If God’s holiness is a 300 foot high tidal wave curling over to crush sinners, then His compassion is a divine hand stretched out to save them from eternal drowning. God’s compassion is His warm, merciful love. His compassion is the ocean of pity resident in His heart that moves Him to love the loveless, to comfort the sorrowful, and to forgive the sinful. The book of Jonah has God’s compassion as a dominant theme.
The Hebrew word for compassion (rachum) is taken from the root word which means womb. God’s compassion can be defined as his womb-like love. In the womb a baby experiences warmth, safety and enfolding love. The child is nurtured and given what is good for them. They are carried until they are strong enough to come out of the womb. The Hebrew word for compassion is found in Deuteronomy 4:31 for the LORD your God is a merciful God. In Exodus 34 on Mt Sinai the Lord appeared to Moses in a cloud and declared; the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. In the NT the Greek word for compassion is translated as “bowels of mercy” (Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Colossians 3:12). The idea of being moved in your stomach is a powerful image indeed.
In Jonah 1:2 God summonsed Jonah to go to preach to Nineveh. This would have shocked Jonah. Assyria was the cruelest and most violent empire of ancient times. After they captured their enemies, they would often cut off their legs and one arm so that they could shake the victims, other hand while he died. They forced family members to parade with the decapitated heads of their loved one on a pole. They would stretch out captives and flay them alive and display their skins on the city walls. Jonah was called to invite these people to repent. Initially Jonah refuses the Lord’s commission but a few days in the belly of a big fish brought him to his senses! In Jonah 3:4 we read the substance of Jonah’s sermon. Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned. The response was a large-scale repentance. In Jonah 4, the prophet sat outside the city walls and sulked. In vrs 2 he prayed, 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 (rachum) God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. The Lord responded by allowing a plant to grow to provide Jonah with some needed shade. Jonah was happy for the plant (this is the only time that Jonah is happy in the entire book!!). The next morning the Lord provided a worm which chewed the vine. Jonah’s angry response is recorded in vrs 8, it would be better for me to die than to live. What was God teaching His rebellious servant? He was forcing him to face up to his sin sick prejudiced heart. Jonah was more concerned with a vine than people. He was angry that a vine was removed but was cheerfully prepared to consign the Ninevites to hell. In vrs 10 the Lord summarised the lesson. You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 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?”
Jonah needed to learn what the psalmist declared in Psalm 103:8 the LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. God is like a water balloon: the pin of human repentance always bursts Him. When sinners repent, warm compassion explodes out of God’s heart and He drenches repentant sinners with forgiving grace. Jonah was confronted that day by the God of compassion, the God of womb-like love.