Jonah and the Whale

Richard Downs
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

Recovering the Message of Scripture

In this special section of our "Rightly Dividing the Word" issue, nine pastor-theologians help shed light on some popular texts of Scripture that tend to lose their true redemptive-historical significance in a culture of interpretive narcissism.

And this is the tragedy of the Book of Jonah, that a Book which is made the means of one of the most sublime revelations of truth in the Old Testament should be known to most only for its connections to a whale. –G. A. Smith (1)

Martin Luther said once in a sermon that even after twenty years of preaching the gospel he still felt "the old clinging dirt of wanting to deal so with God" that he could contribute something, so that God would have to give him grace in exchange for holiness. (2) He captures a basic human instinct for legalism or moralism. Sin's most blatant form is in the assertion of autonomy. A more nuanced application is to claim a contribution. Such an instinct is disastrous for reading and understanding the Bible. It requires that a story have a moral, that the good guy is rewarded and the bad guy punished. This also means that being good or bad is readily identifiable by discrete acts. Good people obey God, bad people disobey, and one had better be good. Every story in the Bible becomes a warning against bad behavior or an exhortation toward good behavior. The remarkable thing about Luther's comment is that he reported the struggle continuing through twenty years of ostensibly faithful preaching. One doesn't get past the impulse to self-justification upon conversion. It's an ongoing battle.

When one gets to the book of Jonah, this desire for a story with a moral has Jonah as a bad prophet, an antihero who stands as a warning to those who would shirk their duty to God. An anonymous source on the Internet makes the following comments on Jonah:

There could have been no city less likely to repent than Nineveh, but when Jonah was finally willing to do as he was told, they did repent!…This same issue is with us today….Miracles can happen in people's lives when we share the Word of God with them. By withholding the Word, we are failing in our responsibility. (3)

In the worst way, the readers are commanded to shape up but with no gospel to propel obedience. And, seemingly without realizing it, the writer repudiates Jonah 2:9.

In fact, the book is far more interesting, far more delightful, far more convicting. Jonah's flight is surprising if not mysterious. The pagans are more sensible to God than he is. He sings of gratitude for his salvation from the belly of the whale. He flees the presence of the Lord, then rejoices in it, then becomes angry at God's mercy. There is not a linear trajectory in which the bad guy becomes good or the fool becomes wise. There is good news in the account of Nineveh's repentance and in God's determination to pity them. How will we get to a fuller understanding of this good news?

It is a good idea to imagine the Bible studies Jesus led in Luke 24. As "he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself," what happened when he got to Jonah? Actually, we know the answer to that question in fairly straightforward terms. Jesus had elsewhere spoken, when he was pushed for a miracle, of "the sign of Jonah." He would be in the grave as long as Jonah was in the whale, and Nineveh would provide voice to God's judgment against the generation that missed "one greater than Jonah" (Matt. 12.38-41). Jesus places the story into the much larger picture of God redeeming the world.

There can certainly be peripheral points in any biblical narrative to make us wise. Eugene Peterson's meditation on vocation that uses Jonah as a springboard has been of benefit to many. (4) But such treatments tend to miss Jesus' point when he spoke of the fulfillment of what was written about him in Jonah. The peripheral have a tendency to become central because, again, our instinct is always to find a way of obtaining some kind of moral status that will gain God's favor. The pursuit of wisdom is universal. Every religious system contains wisdom and ethics. Something much greater is happening in Jonah. We would do well to pay attention to the bigger picture–the whole history of redemption. Jesus fulfills Jonah, blatantly in his death and resurrection, but also as he embodies God's love for the nations. God's concern for the Ninevites is the precursor to Jesus' interactions with foreigners, his marveling at the faith of the centurion, which of course paves the way for Acts 10 and the apostle Paul's calling to the nations in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. Jonah 2:9 now comes into view, a verse that some have said is the key verse to the whole Bible: Salvation is of the Lord!

Then we also notice in Jonah that it's pretty easy to juxtapose sinners and saints–sinners can surprisingly repent and saints can be pretty faithless. Maybe believers are simultaneously justified and sinful. That observation can get personal. Phillip Cary, in his commentary on Jonah, captures well the amazing grace in this smallest of books:

Jonah is a comic figure: he does everything wrong, almost, yet through him the Lord God of Israel does everything right. All's well that ends well, as another great comedian once put it, but of course in the middle of the story things can get to be quite a mess. Jonah is a ridiculous excuse for a prophet–the holy man as screwup–and we're just like him. Why Jesus would want to identify with him is a deep mystery, as deep as his love for the rest of us. (5)

Do you remember how new faith spurred great energy for Jesus and his kingdom? Do you sometimes wonder how that zeal and love dissipated? Remembering the love of God, especially as it becomes surprising, puts one in position to ponder God's love for the Ninevites–not as a stimulus for guilt and groveling but as a means of connecting with God's heart and finding resonance.

1 [ Back ] G. A. Smith quote cited in Rosemary Nixon, Message of Jonah (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 128.
2 [ Back ] Martin Luther quoted from Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 375.
3 [ Back ] The anonymous Internet quote was gleaned from
4 [ Back ] Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994).
5 [ Back ] Phillip Cary, Jonah (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.
Wednesday, September 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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