Last time we looked at the recurring theme of “greatness” in this brief biblical book. This time I’d like to notice a couple more literary features.
Have you noticed the parallel structure?
- In chapter 1, unbelieving Gentiles (the sailors), fearing the wrath of Jonah’s God, seek deliverance by responding to the prophet’s word—and throwing Jonah into the sea, with prayers that God would accept the obedience they offer.
- In chapter 2, Jonah prays to God, praising him for his deliverance.
- In chapter 3, unbelieving Gentiles (the Ninevites), fearing the wrath of Jonah’s God, seek deliverance by responding to the prophet’s word—and repenting of their sin, with hope that God would accept the obedience they offer.
- In chapter 4, Jonah prays to God, raging at him for his deliverance.
Two episodes, in exact parallel.
And here’s the odd thing—while the unbelieving Gentiles are moving in the right direction, the allegedly believing prophet is moving in the opposite direction—against what he already clearly knows.
In chapter 1, Jonah seeks to “flee from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1.3, 10) despite the fact that he knows that the Lord “made the sea and the dry land” (Jon 1.9), and despite the fact that he knows God can and will send a great storm in response to his disobedience.
In chapter 4, Jonah knows that the Lord’s nature is to show mercy to those who repent (Jon 4.2), yet he hardens his heart against the Lord’s will.
The irony is strong in this one.
Something else to notice—in the previous post I referred to Jonah as “the character for whom the book is named.” That may have struck you as awkward. Why not call him “the hero,” or “the main character,” or, to use the more academic term, “the protagonist”?
Simple. Because he is none of those things. He not the main character; as I noted last time, he’s a foil. There I said that he’s a foil for the other prophets; in many ways the book of Jonah is a study in contrasts with all the other prophetic writings. But here I’ll note that within the book itself, he’s a foil as well—a foil for the true main character.
And who is that?
It’s not the fish.
And, perhaps contrary to our expectations, it’s not the king of Nineveh, as positive a character as he is. (And if you know anything about the Assyrians, you’re as surprised as I am that I just called an Assyrian king a “positive character.”)
Who’s the main character? Who’s the protagonist?
He the one doing all the things—
- Calling the prophet and specifying his message
- Sending a great storm—and calming it when the sailors obey the words of the prophet
- Appointing a great fish—and graciously delivering the disobedient prophet, through regurgitation, when he prays
- Responding with grace to the repentance of a deeply evil people by reversing his earlier pronouncement of judgment—even taking pity on the Assyrian cattle (Jon 4.11).
The book itself doesn’t note this, but we know from later history that this repentance was short-lived. It wasn’t long before the Assyrians were at it again, perpetrating cruelty and violence all across the region, crushing any who opposed them, extorting the wealth of their neighbors, being in general just the big bully of the known world.
And a bit more than a century later, God sent another prophet—Nahum—with a similar message of doom for Nineveh, and this threat would certainly be carried out; by the end of the century—605 BC, to be precise—near a town called Carchemish on what is now the Turkish-Syrian border, the Babylonian armies crushed the Assyrians, who in their desperation had even sought help from the Egyptians. And just like that, Assyria was history.
As I say, God knew all that, from the beginning of time.
But when Nineveh repented, ever so briefly and ever so imperfectly, God forgave them. And spared them.
That’s the kind of person he is.
You know, you are of much more worth than an Assyrian cow. Even though you can’t repent worth a nickel, God will forgive you, too.
That’s the kind of person he is.