THE MERCY OF GOD
John 4:2. I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
IN the parable of the Prodigal Son, we read of as hateful a character as can well be imagined: it is that of the elder brother, who, instead of uniting with his family in rejoicing over the recovery of the younger brother from his evil ways, took occasion, from his father’s parental tenderness, to reproach him for partiality and unkindness; since, having “never rewarded his obedience with so much as a kid, he had killed for his prodigal and licentious brother the fatted calf [Note: Luke 15:29-30.];.” But a far worse character is portrayed in the history before us. Indeed, it is scarcely credible, that any person of common humanity, and still less that a good man, should be capable of acting as Jonah did; even reproaching God to his face for the exercise of his mercy towards a repenting people, and making his very anticipation of that mercy a ground and an excuse for his own wilful disobedience. But, beyond all doubt, the history of Jonah records a literal fact, without any exaggeration or poetical embellishment: he did, as he informs us, “know God to be a merciful God;” and he did make that very mercy a ground of wrathful indignation, and of acrimonious complaint.
The acknowledgment here made, will lead me to set before you the mercy of God,
I. As delineated by Jonah—
Jonah “knew” God to be a merciful God. He knew it,
1. From the description which God himself had given of his own character—
[In answer to the prayer of Moses, God had made his glory to pass before him; and had proclaimed his name, as “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty [Note: Exodus 34:6-7.];.” Here, for one single expression relating to his justice, there is a vast accumulation of rich and diversified terms to convey to our minds a just idea of his mercy; all shewing, that “judgment is a strange act,” to which he is utterly averse; but that mercy is the attribute, in the exercise of which is all his delight [Note: Isaiah 28:21.Micah 7:18.];.]
2. From the marvellous display which had been made of it, throughout the whole of his dealings with his people in all ages—
[Scarcely had the people been brought out of Egypt, before they made a golden calf, and worshipped it as the author of their deliverance. This greatly incensed God; and determined him to cut them off, and to raise up to himself another people from his servant Moses: but, at the intercession of Moses, he forgave them, and “repented of the evil which he had thought to do unto them [Note: Exodus 32:9-14.];.” So, throughout all their stay in the wilderness, and in all their rebellions after their establishment in Canaan, he manifested the same compassion towards them; as David informs us: “Many times did he deliver them: but they provoked him with their counsels, and were brought low for their iniquity. Nevertheless, he regarded their affliction when he heard their cry: and he remembered for them his covenant, and repented according to the multitude of his tender mercies [Note: Psalms 106:43-45.];”
Well, therefore, might Jonah say, “He knew God to be a merciful God;” the very existence of his nation, after such long-continued and aggravated offences, being an ample proof of it.]
But my chief object is, to open to you the mercy of God,
As illustrated in the history before us—
1. In the preservation of Jonah himself—
[God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, and to proclaim to them his determination to destroy the inhabitants thereof for their iniquities; and to inform them, at the same time, that the judgment should be executed within the short space of forty days. Jonah, averse to execute the commission, fled from the presence of the Lord, and took ship, in order to go to Tarshish [Note: John 1:3.];. Commentators have invented I know not how many apologies for Jonah: for instance, that he was actuated by a jealousy for the honour of his own nation: for Nineveh, being a city of Gentiles, he thought that the going to prophesy to them would be to transfer to them an honour due to Israel alone. Others suppose that he was impelled rather by fear; since, to deliver so awful a prophecy, could not but involve him in great danger. But the real ground of his disobedience was, that which he himself acknowledges: “He knew God to be a merciful God:” and he was afraid that the people would repent; and that God, on account of their repentance, would forbear to execute his threatened judgment upon them: and that thus he himself would, eventually, be made to appear a false prophet [Note: ver. 2.];.
Whilst he was going to Tarshish, he was overtaken with a storm, which reduced the ship to such extreme danger, that all the mariners betook themselves to prayer, as their only refuge. The thought occurring to their minds, that possibly the storm might have been sent as a punishment of some great offence, they drew lots, in order that they might find out the offender: and the lot falling upon Jonah, he confessed his sin, and counselled them to cast him overboard, as the only means of pacifying the offended Deity, and of saving their own lives. Thus did judgment overtake Jonah, precisely as it had overtaken Achan in the camp of Joshua: and, like Achan, he might well have been summoned into the presence of his God. But, lo! God had prepared a great fish to swallow him up, not for his destruction, but preservation: for he preserved him alive three days and three nights in the fish’s belly; and caused the fish to carry him to the shore nearest to Nineveh, and to cast him on shore without any injury to his body; yea, and with unspeakable benefit accruing to his soul: nay, more; his offended God not only spared him thus, but made him in this way one of the most eminent types of Christ that ever existed in the world.
Now, if Jonah knew before that God was merciful, how fully must he have known it now! Here was a mercy so extraordinary in its kind, so blessed in its results, and so marvellous, as being vouchsafed to him in the midst of his most impious rebellion, that it may well be adduced as one of the most astonishing displays of mercy that have ever been vouchsafed to man from the foundation of the world.]
2. In the sparing of the whole city of Nineveh—
[The inhabitants of that immense city, the capital of the Assyrian empire, had filled up the measure of their iniquities [Note: John 1:2.]. But, on the very first announcement of the impending judgments, they fasted and mourned, and cried mightily to God for mercy [Note: John 3:4-8.].—they had heard from Jonah nothing but the simple declaration, that in forty days the whole city should be overthrown. No hope of pardon had been held out to them; no idea had been suggested, that penitence, however deep or universal, would be of any avail: but they said, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not [Note: John 3:9.]?” And upon this mere presumption they ventured to cry for mercy. And, behold, how graciously God listened to their prayers! No sooner did he see them turning from their evil ways, than he “repented of the evil that he said he would do unto them; and he did it not [Note: John 3:10.].” This was the very issue that Jonah had anticipated. And what an encouragement does it afford to every living man, to humble himself for his iniquities, and to implore mercy at the hands of this gracious God!
But that to which I desire chiefly to direct your attention, is God’s mercy,]
3. In the enduring with such inconceivable forbearance the expostulations and remonstrances of this impious man—
[This act of mercy towards Nineveh, so far from exciting joy and gratitude in the bosom of Jonah, filled him only with wrath; yea, with such ungovernable wrath, that he broke forth into reproaches against God himself, on account of it. Whilst he was in the whale’s belly, he had repented; but now all his repentance had vanished, and he even vindicated before God the rebellion of which he had been guilty: and pleaded his anticipation of this very event, as a justification of it: “I pray thee, Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish.” He even went further, and “prayed to God to take away his life;” for that, since he must appear to that people as a false prophet, “it were better for him to die than to live [Note: ver. 3.].” How astonishing was it, that God did not strike him dead upon the spot! All the mercy that had been vouchsafed to himself, Jonah had quite forgotten. It was nothing now that he had been preserved alive in the belly of the whale, and been cast uninjured upon the dry land: no, his honour was assailed; and every consideration of gratitude for his own mercies, and of compassion for above a million of souls that had been spared, was swallowed up in the apprehension that he should suffer in his credit, by reason of the revocation of God’s threatened judgments. And behold how God deals with this daring transgressor! He calmly asks him, “Dost thou well to be angry [Note: ver. 4.]?” And when the sullen rebel goes out of the city, and sits down in earnest hope that he shall see the whole city destroyed, God takes yet further means to convince him that his anger was unreasonable, and his complaint unmerited. Truly, Jonah, thou hast given occasion for such a display of God’s mercy as thou thyself couldst not previously have conceived to be within the reach of possibility, or to be consistent with the other perfections of the Deity!]
O, Brethren, let us see in this history,
What monuments of mercy we ourselves are—
[Who amongst us has not rebelled against the commands of God; and betaken himself to any place, any company, any employment, rather than fulfil the duties to which he was averse? Who amongst us has not betrayed a sad indifference to the welfare of his fellow-creatures; seeking his own ease, his own interest, his own honour, when he should have been labouring rather for the salvation of those to whom he might have gained access for their good? And who has not grievously overlooked, or with base ingratitude forgotten, the deliverances that have been vouchsafed to him, even from diseases or accidents that have been fatal to others, and that might have had a fatal issue with him also? Aye, who has not been unmindful even of that wonderful redemption which God has vouchsafed to us, through the death and resurrection of his only dear Son? — — — I may add, too, who amongst us, when crossed in any particular object that has affected his interest, and especially his honour, has not been so vexed, as to murmur, if not directly against God, yet indirectly, being irritated against those who were the means and instruments which he employed in the dispensation that we complained of? Possibly, under some grievous trial, where our pride has been wounded, we have even wished ourselves dead, when, alas! we were far from being in a state to appear before God. Yet, notwithstanding all our provocations, here we are still on mercy’s ground, when we might well have been made monuments of God’s righteous displeasure! Truly, then, we may say to God, “I know that thou art a gracious God, and merciful; yea, I am myself a living witness that thou art slow to anger, and repentest thee of the evil.” Yes, my dear brethren, flagrant beyond conception as was the impiety of Jonah, we, methinks, are not the persons to throw a stone at him; every one of us having indulged too much of the same spirit as he, and trodden too much in his steps. We should rather take occasion, from what we have seen in him, to humble ourselves before God; and, from the mercies vouchsafed to him, to adore our God for the mercies vouchsafed unto ourselves.]
2. What encouragement we have to return unto our God—
[If there were a mere peradventure only that we might obtain mercy from God, that alone were a sufficient encouragement to humble ourselves before God. So the Prophet Joel, using the very words of my text, informs us [Note: Joel 2:12-14. Cite the words.]. Are there, then, amongst us those who are altogether ignorant of God, like the devoted Ninevites? I say, Humble yourselves before God, and you shall find mercy at his hands, especially if you seek it in the name of his only dear Son Jesus Christ — — — Or is there any professor of godliness, who, like the Prophet Jonah, has given way to sin, and grievously dishonoured his holy profession? To such an one would I say, Abase yourself before God in dust and ashes. We are not, indeed, told that Jonah repented, and was forgiven; but we have reason to hope that this was the case, from his being called “the servant of God [Note: 2 Kings 14:25.]:” and if he was forgiven, who has any reason to despair? Me-thinks I see one even in as vile a spirit as he; and yet I hear God addressing him in these tender terms: “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee up, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? Mine heart is turned within me: my repentings are kindled together: I will not execute upon thee the fierceness of mine anger [Note: Hosea 11:8-9.].” Indeed, indeed, Brethren, it will be your own fault, if any of you perish. “God willeth not the death of any sinner; but that he turn from his wickedness and live.” I beseech you all, therefore, whatever guilt you may have contracted, never to flee from God in despondency, but to go to him, in an assured hope that he is still as gracious as ever; and that, how abundant soever have been his mercies in the days of old, they shall be renewed to you the very instant that you cry to him in the name of Jesus, who “was delivered unto death for your offences, and rose again for your justification.”]
John 4:5-9. So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm, when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
WHETHER we look into the sacred volume or to the world around us, we are almost at a loss to say which is the greater, the depravity of man, or the tender mercy of our God — — — In the brief history which we have of the Prophet Jonah, they are both exhibited to our view in the most striking colours. Had Jonah been a professed heathen, we should have wondered less at his impiety: but being an Israelite, yea, a prophet too of the Most High God, and, we would fondly hope, a good man upon the whole, we are amazed at the very extraordinary wickedness which he manifested, and no less at the astonishing forbearance exercised by Almighty God towards him. In the former part of his history we have an account of his declining to execute the commission which God had given him to preach to the Ninevites, and, notwithstanding that rebellious conduct, his preservation in the belly of a fish. In the passage which we have now read, we see his perverseness carried to an extent that seems absolutely incredible, and God’s condescension to him keeping pace with his enormities. It relates his conduct in reference to a gourd which God had caused to spring up over him, and which withered within a few hours after it had comforted him with its refreshing shade. That we may place the matter in a clear point of view, we shall notice,
I. His inordinate joy at the acquisition of the gourd—
He was at this time in a most deplorable state of mind—
[He had preached to the Ninevites, and his word had been attended with such power, that the whole city repented, and turned to the Lord with weeping and with mourning and with fasting. This, instead of exciting gratitude in the heart of Jonah, filled him only with rage; because he thought that God, in consideration of their penitence, would shew mercy to them, and that, in consequence of the judgments with which he had threatened them not being executed upon them, he himself should appear an impostor. It was of small importance that there were above a million of souls in the city: the destruction of them was of no moment in his eyes, in comparison of his own honour: he hoped therefore that God would at least inflict some signal judgment upon them, sufficient to attest the truth of his menaces, and to support his credit as a true prophet. With the hope of seeing his wishes realized, he made a booth on the outside of the city, and “sat there to see what would become of the city.”]
Then it was that God caused a gourd to spring up suddenly, and cover the booth—
[What amazing condescension! How much rather might we have expected that God would have sent a lion to destroy him, as he had before done to a disobedient prophet! But instead of visiting his iniquity as it deserved, God consulted only his comfort; yes, this very man, who was so “exceedingly displeased with God’s mercy to the Ninevites, that he could not endure his life, and begged of God to strike him dead; this very man, I say, was such an object of God’s attention, as to have a gourd raised up over his head “to deliver him from his grief.” It should seem as if there was a contest between God and him; he striving to exhaust the patience of Jehovah, and Jehovah striving to overcome by love the obstinacy and obduracy of his heart.]
In the acquisition of this gourd Jonah exceedingly rejoiced—
[Had we been told that he was exceedingly thankful to his God, we should have been ready to applaud his gratitude: but he saw not God’s hand in the mercy vouchsafed to him: it was his own comfort only that he cared about: and in the gift alone did he rejoice, forgetful of the Giver. The idea of a million of souls being saved from perishing in their sins gave him no pleasure: but the being more effectually screened from the heat of the sun himself, made him “exceeding glad.” Had his mind been at all in a right state, his own comfort and convenience would have been swallowed up in thankfulness, for the preservation of so many souls, and for having been made the honoured instrument of their deliverance: but love for ourselves, and indifference about others, always bear a proportion to each other in the mind of man: and their connexion with each other was never more strongly seen than on this occasion.]
His inordinate joy at the acquisition of the gourd was more than equalled by,
His intemperate sorrow at the loss of it—
God, seeing the ingratitude of Jonah, withdrew the gift soon after it had been been bestowed—
[He prepared a worm, which smote the gourd, so that it withered as suddenly as it had grown up. And where is there any gourd without a worm at the root of it? Our comforts may continue for a longer season than Jonah’s; but there is in every creature-comfort a tendency to decay; and our most sanguine expectations are usually followed by the most bitter disappointments. Indeed God has wisely and graciously ordained, that abiding happiness shall not be found in any thing but Him alone: and the withdrawment of this comfort was in reality a greater blessing than its continuance would have been; since the gourd could only impart a transient comfort to his body; whereas the removal of it tended to humble and improve his soul.]
But the impatient spirit of Jonah only raged and complained the more—
[As soon as the heat became oppressive to him, Jonah renewed his former wish for death; and, when reproved by God for his impiety, he vindicated himself in the very presence of his God, and declared, that “he did well to be angry, even unto death.” Who would conceive that such impiety as this should exist in the heart of any man, but especially of one who had received such signal mercies as he, and been so honoured as an instrument of good to others? But hereby God did indeed shew, that the excellency of the power was of him alone, and that he can work by whomsoever he will. It seems strange too, that, when God appealed to his conscience, an enlightened man could possibly be so blinded by passion as to give judgment in his own favour in such a case. But man has neither reason nor conscience, when biassed by his own lusts: and his very appeals to God can be little more depended on than the testimony of a man who is deliberately deceitful. But this we may observe in general, that the more there is of unhallowed boldness in any man’s confidence, the more it is to be suspected; and the more ready he is to wish himself dead, the more unfit he is for death and judgment.]
Thus far our attention has been almost exclusively turned to Jonah: but. that we may bring the matter home more directly to our own business and bosoms. we would suggest a reflection or two. arising out of the subject:
What selfishness is there in the heart of man!
[One would be ready to account this record a libel upon human nature. if we did not know assuredly that it is a true history. without any exaggeration or mistake. It appears incredible. that such inhumanity should exist in the heart of man. as that he should wish for the destruction of a million of souls. only that his own word might be verified; and that he should be so vexed by his disappointment. as to wish for death and pray to God to terminate his life. Nor would one conceive it possible that a temporary inconvenience. which had in fact originated solely in his own absurd and impious conduct. should so irritate and inflame his mind. as to make him insult. to his very face. his almighty and all-gracious Reprover. But we know little of ourselves. if we do not recognize much of our own character in that of Jonah. We have had reported to us. time after time. the calamities of others and have felt no more than if the most trifling occurrences had been related: or if we have felt at all. it has been only for a moment and the tale has soon become as if it had passed before the flood. But. on the other hand. if any thing has arisen to thwart our own interests or inclinations. though it has been of less consequence than Jonah’s gourd. we have laid it to heart and been so irritated or grieved by it. that our very sleep has gone from us. Particularly if any thing has occurred that was likely to lower our reputation in the world. how keenly have we felt it. so as almost to be weary even of life! Or if any thing wherein we promised ourselves much happiness have been withdrawn from us. as wife or child. how little have we been able to say. “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” Alas! we have more resembled Jonah. than Job: our every thought has been swallowed up in self: and neither God nor man have been regarded by us. any farther than they might subserve our selfish and carnal ends. Let us then in Jonah see our own character as in a glass and let this view of it humble us in the dust.]
2. What mercy is there in the heart of God!—
[This is the improvement which God himself makes of the subject. Jonah had complained of God for exercising mercy towards the repentant Ninevites; and God vindicates himself against the accusations of Jonah. In doing this. he touches with exquisite tenderness the sin of Jonah; and represents him not as actuated by selfishness and impiety, but as merely “having pity on the gourd.” What a beautiful example does this afford us, who ought to extenuate, rather than to aggravate, the faults of our bitterest enemies! His argument on the occasion is this: ‘If you have had pity on a poor worthless gourd, for which you never laboured, and in which you have only a slight and transient interest, how much more am I justified in having pity on a million of the human race, (six-score thousand of whom have never done good or evil,) and on multitudes of cattle also, which must have been involved in any calamity inflicted on that large city!’ This argument is similar to one used in the Epistle to the Hebrews [Note: Chap. 9:13, 14.], and says in effect, ‘If you were right in pitying a thing of no value, how much more am I in sparing what is of more value than ten thousand worlds!’ This argument, especially as addressed to the self-justifying Jonah, was unanswerable: and the truth contained in it is consolatory to every child of man. God is a God of infinite mercy: he may, he will, spare all who truly repent. Whatever judgments he has denounced against sin and sinners, the execution of them depends solely on the sinners themselves: if they repent, sooner shall God cease to exist, than cease to exercise mercy towards them. Let this encourage transgressors of every class: let it encourage the abandoned to repent; and those who profess godliness to repent also: for all need this consoling truth, that “God willeth not the death of any sinner, but rather that he turn from his wickedness and live.” Know then, both from his dealings with the Ninevites, and his forbearance towards his perverse prophet, that He is abundant in goodness and truth, and that where sin has abounded, his grace shall much more abound.]