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Haddon Willmer shares some study notes as his housegroup prepares to read the book of Jonah

9 August 2020

Notes for a housegroup preparing to read Jonah together in August 2020


Jonah is the central human being in this book.  But hidden is one equally important and fascinating – whoever wrote it.  What kind of mind and vision did s/he have?   The book carries a covert invitation to think along with him/her. 

Act 1

1.1-2  command to ‘cry out against’

3  J runs away from that command – why? He wanted to avoid the trouble of crying out against?

4  The Lord does not run away from trouble, but rouses and uses it.   Is such a God acceptable to us?

5ff  the sailors take action, Jonah runs away into sleep… (cf Jesus sleeping in the boat?)

               The sailors appeal to the gods they know, though they do not expect much

7ff   they try to find the cause of the trouble – and Jonah has to explain himself – He knows the true God as they do not, and he is fleeing from God –  

11ff Jonah can no longer run: he has to accept responsibility, even though it will be the end of him.  He shows a grain of truth and care for others in this crisis.   At bottom, can we say he was not a rotten man, but had been running from himself as well as God? 

13ff the sailors try to avoid the religious-Godly solution, they row harder, for they fear to commit murder, even under religious cover.  So they pray to be forgiven, even while they do what seems to be necessary  (cf Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing?)

15f  there is a great calm, cf Mark 4.39-41  and the sailors feared the Lord:  cf Psalm 130.3,4

So we see already in this first act,  heathen men are taken seriously; they are seen as moral, conscientious, praying, practical.   They can bring Jonah to truthful confession and to becoming an honest decent man, though he does not understand what is being done for him, and so is not able to change himself in himself. 

Act 2

1.17  Jonah does not die – the Lord takes him down into the depths  Psalm 130.1

  1. 1 In his lockdown, which is not an oubliette, in the strict meaning of the word, (a secret dungeon with access only through a trapdoor in its ceiling – from the French, oublier, to forget) 

2.2ff  Was Jonah quite forgotten?  There was a trapdoor in the ceiling: he could pray out of the belly of Sheol

2.2ff  What is odd about this prayer, given what we know of Jonah through the rest of the story before us?

What would my prayer be if I were in a plight parallel to his?  How would an honest person pray here? 

There is no confession or repentance in this prayer.

There is self-pity and there is more than the request for rescue – Jonah celebrates deliverance as though it has already happened. He presents himself as on who remembers the Lord, quite unlike the man we saw in chapter 1. 

He reiterates his loyalty to God – what I have vowed I will pay – in contrast to those who worship vain idols  (cf 1.9)    But as noted above worshippers of idols sometimes behave very honourably, more than Jonah who did not pay God with obedience to his command

Are we to take this as a model of praying?

2.10  What do you think of the suggestion made by some scholars that God was so nauseated by the prayer that he caused the fish to vomit him on to the land? 

Act 3

 3.1   Jonah did not confess disobedience, or promise to do God’s bidding.  He had not changed.  But God did not give up: the word of the Lord came again.

2  Go to Nineveh and proclaim what I tell you –  is the message to be the same as in 1.2?  Or does Jonah need to be open to a variation? 

3ff  Jonah gives Nineveh forty days, and Nineveh repents, radically, body and soul, changing fundamental behaviours (violence).  How unexpected if we take a dismal view of the heathen – they seem to have what Jonah lacks right to the end of the story – a readiness to repent drastically

9  Not that this repentance guarantees escape from destruction – ‘who knows?’  ‘God may…’  Is this hesitation about God’s forgiving and about our escape from calamity  intrinsic to genuine sorrow and penitence for real falling short of the glory of God?   

Does traditional evangelical ‘assurance’ drive out the sensitivity, truthfulness and humility of the ‘who knows?’  ‘God may…’ ?  Or are they driven out by our natural quest to feel good about ourselves?  

10    How God deals with impending deserved calamity:    God saw,  God changed his mind, God said,  God did what he said….  A vignette of God, a clue to God in a nutshell? 

Act 4

The book is less about the miraculous turn of the Ninevites, than about Jonah, who is he and what will become of him.   This meaningful and instructive, but not historical,  story allows us to leave the Ninevites to live happily,  but there is only dangerous irresolution with Jonah.  

4.1 Jonah was angry with God, displeased because he had not acted out his displeasure at the wickedness of Nineveh (1.2) –   Nineveh, that massive frightening city of harsh oppressors and vain idols still stood. 

2  Jonah now sees clearly why he is angry with God and why he ran away at the beginning.   He knew something about God – it is summarized in a few unambiguous words here.   Being the man he was, and living in the world as it was for him, and is for us,  this God was attractive but not easy to take seriously or to live with. 

This God was and is at odds with the world as it is.  Certainly as it is represented  by the harsh imperialism of Nineveh and the aggressive self-righteousness of Jonah.   When God told Jonah to cry against Nineveh,  Jonah was ready to proclaim the destruction of Nineveh, so that greater evil fell upon their evil-doing.  It did not enter his imagination that God was against Nineveh because his mercy was incompatible with the city.   Mercy is the criterion of God’s judgment not his way of letting-off.    So he could not see that God would not rest until Nineveh had tasted his mercy and been turned round by it and to it.  (Romans 11.23-36).

At the beginning,  Jonah did not see or want to go along with God’s way.  And now at the end, he is still not seeing, even more determinedly blind.

4  God is merciful, steadfast in love and slow to anger.  So God asks,  Is it right for you to be angry?  Why does the mercy and love of God make people angry to death?

5  Jonah makes no answer.  He builds a booth, a house for his anger, to look down from a height upon the city he wants destroyed.

6 God looks after Jonah, giving him a bush to shield him from the sun and Jonah is happy about that.   He cares about his own comfort while wishing ill for others.   Poor Jonah is in a very bad way, but is nowhere near admitting it. 

7,8  Is God forgetting his mercy now with Jonah, or is God talking to Jonah firmly, as his situation requires?   The bush is killed by a worm, the sun beats down on Jonah.  He wants to die. 

He ran away at the start, and went into the depths, but God did not let him go.   Now he wants to die, to get away from God’s grip (cf Francis Thompson, ‘the Hound of Heaven’;  Job 7.11-21).

9 God makes his question more precise – a useful gentle thing to do. Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?    Yes the bush has let me down, it’s just another bit of this rotten life that is not worth living.

10  God says,  You see, you care about the bush, you value a passing triviality.   Now step out of your self, and instead,  think of me.  Should I not care for the great city of Nineveh, all its poor, limited,  even benighted people – but they are people!  (Matt 10.29,30)?  And besides, many animals,  my creatures, the beauty of the earth, the passengers in the saving Ark.  I care, come and care with me? 

The End – but not the End

 Act 5

The Ending is left for Jonah to make.  God in his mercy has given Jonah light, helping Jonah to see himself more clearly.  The deep roots of his spirit have been opened to his own self-scrutiny,  and he now must decide what to do.  What did not happen to Nineveh shows God is merciful.  God’s argument with him suggests God is not giving up on his mercy for the wicked world, nor for the stubborn blind prophet.  The life-question is now plain to Jonah,  as it was not at the beginning. 

What will Jonah do now?   No answer is given by the clever narrator.  He does not leave us being glad that Jonah got it right in the end, nor does he leave us feeling sad or superior to a man who brought his life to irreparable failure.  He does not feed any curiosity about Jonah – Jonah has done enough to enlighten us about ourselves at a deep level, and he should be allowed to go his own way.

It is for us to answer for ourselves, in our own living, in the light of what we have learnt from his story. 

Who is God for us?   Do we believe God is about having practical mercy even on those who are like Ninevites to us?  Do we profess to be God’s people, God-worshippers, even prophets and missionaries, but we don’t really love with the love of God?  (I Cor 13.1-3)

This story is paralleled in the Gospel by the story of the Two Sons   (Luke 15.11-32).  The younger son’s story is rounded off nicely with a great feast, but we are left wondering what the older brother will do next and what he will make of himself.   The story’s  open inconclusive stop is not an invitation to us to write another chapter in his history.  It is rather a silence in which I can ask myself, What then would I do in any situation?   What spirit is in me, that would guide me to go one way rather than the other?  What invitation comes to me from the story, and what refusal is plausible, even attractive to my angry Jonah self? 

We can play by imagining what the older brother, or what Jonah, did next and where they got to.  But making such stories is pure fiction – it could be, it might not be, who knows?   But the play is useful if it helps us to answer the questions about ourselves, and what we will make of ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in, and what we see of God and are called to follow.   What we are and what we make of the life lent to us is not fiction, but reality – it is what God sees and what we shall give account whenever, now or later,  we appear before the judgment seat of Christ  (I Cor 5.10).  May we respond to the constraining love of Christ (I Cor 5. 14,15), or to God’s argument from withering bush, and the poor Ninevites ‘and also much cattle’.  















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