This month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship.
This year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:
- week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
- week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
- week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)
After considering Jonah’s attempts to run away from God last week in Jonah chapters 1 and 2, today we are considering what Jonah 3-4 has to say to us today.
The text: Jonah 3
As with last week, this is not an attempt to provide an exhaustive commentary on the book of Jonah. There are numerous such books out there, some of which are listed below. Here are just a few points that we might wish to note when examining this part of the text:
- repeating ourselves – readers with a good memory will note many similarities between the language, structure and contents of chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4: gentiles respond favourably to God’s word, three days, role of animals, God’s mercy, etc. Both halves of the book begin with the same words: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah…”. Repetition and parallels are important tools in good story-telling, and we often find examples of their use in the Bible. In such cases, the narrator is emphasising the minor changes in the story, which we are meant to notice. In this case, the key change is that Jonah actually does what God asks him to do this time! (Although in both cases, Jonah seemingly makes no reply to God.)
- belonging to God – “Nineveh was a great metropolis belonging to God” (3:3 – Youngblood translation). This statement, which Kevin Youngblood brings out in his translation of the original Hebrew text, is a vitally important one. It asserts unequivocally that all of creation belongs to God; YHWH is not just God of Jerusalem, but God of Nineveh, and all of the other cities on the face of the earth. This is a revolutionary statement and one which Jonah seemed unprepared to accept.
- a good prophet? – we really have to question how committed Jonah is to his role as prophet! As we noted last week, some scholars even question whether Jonah really belongs to the Biblical genre of ‘prophecy’. We only have half a sentence of actual prophetic utterance from him (3:4) and then he relies on word of mouth for his message to reach the king (3:6). How unlike those great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who boldly confronted their monarchs with the word of God. We have to question whether Jonah really wished his message to be heard.
40 days – 40 days is always an important timescale in the Bible but here it reflects two other significant periods when God’s mercy and justice are in the balance: the 40 days of the Flood in Genesis 6-9 (a part of the Bible to which Jonah frequently alludes); and the forty days that Moses interceded with God, after the people had turned to worshipping the Golden Calf (Exodus 34:28). In this case, this is the opportunity for the people of Nineveh to turn from their sinful ways and return to God.
- a city overthrown – linguistically, the word used to describe the ‘overthrow’ of the city is related to the word used to describe the fate of Sodom in Genesis 19:21. What it actually leads to, interestingly, is an over-turning of its hierarchy, with the proud and mighty Assyrian king brought down to the dust.
- “all creation groans” – one of the most striking features of this passage is the role that the animals of the city have in displaying the true repentance of the people. It may seem rather far-fetched to our eyes (a “fairy story” as someone at the Bible study observed!) but it demonstrates a truth that we find in the opening chapters in Genesis, and which we are re-learning now: the inter-dependence of God’s creation. All creation suffers from the sinfulness of one of its parts. The animals will suffer too from the destruction of the city (Jonah 4:11). In the nearby book of Joel, the prophet records how all creation suffered from the destruction and de-population wrought by the invading Babylonians (Joel 1:18):
How the animals groan!
The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
even the flocks of sheep are dazed.
crying out / relenting – here is another parallel between the two halves of the text. Once again, it is the supposedly faithless gentiles who urge people to ‘cry out’ to God (1:6 / 3:8), while Jonah is silent, and in both they retain the hope that God may relent (1:6 / 3:9).
- changing your mind – shockingly, in 3:10 God seems to change his mind! He relents about the destruction he had foretold to Jonah. Interestingly, this is not the first or last time this seems to happen in the Bible:
- Genesis 6:6 – “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
- Exodus 32:14 – “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
- Judges 2:18 – “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them.”
- 1 Samuel 15:11, 35 – “‘I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.’ Samuel was angry; and he cried out to the Lord all night. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.”
In fact, there are 27 examples in the Old Testament of God apparently changing his mind. But there are also nine where God does not change for example: “Moreover, the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.’” (1 Samuel 15:29)
What are to make of such examples? One option is to say that this cannot possibly be what the Bible means, because we know that God never changes his mind, and ignore them. Another – and my preferred option – would be to recognise the need for us to wrestle with such passages and to recognise the inability of confining God to the pages of even so holy a book as the Bible. We shall return to this vital question later.
The text: Jonah 4
- angry with God – many of us may have found ourselves being angry with God, for any number of reasons. Jonah’s excuse seems somewhat flimsy, though: he is furious with God for being too merciful! In 4:2 he even uses the divine characteristics expressed in Exodus as an insult: “The Lord passed before him [Moses], 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 the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
justice and mercy – as Youngblood observes, we now reach the theological crux of book: “this conflict was about Jonah’s perception of an imbalance in the divine character. Divine justice was eclipsed by an indiscriminate mercy.” (Youngblood, 153) Jonah is angry that God extends same mercy to Assyria as he has done, and will do, to Israel. This is really the crucial theme of this book, and one that will be explored further: how do you properly balance the demands of justice and the call of mercy?
- prophetic contrasts – there are numerous allusions to other prophets in the book of Jonah. In 4:3, we might contrast Moses’ behaviour in Exodus 32:32, where Moses offers his life to save his people, while Jonah offers his life to ensure the destruction of the people of Nineveh! At 4:5, we could note the parallels to Elijah under the broom tree in 1 Kings 19:3-18. Again, though, Jonah comes off badly by comparison because Elijah is complaining because people failed to relent!
- moving away from God – at 4:5, Jonah symbolically moves east of the city. In the Old Testament, eastward movement often indicates moving away from God and his word, most famously of course Cain in Genesis 4:16, who headed “east of Eden”.
- a lesson in humility – in 4:6-4:8, God provides Jonah with an object lesson in humility, in a parable-like episode (compare with Nathan’s story about the lamb before David, 2 Sam. 11:27-12:15). When God extends mercy to Jonah, he is pleased, but not when offered to other people. The plant is a symbol of mercy and the worm of God’s judgement (see Deut. 28:36-39, Job 25:4-6, etc.).
- symbolic numbers – 120,000 (4:11) is a number used elsewhere in the Bible to signify a large number of people (e.g. Judges 8:10).
- right and left – again this is Biblical shorthand for ignorance of Torah (e.g. Deut. 5:32, 17:11, 20; 28:14). In this case, God reminds Jonah that, unlike his people, the Assyrians have apparently not enjoyed the blessings of God’s guidance in the past.
- and the animals… – note that the final word in this intriguing book is reserved to record God’s concern for the animals of Nineveh, recalling, again, the inter-dependence of creation.
For such a short book, Jonah raises a huge number of deep theological questions! Next week, we shall reflect on the book as a whole, and its key themes and concerns. In the meantime, here are a few questions upon which we might wish to reflect:
- Is Jonah a here or an anti-hero?
- What does Jonah teach us about Israel’s role in God’s plan of salvation?
- How should we understand the concept of God seemingly changing his mind in this text?
- How do we strike the right balance between mercy and justice? In our own life, in the life of our church, and the life of our nation?
I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:
- Youngblood, Kevin J., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Jonah. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 2013.
The following are also available:
- Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
- Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
- Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
- Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).