Study Notes

Grace to Nineveh

I am doing a terrible job of blogging my reading.  The biggest thing that struck me this week, though, was as I was reading through the book of Jonah: God is gracious.

The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look–something greater than Jonah is here!

Matthew 12:41

Jonah is one of those stories many of us know from childhood.  Our four-year-old could probably give you the bare sketch; there’s a Veggie Tales of it, after all!  And yet as I read it this time, I found myself struck by many things I’d never really thought about before!  I love how the Spirit makes even old stories have fresh applications. 🙂

First: God sent a messenger to Nineveh rather than just annihilating them.

We are talking about a wicked people, so wicked that their wickedness was said to have “confronted” God (1:2).  God would have been just to have rained fire on them like on Sodom and Gomorrah, or any of the other many pagan kings.  And yet God—who knew they would repent—sent a messenger.

Second: Jonah’s disobedience indirectly led to the eternal salvation of the sailors in the boat.

Here, again, God could have picked an obedient prophet!  But Jonah disobeyed and tried running off to Tarshish.  When the seas grow stormy (another act of God!) the sailors demand of Jonah, who are you? What is your country?  And Jonah answers with a great little piece of evangelism: “I’m a Hebrew.  I worship Yahweh, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9 hcsb)

So, they’re in the middle of the storm, and Jonah tells them there’s this God named Yahweh who made the sea.  Important piece of information, there, because in Jonah 1:14, these very same men—who apparently couldn’t even recognize an Israelite beforehand—are praying to Yahweh.  They are affirming His sovereignty, and appealing to Him for mercy.  Jonah 1:16 says they “feared the LORD” and they offered a sacrifice and made vows.

God used even Jonah’s disobedience to bring new sheep into His fold—Gentiles, no less!

Third: Jonah’s message was not one of hope.

Jonah 3:4 tells us the very bleak message Jonah gave Nineveh from God: “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!” Nothing about “unless you repent,” and in fact not even anything about “because you are so wicked.”  These people are so evil that their evilness has come up against God, and Jonah foretells their destruction.

Fourth: Despite this, the people repented.

The message was not one of hope, and they weren’t sure hope was in the offering (“Who knows? God may turn and relent,” they ponder in Jonah 3:9), and yet they saw their evil, named it as evil (Jonah 3:8), and stopped doing it!  Jonah 3:5 says every single man fasted and dressed in sackcloth, even the king.  They even made their animals fast.  They even fasted from water.  They repented, very thoroughly.

And God relented.  And these same Ninevites will rise up on the last day as witnesses for Him.

Fifth: Jonah knew there was hope.

This was the most significant thing to me.  It’s so easy for me to read the Old Testament and see that “smiting” God that athiests poke fun of—many, many wicked people are indeed punished, and often without a lot of extra chances, at least that we see.  And even here, Jonah’s message didn’t seem to offer an extra chance—and yet, Jonah, who was surely aware of Israel’s own history and the history of the way God had dealt with lawless people throughout it… Jonah says, “I knew You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster!” (Jonah 4:2, hcsb)  He’s complaining, but that these words of God’s mercy come so quickly to his lips—that he is so confident that God is merciful that he fled to Tarshish from the beginning—this is so insightful and wonderful that someone sent to preach destruction to a city was still so sure that God relents from destruction!  He preaches a message of punishment while cradling in his heart (even if he wasn’t happy about it) the certainty that God is merciful.  His conviction of God’s mercy had to be so incredibly strong.

Sixth: God cared about Nineveh.

He compares Nineveh to the plant that grew over Jonah (Jonah 4:10), and asks Jonah, if you cared about this plant, even though you weren’t even the one who labored for it, how much more should I care for Nineveh (which was, of course, His own creation)?

This, again, is an amazing testimony of the mercy of God. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” God asks in Ezekiel 18:23.  “Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives?”  Nineveh is a beautiful illustration of this verse.  This incredibly wicked city—Jonah himself is revolted—and yet God “cares” (Jonah 4:11).  It tells us He even cares about their animals!  And so He sends a prophet, and rejoices over their repentance, and keeps them till the last day.

So much mercy and encouragement in this little book!

Study Notes, Womanhood, Women in the Bible

A Woman of Boldness

As I continue to think about the definition of biblical womanhood, the very-familiar story of the Shunammite woman who helped Elisha in 2 Kings 4 seemed worth looking into.  I’ve always read the story with puzzlement over the somewhat odd miracle-working of the resurrection of her son, and never paid that much attention to what it has to say about the woman herself, and the consider amounts of initiative and planning she undertakes.

While our historical culture has often seen boldness as an unfeminine trait, Scripture has much positive to say about boldness, and this is a good illustration of how it can be a positive quality in women.

I had never noticed how incredibly similar Elisha’s story here is to Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 17.  Mostly minor differences, but at least one significant one—I always thought the woman in Elijah’s story took so much action personally because she had no husband, but in 2 Kings 4, there is a husband in the story, and yet the wife is still very much the central figure.

We see in v. 8 that she is “a prominent woman,” and she not merely offers Elisha some food, she persuades him to eat.  Regularly.  She appeals to her husband to set aside an entire room (with great details like a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp) for Elisha to stay in whenever he comes through Shunem.  And they do it.  And why?  Because, she says, “I know that [Elisha] is a holy man of God” (2 Kings 4:9).

She’s a woman with ideas.  She’s a woman who apparently boldly entreats a prophet to stop and rest a while, and who boldly entreats her husband to do something quite inconvenient on his behalf.  Presumably her husband is going along with all of this, but it’s interesting that she, and not he, is the one driving it.

Elisha takes her up on the offer.  And then—again, bypassing the woman’s husband, who I would have expected him to deal with—he calls for her and thanks her for going to the trouble, and asks her what they can do for her in exchange.

She asks for nothing.

Gehazi points out that she has no son, and Elisha promises her one.  She is disbelieving, but his word proves true (v. 17).

Here, finally, the woman’s husband comes into the story a little bit—the child goes out with his father to the harvest, gets sick in the head, and the father sends him back to his mother with a servant.

The child dies.  She picks him up, puts him on Elisha’s bed, and leaves.  She doesn’t tell anyone what happened, and when her husband asks why she wants to go see Elisha, who is now at Mount Carmel, she doesn’t tell him.  He’s confused (v. 23) but she just affirms that everything is okay and leaves in a rush.

I can’t imagine what is going through her head.  Her only son, her little son, has died, and she’s keeping it all locked inside and not even telling his father.  So much single-mindedness is evident here.

She gets to Mount Caramel, and Elisha sees her in the distance (v.25) and sends Gehazi out to see if everything is all right.

She says yes, everything is all right—so much faith here!—and waits until she gets to Elisha’s feet to be overcome with anguish at last.  Elisha, for his part, has no idea what’s going on (“the Lord has hidden it from me, He hasn’t told me”, v. 27), but is compassionate.

She reminds him that she hadn’t asked for the son, but did ask to not be deceived—and now her son is dead.  Elisha sends Gehazi off in a rush with his staff, which turns out not to work (v. 31), but the mother won’t be dissuaded until Elisha comes himself (v. 30).

Elisha prays and the boy comes back to life.

The same Shunammite woman re-enters the story in 2 Kings 8, where Elisha has prophesied of a famine, and here thoughtfully tells the woman to pack up her household and get away.

Again, I am struck by the reality that he told her, and not her husband; that it was the woman who “got ready and did what the man of God said” (v. 2), and then it was the woman even who went to appeal to the king at the end of the famine to have her land restored (v. 3).  And God worked it out perfectly for her by having Gehazi “happen” to be at court the same time that the woman appeared, telling the king in fact about the woman herself, and her son, and the help they had given to and received from Elisha.

(On a sidenote, it is also awesome that God worked it out so that while Gehazi is telling this awesome, logic-defying story about a kid being raised from the dead, the woman herself comes in and confirms the story to the king.)

The king responds by restoring not only the woman’s house and lands, but also all the income she might have missed.

Nothing really is said about the husband in this story.  He could have been like some minor version of Nabal, and that been why it was left to his wife to do all these things, why it was his wife who helped Elisha and who was addressed by Elisha.  Certainly he doesn’t seem to have stopped her in any of her endeavors, although the only words he speaks in the entire story are questioning her actions (4:23).  Gehazi also says the man is old (4:14), and perhaps that is why he is so inactive—although he was working in the harvest (4:18).

There’s also the submissive aspect present in at least some degree when, rather than summoning the servants herself to fetch the donkey to go to Mount Carmel, she summons her husband and asks him to summon the servants to fetch the donkey, and tells him where she’s going.  She gives him a reassuring and honest but vague answer to his inquiry, and nowhere in any of these three main parts of her story (making a room for Elisha, fetching Elisha to raise her son, or packing up and moving to Philistia) is there any indication at all that her husband is anything other than a completely willing participant in her actions.  She consistently runs her plans by him—if vaguely at times—and then acts.

She reminds me of the Proverbs 31 woman, who “considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.”  There’s a lot of action going on in Proverbs 31, too, a lot of decisions: which vineyard? which clothes? where shall I buy my wool? how much shall I sell these garments for? how do I deal with the merchants? how much shall I dispense to the poor? what kind of food shall we eat?

There’s a boldness to the Shunammite’s actions—and the Proverbs 31 woman—in knowing the good thing to do, and doing it.  Knowing when to explain, and when to just act; when to ask permission (e.g. to set aside a room in their house permanently) and when to just stride on without any real explanation (e.g. when her son died).  There’s a lot of wisdom needed, but the examples are encouraging.  Doing good things unflinchingly, unquestioningly is one of the things that leads King Lemuel’s mother to declare, “the heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.  She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:11-12).

Thanks to the Shunammite’s boldness in doing good, her husband gained a son, then had that son resurrected, then survived a great famine, then profited upon their return to their home.  It also led to Gehazi being able to testify of the goodness of the Lord to the king, and surely encouraged and  helped God’s prophet to have a welcome home in Shunem and to see the faith she displayed by declaring “everything is all right” although her little son lay at home dead.  There was much good done by her concern for doing right and seeking the Lord!

Study Notes

The Tragedy of an Old Prophet

1 Kings 13:11-34 is one of the most strikingly sad and terrible stories in Scripture.  It’s about two men of God—prophets—who make some “small” sins for apparently minor reasons and pay a heavy price.

The story opens with a “certain old prophet,” name unknown, from Bethel, and a “man of God,” also a prophet, also nameless, from Judah, who goes to Bethel.  It’s a very long passage for nameless people.  The “man of God” prophecies that Josiah is coming and will punish the idolatry of Jeroboam.  And to this, God added another commandment for the man of God himself—to not return to Judah the same way he had come, and to not eat bread or drink water (in Bethel).  The commandment is interesting in light of what happened next.

In obeying God’s command to not go back the way he had come, he is observed by the old prophet’s sons, who come and tell their father what had happened and of the prophecy of the younger prophet.  The old prophet quickly gets up on his donkey and chases after the man of God and invites him to his home to eat.

The younger prophet refuses, and tells him that God forbade him.

And then the older prophet lies.  He tells him that God spoke to him (1 Kings 13:18, hcsb):

An angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord: ‘Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.’

And so the younger prophet goes home with the older prophet and they sit down to eat.  Whereupon the word of YHWH comes to the old prophet—the lying prophet—and rebukes the younger one, and says he will die and not even be buried with his fathers.

This is really sad stuff!  Why did the old prophet lie?  It doesn’t say.  He was living in the midst of an idolatrous people, he was old, he gets wind of a new prophecy and a prophet who—at least momentarily—had been the instrument prodding Jeroboam’s repentance.  It is easy to imagine why this old servant of God wanted to sit down and talk to this new “man of God.”  Easy to imagine him being worn down and out by the years of living among those who worshipped idols.  Easy to imagine him being excited to talk to another “man of God” at last.

But lying doesn’t pay, of course, and he received a new prophecy that weighed heavy: because his guest turned aside, his guest was going to die.  They finish eating, what must have been a gruesome meal as the younger prophet surely realizes that the older one had lied, and as he had just seen for himself firsthand the very literal power of God quickly fulfilling prophecy (1 Kings 13:5).  The old prophet generously saddles up his own donkey for the younger, and sends him off, wherein he is promptly attacked and killed by a lion.  The old prophet hears about it, and responds:

He is the man of God who disobeyed the command of the Lord. The Lord has given him to the lion, and it has mauled and killed him, according to the word of the Lord that He spoke to him.

There is clearly a point to be made here about personal responsibility and not obeying our elders even when they are men of God, when they instruct us contrary to how God has instructed us, or even told us (as the old prophet did) that we have misunderstood or that there is a newer word.  God and the older prophet both clearly fault the younger prophet for believing the lie.  But I am most struck by the old prophet.  He goes and retrieves the corpse—which is still being guarded by the lion!—mourns, buries him in his own grave, and calls him his brother.  He tells his sons to bury him in the same grave as the young prophet, in order that his bones will be kept safe from the fate that was awaiting the false priests of Jeroboam.

And Jeroboam continues to refuse true repentance, and is “wiped out and annihilated” (v. 34), and the larger story continues.

The old prophet doesn’t die at the end of the story.  He continues, living with the memory of the events.  Maybe he lives to see the younger prophet’s testimony about Jeroboam come to pass.  Maybe he remembers the young man who sat at his table and continues to mourn.  There are so many variables here that the story doesn’t tell us.  But I am deeply struck by the tragedy of sin here.  I can sympathize with the older prophet in what might be called a “white lie,” and I can sympathize with the younger prophet in following the testimony of his elders.  But together, they disobeyed God.  The older prophet made himself a false prophet, and the younger made himself disobedient to God to the point of death.  And they both knew it, knew the great effect of their sin, how offensive it was to God, and both stood unquestioningly by as His mighty sentence was carried out.  And, in judgment, the younger one obeyed—got back on the path, though it carried him to his death.  And the older one made what recompense he could, and wept.

It’s a stark picture of the terribleness of sin, even little ones that don’t seem to hurt anyone, and of the capacity of men who even hear YHWH’s voice, true prophets, to nevertheless fall so easily—so quickly, without deliberation!—into sin.

Cautionary tale.