In reading the story of Jonah in the Bible I was struck by the peculiar emphasis given to God’s compassion toward the city of Nineveh. At a time when the prophets were preaching woe and exile in Israel, Nineveh was being shown the gentler side of God. Five of the six Old Testament words for compassion are found here.
He prayed to the LORD, “…I knew that you are a gracious [Ps 116:5] and compassionate [Ps 145:8] God, slow to anger and abounding in love, [Ps 51:1] a God who relents [Ps 119:76] from sending calamity. …
God”s response: And should I not have concern [Ps 72:13 grieved] for the great city of Nineveh…? Jonah 4:2, 11
If my reader is waiting for a profound explanation (in 800 words!) they expect too much; for, these words expose the heart of God in dealing with His creation. And how do we fathom this depth!? It has been noted that trying to define God’s grace is like marking out the boundaries of a lake only to discover that we have come to the immeasurable sea.
- We know that grace, according to the Apostle Paul, is undeserved favor: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. [Ephesians 2:8].
- We know it is unending: in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace. expressed in his kindness to us [Ephesians 2:7].
(Toward sin, He went to war [Colossians 2:15] but toward us He shows His gentler side.)
- We also know it is relational, something harder to explain since we live in the age of consumerism where gifts are ‘things:’ blessings, healings, financial miracles. In contrast, the gift of God is ultimately nothing more nor less than the Gift of God HIMSELF. [John 3:16]
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us [Romans 5:8]. The whole idea of God’s compassion toward us—which we accept through repentance—is built grammatically on the idea of something called the “passive.” In English, the passive idea means: accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance. In other words, whatever happens to us is in no way because of us. The Classical Hebrew language and Old Testament theology do not represent this idea clearly. [Job 34:11; Matthew 16:27; John 9:2] One Hebrew scholar, Gesenius, teaches that grace in Ancient Israel comes to mean a passive idea “in consequence of a looseness of thought.” [Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford, England:Oxford at the Clarendon Press. 1909), 137.]
The Old Testament word for “grace” does not have the New Testament emphasis for the same word, requiring the prophets to replace it with the word Mercy. A study of this word shows that it refers only to God. The New Testament word for “compassion” likewise only refers to Christ and His church. The Word for “love” [agape] is new to Scripture and is descriptive of who God is according to the Apostle John [I John 4:8]. 2 Timothy 1:9 would sound confusing in Old Israel: For God saved us … not because we deserved it, but … to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.
So what about Nineveh? Jonah understood. He was depressed because as he said, “I knew it! They repent and you, God, go to mush and forgive them! And they are our enemy! … Leave me alone to die!!”
I come from ‘Nineveh’—and so do you (If you are not Jewish)!
Jonah was invited to participate in God’s grief [our word; concern], to have a glimpse of God’s great heart of compassion and love. Someday the Apostle Paul would declare this truth as mysterious as it was glorious, when Jesus, God’s Son, would be “…preached among the nations, … and believed on in the world…” [I Timothy 3:16]
Walter Brueggmann, an Old Testament scholar, spoke of “a revolutionary shift in God’s will,” “the language of amazement,” and “God’s radical freedom” to describe this moment to all Jonah’s who still do not get it, that God will show mercy on whomever He wants. [Exodus 33:19]
“When Jesus died on the cross the mercy of God did not become any greater. It could not become any greater, for it was already infinite. We get the odd notion that God is showing mercy because Jesus died. No–Jesus died because God is showing mercy. It was the mercy of God that gave us Calvary, not Calvary that gave us mercy. If God had not been merciful there would have been no incarnation, no babe in the manger, no man on a cross and no open tomb.” [A.W. Tozier The Attributes of God: A Journey Into the Father’s Heart]