The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God's Mercy by [Timothy Keller]

Like the two brothers of the parable

Many are familiar with Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, published in 2008. In that book, Keller highlighted the grace of God portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son. Similarly, in a more recent book, The Prodigal Prophet, he shows how the story of Jonah gives us an Old Testament illustration of that parable. He writes in the Introduction,

Many students of the book have noticed that in the first half Jonah plays the “prodigal son” of Jesus’s famous parable (Luke 15:11-34), who ran from his father. In the second half of the book, however, Jonah is like the “older brother” (Luke 15:25-32), who obeys his father but berates him for his graciousness to repentant sinners.1Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet, 6.

In the Introduction, Keller outlines how the book of Jonah portrays the Prophet’s disobedience (chapters 1 & 2) and then his reluctant obedience (chapters 3 & 4) in a parallel fashion. Jonah’s main theological problem is understanding how God can be both merciful and just. Keller writes,

The question is not answered in the book of Jonah. As part of the entire Bible, however, the book of Jonah is like a chapter that drives the Scripture’s overall plotline forward. It teaches us to look ahead to see how God saved the world through the one who called himself the ultimate Jonah (Matthew 12:41) so that he could be both just and the justifier of those who believe (Romans 3:26). Only when we readers fully grasp this gospel will we be neither cruel exploiters like the Ninevites nor Pharisaical believers like Jonah, but rather Spirit-changed, Christ-like women and men. 2Keller, 5.

The contents

The first six chapters of The Prodigal Prophet deal with the first half of the book of Jonah:

  • Running From God
  • The World’s Storms
  • Who is my neighbor?
  • Embracing the Other
  • The Pattern of Love
  • Running From Grace

Then chapters 7-9 deal with the second half of Jonah:

  • Doing Justice, Preaching Wrath
  • Heart Storms
  • The Character of Compassion

Finally, Keller wraps up the book with three application chapters and an epilogue:

  • Our Relationship to God’s Word
  • Our Relationship to God’s World
  • Our Relationship to God’s Grace
  • Who told the Story?

As noted, Jonah plays the younger brother in the parable of the prodigal son in Jonah chapters 1 and 2. In chapters 3 and 4 Jonah acts as the older self-righteous brother of the parable. The book of Jonah is also a lesson on God’s mercy. Keller wants us to learn with Jonah about God’s mercy. He writes,

And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. Unless Jonah can see his own sin, and see himself as living wholly by the mercy of God, he will never understand how God can be merciful to evil people and still be just and faithful. The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck to show him these things.3Keller, 19.

Application to our lives

The Prodigal Prophet contains application throughout, After all, it has its roots in three different sermon series during Keller’s pastoral ministry4Keller, 229.. But the final three chapters zero in on applying the story of Jonah to our lives today. Here are a couple examples of his applications:

It is because God is by nature a sending God. He never calls us in to bless without sending us out to be a blessing to others.5Keller, 185.

The gospel holds out to us the prospect of a self-worth not achieved but received. While we maintain all our identifications with our race, nationality, gender, family, community, and other connections, the most fundamental thing about us is that we are sinners saved by grace. . . . such a received identity sweeps aside our pride and humbles us. . . . On the other hand, we are absolutely assured of God’s endless, unchanging love as we appear in Christ.6Keller, 220.

Reminder of God’s mercy

In short, the book is a refreshing and challenging reminder that we stand in God’s mercy as we serve him and humanity. It will strengthen your life and ministry. I was struck by the Epilogue:

As we have seen, the book of Jonah ends with a cliff-hanger. We are never told how the prophet responded to God’s final appeal. I suppose, however, that we can reasonably guess about how Jonah ultimately responded to God. How do we know Jonah was so recalcitrant, defiant, and clueless? How do we know that he made that unbelievable “I hate the God of love” speech? How do we know about his prayer inside the fish? The only way we could possibly know these things is if Jonah told others. What kind of man would let the world see what a fool he was? Only someone who had become joyfully secure in God’s love. Only someone who believed that he was simultaneously sinful but completely accepted. In short, someone who has found in the gospel of grace the very power of God (Romans 1:16).

If it can change Jonah, it can change anyone. It can change you. 7Keller, 227,228.