Judgment and Jonah

Don: There are two aspects to judgment: First an invitation to grace, and then a response to the invitation. The Book of Jonah tells us much about these aspects, if it is treated as allegory (its historical and scientific plausibility are often challenged). It shows us that God is the God of all Creation, that He has a plan for every one of us and for the whole of Creation, that His judgment is centered on grace, and that the Creator is also the Redeemer. For those who have not read it, or who need a refresher, here is the story:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

The Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up. Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep. So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.”

Each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”

Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. Then they called on the Lord and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased.”

So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. Then the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1)

So in this first chapter, we first note that God “appointed” Jonah to go on a mission, He appointed a storm, and He appointed a great fish. They are all under the appointment of the Creator—a point which Jonah acknowledges in stating he is a Hebrew and fears “the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” Second, it is evident that Creation plays a central part in the story. God’s grace is administered through His Creation. Jonah fails to see that, but all of Creation nevertheless works to save him—and through him, all of mankind (Jonah represents the chosen people, and Nineveh represents everyone else).

Fleeing from the presence of the Lord is a dangerous move. It takes Jonas on a downward spiral. He goes down to Jaffa, then down into the ship, then down into the hold. But to a God able to employ the whole of Creation, there is nowhere for Jonah to hide. God invests a great deal of effort in saving both His chosen one, Jonah, and the Ninevites. Jonah was chosen not because he was special, but in order to fulfill a mission.

Jonah is the object of God’s grace, just as the men who threw him overboard are also the objects of God’s grace. Grace arrives for Jonah in the form of the great fish. Jonah himself described it in a prayer, which makes up chapter 2 of the Book of Jonah:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish, and he said,
“I called out of my distress to the Lord,
And He answered me.
 I cried for help from the depth of Sheol;
 You heard my voice.
“For You had cast me into the deep, 
Into the heart of the seas,
 And the current engulfed me.
 All Your breakers and billows passed over me.
“So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Your sight.
 Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.’
“Water encompassed me to the point of death.
 The great deep engulfed me,
 Weeds were wrapped around my head.
“I descended to the roots of the mountains.
 The earth with its bars was around me forever,
 But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.
“While I was fainting away,
 I remembered the Lord,
 And my prayer came to You,
 Into Your holy temple.
“Those who regard vain idols
 Forsake their faithfulness,
 But I will sacrifice to You
 With the voice of thanksgiving.
 That which I have vowed I will pay.
 Salvation is from the Lord.”
Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. (Jonah 2)

By God’s grace, Jonah is delivered from hell but his prayer is hardly a model of humble gratitude—it is self-centered, full of self-reference and self-justification. He says “I” no fewer than 24 times. He offers no words of repentance or regret and asks for no forgiveness.

It is ironic that his prayer condemns those who are unfaithful to God (i.e., the idol-worshiping Ninevites, the Gentiles) yet, as the story develops, it is Jonah himself who ends up rejecting God’s grace, while the Ninevites accept it:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. (Jonah 3)

But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” The Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. So the Lord God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.”

Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4)

The judgment of God can be seen in the fact that His grace is given without need for confession, without our seeking forgiveness, and even without seeking grace at all. The invitation to grace merely needs to be accepted. It is noteworthy, though, that unlike Jonah, the Ninevites did confess their sins and demonstrated their humility by wearing sackcloth and ashes. (Could this be the preparatory clothing required before donning the robe of righteousness?)

Jonah’s anger at God for giving grace to the Ninevites is especially hard to understand considering that he was himself the recipient of God’s grace in the belly of the fish. It also reveals a third aspect to judgment: After the invitation to grace and the response to that invitation, there needs to be a readiness to pass on the grace to others. Grace cannot be hoarded, as Jesus said in the Judgment passage, referring to the people judged to be wicked:

‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to [i.e., you did not share God’s grace with] one of the least of these [people in need of God’s grace], you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25: 45-46)

Jonah failed to grasp the crucial concept of passing on the grace. Indeed, he is the author of some of the most indicting statements in all of Scripture in blaming God for His graciousness, compassion, lovingkindness, and forgiveness which, Jonah said—not once but twice—he found so unbearable that he would rather die than be subjected to it!

God gave Jonah one more chance, by “appointing” a plant to shade him from the burning sun. But He then “appointed” a worm to destroy the plant. It reminds us that God uses all of Creation (in this case, represented by a storm, a fish, a plant, a worm, a scorching wind, the sailors on the boat, and even Jonah himself) in the administration of His grace to all Mankind.

That God asked Jonah specifically why he was angry about His graciousness suggests that grace is central to judgment. God is asking: “Why should I not have compassion?” He said that the Ninevites didn’t really know what they were doing, so why should they not be forgiven? It had nothing to do with their repentance and their sackcloth and ashes, and it had everything to do with God’s graciousness.

We are not told what happened to Jonah in the end, but it is implied that this chosen prophet chose, in the end, not to pass on the grace that God had given to him. He would rather die than live under a regime where grace without merit is dispensed. In the final judgment, it seems, Jonah chose darkness rather than the light.

Anonymous: It is ironic that Jonah willingly let himself be thrown into the sea, trusting in God’s grace to rescue him.

Donald: That grace is bestowed without merit shows how little we understand God. We seek every week in class to understand Him a little more, but He seems beyond comprehension. Was the storm a representation of God’s anger? Jonah went below decks to avoid it.

David: In light of Don’s analysis, it seems to me the storm is not God’s anger, but merely an aspect of Creation helping in the administration of grace. I personally feel somewhat relieved 🙂 that this Scripture confirms my belief in a God who is more than slow to anger—He is a God who never angers (despite Scriptural passages to the contrary). If He was ever going to be angry about anything, surely it would be about Jonah’s rejection of Him. Yet one can sense in God’s questions to Jonah only a poignant sense of divine dismay, of sorrow that Jonah had reached such a tragic end.

I also think the story tells us that judgment precedes grace: Jonah descends into hell (surely a statement that he has been judged and found guilty) before God gives him grace.

The ultimate message in the story, it seems to me, is trust in God and don’t question His administration of grace.

Donald: Did Jonah trust God?

David: For a short time, at least, after he was rescued from the fish.

Don: But that may be the exception. He ran away from God when called to go on a mission, he ran away from grace. His unbelievable indictment condemns God for being merciful, long-suffering, kind, and forgiving. Jonah just does not want such a God. God’s questions concerning Jonah’s anger do indeed support the contention that anger is not a part of God’s character. The implication is: “I (God) am not angry. Why are you?”

I don’t see the storm as anger but as a piece of the entire Creation that is employed in the process of dispensing God’s grace. Things, often unwelcome things, happen to us, but to me they are evidence of God’s cooptation of the entire Creation in His plan for our lives.

David: The message seems to be: “In my (God’s) Creation, stuff happens! Don’t worry about it—it does not matter in the end.” We want to lay blame, but God does not, and that is hard for us to accept. We can understand the concept of withholding judgment, just as we can understand grace and compassion and forgiveness and so on, but we cannot understand them at the level at which God applies them. It seems to me tragic that there are those among us who, like Jonah, cannot live with that.

Don: To proclaim a preference for death over living with God’s grace is a self-indictment and a self-judgment. To proclaim the preference twice gives it a sense of finality, of irrevocability. Jonah has seen God dispense grace over and over again, using all of Creation in His mighty labor of love for all Mankind, and decides he wants no part of that.

Anonymous: The storm was perhaps a demonstration of God’s might to the Gentile sailors, who ended up praying to Him for mercy and salvation. So there was a victory in it for God.

Jonah was comfortable with his life. He did not want to go on the mission. He was stubborn. He wanted his will to be done, not God’s. But God’s way prevailed—Jonah went to Nineveh in the end and God’s grace was delivered. That’s what made Jonah so angry. I don’t think he blamed God for being a God of mercy—“I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity”; rather, he blamed God for making him do things he did not want to do. “You wanna be merciful? Fine. Just leave me out of it.”

Don: Indeed, it is interesting to reflect that God could have been merciful without Jonah. But the graciousness of God was working for Jonah as well as for the Ninevites.

David: It seems that Jonah would have been happy if God had sent him on a mission to massacre every man, woman, and child in Nineveh. This would have been Jonah’s kind of God. It reflects poorly upon all religions that substantial proportions of their believers have a similar view of a retributive, vengeful God.

Michael: Is Jonah angry because as a Hebrew he goes to all the bother of following the rules and rituals, while God gives free salvation passes to everybody who does not? Jonah seems to have taken this mission as a personal affront.

Don: Jonah should get credit for evidently having been effective in his mission, since after he had warned the Ninevites they would be overthrown after 40 days, the Ninevites then “believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them” etc. Jonah saw this: “Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city.” He was evidently dismayed not to see God destroy the city and massacre its people. Jonah is nothing if not arrogant!

Anonymous: He must have thought that when a people refuses an offer of salvation (perhaps the Jews had been out evangelizing among the nations) it deserves destruction.

Donald: Was Jonah a missionary? Today, evangelism is looked upon as politically incorrect. Americans generally seem to believe we have no business telling other cultures how to live and think, no business imposing our culture on them.

Don: God certainly wanted Jonah to go on a mission to fulfill God’s plan, but for that reason, it had to be God’s mission, not Jonah’s. There does seem to have been some arm-twisting on God’s part.

Donald: We tend not to think of missionary work as dispensing God’s grace. We tend to want to make people see things our way.

Anonymous: Perhaps God’s objective was to improve Jonah’s spirit by teaching him a lesson. Maybe he did learn the lesson, in the end.

Don: It’s possible; but it seems to me unambiguous that Jonah’s way—Man’s way—is not God’s way. We just don’t know what actually happened to Jonah. God asks: “Why shouldn’t I be compassionate?”—end of story.

David: On first reading it does seem that God appeared before Jonah and gave him his marching orders for the mission. It implies that Jonah was coerced by God into setting off, kicking at the traces as he went and sneaking off in the opposite direction. But recalling our discussions of the inner light, I am inclined to think he was driven to set off by a willing spirit—his nagging conscience, the spirit within, the inner light—telling him to go do the right thing, but the weak flesh (his human nature) drove him in the opposite direction. His angry renunciation of God’s way reminds me of a wayward child, petulantly refusing a parent’s lovingly intended command not to play in the traffic.

Like so many (mis)understandings in Scripture, those that arise from the story of Jonah may be a reflection of the crucible of languages and cultures in which Scripture has been cast and re-cast. The language of the story, even in a modern translation such as the NASB, leaves the average English-speaking reader (that would be me 🙂 ) with a mental picture of a wraith-like apparition appearing externally before Jonah and issuing commandments. In reality, I think that’s a not-very-helpful metaphor in this day and age for what is (I believe Scripture shows) an intensely internal relationship with God. In misdirecting us away from consideration of the inner light, it serves to obfuscate and confuse.

If we accept that we have a conscience, and that Jonah had a conscience, then we can much more easily identify with him and with God, and (hopefully) learn from his tragic story.

Donald: We don’t know how Jonah’s life ends, but we do get a sense for his whole life story by working backwards from the end of the story as presented so far. Could we do the same for ourselves?

Don: I think that’s precisely why the story is important.

Anonymous: The whole story seems to be about us and a compassionate, merciful, gracious God. He was even good to the sailors who did not know or worship Him. He did not punish Jonah for running away. At every turn in this story, we see a God of mercy. That is what He wants us to know about Him. Why should we be angry with Him?

By faith, I believe the story is factual, though modern people have a problem with that. But whether it is fact or allegorical fiction, the message is from God and is very real.

Donald: We have many such stories, starting with a human child born without a human father!

Anonymous: Factual or not, God delivers messages in a way that causes us to remember them.

Michael: I can see myself as Jonah. I can be very judgmental. I often inwardly criticize people for doing things in a way I disagree with. But the implications of the story seem to be that the concepts of judgment and even of morality, as we understand them, are very much human concepts.

Donald: Is grace the opposite of judgment?

David: I see Jonah judged by virtue of his having gone to hell. But again, it is indeed a self-judgment. Jonah knew, as we all do, our failings. The inner light, the conscience, keeps us informed. We might ignore it or cover our inner eyes and ears for a while but ultimately it will not be ignored. We will all go to hell, but we will instantly saved from hell by God’s grace. In a perfect world of perfect people, there would be no need for judgment. But that’s not our world.

Michael: Am I to understand that God’s judgment is grace?

Don: That’s very close to my view.

Donald: Does God always judge but always deliver grace?

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