Wilhelm Scream

September 21, 2008



Jonah 3:10—4:11

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

4But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ 4And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

6 The Lord God appointed a bush,* and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

9 But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 10Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?


If you go to a movie and you see a someone being eaten by an alligator and he screams, or you see a someone fall off a cliff and he screams, or you see someone tossed out of a speeding vehicle and he screams, there is a pretty good chance that the scream you hear has been screamed before. In the movie Star Wars, as Luke and Leia are about to swing across the chasm in the Death Star, a stormtrooper screams as he falls to his untimely demise. In the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, a Nazi trooper screams as he flys out of the back of a truck. In the movie Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear screams when he gets knocked off the windowsill. And it is the same scream. More than 130 movies use the same yelp of surprise mixed with pain and terror that movie sound designers have dubbed, “The Wilhelm Scream.”

This is an inside joke among Hollywood audio people. The Wilhelm Scream made its first appearance in the 1951 movie Distant Drums, where a character screams as he is eaten by an alligator, but it takes its name from the 1953 film The Charge at Feather River, where cowboy character named Wilhelm gets shot in the leg by an arrow and utters the same scream dubbed in by the sound tech. After that, it became standard audio practice to dub in that scream as needed in a movie. It was used in all six Star Wars movies, and in all four Indiana Jones movies. In fact, if you have been to a movie recently, you have probably heard it. Today in Hollywood, the Wilhelm Scream is so well-known that whenever anything happens in a movie that is really surprising or awful or terrifying, they say, “That deserves a Wilhelm Scream.”

So far as I know, Hollywood has never made the book of Jonah into a movie, but there are several places in the book that could use that well-known scream—and other places which are downright funny.

Why is it that we miss the humor in the Bible? I guess it is because we think that the Bible is a dead-serious book and we are not expecting to find anything funny in it. We do not realize how often God roars with laughter at our human antics and pretensions.

Take, for example, Jonah. Picture this prophet, fresh from the belly of the whale: reeking of whale vomit, bleached of all his color by gastric juices. He reluctantly trudges up to Nineveh and mutters his message of doom in a language the Ninevites cannot even understand. I imagine God laughing until he has tears in his eyes.

But let us go back a bit, back to chapter 1. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria and Israel’s bitter enemy. He is to “cry out against it” because of its wickedness, but Jonah instead runs in the other direction. Whether out of fear or spite, Jonah wants no part of God’s plan. Jonah wants to escape “from the presence of the LORD,” by booking passage on a ship bound for anywhere but Nineveh—which is hilarious when you think about it. You cannot escape from God because God is everywhere, but then I suppose Jonah did not know that.

God calls us, and sometimes we act no better than Jonah. God calls us to do hard things, like loving our enemies. God moves us out of our comfort zones to serve people who are not like us and who may not like us, and we do not like that. We want to run away, but like Jonah we find that there is no place to hide when God is doing the searching. Think how much better off Jonah would have been if he had just embraced the will of God and carried it out with joy and zeal.

But Jonah does not do that. He takes ship for Tarshish. Then a monster storm comes up, a category 5 hurricane, and the sailors are in a total panic. It is time for a Wilhelm Scream. But the person who should be screaming the loudest is asleep at the critical moment. The sailors are screaming in fear; Jonah is snoring in oblivion. When the pagan seamen wake him to have him call on his “god,” Jonah knows exactly what is going on and seems resigned to his fate. He says in 1:12: “I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”

Who is the cause of Jonah’s problems? Who is responsible for Jonah’s trouble? Jonah. Apply that lesson. Who is the cause of my problems? We all want to blame somebody else. That is the politically correct thing to do. I am a victim. I came from a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional neighborhood of dysfunctional town of a dysfunctional state. I deserve some kind of restitution. I am joking, of course. I do not doubt that families and neighborhoods and states have their influence upon us, but who is the primary cause of my problems? I am. And I am not going to get anywhere with God until I realize that.

In chapter 1, verse 17, we come to the one thing everybody knows about Jonah. Jonah was swallowed by a whale. It is time for a Wilhelm Scream. The sailors toss Jonah into the sea, and as he slips beneath the waves, a big mouth opens up and swallows him down. I would scream.

Actually, the scripture says that it was a “large fish” that did the swallowing, and some folks make a big deal out of pointing out that a whale is not a fish, but that is not the point. The author of the book of Jonah is not interested in our descriptions of marine animals. The point is that the whale or fish was a good thing. Jonah was drowning. The fish saved him. God delivered him from death. .

Maybe. In chapter two, Jonah is not sure of that yet. He is in the stinky darkness of the fish’s stomach, and he equates this with the “belly of Sheol.” Understand that the Bible is a progressive revelation. Ancient Hebrews did not have our ideas about heaven or hell. They thought that when we die, everyone goes to Sheol, which is just the land of the dead. Jonah thought that he was dead, or soon would be.

Thus, Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the fish/whale represents the rock bottom of human existence. He is as low as you can go without dying. Many of us have been there. Many of us have been there. We have been down and out. We have felt outcast and forsaken. But the good news here is that while there is no place we can run from God, there is also no place so far away or so disgusting that God does not hear us when we cry out for God.

Then we come to chapter 2:10. The fish barfs up Jonah on dry land. This is slapstick comedy. This is the most ridiculous and undignified way to begin divine mission we can imagine.

But there is a serious message in this humor. God had called Jonah; Jonah ran away. When the whale vomited him up on that beach, God gave Jonah a second chance. God calls us and sometimes we do not act any better than Jonah, and we feel bad about that. Fortunately, for us, God gives us another chance.

Finally, in chapter 3, Jonah does what he has been told to do. He goes to Nineveh to preach a message of impending doom upon that city and, surprise of surprises, the people actually believe what Jonah is telling them and repent before God, covering themselves in sackcloth and ashes, declaring a fast and changing their ways.

Now we realize as we read this book that Jonah never thought this would happen and never wanted this to happen. What he thought was, I will go up there and preach, and they will not listen, and then God will blast them all into the nethermost pits of Sheol. But that did not happen. God’s word actually worked!

Thus, we come to the end of chapter 3. The Ninivites have repented, so God changed his mind and spared them. Now some theologians get all bent out of shape by that. Is Jonah saying that something happened that God did not expect, and hence God had to change his mind? Can all-knowing God ever change his mind? But those questions miss the point. The point is that when people repent and turn to God, God is there to receive them and forgive them.

But when that happened, Jonah pitched a fit. He lets out a primal scream of rage. He wanted these pagans to suffer. The last thing he wanted was for them to be forgiven.

Now there is more humor and irony here. Back in chapter 2 in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed that the Lord would save his stinking life, now he is mad because God saved the lives of a lot of other people. He is in a sulk. We read in v5 that he went outside the city and sat down, “waiting to see what would become of the city.” Apparently he has hopes that the Lord will change his mind again and destroy the Ninevites.

Well, Jonah was hot, sitting there in the sun, so he erected a temporary shade-giving shelter. Then, after God provided a fast-growing bush, to give even more shade, Jonah was somewhat mollified, feeling pretty good, but then he got fiercely angry again when God took the bush away.

But God said to him, You are more concerned about that the transitory shade-giving bush than for the 120,000+ people of that city. Jonah did not apply to others what he discovered for himself. In 2:9 he prayed “Deliverance belongs to the LORD.” Jonah wants to be delivered, but Jonah does not want anybody else to be delivered. Jonah represents all those people who want to be saved, they want to be gloriously and beautifully saved by God, but they don’t care one whit whether anyone else is saved.

Now there is no happy ending to the book of Jonah. We do not know if the prophet ever got it. But the book ends exactly right because the book is addressed to you and me. The book ends with the question of God to Jonah: Should I not be concerned about other people? The implication is that we need to ask ourselves the same question. Should I not be concerned about others? The whole book of Jonah is God’s answer to that question. And Jesus answered it even more bluntly: People who are loved by God are a loving people.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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