Jonah’s Prophetic Case

This article was first published in Gospel Herald, 83/12, March 20 1990, 193-95. It appears here with permission.

“Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” (Jonah 3:1-2) Is there a word in this introductory formula for the new decade? Are we persuaded that God’s Word still comes? Who will proclaim the message? Who will repent?

Amazing insight, plus human and divine patterns, appear in the short book titled Jonah. Called to offer life to a people who had plundered and slain Israel, Jonah balked. Knowing God well enough, he predicted that God would repent from disdain for Nineveh (See Nah. 3:1-5). Most likely, God would repent rather than overthrow the enemy (Jonah 4:2) That is the climax or a key to understanding the book. Betrayed, Israel could then fault Jonah’s message as false. How would they trust future prophecy through him?

Who to include. Throughout biblical and Christian history, people have tried to determine who God should include. Perhaps on their return from Babylon, the Israelites wanted God to reign, with Israel at the helm on earth. So also, Peter, when confronted with going to meet Cornelius (Acts 20). assumed that he knew what was “clean” and what was “common.” But he had to learn that with God there is no partiality. Western mission activity may imply that Christianity alone has the truth. But “that of God” is in all people created by God. Sailors and Ninevites are redeemable. And “that of God” within culture makes it useful for housing the church.

To pay attention to the text yields further insight into content. There is irony. While prophets hear, pay attention to, and present words, Jonah proclaims only one oracle (3:4). While crying the threat—“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”—we expect Jonah will be displeased if God relents. While other Old Testament prophets address Israel, here a “Gentile” enemy is invited to wake up.

Other features teach us. The main character speaks only seven times in the book. But the narrator talks about him 17 times, and he is spoken to eight more times. What do readers conclude about this prophet, from these more distant reports? Even his first statement is different. Whereas all other characters in the book give a directive (call for response or commitment) in their first speech, Jonah responds with information. Exaggeration is here too. Tarshish suggests the opposite direction from Nineveh. The wind, tempest, and fish are characterized as great, as well as the city of Nineveh (four times so described).

Further, have you noticed the writer’s emphasis on God? God surrounds the activity, speaking at both the beginning and end of the book. The name of God appears 39 times in the book’s 48 verses. Does this fact suggest that the main character had better take God and God’s Word, action and being seriously? Are you drawn into the conflict between God and Jonah? Is the strength of each heightened through their difference over who should live and who should die?

Parallel structure is important in this resource. The book could have ended with chapter two or begun with chapter three. To notice how chapters one and three begin, we may ponder: how a chapter five might begin. How do we continue the pattern, called by God to “Arise, go, and proclaim”? In these chapters, God-s command follows the narrator’s introduction. Then Jonah flees or complies. Each setting is described. Those met (the mariners or people of Nineveh) quickly respond to gods/God in fear or belief. And a leader (captain or king) takes charge. Each considers the divine active in the emerging events.

Good tradition. So why pay close attention to form? Because it matters. It enhances the meaning of content. Mennonites have a tradition of being informed by Scripture. We also need to grow beyond what we inherit. My parents were adult Sunday school teachers. By Wednesday of each week for 50 years, Mother was preparing for the next class. Then we four children were free to listen to the Saturday-night Iowa basketball games if our Sunday school quarterlies had been read!

Is the next generation less informed about the biblical texts than ours? They will of course know of the whale But, do we expect them to be more disciplined in insight, to be more diligent with new study resources and methods? Today’s college students in Bible classes deserve to have their religious beings stretched, as surely as they grow in computer science or international economics.

Therefore, a prophetic word from Jonah 3:2 for the new decade will rise to the call of telling future generations that Bible study is time-worthy. It can enrich our being. It can provide bases for vocational choice or conviction about doing justice. It can offer a framework for believing that God has been, is, and will be. It also can reinforce the dynamics of choice.

Full of choices. Choices pervade the book of Jonah. For example, God chose to persist in giving Jonah a task that he initially chose to bypass. Jonah chose to be grateful for escape from the stormy sea. Whether he had a choice in the second call to confront Nineveh is less clear. Most true prophets are “driven” to their calling, chosen for God’s purpose. Like Martin Luther, “they can do no other.”

But did Jonah exercise a measure of choice in how he carried out the task assigned? We observers can be rigid or neutral with him. Or we can try “to walk in his moccasins.”

Free to judge him for wishing the Ninevites would be destroyed, we might conclude that no one should ever wish another to be separated from God. Free to fault him for inconsistency—calling out a threat and hoping it happens—we might deny our mixed motives. Free to agree that the Ninevites deserved death because of all the death that they had caused, we might misunderstand God’s radical justice. Free to commend him for enduring the loneliness of telling people what they resent hearing, we might conclude “rather he than me.” Or, free to see the risk he took, we might prove it true by refusing to believe his future attempts to proclaim God’s Word. Remember how wrong he was with the Ninevites? Our choices are multipole, too.

Perhaps there was only one call. The verses that begin chapter three could express Jonah’s response to the vomiting rescue. He perhaps remembered God’s call, realized that escape was impossible and in gratitude accepted the mission. Or, perhaps God called a second time, ignoring the former resistance. God’s patience was not primarily for Jonah’s sake, but for the Ninevites. While Jonah overtly disobeyed the first call, he indirectly disobeyed the second. He spoke with vengeance. The command was still unreasonable. He might have thought that the destruction of Nineveh would mean the salvation of Jerusalem. But inner victory did not follow for him.

Jonah knew God. He had more than a hunch that if the wicked people would choose to repent, God would too. Prone to mercy. Compassionate and patient. Forgiving. Asking the impossible but making all things possible. Free to turn around, God risked evil. In repenting, God took on the suffering that should have been born by the people.

I am inclined to hope that Jonah, through his belief in justice, tried to understand God’s approach. But he could not overcome the personal desire to limit God. In that stance, he tried to make God into his own image. Which is what idolatry always does, whether in using only male language for God or demanding that Muslims perceive of God the same way that I do in order for me to respect them Such control was central to the argument after the plant’s short life too.

Jonah reveals intense emotions. Four of his statements mention death. How the obsession cries for attention by its very repetition adds to its meaning. Also pronounced is anger. The word piles up, screaming desperation toward the reader (4:2, 4, 9). Of itself a neutral emotion, anger in Jonah becomes negative through his refusal to accept God’s grace. Rather than be offended, God gently asks: ‘Does your anger open up your understanding of what is happening?’

This short book and the text that begins this article describe the nature of prophecy and its effect on the prophet. A prophet has one vocation: to proclaim the message that God gives, that God pursues. Whether approved by people or even personally convinced, the prophet shall offer grace, not judgment (although prophecy confronts). To prevent, rather than foretell, destruction is the goal. By contrast, false prophets keep people from repenting, where needed.

Radical change. In Jonah’s case, the Israelites learned that their approach needed to be radically changed. They were not going to be restored apart from other nations. They could not exclude some or form a wall around the message. They could not “fence in” God’s love or be possessive with light.

Such learning is universal. As Jonah stands for any prophet, so Nineveh represents any nation needing to repent from the will to dominate. As Jonah knew discomfort, so any prophet suffers in fulfilling the mission. And when the prophet fails, God waits. And then tries again.

Asking a second time: Are we persuaded that God’s Word still comes? Who proclaims the message? Who repents?