I preached through Jonah in Advent 2014. It remains one of my favorite series to prepare and preach–unlikely liturgical pairing notwithstanding.
In those days, I read as many Jonah commentaries as I could get my hands on. Kevin J. Youngblood’s rose to the top. Then it was part of a series called Hearing the Message of Scripture. Now it has been released in its second edition, with the series name being changed to the less exciting Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament, to bring OT volumes in line with the NT volumes of the same overall series.
Zondervan was gracious to send me a review copy of the Second Edition.
The changes are minor, and they are really only three:
The re-branded series name
Transliterated Hebrew is replaced with actual Hebrew text (yay!)
The author’s translation and visual layout of the text includes the original Hebrw text now, too
Here, for example, is how that text layout section has changed (the new edition is the one on the bottom):
Otherwise, the text is identical to the first edition. (Even the Bibliography has not been updated, from what I can see.) So if you own the first edition, there’s no need to also get the second. But if you don’t own this commentary, by all means, check it out from a library or purchase it. Even if you don’t know Hebrew, this is an excellent guide to a beautiful and challenging biblical book.
For my full review of the first edition (which all applies to the second edition), see here.
This approach begins by observing that within Biblical Hebrew texts a number of types or “discourses” can be identified. Each type has a particular function that is readily evident. Narrative discourse relates the events of a story (Gen 8). Predictive discourse speaks of an event in advance of its occurrence (I Sam 10:2s7). Hortatory discourse is meant to exhort someone to act in a particular manner (Job 2:9). Procedural discourse tells someone either how to do something or how something was done (Gen 27:1-4). And expository/descriptive discourse is meant to explain something or make a statement (2 Sam 12:7). (3)
The Jonah handbook is short and compact. The formatting is easy to follow. First there is an English translation, passage-by-passage. Then the Hebrew text is reprinted verse-by-verse (making this an all-in-one-place reading aid). After that is “an analysis of that clause as a whole, with comments related to the function of the clause, its discourse type, and related syntactic matters” (9). Finally, there are word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase comments.
Overall, I appreciated the handbook: I read it cover to cover. The grammatical comments are helpful at multiple turns. For example, here is the text of Jonah 3:8
When a preposition governs more than one object, the preposition will typically be repeated before each object. The waw copulative + מִן signals the continuation of the prepositional phrase.
Here’s a representative comment using discourse analysis, coming at Jonah 3:10:
A qatal in a dependent clause provides background information in the relative past (i.e., past in comparison to the mainline). This is often expressed in translation through the use of a pluperfect (Longacre, 82).
These two paragraphs from Jonah 1:5 give a good sense of the depth and utility of the comments:
The target audience is the student who is “making the move from introductory grammar to biblical text” (1). Given that, a surprising number of terms (irrealis, factitive, prosopopeia, diegetic, and more) go unlisted in the 28-term Glossary. And the discourse analysis is too much at times, as in this difficult paragraph:
Typically in narrative discourse, the negation of any verb is understood as irrealis scene setting and appears at the lowest level on the discourse profile scheme. The negation of a verb stops the forward progress of the narrative by indicating what is not the case. Longacre, however, has suggested that in certain contexts a negation may be termed a “momentous negation” because it is critical in advancing the narrative line forward (82). In these rare occurrences, the verb form is understood as a second-rank construction (similar to the X + qatal), in effect actually serving to move the narrative along. The events and dialog in chapter 4 are predicated, in part, on the momentous negation that occurs at the end of 3:10. The object of the verb is absent due to ellipsis.
Typos in the book are surprisingly frequent, especially occurring in the English translations. The book sets out to provide lexical forms for every verb in Jonah but omits them in a number of instances, leaving the reader without needed help at times. And the Malachi handbook has a “word chart” which I have hoped to see in other volumes, but haven’t. (Baylor published the Malachi volume after Jonah.)
On the plus side, Tucker commented more than I expected on the style of the author of Jonah—this helped me better understand the Hebrew in context. And there are more comments with exegetical and even preaching payoff than one might expect from a series that the editors intend to serve as a sort of prequel to a commentary.
If you’re reading through Jonah in Hebrew, will you want this handbook? Despite what I see as some shortcomings, yes. The best commentary on Jonah is probably this one, which covers Hebrew well, but in its transliterated form. So if you’re going to go deep with the Hebrew of Jonah, Tucker’s handbook is a nice companion—and much of his discourse analysis is clear, even if the reader needs to reference his introductory comments (and external sources) a few times along the way.
The handbook is available through Amazon (here) and the publisher (here).
Thanks to Baylor University Press for the review copy—sent to me with no expectation as to my reivew’s content.
One of the best biblical commentaries is the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Bible Commentary. Previously at Words on the Word I’ve reviewed JPS Jonah, Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.
Now Accordance Bible Software has announced the release of every JPS Bible Commentary volume that currently exists in print, including Michael Fishbane’s Song of Songs and Michael V. Fox’s Ecclesiastes.
(Fun aside: I was leading an Accordance Webinar on building Workspaces when I realized the “Michael Fox” in attendance was THAT Michael V. Fox.)
Accordance has a number of purchase and even upgrade options available, all of which are explained in detail here.
This month’s free book of the month from Logos Bible Software is the brilliant Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah Commentary. It’s worth much more than $0.00, but you can get it for that price here. I reviewed the commentary here.
Logos is also offering the JPS Jonah Commentary (I covered it here) for $1.99–an excellent deal.
When I preached through Jonah last Advent, I knew the JPS Commentary on Jonah would be helpful. What I wasn’t expecting was how often I would eagerly turn to Kevin J. Youngblood’s new Jonah volume in the recently begun Hearing the Message of Scripture commentary series. It might be the best commentary (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) written on Jonah.
Format of the Commentary
Each passage of Jonah includes the following sections:
Main Idea of the Passage–a short, couple-sentence overview, where Youngblood helps you get oriented to the text.
Literary Context–The author shows how the passage under consideration ties in with the rest of the book.
Translation and Outline–the author’s original translation and visual layout of the biblical text.
Structure and Literary Form–this looks at literary features and the rhetorical aims of Jonah. This section is especially strong.
Explanation of the Text–the primary section of each passage, comprising the verse-by-verse commentary proper.
Canonical and Practical Significance–though Youngblood is plenty practical throughout, this section is especially helpful for preachers, teachers, or any Bible reader wanting to know how to apply the message of the text.
For example, here is Youngblood on the main idea of Jonah 4:1-4:
He then situates the passage in its larger context:
From there he relates Jonah 4:1-4 to the patterns of the rest of the book (“Every encounter with Gentiles brings Jonah to a crisis point”), surmises why Jonah wants to die (“Jonah cannot see how YHWH could simultaneously maintain his covenant faithfulness to Israel and grant clemency to Nineveh”), explains the text in detail, and then relates it to Moses and the other prophets and their interactions with “the nations.”
Youngblood’s Insights Make the Text Come Even More Alive
Youngblood makes the literary features of the text come alive. Regarding Jonah’s short stint in the belly of a fish, Youngblood writes:
The fish, however, functions as a means of deliverance and transportation from the murky depths back to the orderly realm of dry land. In this respect, the fish is the antithesis of the ship, which carried Jonah from the orderly realm of dry land out to the chaotic deadly sea.
Correspondingly, Jonah’s disposition and activity in the fish is the antithesis of his disposition and activity on the ship. Whereas Jonah pays out of his own pocket for passage on the ship, the journey in the fish back to land and life is free, courtesy of YHWH.
He continues to unpack the “important contrast” between ship and fish to help the readers with “the peak episode of the book’s first main section.”
This sort of analysis and clear explanation is emblematic of what the reader will find in every section of the book.
Final Evaluation: Easily a Top 3 Jonah Commentary
And what’s not to love about the first paragraph of the Introduction mentioning a Bruce Springsteen song? Here it is, by the way:
To write a nearly 200-page commentary with a 20-page introduction on a 4-chapter book of the Bible is no small feat; and none of what’s here is fluff. Youngblood notes in his introduction: “An understanding of three overlapping contexts–canonical, historical, and literary–is critical to the book’s interpretation.” He helps the reader attain ample understanding of those contexts and more.
Youngblood says only that this volume “strives to advance the discussion regarding Jonah’s message.” I think it does far more. This is easily a top 3 Jonah commentary–maybe even the best one I’ve used.
Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis is easily one of the best three commentaries I’ve read on any book of the Bible. I’d put it up there with R.T. France’s Mark commentary, a technical and detailed commentary of which I read every word–France is that good, and so is Sarna.
So as I geared up to preach on Jonah during Advent (see some of the results of that unlikely pairing here), I wanted the JPS Bible Commentary in hand. It’s by Uriel Simon, professor emeritus at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where he also directed the school’s Institute for the History of Jewish Research. Dr. Simon aims for a similar approach to the one that made me appreciate Sarna’s Genesis commentary so much. In the Preface Simon writes:
The present commentary has been written under the sign of a dual commitment: academic rigor, which aims at uncovering the original meaning of the Book of Jonah; and a Jewish commitment to Scripture as the taproot of our national existence and wellspring of our religious life.
The commentary is not very long. The Preface and thorough Introduction make up 38 pages. The commentary itself has 46 pages, followed by a four-page bibliography. Each page in the commentary includes the Hebrew text, an author-modified version of the New JPS translation, and Simon’s comment on passages, verses, and individual words and phrases.
Simon’s Introduction to Jonah
The Introduction begins with a treatment of the book’s theme(s), as well as its history of interpretation. Simon realizes that he “stands on the shoulders of his predecessors,” and gives the reader a nice lay of the land of Jewish/rabinnical exegesis up to the current day. (You can read a good summary version of Simon’s treatments of potential themes in Jonah here.)
I disagree with Simon’s dismissal of “Universalism versus Particularism” as a possible uniting theme for Jonah. He does not think Jonah symbolizes Israel, “and Nineveh does not symbolize the gentile world.” Of course, it is my being a Christian (as Simon would expect) that contributes to this read, but neither did I think Simon’s case against the gentiles as anything more than just “supporting characters” was compelling. I don’t think Jonah has to symbolize Israel–and the book doesn’t even have to be an indictment against God’s chosen–for the text to still have “panhumanist connotations” of the extension of God’s mercy to all people (even vile oppressors of the innocent!).
I do find the author compelling, though, when he speaks of the “Compassion: Justice versus Mercy” motif as one that is “compatible with the entire narrative from beginning to end and encompasses most of its elements.” Simon explains:
Jonah foresaw both the submission of the evildoers of Nineveh, terrified by their impending destruction, and the acceptance of their repentance by the merciful God; but he was totally wrong to believe that he would be allowed to escape to Tarshish. Subsequent surprises undermine his pretense to knowledge‑-the fish that saves him from death but imprisons him in its belly until he gives up his flight and begins to pray; and the plant that saves him from his distress but vanishes as suddenly as it appeared, so that he can feel the pain of loss and open his heart to understand the Creator’s love for His creatures. Only when the proponent of strict justice realizes his own humanity can he understand the fundamental dependence of mortals on human and divine mercy.
The Introduction also treats Jonah’s place in the canon, its literary genre and features, structure (it’s got “seven scenes”), style, links to other biblical books, vocabulary, date of writing, textual history (there is an “excellent state of preservation of the text”), and a section on the unity of the book and its prayer/psalm in Jonah 2. I’m not totally opposed (in theory) to Simon’s idea that the prayer of that chapter was a later addition, but its absence of “confession and an appeal for forgiveness” don’t have to make it an interpolation–it could just point more to the character of Jonah, in all its complexities and with all his foibles.
Regarding the historicity of Jonah and the large fish (which is “really external to the [meaning of the] story” itself), Simon has a great insight:
The repentance of the Ninevites, from a psychological standpoint, is less plausible than the physical possibility of the miracles that happened to Jonah. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the Bible. What is more, their repentance, unlike miracles, cannot be ascribed to divine intervention, because it is emphatically described as a human action (3:10).
The Commentary Proper
The questions that arise as one reads the text (reprinted in the commentary in Hebrew and English) so often seem to be the ones that Simon answers. Regarding “Nineveh, that great city” in Jonah 1:2, Simon gives historical background, but only insofar as it serves Jonah’s literary purposes:
Nineveh’s size is mentioned, not to emphasize the difficulty of the task, but to highlight its importance–as is the size of the city, so is the magnitude of its wickedness….
The reader, in other words, will find just about anything needed to profitably make her or his way through Jonah.
Like Sarna does for Genesis, Simon goes in depth with Hebrew word meanings in a way that even a non-Hebrew reader will (usually) be able to understand. For example, when the king of Nineveh calls that city to repentance in Jonah 3:7, Simon comments:
In the hif’il (causative), z-‘-q generally means “call to an assembly, muster” (e.g., Judg 4:10; 2 Sam 20:5). Here, though, it means to “proclaim or spread a message”…. The narrator probably selected this verb to reinforce the formal linkage with what took place on the ship–in view of the danger of foundering the sailors cried out to their gods (1:5), while the king of Nineveh had the criers (cf. Dan 3:4) cry out the message of repentance for his subjects to hear.
Simon highlights little nuances readers might miss: the “great fish” of Jonah 2:1 echoes the “great city” (1:2), “great wind” (1:4), and the sailors’ “great fear” (1:10). Everything in Jonah is big–and therefore important–it seems.
There’s more in this well-written and carefully-prepared commentary that deserves further engagement, but this review is already long enough. Don’t be fooled by the commentary’s low page count–its stated 52 pages do not include the nearly 40-page introduction. That may still feel short for a commentary on four chapters of Scripture, but it’s as substantive as most readers will need. If you’re working your way through Jonah, Simon’s JPS commentary is one of three or four you should make sure to use.
Many thanks to the folks at University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society for sending me the copy of the Jonah commentary for review. The book’s JPS product page is here; you can order it through Nebraska Press here. Find it on Amazon here.
Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.
During Advent our congregation read the book of Jonah, that sometimes-ignorant, sometimes-faithful, always-stubborn prophet who called the wayward city of Nineveh to turn away from their past and accept God’s second chance.
We’re complex people like Jonah. Sometimes we’re even like the people of Nineveh, we don’t know our left from our right, or up from down.
Whether we’ve created our own difficult reality by our actions, or whether others have put us in a tight spot, we all know what it is to live and walk in darkness.
So we look for light. We pray earnestly for second chances. We ask for God’s mercy to come even to lowly folks such as ourselves. We yearn to see God’s justice executed on those who actively work against it.
We grasp about for light, and we long to behold Jesus.
Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!
But it’s easy to get confused about Jesus. Not because Jesus is confusing or because God is unknowable. But because we’re an easily confused people.
Having seen so many paintings of a crucified Jesus, young Asher Lev asked his mother whether this was the Messiah.
“No,” she says, “He was not the Messiah. The Messiah has not yet come, Asher. Look how much suffering there is in the world. Would there be so much suffering if the Messiah had really come?”
A trenchant critique, to be sure.
Time and again we look for Jesus to come in glory, in power, to right wrongs on a different timetable than God seems to have in mind… but time and again Jesus insists on coming in humility, in squalor, in seemingly insignificant interactions, even showing up in the midst of a fight. He doesn’t eliminate suffering; he gets born right into it, and takes part it in it himself.
Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!
Still, some days we’d rather skip past his first coming and go straight to the ending, his second coming when he makes everything right.
We keep wanting him to show up in full majesty, draping white robes behind him, as he smites the naysayers and draws his people out of a dark world and unto himself.
But year after year he keeps being born in a stable, to an unwed mother, next to unbathed animals, with astrologers as front-pew worshipers.
Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!
One poet sums it up nicely in four lines:
They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes, and lift them high:
Thou cam’st a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
Rather than eliminate suffering in his first coming, Jesus participates in it. He takes on vulnerable, imperfect human flesh. He becomes one of the so-called least of these. A child. A poor child.
He doesn’t vanquish the darkness all at once… he’s born into it, and lets loose every now and then with a ray of light, a glimmer of hope. Indeed, for those who have eyes to see it, there is great light coming from the most unlikely birthing story you’ve ever heard.
Jesus was born into this world as it is, not yet as it should be. This is good news for our confused and dark souls. Even our hearts can become a home in which the Christ-child can dwell. Even we can bear Jesus as Mary did and bring him to all the world. Christ has come, a “little baby thing” to dwell with us, as we are, to be our God, to make us his own.
Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!
The Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, Bishop Dorsey McConnell, is a favorite preacher and writer of mine. He says it well for all of us:
But the Christ Child has a life of His Own, and He will be born even in as dark a stable as that of my own heart. …I suppose I will just have to let Him have His way….And I know He will have His way with you as well. Whatever you’re afraid of in your own life or soul, just remember: He’s been born in darker places. Give Him so much as a square inch of your shadows, and He will fill you with His light.
Alleluia! To us a child is born! Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!
I have Honest Toddler to thank for helping me keep my wits about me as the father of three young kids. Here’s a recent Facebook status of this all-too familiar personality:
Good Morning! Wow it’s like it has been forever. …. Anyway for breakfast I’ll have 6 plain pancakes … on the red plate. Not the red one with the green trim or the brick colored one, RED. Yes, the one that shattered yesterday. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. God help you if I see a crack. Also, I would like my pancake intact but in bite-sized pieces. Don’t break my pancakes but please cut them. I want them undamaged but in small pieces so I can eat. Do you see what I’m saying? Perfect but altered. It’s not hard. Follow your heart but keep in mind that if you get it wrong I’ll make today hard. Ok I’ll be in the family room sitting in your lap while you also cook in the kitchen. Love you. (so hungry)
Toddlers can somehow seamlessly embody two (or more) mutually exclusive desires at the same time.
I want to wear that shirt, but I don’t want it covering my top half.
I want milk on my cereal, but I don’t want my Cheerios to be wet!
I have a hard time knowing what to do when someone I’m responsible for wants me to do their top button, but at the same time leave it unbuttoned.
But when it comes to literature, film, music, and narrative TV, I love highly nuanced and complex characters.
I appreciate people like Elsa, Jimmy McNulty, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, any character by Flannery O’Connor.
Good literature, good film, and good TV all blur the line between “good guys” and “bad guys,” because those categories aren’t so clear in real life.
Jonah’s a fascinating character in that regard. We’re not really sure what to make of him. Is he a good prophet, a bad prophet, or some of both, depending on the day? His portrayal is not an even one, or an easy one to detect. He’s a bundle of contradictions and love and judgmentalism and frustration and eagerness and obedience…. He runs away from Nineveh, but then goes flying towards it, preaching repentance as he walks into the city. And then with his message successful, he flees the city again, to watch it from afar.
Jonah: Loves God’s Compassion (for him),
Hates It (for others)
God’s compassion is what Jonah loves most about God… when it comes to Jonah. It was God’s predisposition toward second chances, after all, that has kept Jonah alive throughout this book.
Jonah shows in Jonah 4 that he knew one of Israel’s creeds quite well: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” And he rightly takes the shade-giving vine as God’s provision for him.
But if God’s provision and compassion toward Jonah is what keeps Jonah coming back to God, the Lord’s mercy toward despised others is what keeps Jonah running away from God.
Three times in this chapter Jonah tells God he’d rather die than watch his repentant enemies receive God’s clemency.
It almost makes you think about Peter’s three-fold denial of knowing Jesus. Jonah tries to deny God the opportunity to forgive whomever he wants to forgive.
Even the Animals
Jonah is angry enough to die. But God is concerned enough to save a clueless city…. even the animals!
Like in Jonah 4:11. Another translation follows the word order of the Hebrew a little more closely than the NIV, and punctuates the book’s ending with a mention of the animals!
“Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!”
Animals—there they are again! Putting on their sackcloth and mooing their repentance to the Lord.
Jonah loved the whale that saved him, but the worm that ate his shade—this animal he hated.
A vine that came up overnight, that Jonah had nothing to do with—he latched onto and cried when it withered. But a city full of hopeless people… well, he wanted them to wither like that vine… to go down into the depths and be consumed by worms.
But God loves all that he has made—evildoing humans, whales, worms, withered vines, and cursing sailors. Not one being is outside the scope of God’s loving care.
Good Theology, Bad Heart
Jonah gets a lot of things right. He’s right, I think, to be so angry at the perpetrators of injustice and oppression. He’s like every other God-inspired prophet who railed against those who tipped the scales to keep others down.
And he’s right about who God is, in verse 2 of the final chapter of the book: “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
But not everything in Jonah’s head has made its way down into his heart. His theology at the beginning of this chapter sounds right, but he wants to apply the attributes of God just to himself.
It’s as if Jonah turns God’s words against him. He recites a well known formula, an articulation of who God is, but in a mocking tone of voice. In conflict resolution terminology, that’s called invalidating.
He’s like the prodigal son, who can’t stand watching lavish grace poured out on people who should have long ago forfeited the opportunity by their behavior. He’s the good guy, they’re the bad guys–why would God show them favor?
Which leads to an important question: Whom is God for? For whom exactly does God intend his salvation?
Whom is Christmas For?
And we might seasonally appropriate that question: Whom is Advent for? Whom is Christmas for?
It would be easy in a season of preparation, to tend so much to our own hearts and lives, that we think only of how we receive Jesus for ourselves. We can spend so much time tending the vine, that we forget about the city we live in.
And we may be tempted to keep God’s compassion to ourselves and begrudge him when he shows mercy to those who have wronged us (and then turned to God). Well, we just wanted to see them get what was coming to them!
A Jewish commenter on this passage says, “It is not unusual for people to be so intent on the punishment of others that they lose their own way and are disappointed when people change their ways for the better.”
Jesus came into the world, offering light and life to anyone who would turn away from the darkness and turn toward him. And there are some really scummy people included in this invitation. How do we feel about that? What do we think of God’s way too liberal compassion? (I mean, he should pace himself more, right?)
Will we hide it under a bushel? Is God’s grace a proprietary character trait, only meant for the people of God? Jonah tried to hide under a vine, a divinely created shelter that he wanted only for himself.
But God sent a little worm to eat that thing up, in an effort to shake Jonah out of his self-focused slumber.
Choose Your Own Adventure
I like these stories with nuanced characters, ones whose interior lives are complex. I think this sort of storytelling is truer to the human condition.
And I resonate with Jonah. He gets it some of the time; other times, not so much. He really has a hard time just letting God be God.
One other thing that good storytellers do, besides writing full and complex characters, is to write compelling endings.
You can probably recall endings to novels that left you with goosebumps, because the last few lines of the story actually described a new beginning:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
After all, tomorrow is another day.
Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him—and it was still hot.
These stories show characters with the hope of boats going on, even if into the past… they show the hope of a new day, the hope of a still-hot dinner, waiting in his room.
The narrator of Jonah is writing a new beginning into the end of the story.
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?
This is no tidy conclusion. It’s a question. It’s a rhetorical question, and we know the answer, just like Jonah knew the “right answer” in verse 2. But even as a rhetorical question, it invites—even demands—our response.
We have no idea how Jonah ends for Jonah. We don’t know if he’ll continue in his anger, or if he’s changed for the better.
But it really doesn’t matter… because it’s not just Jonah’s new day that the author concerned about… it’s ours. This is not The Great Gatsby or Gone with the Wind or Where the Wild Things Are. Jonah reads much more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where you, the reader, decide how the story ends for you.
The conclusion to Jonah requires our participation.
God has compassion on evil agents of empire when they come clean. The compassion that was always ours is now theirs—we have decide if we’re okay with sharing.
We are left with having to answer God’s question ourselves. The main character of the book of Jonah has always been God, with Jonah the most prominent supporting actor. But now we become the supporting cast, as we hear God ask:
“Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Should I not be concerned about people who are killing each other, enslaving the innocent, beating the helpless, oppressing the poor, and destroying the environment?
Did I not come to earth to set despised evildoers free, too, should they accept my love?
Do you have any right to be angry at my gratuitous acts of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection for the life of the world?
Is this not the way, God asks, of my breaking in on earth, that I should have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and compassion on whomever I please?
This doesn’t mean there won’t still be justice, but do you have any right to be angry, God asks, when I decide to save the ones who should be smitten down?
The book of Jonah all boils down to that burning question: What will your response be, O reader, to the ways and work of God? Can you only accept it on your own terms, and keep God’s grace close to home? Or can you see Jesus as coming to earth for everyone, a gift of love for anyone who would believe?
Jonah ends here—but for us, the revelation of God’s concern for oppressors is not a period, but an ellipsis….
When Jesus comes, will we receive him largely for ourselves? Or can we receive him on his own terms, and open our hearts to his compassion so that we overflow with love toward even the most corrupt parts of God’s creation?
The skilled storyteller invites us now to take up the pen…
Advent is a season of preparation, of expectation, of taking stock before the Christ comes.
In his mercy Jesus came into the world to save a wayward people. In his mercy Jesus comes to us each day and dwells with everyone—woman, man, and child—who calls on his name.
Jonah—that recalcitrant prophet who finally cried out to God from inside a giant fish—knew God’s mercy. It was probably a deep appreciation of God’s grace and a desire to share it with others that led Jonah to the prophetic vocation in the first place.
Yet the book of Jonah shows a follower running in the opposite direction of his Lord.
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity,” Jonah will say in the fourth and final chapter of the book bearing his name. “That is why,” Jonah said, “I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.”
Reading the first few verses of Jonah, we think he is fleeing from God because he has to call a powerful, godless empire to repentance—and that would involve some serious risk to the prophet’s life! But at the end of the book, Jonah reveals it wasn’t fear for his safety that led him away from Nineveh; it was fear that this heinous people would actually accept and receive God’s mercy.
The same God of mercy who had drawn near to Jonah and won his heart now wanted to draw near to the unworthy city of Nineveh.
A King and Savior drew near—to one of Israel’s most despised enemies in the 8th century B.C., the Assyrian Empire. And—hope against hope—Nineveh’s king repented and called the rest of the city to “give up their evil ways and their violence.”
Our King and Savior now draws near—through our remembrance of the Incarnation, a scandalous act of God’s lavish mercy to the undeserving. The Incarnation would culminate in the crucifixion, an act by which Jesus would draw all people to himself—from sacred Jerusalem to Gentile Nineveh, from Main Street to Wall Street.
Our King and Savior now draws near—through the promise of Christ’s second coming, to be at an hour which no one knows, at a time when we least expect it.
Our King and Savior now draws near—in daily interactions with neighbors, in world events, among the least and the last, and to our own hearts.
The book of Jonah teaches us who have accepted God’s mercy that we are to extend God’s lavish love to everyone. We should not begrudge God’s grace given to those we most despise.
That’s easier said than done.
Reading through Jonah, we do well to pay special attention to what it reveals of its main character (Jonah’s God), to Jonah’s internal struggles (and how it resonates with our own), and to the repentance of unlikely characters (the sailors, the Ninevites).
And may we each consider, as we meditate on the unfolding of God’s mercy, from Jonah to Jesus:
Our King and Savior now draws near—how do I receive him?
The above is adapted from an introduction I wrote for my congregation as part of an Advent Reading Guide to Jonah. (A number of us are reading a chapter of Jonah each week of Advent.) More on Advent and Jonah to follow.
They screamed in the face of death, their frightened bodies clawing
at sodden rigging, tattered by the storm,
and horror-stricken gazes saw with dread
the sea now raging with abruptly unleashed powers.
“Ye gods, immortal, gracious, now severely angered,
help us, or give a sign, to mark for us
the one whose secret sin has roused your wrath,
the murderer, the perjurer, or vile blasphemer,
who’s bringing doom on us by hiding his misdeed
to save some paltry morsel of his pride!”
This was their plea. And Jonah spoke: “’Tis I!”
In God’s eyes I have sinned. Forfeited is my life.
“Away with me! The guilt is mine. God’s wrath’s for me.
The pious shall not perish with the sinner!”
They trembled much. But then, with their strong hands,
they cast the guilty one away. The sea stood still.