Justice vs Revenge
The story of Jonah has always fascinated me. Not only are there fantastic/miraculous elements to his story, but we’re also given an inside scoop of the prophet’s inner battles, and much of God’s teaching is directed right at him! Of course, book of 4 short chapters has just as much to teach the 21st Century Gentile Christian as it has for the modern or ancient Jew.
The Lord gives Jonah a clear, evangelistic mission; to go and preach repentance to the Assyrians in Ninevah. Yet even after witnessing a wonderful, life-saving miracle on his behalf, and after repenting from the “depths” of despair, he still has so much to learn. In fact, Jonah witnesses one of the greatest revivals known to history, and it appears that he hates God for it! 3:10 “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. 4:1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.” The Hebrew for “angry” here is so emphatic, it’s closer to “he was so angry he felt sick”!
Just imagine if you were to preach to a city, so that every man, woman and child were to repent of their sins! Not only would you be overjoyed by it, but mostly likely you’d refer back to that with every future ministry endeavor! “If God could do THAT, then how can I not trust in Him HERE!?” So why is Jonah so angry? Because he sees himself (or his people) as a victim! The Assyrian empire was one of the most evil to ever be in existence, and some historians would put them at #1. They invented new forms of torture that are still being used today. They had taken much of the Israelites’ land…and Jonah knew through the prophecies of Amos and Hosea that they were going to come and punish Israel for their rebellion against God. So IF the Assyrians repent, it won’t be long before they will come after Israel…
You can imagine the inward struggle Jonah had. Jonah is angry with God because of what he sees as a massive collapse of justice. “God, this is the most evil empire in history, and you want me to preach to them so that they repent?? Jonah didn’t want them spared from God’s justice; he wanted them to face the full brunt of their crimes against humanity! And if we’re honest, we want to see the villains in every story to face pure justice, in fact, we usually want them to face the stiffest, most painful penalty possible –and that’s not pure justice; that’s revenge! We want an “eye for an eye”, and often a whole lot more!
We have often confused justice, for revenge! We often feel, that because of the hurt we have felt, we are justified in our vindictive response towards others, and hanging on to bitterness…but we’re not! At the same time, we think that forgiveness involves letting go of all justice, but that’s not true either. The better question is not IF we to pursue justice, but HOW. What is to be the motivation, for justice? The answer, of course, is Love…and only the kind described in 1 Corinthians 13 will “do justice”. But how?
How do we lovingly respond to the bitterness, anger, and disappointment? First of all, we must recognize that the fullness of God’s justice and wrath against our sin was fully due upon us, but God mercifully allowed for perfect justice to be placed fully upon His Son. The recognition that justice was accomplished, but mercy was directed to us, the least deserving, means that I can now take on the same mantle of love that was demonstrated towards me. SO that if racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence is ever directed towards me, I can return the same loving response that Jesus demonstrated towards me!
Forgiveness is often considered a negative thing, if we believe that justice should be poured out on the perpetrator. Because of Jonah’s hatred towards the Assyrians, he wanted there to be wrath on them instead of forgiveness. The amazing part of it all was that he rightly knew God’s attributes, even though the heart of it was yet to make an impact on him: “He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)
So God had a final lesson to teach Jonah about his selfishness and short-sightedness, “10 But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" In other words, look beyond your own creaturely comforts and learn to think of others ahead of yourself; namely, learn to love like God does! He DOES care about us!
The book of Jonah wonderfully ends in a question, “Shall I not be concerned…?” We don’t know exactly how the story ends with Jonah, such as if he gets his act together, but the question posed brings us, the audience into the story. How should I respond in Jonah’s place? Am I concerned about the great city near me that is largely lost without him? What is my attitude towards those who hate me? Can I learn to have compassion and love like God does?
Jesus speaks on the miracle of Jonah’s deliverance from the great fish, and allegorically points that to Himself. (Matthew 12:39-40) Ironically, it was the sign given to the wicked, hard heart! Jesus’ resurrection was to be the sign of God’s deliverance that will either condemn those who reject Him, or save those who see Him for who He is and put their trust in Him.