Mercy Overcomes

The Book of Jonah ends on a question for which two answers contend: God, through his delivering of the sailors from the storm, delivering of Jonah from the ocean, delivering of Jonah from the fish, delivering of Nineveh from doom, and even, to a certain degree, in His delivering of Jonah from the heat, says yes, mercy is good, and contending with God, Jonah hates and despises mercy (4:2-3, 8-9), some translations saying of God’s mercy to Nineveh, “. . . it was evil to Jonah” (4:1).

Jonah, the recipient of God’s mercy, would rather forgo the same to see Nineveh destroyed; Jonah, whom God saved from the ocean and from the belly of the fish, would prefer death over God’s mercy toward Nineveh. God responds to Jonah’s position with an interesting comparison: After providing relief for Jonah through a plant, God destroys the plant and turns up the heat on the titular prophet; the vexed Jonah, for the second of an eventual threefold declaration, wishes for death; upon further prodding, Jonah admits his fury at the loss of the plant; finally, God points out with a question Jonah’s inconsistency between his care for the plant and his disregard for an entire city full of “persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock” (4:11).

The answer seems clear: Mercy is good. The anti-mercy position of Jonah fails: Jonah wants to die when mercy is shown to Nineveh, and similarly wants to die when the mercy of the plant is withdrawn from him. In the end, Jonah accidentally admits that he wants mercy when he is upset about the plant, that he knows mercy is good. And if he is concerned for the plant, how can he then disregard the value of the city of Nineveh?

So much for Jonah’s position. God’s position, unsurprisingly, is a fair bit more consistent. Whereas Jonah seemed to place judgment over mercy, throughout the narrative God’s Judgment is restrained by His mercy.

In the first chapter, two examples of God’s judgment and mercy are immediate: God sends the storm in judgment of Jonah’s rebellion, and Jonah proclaims that the storm will abate only when he is thrown overboard. The judgment of the storm is overcome by God’s mercy when Jonah is thrown overboard and the sea is calmed, and Jonah’s judgment of being thrown into the sea is also constrained by mercy when God sends a fish to swallow Jonah. Chapter two deals with this mercy in more detail, Jonah praising God for God’s mercy. But as with the plant, chapter two concludes with an end to this mercy: Jonah is returned to land and is again commissioned to prophecy to Nineveh. Continuing into chapter three, God’s judgment again wanes in the light of His mercy as the city of Nineveh repents at the preaching of Jonah.

So, we return to chapter four, the final chapter, where Jonah and God come to a head. As mentioned before, God shows mercy to Jonah by providing a plant, yet here, it seems for a moment, that judgment overrules mercy as God subsequently prepares a worm to destroy the plant. Interestingly, God prepares the fish as He prepares the plant, and both are temporary shelters for Jonah. Has judgment won out over mercy in this case? No.

Though Jonah was saved from bad circumstances in both cases, neither the fish nor the plant could be permanent refuges; As Jonah was brought up from the lower decks to face the reality of the storm, as Jonah was forced from the fish unto dry land to complete God’s task, Jonah is exposed to the harsh weather to correct his maladjusted attitude towards God’s mercy; Jonah is exposed, and so exposes his own internal inconsistencies. Here, perhaps, a pattern may be detected: Not only does mercy overcome judgment, but judgment is the means by which mercy comes. So, is it mercy or judgment when the fish vomits Jonah? It seems an obvious boon to Jonah to be returned to land, and an obvious boon to Jonah to be corrected by God through the Judgment of the east wind: Mercy overcomes judgment not merely in that mercy excels judgment, but that judgment becomes a tool of mercy.

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