Jonah and the Anti-Jonah (3 of 3)

The book of Jonah, as you probably know, is in the section of the Hebrew Bible that we call the “Minor Prophets.” What you may not know is that, in early Hebrew bibles, these twelve prophetic books were all copied onto one scroll. In Hebrew, then, the whole collection of twelve Minor Prophets takes the title: “The book of the Twelve.” This may have been a practical decision: they were all too short to get their own scroll, so they were grouped together. But some scholars also note broad, overall themes which tie the individual books together. While the twelve individual books are separate and easily distinguishable in a book-form Bible nowadays, early scribes and scholars would likely have seen them as one unit since the twelve prophets’ writings were together on one scroll back .

(As a side note: It makes me think that, with the invention of the codex and its pages, old-time scribes must have sat around bemoaning how their progressive young students – “kids these days” – just didn’t know how to take the time to read a good scroll, since their attention spans had been ruined by all this new-fangled “flipping pages.” But back to the subject…)

In my previous posts, we looked at how the message of the book of Jonah is more robust when we examine the entire book at once, including all of its narrative details. Now I want to take one step back and ask, Would our understanding of the book change if we looked at it with reference to the books around it? Is the message of Jonah related to other prophetic writings in “The Book of the Twelve”? And if so, what more can we learn?

To begin, what can we say about the twelve books? They proceed roughly in chronological order, starting with messages given when both Israel and Judah existed as independent kingdoms (Hosea-Micah). They then lead to oracles delivered to Judah after the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed (Nahum-Zephaniah). Finally, the last three prophets are heard, whose messages were delivered after the return from exile, when God’s people were restored to their land (Haggai-Malachi).

The book named for the prophet Jonah is an oddity among the other books of the minor prophets in terms of style. The majority are composed of oracles: messages that were spoken by the prophets on behalf of the Lord, usually with a group of listeners in mind. Jonah, however, is primarily a story about the prophet’s own actions (and attitudes). Out of the twelve books, only two give us a real glimpse into the soul of the prophet/author instead of focusing on the words of a message from God to the people. One of these books is Jonah, and the other is Habakkuk.

Jonah and Habakkuk’s books focus on portraying their experiences with God rather than announcing their messages. Jonah’s experiences are portrayed through a story: a narrative of how the prophet responded to God’s actions of mercy toward a wicked nation. The book includes a psalm composed by Jonah. Habakkuk’s experiences are portrayed through a dialogue, revealing the inner workings of his mind and soul. In this, the prophet seeks the Lord’s response to the evil dealings of the people of Judah and of the Babylonians, who will be sent to punish Judah. Here, the Lord responds to his questions.  And like Jonah, the book of Habakkuk includes a psalm.

Interestingly, these two books, which stand out for their literary styles, have also been placed in what we could call symmetrical locations in the Book of Twelve: Jonah is the 5th from the beginning, and Habakkuk is the 5th from the end. In my humble opinion, this is an intentional symmetry, and we are meant to notice these two prophets and to see what’s going on in their hearts and minds. I believe Jonah and Habakkuk serve as representatives of the two parts of the Jewish nation mentioned in the prophets.

Lest you think I’m just playing a silly math trick with this 5-in-5-in routine, let me put this in the context of the messages of the twelve books in this scroll. The prophets who spoke before the exile repeatedly address two themes: impending judgment for sin on the unrepentant, and the restoring of a faithful remnant after a time of punishment. The Minor Prophets who came before Jonah showed the unfaithfulness of Israel and Judah despite God’s faithfulness (remember Hosea and his wife?). In Jonah, we see a representative of this disobedience and lack of repentance: a servant of the Lord who, despite the specific attention and help God gives him, stubbornly refuses to repent and accept God’s will.

But most of the prophets up to the time of Habakkuk speak not only of judgment on sinful Israel, but also of the future restoration of a faithful remnant. The Prophets who come after Habakkuk focus on the faithfulness of God toward this remnant. He delayed punishment under the repentance and reforms of Josiah (in Zephaniah). He allowed for the rebuilding of the temple once he had restored the remnant to the land (in Haggai). He gave them a governor who was a descendant of David (in Haggai and Zechariah). In Habakkuk, we see a representative of the faithfulness of a part of Judah: he is a servant of the Lord who, despite great hardship and sorrow, remains steadfast, repents, and embraces God’s will.

To summarize, I believe we are meant to understand Jonah as personifying the stubbornly unrepentant people as a whole, and Habakkuk as the representative of the faithful remnant. Together, they reveal the choice presented to Israel, and, by extension, to us – the choice between stubborn, selfish non-repentance or steady faith in God. Unlike Jonah, Habakkuk contemplates the coming judgment on his people, yet expresses a deep and unwavering faith in God. He heeds the Lord’s statement that “the just shall live by faith.” He chooses to trust God, whether he understands or not. He chooses to praise God, whether he prospers or not.  This stark contrast between the two prompts the question in my mind: Is Habakkuk the “anti-Jonah”? Let’s take a deeper look at these two prophets.

Like the Israelites throughout the Old Testament, Jonah is given a special calling by God, but, rather than carrying it out, he disobeys. This is exactly what the prophets of God rebuke the people of Israel and Judah for doing. When God takes dramatic measures to preserve Jonah and give him another chance, Jonah gives thanks, but he is never repentant. This is not unlike the people of Israel in the book of Judges, where God rescues them again and again, but true repentance never takes place! When Jonah finally follows God’s instruction, he grudgingly carries out God’s command by his actions while his heart remains far from the Lord, a familiar pattern in Israel. Jonah’s attitude underscores this powerful prophetic message, later carried by Jesus to the Pharisees: conformity to laws without repentance falls short of what the Lord seeks from his people!

The events of Jonah’s book take place in a time when he and the nation of Israel were in secure and prosperous circumstances. God had given them victory in battle, as prophesied (by Jonah, if we accept him to be the prophet referenced in 2 Kings 14:25). God’s people were blessed economically in spite of the unrighteous king Jeroboam II. Perhaps it was this dominance and prosperity that made Jonah’s pride just too great to accept God’s mercy toward a repentant rival capital – Nineveh. The shade the Lord gave Jonah from the vine reflects an extra measure of comfort and abundance given as a gift despite the fact that his heart was not aligned with God’s. If we see him as a representative, this comfort evokes the security and abundance given to the entire nation in the time of Jeroboam II. Jonah’s anger over the loss of his shade reveals his resentment toward the rival Nineveh and any loss of personal comforts on their account. He is like the people of his nation, who, rather than pointing other nations to God, follow the flawed mindset that the God of Israel cares only about Israel. He represents the Hebrew people described by the prophets as living in luxury, yet facing impending judgment for unfaithfulness (Amos 6:1-7). Jonah’s heart is hard, and no amount of victory, prosperity or comfort could change his heart.

Let’s return to Habakkuk, whose circumstances and responses are quite opposite from Jonah. In Habakkuk’s book, we get a window into the soul of a man grappling with injustice, wrongdoing, suffering, and violence, and yet seeking, at all costs, to maintain his trust in the Lord. When he points out the evil and injustice among his fellow Hebrews (Hab. 1:1-4), the Lord assures him that they will be judged (1:5-11). The scenario here is the opposite of Jonah: rather than send one prophet (Jonah) to warn a wicked nation of judgment, the Lord warns one prophet (Habakkuk) that his people will soon be judged by a wicked nation!

Habakkuk is clearly baffled by the idea that an even more wicked, idolatrous nation will be used to judge the people of God. The Lord himself describes them as “guilty men, whose own might is their god” (1.11b). Habakkuk expresses his chagrin in his second question (1:12-2:1),when he wonders how the Lord could “idly look at traitors, and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (1:13b). He knows the Lord’s character – righteous and pure – and this seems so inconsistent! The Lord replies by promising that this wicked nation, the Chaldeans, will also be judged. It may seem slow (2:3), but the Lord will, in time, act with justice (2:4). When Habakkuk hears this promise, he responds with a psalm recognizing how the Lord has proved his power in the past (3:1-3), extolling the might of the Just, Divine Warrior (3:4-16), and professing his commitment to “quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon him” (i.e., on the enemy, 3:16b). To conclude, he then produces one of the most eloquent expressions of unconditional faith in scripture:

“Though the fig tree should not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord ;

I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God , the Lord, is my strength;

he makes my feet like the deer’s;

he makes me tread on my high places. “

Habakkuk 3:2,16-19

Once again, it is clear that the contrast is strong between the attitude of Jonah and that of Habakkuk. In his psalm, Jonah exults in salvation, which makes him feel proud and vindicated (Jonah 2). In his, Habakkuk anticipates the shame and confusion of military defeat and economic difficulty, yet professes that his trust will never be shaken (Hab. 3:16-18).

Neither prophet lacks knowledge of the Lord’s character, but their knowledge took each of them to different places. To put it simply, Jonah knew that God was gracious and merciful, and he didn’t trust Him (Jonah 4:1); Habakkuk knew that God was a just and holy judge who would carry out vengeance on wrongdoers, and he trusted Him. Jonah had experienced God’s compassion and patience, but his heart remained hard; Habakkuk apparently hadn’t seen God working in his lifetime (Hab 3:1-2), but he trusted as he continued to wait for God’s deliverance.

Both prophets were right to think that God would and should judge evil, but both were forced to wait for the just judgement to happen later. The waiting is what brought the challenge for both men (as it does for many), as they wrestled with their attitude toward the Lord’s timing. Jonah wanted to see God bring judgement immediately on those who were doing evil…but they repented! This was not the final word: God would later judge Nineveh (see the book of Nahum). But Jonah was angry that it was not happening now, in front of his eyes. Habakkuk was troubled that the Lord would soon allow judgment to come on his people at the hands of a wicked nation, but the Lord tells him to trust that justice will be done to them as well, even if it seems slow in coming (2:3). The idea is not that evil should or will go unpunished. The lesson is that the Lord is the one who knows when and how it ought to be punished, and the righteous person who “lives by faith” trusts his timing, even when it goes beyond his or her own comprehension. Habakkuk ends by worshiping God, envisioning his might and ferocity when judgment finally comes, and pledging allegiance to his Lord through thick and thin. Habakkuk trusts the Lord, and no amount of defeat, poverty or difficulty could change his heart.

Each prophet had a conversation with God that played out differently, with a different party asking the questions. Remember how the Lord asked Jonah questions – in the same way that He questioned Adam and Eve in the garden? Well, in Habakkuk’s case, the prophet is the one who asks the Lord his questions (1:2; 1: 12-13, 17). And while the questions God asks Jonah seem to only reveal Jonah’s stubbornness and lack of repentance, the questions Habakkuk asks God reveal God’s patience and faithfulness. Habakkuk’s questions lead him to a place of renewed faith in the Lord. This is worth noting since we as humans tend to carry a burden of guilt over questioning God, and it is not uncommon to hush questions deemed impertinent in church settings. Yet scripture seems to indicate that God can handle questions, and that he is perfectly capable of justifying himself (remember the book of Job?). It is far more worrying for us as people to be questioned by God, as we humans are always incapable of justifying our actions.

Finally, the contrast between the two prophets attitudes is exposed by anger. Who is angry at the end of each book? In Jonah’s final chapter, Jonah is angry. God is slow to anger with those who do not deserve it, but Jonah is slow to let go of his anger with Nineveh and with the Lord. Since running away had not worked out, he resigned himself to grumble against God and wish for death. In Habakkuk’s final chapter, however, the Lord is angry. Habakkuk’s indignation had softened as he dialogued with the Lord, and he had become patient and calm as he understood that it was just a matter of time. Instead of running away from God or trying to justify his anger, he brings his complaint before God. God responds, saying “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3). Habakkuk 3 puts the righteous anger of the Lord, the Divine Warrior, into focus.  He will pour out his wrath on the wicked and unjust. Habakkuk is free to sing to God and rejoice in Him.

In the end, Jonah’s stubbornness leaves him alone, uncomfortable, angry, suicidal and at odds with his Maker. It challenges us to set aside two major things that can take us to the same hardened, unrepentant place: first, the arrogance that led him to be a self-centered mess of self-pity; second, prejudice, the fruit of arrogance, by which we decide for ourselves who are the deserving and undeserving people of the world. How do we successfully avoid these things? By following the model of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk challenges us to do two important things that enable us to trust the Lord in the face of injustice and evil. First, we ought to bring our questions, our problems and our doubts before God. Faith asks why. Faith laments the wrongs in the world. And faith asks (and expects) God to deal with these problems according to his character. We don’t show faith by looking strong, speaking “Christian-ese” and pretending nothing’s wrong. We show faith by longing for a righteous God to step in and right the wrongs in the world. We express faith by crying out to him. Second, we ought to praise. Habakkuk’s book ends with a Psalm. Remember how great and holy God is, and how inscrutably wise he is in his timing. Think about it. Talk about it. Pray about it. Write about it. Sing about it, like Habakkuk did when he wrote this Psalm in chapter three. It is through praise that we see God’s might as greater than our challenges, and we see his presence as more precious than our success, prosperity and comfort.

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