Unexpected Exegesis, part 2

Today we continue our series on Jonah, particularly focusing on how he uses scripture in his prayer.

Here’s the verse in question (2:4):

But I thought,

“I was driven out from in front of you and your eyes

Yet I will again look to your holy temple.

The first thing to notice is that Jonah emphasizes himself.  This is not completely out of bounds, but it should draw our attention.  The other thing that should draw our attention is the remarkable similarity between this and Psalm 31:22.

But I thought in my alarm,

“I was driven out from in front of you and your eyes

But in fact you heard my pleas for mercy in my crying out to you.

First, the Psalmist is alarmed.  He’s afraid that he was driven from the presence of YHWH.  But he’s happily mistaken, as YHWH has heard his pleas for mercy.  This is not expected.  It’s a surprise.  It’s counterintuitive.  In other words, YHWH actions come completely out of left field.

Back to Jonah.  He’s not alarmed.  He’s merely stating a fact.  “I was driven out…”  Here again, we have a counterintuitive statement, but notice the remarkable difference.  It’s not YHWH’s actions of mercy that steal the show.  YHWH doesn’t come in unexpectedly to save his undeserving people.  No, it’s Jonah’s devotion to his religion that is unexpected.  Jonah is the focus of the contrast here.  In Psalm 31, the Psalmist is surprised the YHWH would save him.  In Jonah’s prayer, he wants everyone to take note of the circumstances in which he remains a faithful follower who is focused on the temple.  This highlights his heart.  He is not concerned with YHWH’s deliverance.  He’s concerned with being given credit for being so righteous in the face of adversity.  The Psalmist is confident in YHWH’s willingness to hear his cry. Jonah is confident only in his own ability to be righteous and return to the temple without repentance.

Jonah is not finished with twisting Psalm 31.  He again “quotes” it in verse 8:

Those that guard vain idols

Faithfulness is what they abandon.

There’s far more here than we have space to elucidate.  This is a radical departure both thematically and structurally. This does not relate directly to YHWH’s actions, or Jonah’s circumstances in the water. Rather, this seems to be an ironic declaration from a Jonah who is unaware of the actions of the sailors once he is cast into the sea. They were ostensibly idolaters, and unbeknownst to Jonah they are now making vows and sacrificing to YHWH. This break in form and theme forces the reader to take notice of this verse, and its echoes of the sailors further emphasize Jonah’s unrighteous attitude toward Gentiles.  They have responded to YHWH’s actions.  Yet Jonah mocks them here, claiming that they forsake faithfulness.  The word here in Hebrew is חֶסֶד, and entire books could be written about what it means.  The core of it is YHWH’s gracious fulfillment of the covenant.  At the core of the book of Jonah lies the nature of who gets to receive חֶסֶד.  Is it only for Israel?  Jonah certainly believe so.  But his prayer is bookended by Gentile repentance, which seems to indicate otherwise.

But there’s more.  As I said, this is a quotation (at least partially).  Psalm 31:6 reads,

I hate those that guard vain idols,

But I will trust in YHWH.

Notice, Jonah references a psalm which properly expresses disgust toward idolatry, and parallels that disgust with the proper object of worship: YHWH.  What does Jonah say instead?  Essentially that idolaters are not worthy of forgiveness.  They forsake חֶסֶד.  They cannot receive YHWH’s grace. Not only does this adjustment continue to illustrate the heart of the would-be prophet, but it also informs us of the genre of his poem.  This adjustment takes Jonah’s prayer from thanksgiving to lament.  It is this element that we will analyze next week.

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