Why I Have a Love/Hate Relationship with the Book of Jonah

Those of you that read this blog on a regular basis know that I post a lot about the book of Jonah. I thought it might be helpful if I explain why. First, my Master of Theology thesis topic is on the book of Jonah. As such, there are very few days that go by that I’m not reading a commentary, scholarly article, or translating texts (MT, LXX, Targum, Medieval commentaries, etc) of/on the book of Jonah. The second reason forms the content of this post.

At the center of the book of Jonah lies a dual theme: judgment and grace. The book opens with God’s declaration of coming judgment against Nineveh. Jonah’s flight provokes God to send a storm wherein Jonah is threatened with God’s judgment. God delivers the sailors from the storm after they throw Jonah overboard. Jonah’s residence in a great fish, “דג גדול,” is open to debate. Was it an act of mercy or an act of judgement? After Jonah pronounces that the city of Nineveh will be overturned, the people repent and God relents from his intent to destroy the city. As Jonah sits in the open heat, he experiences deliverance in the form of shade and judgement in the destruction of that shade.

How, then, are we to understand Jonah? Is he an object of wrath or an object of mercy? Does he ultimately repent, or does he serve as a perpetual example of hypocrisy?

Some days I wake up and think I finally have an answer. The author depicts Jonah in stark ironic contrast to the pagan sailors and the pagan Ninevites. Jonah, a prophet of the one true God, who knows good orthodox theology (1:9; 4:2), refuses to repent. While it is true that he does what God commands in chapter three, chapter four reveals that his qualms with the original mission God called him to has not changed. He was upset the Ninevites would be spared in chapter one, so he fled. Now that they have repented and God’s wrath has been sated, he is mad that the Ninevites repentance and God’s forgiveness is actualized. Jonah remains unchanged. How can a prophet be mad that men, women, and children are spared from physical and spiritual death? He is a villain.

Other days I wake up and am reminded of the fact that God could have used another prophet. He could have let Jonah drown in the sea and picked a new messenger. Instead, he extends grace to his reluctant prophet. Even after the mission is accomplished, he lovingly and compassionately comes alongside his prophet. He tends to his needs as an act of grace. Then he allows Jonah to experience a certain amount of discomfort in order instruct the prophet in his ways. The abrupt ending allows us to contemplate the continuing mercies God will show to his prophet. Will Jonah finally see the mercies of his covenant Lord and repent?

In Exodus 34:6-7, a passage used by the author of Jonah (4:2), we see God claiming both grace and wrath as essential to his character:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

The story of Jonah is an exposition of this text in narrative form. We cannot get away from either God’s wrath or his mercy. The two cannot be separated. When I emphasize the fact that Jonah is ironically portrayed, made to play the fool, and is a hypocrite, it causes me to sit in judgment and forget the grace God has extended him. When I extend grace to Jonah despite all these things, I minimize and come close to forgetting the fact that he does not repent. There is no surety that he has a right relationship with his God.

These struggles await the reader, await me, on the other side of chapter 4. Chapter 5 is the story of Jacob Cerone. It is your story. How will we respond to God’s relentless and gracious pursuit? Will we concede to him in word? Will we concede to him in deed? Or will we concede in word and deed as we bend our desires to his by the work of his Spirit?


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4 Responses to Why I Have a Love/Hate Relationship with the Book of Jonah

  1. Craig Benno says:

    jacob, I find a great parallel to Jonah in the beginning of Isaiah. Isaiah starts prophesying judgement over everyone, till he gets a vision of his own sinfulness. and cries out, “Woe is me!”
    After that vision and subsequent forgiveness, Isaiah goes onto prophesy Christ.

    Unlike Isaiah, it seems Jonah may not have got a right attitude adjustment.

    • jacobcerone says:

      I had never made that connection, but it is a very good one. It is especially one that those who preach and teach the Gospel need to hear. We are quick to offer God’s word of judgment without hearing it and seeing our own sin. We must always preach to ourselves.

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