Jesus Wept (John 11:35)

February 8, 2016

[Hear this sermon at here.]

When Jesus saw Mary wailing in grief and saw the others with her—both men and women—visibly sobbing, a deep anger welled up within his spirit, and he roused himself and asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They responded, “Come and see.” Then Jesus burst into tears. As a result, the people present said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them complained. “Could not this man who healed a blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?”

 John 11:33-37 (my translation)

Angry. Agitated. Sad.

Jesus felt all those emotions when he encountered death and deep grief among his close friends.

“Lazarus is sick” is the way the story opens (John 11:1). The sisters, Mary and Maratha, send for Jesus because they know Jesus can heal their brother, and they have every reason to believe Jesus will come quickly because Lazarus is a dear friend whom Jesus loved. Rather than rushing to his aide, Jesus lingered for two days and arrived four days after Lazarus died.

His delay is deliberate. The death of Lazarus will serve a greater purpose. If Jesus had arrived earlier to heal the sickness, he would only confirmed his reputation as a healer. Jesus wants them to see something more; he wants his disciples to believe (John 11:14).

But believe what? Not that Jesus was a miracle-worker. More than that. He wanted them to believe something much deeper and more profound.

As Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha runs out to meet him. She voices what Jesus has already discussed with his disciples. If he had arrived earlier, Lazarus would not have died.

Now we hear the profound truth Jesus wants his disciples and Martha to believe:

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“Martha,” Jesus asks, “do you believe this?” Disciples, do you believe this? Church, do you believe this?

This is why Jesus did not rush to heal Lazarus. He had healed the blind, the lame, and the diseased. He had even cast out demons. Such healings, wondrous as they are, do not threaten death. Death still reigns, and life itself is enslaved by it.

But Jesus is the “resurrection and the life.” He is the great liberator who frees us from the bondage of death. He brings life and conquers death.

Church, do you believe this?

Martha retrieves Mary, and Mary expresses the same sentiment as the disciples and her sister, “if only you had been here, Lazarus would not have died” (John 11:32). For the third time Jesus hears the misgiving, even an implied complaint. We can hear in her voice, “Why didn’t you come? Why weren’t you here to heal my brother and your friend?”

When Jesus saw Mary wailing in grief and saw the others with her—both men and women—visibly sobbing, a deep anger welled up within his spirit, and he roused himself and asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They responded, “Come and see.” Then Jesus burst into tears. As a result, the people present said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them complained. “Could not this man who healed a blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Angry. Agitated. Sad.

Jesus sees Mary’s grief, and he experiences the communal grief that surrounds her. Jesus enters into a grieving community. He has walked into a funeral home where grieving family and friends have gathered.

And he is angry.

Jesus is greatly disturbed in his spirit. The Greek term (embrimaomai) is an intense one. It describes the snorting of a horse in battle, or a personal scolding (Mark 14:5) as well as stern rebukes (Matthew 9:30; Mark 1:43). The word is about anger rather than compassion. The point is not sentimentality but emotional irritation. Jesus is on the verge of rage; he is upset, emotionally disturbed.

He is not annoyed by their grief as such. Jesus himself will also weep. Perhaps he is angered by the reality of death itself. He may even be angry with himself as if he “rebuked himself.” If he had come earlier, Lazarus would not have died and he would have spared this whole community such grief. Jesus is angry about the situation.

Jesus is annoyed by what death brings, angry at how death rules humanity, and recognizes that he opened the door for this grief in the case of Lazarus.

And he is agitated.

Literally, “Jesus stirred himself.” He troubled himself. It is the same language as in John 5:7 where an angel stirred the waters, and it is the same language that describes troubled hearts (John 13:21; 14:27). Jesus is disturbed, but determined. He turns to his firm purpose as he asks where they laid him. Jesus has stirred himself to action; he is determined to face the reality of death and act.

And he is sad.

Hearing the invitation to the grave site, Jesus burst into tears. It is similar to bursting into tears when one sees the grave of a loved one or the first time you see them in the casket.

We don’t want to sentimentalize his emotions here—they are raw, real, and deep! There are visible tears. Jesus weeps openly, visibly—real tears. The verb comes from the same root for “tears.” We might say Jesus sobbed.

Even though he knows what he has determined to do, and he knows the raising of Lazarus from the dead will reveal the glory of God, he is nevertheless still sad. The grieving community affects him, and the trauma of Lazarus’s own death grieves him. Jesus does not minimize the bitterness of death. He feels the sadness.

And he raises Lazarus from the dead.

Yes, Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died, but the death of Lazarus serves the glory of God. It reveals Jesus as the “resurrection and the life.” It bears witness to the reality that life has come into the world, and this life overcomes death and will ultimately release the creation from its bondage to death.

Jesus asks, “Do you believe?”

Nevertheless, until that day, human beings live with death. Death and chaos fill our lives, and we wonder—at times—how to respond, especially since we also have a great hope.

Jesus shows the way: anger, agitation, and sadness.

  • We might express a holy anger against humanity’s great enemy, death. Sometimes we are angry with ourselves, sometimes with the one who died, and sometimes with God. We lament and ask, “Why?” Anger is good.
  • We face the reality of death with a determination to live in its shadow. Lean into grief, walk through it, and head towards the light. It is good to “stir ourselves” to action.
  • We weep, grieved by the reality of death and how it affects humanity. Tears are good; they are cleansing. Let’em flow.

And….we believe:  Jesus is the resurrection and the life!

“Do you believe?”

Yes, we believe.

Death will not win!

Jonah 4:5-11 — Jonah Learns a Lesson, or Did He?

January 14, 2016

Jonah thought Yahweh’s mercy to Nineveh was unjust and “evil.” Consequently, Jonah prayed–he lamented, complained, and essentially petitioned Yahweh to reverse the decision, to relent from mercy and apply wrath.

Yahweh’s response did not reject or dismiss the prayer. The prayer was heard. In fact, Yahweh responded: “Is it right (good) for you to be angry?” God did not slap Jonah in the face for his request, but gently questioned whether Jonah had sufficiently thought it through. God heard the complaint and responded. God did not abandon Jonah but pursued him.

There is nothing wrong in speaking our hearts to God and expressing our honest feelings. God already knows what we think and feel; we might as well give it voice. Indeed, this is a divine invitation for intimacy with God, and through this intimacy we  find healing and reorientation. I think this is what Yahweh intended for Jonah.

Jonah Leaves the City

Yahweh’s question, “Is it right (good) for you to be angry?” was an invitation to dialogue, but in response Jonah fled again. This time he fled to the “east,” which has significant biblical echoes. Lot went east toward Sodom (Genesis 13:11), and Cain settled “east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16). “East” is probably a theological commentary on Jonah’s flight from dialogue with God rather than simply a geographical reference. Jonah fled to the east, away from God’s presence (dialogue), just as earlier in the book Jonah had fled to the west, away from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:2).

He left the city and went out into the desert to a place where he could see what would happen to the city. Jonah does not go to the desert because he is afraid of going home. On the contrary, he erects a temporary shelter, a booth, which is—we might suppose—not only shelter but also a religious act. During the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), Israel erected booths as temporary dwelling places in order to celebrate the festival (Leviticus 23:42). In the same way, Jonah erects a booth in the wilderness (outside the city). Perhaps he intends to wait seven days, just as Israel lived in booths for seven days. Whatever his intent, it was not a permanent dwelling. Jonah was waiting to see what God would do with Nineveh.

We might wonder why Jonah is waiting to see what will happen. He already knows God intends to spare it, or does he? His prayer was designed to persuade God to relent; Jonah wanted God to “change his mind” (nacham) again. He hoped his prayer might be as effective as Moses’s prayer in Exodus 32. Consequently, he waits for the answer to his prayer.

God’s Object Lesson for Jonah

Even though Jonah had constructed his own shelter to shade him from the sun, it was apparently insufficient. God graciously provided further shade for him through the growth of a plant. [We don’t know what kind of plant this was since this word is only used here in the Hebrew Bible.]

Just like the “great fish” (Jonah 2:1), “Yahweh God” (only time the two words are together in Jonah, Jonah 4:6) appointed a large plant to shade Jonah. Like the “great fish,” this was an act of mercy. The “great fish” rescued Jonah from the chaotic seas and saved him from drowning. Now the plant rescues Jonah from the heat and scorching sun of the chaotic wilderness.

Jonah’s response is joy, great joy. In fact, the narrator uses the same grammatical structure as in Jonah 4:1. In the same way that God’s mercy to Nineveh was “exceedingly evil” (it was evil, a great evil), so God’s mercy to Jonah is “exceedingly joyous” (Jonah was joyous, a great joy).  Jonah has two different responses to God’s mercy: what God did for Nineveh was evil but what God did for Jonah was good. Jonah hated the former but was grateful for the latter.

But God “changes his mind.” God relents. God appointed (same verb as previously) a worm (a figure associated with death in the Hebrew Bible) to attack the plant to destroy Jonah’s shade, and God appointed (same verb as previously) a strong east wind to cause Jonah discomfort under the hot sun. Jonah’s discomfort was so great Jonah wanted to die. He would rather die than suffer the intense heat; he would rather die than experience the withdrawal of God’s mercy.

In effect, God did to Jonah what Jonah asked God to do to Nineveh. God showed mercy with a shady plant and then took it back, pouring “judgment” upon Jonah through the worm and the east wind. God gave Jonah a taste of his own medicine. He wanted God to withdraw mercy from Nineveh, and now Jonah knows how that feels.

But did Jonah get the message?

Resumed Dialogue

Yahweh renews the dialogue by raising the same question as in Jonah 4:4 but with a twist. “Is it right (good) for you to be angry about the bush?”

Apparently, Jonah’s death-wish is a reflection of his resentment toward God’s withdrawal of the mercy the bush represented. Jonah is so angry he could die, which is probably a metaphor for the intensity of his anger. Jonah is upset with God for providing mercy and then withdrawing it.

Now comes the punch line, and it has many layers. Indeed, it is the presupposition of the whole Jonah narrative. Mercy arises out of God’s character, the divine nature. God has compassion for what God has created, including Nineveh.

Jonah did not create the plant, and it did not even exist very long. Yet, he is angered by its disappearance.

The people of Nineveh, however, are God’s own creation! This includes a great number of people. [120,000 is probably a metaphorical expression for a large count; the number appears often in the Hebrew Bible, cf. Judges 8:10; 1 Kings 8:63, etc.] And God’s concern is also for the “many animals” (which were also part of Nineveh’s repentance in Jonah 3:8).

In fact, God’s compassion is, in some sense, greater for Nineveh because they are wanderers without a compass. They do not “know their right hand from their left,” which identifies their lack of direction. They do not have the Torah, as Israel does, and the Torah is what enable people to know their right and left, good and evil. God recognizes and adjusts in the light of a people’s lack of guidance and knowledge when distributing mercy among the nations.

If Jonah had compassion on a single plant—which he did not create and did not exist more than a day, might not God have compassion on Nineveh, which God did create and where numerous people and animals are present? “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” rings in the ears of readers as the book ends.

God drops the mike and moves off stage!


This is how the narrative ends. God responds to Jonah, enters into dialogue with him, and seeks to reorient him. God intends to teach Jonah. The story, however, ends without any suggestion about how Jonah responded to God’s teaching. The narrative is open-ended—will Jonah embrace God’s direction or will Jonah resist it as he has up to this point in the story?

That is where the story ends. Yahweh has the last word, but we have no response from Jonah. We don’t know what Jonah does next.

It is like the elder brother in the story of the Two Sons (often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son) in Luke 15. Just as we don’t know how the elder son responded to his father’s plea to join the party, we don’t know how Jonah responded to Yahweh’s last words in this book.

The ending of the book is invitational. It is open-ended. It is an altar call, we might say. We are each Jonah. Have we learned what Yahweh was trying to teach through this brief narrative?

  • Have we embraced the mercy of God for others?
  • Have we heard God’s missional call and obeyed?
  • Have we submitted to God’s sovereignty?
  • Have we left justice in God’s hands?
  • Have resented God’s mercy for others “less deserving”?
  • Have we presumed upon God’s gracious election?
  • Have we loved others, including God’s creation, as God has?

We don’t know what Jonah did, and we will never know. But that is not our real problem. The appropriate question is more about us.

We are all Jonah. Have we learned the lesson God taught Jonah?

Jonah 4:1-4 — Jonah’s Angry Resentment

January 7, 2016

This is the peak moment in the story of Jonah.

God commissioned Jonah, but Jonah fled. God pursued Jonah, and Jonah relented and accepted the commission (after almost drowning). Jonah proclaimed hope/warning to Nineveh, and Nineveh repented. God “repented,” and Jonah…

One might expect Jonah to rejoice, but this is not what Jonah does. Instead, Jonah burns with resentment. Jonah is miffed with God because God showed Nineveh mercy! Jonah, like so many in Israel before him, now wrestles with God in prayer.

Jonah and Yahweh Contrasted

Yahweh responded to Nineveh, and so does Jonah. But their responses are quite opposite.

Jonah 3:10 reads:

  • God saw what Nineveh did (‘ashah).
  • Nineveh turned from their evil (ra’ah) ways.
  • God relented (nacham) from the “evil” (ra’ah) intended for Nineveh.
  • God “did not do (‘ashah) it.”

Jonah 4:1-3 contains:

  • It was exceedingly evil (ra’ah) to Jonah
  • That Yahweh would relent (nacham) from punishing.

When Nineveh turned away from its “evil,” God turned away from the “evil” God intended to do to Nineveh, but to Jonah this was “exceedingly evil” (ESV note). The translation “exceedingly evil” is expressive but still does not capture the emotion of the Hebrew. Literally, the text reads, “it was evil, greatly evil, to Jonah.” The root ‘ra (evil) is used as both a noun and a verb in the Hebrew.

What God saw as mercy to Nineveh, Jonah saw as a great evil. While God rejoiced over Nineveh’s repentance and compassionately poured out mercy, Jonah thinks God’s response is a great injustice (“evil”). Ninevites, in Jonah’s estimation, did not deserve God’s mercy, and God was unjust or unfair in providing it. Centuries of violence, in Jonah’s mind, cann0t be simply swept away with 40 days of repentance. As Youngblood, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 152 perceptively comments: “Ironically, just as YHWH quenched his wrath, Jonah has kindled his. The reader is reminded of how out-of-step Jonah is. The event that calmed God’s wrath is the same event that has provoked Jonah’s wrath.” Jonah and Yahweh are not on the same page.

Jonah has a theological problem, if not a heart problem. He has no mercy for penitent Nineveh, and he thinks God has acted unjustly or inconsistently with the divine name, Yahweh, which is the covenant name of God. How is Israel’s God, who is Yahweh, able to show mercy to Nineveh? It makes no sense to Jonah. In fact, it seemed “evil” to Jonah.

Consequently, Jonah is angry. The root of the verb means to “burn.” In other words, Jonah is steaming hot about God’s mercy to Nineveh.

Jonah’s Prayer

As the author of Jonah described the relationship between Nineveh and Israel’s God, only “God” was used. “God saw what they did” and “God changed his mind.” But when Jonah turns to pray, he addresses God as “Yahweh.” This name represents Israel’s covenant relationship with the creator of heaven and earth. Jonah addresses the creator as one of the covenant people of God. This is a significant shift because “God” describes the relationship between the Creator and the nations, but the name “Yahweh” assumes the covenant relationship between the creator and Israel. Jonah, therefore, invokes the name of the one with whom he has a covenant relationship. The importance of this point will emerge more clearly in a moment.

The Hebrew verb for prayer occurs twice in Jonah: here (4:2) and in Jonah 2:2. In the latter, Jonah finds himself in the belly of the great fish and offers a thanksgiving prayer. However, here his prayer is a complaint. While in the first prayer Jonah is grateful for God’s steadfast love (hesed, which appears in 2:8), here Jonah complains about God’s mercy (hesed, which appears in 4:3).

Jonah’s lament prayer includes rather typical components. Jonah (1) invokes the name Yahweh, (2) complains (almost like, “I told you so”), (3) confesses the “God Creed” of Israel rooted in Exodus 34:6-7, and finally (4) petitions Yahweh to do something.

Jonah feared Yahweh might be merciful—perhaps Yahweh told Jonah this was the goal of his commission—and fled to the west (Tarshish). “I knew this would happen, and I told you it would happen” is the effect of Jonah’s complaint. It is, in fact, an implicit accusation of divine injustice (“this not what should happen!”), or at least an expression of Jonah’s anger (“I can’t believe you involved me in this injustice!”). Jonah knew what the result would because Jonah Knows who Yahweh is.

He knows Israel’s greatest confession, the “God Creed” (some call it). It is found in Exodus 34:6-7, and Jonah quotes the heart of it.

Exodus 34:6-7 Jonah 4:2
Gracious God Gracious God
Merciful/Compassionate God Merciful/Compassionate God
Slow to Anger (‘af) Slow to Anger (‘af)
Abounding in Steadfast Love (hesed) Abounding in Steadfast Love (hesed)

When Moses asked to see God and thus know who God truly is, Yahweh passed before him, proclaiming,

Yahweh, Yahweh, 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.

Yahweh is Israel’s God, and this God is committed to a gracious and merciful disposition toward Israel. As the rest of the “God Creed” states, Yahweh still disciplines the people, even for generations, but though the discipline extends to the third and fourth generation (a short time), Yahweh’s steadfast love extends for a thousand generations (forever). This is who Yahweh is; the creed describes Yahweh’s character. Consequently, this confession is frequently present in the liturgical life of Israel in both expanded and shortened forms (cf. Psalm 86:15; 99:8; 111:4; 112:4; 103:8; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; 2 Chronicles 30:9).

At the same time, Jonah adds to the “God creed,” as does Joel 2:13. This addition highlights Jonah’s problem with what God did. Jonah confesses God is “ready to relent (nacham) from punishing,” that is, God is willing to “change his mind” and forgive sin. This is, of course, exactly what God did in Jonah 3:10. God “changed his mind” and forgave Nineveh of its “evil.”  Jonah regards this mercy as an “evil.”

Youngblood believes this addition is derived from Exodus 32:12 where Moses is wrestling (arguing) with God. Moses pleads, “Turn from your fierce wrath (‘af); change your mind (nacham) and do not bring disaster (ra’) on your people.” The language of Exodus 32:12 is prominent in Jonah 3:9-4:3.

What Jonah feared has happened. He feared God would “change his mind,” turn away his wrath against Nineveh, and fail to bring disaster upon the city. While this was the great “mercy” for which Moses pleaded at Mt. Sinai on behalf of Israel, Jonah regards it as a great “evil” when applied to Nineveh. Jonah might give thanks for God’s mercy to Israel, but he has no room for mercy to Nineveh.

Jonah’s prayer is not complete at this point. As with all complaint prayers, it includes a petition. Jonah asks God to end his life

This is a rather strange request. We might compare it to Job’s requests for God to leave him alone and let him die (Job 7:16). Perhaps Jonah cannot live with this reality; he would rather die than witness the renewal of Nineveh’s life. Perhaps he fears for his own life when he returns to Israel since many would object to his mission and its results.

But I think the clues within the prayer indicate something more. Jonah is arguing with God and is making a theological point. Jonah uses the plea for death as a way of saying, “Which is it going to be God? Me or Nineveh?” Youngblood (p. 156) puts it succinctly, “Jonah’s real goal is not death, but a reversal of YHWH’s decision to spare Nineveh.” Jonah is exercising some covenantal leverage here and assumes (perhaps) his life—as one of the covenant people—is more important to Yahweh than that of the Ninevites. I think is becomes clearer once we recognize what the real theological problem is, and we will get to that momentarily.

Yahweh’s initial response to Jonah is a brief question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Using the same word for anger in 4:1, Yahweh questions Jonah’s resentment. Why should Jonah be resentful? Why is Jonah angry? When Jonah questions Yahweh’s justice—calling God’s mercy “evil”—Yahweh questions where Jonah’s anger is itself good (yatab) or fair/right/just?

Yahweh, we should notice, does not execute Jonah or split him apart with lightning for his complaint prayer. On the contrary, Yahweh gently nudges Jonah to contemplative introspection. Yahweh asks Jonah a simple question (three words in Hebrew).

Yahweh has still not given up on Jonah. Rather than granting his request, Yahweh pursues Jonah by engaging in dialogue and, as we will see in Jonah 4:4-11, continues to teach Jonah rather than punish him.

What’s the Problem?

Jonah is angry. He believes God has done “evil.” He asks God to kill him.

This is a desperate situation. What has Jonah so out of sorts?

Perhaps Jonah is bitter about the “evil” Nineveh has committed against Israel; he finds it unforgiveable. Perhaps Jonah holds some kind of personal grudge (e.g., did some Assyrian kill Jonah’s father?). Perhaps Jonah has a racial prejudice against non-Jews. I suppose any of these might be true but we would have no way of knowing. Instead, we must look for the clues within the text itself.

Jonah, I think, has a theological problem with God’s mercy towards Nineveh. Youngblood’s analysis is illuminating (pp. 156-158). Jonah’s problem is the same one that emerges in renewed Israel within the pages of the New Testament. It is the question Paul addresses in Romans 9-11. How can the covenant God of Israel show mercy to non-covenant people? What does this say about God’s faithfulness to Israel if Israel has no advantage over the nations?

The “God Creed” is about Yahweh, and Yahweh is Israel’s God with whom Israel lives in covenant. God’s faithfulness entails God’s commitment to Israel. This is the people to whom God shows mercy. Apparently, Jonah thought this was an exclusive covenant. Once God entered into covenant with Israel, then all others were outside that covenant and therefore beyond the mercy of God since God’s mercy and steadfast love are fundamentally covenantal in character. Exodus 34, for example, is God’s commitment to Israel within a covenantal framework.

But Jonah—as were the Judaizers who infected the Galatian churches—was mistaken. God’s mercy flows not from the covenant alone but out of God’s character. God is gracious, compassionate, and merciful; or, as John put it, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). This is God’s character, God’s very nature. Covenants are God’s free expression of mercy and love, but God’s mercy is not limited to such covenants.

While Yahweh lives in covenant with Israel, this does not preclude God’s mercy for the nations. Indeed, God elected Israel for the sake of the nations. God will treat the nations just like he treats Israel, which has no special claim on God’s mercy. They are elect to serve the nations rather than elect because they are the sole objects of God’s mercy.

God, who is the maker of the sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9), is not only Israel’s covenant God but also the God of the whole earth whose mercy flows not only to Israel but also to the nations.

There is, then, such a thing as the “uncovenanted” mercies of God. Yahweh may show mercy to whom Yahweh desires to show mercy, whether in the covenant or outside the covenant.

Covenant people are always at risk of thinking they are the only ones to whom God shows mercy. Their “election” becomes a presumption, and consequently they think God unjust when God shows mercy to those outside the covenant….whether they are outside the covenant because they are uncircumcised or unimmersed.

May God have mercy!

Jonah 3:7-10 – God Repents!

January 5, 2016

The only Hebrew word for repentance used in Jonah—to turn (sub)—appears only in this section of Jonah. Twice it describes the Ninevites (Jonah 3:8, 10) who turn away from evil, but twice God is the subject of the verb (Jonah 3:9). God also turns.

Nineveh repented, and—in response–so did God.

Nineveh’s Repentance

From the time Jonah first entered the city, his message was well-received. People “believed God,” and they responded with acts of mourning and repentance. When the news reached the king, he responded in the same way. Jonah 3:7-9 provides a window into the heart of the king (and presumably the people as well) as we see the nature of this repentance and its hope.

We might characterize the repentance as (1) public, (2) communal, (3) radical, (4) demonstrative, and (5) prayerful.

Nineveh’s repentance is no private confession but a public acknowledgment. It comes in the form of a royal proclamation, which applies to the whole city and everything (including the animals) in the city. As such, this is a communal act of repentance as the whole city participates in these acts of repentance.

It is radical in its practice. Fasting comes in many forms. Some fasting is only for a specific part of the day (such as daylight), and other fasting only restricts particular foods or drink. The proclamation enjoins a radical fast: no food, no water, no taste! The exchange of dress is not only radical but demonstrative. Everyone—high and low, the king and his subjects—wore the same clothes. This is radical and demonstrative humility before God, and it symbolized the city’s equal status before God. No one was privileged due to social status.

This repentance is also vocal—the city prayed, they “cried out mightily” (that is, the prayed with vigor, strength and energy). What Jonah refused to do on the ship (Jonah 1:6) and what the sailors themselves did do (Jonah 1:14), Nineveh now does. They cry out to God. Once again, it is the nations who model for Israel how to repent and turn to God rather than vice versa.

The object of their repentance, and thus a confession as well, is their own “evil ways” and “the violence” of their “hands” (Jonah 3:8). Nineveh confesses the “evil” (ra’) that Yahweh saw when Jonah was commissioned (Jonah 1:2). Their confession even particularizes this evil—“violence.” This word often describes the human condition in Scripture from the Noahic world (Genesis 6:11-13) to Israel’s own land (Jeremiah 20:8; Ezekiel 7:23; 8:17; Amos 3:10; Micah 6:12; Habakkuk 1:2). For Assyria it was the sin of their empire, which was well known and feared for its brutal violence.

Despite their history of evil and violence, including the disasters they wrought upon other nations, Jonah’s message offered hope. They repent, confess, and pray for mercy in the light of this hope. Yet, they recognize that their repentance does not obligate God nor does it put God in their debt. If God saves, it is because of God’s mercy and not their repentance. Their repentance does not dictate to God but it opens a door for God’s mercy. “Who knows?” Perhaps God will save. God is sovereign, and it is God’s choice whether God will save or not. Nothing penitent sinners do will ever put God in a box or bound God’s sovereignty.

Cosmic Repentance

One of the curious features of this story is the inclusion of the animals in these penitent acts. Herds and flocks are not only to fast along with the Ninevites but they are also to wear sackcloth as well. This is, however, more of a curiosity to modernity than it is to readers of the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible consistently includes animals in both the praise of the Creator and the lament for the human condition as well as the environmental devastation humans bring to the world. An example of praise is Psalm 148, a classic text where all creation is called to praise God, and this was popularized by the old hymn “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” An example of lament is Joel 1:10 where the “ground mourns” just as the priests do (Joel 1:9). Scripture is filled with images of cosmic praise as well as cosmic groaning.

Given this biblical narrative, it is not surprising animals are included. They, too, participate Nineveh’s mourning over the violence of their culture. Creation groans over human evil, and it mourns over human violence because creation is devastated by that violence. The earth perishes because of what humans do (Hosea 4:1-3).

Consequently, the animals fast and wear sackcloth along with the Ninevites.

Divine Repentance

God repents (turns, sub).

Nineveh hopes God may “turn and change his mind” (Jonah 3:9)

Nineveh hopes God “may turn from his fierce anger” (Jonah 3:9)

Further, God not only “turns,” but “changes his mind” (nacham). This is affirmed twice as well.

Nineveh hoped God might “change his mind” (Jonah 3:9).

And, in fact, “God changed his mind” (Jonah 3:10).

Of course, none of this language entails a “repentance” which involves a turning away from some moral evil as if God had sinned. It is not “sorrow for sin.” Rather, it describes how God “turned” from one course of action to another course of action. In this sense, God “changed his mind.” God decided to do something different due to changing circumstances than what God was previously going to do if the circumstances remained the same.

“Repent,” then, is a misleading term when applied to God. God neither turns away from committing sin nor does God “change his mind” about sin. Rather, God turns away from judgment upon sin, which comes in the form of a “calamity” or “disaster” God might bring upon a sinful, rebellious people. Literally, “calamity” is a Hebrew word often translated “evil” (ra’) but the word has a broad meaning of anything disastrous, tragic, or catastrophic. Often the word is simply translated “trouble.”

Consequently, many translations use the concept of “relent” rather than “repent” when talking about God. Given a rebellious, obstinate people, God intends to bring upon them calamitous events (“evil”) as a matter of divine judgment. However, when the people repent—like Nineveh—God relents. Instead of judgment, God shows mercy.

This, according to the narrative, constitutes a “change of mind,” which is the basic meaning of the Hebrew verb nacham. God has a change of mind in response to a new situation. Given Nineveh’s repentance, God shows mercy whereas previously God was determined to “overthrow” Nineveh if they persisted in their sin.

Prophetic preaching is often conditioned upon the response of the people. The classic example of this is Jeremiah 18:5-11 (NRSV; see also Jeremiah 26:3, 13, 16):

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

This, we might say, is God’s modus operandi, that is, the way God engages the nations. How God treats a nation is conditioned, in part, on how that nation responds to God’s prophets.

The divine “turning” (“repentance”) or “change of mind” is a function of God’s relational nature; God responds to humanity as God lives in relationship with humanity.

However one construes the theological point regarding God’s “change,” the narrative emphasizes God’s response. God “did not do it”! God showed mercy rather than judgment. God rescued Nineveh, just as God had rescued Jonah.

Divine Openness

In recent Evangelical theology, this text—as one among many such texts—has become the focus of some discussion as “open theists,” “classic Arminians,” and “Reformed theologians” debate the nature of God’s relationship to contingent events (events like Nineveh’s repentance and God’s response to it).

Open theism claims to take this language seriously and suggests the language is “plain and straightforward”—God “changed his mind.” God is interactive with the situation and God’s plan changes as the situation changes. In this sense, God faces “a partly open future.” God “does not control and/or foreknow exactly what is going to happen” (Greg Boyd, God of the Possible, pp. 14, 85). To say the future is open is to say the Ninevites had a choice of whether they would repent or stubbornly refuse, and God, in response, had options from which to choose as well. The future was not determined, but open. In other words, God had not foreordained Nineveh would repent or not repent. When Jonah entered Nineveh, even God did not know how the Ninevites would respond.

Reformed theology regards this language as accommodative such that God does not literally “change his mind” but only appears to “change his mind” from our situated, finite perspective. Ultimately, for Reformed theology, God has already predetermined and decreed what was going to happen in this situation and, consequently, God did not literally “change his mind” but executed the plan as God had previously determined. When Jonah entered Nineveh, God not only knew how the Ninevites would respond, God had actually decided how they would respond.

On the one hand, Reformed Theology has a point. All language about God is accommodative since nothing within human language can fully and comprehensively tell us what is actually happening within God’s own mind or life. That God “changed his mind” or “relented” from a prior purpose may be as accommodative as the “Lord came down to see the city and the tower” (Genesis 11:5). The former may no more mean that God was surprised by nor did not know how the Ninevites would respond than the Lord did not know what Babel was doing when they were building tower. God did not literally have to “come down” to see the tower and neither does it necessarily mean that God literally “changed his mind.” The language does not mean God did not know how the Ninevites would respond; it only indicates how God responded to their repentance.

On the other hand, the function of the narrative is to affirm God’s authentic response to Nineveh’s repentance. It affirms God’s relational nature and illustrates how God engages humanity within history. Jonah’s preaching, Nineveh’s repentance, and God’s mercy do not appear predetermined. On the contrary, the narrative highlights the relational engagement of the parties within the story, and it does so emphatically by repeating language for that emphasis.

Open theism assumes divine foreknowledge precludes authentic relational engagement, and Reformed theology excludes authentic contingency (freedom) because it is deterministic (in the sense that God had decreed all events). I think we can shoot the horns of that dilemma by affirming contingency and divine foreknowledge (which is what classic Arminianism does).

Though God knew how the Ninevites would respond, it was the Ninevites who actually responded (God did not determine it). When the Ninevites responded appropriately, the circumstance changed and thus God “changed his mind” and “turned” from judgment to mercy. The change of mind reflects a different situation, which is part of the divine intent embedded in the narrative and in the story of God, even in the “mind” of God. This is part of God’s character, and it is exactly what God knew God would do if the Ninevites responded in repentance.

Even if God knew what the Ninevites would do before they did it (which is the nature of divine knowledge), God knew it because the Ninevites did it. God did not determine they would do it. And God knew what God would do if the Ninevites repented.

Thus, in one sense, the future was open. The Ninevites had a choice. When the Ninevites changed their mind, God had a change of min in response.

In another sense, the future was not open. God responded to their choice consistent with God’s own character. God’s character does not change, and in this sense the mind of God does not change like human beings “change their mind” (cf. Numbers 12:19; 1 Samuel 15:29).

In one sense, the narrative is accommodative. God is described from within the horizon of the narrative itself. God is not described from the perspective of divine eternality or infinitude. In other words, this text is about relationality rather than foreknowledge. It does not deny foreknowledge or God’s transcendent qualities. Rather, it simply operates within a narrative frame that describes how God responds to human beings.

In this way, the narrative says something true (in an analogous way) about God. God authentically and truly engages human beings in their contingency as one who lives in relationship with others. God responds to human choices, and these choices make a real difference in how God responds.

Whether God foreknows these choices is immaterial to the point of the text. If one, however, decides—philosophically or theologically—that foreknowledge entails determinism (as both open theists and Reformed theologians do), then we must move the discussion to another level. I don’t think it does entail such, but that debate has a long and stormy history through the centuries.

As far as the text before us, however, it affirms “God changed his mind.” This does not deny foreknowledge but it does affirm divine relationality. God responds to human choices out of God’s own character and sovereignty.

Jonah 3:3b-6: Nineveh Repents!

December 10, 2015

Perhaps it is the shortest sermon in the Bible, but it might also be the most effective: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Only five words in Hebrew, it is terse, and it also appears rather unenthusiastic. It appears in Jonah more like a wish-announcement rather than one delivered with evangelistic fervor. But it is only five words, and it was effective.

Jonah Enters Nineveh

Why is Nineveh the chosen audience? Several factors may account for this.

  • Empire—the oppressor of many nations
  • Evil—infamous for their cruelty and brutality.
  • Extent—massive city size

The narrator stresses the size of the city by describing it as “a three days’ walk across.” This is an idiomatic expression, which is not intended as a literal description (cf. Charles Halton, Bulletin for Biblical Research 18 (2008) 193-207). A city that takes three days to cross would be something like 50-60 miles wide. Nothing close to that exists archaeologically. Rather, “three days” stands in contrast to “one” as the difference between “long or large” and “short or small.”

Jonah 3:4 literally describes Jonah’s entrance into the city as “one day’s walk.” The contrast between “three” and “one” is the contrast between a long distance and a short distance. Just as Jonah 3:4 indicates Jonah began to preach shortly after entering the city, Jonah 3:3 only indicates how large the city is rather than specifying a particular actual distance. In other words, both expressions are idiomatic.

Another way to understand “three day’s walk” is to hear it as a description of Jonah’s trip to Nineveh, that is, it was a “three day’s journey” to Nineveh (David Marcus in On the Way to Nineveh, pp. 42-53). Of course, Nineveh is more than a three day’s walk from Israel since it is over 600 miles. In this view, as above, the phrase is idiomatic, and is used as a correlate of Jonah’s “three day” journey in the belly of the great fish. Just as Jonah traveled in the belly of the fish for three days, so Jonah traveled to Nineveh for three days. In other words, both expressions are idiomatic.

However one understands the “three days,” the general point is clear: Nineveh is huge and heavily populated, and it lies at some distance from Israel itself. It is the major city of an imperial power whose evil is well-known and whose size is impressive. In the eighth century BCE, no other Gentile city would have compared to this one in Israel’s imagination, and no other imperial power threatened its existence more than Assyria. And, as Jonah personally represents, no other city would have been as hated and dreaded as Nineveh.

But the most astounding statement in Jonah 3:3 is often missed in translation. The Hebrew text literally reads: “Nineveh was a great city belonging to God” (le’lohim). Most translations render this something like “an exceedingly large city” and understand le’lohim as a superlative. However, given other emphases in the text, it is best to hear a word about God’s sovereignty over the nations in this description. While Israel belongs to God through covenant, in reality all nations belong to God. The Creator of the “sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9) is also the God of the Gentiles as well as the God of Israel.

Jonah’s Message

Just as Yahweh called Jonah to “cry out” to Nineveh (Jonah 3:2), upon entering the city Jonah “cries out,” saying: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

This is a brief but profound summary of the message. As readers of the narrative thus far, we understand Jonah “cries out against” Nineveh because of its “wickedness” (Jonah 1:2). Nineveh’s evil lies in the forefront.

At the same time, the possibility of mercy through Nineveh’s repentance is embedded in the narrative. The sailors, the other pagans in the story, received mercy when they turned from crying out to their gods and cried out to Yahweh (Jonah 1:5, 14). The narrative, then, offers hope, and certainly Jonah 4 makes this explicit. Jonah was fully aware that Yahweh might show mercy to Nineveh (Jonah 4:2-3).

As many have suggested, Jonah’s message is probably a double entendre, and consequently is a bit ambiguous. Jonah uses the verb “overthrow,” which has either a destructive or a transformative meaning. In other words, it may refer to the destruction of the city (cf. Genesis 19:21, 25, 29; Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19) or it may refer to their repentance (in the sense of “turning” to God; 1 Samuel 10:9; Jeremiah 31:13). We might wonder if Jonah’s ambiguity reflects his emphasis on destruction (the “destruction of Sodom” theme runs throughout Scripture) while at the same time holding out the possibility of repentance. The emphasis, it seems, is on destruction, and the Ninevites appear to understand it in that way.

“Forty days” is the allotted time. “Forty,” of course, is an important number in the biblical narrative. It rained forty days and nights during the Noahic flood (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6). Moses was on the mountain of God for forty days and nights where he fasted in the presence of God (Exodus 24:18; 34:28). Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:33-34). Interestingly, these were all moments of judgment as the flood washed away the earth’s violence, Israel built a golden calf while Moses was on the mountain and pleaded with God to not destroy Israel, and Israel was tested in the wilderness for their refusal to enter the land. “Forty,” then, is symbolic of a judgment, probation, or testing. Nineveh has entered their probation period, their “forty days.”

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, p. 133) suggests that Jonah is not invested in his message. Instead, he is ambivalent, and the reader suspects “Jonah’s obedience is not all that it appears to be.” His heart is not in it, and his message is rather terse, ambiguous, and unenthusiastic.

Several elements point to this reading. First, there is no “word of the Lord” accompanying the message, which is what one expects when a prophet speaks. Jonah, as Youngblood notes (p. 133), “included no such marks of validation” in his word to Nineveh. This omission is rather suspicious. Second, the ambiguity of the message may reflect Jonah’s intent to condemn rather than redeem Nineveh. He would rather threat Nineveh like Sodom and Gomorah rather than like Jerusalem. Third, curiously, the “king of Nineveh” does not hear the message from Jonah directly. Instead, he apparently hears about it as the news spreads throughout the city. One might expect a prophet would go directly to the leader and work from the top-down.

Whether this language reflects Jonah’s hesitancy and begrudging participation or not, the message has God’s desired effect. God empowered this message even if Jonah was not fully committed to God’s gal in the message. Jonah preaches, and Nineveh repents.

Nineveh Repents

Though the word “repent” is not used in Jonah 3:6, their actions embody repentance. Explicitly, “the people of Nineveh believed God.”

This is significant for several reasons. First, they believed God. The Ninevites recognize Jonah’s preaching as a word from God, even though the text does not use the prophetic phrase “the word of the Lord.”

Second, they believed God (not Yahweh). This is a subtle but important difference. They did not believe in the covenant God of Israel as if they were part of the people of Israel. Rather, they believed God, who “made the sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Like the sailors, the Ninevites trust the Creator God. They are addressed by the Creator; they are not addressed as the covenant people of Yahweh.

Third, they believed God. As Youngblood (p. 135) points out, this alludes to Genesis 15:6 where uncircumcised Abram is credited with righteousness through faith. Abram “believed Yahweh.” Abraham was justified through faith, and so are the Ninevites. Circumcision is not a requirement for salvation, and salvation comes to Nineveh just as it did for Abraham….through faith. Even the nations live by faith, just like Israel. All the righteous live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17).

Nineveh demonstrates its penitence through several rituals: fasting and sackcloth. Fasting is a time of prayer, self-denial, and seeking. Sackcloth typically reflects mourning. This included everyone—small and great. In other words, it transcended social hierarchies and equalized everyone before God. Even the “king of Nineveh” participated. He arose, removed his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. The verbs describe a movement from a privileged and honored status to a humble and penitent abasement. The whole city humbles itself before God in response to the preaching of Jonah.

Just as Jonah represents Israel, so the repentance of Nineveh serves “as a foil to indict Israel indirectly for her own lack of repentance” (Bryan Estelle, Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy, p. 110). Israel was supposed to model repentance for the nations but here Nineveh models repentance for Israel. The nations, therefore, teach Israel. Their roles are reversed.

God’s Mercy for the Nations

Drawing on Youngblood’s reading of this section in Jonah, it seems evident a considerable number of echoes and allusions in the text reflect the narrator’s intent to highlight God’s mercy to “uncovenanted” people, that is, the nations who have no share in Israel’s covenant with Yahweh.

Though “uncovenanted,” the Creator intends to show mercy to the nations. This is indicated by how the language of the narrative echoes the Genesis narrative. In each echo the narrator compares Nineveh with God’s relationship with the nations in Genesis.

Jonah Genesis
Nineveh belongs to God Israel belongs to God (17:7-8)
Forty Days to Repent Forty Days of Flood (7:4)
Overturn Nineveh Overturn Sodom (19:25)
They Believed God Abram believed Yahweh (15:6)
“King of Nineveh” “King of Sodom” (14:21)

Whatever the exact meaning or value of these echoes, the overall point is clear: God is sovereign over the nations, calls the nations to account, and offers the nations mercy through faith and repentance.

God loves the nations, and God uses Israel to bless the nations. Yahweh sent Jonah to show mercy to Nineveh, and thus Israel blesses Nineveh.

The problem, of course, is Jonah is not all that enthused about Yahweh’s intent.

“Uncovenanted mercies,” a phrase used in the history of Christian theology, is often a begrudging recognition that God may save people outside the covenant. James A. Harding, for example, used it to describe how might save those who are unimmersed (Gospel Advocate, November 30, 1882, p. 758). Others use it to describe those who have never heard about Jesus.

Whatever the application, the story of Jonah reminds us how God intends to show mercy to all people and God has the sovereign to do so outside the covenant. Indeed, God not only has that right, but in the story of Jonah God exercises that right and saves Nineveh through “uncovenanted mercies.”

We must not limit God from doing the same today.

Jonah 2:10-3:3a – The God of Second Chances

December 4, 2015

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.

Jonah 1:2

Jonah 3:2

Arise (or, Get up!) Arise (or, Get up!)
Go! Go!
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.

Unto Us A Child is Born: Hope in the Darkness (Isaiah 9:1-7)

November 28, 2015

[Listen or watch the sermon on Isaiah 9 here.]

Isaiah spoke into a world analogous to our own, one soaked in darkness.

When  night descended upon Judah, people saw only “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish” (Isaiah 8:22). Uncertain of where to turn, people sought guidance in all the wrong places, including false gods, the dead, and their political leaders (Isaiah 8:19-2o). Overwhelmed by the darkness, people look to anyone or anything for light and hope.

Judah had been thrust into the middle of war when their northern kinsmen (Israel) joined with Syria to try to force Judah into an alliance against Assyria. Judah, however, appealed to Assyria to stave off their invasion. War ensued, and darkness descended upon the land.

Ultimately, Israel, the northern kingdom, caught the brunt of this war when Assyria annexed “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” in the “Galilee of the nations.” Exile, which would later envelop all Israel (by Assyria) and Judah (by Babylon), came to Galilee first.

Darkness enveloped Galilee, and it still envelopes much of the world. Recent weeks have seen the rise terror and violence with a greater rise in fear and anxiety. Suspicion reigns, and violence–already so prevalent in so many ways in the United States–continues to erupt across the goble. Darkness surrounds us, just as it did ancient Israel and Judah.

In the biblical theodrama (the story of God), darkness precedes light.  In the beginning the Spirit of God hovered over the waters covered in darkness, but then God said, “Let there be light.” Following this pattern, God has continuously injected light into the darkness. Israel itself, as a nation, was intended to be light within the darkness, which engulfed the nations. And in war-torn Israel and Judah in the 730s BCE, when the land was soaked in “deep darkness” and the people “walked in darkness,” they saw a “great light.”

Isaiah heralds a time when this “great light” would dawn on the “way of the sea,” which ran through Galilee. With this light, the nation would multiply and rejoice as if celebrating a great harvest. With this light, the rod of oppression would be lifted and all military gear would be burned as fuel for fires. The land would be filled with great joy and light while oppression and war would no longer exist.

The turning point is the birth of a child. Light dawns with a birth announcement. The fortunes of Israel and Judah, as well as the whole earth, will turn on the birth of this child. This birth announces hope!

Isaiah 9:6 announces the birth of a new king who is invested with the authority of the throne of David, and the child is given royal names similar to Ancient Near Eastern kings..

  • Wonderful Counselor — a wise guide who gives good counsel
  • Mighty God — a powerful hero invested with God’s strength and representing God in the nation
  • Everlasting Father — a benevolent, enduring benefactor whom the people trust
  • Prince of Peace — a peacemaker who reigns in prosperity

These titles identify the function of this new ruler and how he will serve the people of God.  He is a wise sage, the image of God, a gracious parent, and the forger of peace. This one, who sits on the throne of David, is a benevolent ruler who enacts peace and justice as God’s representative.

Who is this? At the historical level of Isaiah’s original audience, the prophet is probably referring to Hezekiah, whose reign after the slackening of Assyrian oppression resulted in years of peace and prosperity. But the language does not quite fit with Hezekiah’s reign. Something larger is in view as the authority of this king grows “continually” and provides “endless peace” as well as “justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”

While the prophet has an immediate word of hope and encouragement for Judah, his language envisions more than what Hezekiah provided. Isaiah anticipates a time when “the throne of David and his kingdom” will fully establish peace and justice upon the earth, and this is something Yahweh will effect; Yahweh “will do this.”

Enter Jesus, the Messiah.

Matthew, quoting Isaiah 9:1-2, believes Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s hopes (Matthew 4:12-17).

After his baptism (his own “red-sea” experience parallel to Israel’s), the Spirit led Jesus into the Judean desert for forty days (his own “wilderness” experience parallel to Israel’s), and in the face of opposition to John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.” Making “his home in Capernaum by the sea,” Jesus located his ministry in the land of “Zebulun and Naphtali.” There Jesus begins his ministry, heralding the good news of the kingdom of God, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The light has dawned in the darkness. The ministry of Jesus enacts the presence of the kingdom in the world, and this is the light Jesus brings into the darkness. The shadow of death is dispelled by the light of Jesus’s ministry where the dead are raised, the sick are healed, the demons are expelled, and chaos is subdued.

The ministry of Jesus reverses the curse!

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).

“…people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24b).

The conjunction of the words and deeds of Jesus proclaim the kingdom of God.  Jesus heralds the good news of the kingdom through teaching in the synagogues and then enacts the good news of the kingdom through a healing ministry.

The phrase “good news of the kingdom” is quite significant.  This is the gospel.  Is this about the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is the common definition of the gospel among many? Is Jesus already talking about that? Not yet.  The narrator makes it clear that Jesus does not begin to talk about his death and resurrection until after his transfiguration (Matthew 16:21) and then only to his small circle of disciples.

When Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom in the synagogues of Galilee–providing light in the darkness–he is not talking about his death and resurrection.  So, what is the good news?  It is the good news of forgiveness, of blessing, of compassion, of healing…it is the good news embodied in the very deeds of Jesus himself; it is the good news of his ministry.. The good news is the curse is being reversed in the lives of people.

His deeds are themselves a parable of the kingdom; they are a witness to the presence of the reign of God.  They are a reversal of the curse. The miracles are not primarily about authenticating his Messianic claim though they do serve that function.  The miracles are not primarily about compassion though they convey the love of God.

The miracles are about hope–the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, peace, justice, and life. Hope is light in the darkness, and it is embodied in the presence and ministry of Jesus the Messiah.

Hope changes everything. It dispels the darkness. It frees the captive. It releases debts. It gives life.

The darkness is yet with us, but the light disperses the darkness. And one day it will totally eliminate it because in the new heaven and new earth, “there is no night there.”

“Unto us a child is born.” That is hope.

“There is no night there.” That is hope fulfilled.

Consequently, even while the darkness remains, hope is a ray of light, and we are people of hope as we live as lights within the darkness.

Jonah 2:6-9 – Jonah’s Prayer, Part II: Did Jonah Repent?

November 18, 2015

The first half of Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:2-6a) recalled Jonah’s plight in the sea—thrown into the water, engulfed in the waves, and sinking deep into Sheol—and his prayerful response, a cry for help. The second half of the prayer expresses thanksgiving for Yahweh’s deliverance (Jonah 2:6b-9). The two halves represent a typical Thanksgiving Psalm where the crisis and petition are remembered and the deliverance is received with thanksgiving (e.g., Psalm 116).

A thanksgiving song is an appropriate response to Jonah’s experience. Hurled into the sea and sinking into its depths, God delivered Jonah in response to his petition.

However, something is missing, something we might expect in a penitent petitioner. The petition is present as well as the thanksgiving, but the penitence is missing. There is no explicit confession of sin or repentance in the song, which we might expect since Jonah’s circumstances were due to his resistance to the divine call. Instead, it is almost as if the song presumes an innocence. Jonah is delivered from death but nothing in the song identifies why the singer is in danger or why Yahweh hurled him into the sea. Jonah simply asks for mercy—deliverance from death, but not mercy for his decision to flee from God.

Jonah gives thanks for Yahweh’s saving act, which is sending the great fish to swallow him up and deliver him to land. The thanksgiving is authentic and pious, but the lack of sorrow or mourning for his flight suggests something else lies hidden in Jonah’s heart. Something is missing.

Jonah’s Thanksgiving

Following Kevin Youngblood’s structure for Jonah 2 (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, 100) in the presentation of the text of 2:6c-9, the second half of the prayer stresses divine salvation.

Then you brought up my life from the pit,

O Yahweh, my God!

The contrast between “brought up” and Jonah’s descent is important. Though Jonah descended into the land of Sheol beneath the sea, God empowers his ascent from the pit (Sheol). This descent and ascent is resurrection language. Jonah goes down to the grave, but ascends to life. There is more to think about in that language, and I will offer something in a future post paralleling the sign of Jonah with the resurrection of Jesus.

This language also contrasts divine actions. Though Yahweh hurled Jonah into the sea (Jonah 2:3), now Yahweh restores life through the great fish Yahweh sent the fish to swallow Jonah in order to preserve his life. Yahweh disciplines Jonah and then redeems him.

The invocation, common in the Psalms (Psalms 7:1, 3; 13:3; 18:28; 30:2, 12; 35:24, etc.), expresses the deep connection between Jonah and God. Yahweh—the covenant God of Israel, the maker of land and sea—is, Jonah confesses, “my God.” Though hurled into the sea and brought near to death, Jonah does not give up his relationship with Yahweh.

As my life was ebbing way,

I remembered Yahweh!

“I remembered” articulates faith. While it is true “Yahweh remembered” (e.g., Exodus 2:24; 6:5) is more foundational to the faith of Israel and Israel even prays for God to “remember” (e.g., Exodus 32:13), Israel’s response to Yahweh’s pursuit is to remember Yahweh. This is not a reversal of divine initiative as if Jonah causes God to remember Jonah or Jonah thinks he has made the first move in some sense. Rather, it is Jonah’s response to Yahweh’s pursuit.

Jonah’s life is ebbing away because Yahweh hurled a wind upon the sea and Yahweh hurled Jonah into the sea. God is pursuing Jonah through a severe mercy, and Jonah responds by remembering Yahweh. Memory serves Jonah’s faith and propels his prayer (cf. Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:18; 15:15; 16:3, 12; 24:22). This, again, is the language of the Psalter. In our distress and lament, psalmists often remember God (Psalms 63:6 [“think” is the verb “remember”]; 71: 16 [“praise” is the verb “remember”]; 119:55; 143:5). In particular, Psalm 77, which laments a troubled life, ultimately “remembers” God (77:3, 5, 11). To remember Yahweh is to call to mind Yahweh’s mercy, promises, and redemptive works. Jonah knows Yahweh.

My prayer came to you,

[it came] to your holy temple.

This is the middle or central affirmation of the second half of the prayer. The direct address, “You,” and “your holy temple” are parallel expressions. This is not some mere ritualized piety, which has lost connection with God. On the contrary, it embraces the promise articulated by the Solomonic prayer at the dedication of the temple in 2 Chronicles 6. The temple assures Israel of God’s mercy to those who seek Yahweh. When Israel prays toward the temple, they pray toward God’s dwelling place and thus to God.

Here Jonah claims the promise of God; he is not presuming on God’s grace but invoking God’s promise. Jonah knows where to turn when in distress, and he knows Yahweh is merciful.

Those who worship vain idols forsake [your] mercy,

but I will, with the voice thanksgiving, sacrifice to you;

what I have vowed I will pay.

Here Jonah surprises us a bit. He draws a contrast between his commitment and the commitment of idolaters. We might wonder whether Jonah has in mind the sailors on the ship, the Ninevites, or something more general.

The language echoes Psalm 31:6: those who worship (shamar) worthless (hebel) idols (shawe’). As such, it is typical language to describe those committed to false gods. While the language does not necessarily betray any kind of arrogance, Jonah’s use—given the context of the narrative—may reflect a kind of self-assured piety.

In Jonah 1, the sailors called on their gods, but they ultimately worshiped Yahweh and offered sacrificial vows to Yahweh, which is exactly what Jonah promises to do as well. Jonah, we might suppose, is unaware of their worship since they only worshiped Yahweh after Jonah’s expulsion. The narrator highlights the sailors’s worship while Jonah continues his merciless polemic against idolaters.

Indeed, we might see something of Jonah’s hatred for idolaters in his language. It expresses his unchanged attitude toward Nineveh, perhaps even for the sailors or all idolaters. His contrast between them and himself is an empty one since we know how the sailors worshiped Yahweh and we anticipate the repentance of the Ninevites in Jonah 3. Ironically, Jonah is the only one who does not have a change of heart in the narrative since he resents how God shows mercy to Nineveh in his prayer in Jonah 4.

Jonah does not want idolaters to receive God’s mercy (hesed). Translations vary, but it is best to take the term hesed (sometimes translated in Jonah 2:8 as “loyalty,” NRSV) as a reference to Yahweh’s mercy rather than the idolater’s loyalty. As Youngblood notes (p. 112), this important biblical term “never refers to human actions toward God, though it can refer to charitable acts towards one’s fellow-humans.” Idolaters, according to Jonah, have no stake in Yahweh’s mercy. Ironically, while giving thanks for Yahweh’s mercy to himself, Jonah glories in the lack of mercy for idolaters and, seemingly, prefers idolaters never experience that mercy. This is certainly the case for Nineveh since Jonah resents the mercy they ultimately receive (Jonah 4:2-3).

Consequently, though Jonah will appropriately praise, sacrifice to, and pay his vows to Yahweh at the temple when the time arrives (and rightly so, Leviticus 7 and Psalm 116 are examples—this is not Jonah exhibiting some kind of works righteousness!), Jonah does not want idolaters offered the same opportunity. He wants no mercy for idolaters.

Deliverance belongs to Yahweh!

Salvation and Yahweh often occur together in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Psalms (3:7; 6:4; 7:1; 18:2-3; 20:9; 24:5, etc.). More specifically, this exact phrase does not appear anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It affirms Yahweh’s sovereignty over salvation and deliverance; God alone will decide salvation. Yahweh’s salvation is not, as Youngblood notes (p. 114), “subject to human manipulation.”

Yet, Jonah attempted to manipulate Yahweh by fleeing from Yahweh’s presence. Jonah did not want to become the instrument of Nineveh’s salvation or Yahweh’s mercy. This confession, however, is perhaps an acceptance of Yahweh’s sovereignty: God will save whomever God has decided to save. In effect, Jonah bows before that sovereignty, though he does not like it, and accepts Yahweh’s commission to Nineveh. As we see in Jonah 3, the prophet carries out Yahweh’s mission, despite his misgivings about its justice.

Piety and Protest

James Bruckner uses this language in his NIV Application Commentary on Jonah. I think it is helpful.

Jonah’s prayer reveals authentic piety, but it also has a subtle (perhaps not so subtle) protest. Jonah is truly thankful for a new chance at life, but he is nevertheless reticent to show idolaters mercy. He acknowledges the sovereignty of God over salvation but his heart does not embrace mercy for Nineveh. He accepts his mission but ultimately resents its fruit. As Youngblood discerns, Jonah moves from resistance to acceptance and then to resentment; this is the book’s narrative flow from Jonah 1 to Jonah 4.

This tension–between piety and protest–is present, and we should not resolve it but let it stand since the narrative itself promotes it. Jonah moves from resistance to acceptance, but then his acceptance moves to resentment. Consequently, his acceptance is not full but conditioned. He accepts the mission but resents it.

At the same time, we should not overemphasize the protest. It is there, but some find it under every rock. For example, some find “works righteousness” or mere ritualism in Jonah’s commitment to sacrifice at the temple, or some think Jonah substitutes the temple for God for God. Some suggest Jonah’s frequent use of the first person singular (I, me, and my—seventeen times altogether) represents an egocentric orientation (possible but uncertain).

However, all this is present in the Psalter. For example, Psalm 116 uses the first person singular almost thirty times. Psalm 116 also expresses thanks through a thanksgiving sacrifice and vows, just like Jonah. And Psalm 116 intends to do this in the “courts of the house of Yahweh” at Jerusalem (116:19), just like Jonah.

While Jonah protests—by what is missing and somewhat by what is said, Jonah is also devoutly gives thanks for Yahweh’s deliverance. We see authentic piety in this prayer, but it also provides hints that Jonah’s heart toward Nineveh has not changed.

So, did Job repent? Yes and No. In one sense he repented. He accepted the mission. In another sense, however, he did not repent since he never fully bought into the goal of the mission. Jonah repents only in the sense he goes to Nineveh and carries out the mission whereas previously he fled from the presence of God. He does not repent of his theological animus towards Nineveh, that is, he does not want God to show them any mercy.


Jonah is thankful, and he will devote himself to the worship of Yahweh. But his heart is unchanged.

Perhaps this is a struggle we all have though about different things. We are committed, and we seek God. But some dimensions of our souls are unchanged, and we struggle to fully conform our hearts to God’s heart.

Parts of our hearts are unknown to us until God confronts us with a choice, as God did with Jonah. God’s severe mercy revealed something about Jonah’s own heart, which is as yet unresolved at the beginning of Jonah 4. Jonah did not think idolaters should be shown mercy, particularly the Ninevites.

Perhaps God chose Jonah for this mission to specifically reveal to Jonah how out of sync he was with Yahweh’s heart.  Just as Jesus called the Rich Young Ruler to give all he had to the poor as a way of revealing his heart, so God commissions Jonah for a mission of mercy to Nineveh.  Both had the same response–they walked away.

God sees the struggle in Jonah, and God pursues him with a severe mercy to reorient his heart. Jonah changes (repents) and accepts the mission, but his heart is unchanged. God still has some more work to do on Jonah….and on us.

Suggestions for Our Harvests

November 17, 2015

I have some suggestions for Christmas!

But first a little biblical theology….

Israel enjoyed their Spring and Fall harvests with week-long celebrations. In the Spring, seven weeks after Passover, Israel celebrated the Spring harvest with the “Festival of Harvest/Weeks” (Pentecost). In the Fall, Israel celebrated the Fall harvest with the “Festival of Booths/Tabernacles.”

These festivals did double-duty. Not only did they celebrated the Spring and Fall harvests, they were also tied to God’s redemptive acts within Israel’s history. Just as the Passover remembered the Exodus, so the Pentecost remembered the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the Feast of Tabernacles remembered the forty-year wilderness pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

The festivals, then, gave thanks not only for God’s present blessings in the harvest but also identified the present people of God with their ancestors. Through the festivals, Israel relived its history and received God’s gracious harvest gifts.

Embedded in Israel’s calendar, these annual events regulated Israel’s communal life. They provided a rhythm of identity, memory, and thanksgiving for Israel’s life with God.

In addition, they also provided a rhythm of generosity.

When Israel gathered to celebrate the harvest festivals, they were warned to “not appear before the Lord empty-handed.” They were to “give as they are able, according the the blessing of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17).

Israel not only enjoyed its harvest, but it shared its harvest.

More specifically, they shared their harvest with “the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14).

This three-fold concern–the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow–is a recurring emphasis in Deuteronomy (10:18; 14:29; 24:17, 19; 26:12-13; 27:19) as well as within the rest of the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; Psalm 994:6; 146:9).

In particular, the call to bless and protect the “resident alien” within Israel receives special emphasis. The verb or nouns forms for this term occur 175 times in the Hebrew Bible. Variously translated as “sojourner,” “resident alien,” “foreigner,” or “stranger,” it describes a person who is not native to the land in which they live. Israel, for example, was an alien in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 23:7), and Israel should love aliens because they were aliens in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).

When Israel harvested its crops and celebrated God’s blessings, God expected they would share their blessings with the “aliens” among them. This is a rhythmic and ritualized generosity. Such ritual patterns not only symbolize Israel’s values, they also shape hearts and cultivate those values in the community.

Christmas has become that kind of ritual for Christians. It is a season in which we share with others. While as a cultural phenomenon the season is too often focused on consumerism and self-absorbed as well as extravagant family celebrations, it should be a time when families celebrate their lives together and share with each other while they also share with others.

Israel’s festivals were not self-focused or self-interested. They enjoyed God’s blessings as families, but they also included included the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  And, more to the point of recent days, they included the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, or immigrant.

So, here are my Christmas suggestions.

First, when we budget our Christmas spending, let us spend a significant percentage on people outside of our family and friends. My family budgets 1/3 of our Christmas spending on “Christmas giving.”

Second, when we share our Christmas giving with others, share with the immigrants in your community!  Just as Israel, include the immigrants in your festive generosity.

Third, identify immigrants in your world who work on the margins of your life–such as facilities workers, yard workers, etc.–and give them a Christmas gift.

Fourth, practice this as a communal (church) or family ritual so that its values are cultivated in your community or family as a regular, habitual, and annual festival analogous to Israel’s harvest festivals.

When God called Israel into this kind of ritualized, communal, and habitual practice, it seems to me God understood the practical effect this would have on their lives, characters, and communal life. It not only teaches us something but forms us into a particular kind of people.

That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.





Jonah 2:2-6 — Jonah’s Prayer, Part I

November 11, 2015

Jonah sings a thanksgiving song, even while in the belly of the great fish. Because the great fish rescued Jonah from death, the fish now gives him a “boat ride” back to land. Jonah is not terrified by the fish but thankful. God saved his life by providing a great fish to swallow him and return him to land. It was a three-day journey from Sheol back to life. Consequently, Jonah prays a thanksgiving song, even in the in the belly of the great fish.


The prayer’s genre is evident from its component parts. Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, 101) identifies these parts, and they are typical for a thanksgiving psalm (for example, Psalm 116).

Element Occurrence
Introductory Summary Jonah 2:2

“I cried out, because of my distress, to YHWH and he answered”

Recollection of the Crisis Jonah 2:3, 5-6abc

“The waters had enclosed me, threatening my life; the deep had enveloped me; reeds had wrapped around my head.”

Cry out for Help Jonah 2:4, 7

“YHWH I had remembered. My petition had reached you; [it had reached] your holy temple.”

Description of Deliverance Jonah 2:6d

“Then you restored from the pit my life.”

Vows Jonah 2:8-9ab

“As for me, with a grateful voice I will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.”

Praise Jonah 2:9c

“Deliverance belongs to YHWH.”

Typically, thanksgiving psalms move from remembrance of the crisis and the petitioner’s cry for help to its resolution with gratitude, sacrifice, vows, and praise. In other words, they remember the crisis and the petition, and then they give thanks for the deliverance. This is exactly what we see in Jonah’s prayer: Crisis and petition (2:2-6abc) followed by thanksgiving and praise (2:6d-9).

Consequently, Jonah’s prayer is not a prayer for deliverance from the belly of the fish, but a remembrance of how Jonah cried out to God in the “womb of Sheol,” that is, in the belly of the sea where he was drowning. God answered Jonah’s cry for help by providing a great fish to bring him back to life and land. Jonah is rescued from Sheol, from the pit of death, and encounters God’s presence in the belly of the great fish as he journeys toward land.

As a result of this deliverance, Jonah promises a sacrifice—a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Leviticus 7), and pledges he will pay his vows, which are typically part of a thanksgiving sacrifice ritual. Jonah knows, beyond any doubt, Yahweh has rescued or delivered him.

Prayer Language

Jonah’s prayer is deeply immersed in the liturgical life of Israel as Jonah uses the language of Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms. Almost every word and line has a counterpart in the Psalter. The below chart identifies similar, often the same, language (Hebrew) in both Jonah’s prayers and various psalms.

Jonah Psalms
2:2 I called to the Lord, and he answered me I called to the Lord, and he answered me 3:4; 120:1
2:2 Out my distress Out of my distress 118:5
2:2 I cried for help I cried for help 18:6;

28:2; 30:2; 88:14

2:2 Sheol Sheol 30:3; 88:3
2:2 You heard my voice You heard my voice 28:6; 31:22; 116:1
2:3 You have thrown me away You have thrown me aside 102:10
2:3 Into the deep…waves In the deep…waves 88:6f;


2:4 From your sight (eyes) From your sight (eyes) 31:22
2:4 Holy temple Holy temple 5:7; 138:2
2:5 Waters as far as my life (soul) Waters as far as my neck (soul) 69:1
2:5 Deep surrounds Deep surrounds 42:7; 88:17
2:6 You brought up the pit You brought up from Sheol 30:3; 71:20
2:6 Yahweh, my God Yahweh, my God 13:3; 30:12; 88:1
2:7 When my soul fainted When my life faints 142:3
2:7 I remembered I remember 42:4, 6



2:7 My prayer to you My prayer to you 69:13; 88:2
2:7 Holy temple Holy temple 5:7; 138:2
2:8 Worship worthless idols Worship worthless idols 31:6
2:8 Forsake steadfast love (hesed) Forsake faithful ones (hesed) 37:28
2:9 Thanksgiving…pay vows Thanksgiving…pay vows 50:14



2:9 Salvation belongs to the Lord Salvation belongs to the Lord 3:8;


What is the significance of this? One might suggest Jonah is vainly repeating phrases from his past piety. I see no reason to think this, however. To use standard liturgical phrases does not mean it is contrived piety. Rather, it might reflect how deeply ingrained this language is in the life of the singer. Sometimes pious repetition is the most effective way to express our hearts when our own words fail us. Further, the prayer perfectly fits the situation, and it is tailored to express Jonah’s journey from watery chaos to life on the land. Jonah is thankful for life.

What this language does tell us is how profoundly shaped Jonah is by the worship of Israel. As Bobby Valentine says, “The prayer shows Jonah to be a master of Israel’s liturgical tradition (he has memorized the hymns!).” He knows his prayer book; he knows how to pray, and he prays sincerely. He petitioned God while tossed about in the chaotic sea, and now, in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks and vows a sacrifice once he returns to the temple. This is the first (2:2b-6b) and second halves (2:6c-9) of the prayer itself. As Youngblood outlines the prayer, Jonah first remembers his petition and God’s response (2:2b-6abc), and then he expresses gratitude for God’s deliverance (2:6d-2:9).

Remembering the Petition (Jonah 2:2-6abc)

The prayer runs like this (in some cases I have taken Youngblood’s suggested translation; otherwise it is my own with some language from the NRSV. I have also underlined parallel ideas):

I called, out of my distress, to Yahweh,

            and he answered me.

I cried out for help in the womb of Sheol,

            you heard my voice.

Nearing death, perhaps confronted with a near-death experience, Jonah awakens to his situation. Near death, he finds himself in the “womb” of Sheol. The noun translated “womb” is often translated “belly,” but it effectively means “womb” since it is feminine in gender (so Youngblood). Sheol is the realm of the dead, and this is Jonah’s distress. When Jonah was about to die, he cried out for help and asked Yahweh to deliver him from death. God answered and delivered him by sending a great fish to swallow him. Now, in the belly of the fish, Jonah gives thanks for the deliverance.

You hurled me into the deep,

            into the heart of the seas

                        and the river overcame me.

            All your breakers and billows swept over me.

In the previous line, Jonah addressed God directly: “you heard my voice.” Now, remembering his predicament, he recognizes God’s hand in his distress. “You hurled me into the deep,” he says. “Hurled” is the same word used to describe what the wind God sent upon the sea, how sailors threw cargo overboard, and what the sailors did to Jonah in chapter one. Though the sailors “hurled” him, Jonah knows who lies behind their action. The sailors served God’s purposes; God hurled Jonah into the deep by the hands of the sailors.

The language of “deep,” “heart of the sea,” and the “river” as well as “breakers” and “billows” provide a vivid image of how chaos (perhaps alluding the Canaanite gods Yam [sea] and Nahar [river]) overwhelm Jonah. God gives Jonah over to the chaos, to the forces beyond Jonah’s control but not outside of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Yahweh maintains control over the chaos that surrounds and overwhelms Jonah.

Then I said,

            Though I have been banished from your sight,

                        yet I will look once more toward your holy temple.

In the midst of the chaos, Jonah decides—despite his sense that he is beyond hope, outside of God’s care and concern—to look again, at least one more time, toward God’s dwelling place, God’s holy temple. When Solomon consecrated the new temple in 2 Chronicles 6, he describes how Israel, when it sins, would “prayer toward this place” (the temple) for forgiveness (2 Chr. 6:21, 26). The temple always meant hope, forgiveness, and renewal. Jonah appeals for mercy by turning his face and prayer toward God’s dwelling place.

The waters engulfed me up to the neck,

            the watery deep overcame me,

                        and the reeds wrapped around my head.

The “waters,” “deep,” and “reed” (as in Sea of Reeds, or Red Sea) evoke the Exodus (Exodus 15:4, 8, 10, 19, 22, 25), but Jonah is not standing on the land. On the contrary, he is, like Pharoah’s army, sinking into the sea. When God flooded the path through the sea to destroy the Egyptian army, God released chaos. It is a form of “uncreation” (like the flood in Genesis 6-8) where God reverses the good order of creation and chaos takes over once again. Jonah feels like the Egyptian army at the bottom of the “Red Sea” (or Sea of Reeds). This is yet another description of Jonah’s near-death experience from the chaotic sea, which—in this circumstance—serves Yahweh.

I descended to the foundations of the mountains,

            to the land whose bars would trap me forever.

Youngblood is particularly insightful in these comments (p. 109):

In Israel, the sacred mountain is represented by Zion. Thus, the mountains to which Jonah descended are the inverse, the negative, of the sacred mountain here Jonah previously stood in YHWH’s presence. Jonah has just completed an “anti-pilgrimage” to the “anti-temple” of Sheol. Instead of a psalm of ascent sung by pilgrims during their climb to the summit of Zion, Jonah sings a psalm of descent inn anticipation of death and separation from YHWH.

Jonah, descending to the base of the mountains in the sea, entered an underwater “land,” the realm of the dead, which is Sheol. Jonah’s descent was into death, but God heard his prayer and delivered him.

Jonah’s Chaos and Our Own

While Jonah created his own chaos by fleeing from God’s presence–and we often do the same, we also experience chaos in so many other ways. Reading Jonah’s prayer, his language lives in our own experiences of chaos. In desperate times–drowning in the sea, as it were–we reach to God and cry out for God’s mercy.

In a real sense, we are all Jonah. We have all found ourselves, at times, engulfed in the waters, overwhelmed by the deep. Chaos often reigns in our livers, whether it is due to our own sin or due to tragic circumstances beyond our control.

What we learn from about God from the storyteller in the book of Jonah is that God is merciful. God hears our prayers, and God answers them with mercy and deliverance, even if we have created our own chaotic circumstances.

Jonah’s prayer language comes from the Psalter, and Jonah’s prayer is also our prayer as we find ourselves engulfed in chaotic waters. Israel teaches us how to pray in the Psalms, and Jonah teaches us to appeal to God’s mercy despite the messes we have created for ourselves.


The center of the first half of Jonah’s thanksgiving song is an expression of hope despite his circumstances. Hurled into the deep, Jonah knows Yahweh has banished him, nevertheless Jonah looks toward God’s dwelling place. Seeking in the depths of the sea and descending toward Sheol, Jonah turns toward the temple in prayer and hopes for deliverance. And God, who is full of mercy, heard his prayer and delivered Jonah from certain death.