In both the Old and New Testaments familial metaphors govern our relationship with God. The LORD is our master and we his servant/slave. The LORD is our father, and we his child. The LORD is our husband and we his wife.
Jonah chapters 1 and 2 are the story of Jonah seeking a divorce from the LORD, and the LORD having nothing of it. Apparently in this universe only one side can initiate a divorce.
The LORD called Jonah to do something, something so horrendous, and unthinkable that Jonah wanted to divorce himself from the LORD’s face. The LORD then hurls a storm at the ship and Jonah offers up his life to save the pagan sailors.
At the moment of death, however, Jonah has second thoughts. He wants to live, and he wants to live before the face of the LORD, his love. He calls to the LORD and the LORD delivers him from the great storm with a great fish.
If Jonah chapter 1 is the family fight, Jonah chapter 2 is Jonah relenting and wanting back into the household. Jonah is seen to be outclassed, outsized, out-loved even.
Jonah is spewed back into the family, but has anything changed?
The Unrelenting Master
Jonah’s joyful reunion is brief. The same awful command is repeated, and this is not an egalitarian household. Jonah has no voice, no vote, no pass, no bye.
Jonah tried running. Buying a new ticket is pointless. Psalm 139:5 rings out “you hem me in, behind and before and lay your hand upon me.”
The command is given, Jonah complies.
Jonah travels to the great city, and it is great enough that a day’s walking and proclaiming only impacts a third of the city.
Those Who Only Know Tyranny
There is an interesting dynamic in the book of Jonah. As we’ll see the offense of the LORD is not His his controlling nature, it’s His mercy. Perhaps Jonah only dared to flee because he knew the LORD’s mercy. Sailors and Ninevites, persons who live under merciless gods and governors don’t seem to allow themselves the same latitude.
There must have been something in Jonah’s face, or in the ancient culture that knew death doesn’t ask permission to come, but the Ninevites are smitten by the word of the strange prophet. Word rises all the way up to the king, a man who knew the power of terror and the sword, and all are commanded to humble themselves just in case this god have any mercy in His heart.
The Ninevites it seems knew that their reputation was true. They were a ruthless, cutthroat and taking people. They were guilty and so they didn’t bother with an argument. This storm hurling god could waste their city just as easy at it could waste a ship.
It’s curious that the LORD would prepare for himself a herald of destruction, but appoint no herald of reprieve. Perhaps the sun’s rising on Day 41 was herald enough.
An Assymmetrical yet Honest Relationship
Of all the conflicts in the book of Jonah, mariners vs. the sea, Jonah vs the sea, Nineveh vs. Jonah and the LORD, the greatest conflict is between Jonah and the LORD. This is the conflict that has been energizing the book.
In chapter 4 we have the contrastive parallel to the prayer in chapter 2. In chapter 2, under the threat of the sea Jonah prayed for deliverance and reconciliation. Now in chapter 4 Jonah is ready to complain.
Jonah can’t avoid or withdraw from the LORD, the episode with the sea made that clear. He is hemmed in, behind and before. He can only comply, or ask for death. His former suicide attempt was thwarted by the great fish. We might even imagine a death wish as death by being an obnoxious prophet in a violent city, but that failed with the Nineveh repentance and now he is thoroughly upset.
Jonah’s complaint against God is not much different from those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. God lets people get away with too much. God allows too much freedom, takes risks that are too great, is too slow to intervene against the violent, against the unjust wrongdoers. Jonah isn’t buying that the Ninevite repentance is worth anything nor will last, he is practical and clear eyed, and God is soft.
Years later Jesus will tell a story about a father who has an unworthy son who demands his inheritance while his father remains alive. The father complies, the son looses the inheritance and comes back home banking on the father’s mercy. The prodigal son’s older brother, however, stands in Jonah’s shoes. The older brother’s anger that was directed mostly against the brother by the end of the story is directed against the father. His mercy is unjust.
Pushing for Emotional Honesty
After Jonah lodges his complain against the LORD he waits outside the city hoping the Ninevites will revert back to their track record and perhaps God will wizen up with some Sodom and Gomorrah action. The LORD, who appointed a great fish to save Jonah from the sea now appoints a miraculously growing plant to save Jonah from the sun. Jonah’s emotions go from greatly angry with God to greatly pleased with the vine.
Now in his third appointment the LORD summoned a worm to eat the vine and it perished and then he appointed an east wind to combine with the sun.
After Jonah first had the guts to express his complaint against God the LORD question the validity of his complaint. Jonah did not respond. Now after the plant Jonah is ready to put it all on the table. Jonah didn’t want to answer the question about the rightness of his desire for the destruction of Nineveh, but he dares defend his judgment regarding the bush. Jonah is angry enough to die.
Yes, Jonah is angry enough to die. He was first angry enough to run, then angry enough to try death-by-storm, then angry enough to try death-by-prophetic-offensiveness and now he just simply wants out. Jonah follows the advice of Lot’s wife to “curse God and die”. Unfortunately, cursing God doesn’t seem to be enough to make God reactive.
The Final Word
The LORD reserves for himself the final word, and the final word is ironically revelation not so much about who the LORD is, but who Jonah is.
Jonah has, in this relationship, appointed himself judge over the LORD and his administration of the world. Jonah has come to the conclusion that the LORD doesn’t know how to deal with people, real people, evil people, like the people of Nineveh. Jonah knows best.
The incident with the bush, however, reveals the nature of Jonah’s judgment. Jonah judges the world according to how the world serves Jonah. Is this any different from how the Ninevites in the convenient timing of their repentance serve themselves? Jonah hates the people of Nineveh, and wish them dead, because in their judgment of the world they enact “the welfare of Nineveh at the expense of everyone else.” The people of Nineveh care not for Jonah’s people. The incident of the bush illustrates that Jonah, though he is a prophet, though he seemed to give his life for the sake of the mariners, is at heart no different from the people of Nineveh.
Jesus’ story of the prodigal son ends with the father out pleading with the elder brother that he join the party. The story of Jonah ends with Yhwh out in the wilderness pleading with Jonah that he join the party of Nineveh’s reprieve. Perhaps what the LORD really wants from Jonah is that Jonah now become the herald of the good news of the mercy of the LORD. Will Jonah do this? Will he re-enter Nineveh as a herald of the good news of deliverance?
Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude
Nineveh repented and the LORD turned from the “evil” he was going to do against the great city. Jonah sat in a hill side awaiting hoping to discern the will of God apart from any direct revelation, an odd thing for a man whose vocation was to hear from the LORD.
What did the LORD want? Probably for the drama to be complete, for Israel to kill the fattened calf on behalf of Nineveh and for there to be a party of reconciliation where Israel would remember her deliverance from Egypt and Nineveh would celebrate it’s new found deliverance from her own bondage.
Such a party did not happen. Deliverance was not announced. It was celebrated quietly, tentatively, hesitantly by the people, and the perhaps simply dismissed. “Maybe that prophet was wrong?! Maybe there is no God in heaven to judge us? We might as well go back to our threatening, bullying, scorched earth conquest of our neighbors.”
Nineveh would fall and be destroyed. It is a ruin today, and has been for thousands of years. How might the story be different if Jonah had returned as a herald of deliverance, leading the children of Nineveh to find a path of gratitude rather than a path of acquisition?
This story, like the story of the prodigal son and the elder brother are left unfinished, for us to finish.
Are we judgers of the LORD much different from Jonah or the Nineveh?
Do we celebrate the reprieve? Has our deliverance been announced? Will we call to celebrated the deliverance by seeking new ways of joyful gratitude?