Prophet on the Run: Profitable Reading

prophet on the run cover courtesy Shepherd PressMaoz, Baruch. Prophet on the Run: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Jonah. Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1936908-844.

If you’re like me, you tend to avoid books labeled “devotional” because you’ve usually found that they lack gravitas, are comforting but not convicting, encouraging but not very instructive. Prophet on the Run is not that kind of book. Nontechnical, practical, and written in common language for “Mr. and Mrs. Anybody” (5), this commentary, though “devotional,” nevertheless has the sort of bite many of us wish we heard more often in our churches. Originating as a series of sermons preached in Israel, Prophet on the Run models the humble exposition of Scripture in a way sure to benefit readers willing to learn from its example.

The welcome “bite” in this text owes to Maoz’s understanding of how those who preach to and lead God’s people should approach their task. He writes:

Our pastors should know how to present the gospel of God’s grace in light of his holiness. They should focus on God and his glory rather than on man and his felt needs. Their goal should not be to win friends and influence people, but to follow God and his will. They should not engage in church growth strategies but in bringing people into the kingdom of God in humility and repentance. (74)

Having been through some seminary courses that emphasized church growth strategies and focused on the “felt needs” of “seekers,” and having seen some of how such strategies and focus change churches, I find Maoz’s soundly scriptural attitude welcome and refreshing. He emphasizes that God “is a holy, terrible God, a burning fire” whose “eyes are too pure to look at sin and [who] hates evil” so that “we cannot faithfully preach the gospel without referring to that awful hatred” (68), driving home this point with a reflection on Jonah’s ministry to Nineveh:

A stranger comes to town and all he has to say is “Forty more days and Nineveh is destroyed!” Is that how a Christian behaves? Is that how someone talks if he loves his fellow humans as he loves himself and really wants the other’s happiness? What happened to kindness? Where is the delightful, comfortable, cozy sweetness that is assumed to be a primary Christian virtue today? Apparently Jonah (like Peter, Paul and any of the apostles), had a very different view of the message that needed to be preached. He did not think that sweet gentleness is the primary Christian trait or that the love of God was his only characteristic. His message had teeth, a cutting edge, a real backbone! (Ibid.)

Though I won’t attempt a chapter-by-chapter summary of Prophet on the Run, I note that Maoz finds practical applications of Jonah throughout his commentary, often applications with that convicting, instructive bite lacking in much “devotional” literature. I commend the book to you.

Nevertheless, no book is without fault, and finding fault and offering criticism is much more my strength than offering praise. Though I definitely endorse Prophet on the Run and encourage Christians to read it, that doesn’t mean I endorse everything in it. I will therefore close with criticism of a couple items with which I’m not entirely pleased.

Item one. Maoz definitely falls on the Lordship side of the old “Lordship salvation” controversy, stating that “Anyone who wants God to be his savior must first of all crown him king of his life and heart” (57). While I would side with Maoz in this controversy, agreeing with him that repentance is essential to (invariably seen to accompany) salvation and that “A central part of repentance is a willingness to submit to God” (56), I am not comfortable with all aspects of his description of the necessary results (or indicators) of true repentance and salvation.

For instance, are “passion” and “enthusiasm” in one’s Christian duties (57) essential? In other words, must one be emotionally wired for “passion” and “enthusiasm” if one is to be truly saved? Admittedly, a professing Christian who is “passionate” and “enthusiastic” about a range of secular activities (work, recreation) but who pursues his Christian duties with dispassionate stoicism might rightly doubt the reality of his conversion. But what of the Christian for whom dispassionate stoicism, joined to a sense of purpose and perhaps a subdued “satisfaction” in fulfilling that purpose, is the most he feels about either his Christian duties or his secular activities? Does true repentance require a radical overturning of fundamental temperament? I realize that a widespread belief in our culture is that the sincerity of a commitment varies in direct proportion to the intensity of emotion with which that commitment is expressed, but I (for one) doubt the truth of that belief.

Maoz is surely right to emphasize that true repentance produces repentant behavior, with true converts seeking to undo the negative consequences of their sins when such is at all possible (16, 76). Unfortunately, he also emphasizes a need for certain emotions to characterize the truly saved, writing (to quote two relevant passages):

When we turn to God, we must do as the king of Nineveh did—approach God with a deep sense of our sinfulness, in shame and sorrow for our sin. It is not enough when people come to Christ, or claim to come to him, simply to escape a sense of dissatisfaction, to have their problems solved, or to find healing, peace and a purpose for life. (74)

We must beware of a short and easy gospel. To the extent that it is short and easy, it is also superficial. People hear the gospel, pray and—just like that—they’re saved! There is no pleading, no humility, no fear and honor to God. It’s all about the individual and his or her happiness. (84)

While Maoz’s opposition to easy-believism is laudable, I would suggest that too great emphasis on the need for “pleading” and “shame and sorrow” risks excluding from the body of Christ all among us whose emotions do not run to extremes. Sincere repentance is evidenced, not by intensity of emotion, but by tangible change in the repenting individual over time. A sincere awareness of the seriousness of one’s sin and a sincere desire to forsake that sin in submission to God may or may not be accompanied by strong feelings of “shame” and “sorrow,” it seems to me. Some among us simply don’t have such strong emotions to offer. Please don’t exclude them from the Church because their repentance is less tearful, or their performance of Christian duties less enthusiastic, than you think it should be. I suspect that more than a few sincere but unemotional Christians live on the margins of their congregations (if they have yet to forsake them entirely) because they are not wired for the kind of emotion those congregation, like Maoz, require.

Item 2. Among Prophet on the Run‘s positive qualities is Maoz’s uncompromisingly scriptural, and so Reformed (Calvinist), understanding of God’s sovereignty. God, Maoz observes, “rules over everything, his will is carried out in every event and circumstance” (39). “Ultimately,” he adds, “all that exists executes God’s will, even if they are unwitting and unwilling” (51). And again: “The will of God will be carried out—inevitably!” (61). We humans, Maoz makes clear (and shows taught by the book of Jonah), have no right “to think that God must for some reason meet our moral standards,” to challenge his freedom “to forgive one and to condemn another for his sin,” or to “think it unjust for God to prefer one individual or nation over another” (86). “After all,” he points out, “there were many sinful cities in Jonah’s day, but Jonah was only sent to Nineveh” (Ibid.).

Indeed, God is sovereign even in the decision of individuals to persist in rebellion or to submit to his will. The popular notion that God is a “gentleman” who would never “force” anyone to do anything is, Maoz emphasizes, wholly unscriptural. “Who,” he asks, “says that God does not force us to obey him? When he wants to, he forces his will on us. Note what he did to bring Jonah to obey him” (56). If we are among those God has chosen to save, Maoz urges upon us this awareness: “God is stubborn in his love and will not leave us in our sins” (89). Further: “Salvation is wholly an act of God. Faith and repentance are also his gifts, the product of the saving work of the Holy Spirit” (79).

Unfortunately, Maoz, like all too many faithful Reformed people, makes some assertions that fail to mesh with one another and suggests that God’s freedom might extend even to violation of logic. On the last point, Maoz asserts that “Christians are people who ask questions, who wonder after the nature of things and events. But they never think they have the right to expect God to act according to their logic or prove to them the wisdom and justice of his deeds” (86-7). While it is certainly true that humans have no right to question the morality, wisdom, or justice of God’s actions, suggesting that God might act out of accord with “their logic” is an unfortunate (and I think dangerous) way of speaking. Logic, like true morality, is not a person-relative thing, where humans might have one logic and God might have another; rather, logic (like true morality) is an expression of God’s character. If God’s actions contradict one’s understanding of morality, one has not yet properly grasped true morality; if God’s actions strike one as illogical, one misunderstands either those actions or logic or both. Saying that God in such instances violates one’s “morality” or one’s “logic” has an unfortunate tendency to suggest morality or logic are not univocal absolutes expressing God’s unchanging character. Suggesting this is at best unhelpful, at worse dangerous. I dream of a day when Reformed (and all) Christians will overcome their tendency to employ this manner of speaking.

As for “assertions that fail to mesh with one another,” Maoz trips a bit when bringing together his acceptance of God’s absolute sovereignty and his description of what God “wants” when it comes to the salvation of human individuals. He writes: “God wants people to turn from their evil ways and return from the violence which is in their hands; he wants them to mend their lifestyles according to his word” (79-80). Now, are the “people” and “them” here referred to all individuals without exception, as the average reader would assume from Maoz’s wording, or only those specially chosen out by God for salvation (“the elect”)? In one instance, Maoz seems to say “all individuals”: “the God of Israel created the inhabitants of Nineveh and all who live in this world. They all belong to him….He will be glorified in them all, and he desires the salvation of them all” (92). In another, however, his meaning seems otherwise: “God is Lord of all nations and of all people. He cares for each one and from them all he chooses those who will be saved. We must learn to love as God loves, and to incorporate all mankind within our loving embrace” (94). Does God “desire” or “want” the salvation of all individuals, as the first statement suggests, or, in accord with the second statement, does he only “desire” or “want” that every group (nation or people) should have some saved representatives in it? Since “The will of God will be carried out—inevitably!” (61), it seems wrong to say God “wants” or “desires” anything that will not ultimately come to pass, such as the salvation of every individual without exception. I assume this means that where Maoz seems to suggest that God “desires” the salvation of every individual, his wording is just less clear than it should be. However, Maoz’s seeming suggestion that God is not constrained by logic and so can do what is (so far as any human can perceive) contradictory, leaves open the possibility that Maoz means to teach that God in fact “wants” two sets of contradictory things, one set of which happens (only the elect are saved), and one of which doesn’t (everyone is saved). Prophet on the Run‘s current wording leaves us with an unresolved and uncomfortable contradiction. If ever he prepares a new edition, I hope Maoz will correct this.

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