DISCUSSION OF THE BOOK OF JONAH
A. Who was Jonah?
1. Jonah, the son of
Amittai, was a prophet who lived either shortly before or during the
early part of the reign of Jeroboam II, the king of Israels' northern
kingdom from 786-746 B.C. Jonah has prophesied that the northern
kingdom would regain its original borders, which it had gradually lost,
especially during the domination of Assyria in the ninth century B.C.
This restoration occurred during Jeroboam II's reign despite his sinfulness.
2. Jonah was
from Gath-hepher, a small town near Nazareth, at the eastern edge of
the tribe of Zebulon.
B. What was the significance of Nineveh?
1. Nineveh, located
in the northeast Mesopotamia, was an old city, dating from the time
before Abraham. Genesis lists it as one of the cities of the kingdom
of Nimrod. Gen. 10:14-15. It became the capital of the Assyrian
empire, which along with Babylon rose to dominate the Near East starting
in 1300 B.C.
2. During the
ninth century B.C. Assyria rose to a high point, dominating Babylon
and much of the Near East. It subjected the southern kingdom to
vassalage and threatened the northern kingdom. However, starting
around 824 B.C., it suffered a series of setbacks and, at the time of
Jonah, was in gradual decline.
3. However, Assyria
rose again to dominance again under Tigaleth-Pileasar III, who reigned
from 745-727 B.C. In 732 B.C., he conquered the northern kingdom
and placed a puppet king Hoshea on the throne of that kingdom.
Hoshea tried to rebel in 722 B.C., at which time Shalemaneser IV invaded.
His successor Sargon re-conquered the northern kingdom and deported
its people. 2 Kings 17. The next Assyrian king Sennacherib
tried to conquer the southern kingdom in 701 B.C., but failed, after
the angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 members of his army outside
the wall of Jerusalem.
4. After this
failure Assyria began declining again, as Babylon reasserted itself.
Eventually, the enemies of Assyria overthrew the empire. Nineveh
itself was destroyed in 612 B.C.
5. Assyrians could be ruthless and domineering. See Isaiah 10:5-11; Nahum 3:1-2. They frequently exiled conquered people's and scattered them, keeping them from mounting a revolt. Isaiah, who prophesied from about 742-700, describes Assyria as both God's instrument of punishment, and also as an unjust nation. See, e.g., Isaiah
7::18-19; 10:5-23; 14:24-27
C. Is the book a description of actual events?
1. Some argue that
the largely humorous, satirical tone of this book indicates it is simply
like an extended parable meant to teach a lesson about nationalism and
prophesy. They point out that there was no clear record of a massive
repentance in Nineveh.
2. However, Jesus
said that the men of Nineveh will rise in testimony again the people
of His generation because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, while
the society of Jesus' time did not. See Matt. 12:41. It
would be odd for a fictitious people to rise in judgement, or to use
their fictitious repentance to put the current society to shame.
3. It addition,
the Jewish people historically have divided their Scriptures into three
part: (1) the Pentateuch (Torah), (2) the prophets, which includes history
(Neli-im); and (3) the writings, i.e., wisdom literature (Katubim).
They list Jonah (unlike Job) with the history and prophets, which indicates
that they considered it to describe real events.
4. A broad repentance
by Nineveh in the early eighth century B.C. may well been the reason
God spared the city and the Assyrian Empire for a time, and in fact
allowed it to be the force that would put an end to Israel's northern
kingdom. However, its repentance did not last and it became ruthless
again, leading to its demise.
5. It is likely
that the book does describe real history, but it a more informal fashion
that usual accounts of history would be recorded. It leaves out
a great deal of information, especially about other factors that may
have caused Assyria's repentance
D. Overall Themes
1. At one level, the book is a critique of the view that all other nations are simply cut off from God, and a desire to see them punished even if they do repent. Isaiah, who would prophesy a few decades after Jonah, described the punishment of foreign nations (as well as of Israel), but also God's call to all peoples. E.g., Isaiah 56:6-8; 60:5-14.
2. In a larger
sense, Jonah reflects God's desire to reconcile all people to Himself,
and a warning to His spokesmen to be open to such reconciliation.
3. Jonah is also
a semi-humorous commentary on prophesy and preaching, poking fun at
both the reluctance to preach the word of God and an eagerness to condemn
4. Jonah is the
only prophet that Jesus expressly compares Himself to in the Gospels.
See Matthew 12:39-40, 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11:29-30. This
comparison is perhaps a bit surprising, for Jonah was not one of the
more impressive figures of the Old Testament.
II. The Call of Jonah and Jonah's Flight (Ch. 1-2)
A. The Call of Jonah and His Attempt to Avoid it.
1. The word of
the Lord comes to Jonah. This receipt of the word of God is the
classic way that one receives the call to prophesy. See, e.g.,
Isaiah 6:1- 7:3, 49:1-3; Jeremiah 2:4-10. One cannot be a prophet
by one's own power. See 2 Peter 1:20.
2. Jonah is very
reluctant to be a prophet, possibly because of the potential for persecution,
or possibly because he does not want Assyria to repent and be saved.
That nation had caused so much damage that many were likely looking
forward to its destruction. It was common for true prophets and
others called by God to be reluctant. See., e.g., Exodus 3:4ff.;
Judges 6:11-24; Jer. 1:6.
3. Jonah tries
to flee to Tarshish, which was apparently a Phoenician colony in Spain.
The idea was to get as far away as possible. Isaiah will later
prophesy that people as far away as Tarshish will bring wealth to Israel.
B. The Near Shipwreck and the Sailors' Response
1. Jonah failed
to realize God's determination to make him a prophet. The mariners
at first sensibly try to lighten the weight of the ship. They
then turn to what prayer they know, i.e. to various gods, hoping that
one of them will help.
sleep is surprising, but is an analogy to all those who are in danger
of destruction because of their vices, but ignore that fact. Even
on a natural level, people often try to avoid troubles by distractions
3. The sailors
then figure out that someone aboard has offended someone in the heavens.
Either the Lord responds to their primitive attempt to figure out who
it is, or perhaps the captain knew it was Jonah and rigged the casting
of lots. When it is important, God can use seemingly random means
to show forth His will. See, e.g., Joshua 7:14-24; 1 Sam. 10:20;
Acts 1:26; Prov 16:33.
4. Jonah at last
takes some responsibility and tells them that they must cast him into
the sea. The sailors' reluctance indicates a certain respect
for life, even among pagans. Nevertheless, they realize eventually
realize that they must do as Jonah says.
5. Jonah is swallowed
by a large fish, which in principle could occur naturally. But
the timing indicates a miracle. Jesus identifies it as a whale,
but the term could simply mean any very large marine animal. Matt
C. Jonah's Canticle
canticle contains many phrases from the Psalms. It especially reflects
Psalm 18, which describes David's successful escape from Saul, who
was trying to kill him. There is an irony here, because here Jonah
is the guilty one, but God spares him all the same, indicating that
God's call is more powerful than human weakness.
2. That Psalm
and others use storms at sea as an analogy for dangers in life.
See also Psalms 69:2-3; 124:4. In Jonah's case, the analogy
comes to life.
3. The canticle
emphasizes the importance of the Temple, for Jonah's desire for life
above all is based upon his desire to worship God and sacrifice in the
Temple. See verses 5, 11. And the deliverance occurred when
Jonah's prayers reached the Temple. See verse 8. Thus,
even though the book describes God's concern for all peoples, it also
focuses on the importance of the Temple. This focus is especially
important, given the fact that Jonah was from the northern kingdom,
which did not respect the Temple.
IV. Jonah's Second Call (Ch. 3:1-4)
A. God saves Jonah and
again calls for him to prophesy. But God says that He will reveal
the message later.
B. The message is
very short and to the point: Nineveh is about to be destroyed because
of its sins.
V. The Repentance of Nineveh , the Anger of Jonah, and God's Response (Ch. 3:5-4:11)
A. Nineveh repents
as no nation has ever before or since. They use the classic means
of fasting (here meaning a complete rejection of food and drink), wearing
sackcloth, and sitting in ashes. Even the animals join in.
B. They do not know
whether they will be forgiven, but simply hope in the dark. There
seems to be some underlying faith in God, albeit with only the vaguest
concept of who He may be. They are in this sense somewhat similar
to the magi. God's forbearance is an indication of the fact
that prophesies of total destruction are generally reversible.
C. Jonah, apparently
unaware of any connection to God's mercy towards him, is angry that
God has shown mercy towards this city that formerly oppressed the nations.
He seems to think that God's mercy should be limited to His Chosen
People. Compare with Exodus 2:1-14; Numbers 10-25; Psalm 86.
Jonah makes this clemency an excuse for his initial reluctance to prophesy.
If this excuse describes Jonah's real motivation, he is apparently
unaware that the greatest accomplishment of a prophet is to convert
the people. See Matt. 18:15; James 5:19-20.
D. God then tries to uses
a natural symbol, a gourd tree, to bring Jonah to understand His love
for all people. One implication of this analogy between the gourd
tree and the people of Nineveh is that all people are not only loved
by God, but also useful to all of the faithful.
VII. What Did Jesus Mean by the Sign of Jonah?
A. Jesus said in
several places that His generation will receive no sign, except the
sign of Jonah. See Matthew 12:39-40, 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-12; Luke
B. One meaning is
that His resurrection would be an even greater sign that Jonah being
saved from the seas and the whale. In fact Jonah's canticle
and psalms of deliverance, such as Psalm 18, can be applied more appropriately
to Jesus than to their own authors.
C. Another meaning
is that the presence of Jesus is more powerful than that of Jonah, for
it can not only bring about great repentance, but also full forgiveness
of sins and restoration to adopted sonship with God. Jonah's
preaching led to a repentance that delayed the destruction of Nineveh,
but the city never really came to know God, and eventually fell back
to its old ways, resulting in its destruction.
D. In addition, as the power of God showed forth in Jonah's ability to bring Nineveh to repentance, the power of the grace won by Christ is manifested by the ability of His disciples to bring individuals and nations into the faith. See, e.g., Acts 2:1-41.