The Gospel Coalition

 

Daniel C. Timmer. A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation, and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah. New Studies in Biblical Theology 26. Leicester, Apollos; Downers Grove: IVP, 2011. 201 pp. $22.00.



The book of Jonah has long fascinated interpreters for depicting a rebellious prophet, repentant Ninevites, and a surprising God, not to mention a large fish. The familiarity of this book among laypeople nonetheless stands at odds with the many questions that arise from a closer reading: What sort of faith in God did the Ninevites exercise as non-Israelites coming from a polytheistic background? What does Jonah contribute to the biblical conception of the mission of God? And how should the reader understand the book of Jonah in consonance with larger theological themes such as law and grace? Daniel Timmer, associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, ably discusses these questions and others in this volume. As part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, Timmer's study aims to move from exegesis of the biblical text to theological reflection in light of the Christian canon. This movement unfolds over the seven chapters.

Chapter 1 positions the book of Jonah within the broader theological issue of Israel's mission to/among the nations. After briefly assessing Israel's role as a priestly presence in the world, giving special attention to Exod 19:4-6 and Gen 12:1-3, Timmer defines mission in the OT as "the transmission of testimony regarding God's person and works of salvation and judgment, usually for the intended purpose of producing faith in his promises of salvation and judgment and conformity to his character and will" (p. 39). Timmer explains that this definition is broad enough to classify the prophet's activity in Nineveh as being "missionary" in nature (albeit in an ironic way), yet the primary theological contribution of the book of Jonah lies in emphasizing that mission proceeds mainly from divine rather than human initiative. This conclusion finds support in the NT's distinction between the essence of the gospel as accomplished by God and its necessary fruits on the part of the believer.

Chapter 2 sketches how Timmer will explore the dynamics of conversion among the sailors and Ninevites and their subsequent understanding of the God of Israel. Working with Abra(ha)m as his main example, Timmer defines conversion in the OT as "initial faith in God's self-revelation, an abandoning of other gods and an attachment to him alone, and a genuine repentance or turning from sin" (p. 52). The activity of the Holy Spirit is notably missing from this definition, as Timmer concedes, though he suggests that subsequent NT teaching on the Spirit's work in conversion and sanctification (the latter term is usually called "spirituality" in Timmer's book) makes it conceivable that the same Spirit is at work in the lives of the narrative characters in Jonah.

Chapters 3-6 analyze the four chapters of Jonah, respectively, in light of the definitions for mission, conversion, and spirituality already offered. Though not a commentary in the traditional sense, Timmer's treatment of Jon 1-4 traces the storyline of the book and helpfully places them in the historico-cultural context of the Assyrian threat during the eighth-century b.c. Most notable here is Timmer's conclusion that the sailors (Jon 1) and the Ninevites (Jon 3) undergo some form of conversion. The sailors are more sincere than the Ninevites in their faith, however, for the text never mentions that the Ninevites turned away from their gods (cf. Jon 1:16; Ruth 1:16; 2 Kgs 5:17) or that God actually forgave their sins.

This observation leads to a stimulating theological exploration of how God's "relenting" (Jon 3:10; cf. Jer 18:1-12) toward the Ninevites is only temporary since "Nineveh believed in God, turned from her sin in some degree, but did not fully turn to God (p. 104; cf. Nahum). But Jonah cannot foresee Nineveh's ultimate fate and therefore ventures to attack God for being "gracious and compassionate . . . slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity" (Jon 4:2). Timmer rightly notes the irony of this accusation against God since Jonah is descended from the rebellious Israelite community that survived the golden-calf incident because of precisely these divine attributes (Exod 34:6-7).

Timmer concludes by situating his findings within the larger storyline of Scripture (ch. 7). The narrative of Jonah depicts the interplay among human rebellion, divine judgment, and the offer of salvation for those who truly repent. Since Christians today experience these theological realities in a manner analogous to the Israelites of Jonah's time, Timmer ends by calling his readers to imitate Jonah's God (who extends mercy to sinners), to be conformed to Christ (who was fully committed to the Father's mission), and to walk by the Spirit (who empowers believers for this mission).

In summary, this book is highly recommended for laypeople, students, and ministers who desire to move beyond the flat reading of Jonah found in much popular-level Christian literature. Exegetes and scholars will benefit from Timmer's theological thrust in this book but will still need to consult the commentaries for more detailed interaction with the Hebrew text.


Jerry Hwang
Singapore Bible College
Republic of Singapore



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