In the last few days, I have been unable to find the words to respond to the news spewing from Iraq. Jonah maybe has it.
It is not the first time in history that Nineveh has been the scene of atrocity and scandal. The prophet Jonah, his tomb said to have been destroyed just days ago, was sent to that great city. The word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
God’s sight was absolute: their deeds have come up before me.
God’s verdict was just: their deeds are evil.
God’s call to righteous Jonah was terrifying: Arise, go, call out against it.
Some find it comforting, in a world plunged into the darkness of sin and murder, to know there is a God who sees, who judges, and who will, on the great day, call out finally against the wicked.
So terrible was this knowledge, however, that Jonah rose and fled from the presence of the Lord. Instead of heading north and east, he headed to the coast, to sail away into the West – abandoning his mission. Some suggest he feared the people of Nineveh would repent, be spared, and still crush his homeland in Israel. I think he just feared.
It is a fearful, terrible, thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:31)
The reality of God’s judgement is the most terrible message to bear, and ministers of the word can never carry it flippantly, and without tears.
“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
But tonight, I find myself preparing to preach from Psalm 36. These words have echoed in my ears all week, as we learned them at our Holiday Club:
Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O LORD.
They are words strangely like the end of Jonah’s story. He had gone to that great city. He had called out against it. And they repented! Judgement didn’t fall from the skies, like angels bearing death on fire-tipped wings. Jonah was deeply unhappy. But in this disappointment, God spoke to Jonah a second time:
“Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
The pivotal verse of Jonah is at the end of chapter two. Jonah, repentant, in the belly of a huge fish, had remembered, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” Salvation for failed preachers like Jonah. Salvation for the brutal, murderous people of Nineveh.
“Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
I can’t humanly reconcile the crying demands of judgement, with these incredible words. I certainly don’t know if justice and mercy can meet in Nineveh at this time. If my heart were laid open, I don’t even know if I want it to… so little do I grasp the words of Hebrews 10.
But I know somewhere God did bring justice and mercy together. At the cross, the guilt, the shame, of all the great evil was fully and finally punished in Jesus, in a cry to utter anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The last drop of sin-earned wrath was poured out. And salvation flowed like rivers.
I don’t know about Nineveh tonight. I desperately hope someone will arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before God. Will death fall on fire-tipped wings, bringing ruin to these men?
But I do know about my God. Salvation belongs to him. And I long to sing Psalm 36 – of the vast, incredible love of God.