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Jacques Ellul – The Judgment of Jonah


Jacques Ellul – The Judgment of Jonah


Repeatedly Ellul’s brief book reflects his characteristic love/grief relationship with the church, the church’s lack of discernment, and an ecclesiastical agenda that finds the church somnolent, feckless and desultory. As sad as he is scathing, Ellul notes, “A remarkable thing about even the active Christian is that he (sic) never has much more than a vague idea about reality.   He is lost in the slumber of his activities, his good works, his chorales, his theology, his evangelizing, his communities.   He always skirts reality….It is non-Christians who have to waken him out of his sleep to share actively in the common lot.” (p.31)

More foundationally Judgment exudes Ellul’s characteristic conviction concerning the effectual pre-eminence of Jesus Christ. While the book of Jonah is deemed “prophetic” among Jewish and Christian thinkers, Ellul understands prophecy strictly as an Israelite pronouncement fulfilled in Jesus Christ, this pronouncement henceforth subserving Christ’s unimpeded militancy throughout the cosmos.

As readers of Ellul know from his other books (e.g., Apocalypse and The Political Illusion, extended comments on the books of Revelation and 2nd Kings respectively), Ellul has little confidence in the expositions of the “historical-critical” guild of exegetes insofar as their preoccupation with speculative minutiae blinds them to the substance of the text; namely, the service the text renders the luminosity of Him who is the light of the world.  Unlike the exegetical guild, Ellul sees the risen, sovereign (but not controlling) One proleptically present in the Older Testament, manifested to the apostles, and surging effectually everywhere now.  More to the point, Ellul regards the guild’s preoccupation with the history of the formation and transmission of the text as a nefarious work wherein the guild “dissects Scripture to set it against Scripture”.(p.74) Exegetes typically perpetrate this abomination, therein deploying their “expert” misuse of Scripture exactly as the tempter deployed his in his assault on Jesus in the wilderness.  In other words, Ellul regards the work of most commentators, in their Christ-ignoring and world-denying “scientific” approach, as nothing less than Satanic. In light of this it’s no surprise that only three-quarters’ way through Judgment Ellul left-handedly admits that the book of Jonah was “rightly composed to affirm the universalism of salvation” (p.77), when exegetes customarily insist that the sole purpose of the book of Jonah was to protest the shrivelling of post-exilic Israel’s concern, even to protest the apparent narrowness, exclusiveness and concern for self-preservation found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

If what is crucial to most is peripheral to Ellul, then what is the epicentre of the book of Jonah?  It is certainly not a compendium of moral truths, let alone a test of credulity (which test Christian apologetics paradoxically attempts to eliminate). Neither is the book an extended allegory; nor even an instance of the prophetic literature found in Scripture, since the book shares few of the concerns of the prophetic books (e.g., no prophetic address is spoken to Israel) while features of the book aren’t found in prophetic literature (e.g., the books named after Jeremiah and Amos don’t feature biographical portrayals). The core of the book lies, rather, in its depiction of Jonah himself as a figure, a type, of Christ. Having argued for this position, Ellul brooks no disagreement: “If one rejects this sense, there is no other.” (p.17)

As Judgment unfolds it reflects the major themes of Ellul’s social and theological thought as well as aspects of his own spiritual development. With respect to the latter, Ellul’s understanding of Jonah’s vocation – “Everything begins the moment God decides to choose….We can begin to apprehend only when a relation is set up between God and us, when he reveals his decision concerning us” (p21) – pellucidly mirrors Ellul’s self-effacing, autobiographical statements in In Season, Out of Season and What I Believe.

As for characteristic aspects of Ellul’s thinking, Judgment re-states and develops them on every page.         For instance, those whom God summons are freed from the world’s clutches and conformities in order to be free to address and spend themselves for a world that no longer “hooks” them even as the same world deems them “useless” to it.  In this regard Ellul writes of Jonah, “The matter is so important that everything which previously shaped the life of this man humanly and sociologically fades from the scene….Anything that might impel him to obey according to the world has lost its value and weight for him.” (P.21) In other words, any Christian’s commission at the hand of the crucified is necessary and sufficient explanation for taking up one’s work and witness.

While vocation is sufficient explanation for taking up their appointed work, Christians cannot pretend their summons may be ignored or laid aside, for in their particular vocations all Christians have been appointed to “watch” in the sense of Ezekiel 33. Disregarding one’s vocation is dereliction, and all the more damnable in that the destiny of the world hangs on any one Christian’s honouring her summons: “Christians have to realize that they hold in their hands the fate of their companions in adventure”.(p.35)

Readers of Ellul have long been startled at, persuaded of, and helped by his exploration of the “abyss”, the virulent, insatiable power of evil to beguile, seduce, and always and everywhere destroy. (See Money and Power and Propaganda. It should be noted here that Ellul’s depiction of evil in terms of death-as-power – rather than in terms of “a kind of lottery…turning up as heart failure (p.51) — finds kindred understanding and exposition in the work of William Stringfellow and Daniel Berrigan.)  The “great fish” sent to swallow Jonah (God uses evil insofar as he is determined to punish) is a manifestation of such power. While in the “belly of the great fish” Jonah is subject to God’s judgment upon his abdication as he is confronted defencelessly with the undisguised horror of the abyss. Awakened now to his culpable folly, Jonah understands that even as he is exposed to “absolute hell”(p.45) he hasn’t been abandoned to it.  At no point has he ceased being the beneficiary of God’s grace.  Now Jonah exclaims, “Thou hast delivered me” – i.e., before the “great fish” has vomited him to safety.  Deliverance for all of us, Ellul herein announces characteristically, occurs when we grasp God’s presence and purpose for us (and through us for others) in the midst of the isolation that our vocation, compounded by our equivocating, has brought upon us.  Percipiently Ellul adds, “[T]he abyss…is the crisis of life at any moment.”(p.52)

Typically Ellul points out ersatz means of resolving the crisis: we look to “technical instruments, the state, society, money, and science…idols, magic, philosophy, spiritualism….As long as there is a glimmer of confidence in these means man prefers to stake his life on them rather than handing it over to God.”(p.57) While these instruments can give us much (especially as anodynes), they can’t give us the one thing we need in the face of the all-consuming abyss: mercy.  No relation of love exists between these instruments and us; they merely possess us. The person who “loves” money, for instance, is merely owned.  The crisis is resolved incipiently when we “beg in any empty world for the mercy which cannot come to [us] from the world.”(p.58)   The crisis is resolved definitively as we hear and heed the summons to discipleship and thereafter obey the one who can legitimately (and beneficently) claim us inasmuch as he has betaken himself to the abyss with us. Here Ellul’s Christological reading of the book of Jonah surfaces unambiguously: “The real question is not that of the fish which swallowed Jonah; it is that of the hell where I am going and already am. The real question is not that of the strange obedience of the fish to God’s command; it is that of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and my resurrection.”(p.63)

Just because the book of Jonah is a prolepsis of Jesus Christ, the book is fragrant with hope and quickens hope in readers.  To be sure, signs of grace come and go in all of us – even as grace never disappears. (Recall the gourd given to provide shade for Jonah, even as the gourd soon withered.) While God’s people frequently and foolishly clutch at the sign instead of trusting the grace therein signified, the day has been appointed when the sign is superfluous as faith gives way to sight and hope to its fulfilment.  At this point the “miracles” that were signs of grace for us will be gathered up in “the sole miracle, Jesus Christ living eternally for us”.(p.67)

The note of hope eschatologically permeating the book of Jonah (and Ellul’s exposition of it) recalls the conclusion to The Meaning of the City. There Ellul invites the reader to share his vivid “experience” of finding himself amidst a wretched urban slum in France yet “seeing” the city, the New Jerusalem.


While Ellul’s “exegesis” of the book of Jonah will be regarded as idiosyncratic in several places, its strength is its consistent orientation to the One who remains the “open secret” of the world and of that community bound to the world.


For decades Ellul’s own life illustrated a statement he made in Judgment concerning the prophet Jonah: “Everything circles around the man who has been chosen. A tempest is unleashed.”(p.25) Ellul’s writings indicate passim that as much characterizes all who discern their vocation and pledge themselves to it without qualification, reservation or hesitation.


Victor Shepherd
Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Tyndale University College & Seminary, Toronto
Professor Ordinarius, University of Oxford