The book of Jonah is the focus of many children’s stories and no little scholarly debate; the former are fascinated with a fish large enough to swallow a man, and the latter are perplexed, most often doubtful, over the same. Once one moves beyond the childhood intrigue and scholarly inquiry, they come to the conclusion that the book of Jonah poses a piercing question: “What happens when God makes friends with our enemies?” Jonah was called to preach to Nineveh at a time when the Assyrian empire was weak, and Israel strong. During the reign of Jeroboam II, Jonah had prophesied that Israel’s king should “restore Israel’s borders from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah” (2 Kgs 14.25). Unlike his contemporaries Amos and Hosea, Jonah did not preach against the sins of Israel; while the former were called to confront the sins of the northern kingdom, Jonah was to go and preach a message of mercy to Israel’s enemies. In Jonah’s mind there was something unjust (cf. 4.4) in all of it; why wasn’t someone preaching about God’s mercy to Israel, and confronting the idolatry of their enemies?! The book of Jonah fits under the heading of a tragedy; the prophet helped the pagan sailors and the people of Nineveh to know God’s mercy, but stiff-armed the God of mercy who spoke to him. The book is divided into four chapters:
- Jonah disobeyed the call of God’s mercy to Nineveh (ch 1). The initial word of the LORD, “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted Me” (v. 2), may seem abrasive, but Jonah later admitted that he heard a tone of mercy in God’s initial call—a tone that made the prophet bristle when he thought of God displaying mercy and compassion and faithful love to the Assyrians (cf. 4.2). Thus Jonah boarded a ship headed for Tarshish, “from the LORD’s presence,” a phrase repeated for emphasis (vv. 2, 3). When the storm came the pagan sailors displayed a greater fear of their gods than Jonah did of the LORD God; the latter had to be urged to pray and ask for deliverance from “Yahweh, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9). Jonah experienced the degree of God’s delivering power—even through a great fish that kept him alive three days and three nights (v. 17)
- Jonah initially turned from his hardness, and thanked God for sparing his life (ch 2). Jonah’s prayer has many parallels with the Psalms (cf. esp. Pss. 88; 103, 107). Jonah had experienced the depths of despair, but confessed to God, “You raised my life from the Pit, LORD my God!” (v. 6). The crux of the chapter, and perhaps the book, is found in vv. 8-9: “Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love, but as for me, I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from the LORD.” Here the prophet confessed the self-deception of idolaters—perhaps he was thinking of the sailors, or the Ninevites—and yet in the end he was no better, steadfast in his false conception of the God of mercy
- Jonah traveled to Nineveh and preached God’s message of repentance (ch 3). Once on dry ground, Jonah traveled across a vast desert for over 300 miles until he arrived at “the great city of Nineveh” (v. 3). The greatness of the city was due to its breadth, “a three-day walk” (v. 3) to get around it, and its population numbering in the hundreds of the thousands. The prophet’s brief message, “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown!” (v. 4), compelled the king of Nineveh and all the people to believe, call for a fast and turn from their evil ways (vv. 5-9). God recognized their repentance and spared them from destruction
- Jonah despised God’s mercy—upon Nineveh and himself (ch 4). The prophet’s response to the Ninevite awakening is telling: “Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious” (v. 1). He was so bothered by God’s decision to spare Israel’s enemies that he even prayed for God to take his life (v. 3)! The LORD confronted Jonah’s concept of justice, asking, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (v. 4). To further emphasize His sovereignty over those who benefit from His kindness, the LORD caused a plant to grow up quickly and provide Jonah relief from the intense desert heat—even though the prophet was in a state of rebellion; could not God likewise extend His kindness, and give pleasure (cf. v. 6), to such a great city as Nineveh, full of people living in a spiritual stupor?
Despite the fact that the prophecy of Jonah is often relegated to childish wonder, the fact that both Matthew and Luke record Jesus as having referred to the ministry of Jonah (cf. Mt 12.38-41; Lk 11.29-32) is cause for us to take its message seriously. Jesus directly stated His superiority over the rebellious prophet, showing again that the storyline of Scripture climaxes in Himself. After the initial phase of excitement over Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Mt 4.12-25), many began to question the authenticity of His Messianic claims—some even outrightly rejected Him (Mt 8.32-34). The Jewish leadership of the day were so spiteful and ignorant that while they accused Him of blasphemy (Mt 9.3), and casting out demons by the ruler of demons (Mt 9.33; 12.24), they could simultaneously ask Him to perform a sign for them (Mt 12.38)! Jesus announced that in due course they would receive a sign, “The sign of the prophet Jonah,” He said, “For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (Mt 12.39b-40). The greatest proof of His Messiahship would not come in the signs He performed in Galilee, but what would soon take place in Jerusalem—where He would be crucified and rise from the dead. The One standing in their presence was thus greater than Jonah; while the prophet was in the fish for three days, it was sent to keep Jonah alive. Jesus, on the other hand, would die and rise again. But even the sign of Jesus’ resurrection would not be enough for the jealous Jewish leadership—it in fact would become a threat (Mt. 28.11-15). While wicked Nineveh repented at the relatively weak preaching of Jonah—whose entire recorded sermon, “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown!” (3.4), could be delivered in a single breath—even the most learned of Israel rejected the thorough ministry of the Messiah. Because of the hardness of the Pharisees Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look—something greater than Jonah is here!” (Mt 12.41).
*For a complete list of references, please see scripturestoryline.com