A Review of Jonah: Beyond the Tale of the Whale by Dr Mark Yarbrough

“Those who like this kind of book will find this to be the kind of book they like.” – Abraham Lincoln

This year, a new president was installed at the seminary I attended, Dallas Theological Seminary, the sixth to hold this position in its almost one hundred year history. Best wishes for your success, Dr Mark Yarbrough. In one press release introducing Dr Yarbrough, it was mentioned that he just released a book on the biblical book of Jonah titled Jonah: Beyond the Tale of the Whale. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020)

Jonah has been an interest of mine for some time. I have opinions concerning its complicated contents and I hope to do a series on it on my blog. So, I bought a copy.

Before going into the actual analysis in the book, I am compelled to observe what this book does in the “Dallas” scheme of things. This book came out very recently. The cover titles Dr Yarbrough as President of Dallas Theological Seminary, even though he was inaugurated just in August. His appointment was announced in April or May, so it seems to me that this book was published at this time to introduce him and his pastoral self to the DTS family, to give them a good feeling about him.

And they should feel good and comfortable with the contents of this book. It has the Dallas “style”. The jacket blurb contains recommendations of the book from several DTS “Superstars”. He quotes from The Bible Knowledge Commentary (A DTS published two-volume commentary on the whole Bible. It’s very good for the “layman” and the sermon-prepping pastor but to see it quoted in a book is unusual.) The section on Jonah was written by Dr John Hannah, a very popular Professor at DTS. One endnote sends the reader to soniclight.com, the website of Dr Tom Constable, another popular DTS professor. He has the obligatory “Prof” story (a story of interaction with Dr Howard Hendricks (1924-2013), AKA “Prof”). And for the very traditional, when he quotes a song or hymn (Ya gotta quote a hymn. It’s in the rules.), they were all written before 1900. Thank you, Second Great Awakening, for your great hymns. Surprisingly, he only quotes from one of the previous presidents of the Seminary, Dr Donald Campbell. I feel confident that Dr Charles “Chuck” Swindoll – who is the Dallas-man expositor par excellence – has a book on Jonah. I’m also confident that it is very quotable. I also notice that Dr Swindoll, always good for a good book blurb, is not quoted in the four pages of book blurbs introducing the book.

As for the book itself, this is popularly written. A couple times he dips into the Hebrew language (kinda obligatory for a “Dallas” book) but I think he avoids the technical information-dense writing which Dallas students are prone to have. His intention is to have a practical book. Rather than your stereo-typical “three points and a poem”, the book’s 14 quick read chapters are one point and sometimes a poem. The thirteenth chapter reviews the previous chapters as a run-through summary of the book of Jonah with each of the points in their place. As a teaching book, I think the format and the summary are well done. The fact that it has 14 chapters also shows the intent that this book be used by churches and Sunday Schools to fit in one quarter of the year.

Each chapter “sets the stage” with an illustration from Yarbrough’s life. Typically, these illustrations involve his family. I once read a book on writing sermons in which the author talked about the tension of using family as sermon illustrations without considering the feelings of said illustrations. They could feel put on the spot or embarrassed or even shamed. His solution was to pay some agreed amount of money to the “illustration”. If Dr Yarbrough has this kind of arrangement with his family, he owes them a boatload of cash.

Having set the stage, he quotes the text of Jonah, explains it and then applies it with the point which he calls a “Growth Indicator” (If you are growing spiritually, you will be doing this). As I said, this strikes me as an effective teaching format.

I would not call this book an exposition, however. Whatever hard work of translating, research, exegesis and analysis Dr Yarbrough did leading up to his writing, he does not synthesize the Book of Jonah in the book. There is no “big picture” outline and more than a few details in Jonah are brushed over or ignored completely; they do not fit into the teaching purpose for Dr Yarbrough’s book.

I would call this book a “Meditation” on Jonah, the theme of the Meditation being, “Jonah is a selfish dolt whose every action or reaction serves as an anti-example of what you should be doing”. This theme strikes me as loaded with “big splash” potential for a “practical” book but also as an easy and superficial take on the story of Jonah.

It lends itself to perpetual glancing askance at and judging of Jonah, which I think is the wrong way to approach the Scriptures. I have written before of the “good old impetuous Peter, always sticking his foot in his mouth” commitment of some writings. I think it would be harsh to call Yarbrough’s book eisegesis, but to approach any biblical book with a “theme” in mind short circuits some deep wrestling with the text (not for the author, who I presume has spent a lot of time and hard work preparing, but for those who use the book for their Bible Study).

For example, Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 seems to be rich in OT theology (and contains a statement of what I believe is the central lesson of the Book). But, Yarbrough’s book is a meditation on “Jonah is a selfish dolt who is an anti-example” so the details of the prayer are rushed through to reach the conclusion that Jonah didn’t really mean any of the prayer. He was just spewing clichés. And the “Growing Indicator” is one should “confess sin rather than pious words of religiosity” (p.97)

It also lends itself to the speculative “God was trying to do such and such but Jonah did otherwise” type of argumentation, where “such and such” comes from the imagination of the meditator and not the Book of Jonah. There are a few examples of that in the book.

I read a magazine article talking about a passage from one of the Gospels in which, after quoting the passage, the author said “What do you think Jesus was thinking? I like to think Jesus was thinking …” and the rest of the article was him expounding on what he “liked to think” Jesus was thinking. “This article is no longer based on Scripture” is my thinking. This is why I think it’s important to distinguish between an exposition and a meditation. Not that meditation is illegitimate but it’s a different animal than an exposition. A meditation is a guided tour based in the author’s “sanctified imagination”. Its value is based on the trustworthiness of the author. For myself, I am seldom willing to just “let my mind go” and enjoy the ride of someone else’s imagination.

So, do I like this book or not? Well, as a meditation I think there are some thought-provoking points which he makes. Since it seems to be written and formatted to help the Bible Study leader go through the Book of Jonah, I also think it is a good book for that purpose but I hope it would not be used as a stand-alone resource for their study. There is really more to learn in the Book of Jonah and the character of Jonah far more three-dimensional than this book allows.

Finally, I want to bring up one part of one chapter which concerned me (chapter 2, Do as I say not as I do pp 35-48) not to quibble about his explanation of the Book of Jonah but what it seems to reflect of the attitude of Dr Yarbrough and what attitudes are being instilled in the readers. In the first chapter of Jonah, Jonah received his call, he disobediently got on a boat and the boat set sail. When the storm hit, in the middle of the sailors’ frantic actions, the text says that Jonah was asleep (“The Hebrew word means deep sleep”, Dr Yarbrough correctly observes but (Okay. One quibble) it also can mean entranced as in Jonah as a prophet could have been in a trance-like state while communicating with God.) It’s an important part of the story and one has to deal with it. Dr Yarbrough, after making due hay about the ridiculousness of Jonah being asleep during a life-threatening storm, tries to hypothesize about how it was he was asleep in a huge storm. “I don’t have a formal degree in counseling”, he writes, “But one of the telltale signs of depression is when someone sleeps – a lot.” (p. 40)

Having put out the possibility that Jonah was depressed, he calls depression an “escape” and the opposite of being “on point”. He further describes depression-induced sleep as “laziness” “foolishness” and a “lack of attention” (all p. 40). Speaking as not-Jonah who has suffered from depression, all this is quite “leadership” focused in its action-demanding and empathy-less stereotype and I believe it’s not very charitable to those who suffer from depression. The answer is seldom as easy as a “God’s children are to be sober-minded, alert, and on-duty” (p. 40) scolding.

In the Church, there is always a tension about mental problems/Counseling, divided between those who consider psychological damage as damage which can be professionally treated and those who think psychological issues are sin and counseling is just someone trying to blame-shift responsibility for their own sin. Dr Yarbrough’s take here seems to land towards this second end of the spectrum and I wonder how Dr Yarbrough’s example here will play out in the Seminary’s Counseling courses.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Singing For My Life

There is an interesting story – which may be just coincidental, if you believe in coincidences – about how I (virtually) re-met this guy. A few months back I had been remembering a song of his, Man of the Tombs, which I had greatly appreciated and played to death when it came out, but I couldn’t remember his name. This went on for a couple of days, singing the song in my head and trying to remember. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch “Get Up Jonah” on YouTube

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Expecting The Soon Return Pt 2

God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:7)

I wrote a previous piece that Christians have always lived anticipating the “soon return of our Lord”. Unfortunately, there have also always been people who “hold their Bibles in one hand and the newspaper in the other” to pronounce how current events and current people are the direct fulfillment of this prophecy. Continue reading

Posted in 1 Thessalonians 4, 2 Thessalonians 2, 2 Timothy 1, Acts 1, Biblical Studies, Ephesians 4, Eschatology | 1 Comment

Hope in Futility

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope – Romans 8:20

In my last post, I spoke about Paul’s statement in Romans about the ordering of creation by God who subjected creation to an order of futility. I connected this with the events in Genesis 3. Starting in verse 14, a section commonly mislabeled, “curses”, God subjects the serpent, Eve, Adam and all creation to futility ending in death. The post was heavy on the futility and more than a little short on hope. What is the hope of which this passage speaks? Continue reading

Posted in Biblical Studies, Lamentations 3:21-25, Revelation, Romans 8:20 | Leave a comment

Futility in Hope

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope – Romans 8:20

It seems to me that this verse is among the Great Ignored in Scriptures. It says something about creation which should be common knowledge in the Church. It should be part of our Biblical Anthropology; our Soteriology, especially our doctrine of Sanctification; and even if we do not study Theology and know the big words, it should be part of the man in the pew’s common understanding of How Things Are. Continue reading

Posted in Biblical Studies, Romans 8:20, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Flesh Vs Faith: Getting Out of the Boat

This is my take on the well-known incident in Matthew 14 of Jesus and Peter walking on the water. Like many of my writings, it is in response to things I have read. Snapshots of those writings will be here without links and their authors may or may not like how I have characterized them. In this instance, I read a blog on this event in Jesus’ ministry. In his “giving context” to the event, the blogger made what I thought was a stunningly bad characterization of one of the principals (Peter, of course) which, again I thought, turned the story on its head, teaching this as a story of Peter’s massive hubris and arrogance – and yet, Peter walked on water! In the blog’s comments, I criticized his context-giving (not always in the most gracious way possible, it probably need not be said) and in the interaction which followed, the point came out that his blog was really an attempt to discredit some “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat” sub-category of “name it and claim it” teaching. Far be it from me to be in support of any “name it and claim it” theology but far be it also to throw left turns into a passage of Scripture for the purpose of hamstringing its use by people with whom I disagree.

I would like to suggest a different approach to Peter’s comment. I believe that Peter’s statement is really a prayer which shows not only faith but the opposite of impetuousness. Wait, asking to walk on water is not impetuous? That’s what I said. Continue reading

Posted in Biblical Studies, Flesh vs Faith, Matthew 14:23-33 | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Flesh vs Faith: Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

This is part of the continuing series I have called Flesh vs Faith. It started as a study in Genesis from the creation, to the rebellion and through the life of Abraham. I also included some other biblical characters. In defining Faith, I have noted that Faith, as described in the popularly called “Hall of Faith” (Hebrews 11), is a response to revelation. I think this is important. For many, Faith is barely different from wishful thinking. Others see Faith as a characteristic they have in varying degrees of fullness and must will (or some other form of personal effort, even prayer – Luke 17:5,6) into themselves. Still others place their denomination or teachers or church leaders or tradition in between themselves and the revelation and call the relationship with their intermediary “Faith”.

Also, I observed that in the Old Testament, the word “Faith” is not used in the same way as the New Testament. Rather, the Old Testament concept corresponding to New Testament “Faith” is “The Fear of the Lord” and the shortened “Fear” (ie I fear God=I worship God – Genesis 42:18). The point is not “God scares me” as much as “What God says matters to me”.

In this article, I want to look at the well-known characterization of “Faith” found in Hebrews 11:1 quoted above. My inspiration for wanting to look at this was an interesting translation of the verse found in the Anchor Bible commentary series – Now faith is [the] groundwork of things hoped for, [the] basis for testing things not seen. (George Wesley Buchanan, The Anchor Bible: To The Hebrews, p. 177)

As Buchanan translates this verse, both words – “groundwork” and “basis for testing” – have foundational components. In other words, faith is something one builds upon. One lives his life out of, rather than in pursuit of, Faith. The Greek behind these translations are both fairly technical words.

The first, translated “groundwork” by Dr Buchanan, is ὑπόστασις. It was used in philosophy as a technical term for essence or existence. It is found in Hebrews 1:3, who [the son=Jesus] being the effulgence of his [the Father] glory, and the very image of his substance (RV) and also in 3:14, where it is commonly translated “confidence”. It would seem, based on the parallelism with 1:3, that faith has a similar revelatory relationship with “things hoped for” as Jesus with the Father. That is, just as Jesus shows the reality of the Father, so Faith shows the reality of our hope – hope, that is, in the sense of confident looking forward and not wishing. In other words, as will be shown by the rest of Hebrews 11, The Revelation presents a future hope and by Faith, that hope is substance or reality upon which to act.

The second, translated “basis for testing’ by Dr Buchanan, is ελεγχος is a technical term from the scientific and legal realms meaning evidence. More than evidence, which can be believed or disbelieved, it is evidence which has been established. Thus, this word is often translated “reproof” (2 Timothy 3:16), your actions are against what is established by evidence (the Word of God). Hence, by Faith, the Revelation evidences what is not seeable and becomes the basis for testing what is seeable.

In both of these clauses, Faith is neither a subjective persuasion nor any personal effort. As one writer says, the reference is to the presence of the groundwork or basis, not their achievement. He goes on to summarize, “A faith which of itself contained or offered proof of things unseen would not be the faith of Hebrews, which stands on the Revelation, Word and the promise of God and has nothing but what it receives. Thus faith is confidence in what is hoped for because it is the divinely given conviction of things unseen.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II p. 476)

Posted in Biblical Studies, Flesh vs Faith, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Expecting the Return of Our Lord

Several years ago, I read a book which was written in the 1800s. Sorry I can’t give you more information on the book itself as most all information has slipped the mortal coil which is my memory. One line, though, I remember. The author said, in a book which was not about end-times, something about “the soon return of our Lord”. It made me think about The Blessed Hope (Titus 2:13) and how universal that Hope is within Christianity. Paul was looking for it; skip ahead to 19th century and at least one author was looking for it “soon”. And neither one of them was wrong. I tried to express that to a friend who said “Yeah, but we are seeing so many more signs today than that guy”, which, I think, missed the point. Continue reading

Posted in Culture/Society, Eschatology, Theology | 1 Comment

Commute 3/16

Driving to work, I saw the flock of geese flying. They were in front of me, so I could not only see their V formation but their beating wings – pretty much in unison, strongly pushing down and drawing up. No match for the car however and I imagined them beating more strongly and with increasing desperation as I continued to catch up. Inevitably, I caught up with them – neck and neck as it were – and in a pun only I got, I honked my horn as I went under them. I wasn’t after them, after all, and they for their part probably did not consider my beating them to the next exit ramp one in the loss column even if they had seen me pumping my fist in exaltation. If I am allowed one anthropomorphized speculation, I suspect they rolled their eyes at the sound of the horn. “Like we’ve never heard that before” they winked to each other.

My commute was far from over, however. There were thirty more miles to drive, me and the others. Not in a V, but straight lines – parallel lines which with astounding frequency meet and switch and merge and split and remain straight and parallel. I wonder if the geese are astounded to see this. No point man here. No taking the lead so others can rest until it is their turn to come to the front. Whatever lead there is is taken by one who continues to increase his lead until there is no one behind him in sufficient relationship to be considered a follower. Back to the pack, then, and let’s see who breaks from the bunch next.

My expressway commute starts off with two lanes, joins with a three-lane expressway and becomes two or three miles of magnificent four-lane space before one lane exits, then another lane merges in and we are back to two lanes. Then, fifteen miles down the road, a third lane appears on the left and remains there until The City busts up the expressway, parceling its drivers off to their various destinations. The speed limits change but the only times you notice are in the widely-known speed traps. There is one before the joining with the three-lane and one each right before and right after the creation of the third lane. The joining of expressways results in two miles of frantic, strategic jockeying so that one will be in an optimal spot at the end of the process. I’ve made it up to 90 MPH sometimes. You don’t want to be forced down the exit, of course (and why are these ones who want to exit waiting until the last minute to get there? And you, the one coming on, do I have to come to a complete stop for you?), but you also don’t want to be behind that truck in the far right lane either; the one which is in the center lane you can get around before the merge of the third lane, only kicking up a few pebbles from side of the road.

The geese, I had beaten early on in my commute, before the spot about three/quarter-way between where I get on and the joining where the expressway has a traffic light. I can only suppose they did not feel like building a bridge or the wet land around the intersection couldn’t support bridge and the ramps necessary. At that light, all the expressway drivers get to bunch up until green says go. Then the trucks start their long journey through the gears until they reach cruising speed and all the other cars either zip around them, or if they were unfortunate enough to be directly behind them, wait for them to reach a good speed or until the other lane is clear so they can zip around. After the geese, I was in the lane to get around the trucks at the light except there was a car in my lane which as much as it didn’t want to be behind a truck, it also did not want to pass the truck. Cars backed up waiting in vain for their turn to zip around. We got to the joining still crammed together without resolution. The other expressway was fairly clear so several cars burst out from our two lanes over two lanes to that magical fourth space. As it turned out, only one car made it into the fourth lane ahead of me. He was not going that fast but he, like I, just wanted to get around the mess. His license plate made a statement. NO BNDRY it said, which I assumed meant “No Boundary” (What else? “No Bindery”?). I drove somewhat close to him in the fourth lane until he finally felt sufficiently free from the crowd and moved right into what eventually became the left lane. I sped up and passed him and then moved over.

The rest of the commute went fairly smoothly with the expected speed traps at the other two spots on the trip. One I was going a bit fast for but I guess it was my lucky day. I made it to work in plenty of time. I did all my preparations, including making the coffee and got some down time in before the day began.

Posted in Culture/Society, Humor | 1 Comment