But the LORD said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”
History and Context:
Most of us know the basic story of Jonah. He was called by God, didn't want to obey so he ran, then God sent a storm, he had the ship crew throw him overboard, he was swallowed by a fish, he then repented, was spit up on land, and he went and did what God told him to do. That's usually where we stop in telling the story of Jonah, but we miss the entire point. Historians and theologians don't even know if the book of Jonah was meant to be literal or not, but what they do know is that there was an important message that the original writer was attempting to get across. To truly understand this message we must understand where Nineveh is. Nineveh was not a Israelite city, it was the Assyrian capital. The Assyrians had conquered and decimated the entire northern kingdom of Israel. As far as the Israelites were concerned, they were public enemy number one, and God tells Jonah to go and preach repentance.
This text is the very end of the book of Jonah. It is the final message, the entire point, and as I mentioned earlier, we miss it most of the time. After much reluctance, Jonah finally went and preached repentance to the people of Assyria, his enemies, and they repented. Often we share the story of Jonah as if the reason he didn't want to go was because he was afraid of their persecution. Actually the Bible makes it clear that he didn't want to go because he knew they would repent, and he knew that God would have mercy on them. Even after God has mercy on them Jonah says,
“Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” Jonah 4:2-3
Jonah was bitter against his enemies and desired to see their destruction. Then as he was sitting on the mountain, God caused a plant to grow and give him shade. The very next day, however, God took that plant away. Jonah was upset that the plant was gone and God responded with the verses above. Jonah was only upset about what affected him, he didn't care about the thousands of people in Nineveh.
The lesson to be learned here is that people are always important, no matter how bad they have been. Think about the person that has acted the worst against you? Would you truly be happy for them if they got saved and repented? Or would you prefer revenge? The natural human response seems to prefer revenge, but the Godly response prefers mercy. So the challenge is choose mercy. Even when it seems to go against everything in you, choose mercy. See people the way God sees them. This is how we will reach the world!
Lord, I want to see people like you see them, but it is sometimes difficult. Help me to see them with your eyes. Help me to think your thoughts. Help me to love like you love. In Jesus' name, Amen!