The Mercy of God as Found in the Old Testament
by Rich Deem


Jonah and God's Mercy

Most Christians know Jonah as the reluctant prophet who was swallowed by a whale in order for God to convince him to go to Nineveh. Atheists often get caught up in the whale part of the story, not realizing that the story reveals that the ancients believed that God was merciful, although, at time, they often wished He hadn't been.

Rich Deem

According to Richard Dawkins, Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."1 Absent from any of Dawkins' description of God is His mercy. People tend to think of the God of the Old Testament as cruel and unforgiving, whereas the God of the New Testament is seen as the God of mercy, who sent Jesus to atone for the sins of the world. The Old Testament prophets were always warning the people about the wrath of God should they stray from the path of righteousness. However, what is usually ignored by atheists is God's mercy for those who did repent of doing evil. Yes, God judged many people groups, but not before warning them.

Jonah and God's mercy?

For those of you who only remember the whale part of Jonah's story, here is a brief synopsis to get you a better background about Jonah. God called Jonah to travel to the city of Nineveh to warn them about their impending judgment, because of their wickedness.2 Jonah had different ideas, and attempted to flee from God by paying for passage on a foreign ship.3 However, God was not amused and sent a violent storm.4 The sailors were terrified and eventually figured out that Jonah was the cause of their endangerment, which he eventually admitted to them.5 Jonah was thrown overboard and God directed a great fish (or whale - the Hebrew is not that specific) to swallow Jonah and take him to the shore.6 Once expelled from the whale, Jonah decided to do what God had originally requested and travelled to Nineveh to preach repentance from their evil.7

A number of Christians assume Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh because they were known for their cruelty, and he feared for his life. However, the account gives a different reason why Jonah did not want to go. Jonah actually wanted God to judge the city of Nineveh and kill all their inhabitants. He was disappointed that the king and the people repented of their evil and were spared from God's judgment.8 In fact, Jonah was so angry with God that he asked God to kill him.9 After that conversation, Jonah left the city and sat outside of it hoping that God would still destroy the city.10 God caused a plant to grow overnight to give Jonah shade during his watch, but then caused the death of the plant the next day. Jonah was furious about the plant.11 God pointed out that Jonah's priorities were completely messed up, since he was more concerned about a plant that gave him shade than the fate of 120,000 souls in Nineveh:

Then the LORD said, "You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (Jonah 4:10-11)

So, it was clear to Jonah that God was merciful and He would reconsider His judgment of evil if the people repented.12 Since Jonah wanted no part in God's mercy, he tried to avoid following God's instructions to warn the people.

Did God warn others?

Atheists would like you to believe that the God of the Old Testament just randomly killed people for no good reason and without warning. It turns out that atheists often don't present the entire stories about God's judgment. For example, in the greatest story of judgment, God sent a flood to kill all humanity except Noah and his family. However, Noah preached to the people of the coming judgment during the 100 years he was building the ark.13 In another famous example, God destroyed the cites of Sodom and Gomorrah, because of their evil. In fact, all the men of Sodom (including both young and old) attempted to rape the two angels who came to warn Lot of the impending judgment.14 Although warned,15 the men attempted to harm Lot, but were prevented when the angels caused them all to become blind.16 In many lesser known stories, God warned the people prior to executing judgment. Some of these warnings were heeded17 and others not,18 with the expected consequences. God's own people were often recipients of God's judgment, when they refused to heed His warnings.19 Here is a short list from the writings of the prophets:

Prophet Warning to Result
Isaiah Judah Judgment


Judah Judgment
Lamentations Jerusalem Judgment
Ezekiel Jerusalem, Tyre, Egypt Captivity in Babylon
Hosea Israel Judgment
Joel Tyre, Sidon, Philistia Judgment
Amos Israel Judgment
Obadiah Edom Judgment
Jonah Nineveh Repentance
Micah Israel Judgment
Nahum Nineveh Judgment
Habakkuk Judah Judgment
Zephaniah Judah Judgment
Zechariah Tyre, and other cities Judgment

It is a well known principle that God regularly warned people of impending judgment and He personally indicated that He would relent if they changed their ways.12 So, the atheists' idea that God killed people without warning is false.

Does God kill the innocent?

Did God kill any innocent people along with the evil ones? In the two most famous examples of God's judgment discussed above, the text clearly says that all the people God killed were evil.20 When God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham asked God if He would destroy the cities if there were 50 righteous people in them.21 God said no. Then Abraham asked the same question if there were 45 righteous people. Every time he dropped the number and got the same answer. The fact is that God would not have destroyed those cities if there were any righteous people in them. The few righteous who were in those cities He warned ahead of time to get out.22 In another example, Abimelech, king of Gerar, took Abraham's wife because he lied saying that she was his sister.23 However, God prevented Abimelech from sleeping with her and warned him in a dream. Abimelech heeded God's warning and was spared from death.23 Eliphaz the Temanite, in his discussions with Job, acknowledged that God did not judge the innocent with the guilty, but that those who act sinfully will incur God's judgment.24 So, God does not destroy the righteous along with the evil.

Conclusion Top of page

In numerous instances, atheists cite the Old Testament for examples of where God killed "innocent" people. However, the texts show that the innocent are not judged, but only the guilty. In addition, virtually always, the guilty individuals were warned ahead of time about their sin. Jonah is often known as the reluctant prophet, although the reason for his hesitation was not due to the cruelty of Nineveh, but because he feared its people might repent and God might spare them. Jonah wanted God to kill all the people of Nineveh, but feared His mercy. So, Christians are not the only people who often seem to want to see God judge people for their evil, rather than praying for their reconciliation with God. Jonah reveals that God was known for His mercy even in Old Testament times. Even though God is merciful, His mercy extends only to those who heed His words of warning. There is no toleration for evil in God's kingdom, so those who insist on testing God's resolve toward sin will find themselves judged, and incarcerated in God's jail.

References Top of page

  1. Dawkins, R. 2008. The God Delusion, p. 31.
  2. The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me." (Jonah 1:1-2)
  3. But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD. (Jonah 1:3)
  4. The LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up. (Jonah 1:4)
  5. Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, "How could you do this?" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them. (Jonah 1:10)
  6. And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)
    Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. (Jonah 2:10)
  7. So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. (Jonah 3:3)
  8. When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, "Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity." (Jonah 3:10-4:2)
  9. "Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life." (Jonah 4:3)
  10. Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. (Jonah 4:5)
  11. Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live." But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die." (Jonah 4:6-9)
  12. "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it." (Jeremiah 18:7-10)
  13. if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; (2 Peter 2:5)
  14. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." (Genesis 19:4-5)
  15. Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing." (Genesis 19:6-7)
  16. "Get out of our way," they replied. And they said, "This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them." They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door. But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. (Genesis 19:9-11)
  17. "Say to the assembly, 'Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.'" Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. He warned the assembly, "Move back from the tents of these wicked men! Do not touch anything belonging to them, or you will be swept away because of all their sins." (Numbers 16:24-26)
  18. When the prophet who had brought him back from his journey heard of it, he said, "It is the man of God who defied the word of the LORD. The LORD has given him over to the lion, which has mauled him and killed him, as the word of the LORD had warned him." (1 Kings 13:26)
  19. The LORD warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: "Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your fathers to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets." (2 Kings 17:13)
    Therefore the LORD rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence. (2 Kings 17:20)

    "You warned them to return to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances, by which a man will live if he obeys them. Stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. (Nehemiah 9:29)
    "But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36-37)

    The LORD said to me, "Proclaim all these words in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem: 'Listen to the terms of this covenant and follow them. From the time I brought your forefathers up from Egypt until today, I warned them again and again, saying, "Obey me." But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts. So I brought on them all the curses of the covenant I had commanded them to follow but that they did not keep.'" (Jeremiah 11:6-8)

    "Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, 'This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.' (Jeremiah 18:11)
    Their land will be laid waste, an object of lasting scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will shake their heads. Like a wind from the east, I will scatter them before their enemies; I will show them my back and not my face in the day of their disaster." (Jeremiah 18:16-17)

  20. Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)
    Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." (Genesis 19:4-5)
  21. Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the LORD. Abraham came near and said, "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" So the LORD said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account." And Abraham replied, "Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, will You destroy the whole city because of five?" And He said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." He spoke to Him yet again and said, "Suppose forty are found there?" And He said, "I will not do it on account of the forty." Then he said, "Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak; suppose thirty are found there?" And He said, "I will not do it if I find thirty there." And he said, "Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord; suppose twenty are found there?" And He said, "I will not destroy it on account of the twenty." Then he said, "Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?" And He said, "I will not destroy it on account of the ten." As soon as He had finished speaking to Abraham the LORD departed, and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:22-33)
  22. When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, "Up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city." But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the LORD was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city. (Genesis 19:15-16)
  23. Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, "She is my sister." Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her. But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman." Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, "Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, 'She is my sister,' and didn't she also say, 'He is my brother'? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands." Then God said to him in the dream, "Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die." (Genesis 20:1-7)
  24. "Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? "According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity And those who sow trouble harvest it. (Job 4:7-8)
Last Modified July 5, 2009


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