The Hope of Sovereign Grace

The Problem of Repentance and Relapse as a Unifying Theme in the Book of the Twelve
Gary E. Yates

Beginning with the book of Joel, a pattern emerges that is repeated three times in the Book of the Twelve. An episode of repentance is followed by a relapse into sin. In the first instance, Israel’s repentance in Joel 2:12–27 is followed by a relapse into sin that leads to the judgment of exile for Israel (Amos) and for Judah (Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah). The book of Jonah tells the story of Nineveh’s repentance, but the announcement in Nahum is that Yahweh is prepared to destroy Nineveh for its violence and bloodshed. In the postexilic period, the books of Haggai and Zechariah document the repentance of the people in response to the prophets’ calls to rebuild the temple and return to the Lord, but the message of Malachi indicates another relapse into disobedience and rebellion. This pattern that emerges in the Twelve reflects Israel’s persistent disobedience and refusal to return to Yahweh. The postexilic community is as guilty of unfaithfulness toward Yahweh as Israel and Judah before the exile. The inclusion of the Nineveh narrative in this pattern reflects that the story of the nations is essentially the same as that of Israel in terms of their persistent rebellion against Yahweh as the one true God.

The significance of this literary pattern is seen in three specific ways. First, the pattern of repentance and relapse reflects the pervasiveness of Israel’s unbelief and attributes the “day of the Lord” judgments associated with exile in large part to improper response to the prophetic word. In the three centuries of prophetic activity reflected in the Twelve, there are only limited examples of turning to Yahweh, and one of those examples comes from the pagan Ninevites.

Second, the problems of partial repentance or repentance and then relapse also explain why the conditions of exile and alienation from Yahweh persist for Israel even after the return from exile. The people would only fully enjoy the blessings of return when they had truly turned back to Yahweh. Geographical return to the land without a spiritual turning back to Yahweh was inadequate. Thus, the calls for repentance in the Book of the Twelve and especially in the postexilic prophets serve as a call for successive generations reading these books to always be returning to the Lord.

Finally, in light of Israel’s persistent inability to return to Yahweh, the Book of the Twelve reflects the reality that the only hope for Israel’s future lies in Yahweh’s work of sovereign grace that would internally transform the people so that they would be able to faithfully follow and obey him.

Link: Complete Article

A Psalm of Praise

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:7-9

The commonest form of prayer in the Psalms is the lament.  It is what we would expect, since it is our commonest condition.  We are in trouble a lot, so we pray in the lament form a lot.  A graduate of the Psalms School of Prayer would know this form best of all, by sheer force of repetition.

Jonah in the belly of the fish was in the worst trouble imaginable.  We naturally expect him to pray a lament.  What we get, though, is its opposite, a psalm of praise, in the standard thanksgiving form.

Circumstances dictated “lament.”  But prayer, while influenced by circumstances, is not determined by them.  Jonah, creative in his praying, chose to pray in the form “praise.”

A School of Prayer

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[1] Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, [2] saying,

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
[3] For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
[4] Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
[5] The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
[6] at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:1-9

That Jonah prayed is not remarkable; we commonly pray when we are in desperate circumstances.  But there is something very remarkable about the way Jonah prayed.  He prayed a “set” prayer.  Jonah’s prayer is not spontaneously original self-expression.  It is totally derivative.  Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught.  His school was the Psalms.

JOnah-620x335Line by line Jonah’s prayer is furnished with the stock vocabulary of the Psalms:

  • “my distress” from 18:6 and 120:1
  • “Sheol” from 18:4-5
  • “all thy waves and thy billows passed over me” from 42:7
  • “from thy presence” from 139:7
  • “upon thy holy temple” from 5:7
  • “the waters closed in over me” from 69:2
  • “my life from the Pit” from 30:3
  • “my soul fainted within me” from 142:3
  • “into thy holy temple” from 18:6
  • “deliverance belongs to the Lord” from 3:8

And more.  Not a word in the prayer is original.  Jonah got every word – lock, stock, and barrel – out of his Psalms book.

But it is not only a matter of vocabulary, having words at hand for prayer.  The form is also derivative.  For the last hundred years scholars have given careful attention to the particular form that the psalms take (form criticism) and have arranged them in two large categories, laments and thanksgivings.  The categories correspond to the two large conditions in which we humans find ourselves, distress and well-being.  Depending on circumstance and the state of our soul, we cry out in pain or burst forth with praise.  The categories have subdivisions, each form identifiable by its stock opening, middle, and ending.  The rhythms are set.  The vocabulary is assigned.

This is amazing.  Prayer, which we often suppose is truest when most spontaneous – the raw expression of our human condition without contrivance or artifice – shows up in Jonah when he is in the rarest condition imaginable as learned.  Our surprise lessens when we consider language itself: we begin with inarticulate cries and coos, but after years of learning we become capable of crafting sonnets.  Are infant sounds more honest than Shakespeare’s sonnets?  They are both honest, but the sonnets have far more experience in them.  Honesty is essential in prayer, but we are after more.  We are after as much of life as possible – all of life if possible – brought to expression in answering God.  That means learning a form of prayer adequate to the complexity of our lives.

The Storm

The Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[4] But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. [5] Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. [6] So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

– Jonah 1:4-6

Storm is the environment in which we either lose our lives or are saved; there is no cool, safe ledge on which to perch as spectators.  There are no bleachers from which to enjoy the lightning and thunder, the waves and breakers of the storm.  We are in it, prophet and people, sailor and saints.  Nothing else matters at this point; it is life or death.  Whatever else has been on the agenda is on it no longer.  There is this single item: salvation – or not.

Money, a powerful element in human autonomy, holds a key place in [this story], Jonah using his excessively large sum of money to purchase passage to Tarshish…But the power of money disappears in the storm.  There is only a single power to deal with now: God – and God’s salvation.

StormThe only thing the sailors found useful to do in the Jonah storm was to lighten the ship, get rid of what they had heretofore assumed was their primary concern: “they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them” (1:5)…As God’s action intensifies, the significance of our human lives…comes into focus as the single point of who we are, not what we have to offer him, not what we can do to help him.

If the storm sets the conditions in which these stories take place, prayer is the essential action.  In the Jonah story, the sailors pray, each crying to his own god (1:5) and then to Yahweh (1:14).  The captain asks Jonah to pray to his god, but Jonah doesn’t do it (1:6).  Jonah will later pray from the fish’s belly, but the salvation has by then already been accomplished…

Trouble, at least extreme trouble, storm-trouble, strips us to the essentials and reveals the basic reality of our lives.  In Jonah it was prayerlessness…The storm revealed Jonah to be a prophet who did not pray.