Friday, April 13, 2007

A Depressed Prophet?

I heard someone theorize recently that Jonah must have been wasted to have slept through the storm that threatened to tear apart his Tarshish-bound ship. You’ll remember that he needed to be roused from a deep sleep by terrified pagan sailors. I thought this was an interesting theory. However, the fact that he emerges from his slumber and engages rationally with those around him leads me to conclude that he wasn’t in a seriously altered state.

I’ve always assumed Jonah’s ability to sleep through environmental tumult was indicative of a cold and uncaring heart. I now have a slightly different view. I wonder if Jonah’s ability to sleep through a violent storm hints at a state of depression.

Running from God & Life?

I’ve never subscribed to the notion that Jonah actually thought he could outrun God. After all, he was a spokesperson for the Almighty. Presumably, he knew of the might and omnipresence of God. So it seems highly improbable that an otherwise enlightened man—a working prophet for Yahweh—would think his little boat excursion would somehow fall off the Lord’s radar. So when he stepped aboard that wrong-way vessel, he had to know he was cruising for a divine bruising.

A Death Wish?

Four times in the book we read about Jonah’s expressed willingness to die. Once aboard the ship. Three times on the other end of his mandated mission trip to Ninevah. In Chapter 4, this desire is expressed with vehemence. He really wanted to die. (Or so he said.)

It seems to me altogether possible that Jonah wasn’t just going on strike. But that he was running from his very life. He was done working for God and, perhaps, ready to call it quits. Down in the bowels of the ship, he pulls a scratchy blanket over his head, maybe, and drifts, as depressed people do, into a state of “I never want to wake up!” sleep.

Lose me!

While we get up close and personal with his rebel spirit in Chapter 1, we have to get to the end of the book to really appreciate the self-centered nucleus of Jonah’s heart. So when he offers to go overboard to cause the storm to abate and save the crew in Chapter 1, we aren’t privy yet to deeper insight into his full nature. It would seem, in the absence of the full story, to be an act of some maturity and self-sacrifice. The text indicates he knew the storm would cease and the sailors would survive if he bailed out. But did he know he wouldn't drown? Probably not. Because we are told in Chapter 2 he was praying inside the fish in a state of "distress" (2:2) and at one point he felt his life "ebbing away." (2:7)

So it would appear that he fessed up and slipped into dark, turbulent waters to stop the storm and save the lives of strangers. Yet we will learn that compassion is not his groove. The only way this act makes sense is if Jonah has already resolved that life is not worth living. He’s not thinking about a house with a hot tub and new Land Cruiser in his Tarshish carport. He’s possibly depressed and ready to power down.

I’m So Glad, I’m So Glad, I’m Glad, I’m Glad, I’m Glad…

In Chapter 2, we have a jarringly joyful psalm of declarative praise—a seemingly odd pickle in the middle. Look at what surrounds it. In Chapter 1, we meet Jonah, the depressed rebel, facing dire personal calamity. In Chapter 4, we meet Jonah, the impetuous curmudgeon, teetering on the precipice of a seismic breakdown. Yet sandwiched between, we have this lovely, uplifting psalm. What to make of this?

Reading this account literally, we have a wildly supernatural act in which a human being was swallowed whole then subsequently spit up by a giant sea creature. When Jonah realizes his life is being spared—that he is being afforded a whale of a second chance—he can look at life afresh. The part of him that wanted to give up is suppressed—albeit temporarily—as he reels from this unexpected turn of events made possible by a merciful God. His praise pours forth in Chapter 2 from a heart that is about to pop with wonder and gratitude.

But the memory of this miraculous rescue, though still ostensibly fresh, was not enough to override Jonah’s faulty heart as he concludes his mission for God. His words in Chapter 4 read like a spoiled child throwing a mean red fit.

My Sympathies

My professor tells incredibly vivid and memorable stories. When he got to the part about the Ninevites, I shut my eyes and went “eeewww!” Think Saddam times ten. The Assyrian inhabitants of Ninevah had a history of unthinkable atrocities against Israel and were horribly deviant in their treatment of captives. And it was this savage history, no doubt, that kept scraping at Jonah’s heart as he contemplated being an agent for their redemption.

I thought of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein as I reflected upon the leadership climate of Ninevah. And for the first time, I actually felt a glint of sympathy for Jonah’s response. From our evangelistic standpoint today, it's hard to imagine begrudging people an opportunity to repent and receive God’s saving grace. But it was a very human tendency Jonah displayed to be unforgiving and grudge-like in the face of our most despised enemies. To my thinking now, Jonah represents less of an oddity and more of an “orange cone” around the sin that lies deep within the heart of many of us.

When I was a child, the mere mention of the word “Soviet” made me pale. Russians to my nine-year-old mind were the reason Mrs. Harris had us hide under our desks once a month, and the people next door built an underground bomb shelter. The Soviet Union was a place filled with a bunch of humorless nationalists who hated us. My childish mind could not disassociate the government from its citizens.

What we must always remember—something that was lost on Jonah—is that countries and nations and governments and regimes are made up of human beings. I know today that when someone says “Iran” or “North Korea” we can rightfully worry about things like “what on earth would they do with a bomb…” but we must guard against the inclination to indiscriminantly hate them. Because inside those places that are as foreign to us as Ninevah was to Jonah, there are wives and husbands and mothers and fathers and little boys and little girls. People are getting engaged and married and babies are being born. And God loves them, too.

So the lessons from Jonah… as relevant today as they were then.

(Photo is not the fish that swallowed Jonah, but Colin's elementary school art competition entry!)

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