Saturday, January 09, 2021

Mining the Minors: Jonah (16)

There is a little bit of numeric symmetry in this last chapter of Jonah: God asks three questions, and because Jonah’s animosity toward the people of Nineveh and his disappointment at God’s delay in judging them are so intense, the prophet three times asks God to allow him to die. There are also three things in chapter 4 that God is said to have “appointed”, so there are three sets of three. Perhaps the symmetry is not so accidental.

Needless to say, it is fairly obvious Jonah’s request to die went ungranted, or else his story would never have been written.

Well, maybe. Of course the Holy Spirit could have revealed Jonah’s tale to another writer from beginning to end, just as he must have revealed Adam’s and Abraham’s tales to Moses, probably through a combination of oral tradition handed down from generation to generation, and direct revelation to Moses in editing and interpreting it for us. But that seems both unnecessarily complicated and unlikely in Jonah’s case. I like to think the book of Jonah ends with the prophet learning something he considered important enough to write down for posterity, even if it took him a while to internalize and submit to the lesson God taught him, as is often the case in my life … and maybe in yours too.

Our next two verses contain the first instances of two of these “threes”.

Jonah 4:3-4 — Questions and More Questions
“ ‘Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Do you do well to be angry?’ ”
Please Take My Life

You have probably noticed a pattern in scripture with despondent people who ask God to take their lives: God handles the request with precisely the degree of seriousness it deserves. Here, God simply changes the subject. In his infinite wisdom, he addresses Jonah’s root problem rather than its verbal symptoms.

It is sometimes said that people who are genuinely suicidal don’t tip off their family and friends before taking their lives. There may be some truth in that; I can’t say for sure. But the threat of suicide is also a tool not uncommonly employed in the attempt to emotionally manipulate and control the behavior of others.

The first husband of an old acquaintance was emotionally all over the map, couldn’t hold a job and portrayed himself to anyone who would listen as a victim of life. He threatened his wife and family with suicide every time he didn’t feel he was getting enough attention. Periodically, he would even go through the motions, but he proved as reliably incompetent at ending his own life as he was at leading and providing for his family. The sleeping pills always came back up at the right time, the scars on his wrists always ran in the wrong direction and the rags he shoved in the car tailpipe conveniently fell out before the carbon monoxide could finish the job.

Anyway, after hearing the story of the marriage second hand (and well after the fact), I drew the not-unreasonable conclusion that he didn’t really want to die after all. He was looking for something else. I don’t think he has found it. Emotional blackmail is not an honorable tool to use on others, and those you use it on tend to become inured to your manipulations over time. What else can they do when someone they love is constantly trying to use their own loyalty to injure them?

All to say, there is more than one reason a person may express the desire to die.

Not Alone in Scripture

Whether or not Jonah’s request was a serious one, the prophet certainly isn’t alone in scripture. Old Testament characters frequently expressed the desire to die for various reasons:
  • Why did I not die at birth?” Job asked in the midst of his suffering. Heaven was silent, he was desperately unhappy, in physical agony, confused, and looking for sympathy from his friends, who gave him little help.
  • I loathe my life”, Rebekah complained to her husband Isaac, ostensibly because of the endless provocations of her godless daughters-in-law. It was almost surely hyperbole designed to get Isaac’s cooperation with her plans for their son Jacob.
  • Moses asked to be “blotted out” of God’s book if God would not forgive Israel. He was negotiating with God, but I think he meant his request in good faith, even if he didn’t understand either the magnitude of what he was offering or its inadequacy. His offer was rejected, but his plea for Israel was graciously heard.
  • An exhausted Elijah asked God, “Take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” He seems to have meant it at the time, and God duly accommodated his emotional needs.
So did Jonah mean it when he said he wanted to die? I can’t tell you, but it seems unlikely he was doing much more then blowing off steam and trying to communicate the extent of his frustration to God. In any case, God doesn’t grant requests to “take my life”, at least not anywhere in scripture I have observed. I can only conclude it’s the sort of petulance we are better off not expressing.

That doesn’t mean God will miraculously prevent determined suicides: the case of Judas is evidence of that.

A Series of Rhetorical Questions

In response to Jonah’s plea, God begins to ask the prophet a series of questions. We may find this an odd way to proceed; after all, it is evident God already knows the answer to anything he might ever ask a human being, and knows it far more accurately than the person he is questioning. Nevertheless, asking questions to which he knows the answer is a tactic God has used from the moment sin entered the world. The Lord Jesus used rhetorical questions more than almost any other method of teaching.

Consider a few of the earliest recorded divine queries:
  • Where are you?” God called to Adam in the garden. This is the first question in the Bible that God ever asks, and only the second question in recorded human history. Of course God knew perfectly well where Adam was, and why Adam and Eve had hidden themselves from the Lord among the trees of the garden.
  • Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? The third question in our Bibles invites Cain to express his anger with his brother in a forum where it can be dealt with righteously, in repentance. God knew exactly why Cain was angry. He didn’t even need to wait for an answer, but simply added “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” But Cain’s deficient offering came from a deficient character. He did not “do well”, notwithstanding God’s gracious advice.
  • Where is Abel your brother?” God asks again. “What have you done?” Of course God knew the answers to these questions. He goes on to say, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”
Can you see the pattern emerging here? God asks endless rhetorical questions. He knows the answers to all of them, but they are intended to provoke men to consider their ways, humble themselves under the mighty hand of God, and “do well” instead of doing evil. They are intended to throw light on the dark corners of the human mind and heart and bring out into the open the concealed intentions of men. They are intended to demonstrate both the utter futility of resisting the Almighty and the unbelievable patience he exhibits toward us.

Learning to Do Well

The first of the Lord’s three questions to Jonah is this: “Do you do well to be angry?” The similarity to God’s first question to Cain is hard to miss. We may argue that Jonah was no murderer, but then again, Jesus taught that anger and murder are intimately related; the latter proceeds directly from the former. “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” The spirit in which Jonah wished judgment on the people of Nineveh was the spirit of Cain, the first human murderer, and the spirit of Satan, the accuser and murderer of our race. Jonah had not yet acted on his lethal impulses, but they were there all the same.

“Do you do well?” God asks his servant ever so gently. Surely both knew the answer to the question. But God makes no abrupt accusations, does no finger pointing, lays down no warnings of judgment if Jonah does not change his way of thinking. The grace is amazing, and surely we recognize his method in his dealings with us. So often the Spirit of God’s most effective rebukes come to us in the form of such guileless questions … questions to which we already know the answers.

It is difficult to imagine how Jonah could possibly have missed God’s point. Nevertheless, their conversation would continue.

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