23 Aug 2010

Jonah #10: God’s Heart & Struggle with Israel & Us (Can the Church Be Saved?)

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

Victory is the LORD’s!” (Jonah 2.9, REB)

Deliverance belongs to the LORD.” (Jonah 2.9, The Bible: An American Translation)

Jonah 4.4-11: Can the Church Be Saved?

Text: “But Yahweh said:

Is it right for you to be angry?”

For Jonah had left the city and had sat down east of the city. There he had built himself a shack/tabernacle and had sat down in its shade until he would see what might happen in the city. Then Yahweh-God appointed a goad to grow. It grew up over Jonah to provide shade for his head, in order to pry him out of his wickedness. Jonah rejoiced greatly over the goad. But God appointed a worm, just as dawn was breaking the next morning. It attacked the goad and the bush withered away. And as the sun rose God appointed a burning east wind. Then the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became terribly faint. So he begged that he might die, and he said:

“I am better off dead than alive.”

But God said to Jonah:

“Is it right for you to be angry because of the goad?”

Then Yahweh said:

“You feel sorry for the goad, which you have neither cared for nor nurtured, which grew up within one night and perished away within one night. Should I then not feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there live more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know how to distinguish between the right and the left . . . and much cattle. (My Translation)

God Speaks to the Dove

When we left the Dove (=Jonah/Israel) in our previous blog (Jonah #9: The Wrath of the Theologian) there was a hush that fell upon the text. Job desired to put God in the dock, but Jonah actually did. When Job exhausted his complaint the voice spoke from the whirlwind. And it is God that breaks the silence in the Story of Jonah!

What happens in vv 4-11 seems to take place within the forty days … its like the minstrel is saying “in the meantime …”

Just a few questions to probe the story. The city has repented. God has repented and extended his “hesed” at the “drop of a hat.” Jonah knows that God has granted life … but Nineveh does not. What is he waiting for? Why doesn’t he share the good new? How long will the humans and animals go without food or water?

As the Dove steeps in his wrath, Yahweh breaks the silence. The Silence does not arrest Jonah from his death, will the voice of the Lord? “Is it right for you to be angry?.” Something has changed in the story. Up to this point any word from the Lord has concerned Nineveh now the God of Steadfast love (hesed) goes out to the “elder brother” (so to speak) and pleads with Jonah about Jonah’s life.

God has done remarkable things with the cracked pot Dove: he has saved the pagan sailors, he has delivered the Ninevites, he even was able to rescue Jonah once … but here in chapter four the Dove’s life is in the balance and it is not certain that God will be able to save him. The Lord of Hesed is battling for the soul of his people, that they (Jonah), may live rather than die.

The question that comes screaming from the minstrel’s song is not about the Lord’s ability to give life, but whether Jonah can live with God as he is! Whether the nature of the God of the Creed (4.2) is too grievous a scandal for the People to bear. The Dove is willing to put Yahweh in the dock, but he refuses to admit his need for repentance and grace in the presence of the Lord.

Can Jonah do what Nineveh has already done? Will Jonah refuse to enter the kingdom of heaven even as he shuts the door on those who seek to enter (Mt 23.13ff). Will the pagans sit at the table of hesed while Jonah stays outside?

Jonah Flies off the Stage

The Dove’s response to Yahweh’s impassioned question is to fly away, again! Rather than engage the Lord, Jonah flees to the East of the city. Here he constructs a sukkah. This is one of those words the Singer loves to pull out of his hat. While the word quite literally means a shack or lean to, it is also the word that Israel’s worship tradition uses for the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles (Lev 23.42-43; Neh 8.14-18; Deut 16.13, 16; Zech 14.16,18,19).

There is delicious irony here! Yes, Jonah literally built a tent. But in the eyes of the narrator he built a tabernacle! The Feast of Tabernacles/Booths is one of the great festivals of the Lord. Israel celebrated their time of wandering when God delivered them by his hesed. They gather before the face of the Lord to celebrate.

During Tabernacles the Torah is read again to the people (Deut 31.12-13). Sukkoth then in Israel was a time of renewing and consecration to the covenant of love (see Neh 8.13ff and Ezra 3.1-7). Interestingly enough, another part of the cluster of ideas around Booths is Israel’s welcoming inclusion of Gentiles in the festival!! Strangers, pagans, aliens were all welcomed (Deut 16.14).

Booths extends the hospitality of Yahweh himself to those outside the covenant. The delicious irony is that the Dove is stewing in wrath towards God’s self-proclaimed hesed in his sukkah outside the Gentile city that is “great to the LORD!” We have a reversal of the festival of booths! It is an “anti-booths” festival for Jonah. We have a subversion of the calling of the people of God to be a blessing to all nations. And it is they that “forfeit the grace that could be theirs!!!” (Jonah 1.8).

Attempt to Rescue the Dove … Again

The Lord God “appointed” a plant to demonstrate his kindness even to Jonah. God loves Jonah! Just as God “appointed” the fish to save Jonah from his death wish in chapter 1, so now the Lord appoints the goad for the same purpose. Most English translations render the text to indicate that the shade eased the “discomfort” of Jonah. But here again our minstrel uses one of his favorite words: ra’ah. Surely Jonah is uncomfortable in the blazing heat, but Yahweh is attempting to “pry [Jonah] out of his wickedness/evil.” Jonah rejoices in the goodness of God directed towards him and “great joy” overtakes him. We all love it when God is good to “us.”

Yet again God “appoints” a worm to attack the goad and then “appoints” a burning east wind. Jonah is wroth again! Once again he voices his death wish. Yahweh backs the Dove into a corner with the pointed question “Is it right for you to be angry because of the goad.” God has reduced Jonah to an absurdity! Despite it all Yahweh cares for his man.

The Dove Finally Talks to God

Here backed into his absurdity, Jonah answers the Lord for the only time. “It is good for me to be angry enough to die!” He admits his anger for the only time and claims it is good. The last words in the Dove’s song testified to by the narrator are these words that burst from Jonah’s heart.

Though we never hear the Dove’s melody again we do hear yet again the earnest plea of the Lord of Hesed. The extraordinary question of Yahweh brings the story of Jonah to a close.

Should I then not feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there live more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know how to distinguish between the right and the left…

It is as if God is asking Jonah’s permission: “Is it ok if I have pity” (echoes of “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” {Mt 20.15, NIV}). This is a question that is put to the people of God, to the Dove, to you and me.

We know God is not really asking Jonah’s permission, he is trying to get Jonah to embrace the heart of God! The verb rendered “pity” or “feel sorry for” quite literally means “to have tears in the eyes” or “the eye flows on account of.” It is a graphic picture of Israel’s God weeping over his creation, while the heart of his Own are far … very far … from him. Such imagery reminds us of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Lk 19.41-44; Mt 23.37; etc). But this is no revelation to Jonah, he knows that God is too loving, too forgiving, too ready to forgive even the likes of Nineveh.

The “Epic” of Jonah ends with God pleading with him. Echoing Jonah’s commission to the “great city” Yahweh reveals that he is the God of all. Not only humans are God’s concern but all creation. The reference to animals by Yahweh has baffled many modern Western Christians. God’s steadfast love is not limited to humanity but extends to his whole creation.

The reference to animals points to the faithful nature of God. Jonah testified to God’s hesed in 4.2 and it seems here Yahweh is reminding the Dove of his long ago covenant with nature. After the flood God promised “never again will I curse the ground because of humankind … nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” (Gen 8.21; see 9.1-17). Does Jonah want God to turn his back on his promise.

Can the Church Be Saved?

The Singer in Jonah presents us with a picture of a God who would rather be loved than feared. The Dove seems to feel that “if disobedience on the scale of a Nineveh goes cavalierly unpunished, then the idea of obedience also ceases to have meaning. God’s mercy simply makes a mockery of human effort, which is why Jonah ends up in the grips of Thanatos, or the death drive” (T. A. Perry).

The singer leaves us hanging. What happened to Jonah? Did God reach the Dove? Can the people of God celebrate the king and his law of hesed? Can we let God overturn our own theology and fulfill his will in ways that are true to him and surprising to us? As we leave Jonah we are left with a sinking feeling that the Dove is lost. Why? Because he finds God’s free hesed that he can do what he wants with, repulsive.

8 Responses to “Jonah #10: God’s Heart & Struggle with Israel & Us (Can the Church Be Saved?)”

  1. John Says:

    “…the calling of the people of God to be a blessing to all nations.” I guess that could be one way of stating the mission of the church.

    Jonah does remind me of the elder brother. Jonah’s focus is internal instead of external, as is the case with most.

    Good articles.

  2. pfutrell Says:

    The Dove was not lost…He was being relentlessly pursued. My guess is that God won. 🙂

  3. Paul Graefe Says:

    Bobby — When you started revisiting Jonah (after your last go-round), I couldn’t imagine what else you might bring out of the text. Your most recent effort has reminded me yet again just how much God’s Word has to offer! I continue to be amazed and blessed by your insights and, of course, the incredible depth of God’s Word. Thanks for sharing! ~Paul Graefe

  4. Randall Says:

    Wonderful series Bobby! and again, amen!

    Please excuse my ignorance and indulge me for a moment. In several posts you have mentioned the plant as goad rather than a gourd. Am I missing something you might have expalined earlier? It the plant a gourd or is it to goad Jonah into a confrontation with the LORD? I know this may be trivial, but I want to understand as many nuances as I can. Again, forgive my ignorance and help me understand.
    Muchas Hesed,

  5. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Randall that stems from a failure to practice close textual criticism on my own writing. 🙂

  6. Randall Says:

    Well I ‘m glad it was just a typo. I thought I was missing something.
    Thanks for straightening that out.

  7. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Randall I learned a long time ago to never proof read my own stuff. I never catch my own mistakes. Not sure why but true.

    John thanks for the kind words. I pray that you are blessed by this study of Jonah.

    Price it is a cliff hanger though isnt it!

    Paul thank you for your graciousness. I have such wonderful memories of being with you guys up in the northland. One day I’d love to come back.

    Bobby Valentine

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Hi, just stumbled across your Jonah blogs. They are absolutely superb – thanks so much.
    David, Newcastle England

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