The Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah is an interesting little book. It is the fifth of the twelve Minor Prophets, coming between Obadiah and Micah. In the Hebrew canon these twelve compose one book. The other eleven state some of the prophet’s background, detail their preaching in Israel, and give us lengthy sections of what they said in their sermons. Jonah, on the other hand, gives no personal background, only narrates his mission to Nineveh (a foreign city in Assyria), and gives one sentence of what he proclaimed there “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

So this book stands out from the rest of the twelve Minor Prophets. This has motivated some to interpret the narrative as a parable. They would state that the literature is parabolic, written by some obscure prophet many years after the historical Jonah to teach Israel a lesson through this fictional character. I suppose the debate is still open on this subject, but I agree with Jewish and Christian tradition that this was an historical/literal prophet and narrative written by Jonah himself. That is what the church taught until sometime around A.D. 1800.

The reason that some believe this to be a fictional story used to teach a lesson is because of the seemingly supernatural accounts found in the book. A storm arises while Jonah is on the ship, the storm ceases immediately as Jonah hits the water after being thrown out, he survives being swallowed by a large fish while staying in its belly for three days, he is vomited back closer to Nineveh, toward the end a large plant grows overnight, and then is quickly destroyed by a worm. There is no doubt that these are miraculous events, but is it that hard to believe that these things could happen? Jonah calls God the “God of heaven who created the land and the sea.” Is it difficult to believe that this God could do these marvelous things? I think not! Yet, then some skeptics will ask, ‘It is not could God do this, but why would God do this?’ Why has God done any miraculous things in history? He is a marvelous God who does marvelous things from time to time to make Himself known and to make His glory known.

In 2 Kings 14:25 we find a reference to Jonah which says, “He (Jeroboam King of Israel) restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher.” With this reference we can place this narrative of Jonah sometime between 790 and 760 B.C. During these years Assyria, with a great city like Nineveh as a preeminent part, was in practical anarchy. Between 763 and 768 B.C. there were notable series of rebellions.

Annotated Reading:
Let’s recount some of the book of Jonah before I make three major points at the end. Jonah received a commission from the Lord. READ 1:1-3. It seems that the greatness of Nineveh was the fact of the size of its population. Later we read that Nineveh was numbered at more than 120,000 which is a large number for an ancient town. As of July 2008 one estimated population of Henry County was 55,316 and Martinsville was 14,543. Nineveh was a major Assyrian city. If you remember, Assyria was a major enemy of both Israel and Judah. Actually, it was Assyria that swallowed up the northern kingdom of Israel and all of the tribes disintegrated, never to be seen again, except for Judah that was in the south.

Jonah decides to run away from what the Lord planned to do in Nineveh and he went to Joppa to hop a ship to Tarshish. Jonah was not scared of the commission nor was there any other reason for leaving except for his hatred of foreign peoples. From what I have read it appears that Jonah actually leased out the boat for the trip. That would mean that Jonah spent a pretty penny to get far away from his homeland, Nineveh, and seemingly God. Tarshish’s exact location is uncertain, but it seems to represent the farthest known point in the west.

Surely if Jonah doesn’t accept the commission God would simply choose another prophet, right? Wrong! Paul said in the NT, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” The same applies to the prophet Jonah. Yet, do not let us think that God needs us. We have been given the right to be His children. He will accomplish His plans whether He finds someone else or if He gives no option. For Jonah, God gave Him no option.

In chapter one we see that the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah and Jonah runs. Eventually, God sends a big storm and a big fish! Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. By stating that Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days it is to say that he was on the threshold of death. Three days and nights were the marker of the validity of someone’s death. In chapter two we read that at some point Jonah was conscience while in the fish’s belly and he prays (READ 2:1-2).

Chapters one and two form the first part of this narrative and then in chapter three we transition into the second. The Word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time and this time “Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the Word of the Lord.” When we look through the entire book, we only find that the extent of Jonah’s message is, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” We see that Jonah must have known that though his message was a simple proclamation of coming doom there would be forgiveness. The people of Nineveh did not brace for wrath nor did they run from the city. Though it wasn’t explicit, the Ninevties heard in the warning a chance to repent and so they did. This, we see, was the inevitability of the situation.

READ 3:10. Does God change His mind? C4 shows that God can not be manipulated and is not part of some corrupt system that people can develop by their own means. God is not dependent on us in anyway; not our thoughts, not our attitudes, not our behavior or choices. He planned to forgive Nineveh beforehand. He wasn’t forced to “repent” but is the one who made the proposition by sounding the warning through Jonah. Of course, from our human vantage point we evaluate the situation and with the only means we have of explaining what happens we use words and say that God ‘changed His mind.’ Yet, in reality, God was going to be merciful to the people of Nineveh. It was inevitable. READ 4:2. These attributes that Jonah declares are the OT slogan for God and it is God Himself that first declares this of Himself. In Exodus 34 when God passes before Moses on the mountain He says, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty…”

It was inevitable:
1. Jonah would preach
2. Nineveh would respond (though ignorantly and inadequately)
3. God would “relent” i.e. be merciful to Nineveh

I conclude that there are three major points in the Book of Jonah:

1. Jonah’s Sinfulness
2. God’s Sovereignty
3. God’s Salvation

Point 1: Jonah’s Sinfulness1. Rebellion – Jonah flees from the presence of the Lord (READ 1:3, 12).
2. Racism – What a terrible picture we have of Jonah in C4. (READ 4:1).
3. Unrepentance – There is not an ounce of repentance in the book. (READ 2:8-9).

Point 2: God’s Sovereignty1. Storm (1:4) “But the LORD sent out a great wind on the sea”
2. Fish (1:17) “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah.”
3. Vine (4:6) “And the LORD God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah…”
4. Worm (4:7) “But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm…”
5. Wind (4:8) “God prepared a vehement east wind”

Point 3: God’s Salvation1. Toward Jonah – Saved him in the fish, Commissioned him a second time
2. Toward Nineveh – Sent a prophet, He did not bring disaster upon them

The Main Point of the book of Jonah is God’s salvation. He alone is righteous, good, holy, and perfect yet He looks at helpless mankind and desires to save us. He is “a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” I think that is why Jesus refers to Jonah in reference to what He would do. The people were seeking a sign from Him, though He performed miracles all around them and taught with authority unlike anyone else. The Scribes and Pharisees pressed Him for a sign and He said in Matthew twelve, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”

The book of Jonah was about salvation and so was Christ Jesus. God has sovereignly worked through His Son to work salvation for us. His crucifixion, death, and resurrection (three days and three nights) sealed salvation for all peoples; all those who will put their faith in Him.

Indeed, One greater than Jonah has come!