As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (Luke 11:29-30 NASB)
Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (Jonah 4:11 NASB)
Much to my surprise, we are not through with Jonah after all.
The story of Jonah begins with the compassion of God. I generally forget that. Because the book opens with Jonah on the run, in wide-open rebellion, I tend to think the story begins with Jonah. It does not. Jonah's story, like all our stories, begins with the love and compassion of Almighty God.
Nineveh was a city of 120,000 people who were lost. They did not know God and they didn't care that they didn't know Him. What we easily forget is that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and occupied the "Assyrian Triangle" made up by what is now Syria, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and southeastern Turkey. The people were fierce warriors and were busy conquering the world.
Fifty years after God sent Jonah to Nineveh, Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel and took them captive. What Israel had no way of knowing was that God had already gone ahead of them to temper their judgment with mercy.
God had taken note of the spiritual condition of Nineveh and knew (being omnipotent) that He would judge Israel for their apostasy. They would soon be in the hands of the godless people of Nineveh. The best way to protect His people was to go ahead of them and draw their captors to Himself.
Jonah went to Nineveh, preached an eight word sermon, and everyone in that city turned to God. Fifty years later, when Israel was taken into captivity, they went to a country that already knew something of God. There were converts there. Not all of the 120,000 had persevered with their new faith, but some of them had. Even after fifty years, there were still some living who had seen Jonah, who had experienced the great awakening. Faith in God had almost certainly had an impact on the people of Nineveh and the way they treated their captives.
Jonah hated Assyria and Nineveh, its capital. He knew they were a cruel, wicked people. He did not want to go to them, and did not want them to repent. He would have denied the people of Nineveh the chance to know God. What Jonah couldn't know was that, in denying the people of Nineveh the chance to know God, he was also denying his own people the chance to find mercy in the midst of judgment.
Had Jonah known what God was doing, he'd have rushed to obey.
Today, there are modern day Assyrians waging war on the world and seeking to gain control of all the territory they can conquer. They are known as ISIS and are based in Syria and northern Iraq (part of the original Assyrian territory). Their capital is Mosul, Iraq, built on the ruins of ancient Nineveh. They are not figurative Assyrians. It is not a figurative Nineveh. They are literal Assyrians. It is a literal Nineveh.
There is a great temptation to view the warriors of ISIS in the same way that Jonah viewed Nineveh, with contempt. God, however, must look at those warriors in the same way that He looked at the people of Nineveh all those centuries ago, with compassion. He longs to bring them to Himself. What if repentance and faith were to come to Mosul, just as it did to its predecessor, Nineveh?
Jesus spoke about our response to our enemies. We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:33), including our modern-day Assyrians, ISIS, and our modern-day Nineveh, Mosul. What, then, should our response be to the terrorists of our day? Our heart should be filled with the same compassion as God's toward the people there. We must relinquish our prejudice toward ISIS and pray with fervor for God to move in the hearts of the people of Mosul and those vicious Assyrians of ISIS, for we do not know what contact we will have with them down the road.
Had Jonah known what the future held, he might have been eager for Nineveh to repent. Let it not be said of us, years from now, that if we had only known what would happen with ISIS, we would have prayed.
May we view those who are our enemies with the eyes and heart of God, and may it change us so that He can change them.