29 Jul 2010

Jonah #4: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel & Us (Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious King)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jonah, Ministry, Preaching

Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious God

“Salvation comes from Yahweh” (Jonah 2.9, Jerusalem Bible)

Greetings from the land of Saguaros and Scorpions. I have continued to read, meditate and even pray (source of lectio divina the last few days) through the Book of Jonah. I have found the book so incredibly powerful, incredibly paradigm challenging, and incredibly unnerving.

I have come to realize, as I have reflected on some of the readings of Jonah that I have been accustomed to, that they often are pious defangings of the book and more often than not actually read stuff into the book (i.e import). Some of those pious understandings/interpretations actually subvert what the author is actually up too. Here are some thoughts on the message of the book as a whole … Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious King (I encourage you to ruminate upon Jesus’ teaching in Mt 18.21-35 and Mt 20.1-16 … listen and hear the message of the author of Jonah in the Life of Jesus).

The theology of the book of Jonah and the outlook of the prophet are not one and the same. The author wants us to embrace a reality quite different than what the anti-hero prophet has.

The author reveals to us the stark ugliness of the one who “knows the Bible” and is “sound” in theology but whose heart has no grasp of the suffering love of God for his world. Here is a question: Is the “sign” of Jonah merely (only) that he was in the fish for three days? More on this later …

Since the beginning of the story it seems as if Jonah has been “avoiding” Yahweh. When the Lord hurls a storm at him the pagans pray to their gods (1.5). The pagan captain implores Jonah to pray (i.e. cry) to his god but he refuses. The scene on the boat ends with the pagans, not Jonah, actually calling on the name of Yahweh (1.14). What irony! The idol worshipers pray to the Lord and the “Christian” keeps a stiff upper lip (I know I’m being anachronistic here but only to make a point).

Jonah tries to commit suicide but God uses a fish to bring salvation to him. We learn from 2.1 (1.17 in English) that Jonah would rather stew before he opens his mouth. Jonah is thankful, or so it seems on the surface, for “grace.” The word “I” occurs in this psalm at least 10x. and as has been pointed out before (I will give a list later) nearly every word is paralleled in the Psalter. Jonah sounds incredibly pious but his heart is incredibly hard. Chapter 2.8 reveals the depth of the irony in this psalm …

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace (hesed) that COULD be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you.”

So far in the Story we actually encountered who had worshiped idols: the pagan sailors. So far in the story the only ones who sought out Yahweh were the pagan idol worshipers. Ironically the sailors have indeed found hesed … they found grace. They sought Yahweh through remorseful prayer while Jonah would rather die. Irony!! The author loves it.

In this psalm, in Jonah’s prayer, we search in vain for a single word of repentance or remorse. It is not present. We sometimes read it into his prayer but it is not there. The prayer shows Jonah to be a master of Israel’s liturgical tradition (he has memorized the hymns!). But the contrast with David could not be more stark:

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love … blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned … Create in me a pure heart O God and renew a steadfast spirit with in me … (Ps 51)

Jonah is in fact “thankful” but he is not repentant. He is relieved that God by his own choice saved him but not heartbroken over his arrogance and sin.

This contrast between Jonah and the sailors is intentional. This is confirmed by the even greater contrast between Jonah and the citizens of Nineveh. When they hear the word of Jonah (there is no messenger speech here so we are left hanging as to whether or not it is actually the message OF THE LORD) they, like the sailors, are terrified. Like the sailors they call upon Deity (they do NOT know his name btw because as far as the story goes Jonah did not reveal it to them). Nineveh, from the king to the cows, does what Jonah has not done … they repent … they turn from their evil.” Again the irony of 2.8 is present … those who clung to worthless idols were quicker to seek even an unnamed god than the one who supposedly knew the One True God, his Scripture and held to sound doctrine! The pagans repent and find grace. Jonah refuses to repent … even as Yahweh has been incredibly long suffering in his hesed toward him (Israel/Us).

Indeed while the pagans of Nineveh turn from their “evil” Jonah in fact embraces what they reject in 4.1. And it is only in chapter 4 that we find Jonah finally opening up and crying to Yahweh … and he is not happy. The depth of the real ugliness of the people of God is seen for the first time!

And as far as the story goes we never learn if God in fact reached Jonah. He reached the pagans on the boat. He reached the pagans in Nineveh. But he did not reach his own prophet. The last words from Jonah in the book are bitter indeed “I am angry enough to die.” Jonah is in the same place in chapter 4 as he was at the end of chapter 1 … God’s People that would rather die than have grace extended to those who have (in his theology) forfeited that grace by serving idols. But Yahweh is sovereign and he can extend grace to the sailors, the Ninevehites … just like he can seemingly create a fish for the sole purpose of the salvation of Jonah. God does not want to destroy Jonah … he wants to love him. Jonah “knows” this truth and states it in 2.9 … salvation belongs to Yahweh. But Jonah wanted to be in control of dispensing it.

Let me make one last observation before bringing these ramblings to a close. Isn’t the contrast between Jonah looking at Nineveh and Abraham making a fool out of himself before Yahweh over Sodom not glaring? The language of Gen 19 of Sodom is clearly echoed in the description of Nineveh’s evil …

Perhaps when Jesus declared that tax collectors, sinners and all manner of riff raff are closer to the kingdom than church going experts — the sign of Jonah is lurking in the background. This little book is profound and profoundly challenging. I encourage us all to let it rattle our cage.

Bobby Valentine

2 Responses to “Jonah #4: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel & Us (Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious King)”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Great post!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Bobby I have read your blog now for over 3 years and have often been blessed by your biblical and “Stoned” Campbell movement material. It is good to see you posting regularly again. But your posts on Jonah have really done a number on me. I thought I knew Jonah as well as anyone else. But these posts have opened this gem of a book in ways that I can honestly say I never imagined.

    You will recall when we first met that you chided me for carrying around only a “little dagger” rather than a “spiritual sword” because I rarely read from the Old Testament (Jesus’ Bible you used to say), though I am 30 years your senior I praise our Lord he has blessed me through your ministry of teaching from the Old Testament. I listen to your sermons frequently and I pray for you and the girls. Whatever you do … Don’t stop! Thank you. May the Lord bless you and your lovely Tifani.

    In Christ,
    CW, St.Cloud

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