Jonah is a popular book, but it is so much more than flannel-graphs and cartoons of vegetables slapping each other with fish. There is deep and profound theology in Jonah that is lost when it is viewed as only a children’s story. While there are many things I learned from Jonah, I want to share what I tell all my Hebrew students who translate Jonah.
Jonah, the prophet, has excellent theology.
Jonah’s verbalized theology is perfect. I would even suggest that he could pass any theology test that existed at that time. He knows exactly who Yahweh is and is not afraid to proclaim it—to some. We see our first glimpse of this in his interaction with the sailors.
And [Jonah] answered them, “I am a Hebrew. And Yahweh, the God of the heavens is whom I fear, who made the sea and the dry land.”—Jonah 1:9
And at the beginning of Jonah 4, when he finally talks to Yahweh, he shows us a clear, concise, theological understanding of Yahweh’s nature.
Because I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and one who relents concerning judgment.—Jonah 4:3
Jonah has excellent theology. But Jonah also has a major problem. While Jonah has the head-knowledge of who Yahweh is, he does not fully submit to the God of that knowledge. Rather, Jonah tries to control Yahweh. He knows Yahweh is gracious and compassionate, so he tries to control the who, what, when, and how of when Yahweh will be Yahweh. For example, Yahweh must not show grace or compassion to the Ninevites.
Jonah tries to use his theology to control Yahweh.
Jonah’s problem is that he has separated his theology from his spiritual life.
You can proclaim excellent theology and be immersed in sin. It does not matter how many theology tests we pass. It does not matter what theological degrees adorn our walls. It does not matter how many theological treatises we can spout. If we are not obedient and submissive to Yahweh, we are sinning.
I have often heard the joke, “You can always tell a seminary grad; you just can’t tell him much.” I find both much truth and much sadness in that statement. Far too often I have seen some with theological degrees divorce their theology from their lives in some way. Those with theological training of any kind are not immune to the struggles with sin in our lives. And it is often easy for those with theological training to find a theological excuse for their sin.
This is why I stress Jonah’s theology to my Hebrew students.
Study theology. Study it well. But if your study of Yahweh is divorced from your daily life, I pray that God will send you a fish, storm, or worm to draw you back to the God of your theology.
This guest post was written by JoAnna M. Hoyt, author of Amos, Jonah & Micah: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Lexham Press, 2019).