An angry prophet. A feared and loathsome enemy. A devastating storm. And the surprising message of a merciful God to his people.
The story of Jonah is one of the most well-known parables in the Bible. It is also the most misunderstood. Many people, even those who are nonreligious, are familiar with Jonah: A rebellious prophet who defies God and is swallowed by a whale. But there''s much more to Jonah''s story than most of us realize.
The Prodigal Prophet, pastor and New York Times bestselling author Timothy Keller reveals the hidden depths within the book of Jonah. Keller makes the case that Jonah was one of the worst prophets in the entire Bible. And yet there are unmistakably clear connections between Jonah, the prodigal son, and Jesus. Jesus in fact saw himself in Jonah. How could one of the most defiant and disobedient prophets in the Bible be compared to Jesus?
Jonah''s journey also doesn''t end when he is freed from the belly of the fish. There is an entire second half to his story--but it is left unresolved within the text of the Bible. Why does the book of Jonah end on what is essentially a cliffhanger? In these pages, Timothy Keller provides an answer to the extraordinary conclusion of this biblical parable--and shares the powerful Christian message at the heart of Jonah''s story.
Praise for Timothy Keller and his books:
“Superb . . . we should be grateful to Keller for his wisdom, scholarship, and humility.”
—The Gospel Coalition
“Tim Keller’s ministry in New York City is leading a generation of seekers and skeptics toward belief in God. I thank God for him.”
“Unlike most suburban megachurches, much of Redeemer is remarkably traditional. What is not traditional is Dr. Keller’s skill in speaking the language of his urbane audience. . . . Observing Dr. Keller’s professorial pose on stage, it is easy to understand his appeal.”
The New York Times
“Fifty years from now, if evangelical Christians are widely known for their love of cities, their commitment to mercy and justice, and their love of their neighbors, Tim Keller will be remembered as a pioneer of the new urban Christians.”
“Timothy Keller puts a contemporary spin on the familiar story of the prophet who disobeyed God and was swallowed by a whale.”
Timothy Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular Sunday attendees and has helped to start over 250 new churches around the world. Also the author of
Every Good Endeavor, The Meaning of Marriage, Generous Justice, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, Jesus the King, and
The Reason for God, Timothy Keller lives in New York City with his family.
Like most people raised in a churchgoing home, I have been aware of the story of Jonah since childhood. As a minister who teaches the Bible, however, I have gone through several stages of puzzlement and wonder at this short book. The number of themes is a challenge for the interpreter. It seems to be about so many things.
Is it about race and nationalism, since Jonah seems to be more concerned over his nation’s military security than over a city of spiritually lost people? Is it about God’s call to mission, since Jonah at first flees from the call and later goes but regrets it? Is it about the struggles believers have to obey and trust in God? Yes to all those—and more. A mountain of scholarship exists about the book of Jonah that reveals the richness of the story, the many layers of meaning, and the varied applicability of it to so much of human life and thought.
I discovered that “varied applicability” as I preached through the book of Jonah verse by verse three times in my ministry. The first time was at my first church in a small, blue-collar town in the South. Ten years later I preached through it to several hundred young, single professionals in Manhattan. Then, a decade after that, I preached through Jonah on the Sundays immediately after the 9/11 tragedy in New York City. In each case the audience’s cultural location and personal needs were radically different, yet the text of Jonah was more than up to the task of powerfully addressing them. Many friends have told me over the years that the Jonah sermons they heard were life changing.
The narrative of Jonah seduces the reader into thinking of it as a simple fable, with the account of the great fish as the dramatic, if implausible, high point. Careful readers, however, find it to be an ingenious and artfully crafted work of literature. Its four chapters recount two incidents. In chapters 1 and 2 Jonah is given a command from God but fails to obey it; and in chapters 3 and 4 he is given the command again and this time carries it out. The two accounts are laid out in almost completely parallel patterns.
Despite the literary sophistication of the text, many modern readers still dismiss the work because the text tells us that Jonah was saved from the storm when swallowed by a “great fish” (Jonah 1:17). How you respond to this will depend on how you read the rest of the Bible. If you accept the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ (a far greater miracle), then there is nothing particularly difficult about reading Jonah literally. Certainly many people today believe all miracles are impossible, but that skepticism is just that—a belief that itself cannot be proven. Not only that, but the text does not show evidence of the author having made up the miracle account. A fiction writer ordinarily adds supernatural elements in order to create excitement or spectacle and to capture reader attention, but this writer doesn’t capitalize on the event at all in that way. The fish is mentioned only in two brief verses and there are no descriptive details. It is reported more as a simple fact of what happened. So let’s not get distracted by the fish.
The careful structure of the book reveals nuances of the author’s message. Both episodes show how Jonah, a staunch religious believer, regards and relates to people who are racially and religiously different from him. The book of Jonah yields many insights about God’s love for societies and people beyond the community of believers; about his opposition to toxic nationalism and disdain for other races; and about how to be “in mission” in the world despite the subtle and unavoidable power of idolatry in our own lives and hearts. Grasping these insights can make us bridge builders, peacemakers, and agents of reconciliation in the world. Such people are the need of the hour.
Yet to understand all of these lessons for our social relationships, we have to see that the book’s main teaching is not sociological but theological. Jonah wants a God of his own making, a God who simply smites the bad people, for instance, the wicked Ninevites and blesses the good people, for instance, Jonah and his countrymen. When the real God—not Jonah’s counterfeit—keeps showing up, Jonah is thrown into fury or despair. Jonah finds the real God to be an enigma because he cannot reconcile the mercy of God with his justice. How, Jonah asks, can God be merciful and forgiving to people who have done such violence and evil? How can God be both merciful and just?
That question is not answered in the book of Jonah. As part of the entire Bible, however, the book of Jonah is like a chapter that drives the Scripture’s overall plotline forward. It teaches us to look ahead to how God saved the world through the one who called himself the ultimate Jonah (Matthew 12:41) so that he could be both just and the justifier of those who believe (Romans 3:26). Only when we readers fully grasp this gospel will we be neither cruel exploiters like the Ninevites nor Pharisaical believers like Jonah, but rather Spirit-changed, Christ-like women and men.
Many students of the book have noticed that in the first half Jonah plays the “prodigal son” of Jesus’s famous parable (Luke 15:11–24), who ran from his father. In the second half of the book, however, Jonah is like the “older brother” (Luke 15:25–32), who obeys his father but berates him for his graciousness to repentant sinners. The parable ends with a question from the father to the Pharisaical son, just as the book of Jonah ends with a question to the Pharisaical prophet. The parallel between the two stories, which Jesus himself may have had in mind, is the reason for the title of this book, The Prodigal Prophet.