If reading that title made you uncomfortable, join the club. It left a bitter taste in my mouth too. If the thought of praying for the folks that committed these cowardly acts is offensive to you, it’s offensive to me too. But if you’ve read this blog for very long, you probably know that this is headed in another direction. And if you’ve ever read this blog, you know that direction is… the gospel. The gospel is bigger than politics. It’s bigger than nationalities. It’s even bigger than any actions the bad guys could commit. “All men, everywhere” is big. Big enough to be uncomfortable. Here’s a favorite “Bible Story” you’ve probably heard a hundred times. But I think you might be surprised at how it ties into the events over the last few days. Jonah. Wait, Jonah? And the whale? How on EARTH does that have anything to do with praying for the terrorists? These animals just beheaded 21 men, in the most cowardly way, and you’re going to give me some stupid kids story about “Who did, who did, who did swallow Jo-Jo-Jonah?!?!?” You probably know how Jonah begins; God commands Jonah to go to, where? Nineveh! But Jonah resists, and tries to run from God. We know that he boards a ship in Joppa and heads for Tarshish. (Which is over 2,500 MILES away). In those days, that was really heading for the hills. To say he was running away would be an understatement. (OK, so what does this have to do with terrorists?) Well, everything. The actual story recorded in scripture is quite a bit darker than the picture above: Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. And the Assyrian cruelty surpassed anything we have seen from the terrorists; Prisoners were skinned alive, and buried in the sand. If the Assyrians came calling on your city, they would commit unthinkable atrocities; beheading people, gouging their eyes out, ripping their tongues out, impaling men on poles while they were still alive. Burning children in piles. Unimaginable. Scripture records Nineveh as “the bloody city” (Nahum 3:1) for good reason! Cities would hear that the Assyrians were marching toward them and, understandably, they would be in complete panic. They would beg for mercy, or in some cases commit mass-suicide, seeing it as preferable to the horrors of the Assyrians. In one case when a city resisted as long as possible instead of immediately submitting, Ashurnasirpal proudly records his punishment:
“I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me [and] draped their skins over the pile [of corpses]; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile … I flayed many right through my land [and] draped their skins over the walls.”
“I cut off the heads of their fighters [and] built [therewith] a tower before their city. I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls.”
A description of another conquest is even worse:
“In strife and conflict I besieged [and] conquered the city. I felled 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword … I captured many troops alive: I cut off of some their arms [and] hands; I cut off of others their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city.”
The Assyrian “palace without rival” in Nineveh had, literally, miles of stone walls carved with depictions of their terror. In one, we see an Assyrian soldier grasping the hand and arm of a captured enemy whose other hand and both feet have already been cut off. Dismembered hands and feet fly through the scene. Severed enemy heads hang from the conquered city’s walls. Another captive is impaled on a stake, his hands and feet already having been cut off. In another detail, we see three stakes, each driven through eight severed heads, set up outside the conquered city. A third detail shows a row of impaled captives lined up on stakes set up on a hill outside the captured city. In an inscription from Shalmaneser III’s father, Ashurnasirpal II, the latter tells us,
“I captured soldiers alive [and] erected [them] on stakes before their cities.”
“I cut their throats like lambs. I cut off their precious lives (as one cuts) a string. Like the many waters of a storm, I made (the contents of) their gullets and entrails run down upon the wide earth. My prancing steeds harnessed for my riding, plunged into the streams of their blood as (into) a river. The wheels of my war chariot, which brings low the wicked and the evil, were bespattered with blood and filth. With the bodies of their warriors I filled the plain, like grass. (Their) testicles I cut off, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers.”
Get the picture? These guys were worse than anything in my lifetime. They certainly rivaled the Nazis. Please don’t misunderstand me here, i’m not saying that the terrorists aren’t evil. Far from it.
And now, back to Jonah, and to the part of the story you may have never heard as a kid…. why did Jonah run from God? Why didn’t he want to go to Nineveh? The obvious guess would be fear! But no…
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country?
That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
(Jonah 4:1-4 ESV)
Jonah ran, and didn’t want to call the men of Nineveh to repentance as God instructed because he knew that God would be merciful to them if they repented! Jonah knew about the Assyrians and their reputation. He didn’t want God to be merciful to them in their repentance. Jonah’s response? I knew it! Isn’t this what I said?!?!?
God’s response? “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)
Let’s read the rest of the account, in context:
Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And 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?”
(Jonah 4:5-11 ESV)
Ouch. Man, I really want the cowards who beheaded our Christian brothers to get what’s coming to them. Yeah, they’ve got it coming to them. Get ’em God!
“Do you do well to be angry?”
That’s the gospel. That’s gospel enough to be offensive. That’s gospel enough for me to get hate mail about. That’s gospel enough for crowds wanting God to exact revenge on their enemies to scream “Crucify him!” when Jesus came with the gospel to the people they hated.
Hmm. Let that one sink in.
I’m not saying that the terrorists are Assyria. I’m not saying God is going to turn their hearts to repent. But the gospel is big enough for even them, no matter how bitter that tastes in my mouth. It’s bigger than their sin. It’s bigger than the geo-political situation. It’s bigger than my anger, even if I want to do like Jonah and tell God they don’t deserve it. It’s big enough to turn the great persecutor of the church, Saul, into Paul. Jesus himself spoke of the men of Nineveh when he said:
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah (Luke 11:32 ESV)
Let the weight of that hit you. The men of Nineveh will stand with you in heaven. You’ve got more in common with the repentant Ninevite than the unrepentant American.
Thats uncomfortably big.
That’s gospel big.
Pray that those who committed these atrocities would repent and believe on Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.