Mixed prophets, mixed messages: Jonah, Micah, Nahum and Habakkuk

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Yesterday’s post covered the first four of the minor prophets; today I look at the middle four: Jonah, Micah, Nahum and Habakkuk. Obadiah, the last of yesterday’s selection, offered the most narrowly tribal take on God’s justice.

Jonah

Today, the author of Jonah gives us a very expansive view of God’s internationalism. Unlike all the other books in this twelve book collection, the writer is not interested in the content of Jonah’s message, but in telling a story about a reluctant prophet.

Jonah and the Big Fish – a painting by Pieter Lastman (via Wikimedia)

Jonah is not easily turned into lectionary material,1 as it is a complete short story, a prophetic parable which really needs to be read as a whole. It is richly comic. God calls, and Jonah runs. God sends him to Nineveh, and he sets off in the opposite direction. God sends a storm over the boat he’s fleeing on, and the pagan sailors try hard to save him at risk to themselves, before throwing him overboard. He ends up being taken via a giant fish’s stomach to the place God wants him to be.

Nineveh is the capital of Israel’s superpower enemy. Even so the story exaggerates its size. It is presented as many times larger than any ancient city could possibly be. Jonah, ever the reluctant prophet, does the minimum he can to be able to comply with God’s mission. He fails to call the people actually to repent, and instead just threatens them with doom.

Despite this uninspiring message, the people repent, and from the king down to the animals the city fasts. God has mercy and forgives them. Jonah throws a tantrum because he’s been made to look stupid. As he feared all along, God has used his prophecy not to doom the Assyrians – Israel’s worst enemy – but to save them. Jonah would have liked a bit more smiting and much less mercy.

This profound comic parable offers a glimpse of what the hymnwriter Fr Faber called in a hymn “the wideness of God’s mercy”. The lesson Jonah the character has to learn, and Jonah the book wants to teach, is caught well in this verse from it.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, by F. W. Faber, is in most hymnbooks

Micah

Micah is a contemporary of Isaiah, concerned about both the northern and southern kingdoms, and having words from God for both. He shares something of Isaiah’s attachment to the importance of Jerusalem, and to the renewal of David’s dynasty. He is also concerned that God’s justice should be seen in every area of life.

One of Isaiah’s more well-known prophecies is also found as one of Micah’s, that “nation will not lift sword against nation”.2 Perhaps it originally circulated anonymously and was better attributed to both prophets than lost altogether. His most famous prophecy is the one that has become part of the Christmas story, that the renewed Davidic line, like the original one, will come from Bethlehem.3 He also provides a verse that has worked its way into many prayers, that the Lord wants his people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with … God.”4

Nahum

Nahum is another prophet who doesn’t feature in the main Sunday lectionaries. I suspect Jonah (the character) would have loved Nahum because the book rejoices at some much-deserved smiting of the Assyrians. While at one level it is a celebration of the impending downfall of an old and oppressive enemy, expressed in powerful poetry, at another it is a declaration of justice for a city.

The historical Nineveh rather than Jonah’s exaggerated comic one is in view. This Nineveh is never going to repent because of a half-hearted prophet issuing warnings. This city has built its wealth through violence: “a city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty” (Nahum 3:1). There is a moral justification for delighting in its downfall: finally the great bully will be done to, just as it has repeatedly done to others.

Habakkuk

Habakkuk begins with a dialogue between the prophet and God. The prophet introduces a note we also find in some Psalms: why does God allow evil and violence, and why is justice delayed? The context appears to be around the time that Babylon defeats Assyria: there will be a kind of justice coming, but if Babylon administers justice to Assyria, the implication is that in turn she will have justice administered to her as well. Curses on the oppressor make up the central section. These work as a prophetic critique of any tyrannical empire.

Habakkuk, however, is reminded that his, and indeed everyone’s, call from God, is to live lives of faithfulness whatever the context. He ends his final poem about God’s judgment with a profound commitment of his own faith. It is, though, an earlier call to faithfulness which forms the climax of the reading from Habakkuk used in the lectionary.5 This reading provides St Paul with one of his key texts: “the righteous shall live by faithfulness” (Hab 2:4).


Notes

  1. Though the Revised Common Lectionary offers a couple of readings from the closing sections of the story, this is one book where the lectionaries do not share a common Sunday reading.
  2. Micah 4:1-3 and Isaiah 2:2-4
  3. As well as most festivals of lessons and carols, Micah 5:2-5 (or 1-4 depending on different Hebrew and Greek verse numbering) is read on Advent 4, Year C.
  4. Micah 6:8. It is used, for example, by Anglicans in one of the main prayers of penitence in Common Worship.
  5. Year C, Proper 22, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time. (Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 or the shorter Catholic 1:2-3, 2:2-4)

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