A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By B.J. Hilbelink
The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy is Tim Keller’s meaty and multilayered exposition of the book of Jonah, based on his three prior preaching series through the book. On Keller’s reading, Jonah speaks an incisive and timely message to the Church concerning love for religious and racial “others,” sacrifice for one’s neighbor, social justice, care for cities, and nationalism, among other moral matters. And yet, Keller writes, “the book’s main teaching is not sociological but theological” (5). At its heart, the book is about Jonah’s stormy relationship with God—His Word, world, and especially His grace. Due to his idolatrous self-righteousness and partisan pride, Jonah cannot wrap his mind around a God who would pardon pagan Ninevites—the mortal enemies of God’s own people. The justice of God and the mercy of God, then, are an irreconcilable riddle for Jonah. But those who grasp the gospel of Jesus Christ, where justice and mercy meet, will become “bridge builders, peacemakers, and agents of reconciliation in the world” (5).
The Prodigal Prophet is, as its title suggests, Tim Keller’s second book (after The Prodigal God) that touches upon Jesus’ parable of the two sons in Luke 15:11-24. As Keller perceptively observes, Jonah resembles the runaway “prodigal son” in the first half of the narrative and is reminiscent of the proud “Pharisaical son” in the latter half. The final curtain of the narrative closes with a rhetorical question that confronts Jonah—and each of us—with the scandalous and seemingly profligate nature of God’s grace to the least deserving.
Accessible and yet erudite, pithy yet profound, The Prodigal Prophet is classic Keller. Combining a scholar’s mind with a pastor’s heart, an apologist’s winsomeness, and a soul surgeon’s precision, Keller hews closely to the text of Jonah in his section-by-section exposition, yet always with a penetrating eye to application.
Of special relevance to the American evangelical conversation are Keller’s points pertaining to race, nationalism, and social justice. In Keller’s view, one of Jonah’s fundamental flaws was that he rooted his identity—and ultimately misplaced his worship—in his nationality as a Hebrew (Jon. 1:9). As a result, Jonah fled from Yahweh’s command to preach to Israel’s enemies; and when God pitied Nineveh to the detriment of Israel’s national interests, Jonah had nothing else to live for (Jon. 4:3, 8). In all of this, Keller warns, Jonah “had allowed himself to become too aligned politically and emotionally with the national security interests of Israel. We must avoid the same error” (163). Furthermore, Jonah’s initial obliviousness to the plight of the Gentile sailors was due to his disdain for racial and religious “others” (42). We need to learn from Jonah’s negative example that “God wants us to treat people of different races and faiths in a way that is respectful, loving, generous, and just” (32). Finally, when Jonah preaches judgment and the Ninevites—inhabitants of the “terrorist state” of Assyria—collectively repent of their social injustices, Keller hastens to point out that the proclamation of God’s judgment and the work of social justice must go hand-in-hand.
At each of these points, Keller walks a fine line, and charts a middle course, between conservative evangelicals, on the one side, and progressive evangelicals, on the other. Perhaps both camps would have appreciated more specificity on how the book of Jonah speaks to the subject of racism in America, and along precisely what lines the Church should address it. Also potentially problematic is the way in which Keller uses the term “race” (e.g., pp. 5, 32, 44, 46, 50, 51), for it seems he never differentiates between how race is understood in the United States and how, for example, ancient Hebrews would have thought about Assyrians.
And yet, it is precisely in making these points about race and justice that The Prodigal Prophet excels in what we have come to expect from Tim Keller’s work, namely, its relentless Gospel-centeredness. For example: Christians, says Keller, should be the last to fall into the trap of “othering” people of different backgrounds, because although Jesus was “wholly Other” from us, being in very nature God (Php. 2:6), He didn’t despise us, but became one of us (180-81). What bolsters this and many of Keller’s other social claims is the extent to which they are rooted both in the text of Jonah and in the deep structure of the gospel. Without compromising the centrality of Christ crucified, The Prodigal Prophet brings the ethical implications of the book of Jonah to bear on a contemporary Western Church in desperate need of its message.
I wonder, however, if that message is even more pointed than Keller’s reading of the book would allow for. In Keller’s understanding, Jonah is a complex and dynamic character. He is a self-righteous idolater, to be sure, but he nevertheless makes progress in the course of the narrative. On Keller’s view, Jonah has a slight change of heart toward the sailors when, out of pity, he bears the wrath of the sea on their behalf. When Jonah then hits rock bottom in the bowels of the whale, he begins to realize his own powerlessness and sinfulness, as well as the greatness of God’s steadfast love (2:9). Correspondingly, his prayer in 2:2-9 should be read as a plea for grace and an expression of genuine, if partial, repentance. Jonah’s suicidal tantrum in chapter 4, therefore, is a “relapse,” for “Jonah, like any prophet of the Lord, certainly wanted to grow in character and wanted God to help him” (223).
While a nuanced reading of Jonah’s character is certainly called for, there are indications in the text that the narrator wishes to paint a darker—and more static—picture of Jonah. (For some of the contours of this picture I am indebted to OT scholar Dennis Magary.) When God turned away from His anger against Nineveh (3:9-10), Jonah saw God’s grace as “evil” and “burned” with anger (4:1). If Jonah had no pity for the Ninevites when they repented, why think that he was motivated by pity for the pagan sailors earlier on, as Keller contends? Jonah’s forthright prayer in 4:2-3 reveals his attitude from the very beginning: he has a death wish, because he knows God wants to forgive Nineveh. Why not think that Jonah was suicidal in chapter 1 for the same reason? In the light of 4:1-3, we also have reason to cast suspicion on the genuineness of Jonah’s prayer in 2:2-9. Keller rightly charges Jonah with appealing to Exodus 34:6-7 “selectively” to justify himself in 4:2; but there is scarcely a word in Jonah’s underwater prayer in 2:2-9 that is not drawn directly from the Psalms. Jonah self-identifies with the righteous psalmists, and yet in his own hymn there is no confession of sin, no mention of repentance, and no justification of God’s actions. Surely this, too, is selective use of Scripture. Little wonder, then, why the Lord commands the fish to “vomit” Jonah onto dry land (2:10). Evidently, Jonah’s prayer had left a bitter taste in His mouth! In stark contrast is the Ninevites’ response to God: they “turn” from their sin with fasting and prayer—the very response for which the prophet Joel had called (Joel 2:12-14), but which to this point in the Book of the Twelve Israel has never carried out. When the book ends with Jonah “outside the city,” it is an omen of what will shortly befall the northern kingdom: exile. Jonah’s attitudes and actions, from start to finish, are those of a man who does not truly know the God of Israel—the God of mercy and grace.
What is the practical import of this alternative reading? If Jonah represents the apostate majority in Israel rather than the faithful minority, he likewise represents apostate Christians and churches, whom Jesus will “vomit” from His mouth if they do not repent (Rev. 3:16). To be sure, the book of Jonah still strikes a powerful chord with those in Keller’s audience who are earnest believers: we are all more like Jonah than we care to admit and can only regard his blunders as the mirror image of our own. But perhaps the book sounds an even more urgent wake up call to nominal believers who are asleep in the stern; who have long since muted the missionary call; who place their own temporal comforts ahead of the eternal welfare of the lost; on whose lips God is honored, but whose hearts are far from Him. To these—as to prodigals and Pharisees alike—the gracious Father extends His invitation to return home.
All in all, I heartily recommend The Prodigal Prophet to the widest audience. In Keller, pastors who want to navigate Jonah’s choppy interpretive waters will find a reliable guide. In Keller’s pages, believers of every background will encounter afresh the God of manifold mercies. And with Keller’s help, skeptics might just encounter God for the first time.
B.J. Hilbelink is a Ph.D. student in Old Testament Hebrew, Literature, and Exegesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
Buy the books
THE PRODIGAL PROPHET: JONAH AND THE MYSTERY OF GOD'S MERCY, by Timothy Keller