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Jonah and the Resentment of God's Mercy — An Excerpt from Youngblood's New Jonah Commentary (HMS series)
One of the more well-known, well-loved stories from the Bible is the story of Jonah. Paintings have depicted the drama. The main protagonist is colloquial for a person who brings a ship bad luck. The crew of Big Idea Entertainment churned out a Veggie Tales-inspired movie based on the book.
I remember many flannelgraph lessons from childhood Sunday School classes depicting the dramatic reversal of fortunes for Jonah from runaway seafarer to whale food. And then the second dramatic reversal for the pagan Ninevites in danger of God's wrathful punishment to penitent mourners donning sackcloths who received God's forgiveness and grace.
But what is the meaning of the book as a whole? And how can we teach the main point of the story to our people in a way that gets at the main point the author intended?
Enter Kevin Youngblood's new commentary on Jonah that's part of the new Old Testament Hearing the Message of Scripture commentary series. I applaud his unique approach, which seeks to demonstrate how the clauses, paragraphs, and larger units all support the biblical author’s primary message, and serves to unify and bring focus to Jonah in a distinctive way.
The excerpt below gives you a glimpse into his method by explaining the main idea behind one of the book's more memorable episodes: Jonah's melodramatic response to Nineveh's repentance. Not only does Youngblood tie together internal parallels within Jonah itself, he also makes important canonical connections between Exod 32–34 and Joel 2:12–17. Such an approach reveals an important message to God's people in our day as much as in Jonah's.
-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)
Main Idea of the Passage
In a fit of anger, Jonah objects to God’s clemency, finally revealing that his problem with YHWH’s commission from the beginning was his fear that divine justice would suffer at the hands of divine mercy. Since his worst fears have been realized, Jonah asks to die.
Jonah 4:1 – 4 parallels 2:1c – 11b (1:17c – 2:10b). It brings the second main section of Jonah to its climax. As in the preceding peak episode, the tension building between Jonah and YHWH culminates in prayer. But this time, Jonah’s prayer takes the form of a complaint. Ironically, the complaint is provoked by the same mercy that inspired Jonah’s earlier praise. The two prayers, therefore, serve as counterpoints, marking the twin peaks of the book’s parallel structure.
This unit is also significant because it contains the first real dialogue between Jonah and YHWH. In previous episodes, either YHWH addressed Jonah and received no verbal response (1:1 – 2; 3:1 – 2), or Jonah addressed YHWH and received no verbal response (2:1c – 2:11b).
The book’s second peak episode also reveals an alternating pattern. In the two pre-peak episodes (1:4a – 17b and 3:3c – 10) Jonah interacts with Gentiles: first with the mariners and then with the citizens of Nineveh. In the two peak episodes (2:1c – 10b and 4:1-4) Jonah interacts with YHWH….
This pattern reveals a significant literary dynamic. Every encounter with Gentiles brings Jonah to a crisis point. These crises are followed by interactions with God in which Jonah experiences an emotional catharsis and a renewed invitation to embrace, rather than resist, God’s mercy.
This alternating rhythm is coupled with intensification. Engagement with others (strangers/foreigners) alternates with communion with YHWH (thanksgiving for Jonah’s salvation), resulting in an intensified engagement with others (enemies/foreigners), culminating in intensified communion with YHWH (argument over Nineveh’s salvation).
Structure and Literary Form
Jonah 3:10 concluded with a negated clause (“And he did not do it,” wel̆ oʾ̄ ʿas̄ ấ ), which restated and reinforced the outcome of Nineveh’s repentance and YHWH’s clemency. The author thus brought closure to the pre-peak episode. The initial narrative verb form in 4:1 (“this displeased,” wayyer̄ aʿ), therefore, resumes the plot line. Whereas the preceding sequence of narrative verbs had YHWH as their subject (3:10), the two that launch the peak episode share an impersonal subject: “This displeased Jonah . . . and it infuriated him.”…
Emphasis falls here on the content of Jonah’s complaint, which likewise consists of three sections. First, Jonah explains his initial flight: he feared the possibility that YHWH would spare Nineveh after YHWH’s first commission. Jonah knew that prophetic condemnation usually implies an invitation to repent, a chance Jonah was unwilling to take. These concerns were allayed after the second commission when Jonah received the content of the message. His misperception that the oracle spoke unequivocally of judgment created certain expectations that were not met.
Second, Jonah complains that YHWH’s character was precisely the reason he feared such a scenario. The source of the scandal was YHWH’s readiness to relent even if the penitent was guilty of harming YHWH’s people. Jonah perceives a flaw in the divine character when it comes to executing justice on Israel’s enemies.
Finally, Jonah concludes his prayer with an explicit petition for death. He issues YHWH an ultimatum — either Nineveh must die or Jonah must die. Jonah cannot see how YHWH could simultaneously maintain his covenant faithfulness to Israel and grant clemency to Nineveh. Perhaps Jonah hopes to change YHWH’s mind regarding Nineveh’s fate.
Explanation of the Text
1. Jonah’s Anger over YHWH’s Mercy (4:1a-b)
a. Jonah’s Evil (4:1a)
b. Jonah’s Anger (4:1b)
2. Jonah’s Complaint against YHWH’s Mercy (4:2 – 3)
a. Jonah’s Reason for His Initial Flight (4:2a-f)
b. Jonah’s Issue with God’s Character (4:2g-j)
c. Jonah’s Desire for Death (4:3)
3. YHWH’s Challenge to Jonah’s Anger (4:4)
Canonical and Practical Significance
Moses, Joel, Jonah and the Nations
The Explanation section discussed in some detail the important relationship between Jonah 4:1 – 4; Exod 32 – 34; and Joel 2:12 – 17. One additional aspect of their interrelationship remains to be explored. I have already suggested that the additional element in the traditional creed that Jonah and Joel share, YHWH’s readiness to relent from punishment, comes from Moses’ cry to God in Exod 32:12. The question that remains is how Jonah came to apply this aspect of YHWH’s character to his dealings with the nations. Even Joel’s expression of this attribute is in the context of YHWH’s sparing Israel.
The author of Jonah understands the prophet’s experience as an illustration of the principle articulated in Jer 18:7 – 10, which is itself an extension of Moses’ appeal to YHWH’s readiness to relent from punishment.
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had threatened to do for it. (niv)
The key terms in this text, “relent” and “disaster,” echo Moses’ appeal in Exod 32:12. Jeremiah, however, generalized YHWH’s readiness to relent from punishment as an aspect of his relationship with all nations and not just with Israel. This divine action flows out of his character and not simply out of his covenant. Jonah’s experience with Nineveh represents the historical precedent for Jeremiah’s insight, and the author connects the two.1
Thus, Exod 32 – 34; Joel 2:12 – 17; and Jonah 4:1 – 4, when read together, establish a critical connection between Israel’s fate and the fate of the nations. In Exod 32:12 Moses dissuaded YHWH from destroying Israel for their idolatry by drawing attention to what this would mean for YHWH’s reputation among the nations: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’?” (niv). Moses hinted at the achievement of a larger goal that would be sabotaged by Israel’s annihilation — the revelation of YHWH’s redemptive purposes for all creation.
What Moses hinted at in Exod 32:12, Joel stated more clearly. He called the priests and ministers of YHWH to weep and suggested that they plead with YHWH for mercy with these words: “Spare your people, Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ ” (Joel 2:17 niv). Like Moses, Joel made the connection between Israel’s fate and the fate of the nations. It is clear in Joel 2:17, however, that Israel’s destruction would have potentially undermined God’s will for the nations. Israel’s destruction would have caused the nations to question the reliability, power, and mercy of Israel’s God.
What was tangential in Joel 2:1 – 17 becomes central in Jonah 4:1 – 4. In this text, a Gentile nation rather than Israel is the recipient of divine mercy. God is moving rapidly toward his larger goal. The author of Jonah, however, anticipates a theological dilemma that YHWH’s mercy toward the nations will create for Israel. What would this mercy mean for Israel’s status as YHWH’s covenant people when the very nation YHWH spared remained hostile to Israel/Judah? Thus the prophet Jonah sees an inverted relationship between Nineveh’s fate and Israel’s fate. Whereas Moses and Joel saw Israel’s destruction as detrimental to the nations’ acceptance of YHWH, Jonah sees Nineveh’s deliverance as detrimental to Israel’s survival as YHWH’s covenant people.
YHWH, by contrast, views Nineveh’s deliverance as an opportunity to discipline his own people in preparation for their role in revealing YHWH to the nations. Jonah’s perception of the situation is limited by his inability to understand the larger goal suggested by Moses and Joel. He can only perceive the more immediate result of Nineveh’s deliverance: Assyria’s resurgence, domination of God’s people, and the eventual destruction of Israel.
Edited by Kevin J. Youngblood
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