Q&A: Taciturn Repentance

Taciturn Repentance

Question

In the thanksgiving psalm of Jonah 2, does Jonah in any sense repent -- if only momentarily or fleetingly? The larger context of the book seems to suggest that Jonah still harbored a deathwish to the very end because he was very unhappy with God's gracious mercy toward the wicked Ninevites and had lost all sense of meaning and purpose in life. But the psalm contains poetic imagery that speaks of death and the recovery of life as God lifted him up from the depths of Sheol. This suggest an inherent spiritual dynamic of death and resurrection that attends a fundamental change of heart. But, then, where is the fruit of repentance, because Jonah seems reluctant and taciturn as he begrudgingly obeys God in chapter 3 and antagonistic and angry in chapter 4? So, did Jonah undergo even a partial or temporary repentance in humility inside the great fish as he acknowledged Yahweh as the source of his salvation?

Answer

There are many theories about Jonah 2. Did he really pray this great poetry at the time, or did he compose this poem later to represent what he had prayed? Are the details poetic metaphor or historic fact? Did Jonah die, and was he later raised from the dead by God?

According to ancient concepts of accurate representation, it would not have been inappropriate for Jonah to have composed a later poem to represent what he prayed in the fish's belly. I suspect this is likely, particularly in light of Jonah 2:2-4, which seems to indicate that the quote in Jonah 2:4 is the only thing he really prayed, and that perhaps not verbatim (I suspect he was too panicked to be very eloquent).

Based on the content of the poem, it would seem that Jonah did not actually express repentance, but rather terror -- terror so great that he took a vow so that God might save him. His prayer seems primarily to have been a desperate plea for mercy. There is no mention of repentance, and no specific action or language that might indicate that repentance took place.

In Jonah 3, Jonah actually went to Nineveh and preached. This was a repentance of sorts -- he relented of his attempt to flee (the Hebrew verb for "repent" (nacham) also means "relent").

In Jonah 4:1-3, the prophet revealed that his preaching (Jon. 3:4) had been quite insincere, and the whole of Jonah 4 demonstrates that Jonah did not at any time during this story agree with what God was doing. At the end of the story, we find Jonah looking very much like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). So, in a very important sense, Jonah's repentance was not full.

I would suggest, however, that the very fact that Jonah recorded his account in this fashion extends hope that he did ultimately learn his lesson and repent of his sin regarding Nineveh.

Finally, I would add that while Jonah's experience suggests death and resurrection (particularly Jesus' death and resurrection [Matt. 12:39-41]), and perhaps by typological extension spiritual regeneration, the story does not claim to record Jonah's actual salvation or conversion experience.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.