The Vengeful Prophet

The following meditation was written by Nathanael Hood,

a senior student at Princeton Theological Seminary

“God said to Jonah, ‘Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?’ Jonah said, ‘Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!’ But the Lord said, ‘You “pitied” the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”

Jonah 4: 9-11 (Common English Bible)

The Book of Jonah is one of the most unusual in the Bible. Tucked away among the Minor Prophets at the tail end of the Hebrew Bible, it’s radically different from its neighbors. Unlike the other prophetic books, Jonah primarily tells the story of what its prophet did, not necessarily what its prophet said. And what a story! A reluctant, cowardly prophet! A man eaten by a giant fish somehow surviving in its belly for three days! Desperate eleventh-hour appeals to God and dramatic reversals of fortune! The unanimous repentance before God of an entire pagan city! Field animals donning mourning clothes alongside their masters! Even its spatial dimensions stretch beyond credulity: the doomed city of Nineveh is described as requiring three days to cross on foot. For reference, according to Google Maps, it only takes eight hours to traverse New York City from the bottom of Brooklyn to the tip of the Bronx. The Book of Jonah is an outlandish, dramatic tale that scratches the very human itch for the strange and fantastic. Is it any wonder it’s a favorite of storytellers, scribes, and Sunday school teachers?

However, the Book of Jonah also bears a more unfortunate distinction: it’s one of the most abridged, misunderstood stories in the Bible. We Christians have a nasty habit of neglecting the last chapter of the book, which brings the rest of the story into sharp, uncomfortable focus. After Jonah begrudgingly obeys God’s command to preach repentance to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, he becomes infuriated when God honors the city dwellers’ repentance and doesn’t destroy them. An incensed Jonah rages against the Almighty’s mercy and reveals his true character: he didn’t flee from God’s command to travel to Nineveh because he feared the Assyrians; he fled because he knew God would spare them if they repented! It was his hatred of Nineveh that spurred him to Tarshish.

When God challenges Jonah for questioning God’s mercy, Jonah responds like an indignant toddler, storming to the outskirts of the city. Once there, he builds a hut, sits down, and faces the city, almost like he’s trying to will God to change God’s mind and smite Nineveh with the sheer force of his will. Like a patient parent, God causes a tree to grow over him so he might sit in the shade. But after a day of Jonah not getting the hint, God smites the tree with a terrible worm. When Jonah yells at God for destroying his shade, God challenges him once again, asking if his anger is justified. Once more, like a child stamping its foot, Jonah whines and wishes he might die. To which God responds with a simple question: why are you more upset about the life of a tree than the lives of thousands of people and animals in Nineveh?

Contrary to how the Book of Jonah is commonly understood, it’s not a story celebrating the faithfulness and power of God to save God’s faithful. It’s not a story meant to complement Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace or Daniel in the lion’s den. The book generously mixes satire, humor, and folklore to challenge its reader to self-examine their obedience to God’s command of loving their neighbor. If Jonah truly loved the Lord his God, he would have rejoiced at the salvation of the Assyrians, the hated enemies of the Jews who sacked their cities and murdered their people. But it offers a second, just as potent challenge to its reader: what kind of God do we truly want to believe in? Jonah’s idealized God of vengeance and wrath, slayer of the weak and repentant? Or the Bible’s revealed God of mercy and justice, forgiver of sins, and bringer of salvation? May we choose better than this spiteful prophet.



A High Resolution Faith

“The truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice, doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful. Instead of doing those things, these persons love the Lord’s Instruction, and they recite God’s Instruction day and night! They are like a tree replanted by streams of water, which bears fruit at just the right time and those leaves don’t fade. Whatever they do succeeds.”

Psalm 1:1-3 (Common English Bible)

Many, many people are frustrated in their prayer lives. Told over and over again that whatever they need, whatever they want, simply bring those requests to God in prayer, and God will not disappoint. Anticipate miracles, we are told by the faithful. All things are possible if only we believe. We pray. And there is silence. Prayer is attempted again, with greater mental effort to “believe more” or “have more faith” as though either was possible with greater effort. The silence remains. We are told to blame ourselves. Discouragement settles into our souls, and we drop out on faith—or at the minimum, on the exercise of prayer. Prayer has failed us; we know that somehow we are not getting through to God, so we give up. Worse, without a positive experience of prayer, the energy for a life of faith runs down.

Lowell Russell Ditzen suggests that the problem may, in fact, be with us. Ditzen writes, “We become what we think! Our spiritual health is the result of our spiritual diet.”[i] Naturally, that begs the question, “What are we feeding on?” Psalm 1 advances this notion with three quick declarations: “The truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice, doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.” This spiritual guidance is immediately followed by two imperatives, the happy person loves the Lord’s Instruction, and they recite God’s Instruction day and night. Apparently, our spiritual diet – our day-to-day behavior and thoughts – becomes the filter through which we see the world. How is the resolution by which we view the world? Have we drawn near to God or moved far away?

Ellen F. Davis moves this thought forward, “The psalm makes only one point, and makes it really clear: you’re not going to get anywhere in the life of prayer unless you’re reading scripture, God’s Torah, all the time.”[ii] A genuine, vital, and effective experience of prayer emerges out of the midst of reading the Bible regularly – even daily – and focusing our thoughts on the question, “What does God require of me?” As we become better readers of the Bible, our prayers are deepened and transformed. We remove ourselves from the company of those who ignore God’s purposes and, thus, disrupt God’s order for the world. Steeped in scripture and disciplined in prayer, we are able to see what God is doing in the ordinary moments of life.

Life consists of choices – we choose either a constant attentiveness to God’s instruction or a self-centered life that largely ignores God until we believe God might be useful to us. One is a high-resolution faith, the consciousness of God here and now, and the other is a low-resolution faith that sees little beyond the self. Strength rises up in the person who both learns of God and approaches prayer as fellowship with God. Courage is rekindled, insight is broadened, and the power to endure and move forward is heightened. Such prayer pries the “me” out of our consciousness and provokes us to see life all around us in fresh new ways. Such a high-resolution faith leads to a lifestyle that experiences great power in prayer. A people who mastered prayer wrote the Psalms, and it is well that they instruct us.

.[i] Lowell Russell Ditzen, Secrets of Self-Mastery: An Inspirational Guide to The Mastery of Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1958) 22.

[ii] Ellen F. Davis, Wondrous Depth: Preaching The Old Testament (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) 147.


Throwing Away Self-Pity

“Awake, awake, put on your strength, Zion!”

Isaiah 52:1a (Common English Bible)

Captivity for Israel has ended. God has defeated the powers of Babylon and has authorized Israel to depart and head for home to Jerusalem. A new day, with a strong future, now rises for God’s people. “Awake, awake!” is God’s double imperative to Israel. “Put on your strength, Zion!” The call sounds strangely familiar. “Up and Adam! Let’s get going!” is the more common usage today. These, or similar, words have been uttered by most parents summoning their children awake from their sleep. The image of sleepy children, resisting the call to leave the comfort of a warm bed, is sharp and crisp. The parent can wake the child with a shout, can summon the child from the bed, but it must be the child’s own strength that moves them from slumber to a fresh engagement with a new day.

God’s present difficulty is that Israel doesn’t want to get out of bed. During their captivity in Babylon, Israel has become dulled, inattentive, hopeless, and grief-stricken.i Israel has been humiliated by Babylon and has spiraled into such despair and self-pity that they no longer want to live. No longer did life offer a driving purpose, only a memory of brighter days. Absent was a radiant hope, only a fading dream. A captivating vision has fled from their sight. What remained was a history. “Awake, awake!” is God’s response to Israel’s self-pity. “Put on your strength, Zion!” God is reminding Israel that there is still strength in the people and is here urging them to summon that strength and toss-off that negative attitude that has consumed them.

Psychotherapist and author, Amy Morin writes that feeling sorry for yourself is self-destructive.ii Though we all experience pain and sorrow in life, dwelling on your sorrow and misfortune can consume you until it eventually changes your thoughts and behaviors. Morin contends that any of us can choose to take control. “Even when you can’t alter your circumstances, you can alter your attitude.”iii This is the clear declaration of God to Israel; the clear call to shake off their indulgence in self-pity, claim the strength that remains in them, and move positively forward toward the future God has prepared for them. God’s strength comes alongside our own. It does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.

After Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent 18 years in the Channel Islands. Hugo once described this exile from the nation he loved as worse than death. Each afternoon, at sunset, Victor Hugo would climb to a cliff overlooking a small harbor and look longingly out over the water toward France. Legend tells us that each day, following his meditations, Hugo would pick up a pebble and throw it into the sea. One day the children who developed an affection for him asked why he threw a stone in the sea each day. “Not stones, children, not stones. I am throwing my self-pity into the sea.” Little wonder that during those 18 years of struggle, Victor Hugo gave the world his best and most profound work of literature.



i Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 136.

ii Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. (New York: William Morrow, 2014) 20.


The Allure of a Defeated Life

“I was given a thorn in my body.”

2 Corinthians 12:7 (Common English Bible)

Few things are as unfortunate as to see a woman or man losing heart and all sense of hope, drifting into apathy, and finally despair. When a sense of defeat is permitted to take residence in a life, frustration and inaction are too frequently the result. The face becomes sullen, the head is held low, and the shoulders sag. Bitterness grows, the result of an erroneous belief that life has dealt a raw deal or that others have received better opportunities. Left unchecked, the self-pity sentences them to low levels of achievement. A strange comfort is found in simply giving-up – experiencing a certain allure of being defeated.

History is replete with men and women who have experienced hardship, anguished over setbacks, and struggled with handicaps – physical, mental and emotional. Anyone of them may have been resentful and rebellious – and many have – with bad behavior the consequence. Yet, there are others who rise above the circumstances of their lives, press forward with unbelievable determination and consecrate their lives to the service of others. The apostle Paul stands among them. Paul moved through life hindered by “a thorn in the body” but produced nearly two-thirds of our New Testament.

Rather than giving-up and accepting defeat, Paul labored under his handicap. Naturally, Paul – like any of us – preferred that the handicap be corrected, the difficulty removed. On three occasions Paul asked the Lord for this. But the handicap remained; the thorn wasn’t removed. But Paul’s prayers were answered. “My grace is enough for you,” answered God. With God’s answer, Paul committed himself to do the very best he could do with what he had. His life and ministry was a vessel of hope for everyone he encountered. To his children, Theodore Roosevelt continually cultivated a hopeful disposition – and in doing so charged the atmosphere of his home with hope.

Paul sought to demonstrate in his life that there is no limitation, no misfortune, no burden of sorrow, suffering or loss that the human spirit cannot rise above. He endured much of each. But Paul went deeper than self-discipline and self-determination. Paul triumphed over it all because he sought God. Perhaps this was the finest message that Paul left the church – that when the allure of defeat tempts the heart Paul calls us to that deeper place where our life is open to the grace and power of Almighty God.