The Real Political Struggle

March 14, 2016

To which polis do you belong?

I’m not asking in which geographical cities do we live, nor am I asking which nation-state do we inhabit? I am asking which polis shapes our identity, drives life, and defines our telos (the end toward which we live life)? Which polis gives our lives meaning and purpose?

Paul explicitly addressed this question with overt political language.

Philippi was a political settlement; it was a Roman colony, filled with retired legionaries.  This was a precarious situation for a new, fledgling community that confessed “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” We might imagine political and personal harassment from neighbors, perhaps even economic oppression of various sorts. Living in this polis (Philippi) entailed hardship for those who professed and acknowledged they belonged to a different polis.

Paul identifies the Christian polis in Philippians 3:20. “Our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven.” The term politeuma has the word polis (city) embedded in it.

We might render the term “commonwealth” or “state,” and it identifies a political relation. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” while others find their “citizenship” on earth. The contrast is stark. The Christian community derives its identity from the reality of God’s new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus who reigns at the right hand of God.

More particularly, politeuma was often used, as Silva writes (WBC, cv. Phil. 3:20), “to designate a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans (BDAG) whose purpose was to secure the conquered country for the conquering country by spreading abroad that country’s way of doing things, its customs, its culture, and its laws.” In other words, it is a missional outpost whose purpose is to transform the surrounding culture. In other words, the heavenly politeuma breaks into the earthly politeuma for the sake of bringing heaven to earth. This is, in fact, the essence of the Lord’s Prayer:  “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This, then, is the real political struggle–the transformation of the earthly politeuma by the in-breaking of the heavenly politeuma.

How does this happen? What kinds of practices serve this purpose? How do people, who belong to a different polis, live in the midst of another polis?

We might imagine all sorts of possibilities. These are but a few, and the list does not advocate for any but simply identifies possibilities.

  • violent revolution where we achieve a new polis by violence, thinking that we are doing this for sake of the heavenly polis.
  • democratic processes where we fully participate in the earthly polis, including its passions (whether good or evil).
  • isolationism where we disengage from the earthly polis and hope for others to join us.
  • prophetic witness where we speak to the earthly polis out of the values of the heavenly polis, advocating for the interests of the weak.

We might find ourselves attracted to one of these, or perhaps several of them, possibilities (or another unidentified possibility). There are  many options.

The heavenly politeuma is our identity as disciples of Jesus, but it does not disconnect us from life. On the contrary, it calls us to live a particular kind of life amidst the earthly polis.

This is the real political struggle–which polis will shape our attitudes, actions, and practices.

Paul addresses the point in Philippians 1:27:  “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NRSV).

This plea–imperative!–is more significant than the translation “live your life” offers. The root verb is politeuesthai, “to live as a citizen” (the word polis is present in the verb). This is a call to live out one’s citizenship; to live out of the polis to which they belong.

In the broadest sense, according Brockmuehl (Philippians, p. 97), this is a “deliberate, publicly visible, and…politically relevant act which in the context distinguished from alternative lifestyles that might have been chosen instead.” This is God’s politics. Belonging to a different commonwealth, a different kingdom, and a different polis, those who embrace the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah embody a different ethic, a different way of being, a different political agenda.

This is not dual citizenship. Disciples of Jesus, in contrast to others, belong to the new creation, to the heavenly polis. Our commitment is not to the nation-state in which we live, but to God’s new creation.

We have a political imperative:  “Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (NLT).

How do we so live? Paul does not leave us without some direction. Fundamentally, it is not about self-interestedness. Rather, it is about serving the other, considering others better than ourselves, and dismissing vain conceits for the sake of the other (Philippians 2:1-4).

This is embodied in the life of Jesus the Messiah, and we are called–as a community and a people–to become the gospel (see the recent book by Michael Gorman by that title), which is the life and ministry of Jesus.

We are called to serve others just as Jesus did, who–though he existed in the form of God–did not consider his equality with God something to use to his own advantage (NIV, NRSV). Instead, he poured himself out as a servant; he humbled himself and became obedient to the will of God, even to death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is more concerned about the other than they are themselves.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is just as concerned about Guatemala as it is the United States.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is not interested in grabbing and holding wealth for the United States rather than sharing wealth with others.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that speaks up for the weak, oppressed, and persecuted, including the unborn.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that loves their enemies rather than spewing hatred against then and demonizing them, even when those enemies are political opponents in the United States.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that speaks kindly and gently rather than with violent anger or through disruptive intrusions.

The list could go on.

I don’t expect the earthly polis to conduct political campaigns by the values of the heavenly polis, but I do hope Christians who participate in the earthly polis do so with with the values of the heavenly polis.

Disciples of Jesus must clarify to what polis they belong, commit to how that polis supercedes all others, and–in the long run–no earthly polis can fully embody the heavenly polis.

We live in tense times, but the tension arises because self-interests war with each as they seek control of the earthly polis.

The real political struggle for disciples of Jesus is to engage the earthly polis with the values, attitudes, demeanor, and love of the heavenly polis. When disciples of Jesus become what they oppose, then the heavenly polis has no witness.

At bottom, whatever one’s earthly commitments to the political process are (whether Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc.), as disciples of Jesus our commitment to the heavenly polis is more fundamental, greater, and–in some sense–exclusive.

As Paul says, “live out your heavenly citizenship in such a way that you embody the good news of Jesus who poured out himself for the sake of others.”

Where we see hate, violence, intrusive disturbances, name-calling, war-mongering, bigotry, and fear, we know it arises from the earthly polis rather than the heavenly one.

“Our citizenship is in heaven.”

May it be evident for all to see!

May God have mercy.



In Defense of “I’ll Fly Away”

February 24, 2016

This past weekend, on February 20, I was honored to participate in the memorial service of a godly woman in Colonial Heights, Virginia.

Rose Marie Paden–the beloved mother of the Paden boys and girls, and the second mother of the Hicks boys and girl–passed from this life on February 12, 2016. In 1953, Rose Marie and her husband Lowell Paden, along with their three boys at the time (L. V., Mike, and Dan), joined the Hicks family in Colonial Heights, Virginia, to assist in the nurture of a new church plant. The Padens and Hicks were extended families for each other as both were so far from their West Texas roots, and we shared many occasions but especially every Thanksgiving where we would play games, sing songs, and eat together. Rose Marie was a pillar for the church in Colonial Heights for over sixty years! Her works will follow her (Revelation 14:13).

The most moving moment in the memorial service was singing some of her favorite hymns as a congregation, led by three of her grandsons. Those hymns opened our hearts and minds to her faith, and we wept and were comforted.

One of the songs was, “I’ll Fly Away.”

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away).

I’ll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory
I’ll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away).

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

Oh. How glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

I have been known, at times, to chuckle about this song and sometimes to oppose it. There are several reasons the song makes me a bit uncomfortable.

For example, I believe our final resting place is the new heavens and new earth, when heaven and earth become one. Then God will dwell with the redeemed on a renewed earth, fitted for eternal habitation. I don’t believe our final state is some celestial home outside of the present cosmos beyond the lenses of the Hubble telescope.

Another reason for discomfort is the implied assumption that “flying away” is the final journey or goal. This tends to say something like, “When I die, I go to heaven, and that is all I desire.” This leaves out the resurrection from the dead, which is the hope of the Christian faith, and it lends itself to a dualistic understanding of the human being as the physical (material) is laid aside to inherit a wholly “spiritual” (immaterial) realm.

But in this moment I want to offer a defense of the song.

It expresses a deep faith in God’s victory over death.  In other words, death does not win, though it may appear to do so. Human identity does not cease. We are carried away into the bosom of Abraham. Rose Marie flew away into the arms of God. It is her home…for now.

It expresses a deep sense of the chaos in this present world. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “everything is hebel” (or absurd, enigma, a breath, vanity). This present cosmos is enslaved and shackled, and the creation itself longs for redemption and renewal, according to Romans 8. The song expresses joy of release from this present bondage to a place where Rose Marie awaits the full redemption of the cosmos, including her own resurrection.

It also expresses a truth about the state of the dead, which is dear to my heart. While death destroys the unity of the human person–separating body and spirit–human identity remains (“I’ll fly away”), and human persons, despite death, escape to a place of joy without end in the presence of God. It goes to the question, “Where are the Dead?” (A question I addressed in a series of blogs, which you can find in my serial index; here is the link to the first one.) In particular, I regard Revelation 7 a fairly clear statement about those who were once upon the earth but have now crossed over into the throne room of God where every tear is wiped away (see my blog on this text). I believe when we die, though we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord. In some sense we are at home, sheltered by God and the Lamb. And there we wait with the whole creation for the redemption of both the cosmos and our bodies. While we wait, however, we enjoy God’s presence and join the chorus around God’s throne.

I don’t imagine that most people think about all this when they sing the song. Most likely many (if not most) simply think about going home to heaven and never returning to the earth or they don’t think about the resurrection of the dead.

But on February 20th, I sang “I’ll Fly Away” with gusto because it expressed what I knew was true about Rose Marie Paden.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”

Amen, and Amen.  Rest in peace, Rose Marie.  Say “Hello” to Lowell for me.

Visibly Practicing the Unity of the Spirit: What Shall We Do?

February 23, 2016

Many have heard about the “five steps of salvation,” but here are  my “five steps” toward visibly embodying the unity the Spirit has already created.

  1. Confession – we confess Jesus is Lord by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).
  1. Transformation – we are sanctified by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
  1. Liturgy – we worship in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3).
  1. Practicing the Kingdom of God – we minister in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19).
  1. Spiritual Formation Practices – we pray in the Spirit (Jude 20).

See the fuller article here.

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!

Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace

February 1, 2016

Review of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, by Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.  This review first appeared in Restoration Quarterly 56 (2014): 258-259.

This book is long overdue. While the shelves are filled with scholarly summaries of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, this is the first book-length rigorous exposition of the theology of Arminius. MCall and Stanglin intend their work as a complement to the magisterial 1971 Arminius biography by Carl Bangs. They write within the framework of a renaissance of Arminius scholarship (whaich began in the 1980s) that is more objective (as opposed to polemical) and contextual (recognizing a Reformed scholastic setting) than previous studies that heralded him as either saint or sinner.

The subtitle reflects their specific intent. They explain Arminius’s theology of grace in the light of the topics that most consumed his attention in the first decade of the seventeenth century and what “recent scholarship has found to be central.” Through a “constructive synthesis,” McCall and Stanglin “attempt to show what “makes him tick” (21). Grace is a pevasive theme that drive his pastoral and theological interests. This stands in contrast with some interpreters who think Arminius subverted the Reformed understanding of grace by “elevating autonomous human free will and introducing anthropocentrism into Protestantism” (22). On the contrary, Arminius consistently maintained the necessity and sufficiency of grace.

While developing his perspectives within the heart of the Reformed faith, the authors argue that Arminius had a “different theological starting point” from that of his opponents. Arminius begins with a theology of creation whose central feature is a love for the creation as well as a love for righteousness (God’s faithfulness to God’s own self). Out of this dual commitment, God “free–not of necessity–obliged himself to creation and set limits for his own actions” (93). The drama of redemption, then, is driven by God’s love for creatures coordinated with God’s own sense of justice. Arminius’s understanding of predestination, sin, and salvation arise from this fundamental theological orientation.

McCall and Stanglin place Arminius in the trajectory of Irenaeus, the Eastern Orthodox, Aquinas (Jesuit interpretation), and Molina (whose “middle knowledge” he adopts) in contrast with the line that begins with Augustine, continues through Aquinas (Dominican interpretation), and finds expression in Calvin.

The authors have succeeded. Their work will become a standard resource for the theology of Arminius in the foreseeable future, just as Bang’s biography has been for over forty years. Historical theologians, students of Arminianism and Calvinism, and those engaged in contemporary discussions of neo-puritanism (the young, Reformed, and restless) owe to themselves as well as to fair sense of history to digest this book carefully.


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.