Jonah is a strange book, not just because a prophet gets swallowed by a fish or God grows a plant and sends a worm to eat it. It’s strange because it’s the story of a prophet who wouldn’t pronounce judgment on Nineveh for fear that God would be merciful. Jonah is strange because it’s the story of a pagan people who were promised judgment but somehow hoped God might spare them. It’s strange because it’s the story of a God who eagerly relents from judgment so He can give life instead.
The book begins with God telling Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me” (1:2). But Jonah runs — or rather sails — in the other direction and doesn’t return until he’s cast overboard in a stormy sea, and then swallowed and regurgitated by a giant fish. In the belly of the beast, Jonah prays, acknowledging the weight of his well-deserved judgment. But strangely, his prayer ends with hope: “Salvation is from the Lord” (2:9). The fish vomits Jonah.
Jonah proceeds to Nineveh and delivers God’s message: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4). But strangely, Nineveh is not overthrown. Instead, from common person to king, they believe in God and repent of evil, hoping God might spare them (vv. 5-9). And of course, but strangely, “God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (v. 10b).
God’s anger is appeased, but strangely, Jonah’s isn’t. Jonah finally reveals why he fled:
“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” (4:2, 3).
Before the story ends, Jonah hopes God might end up destroying Nineveh after all, and gets a front row seat. God, strangely merciful, provides for Jonah’s comfort during this ill-advised viewing party. But when God removes the plant, Jonah’s strangeness takes center stage. The imminent death of over one hundred twenty thousand people thrills Jonah, but he’s heartbroken when a plant dies. Stranger still, the story ends with God asking Jonah an unanswered question: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?”
Jonah suffers from the Jonah Complex. And he’s not alone. Many of us are suffering from one or more of the five symptoms: 1) We’ve received God’s mercy, but we’re unwilling to extend it to others; 2) We resist God’s command to take His message to the world; 3) If compelled to speak, we will publicly condemn sinners but not offer them salvation hope; 4) We become angry at God for showing mercy instead of judgment; and 5) We care more for our personal comfort than the lives of people.
While we suffer from the same heart malady as Jonah, our form of the Jonah Complex isn’t identical to his. He understood the relationship between judgment and hope in prophecy, but because he didn’t like it, he refused to prophesy. We don’t understand the relationship between judgment and hope in prophecy because we don’t like it, and so we read prophecy all wrong.
Judgment and hope are the twin themes of prophecy. Read any prophetic passage in Scripture, and you’ll see these two sides of the same coin. Biblical prophets were God’s messengers to call people to covenant faithfulness. They did this primarily by sharing messages that promised judgment for unfaithfulness and hope based on God’s faithfulness. This was true whether the prophets were looking back to past events, commenting on the present, or peering into the future. Judgment for sin and hope of salvation are themes that give continuity to the diverse prophetic messages of Scripture.
Judgment is the inevitable result of sin. Sin and death are inseparable; those who trade in one will be compensated with the other. Sounds like the first half of a familiar verse: “For the wages of sin is death.” The second half is where hope enters: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). There is no prophetic judgment on humanity that cannot be reversed by receiving eternal life in Christ. We all were dead, condemned, the objects of God’s wrath. But God loves the objects of His wrath. And He loves to freely save them (Ephesians 2:1-10). This is why prophecy always contains both judgment and hope. Prophetic judgment is the bad news; prophetic hope is the good news. Prophetic hope is the gospel.
To read prophecy aright, we must interpret it through the gospel. Jonah didn’t like this, but at least he knew how to do it. He knew that a message of imminent condemnation (forty days till disaster!) was nothing more and nothing less than the final cry of a God desperate to show mercy.
What then, do you suppose, are the prophecies of Jesus and the apostles regarding our world? If every judgmental word of prophecy is a precursor to a word of hope, behold the hope that fills the New Testament! Unfortunately, it’s hard to read prophecy this way when we’ve been taught otherwise.
We’ve been taught to pull words of condemnation, disaster, and judgment out of their gospel context. We’ve learned to insist that these predictions of a “doom and gloom” future in which everything gets worse and worse are inevitable, that God has determined people will not repent, that the future is sealed, and that nothing can be done to delay judgment or bring the hope of salvation to the condemned.
Of course, all we have to do to reject this way of thinking is to read Scripture. We must look at the countless times that words of condemnation brought conviction of sin, belief, and repentance and at the countless times hope triumphed and tragedy and mercy triumphed over justice. Do some New Testament prophecies predict a dark and dismal end to this world and most of its inhabitants? Yes. Does this mean God has decreed it to be this way and nothing can be done to change it? No!
These dire predictions of death and destruction are warnings of judgment. Behind each of them is the promise of gospel hope that God’s kingdom will overflow with those rescued from the kingdom of darkness, that those condemned to die will be pardoned by the grace of Jesus Christ, that nations now set on violence and evil will choose peace and righteousness instead. It is the hope that God has not abandoned His creation, Christ has not surrendered to the Devil, and the church has not lost the battle with the powers of darkness. To read prophecy aright, we must interpret it through the gospel.
The starting point for this sort of reading is to be cured of the Jonah Complex. Rather than glorying in the eventual destruction of evil people, let us instead glory in our God who is “gracious and compassionate . . . slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” Let us remember that Scripture’s prediction of future events was almost never deterministic or fatalistic. Rather, prophecy looked ahead to futures contingent upon response. Yes, continued rejection of God would bring terrible judgment. But belief and repentance would bring incredible hope! God is determined to finally judge the wicked, but He doesn’t want anyone to perish. He is at work in the world through the Spirit and the church to change the future.
How tragic if we sit back and accept that the earth is “going to hell in a hand basket.” How heartbreaking if we do not commit ourselves anew to rescuing the perishing. How unthinkable if we lend our support to political, economic, ecological, and other cultural movements that treat humanity as disposable and creation as destined for destruction.
End and beginning
Christ is coming back to establish His kingdom on this earth. He is returning to renew and recreate all things. As we read prophecy, let us never read the words of judgment without interpreting them through gospel hope. Let us remember the truth of this hymn:
This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The lord is King — let the heavens ring. God reigns — let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth Christ trod.
No place but is holy ground. . . .
This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
— Maltbie D. Babcock
The end of time is the beginning of a new era. The end of the world is a new beginning. The darkness of the future is giving way to the Light of the world. The destined death of sinners is giving way to the Resurrection and the Life. The God who warns of judgment is the God of hope who loves the objects of His wrath, dies for His enemies, and is determined to make everything right. Let this reality be the anchor of our one hope, and let it teach us to read prophecy through gospel eyes.
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