Jonah and Hesed

Jonah 2:9 “But with the voice of thanksgiving, I will sacrifice to you”

Jonah prays in chapter 2 from inside a fish. He was up in there for three days and nights before he said anything that was recorded in the Bible, and at the end of the prayer the fish spits him up (and, apparently, his robe comes loose), which I guess means Jonah said something wise 🙂 Needless to say, this prayer was born out of a lot of sitting and thinking.
So I have been sitting and thinking about Jonah. I think the strongest theme in the book is grace, and Jonah’s prayer is him recognizing, accepting and responding to God’s grace for him. His sacrifice of giving thanks is a huge step, because it means that God is ultimately good, whatever circumstances are happening around us. Gratitude is sacrifice because it means submission.
The alternative to submission is taking charge, blazing our own path, which Jonah tried to do. After three days in a fish, Jonah’s reflection on independence comes in 2:8 – “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” Jonah realizes that he fled from God because he gave up his hope of hesed – the love and mercy and kindness of God that English doesn’t have enough words for.
Jonah didn’t know about Jesus, so when he speaks of steadfast love, he does so without the picture of God allowing himself to be nailed to a tree. It would probably never occur to Jonah that God would become a human and experience torture for the sake of redeeming lost people. As Christians, this is the hesed that we proclaim when we share the gospel, but like Jonah, we often resist the God whose grace is too overwhelming to look in the face.
In Jonah 4, the prophet is infuriated that God has spared Nineveh, and he rants, “This is why I tried to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in hesed. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah is essentially asking God to take back his grace – to “un-spare” his life – because Jonah cannot stand what it means. As a prophet, he is humiliated because the destruction he prophesied will not be fulfilled; as an Israelite, his sense of justice is totally unfulfilled because the Ninevites were filthy and evil.
But God does not kill Jonah or the Ninevites. When Jonah gets mad because a plant that shaded him dies (and again tells God he wants to die), God explains himself to Jonah (rare in the Bible!). Jonah cares about a plant dying that he didn’t plant or tend, or even sit under for more than a day! Well, God has pity on “that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people” – they have done evil, but God made them. Heck, there is also “much cattle”! And that’s how the book ends. Jonah doesn’t get to say any more, we are just left with this bizarre story filled with people turning to God (the sailors in chapter 1 and Nineveh in chapter 3), and a prophet who keeps wanting to die.
So if the great big theme is grace, what does the story mean? At this point, I think it means God doesn’t always do what we want. He does what HE wants, what he cares about, and if we are going to be part of it, then it is going to be a big ugly sacrifice for us to praise him sometimes. Because God loves people, all people, and we really tend to love ourselves. This is not hesed.

Hesed means remembering that God took care to create each of us and bring us to where we are today. God never forgets this, of course, but I think we often do. We forget it for ourselves, and we forget it even worse for people we don’t like. Hesed sucks because there are people who put my stomach in knots when I think of God just letting them off the hook for being scum bags. It’s hard for me to believe that there is really no one in the world who God looks at and just sees trash. Sometimes people get hung up on this and won’t believe in him because “how can God love bad people?” Well… how can God love you? Of course it’s easy for me to write because I know why God loves me – I’m almost done my religious studies degree!!
That was sarcasm at the end there – what I’m getting at is that grace is something that can put our stomach in knots, and it can make us want to die because it is so terrible. But it is also our only hope, and when it becomes offensive to us then we are not on the same page as God. When that happens, it takes a sacrifice to get back on the same page, and that is Jonah’s prayer from the belly of a fish – idols are for those who have given up on steadfast love, but I will make a sacrifice of thanksgiving to you. Idols are like band-aids maybe, when the situation calls for an amputation; grace means that when our limbs get chopped off, healthy ones grow in their place.
These are ongoing thoughts, and I’m not sure how to wrap them up, but I am reminded of John Eldredge’s book Desire. In the spirit of that book, I will end by saying that “just getting by” is an idolatrous band-aid we put on our hearts when we are tired of hoping. I fall into that trap all the time – wishing myself through a couple more weeks of school, or one bad month for money, or whatever. Maybe if I let myself be a bit more angsty with God instead of just getting by, then I would see more of the things I keep putting band-aids on that aren’t going away – my trust issues, pride, laziness to spend time with God – the struggles I cycle through but never seem to really beat. The trick is seeing the futility of my own efforts without giving in to despair. That’s where hope comes in, and with it thankfulness that (the last line of Jonah’s prayer): Salvation belongs to the Lord!
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Comments

Susan 18-11-2010, 00:38

You're right – that's a doozy! Lots for me to think through – grace that puts my stomach in knots and makes me want to die? I hadn't thought of that before!

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