicked ways, without a doubt they would be recipients of the predicted judgment of God; but if those receiving God’s prophecy heard and believed it, and repented of their wicked ways, then they would be recipients not of God’s judgment but of his mercy and compassion.[7] So because Jonah hated the Ninevites, he knew that preaching God’s judgment to them would result not in their destruction but in their salvation, and this is why Jonah fled from his task. He didn’t want his enemies to come to know the LORD and experience his compassion and mercy. And it was because Jonah disobeyed God the first time he was commanded to preach against the Ninevites that he consequently ended up being swallowed[8] and spit up by a great fish.[9]

And with that we can return to our passage for the second time that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah” (v. 1) telling him, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (v. 2), we’re told in verse 3 that “Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” In other words, lesson learned! Jonah, especially as one of God’s prophets, had paid a huge price for disobeying God the first time, so this time he did as he was told.

Now that great city of Nineveh, verse 3, “was a very large city.” So large that “it took three days to go through it.” And isn’t it interesting that whereas when Jonah disobeyed God, he ended up “in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights,”[10] when he obeyed God’s word, Jonah proclaimed it to the Ninevites for three days as well. So he “began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’” This was the Ninevites’ opportunity to turn to the Lord. Again, if they continued in their wicked ways, destruction was assured; but if they repented of their wicked ways, they would have an opportunity to know God and his mercy. And, as stated in verse 5, they chose God’s mercy for “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” Bingo. That’s it. That’s all it took to go from being enemies of God to children of God. That’s how simple it is for anyone to come to a saving faith and knowledge of God: First, believe his Word; Second, repent—turn from our destructive ways; and, finally, turn to him that he might receive us with his loving arms opened wide.

This contrition by the people to whom Jonah proclaimed God’s word was so widespread that even the king heard and acted on it, verse 6: “When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” All of these actions of both the people and king—fasting, putting on sackcloth, sitting in dust—indicate that their regret and repentance was genuine. But the king didn’t stop there for he went on to issue a decree, as recorded in verses 7–9:

…By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.

Though pagans, the repentance of the Ninevites was genuine. The king demanded that both people and animals be covered with sackcloth.[11] He appealed to one and all to do two things: Call urgently upon God and give up their evil ways and violence. So they were aware of their sinful and ungodly ways. Again, their repentance was genuine. They knew that the LORD, the one and only true God, was the only one who could deliver them from the consequences of their evil. So, again, they believed God—repented—and turned to him for mercy. And notice that the king didn’t take for granted that God must show compassion but instead expressed hope that God would relent and out of compassion turn from his fierce anger over their evil that they might not perish. And of course God did, verse 10: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”

Now what is so wonderful in this story is that the Ninevites, the evil and violent enemies of God and his people, repented and came to a saving faith and knowledge of their Maker and LORD; but what is so tragic in this story is that Jonah, one of God’s chosen prophets, was unable to rejoice at the outcome of an entire “great city” repenting of their sin and turning to their Maker and LORD. For later in chapter 4 we’re told how to Jonah, the Ninevites’ repenting “seemed very wrong, and he became angry.”[12] So much so that “He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love,[13] a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’” Jonah would rather have died than to have his mortal enemies come to a saving faith in God. How very human of him—at least fallen human! For, if we’re honest, might we not have had a similar response? I don’t know if there is any one person or any particular group of people you may not like—or perhaps hate—or simply assume to be your enemy perhaps due to a wrong or hurt done to you or someone you love. But if there is, chances are that your first thought when you think of them isn’t, “Oh, I hope they come to know the Lord!” Now make no mistake—this should be our response to learning about anyone coming to faith. But we must be honest and admit that this kind of right-mindedness that is able to look beyond our pain and hurt—or to use the language of the hymn Amazing Grace—that is able to look beyond fault and see need as God does, doesn’t always come naturally to us even if we know that God calls us be like him and love others the way he has loved us. This struggle we may have with loving the unlovable highlights why even after we’ve come to a saving faith in Christ, we still need his indwelling Holy Spirit to help and enable us to become holy as he is—to have compassion—to do justly, love and show mercy[14]—to think more highly of others than we do of ourselves.[15]

Jesus built upon this message of loving even our enemies that is found in the book of Jonah. Listen to what Jesus has to say:

27 But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But—[in case we missed it the first time!]—love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.—[In other words, God is kind to us]—36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.[16]

As God is, so he expects us, his children, to be.

Again, this season of Epiphany is a time in which we celebrate the fact of God’s self-revelation not only to his chosen people, Israel, but to all people. In the story of Jonah, God reveals to Jonah—not to mention the Ninevites!—that the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one true God is a God who has a heart of compassion towards sinners—which is to say, he has a heart of compassion towards us. And as God’s revelation progresses from the Old to the New Testament, God’s Compassionate Heart continues to be front and center in the person of Jesus the Christ for, as Paul reminds us, it is while we were yet sinners—while we were yet enemies of God—that Christ died for us.[17]

And in the Ninevites, we see displayed simply yet powerfully what genuine repentance looks like: Again, as we are presented with scriptural teaching, i.e., with teaching from the Word of God, we are to respond as they did by first, believing God (v. 5), second, turning from our evil ways and violence (v. 8), and finally, turning to our compassionate God (v. 9). This is so simple that we can scarcely believe it for we would rather that God came to us in some magical or mystical way. But magic and mystery aren’t God’s m.o. In fact, his usual way of disclosing himself has ever been by means of the proclamation and teaching of his Word. Listen, again, to what Jesus has to say about this.

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.[18]

Brothers and sisters, you and I are called to share—to proclaim—this Word to those who don’t yet know him;

We are called to focus not upon the fault of others, but on their need;

We are called to remember that we are to love even those we consider to be our enemies;

We are called to proclaim God’s love to one and all that they, like the Ninevites, like us, might believe God’s Word—turn from their self-centered ways—and turn to a merciful, compassionate Father who awaits to embrace all who turn to him with open and loving arms.

For, again, quoting Paul, “14 How…can [people] call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”[19]

This season of Epiphany and always let us be those who show off our beautiful feet.

Let us pray.




[1] Genesis 12:1–3: The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

[2] Note the sailors at the beginning of the story of Jonah who “greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him” (1:16). Ruth, the Moabite (Ruth 1:4), and Rahab the harlot are also examples of this. And both of them become part of Jesus’ lineage. See respectively on Ruth—Ruth 4:13–16: 13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” 16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.;on Rahab—Joshua 6:25: But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.; Hebrews 11:31: By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.; James 2:25: In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?; on Jesus’ lineage—Matthew 1:5–6: Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.


[3] Jonah’s name means “dove.”

[4] 2 Kings 14:23–25: 23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. 25 He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.

[5] Though this isn’t immediately evident, by the final chapter of the book, when the Ninevites repent, it is evident that Jonah is unhappy about this turn of events. See Jonah 4:2–3:[Jonah] prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this [the Ninevites’ repenting] what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

[6] Jonah 1:3.

[7] I am grateful to Bruce Ware who in God’s Lesser Glory, his response to open theism, addresses both points I’ve addressed here—how unusual Jonah’s response to his call by God to preach judgment to the Ninevites and the dual role of prophecy in Scripture.

[8] Jonah 1:17: Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

[9] Jonah 2:10: And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

[10] Jonah 1:17.

[11] The Crossway ESV Study Bible suggests that since the people had already put on sackcloth (v. 5), the arrangement here is probably topical rather than chronological in order to show that the reason for their repenting was due to God’s Word, not the King’s command.

[12] Jonah 4:1.

[13] Many passages in Scripture testify to this truth: Exodus 34:6–7a: And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Numbers 14:8a: ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.Nehemiah 9:31: But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.; Psalm 86:5, 15: You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you…. 15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.; Psalm 145:7–8:The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.

[14] Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

[15] Philippians 2:3–4:Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

[16] Luke 6:27–36. See a shorter parallel in Matthew 5:43–48: 43 You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. [In other words, sun and rain are needed by us to survive and God provides these even if we are evil and unrighteous] 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

[17] Romans 5:8: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

[18] Matthew 12:38–41. See also Matthew 16:1–4: 1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. Luke 11:29–30: 29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.

[19] Romans 10:14–15. Paul is quoting Isaiah 52:7: How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”

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