Jonah got a second chance. Yahweh commissioned him a “second time” even though Jonah willfully, deliberately, absolutely, and defiantly told God “No!” and rejected the first commission.
Yahweh said, “Go to Nineveh,” and Jonah got on a boat to Tarshish in the opposite direction.
Yahweh said, “Be my messenger of grace to lost souls,” and Jonah refused to become an instrument of God’s grace to an evil people.
Yahweh said, “Show Nineveh the same kind of mercy I have shown Israel,” and Jonah thought Nineveh was undeserving and snubbed God’s call.
But Jonah got a second chance, a second commission. On dry land again, Jonah got up and went to Nineveh and God used Jonah despite his abject refusal of the first call.
God is merciful.
On Dry Land Again
Jonah’s poetic thanksgiving prayer is book-ended by narrative prose, which highlights a significant move in Jonah’s story.
The Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish (Jonah 1:17-2:1).
The Song of Thanksgiving (2:2-9).
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land (2:10).
The movement from (1) the sea to (2) inside the belly of the fish to (3) the dry land is Jonah’s deliverance. Jonah is rescued from drowning in the chaotic sea through the great fish and travels to dry land in the belly of the fish. Grateful for deliverance, Jonah gives thanks while still in the belly of the fish as he anticipates his eventual deliverance, that is, walking again on dry land.
The narrator’s word choices are interesting. While describing Jonah’s deliverance, the author uses language that typically describes a shattering experience rather than a liberating one. “Swallow up” (cf. Exodus 15:12; Numbers 16:30-32; Hosea 8:8) and “vomit out” (Leviticus 18:25; 20:22) are most often metaphors for destruction rather than salvation. These two ideas—though not the same Hebrew words—are connected in Jeremiah where Yahweh makes Bel, a Babylonian god, “vomit what he swallowed” (Jeremiah 51:44).
In essence, as readers we expect these words to serve as metaphors for destruction and rejection. However, in the narrative of Jonah, they are metaphors for deliverance. This serves the narrator’s ironic bent. When the great fish swallows Jonah, it rescues Jonah. When the great fish vomits up Jonah, it delivers Jonah to dry land. God reverses Jonah’s fight and flight, and the narrator uses ironic language to describe it. Jonah is swallowed up and spit out on dry land….and this for his own good and salvation.
“Dry land” is also loaded language in the Hebrew Bible. This is creation language where “dry land” emerges from the waters (Genesis 1:9), and we remember Jonah himself confessed he worships the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Moreover, Israelite readers would hardly miss the allusion to Israel’s liberation from Egyptian bondage as they walked on dry ground across the Red Sea (Exodus 15:19).
Jonah is liberated. Jonah experiences a new Exodus. Jonah is given a new beginning, as in the act of creation itself. And Jonah represents Israel. What will Israel do? What will Jonah do? What will Jonah do with his “second chance”?
Jonah Accepts the Commission
Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, p. 45) describes the movement within the narrative in this way: Jonah moves from resistance to acceptance and then from acceptance to resentment.
When Yahweh issued the first commission, Jonah resisted, but now when Yahweh re-commissions Jonah, he accepts. However, his acceptance is rather apathetic. It is more begrudging than enthusiastic. Ultimately, Jonah resents the commission.
In both commissions “the word of the Lord comes to Jonah,” and the two commissions are exactly the same except in their final words.
|Arise (or, Get up!)||Arise (or, Get up!)|
|to Nineveh, that great city||to Nineveh, that great city|
|Cry Out!||Cry Out!|
|against it||to it|
|because their wickedness has come up before me||the message that I tell you|
The primary difference in the commission is where the first one stresses the “wickedness” of Nineveh (1:2), but the second stresses the message God will given Jonah. The first underscores the need for the commission, and the second emphasizes the message (literally, cry out the crying out or proclaim the proclamation).
Jonah’s responses to the two commissions are polar opposites.
|Jonah 1:3||Jonah 3:3|
|Jonah got up||Jonah got up|
|to flee||and went|
|to Tarshish||to Nineveh|
|from the presence of the Lord||according to the word of the Lord|
In both instances, Jonah “got up” (arose), which is a direct response to Yahweh’s call to “get up” (arise), but then Jonah goes in different directions. In chapter one, Jonah resists the commission and flees from God by going to Tarshish (towards the east). In chapter three, Jonah obeys the commission and goes to Nineveh (towards the west) as directed by the Lord. In the former, Jonah disobeys but in the latter Jonah complies.
In this sense, Jonah repents. He epitomizes Jesus’s parable of the two sons where a father asks his sons to “go and work” in the vineyard. One son said he would and then he did not go. Another son said he would not, but then “changed his mind and went” (Matthew 21:29). Like the latter son, Jonah “changed his mind and went.” In this sense, he repented—he changed his mind and submitted to God’s call.
At the same time, given how the story ends, Jonah did not have a change of heart. In this sense, Jonah did not repent. In other words, Jonah changed his mind and went to Nineveh, but his heart was not in it. He resented every moment he proclaimed God’s message (cf. Jonah 4:2-3).
Outwardly, Jonah repented in response to a second call. Inwardly, Jonah resented the call.
Nevertheless, for a second time, despite Israel’s loathing of Nineveh, Yahweh calls Jonah to preach a message of repentance to the great city. Jonah’s response to the first call was no doubt typical, and Jonah’s response to the second call is astounding—a Hebrew prophet is going to Nineveh!
God is merciful….and that, according to Jonah, is the problem!
The God of Second Chances
Despite Jonah’s problem with God’s mercy, the mercy of God sustains Jonah. Jonah got a second chance.
Should we ever doubt Yahweh as a merciful God, we might simply return to the story of Jonah. This Hebrew prophet defied Yahweh when he fled from the presence of the Lord. He directly, deliberately, and willfully disobeyed God.
According to most renderings of Israel’s God, Jonah should have been zapped with lightning the moment he turned his face to Joppa, or at least when he hired a boat, or at the very least when he was hurled into the sea. Jonah was a willfully disobedient prophet. If any deserved annihilation, it was Jonah.
Jonah, however, got a second chance…and even more if we include Jonah 4 as well.
Youngblood (p. 127) draws a helpful canonical comparison between Jonah and Peter. Even though Peter denied the Lord, he got a second chance, and even more. So also with Jonah.
Yahweh is the God of second chances!
God is merciful—even willfully disobedient prophets get second chances.
God is merciful.
Thank you, God.