Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. New York: Viking, 2018. 230pp.
Timothy J. Keller (1950- ) is a pastor, theologian and Christian Apologist. He is most well-known for having planted and pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and his work with City-to-City, a ministry that helps to strategically plant churches in major population centers around the world. As a New York Times best-selling author, each of his published books comes with a high level of expectation from the reader. His newest work (as of 2018) is The Prodigal Prophet. Although shorter than some of his books, this one is more of a size and style as The Prodigal God or Counterfeit Gods that he wrote several years ago.
In his new book, Keller considers the book of Jonah and what it can teach us today about God’s mercy and how human beings should react to that mercy. The author admits that this book has been in the works for some time, but since much of the content was taken from a series of sermons he gave at three separate occasions, and spanning three decades, he admits he struggled to get it into a written form until now. Anyone familiar with Keller’s writings might be able to tell that this has a little different style to how he has written many of his other books. In many ways, each chapter reads more like a written address that has been reformatted for a reading audience, but the content is not lost because of this reformatting.
His introduction begins by naming the elephant in the room and dealing with it. Did a fish/whale really swallow Jonah. Keller makes the excellent point that from the perspective of the narrative, it is communicated as history and fact. Furthermore, if the God of the Bible created the world and raised Jesus from the dead, then a fish swallowing a man for a few days is hardly difficult for such a being. Having dealt with that issue, he then gives the reader a little background concerning the sophistication of the text and how chapters 1&2 are meant to mirror chapters 3&4. Although a short book, it deals with difficult themes and has much to say for the reader or listener. Here, Keller also likens the first half of Jonah (chapters 1&2) to the example of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-24 and the second half of the book (chapters 3&4) to the older brother in that same parable (Luke 15:25-32). This is a helpful comparison, and both at this point and throughout the book, Keller shows the reader how this book concerning Jonah is really connected by both theme and content to his earlier work: The Prodigal God. In many ways, the reader would do well to read that book first – although this is not necessary, it does help to illuminate some of the themes in Jonah’s life. At the same time, someone who picks this book up, never having read anything by Keller, will certainly be tempted to go and get that earlier work to consider it as well. In this way, these two works complement each other nicely.
The book is then split up into two sections. In the first, he considers each section of the book, giving the reader a helpful understanding of these four chapters in the Bible. Keller considers how Jonah chose to run from God and some of his reasoning for this decision. He points out that Jonah actually had a problem with God’s plan and so he chose to rebel against it. Jonah’s wrong thinking and actions are clearly shown through these chapters as well as some of his wrong assumptions about patriotism, God’s mercy, and people other than the Jews. There are many fascinating and enlightening points made in these chapters as the narrative of Jonah becomes more and more clear.
The second half of the book considers three main themes: (1) our relationship to God’s word (chapter 10), (2) our relationship to God’s world (chapter 11), and (3) our relationship to God’s grace. All of these are taken from the book of Jonah as his life and actions are used as a foil to apply to our own. Any reader unfamiliar with the content of Jonah might be surprised at how much similarity there is between Jonah and his time and our own. Although written more than 2,500 years ago, this book is still very relevant today.
Perhaps more than any other outcome, this book ends with much hope. Although the ending of Jonah can be confusing to many, and many readers wonder if Jonah ever actually got it, Timothy Keller gives the reader much hope. Not only is there some hope for how Jonah turned out, but far more importantly, the reader is urged to look to Jesus who understood and obeyed what Jonah struggled to understand and obey. Jesus shows the proper way forward and every reader will clearly come to understand that truth by the end of this book.
This proves to be a helpful book for all readers. Whether one is intimately familiar with Jonah’s story or is hearing it for the first time, all readers will have much to consider. For those wanting to get the most out of this book, they should read The Prodigal God either immediately preceding or following the reading of The Prodigal Prophet. They will be glad they did.