So, there was this pastor in Tennessee who was going through his mail on a Monday morning. Preachers always get a lot of ministry junk mail in addition to the normal kind everyone else gets. New curricula, new seminars, new conferences. Everyone needs help; everyone’s asking for money.
The Right-Wing Ministers Lobby sent a flyer with a picture of ISIS thugs holding an Iraqi man at gunpoint. They wanted more money to pressure the White House to “take action.”
The Compassionate Purse sent a postcard featuring a group of filthy, bedraggled women and children – Kurdish refugees, it said. Five dollars a month could buy three meals a day for one of them.
The Alaskan Tourism Bureau sent a pamphlet filled with photos of moose, waterfalls, and dogs pulling sleds across glaciers.
That night the preacher went home exhausted but deeply satisfied. Ministry is tough, but he had read all his staff reports. Yesterday’s attendance had set a six-month high, total giving was exceeding the budget’s projections, and their missions team had reported a successful launch service for their church plant in Argentina.
“Honey,” he said to his wife, “I think I’m going to take the rest of the week off and go fishing.”
“Why do you need the whole week?”
“Not the whole week. Just a couple of days. Ralph’s been wanting me to go with him out on the Gulf for a while now. Maybe bring home something big like a grouper. Or a snapper.”
The next day he and Ralph filled up the truck at the gas station for the eight-hour drive to Destin. The total came to a little over $150, including a tank of diesel, two bottles of Yoo-Hoo, and a bag of beef jerky. They started talking about politics first. If the President would do his job, Ralph said, then maybe the terrorists wouldn’t be wrecking the oil supply and driving prices up. The pastor nodded.
For the next eight hours, they talked about politics, fishing, trucks, hunting, football, the church’s new building program, and their kids.
The next day, the pastor waited on the boat while Ralph talked with a man in an orange hat. “What was that all about?” he asked later.
“Oh, every time I get down here I’ve got to sign another form. Something about us coming from out of state. Ever since 9/11 the Coast Guard’s been a little jumpy.”
They fished all day and caught three mackerel.
When he got home Friday evening, his wife asked him, “How was the trip?”
He kissed her forehead and said, “Had a great time.”
Sometimes You Go Overboard
Jonah did not have a great time. When God told him to go to Nineveh and preach the Gospel, he ran in the opposite direction. The Assyrians were enemies of his nation – his enemies. He knew it was impossible, but nothing would have pleased him more than had King Jeroboam II been able to take the proud Israelite army and crush the wicked Assyrians. Especially now that their economy was shrinking and their citizens were rioting.
Perhaps Jeroboam should attack. Or at least revolt.
If anything, the situation called for military intervention. Not mercy. And certainly not a missionary.
Jonah would have given his life if it meant Israel’s enemies destroyed. A quick death, though. Beheading. Impaling. Drowning even. But digestion…
Three days in a fish’s belly did the trick, and Jonah was on the road to preach perhaps the shortest sermon ever recorded: “In forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed.”
Amazing grace: the Ninevites – from the king to the peasant – repented of their violence and evil deeds in the mere hope that Jonah’s God would spare them.
Jonah emphatically wished that he would not. Though a whale might spit him into the streets of the city, no force on earth could give him compassion for it.
Not that Jonah lacked compassion! No, while waiting in vain for God to obliterate the heathen, Jonah watched a vine grow into a tree above his head – a gift from God to shade him from the hot, Middle Eastern sun. When a worm killed the tree and Jonah began to blister from the heat, he cried.
Then God stated the obvious: “You’ve had pity on a plant but don’t want me to take pity on a people. Why shouldn’t I have compassion on a city so large that it contains 120,000 souls who can’t tell between their right hand and their left?”
That’s a Lot of Kids
If we’re not careful, we’ll miss something important here. This is where God shows Jonah that he is a merciful God, who offers his grace to all mankind. The lesson? If we have truly received his grace, we should want to share it with others.
Especially the 120,000 who have never heard the Gospel.
And that’s what we’ll miss. We’ll miss the 120,000, the special objects of God’s compassion, because we don’t know who they are. And we think we do.
Historically, many – if not most – Bible readers have assumed that God is talking about children. After all, what kind of a person doesn’t know their right hand from their left? Kids, of course! (The mentally handicapped are usually included here, too.)
Only, that’s not what God actually said. In Jonah 4:11, he literally said that they don’t “know between,” their right hand and their left. This is a phrase that means to discern or to choose the best one. (see KJV, NKJV translations of this verse)
There’s more, too. The phrase “right hand and left” can refer in Scripture to moral choices, and in ancient literature relevant to Jonah’s time, the phrase could refer to “law and order” or “truth and justice.”
(If we wanted to go further, we could also dig up some archaeological evidence to show that while the ancient city of Nineveh indeed existed, it seems more likely that the total population was 120,000 than that there was a population large enough to have that many kids.)
It seems, then, that God is not referring to 120,000 biological children, but to 120,000 “spiritual minors” who were ignorant of God’s righteous law. This doesn’t mean that they were innocent or even morally ignorant (cf. Romans 2:14ff); it means that they had not enjoyed the spiritual advantages God’s people often take for granted. (The NLT says they were in “spiritual darkness.”)
They were – today they are – the unreached, the unchurched, the unloved. And as such, they are the special objects of God’s compassion. They are those for whom Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
For Whom Does God Care?
Let’s be clear.
God loves the world. John 3:16 cannot mean any less.
God loves his children. 1 John 3:1 cannot be any clearer.
But God has a special compassion for those who have never heard of his saving grace in Christ Jesus. Surely, every man, woman, and child has a conscience, a knowledge of the divine that must be pursued or rejected. No one is innocent, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God regardless of the available knowledge. Christians believe this. The Bible teaches this.
But it also teaches that God is continually reaching out to those who have no other opportunity to worship Jesus except that Christians leave where they are today and go to where the unreached are waiting. There even are people in the United States who could easily live their entire busy lives with no real opportunity to repent and believe in Christ.
And there are people overseas. Some of them are children. Some of them are terrorists. Some of them are both. Or neither.
God has compassion on all of them.
But Jesus did.
Read this blog post for ways that you can help my family and me reach the unchurched of the Pacific Northwest
(For scriptural and archaeological support for this post see Donald J. Wiseman, “Jonah’s Nineveh,” Tyndale Bulletin 30 (1979): 38-42. See also the relevant pages in Alexander (TOTC 26), Page (NAC 19b), and Allen (NICOT))