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Timothy Keller: The Prodigal Prophet

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (New York, NY: Viking, 2018), 272 pages, ISBN 10: 0735222061, ISBN-13: 978-0735222069

Timothy Keller is well-known in Christian circles. He founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and for years served as its senior pastor. He is a member of the Gospel Coalition and has authored a number of books including, The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. This current volume, The Prodigal Prophet, focuses on the experiences of the prophet Jonah as found in the biblical book that bears his name.

The text of this book consists of an introduction, 12 chapters, and an epilogue. In them, the author leads the reader through the book of Jonah and helps him or her better understand why Jonah ran from the Lord’s call for him to go to Nineveh. He also identifies some of the prophet’s personal issues that contributed to his behavior. Keller has given much thought to the book of Jonah. In the acknowledgements section, at the end of the book, he mentions that he preached through the book of Jonah in 1981, 1991, and 2001.

Keller provides some rich insights into the story of Jonah. For example, he points out that the Assyrians that Jonah was sent to preach to were notoriously violent. They were known for administering brutal torture and providing their victims with very cruel deaths, their methods included both dismemberment and decapitation (pages 9-10). Keller also points out that Jonah’s ministry to the people of Nineveh was somewhat unique. He says that up until that time, other Old Testament prophets, though they had messages for foreign nations, never had to go to those nations to deliver the message (page 10). Jonah, however, was told to go to the bloodthirsty city of Nineveh in Assyria. Keller writes “Yet it was this nation that was the object of God’s missionary outreach” (page 11). As challenging as this was, there were other uncomfortable elements of this ministry as well, he was going to the city alone and with an unpopular message. The story of Jonah shows us that God has, at times, sent His people into harm’s way to engage in missionary outreach.

Keller points out that Jonah had a theological problem: he had a difficult time reconciling God’s love and His justice (pages 99-101). The two seemed to be at odds with each other. How could God pardon a people who were so violent and vile and be just? So Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. The prophet could not see any good reason for the mission, and since he could not see it, he did not think one existed (page 15).

One of the major themes in The Prodigal Prophet is grace. Readers of the book of Jonah know that God granted grace to the people of Nineveh. When they repented, the Lord did not bring on them the disaster that Jonah had announced. Keller points out that Jonah needed to see how much he needed the mercy of God. Since he lacked this knowledge he could not properly understand how God could be merciful to evil people and be just (page 21). The book of Jonah shows us God’s dealings with the prophet in order to bring him to this place (page 21).

The Prodigal Prophet is not an academic book so it is accessible to all and Keller is a great communicator. Be forewarned: as one reads this book there may be some places in which the reader will feel convicted. All of us are, at least at times, like the prophet Jonah in his bad attitudes, both toward God and with reference to other people, especially those we do not like. There are some aspects of this book that seem quite political. The issues that the book raises are some of the problems that we are currently facing in the United States. That being said, no matter what your political views are, you will learn some valuable lessons from this book; it is truly thought provoking.

Reviewed by John Lathrop


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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2019

About the Author: John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written for a number of publications and is the author of four books Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers Then and Now (Xulon Press, 2008), The Power and Practice of the Church: God, Discipleship, and Ministry (J. Timothy King, 2010), Answer the Prayer of Jesus: A Call for Biblical Unity (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Dreams & Visions: Divine Interventions in Human Experience (J. Timothy King, 2012). He also served as co-editor of the book Creative Ways to Build Christian Community (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Amazon Author page. Facebook

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