Friday, May 30, 2008

In Wrath, Remember Mercy (Jonah 1-4)

I don’t know how I could possibly do the book of Jonah justice. It seems I ought to devote three or four posts at least to this tiny little book (though I’ll never get through the whole Bible that way). For those of you who don’t remember much besides the whale (and please don’t tell me that 20th century animal naming schemes do not classify whales as “fish” and so the fish couldn’t be a whale), I cannot recommend rereading it highly enough. Heck, go ahead and do it now – it’ll only take 2 minutes.

The message of Jonah is among the most important of the prophets, as it speaks to the heart of Israel’s story. Jonah may very well be Israel himself.

Here we have a man given a vocation by God to proclaim a message before the nations, who then flees to a far country rather than obey the voice of the Lord. When the Lord sends the enveloping waters over him, Jonah thinks it is the end, but then he is saved by being swallowed up by a whale. Once he is vomited up on the shore, Jonah is once again tasked to do his duty, and this time he obeys. It’s the familiar picture of exile and return; judgment and salvation.

But what is really fascinating about Jonah is what happens next. The city in question is Nineveh, and the message he bears might just as well be verbatim from the book of Nahum. It’s a message of unconditional and unavoidable wrath and destruction. It’s a courtesy really – like having the death sentence formally read to the defendant right before carrying it out.

The citizens of Nineveh know what it’s like dealing with wrathful gods. I remember a similar incident in Homer’s Iliad, where Hector urges the women of Troy to pray to Pallas Athena to stay her wrath. They do so:
“Blessed Athena, sacred goddess … pity our city, with the wives and little ones of the Trojans.”

The women prayed. But Pallas Athena refused their prayer
I doubt the citizens of Nineveh expect any different. But apparently it’s worth a try:
Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.
There goes nothing. And then, surprisingly, against all expectation, God actually forgives them. He relents from his promised disaster. The only person not surprised is Jonah:
O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
Jonah was in on the secret: the Lord loves mankind! He doesn’t want even the wicked to perish, but prefers instead that they repent and be made whole. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and kindness. He’s such a sap that it’s sickening. God’s response is telling:
Do you do well to be angry?
It’s the same thing he said to Cain when he fumed with jealous anger over the Lord’s acceptance of his younger brother Abel’s sacrifice. Here again is the perennial choice – to “do well”.

Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to be forgiven. These are the people who have visited cruelty upon the entire world – not the least of which Israel themselves. The salvation Jonah wants is the total destruction of the Assyrians and the triumph and dominion of Israel as God’s chosen and holy people.

When Jonah then complains about the death of a vine which shielded him from the sun, the Lord sets him straight:
You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?
One thing that amazes me is how thoroughly the roles have been reversed. Abraham pleaded with God to save Sodom, Moses begged him not to destroy the Israelites, and David implored him to take his plague out on his house and not the people as a whole. But here it is Jonah, not God, who needs convincing.

Jonah can’t see past his own interests, while the Lord is concerned even about the cows in Nineveh. But it goes deeper than that. Jonah’s vocation was to be a light for the nations, and instead he shrunk from the task. After being forgiven and restored against all odds, he resigned himself to his vocation, but was still convinced that the Lord had chosen him for his own benefit and exaltation. Rather than see a younger brother like Nineveh offer an acceptable sacrifice, Jonah would see him dead – and if this isn’t possible, he’d prefer to die himself.

What a picture of self-righteous Israel! This is precisely what Jesus faults them for – thinking that God gave them the law so that they could look down on all the other nations. Thus the wayward prophet cannot bear to see a people forgiven for their waywardness. The sulking elder brother would rather stay outside than see his younger brother restored to the family. The forgiven adulteress picks up stones to stone another woman caught in the same sin. And the Lord lays upon his Christ the iniquity of them all.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Wrath of God (Nahum 1-3)

“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God,” begins the prophet Nahum in his oracle against Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. This short book is a treatise against the city which calls down utter destruction on its walls. The prophet does not urge the city to repentance. He only informs them that they will shortly meet their maker and that there will be Hell to pay.

The judgment of God. The ancient Jews longed for it, because they suffered under the weight of powerful empires. The medieval Christians dreaded it, because they feared condemnation for the evil of their own hearts. We are mostly confused and even embarrassed by it, because we are not generally oppressed and think ourselves to be fairly good people. And yet the moment a calamity comes to shake us out of our complacency, we begin suddenly to sound like the ancients towards God. Why isn’t he doing something? Why doesn’t he come and judge the Earth?

Well, in Nineveh’s case, it is time for this long anticipated judgment. News of their crimes has reached to high Heaven:
Woe to the bloody city,
all full of lies and plunder—
no end to the prey!
The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
hosts of slain,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies!
And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute,
graceful and of deadly charms,
who betrays nations with her whorings,
and peoples with her charms.
They are a ruthless people who crush other nations without giving it a second thought. Like hungry lions they rip the flesh off kingdoms and drink the blood of their slain armies. But their time has come:
There is no easing your hurt;
your wound is grievous.
All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For upon whom has not come
your unceasing evil?
When disaster comes, few indeed will pity them. It’s good riddance. The people of the world will cheer and jeer as the hated city is pounded into dust.

So much for Nineveh. But what can be said for the judgment of God? I’m reminded of a major theme from the book on evil I just finished: The Doors of the Sea by David Hart. Rather than affirming all things as somehow fitting into God’s perfect plan, Hart reminds us that some things truly are meaningless:
Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.

Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history's many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes.
Though it may sound strange to us, the fiery judgment of God is one of the most hopeful and freeing truths in all of scripture. If God himself, the all-powerful and infinitely wise creator, finds much of our world’s present state worthy of damnation, then it frees us from having to reconcile ourselves to “the way things are.”

This is the vision that will sustain Israel through the exile. If the people of God were mere pragmatists finding a niche for themselves in the world, then this would be the end of the story. But instead they can hope in a wrathful God who will soon storm down from his Heaven and shatter the kingdoms of the world. The nations may rage, but the kingdom of God is at hand.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

The Doors of the Sea

I’ve just finished what is probably the best thing I’ve ever read on the problem of evil: David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami. It’s a tiny little book, with a cover that suggested to me Max Lucado feel-good sentimentality rather than one of the most profound and beautiful theological books I’ve come across. This Eastern Orthodox theologian rips to shreds many of the standard theistic theodocies as well as atheist straw men, and proclaims in their place the Christian gospel. He does this with beautiful writing that verges on poetry, all in a mere 100 pages. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Rather than attempt to review Hart’s book, and thus summarize it, I thought I’d key in on a theme I found particularly striking. In dealing with deistic theodocies of the watchmaker God, Hart talks in great length something that most of us who have pondered the beauty and savagery of nature know:
The natural world overwhelms us with its splendor, its beauty, its immensities and fragilities, its incalculable diversity, its endless combinations of the colossal and the delicate, sweetness and glory, minute intricacies and immeasurable grandeurs. It is easy, and among the most spontaneous movements of the soul, to revere the God glimpsed in the iridescence of flowered meadows, the emerald light of the deep forest, the soft, immaculate blue of distant mountains, the shining volubility of the sunlit sea, the pale, cold glitter of the stars. This is a perfectly wise and even holy impulse.

But, at the same time, all the splendid loveliness of the natural world is everywhere attended – and, indeed, preserved – by death. All life feeds on life, each creature must yield its place in time to another, and at the heart of nature is a perpetual struggle to survive and increase at the expense of other beings. It is as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory, a single great organism nourishing itself upon the death of everything to which it gives birth, creating and devouring all things with a terrible and impassive majesty. Nature squanders us with such magnificent prodigality that it is hard not to think that something enduringly hideous and abysmal must abide in the depths of life.

Considered “from below,” from within the system of nature, the force that drives and animates and shapes the whole of the organic world seems to achieve an almost perfectly transparent epitome of itself in those lavishly floriferous but parasitic vines that – urged always upward by a blind, thrusting, idiotic heliotropism – climb toward the light of the sun by choking the life from the trees around which they grow, constantly struggling out of the shadows in their thirst for the light, extending one tenuous tendril after another toward the sun to swell and slowly suffocate the boughs they entwine, until they burgeon forth at the last in such gorgeous and copious flowers that one might forget what had to perish to make such a triumph possible.
Put quite simply, the world is clearly the beautiful, glorious creation of God, but it is bound inextricably to the forces of death and decay – so much so that we can’t even imagine a world without such ruthlessness. And here the deist theodicy says that this is as good as it gets. If you want the glory, you have to endure all the death and decay that makes it possible. True paradise is a logical impossibility, and you must simply resign yourself that this is as good as it can get – the best of all possible worlds. Take it or leave it.

Hart then takes from the pragmatic theodicy of the deist into the gloriously non-empirical vision of the Christian. He quotes Thomas Traherne, saying:
You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God; and prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting His glory and goodness to your soul. Wine quencheth my thirst, but to see it flowing from his love who give it unto man quencheth the thrist even of the holy angels. Your enjoyment of the world is never right till every morning you awake in Heaven: see yourself in your Father’s palace; and look upon the skies and the earth and the air, as celestial joys. You never enjoy the world aright till the sea floweth in your veins; till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the starts are your jewels; till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own; till you delight in God for being good to all. The world is a mirror of inifinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a temple of majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of light and peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the paradise of God.
Hart concludes:
To see the world as it should be seen, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love.
I can’t easily express how deeply this moves my soul. So much could be said, and so much more had probably better be left unsaid. But one thing that really stands out to me is something that puzzles a great many people: the virtue of faith.

The saints Hart refers to seem to inhabit a different world than the one full of death and decay that we are familiar with. They straddle the line between Heaven and Earth, and walk in Paradise under our sky. And so they see the world not through the spectacles of empiricism but the eyes of faith. This really is virtuous, for acting in such faith causes a little bit of that reality break in to our lives.

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