The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah”

with 4 comments

Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah by Sinclair B Ferguson

Banner of Truth, 2008 (112pp, pbk)

Regular readers of this blog will doubtless be delighted to discover that I was able to obtain this volume without sacrificing my second-best pair of trousers.

A slim 100+ pages, this book consists of eleven brief chapters outlining the history of Jonah.  We are first introduced to the prophet, a man whose past ministry was owned of God (2Kgs 14).  We see him turning tail on God and his call, and heading in the opposite direction.  We wonder at how God used the rebellious prophet even in his disobedience, and marvel at the great grace of a great God (more marvellous than the greatness of Jonah’s fish).  We trace the change of heart that Jonah had in the belly of the fish as God deals with him in merciful wrath.  We consider the sign of Jonah, the foreshadowing of Christ that is seen in him.  We observe the Word of God running powerfully through Nineveh as the repentant prophet declares God’s impending judgment, and watch as a city falls to its knees before the Almighty.  We crease our brows in bewilderment as an angry prophet butts heads with God himself, the vengefulness, selfishness and bitterness of his heart erupting at the moment of grace’s great triumph.  We gaze at God’s further lessons to this man wrestling with the corruptions of his own heart.  Then, finally, we pause at the tantalising open-endedness of this history and face the uncomfortable demand that we answer the question that God puts to Jonah: we find ourselves at the end in the prophet’s painful shoes, facing the same God, and probed by the same challenge.

The author sets out plainly the discovery that Jonah makes of the heart of God, a discovery that often discomfits and angers him, only to find the same grace that he resents being shown to others rebuking, guiding, correcting and restoring him.  With wit, insight and sensitivity both to the mind and heart of his subject and his readers, Ferguson guides us through the experience of the prophet, teaching us directly and incidentally about God and men, and pulling back the curtain of our own hearts in ways necessary if not always pleasant.  There are few Christians who have not had their Jonah moments, or even Jonah months and years, and here we find fresh grounds for repentance, and lessons to learn that we not walk that foolish way again, God helping us.

Preachers will need to be careful in their use of this volume: like so many apparently simple treatments of Biblical books, you start off with a guide and end up with a master.  It is the sort of book that might leave you wondering, “How could I be clearer or better structured than that?  What other applications might I want to make?”  A wonderful resource, one would wish to be helped rather than hogtied by its sense and structure.

I had some questions about the author’s discussion of ‘revival’ in Nineveh.  I would suggest that it was Jonah who was in degree revived and restored to fellowship with God while in the belly of the fish.  I do not wish to pick holes, but the work of God among the heathen city that Jonah describes may be a wonderful and deeply desirable effect of true revival, but it is not itself revival.  It was the revived Jonah (though with much work still to be done in his heart!) who preached, and saw the grace of God having a stupendous effect on previously utterly stony hearts: Nineveh was not revived, but converted!  This is a minor gripe, but I make it because too often the church of Christ seems smugly to imagine that we are healthy and vibrant (I by no means accuse Sinclair Ferguson of such an error), and that revival is something that happens to the unsaved out there somewhere.  This is not the case: revival is the often painful, always humbling, utterly God-exalting reality of God drawing near to his people, of their seeing their sin and his majesty, his glory shining in the face of Christ Jesus.  One of the effects of a revived church is generally kingdom expansion, as restored and reinvigorated saints preach a gospel known and felt: in that sense, Nineveh enjoyed the fruits of one man’s revival.  But the world benefits when the church is revived, and – in that – I stand with the author in his hope.

It may be that you would need to sell your second-best pair of trousers to obtain this book.  Do not pause for long before you accept that it would be a price worth paying, for the good of your own soul, and – God willing – the extension of Christ’s kingdom.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 8 August 2008 at 08:13

4 Responses

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  1. I once heard an interpretation of Jonah’s response to Nineveh’s repentance that took a slightly different tack – the speaker suggested that he was not so much grieved at the Ninevites avoiding destruction, as afraid of the impact the news would have back in Israel, possibly confirming rebellious Israel in the belief that no judgment would come on them. Do you think there’s anything in this suggestion? It seems to be more charitable than most, which i like, cos it’s difficult to understand why someone who confesses to God himself that he knows he is a gracious God and merciful (etc), would then resent the exercise of God’s grace and mercy :?


    Friday 8 August 2008 at 10:40

  2. Ferguson is one of the great preacher and teachers of our day! I can’t wait to read this. His book “Children of the Living God” is on my great books page. If you want to check it out, here is the link:

    Let me know what you think.



    Saturday 9 August 2008 at 16:43

  3. First of all, Cath:

    I was intrigued by the interpretation you reported of Jonah’s response to God’s grace demonstrated to Nineveh. This is, essentially, the thinking of Patrick Fairbairn in his commentary on Jonah (although he also roots the problem in Jonah’s intense nationalism). Some others suggest that Jonah was simply vexed because his prophetic integrity might seem to be compromised if he preaches judgment and God shows mercy. I remember reading one scholar who suggested that Jonah had some notion of Nineveh’s role in the future punishment of God’s people and so rebelled at being the means of preserving them for such a task (a variation on the nationalism theme, with interesting echoes of Habakkuk’s complaints about the violent Chaldeans of his day).

    I should make plain that Sinclair Ferguson does not casually suggest that Jonah was simply grieved because the Ninevites ‘had got away with it’ – my apologies if I seemed to do so. He also locates Jonah’s distress in his intense nationalism: Jonah did not mind preaching judgment to Gentile dogs, but he certainly did not expect mercy to be demonstrated. Jonah – exhausted and downcast – wanted a God in his own narrow-hearted image. Ferguson’s reading is actually quite nuanced: he compares Jonah to Elijah and Jeremiah, suggests likenesses to modern missionaries in similar situations, considers the role of Satan as well as the remaining muck of Jonah’s sinful heart, and generally provides a more careful and coherent analysis than my summary suggests (including picking up the possible effects on his own reputation and the impact on Israel). I think some of this reasoning explains just how it is possible for a man in Jonah’s position to react the way he did. I appreciate your concern for an assessment that is not uncharitable, but I also find too much of my own heart in Jonah’s attitude, which makes we wary of erring on the other side. Note, though, how gently God deals with Jonah in correcting him – so much to learn!

    In short, then, I think that the suggestion you heard cannot be dismissed, but it does seem to me that there is more to it than that – I think we have seen too much of Jonah’s heart already to be too quick to explain away his sin. My recommendation would be to rely not on my brief summary, but to read the book to see if you are persuaded by Sinclair Ferguson’s reasoning about the character and thought of Jonah. I should be interested to know your conclusions if you have the opportunity for this.

    Secondly, thank you, Darian. I hope that you enjoy this book when you obtain it. I was intrigued by the variety on your ‘great books’ page, and must confess that I am a stranger to most of the volumes you recommended.

    Jeremy Walker

    Saturday 9 August 2008 at 21:05

  4. I didn’t realise that interpretation came from Patrick Fairbairn, but it’s more than likely that he was an influential source on the person who I heard it from :) I’ll see if I can get hold of Ferguson’s book sometime and have a look – there are lots of perplexing things in the book of Jonah that it would be v interesting to follow up. I think Hugh Martin has a book on Jonah too but I’ve not read it yet either!


    Monday 11 August 2008 at 13:03

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