The son of Amittai was old,
And his gray-bearded face was fold
On fold of furrows, from his brow
Down to his neck, as if a plow
Had carved and harrowed in his skin
(Like conscience in the quest for sin)
The lines of seven decades, but
For one long, smooth and vivid cut
Across his cheek, the famous scar,
That others might have thought would mar
Their countenance, but Jonah wore
With quiet modesty, and bore
As if it were a sign of grace,
From lip to ear across his face.
Now forty years had passed since he
Had left Gath-Hepher, near the sea
Of Chinnereth, and then returned,
A different man. Once he had burned
With fire and jealousy, because
The word of God and all His laws
Blazed like an all-consuming flame
Of holy fury for the name
Of Israel's God within his soul.
Thus he had spoken of the bowl
Of burning wrath that God had stored
For Nineveh, and would be poured
Someday, upon that wicked place,
To wipe out the Assyrian race.
But when the son of Amittai
Came home from Nineveh, the cry
Of his disfigured lips was not
The same. The fire was just as hot,
But now it seemed to melt instead
Of boil, and burn a glowing red,
Like coals beneath a crucible,
To make the gold more beautiful.
At seventy he was a kind
Of legend in the land. Behind
The furrowed face and silver beard,
And lacerated lips, appeared
A man whose eyes were softer than
The feathers of a dove, a man
Whose heart seemed large enough for all
The world, whose patience bore the gall
Of brazen youth, and whose sweet tongue
Gave songs to those who'd never sung.
And almost every evening when
The sun went down, the bold young men,
With dreams of speaking mightily
For God, the sons of prophecy,
Whose fathers knew Elisha, and
Sat daily at his feet — this band
Would gather in the garden of
The one they called "the wounded dove,"
This Jonah, son of Amittai,
And they would ask him questions, "Why?"
And "How?" and "What?" and "When?" and "Where?"
And he would lean back in his chair,
And sometimes stare a long time toward
The Western Sea, as if the Lord
Had wisdom stored in some deep place
About the treasures of his grace,
Beyond the bounds of Israel.
And then, as if he heard a bell
To bring him back, the prophet would
Take every question that he could,
And tell them what he'd learned.
This night a daring lad, who spurned
The usual decorum, raised
His hand and said, "The Lord be praised,
Good master, for the wisdom He
Has given you. May I please be
Permitted one small question here
Before my elder brothers steer
Us into deeper things?" The old
Man smiled with tenderness, "Be bold
Young man, perhaps the thing
That you consider small will bring
To light more truth than you expect.
Great things are often the effect
Of little cause: the leaves that hide
The key to life are swept aside
By breezes you can scarcely feel,
And yet all heaven may reveal.
Sometimes we learn not more but less,
By crafting questions to impress.
So, yes, young man, you may indeed
Ask your small question here." "I plead
Your pardon sir, if it seem trite:
Would you recount for us the fight,
When you received that scar across
Your face?" The men were at a loss
For what to say at this, and shocked.
Did he not know that Jonah's pocked
And scar-drawn face was not the yield
Of triumph on a battlefield?
But Jonah, feeling for the boy,
Replied, as if it were his joy
To willingly recount the deed:
"My lad, it was a fight indeed.
But not the kind you might have thought.
Some forty years ago I fought
A fearsome foe — a foe that none
Should ever fight at all, for one
Can never win, nor ever does
One have just cause, nor ever was
A fault found in this foe, or chink
In his bright armor. If you think
My scar was given by some dread
And awful enemy, who fled
Defeated at my prophecy,
You see a truth, but partially:
The enemy awakened dread,
It's true, but 'twas not he that fled."
The lad then said to Jonah, "How,
Can such an enemy allow
That you should live, if he is right,
And cannot lose, and yet, despite
All this, you fought?" "Well," Jonah said,
"Because this enemy of dread
And might did not count me his foe,
Nor seek to take my life, although
His blows were no less sharp than had
He meant to kill." "But why," the lad
Asked, with bewilderment, "Why would
You fight, if he is always good,
And did not count you as his foe?
Was it because you didn't know?"
The son of Amittai sat still
And silent in the garden, till
The tears rolled down his furrowed face
From all the memories of fear and grace.
"I knew," he said. "I knew that he
Was good. And that he did not see
Me as his enemy. But when
Unholy hatred rises, then
A man must either die beneath
The weight of conscience and the teeth
Of truth, or by some fatal act
Of treason, sign a deadly pact
With blind absurdity, and make
A foe out of his God, and take
The wings of feigned escape to fly
As far from God as such a lie
Will let him fly, and there be found,
Or die." The boy looked at the ground
In Jonah's garden, fearful now
To ask the obvious. Somehow
Though, Jonah's face bid him
Continue bravely with the grim
Conclusion: "So You mean," he said,
"The foe you fought, from whom you fled,
And got that scar, was God?" "The Lord
Commanded me to leave my sword,
And go to Nineveh to preach
The word of God, and there beseech
That they repent. But I knew in
My soul that if I went, He'd win
Them to Himself, and all my zeal
For holy wrath he would reveal
As nothing but unholy hate.
So, like a fool, I headed straight
The other way — to Joppa by
The sea. And there, with wings to fly
Away from God I thought, I found
A ship with open space and bound
For Tarshish far beyond the eye
Of God — so blind the mind to try
And flee from God.
then he fought
With me, and made the sea distraught
With great upheaving waves and wind,
That made the sailors ask who sinned,
Then ordered by his sovereignty
The dooming lot would fall to me.
And finally when all else failed -
Or so they thought — then they availed
Themselves of one last hope. They threw
Me in the sea."
Are still alive," the boy replied.
"How can a man survive the tide
And depths and monsters of the sea?"
"Because a great fish swallowed me."
The boy sat with his lips agape.
"The mouth of death was my escape.
God sought me, as it were, in hell
And swallowed me for three days' spell
In acid, meant to cleanse my soul.
From death to death, God's gracious goal
Leads back to Nineveh and life.
And on the way, as with a knife,
One razor tooth slashed through my face
And gave me this sweet sign of grace."
The evening now was overspent,
And it was late. "Do not lament
Your question, son. Of course, there's so
Much more that you may want to know,
But this will have to do tonight.
Rest well, your God does all things right."
As we light Advent candle one
Learn how the work of God is done.
That there is fierce and stormy grace
With wind and waves and mangled face,
And sailors with condemning dice,
And demons waiting sacrifice,
And giant fish with slashing teeth,
And gasping, acid graves beneath.
Yet none of this is to destroy,
But to restore the prophet's joy,
And not his merely, but the throngs
Of Nineveh will sing their songs.
And Jonah, in the coming years,
Will say with tender heart and tears,
Along with each whom God will call,
The price was high and worth it all.
The pain of being loved by God
Is great, so let us kiss the rod.