Saturday, May 14, 2005

Little Book of God: Jonah

This book is rapidly becoming one of my favourites - if that's not an inappropriate approach to God's word. The book of Jonah is short, snappy and full of surprises. It seems that if you mention Jonah to most people they immediately think of a big fish... Is that the point? Is it a story of underwater adventure?

Episode 1 - God saves the worst sinners
The story kicks off with God commissioning Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh, the captial of Assyria (modern day Iraq). We're not told why at this stage, but Jonah decides to run in the opposite direction. Opposite in the extreme - he catches a boat from Israel to Spain to flee from God.

On the way to Spain the LORD sends a great storm to stop Jonah in his tracks. In the midst of the storm we are introduced to the sailors. They are a crowd of rough and ready pagans who will call out to any god who might keep them from perishing. Jonah meanwhile sleeps below deck.

He is woken by the crew and they force a confession from him. Who is his God? The LORD of the heavens, the land and the sea. Jonah's God is the covenant God (the LORD) and he is the one who rules everywhere. Jonah claims to fear this God but is also trying to run from him. Rather futile.

Jonah tells the crew to throw him into the Med to save themselves. They are hesitant but ultimately do so. The camera moves from Jonah to the sailors and we find them fearing God, making sacrifices and vows to the LORD. They become believers. God saves even the worst of sinners - what grace!

Episode 2: Salvation comes from the LORD and IS the LORD
Jonah 1v17-3v4
We left the previous episode at a cliffhanger. The Sailors become believers but what happened to Jonah? We find him rescued from death by a fish sent by the LORD. Some doubt the historicity of this, but Jesus tells it as history.

The centre of this episode is a Psalm by Jonah - his Salvation Song. He recognises he was dead but the LORD saved him. He longs to see the presence of the LORD and find the grace that the LORD gives. Jonah's words point us towards salvation being the LORD - it is gaining him, knowing him - being in his presence (that which Jonah was attempting to avoid). This is life: knowing God!

At the highpoint of the book he concludes that Salvation not only is the LORD, but also salvation comes from the LORD. This is not simply that God saves, but also that God decides who gets saved. Jonah ran from his mission to preach to evil Nineveh and so God saved the sailors. Next God saved Jonah... what next! Having experienced the grace of God for himself Jonah is recomissioned and this time he goes to preach - and it seems that he ought to be more aware that salvation is God's to give.... in line with God's command he preaches to Nineveh - "Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown". Another cliffhanger.

Episode 3 - Grace to repentant sinners
As the story unfolds to the original audience there are highs and lows. Jonah is sent! Jonah dies... Sailors are saved... Jonah is saved! Jonah preaches judgement on Nineveh. But what happens next? Against all expectation everyone in Nineveh turns from their evil ways. From high to low - all 120,000 people. They turn to God for mercy hoping that perhaps he will save them. And he does.

Later Jesus cites these events many times. He argues lesser to greater to announced a final warning to the world. Nineveh heard Jonah preach and they repented. And God saved them. The World has had Jesus preach, die and be resurrected... will it come to God for mercy, or remain at enmity with God and so face final judgement?

Repentance is difficult for us because we love to make excuses for ourselves. We are natural self-justifiers. But repentance lays that down and seeks only mercy. Repentance means admiting we've wronged God but it is the way to life. Grace is by definition, undeserved.

Episode 4: God is outrageously gracious
Chapter 4.
Jonah's simple message leads to 120,000 people receiving God's mercy. How would you react? Joy? Celebration? Jonah is "exceedingly displeased". He takes issue with God. Jonah declares that he knew this would happen! That's why he ran to Spain, to prevent it. And yet as he ran God saved the sinful sailors. And then God saved Jonah. And now God has saved Nineveh. And Jonah is angry - sufficiently to request that God take his life away from him.

The crucial issue seems to be that Jonah doesn't think God ought to be gracious. He seems able to accept grace for himself but not for others. God attempts to demonstrate grace to Jonah one last time but he remains furious.

Can we handle the grace of God? Grace that means we have no case in our defence before God, except God himself. Grace that is freely given by God to whomever he pleases. Grace that flows abundantly because God is in the business of being gracious. Imagine what could be possible... Imagine what God might do. His grace is outrageous!

A series of four cell notes on Jonah, currently being used by Reading University Christian Union will be online by the end of May 2005.


  1. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for blogging on the minor prophets - inspiring work! I'm with you on Jonah - it's one of my favourite books too.

    A while back I posted some questions ( about preaching from wisdom literature - just wondering if you've got anything to add to that, or know of any great resources?

  2. Is it a story of underwater adventure?'

    Well... yes it is... in a sense...

    Jesus refers to Jonah when talking about his death and resurrection, and so the parallels to baptism are many...

    And one cannot miss God's sovreignty over the whole thing either... little book, big God...

    And I echo Mick's thanks... this is good stuff, keep it coming...

  3. I think, Paul, its better to say that both Baptism and Jonah point us to the death and resurrection of Jesus... rather than that Jonah points to baptism....

  4. Hehe yes, very true... I'm very good at not writing quite what I mean to or what makes sense...

    I probably should have written (not primarily though) at the end of the second line of my comment...

  5. I think you're misreading Jonah a little...

    "Jonah preaches judgement on Nineveh."

    Where did you get that from? I can't read it in my Bible (NIV, ESV and BHS)...

  6. "forty days and nineveh will be overthrown"

    against a city "whose evil has rised" before God...

    That seriously looks like judgement to me - a message of judgement that Jonah knows will lead to repentance from Nineveh and abundant grace poured out by God....

    The net effect of the message is grace - and I think that's what we ought to get out of the book ultimately... but it comes via the sounding of a final warning on Nineveh. I think this is also how Jesus uses these events when he sounds the "Sign of Jonah" (Jonah's preaching plus/minus Jonah's "death/resurrection) as a final warning to unrepentant Israel.

    What do you think?

  7. I'd think there's also 3v9 - "Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish."

    The Ninevehites understand (from Jonah's preaching) that they are facing God's "fierce anger" (judgement?)... and hold out hope that God might spare them from perishing...

    (Which he then does in 3v10, much to Jonah's displeasure in 4v1)

    Maybe I'm misreading that though?


  8. I think the word "overthrown" can also be read "overturned"...

    The problem you have is that God cannot lie and I don't think he does. What I see is Jonah's "judgement" being based around an ambiguous word "nehepachet - Heb (sorry to be an ass!)" and I think that Jonah believes that Nineveh WILL be destroyed and that's why he's gutted but that God never intends that it be destroyed and I believe that the narrative accomodates for this.

    The problem I cannot figure is whether or not the word used for "overturn/overthrow" is God's word or Jonah's modification. I think I think that it's God's word but that Jonah wants it to mean destroy.

    Sound plausible?

  9. Hi Jon,

    I know what you mean - but equally I do think that God's words are sometimes "conditional"...

    So, when God says "40days and you'll be overthrown" - that has within it (looking at the context and Nineveh's response) the condition that this is true unless they repent... the Ninevites wonder whether God might hold back his fierce anger... and he does.

    I don't think this is God changing his mind, any more than God changes his mind in Exodus 32-33 with Moses (for example)... but rather is simply a narrative tool for showing us what happened... so Jonah preaches that Nineveh deserves God's judgement and now faces it... but since God is gracious and compassionae (that is who he is) then there is always the opportunity to repent.

    Jesus does the same in Luke and Matthew when he cites the incident - so, he sounds a final warning on Israel, that Nineveh will rise up and judge them... but that always contains the possibility that this wont be the case if they repent - and indeed I think that would be the application for us there - that we must repent in the light of Christ's words.

    In terms of Jonah's expectation, I think the evidence (Jonah running and the conversation in ch4) suggests that Jonah knew that God would be gracious... that was his problem. And he ran to avoid that (and en route God saves the sailors and Jonah himself)... I think Jonah wants Nineveh destroyed - but what he preaches is what God tells him to preach... which is a message of judgement.

    The point however comes at the very end of the book with God saying, shouldn't I be gracious? And I just don't think that is at odds with God saying to people who deserve judgement that he will judge them.

    How can God hold back that promise of judgement - in the same way he does for us - by placing it upon Christ...