The prophet and his prophecy
Jonah is best known as the reluctant prophet that was swallowed by a big fish and was spewed out and eventually carried out the mission God gave him. While most of his ministry, of which we have a record, was not to Israel and Judah, in the divine scheme of things it was significant. The book is named after its principal character, whose name means “dove”. Though the book does not identify its author, tradition has ascribed it to the prophet himself, Jonah son of Amittai (1:1), from Gath Hepher (2Ki 14:25) in Zebulun (Joshua 19:10,13). Besides the fish story there are many miracles recounted in the Book of Jonah, but as we have argued throughout this book, if God is God that is no problem.
Background and context
There are two references to Jonah outside the Book of Jonah. The first is 2Kings 14:25-26, shortly after bad king Jeroboam II came to power (782BC). It was not long after that, but before 722BC, when Israel was taken into captivity by the very people Jonah was commissioned to prophesy against, that Jonah was called prophesy to the king – not a word of rebuke as might be expected but rather that God will bless Israel by restoring to them some of the land that had earlier been taken from them. As we will see, this side of God’s character is important in understanding the events that followed. It is notable that in the half-century during which the prophet Jonah ministered (800-750 BC), this significant event affected the northern kingdom of Israel: King Jeroboam II (793-753) restored her traditional borders, ending a century of sporadic seesaw conflict between Israel and Damascus. This contributed to a period of relative peace and prosperity (and complacency) for Israel prior to its rapid demise, providing part of the backdrop for Hosea and Amos ministry. Assyria was both a threat and strange ally and this no doubt influenced Jonah when called to prophesy.
The other reference is Matthew 12:39-41 when Jesus was asked for a sign, and the one he gave was of Jonah who spent three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Of significance is this was not just that this was a powerful illustration of Jesus death and resurrection but Jonah was the only prophet Jesus cited in this manner and was from the same place as Jesus, Nazareth. Also significant was those coming from Nazareth and the Galilee area were often looked down on by those from Judea with their more purist outlook to religion, less affected by the passing international trade, and yet it was here that Jesus had his greatest ministry successes. While Jonah’s ministry overlapped with his Northern Kingdom contemporaries, Hosea and Amos, none referred to any other.
A synopsis of the Book
- Jonah Flees His Mission (Chs. 1-2)
- Jonah’s Commission and Flight (1:1-3)
- The Endangered Sailors’ Cry to Their Gods (1:4-6)
- Jonah’s Disobedience Exposed (1:7-10)
- Jonah’s Punishment and Deliverance (1:11-2:1; 2:10)
- His Prayer of Thanksgiving (2:2-9)
- Jonah Reluctantly Fulfills His Mission (Chs. 3 – 4)
- Jonah’s Renewed Commission and Obedience (3:1-4)
- The Endangered Ninevites’ Repentant Appeal to the Lord (3:5-9)
- The Ninevites’ Repentance Acknowledged (3:10-4:4)
- Jonah’s Deliverance and Rebuke (4:5-11)
The message of the Prophet
Chapter 1, the chapter people are generally more aware off recounts how Jonah was told by God to preach to the people of Nineveh, 750 miles from where he was based, about forthcoming judgment, and instead tries to escape (foolishly, given God is omnipresent) and gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, 2000 miles away, in the opposite direction. Then came the storm and the response by the pagan sailors that this was to do with divine judgment, the need to pray, the drawing of lots to find the culprit, Jonah who was the culprit offering to be thrown overboard, the sailors reluctantly agreeing, and Jonah being swallowed by the huge fish, and the storm calming, which greatly impressed the sailors.
Chapter 2 contains Jonah’s remarkable prayer of contrition, at the time of his and for all we know his actual death before being brought back to life. If there was a time to get one’s attention then this was it, as Jonah cried to God, reflected on his helpless states and dedicated himself to doing God’s commands. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry … Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord’” Jonah 2:1,8-9.
Chapter 3 shows Jonah being recommissioned having been vomited by the fish. He goes to Nineveh as commanded and delivers what is likely the most effective sermon ever delivered, and one that was contained in a mere five words. Without giving why’s and wherefores or elaborating, he tells the Ninevites their city will be destroyed in forty days, and led by the king who commanded all its citizens, as well as its animals, that the people fast in penitence. The people did repent and God’s judgement was averted.
Chapter 4 sees Jonah throwing a tantrum, as he objected to God showing mercy on these wicked people and was angry. “And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live”. God’s reply was simple – do you have the right to be angry? We next see Jonah sitting at an outside the city vantage point to check out what was to happen, thinking maybe repentance might be short lived and God might revert to Plan A. By miraculous design, God causes a plant to grow up to give Jonah shade and just as quickly he sent a worm to kill it followed by the scorching wind to make Jonah even more uncomfortable, whereupon Jonah embarks on yet another sulk, who wishes again that he were dead. God in response reminds Jonah of His sovereignty and His mercy, to do what he willed and to show compassion on Nineveh’s on its 120,000 residents, who couldn’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals.
As we reflect on lessons that can be drawn, the one that stands out is how God showed mercy on a people renowned for being wicked, who from Jonah’s perspective deserved all what had been threatened upon them. But it is not all one way and a hundred years later a near neighbor of Jonah, Nahum, also pronounced God’s judgment over Nineveh, and this time the people of Nineveh had not repented and God’s judgement was carried through as the Assyrian empire fell. We may well be intrigued at the gracious manner in which God handled his rebellious spokesperson, who as far as we can make out, screwed up several times during the story and yet God persisted with him, as His prophet.
If we were in Jonah’s shoes, we might have done what Jonah did – after all if any deserved judgement rather than mercy it was the people of Nineveh. Yet as we can see, Jonah was full of hate and anger and flawed theology. While the Old Testament is a Jewish book, it also shows God is interested in those outside of the Covenant, and nowhere better seen than with Jonah. Besides His great mercy, God knows what He is doing and He has the right to do what He will; our response should be simply to trust and obey. Flawed as Jonah was compared with other almost too good to be true prophets, he still had a heart for God and despite his hypocrisy and rebellion, God saw something of merit in Jonah (fear of God) and the people of Nineveh (penitence), something we could easily miss.