How Joel Learned Grace from a Wicked King and a Wayward Prophet

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God repeatedly reveals Himself as “The LORD God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in goodness and TRUTH.” (Exodus 34:6, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Nehemiah 9:17)

Centuries later, right before the wicked city of Nineveh is to be destroyed, the Ninevite king and his people repent of their sin and cry out, “Who can tell if God will turn and RELENT, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8)

God does relent and forgives their sins… which makes Jonah quite angry. He screams at God, and then quotes Exodus 34 back to Him… almost:

“You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in goodness, ONE WHO RELENTS FROM DOING HARM.” (Jonah 4:2)

Notice the change? In Jonah’s eyes, God does not abound in truth. For the truthful thing, according to Jonah, would have been to destroy the wicked city whose sins had rightfully earned them their deserved destruction. It’s no coincidence that we are introduced to Jonah as “Jonah the son of Amattai”—the son of MY TRUTH. Jonah’s truth was that justice and mercy couldn’t go hand-in-hand, and as such God’s willingness to relent and forgive contradicted His claim of abundant truth.

If we’re not careful, many of us will end up viewing the world like Jonah: Angry that wicked people aren’t getting what we think they deserve, mad that God isn’t doling out our version of justice, unwilling to forgive those who have harmed those we care about.

Or we can take another path: The path of Joel, who quoted from Jonah a few centuries later. Joel, too, misquoted Exodus’ description of God—or rather, directly quoted Jonah’s altered description:

“Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in goodness, and ONE WHO RELENTS FROM DOING HARM.” (Joel 2:13)

But whereas Jonah was angry that God didn’t dole out the justice the wicked truthfully deserved, Joel is crying out that God would instead overlook His own people’s true wickedness and give them mercy instead. In his desperation for God’s people to return to the LORD, Joel even goes so far as to quote the wicked king of Nineveh:

“Who knows if He will turn and RELENT, and leave a blessing behind Him.” (Joel 2:14)

As the world seems to get more and more wicked, let’s approach others with the heart of Joel rather than Jonah. Let’s pray that they would repent and return to the LORD, rather than that God would strike down our enemies with fire and brimstone.

Whereas Jonah was blind to his own wickedness and desired vengeance on the wicked, Joel was well aware of the sins of Israel, and prayed that the people would repent and that God would relent.

As the world seems to get more and more wicked, let’s approach others with the heart of Joel rather than Jonah. Let’s pray that they would repent and return to the LORD, rather than that God would strike down our enemies with fire and brimstone.

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