The world was horrified in 2014 when the radical Islamic group ISIS (or ISIL) began releasing videos documenting the beheading of their captives. As ISIS gained control over territory in Syria and Iraq, the stories of their cruelty and torture grew even more horrific. Yazidi women were traded as sex slaves; Christians were tortured; Shiite Muslims were targeted for genocide.
In the ancient world, the Assyrians had a similar reputation for cruelty. In the annals of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian soldier recorded, “I captured many troops alive: I cut off some their arms [and] hands. I cut off of others their noses, ears [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads.” Knowing this historical background, we might understand Jonah’s resistance to preaching repentance to the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Condemnation, yes! But God’s relenting love?
Twice, God called Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach to the city (1:2; 3:2). In comparison to the prophetic ministries we’ve already seen (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah), Jonah was called to an extraordinary task. Of the four prophets we’ve already studied, three were called to preach repentance to God’s people. The fourth (Obadiah) preached to Edom, although he didn’t preach salvation so much as judgment. Jonah, however, was called to preach salvation to one of the ancient world’s most pagan cities—people who had perpetrated heinous crimes.
Jonah refused. He was not afraid of Ninevite retribution; he was afraid of God’s great compassion. He feared that God would relent from His anger toward the Ninevites, for such mercy would be in keeping with His character of generous love (see Jonah 4:1–3).
Although we might affirm God’s grace in theory, it practically becomes much harder in extreme cases. Can we truly want God to be merciful to a child molester, to the serially unfaithful spouse, to the terrorist? Who seems most undeserving of God’s grace? Pray for the person or nation, that they would repent, embrace Christ, and be forgiven.