A Repentant Prayer or a Faithless Fake? What Jonah 2 Teaches Us About Our Hearts

kristine-weilert-88989-unsplash.jpgEarlier this week, I observed the way Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving cited or alluded to many Psalms. Today, I want to consider what this may mean for Jonah and for us who read his book.

To get a handle on the meaning of Jonah’s prayer, we must answer this question: Is Jonah’s prayer a genuine word of repentant thanksgiving, one that faithfully cites many Psalms? Or is his prayer a faithless fake that masquerades under a smokescreen of Scripture? To answer that big question lets look at four smaller questions.

  1. What do we know about the historical Jonah?
  2. What do the Minor Prophets indicate about Jonah?
  3. What does the book of Jonah say about Jonah?
  4. What does the prayer itself reveal about Jonah?

By answering these questions, we should have good chance of rendering a verdict on Jonah’s prayer and what it is intended to communicate to us.

1. What do we know about the historical Jonah?

All we know about the historical Jonah comes from 2 Kings 14, where we learn Jonah was a prophet in the court of Jeroboam II, who did evil in the sight of the Lord (v. 24). Stationed in the part of Israel that had rebelled against Judah (1 Kings 12) and serving a wicked king, Jonah’s lone prophecy does not rebuke Jeroboam, like Elijah, Amos, and Obadiah did. Rather, he prophecies favorably for Israel’s king:

Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 25 He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. (vv. 23–25)

From this chapter alone we would have reason to question Jonah, as his prophecy supports the wicked king and says nothing of confronting Jeroboam’s evil. This skeptical assessment of Jonah is confirmed by Amos 6:13–14, which speaks directly against Jonah’s prophecy in 2 Kings 14. Whereas Jonah spoke favorably of the king restoring the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, Amos says otherwise,

For behold, I will raise up against you a nation, O house of Israel,” declares the Lord, the God of hosts; “and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath to the Brook of the Arabah.”

All in all, before even reading Jonah, the thorough reader of Scripture would have concerns about this prophet. Hence, any prayer that he prayed would of necessity require careful consideration.

2. What do the Minor Prophets indicate about Jonah?

The historical context of Jonah includes more than the book of 2 Kings. Because Jonah is one of the Twelve, the unity of that book also gives us context. In particular, the book of Obadiah, which sits immediately before Jonah, condemns Edom for their nationalistic pride and contempt for Israel. Edom, you may remember, was the offspring of Esau, the brother of Jacob. Read in the light of Obadiah, Jonah’s hatred for Nineveh smacks of the same nationalistic pride and contempt for God’s grace on other nations.

Likewise, when Jonah and Joel are compared, the heart of the prophets are revealed. Whereas Joel reads Exodus 34:6 (“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”) and believes God can be gracious to the repentant sinner (see Joel 2:12–14), Jonah reads the same words and despises God for the compassion he might show to Nineveh (Jonah 4:2). In this comparative reading, the heart of Jonah is exposed. And what it reveals is a prophet who can put God’s words on his lips but not in his heat. Jonah, it appears, does not know God or love him with all his heart—a condition plaguing Israel and Judah at this time in history (cf. Isaiah 29:13).

3. What does the book of Jonah say about Jonah?

When we step into the story of Jonah, we find a prophet who gives no evidence of piety or holy reverence. For instance, in chapter 1 he disobeys God’s word and flees from his presence. In chapter 3 he goes to Nineveh, but only speaks a five-word message of judgment. If true prophets speak against sin, declare God’s righteous judgment, and offer a word of hope for the repentant, Jonah only offers one element: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). Jonah doesn’t explain what Nineveh’s sin is, nor does he offer the grace and compassion that he himself has received. This incomplete message raises further questions about his prophetic calling.

In the end, Jonah camps outside of the city and waits for its destruction. Yet, because God relented from judgment on Nineveh (3:10), the final chapter focuses on the sin in Jonah’s heart. And in the last scene, Jonah’s anger is brought to light. If there was any chance of Jonah expressed repentance after Jonah 1–2, there are no fruits in keeping with that repentance in Jonah 3–4 (cf. Matthew 3:8). Hence, the reader is left with the impression that Jonah is a bitter man, whose anger will destroy him unless he truly repents.

When we read the story as a whole, therefore, the prayer in Jonah 2 is once again cast in a dubious light. How can a rebellious and bitter prophet offer such a beautiful prayer? Filled with Scripture, the words of Jonah 2 are orthodox, but what about Jonah’s heart? Scripture speaks often of men whose words do not match their hearts (see Isaiah 29; Mark 7). Similarly, in Job we find an example of counselors who speak truth wrongly—that is, they take orthodoxy and abuse Job with it. Could something similar be happening in Jonah?

I suspect that is exactly what is going on in Jonah and that the context of the whole book, especially Jonah’s enduring bitterness, is meant to highlight an ongoing problem in Israel—men and women who know God’s word and can quote God’s word but who do not know God. In fact, we know this sort of duplicitous speech was a problem in the eighth-century Israel, as Isaiah records, “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (29:13).

So with this background in place, let’s consider the actual words of Jonah’s prayer, both what he says and what he doesn’t say.

4. What does the prayer itself reveal about Jonah?

Jonah’s prayer is one of thanksgiving offered from the belly of the fish. And as I read it, I believe everything from its historical and literary context (already considered), to its location, genre, and verbal expressions give evidence of its fraudulent tone. In other words, while many read Jonah 2 as a repentant prayer that leads to Jonah’s second-chance service, I am not convinced.

What follows are 12 reasons why I read Jonah’s prayer an example of someone drawing near to God with their mouth, but not their heart.

  1. Jonah never mentions repentance, sin, or wrongdoing. Jonah clearly departed from the Lord by disobeying his word and fleeing from his face (Jonah 1), yet there is no evidence of remorse or grief for his sin. Compared with Psalm 32 or 51, we see clearly what Jonah should be saying, but doesn’t. Not once does he acknowledge his sin. Rather, his thanksgiving lacks the proper humility of a repentant sinner.
  2. The genre of his prayer is one of thanksgiving, not confession. In the Psalms, thanksgiving hymns are made when God delivers a people looking to him for deliverance. That’s how Jonah 2 reads, but the problem is that Jonah fled from God’s presence; he never sought him. Thus, his pray reads like that of a righteous sufferer, saved by God, but in fact, he was not righteous in any way. As Daniel Timmer puts it, “Jonah, although he is unquestionably in dire straits because of his own disobedience, does not even recognize his sin and so utters not a word of confession” (A Gracious and Compassionate God82).
  3. The location of the prayer, in the belly of the fish (2:1) and nearing Sheol (2:2), speaks of great uncleanness. In Leviticus, death was the greatest form of uncleanness (cf. Leviticus 21:1–3), and there is no word more associated with death than Sheol. Similarly, throughout the Old Testament “fish” (except in the context of creation and the new creation) are regularly associated with death (cf. Exodus 7:18, 21; Numbers 11:15; Isaiah 50:2; Ezekiel 29:4–5). Thus, while Solomon (1 Kings 8) and the Psalms 107, teach us that God can redeem from Sheol (cf. Hosea 13:13–14), the location of the prayer is one of great uncleanness. Might this reflect the condition of the prophets heart? It’s worth considering.
  4. Jonah speaks the words of Scripture, but shows no signs abiding joy in his repentance. In other words, all the actions of the book—disobedience, anger, hatred, etc.—contradict his words. Surely, there is not joy in his service, a punishable offense according to Deuteronomy 28:47–48. Therefore, even if his words are true and good, they faltered because of his lack of repentance.
  5. Jonah’s disobedience jeopardizes his prayer. We see this first in the way he calls out to the Lord, but hasn’t obeyed God’s command to call out to Nineveh (2:2). The re-use of the same word “call” is striking. Psalm 66:18 teaches that God does not listen to those who regard sin in their hearts. To be sure, Jonah’s cry for help is heard and answered, but consider, is this because of Jonah’s righteousness or God’s graciousness? Does not the example of Baalam (Numbers 22–24) remind us that a prophet can speak true words without being a true prophet? All in all, Jonah’s disobedience stands in contrast to the words of James 5:15–16, which cites Elijah as an example of righteous prayer. Jonah, ironically, is a counter-example to righteous prayer, and a warning that physical protection in this life is not necessarily an evidence of God’s eternal  favor.
  6. Jonah blames God for his water ordeal (v. 3), when in fact he volunteered himself to be thrown overboard (1:12). Likewise, Jonah’s language, though cloaked in Scripture and a theological truth about God’s sovereignty, masks his own guilt. The storm came upon Jonah because of his disobedience, yet without acknowledging that root cause, Jonah lays the blame at God’s feet.
  7. Jonah blames God for being driven away from his sight (2:4). He fails to acknowledge his own departure from God. Jonah 1:3 says that Jonah fled from the face of God. Yet again, his prayer puts the blame on God. Like Cain, he fails to acknowledge his own sin, and God’s judgment upon him is thus the righteous consequence for Jonah’s actions. But Jonah’s words fail to see that.
  8. Jonah confesses he will see God’s temple again (2:4), but will he? Such confidence in the temple is similar to Jeremiah 7, where God rebukes his people for their sin and they protest his judgment because they have “the temple of the Lord” (exclaimed three times). The Old Testament is filled with instances where Israel wrongly stands confident in themselves because of the temple building, rather than the One who dwelled in the temple. For Jonah, I believe his confidence is misplaced for two reasons: (1) Jonah is not called to go to Jerusalem but to Nineveh. Thus, his temple-looking prayer (again, without confession) stresses his nationalistic pride more than his desire to please God. (2) Jonah is from the North where the sons of Jeroboam worshiped at Dan and Bethel, not at the temple in Jerusalem. As John Walton queries, “Are we to believe that he has remained faithful to the temple in Jerusalem? If not, the parody grows in that this prophet does not even know where the presence of the Lord is to be found” (Jonah, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, loc. 2039–2041).
  9. The second mention of the temple (2:7) is odd given the confusion about where Jonah is from. That “Jonah views himself as having remained loyal to the Lord to the very end (despite his disobedience)” is an indicator of his spiritual blindness. “Again the wording shows that he sees himself in noble and pious terms while at the same time raising the question about which temple his prayer rose to” (Walton, Jonah, Loc. 2047-2049). Why would we think that Jonah is following the instructions of Solomon in 1 Kings 8 to seek the Lord’s face in Jerusalem, when he has run from God’s presence and had previously served a king in rebellion against Jerusalem? It seems better to read this focus on the temple as another instance of irony meant to raise suspicion about Jonah’s true intent. Or maybe it just shows  how deluded he is.
  10. Jonah’s denunciation of idol worship sounds legitimate (2:8), but on closer inspection it proves fraudulent. In chapter 1 the idol worshipers proved themselves to be more devoted to Yahweh than Jonah. Thus, as Jeremiah 18 and Ezekiel 18 teach, those who repent of sin are more righteous than those who at first are faithful and then turn away. After all Jonah has done and will do, Jonah’s self-confidence in his true worship seems less like pious repentance and more like self-deluded prophet who can’t see good from evil.
  11. Jonah’s confident words of self-dedication in verse 9 ring hollow. Though he says “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay,” Jonah’s actions before and after falsify his words. Jonah did not offer sacrifices, as the sailors did in Jonah 1. And when the city of Nineveh repents in dust and ashes, he is outside the city awaiting their demise. In other words, though he speaks highly of his worship, there is no evidence in this book that Jonah has ever worship God truly.  So why should we believe his words as sincere, when offered in a moment of panic?
  12. Last, Jonah 2 is not the only place where Jonah prays. Because we read this prayer in the context of the whole book, we should see that Jonah 4 also contains a prayer (see vv. 2–3). By comparing the two prayers we learn much about the heart of this prophet. As David Dorsey puts it, “In the first prayer, Jonah praises Yahweh for sparing him—one person—from the punishment he deserved . . . ; whereas in the second prayer Jonah is angry that God has spared many thousands of innocent children, as well as people who have sincerely repented. That the pious prayer of chapter 2 is matched by the mean-spirited prayer of chapter 2 is matched by the mean-spirited prayer of chapter 4 helps the reader, in retrospect, to see the first prayer as the author intended: self-righteous, hypocritical, and selfish” (The Literary Structure of the Old Testament291).

All in all, I find little reason to believe Jonah’s prayer is one of humble faith and repentance. Rather, tucked between Jonah’s first rebellion (ch. 1) and his last (ch. 4), it displays just how much we can deceive ourselves with the word of God. As Walton summarizes,

Upon examination of the psalm, I do not find a single line that suggests Jonah has recognized the error of his ways and is anxious to pack his bags and head for Nineveh. In fact, he sees his destination as the temple. . . . Jonah, I would suggest, is not repentant but resigned to the facts: He is going to Nineveh one way or the other. The Lord will not even allow Jonah’s death to interfere with this mission. So while Jonah is clearly thankful that his life has been saved, the fact that no repentance is mentioned in ch. 2 and the persistence of his bad attitude in ch. 4 suggest that this is the same Jonah who fled for Tarshish. He has simply been shown that this is one assignment that he cannot shirk. (Jonah, Loc. 2051–2058)

In truth, Jonah 2 is a staggering chapter as it shows the way men and women familiar with the word of God can deceive themselves. Like Job’s friends, Jonah’s prayer is replete with biblical truth, but truth that lacks personal repentance. Sadly, Jonah’s actions reflect the condition of Israel—a people who have drawn near to God with their lips, but whose hearts are far removed (Isaiah 29:13).

Similarly, Jonah shows the condition of Israel’s prophets. As Hosea 4:5 and 9:7 spoke earlier, the prophets of Israel have become foolish, leading the people of God to their destruction. This is what we find in Jonah, and thus, even as he prays the Scriptures, he is not returning to the Lord with a humble heart. Rather, for those who have ears to hear, there is something misleading about Jonah’s prayer. And alarmingly, it is a condition of heart that can happen to anyone who claims to follow the Lord, and especially those most familiar with Scripture.

Summing Up Jonah

What should we learn from Jonah 2? Namely, we should be very cautious with God’s Word. Both in our interpretations and even more in our prayerful meditations, we must let the Word of God speak. We must learn how to read the Scripture and we must let it read, examine, and expose our own hearts. In this way, we must do, by God’s grace, what Jonah did not. We must repent and let God’s grace lead us to confess sin, especially the sin of condemning others without offering hope.

More specifically, because Jonah is a prophet of the Lord, this book both comes as a warning against false prophets and those who follow them. In this way, Jonah has special warning to those who proclaim God’s word. Just because we who are near and know God’s Word, doesn’t mean our hearts are pure and blameless. Rather, we must learn from Jonah’s example to confess our sins and pursue the face of the Lord in God’s Word, lest knowledge of God’s Word make us smug and distant from God and harsh towards others.

In the end, I believe Jonah’s prayer is not an example of true piety or prayer. Rather, it is meant to examine those who offer prayer to God and remind us that our greatest need is the grace of God that cleanses our hearts and protects from self-delusion. On this point, we pray:

God save us from our sins and ourselves.

Keep us from deluding ourselves with your Word.

And may your Word lead us to you and to humble faith and repentant prayer.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Kristine Weilert on Unsplash

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