Did Jonah Repent?

In the era of the “anti-hero”, the protagonist who takes on the role of the hero, but lacks the qualities to be seen as one, we should be reading the character of Jonah as being the anti-prophet.  He has the role, but nothing about him seems to indicate that he should be doing it.

Many people, when coming to Jonah ask the question, can a man live in a fish for three days and three nights?  This should be put in the same category of whether a man can be raised from the dead after three days?  Can a pagan nation, faced with God’s judgment repent of their sins and cast themselves on God’s mercy (Jonah 4)?

A more difficult question, I think, to whether Jonah lived in a fish is whether he repented.  He has clearly been disobedient to God.  Even the pagan sailors can see this (Jonah 1:10). But does he address this disobedience in his prayer to God in chapter 2?  This is a difficult question to answer.  

What we do know is that he certainly looks to God for salvation (2:6,9).  He is the recipient of grace (2:10).  In the next chapter, he does what is asked of him instead of repeating his disobedience (3:1-3).  There are a lot of good things about what Jonah is praying.

But there is a notable silence as to whether he is sorry for what he does wrong. 

Timmer⁠1 assesses Jonah as being someone who is blaming everyone else but himself⁠2.  “Jonah, however, although he is unquestionably in dire straits because of his own disobedience does not even recognise his sin and so utters not a word of confession.”⁠3  And “As Jonah’s prayer continues, we will see that this tendency to ignore his sin dominates his interpretation of his deliverance.”⁠4

While this is an argument from silence, it is a silence that is deafening.  It stands in contrast to the pagans (1:14, 3:7-10).  A lack of confession could also show where Jonah’s heart really lies.  He knows what it is to be the recipient of grace.  But this act of grace and mercy has not changed him.  He still doesn’t want to see the Ninevehites saved and receive the same mercy he has.   

If we are to see Jonah as a reflection of the people of God at the time, then we are seeing people who are expecting that God will rescue them based on their covenantal relationship with him rather than on his character of a God who is loving and merciful (Ex 34:6-7).

But what it means for us is to show the importance of confessing our sins as people who are recipients of grace (1 John 1:8-10).  Without which we can end up looking down on other sinners who need saving, without recognising our own need.

1 Daniel Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God. NSBT series (Nottingham: IVP, 2011).

2 Timmer, p85.

3 Timmer, p82.

4 Timmer, p84.

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2 comments

  1. Peter, a very helpful and insightful commentary. One of my friends pointed out that God’s response to Jonah’s prayer was “to vomit Jonah” out of the fish/whale. Other verbs could have been used with a less pejorative tone. Your commentary has taken that a step further. You have helpfully reflected on the significance of his omission of sorrow, repentance and deduced what this implies about Jonah’s heart. A willing recipient of grace but unchanged by it. I appreciated your analysis that Jonah, representing the people of God, showed that they relied more on God acting according to his covenant with them rather than according to his character. I had not grasped that and it makes sense.

    Your comments on confession today lead me to reflect on the frequent omission of confession from our (non-Prayer Book) Sunday Services. Are we prone to take for granted our standing with God and our forgiveness secured by Christ’s death? Having said that, a confession is not worth the name if we just mouth the words. David spoke of “a broken and contrite heart …”. Now I need to heed my own words!

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    • Thanks Michael, I think you are right, we should be having confession in church more often. I know I have worked on that. Thanks for being one of the few readers of the blog too!

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