Jonah is one of the most ridiculed books by liberal scholars. The story of a fish swallowing a man and the man living sounds impossible, and since most liberal scholars deny the possibility of the supernatural, they reject the book of Jonah as anything but a fairy tale. I’ve heard people tell a story from the time that such an event actually occurred about a hundred years ago when whaling was popular, but I also heard somewhere that the story was fabricated to try to lend credibility to the book of Jonah. So, we will just have to believe Jonah is true because God says it is true.
Jonah is different than the other prophets because it is not full of prophecies by the prophet, it is instead, about the life of the prophet. Little attention is given to what he actually said. But it does start off the same way the other prophetic books do because we see the phrase, “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying.”
While most of the other prophets prophesied to Israel and Judah, Jonah’s task was to go to Ninevah and prophesy to them.
Date: It is difficult to pinpoint when the author of the book actually put the story on paper. It could have been written soon after the events or long after the events. Some date the writing of the book in the Persian period because of certain literary features, vocabulary, etc.
What is clear is that the events of the book took place while Ninevah was capitol of Assyria. At the risk of giving away the plot, the Assyrians repent in the story, and so I would place the events at the beginning of the era when prophets prophesied of the coming destruction by Assyria (eighth century). This would give the Assyrians time to respond to Jonah’s message, for a new generation or two to come along, who would decline spiritually, and become bad guys again and a threat to Israel.
God commanded Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach to them about their sinfulness and call them to repentance. This is the only time in the OT where Israel is commanded to actively pursue the Gentiles. God’s Covenant with Abraham mentioned that through Abraham’s descendants God would bless the nations, but no Israelite is ever commanded to go to the nations and tell them about God. They were to have a passive witness. The Gentiles were supposed to see the difference between their society and Israel’s and be attracted to it. The OT is full of examples of Gentiles who became Jewish proselytes and worshipped Yahweh - Ruth, Jael, Shamgar, the woman at Jericho, etc.
What is Jonah’s reaction to God’s command? He refused. He didn’t say anything. He just left town. Notice the route he took: He went down to Joppa. Found a ship going down to Tarshish, so he went down into the boat. If God is up then down is bad. Every thing Jonah did took him further from God.
This section emphasizes God’s sovereignty over nature. He sent the wind and caused the sea to heave.
It is the heathen sailors who feared and are praying while the man of God is complacently sleeping below. The sailors were praying to the wrong gods, but they were convicted by the events at sea. Jonah’s lack of reaction is significant. Sin hardens the heart and makes us insensitive. Here we see that Jonah is insensitive to what God is doing. And we see the first of many contrasts between the heathens and Jonah. Jonah is insensitive, but the heathens are aware that something out of the ordinary is going on and they are praying to their gods.
Jonah’s statement in 1:9 is the exact opposite of what his actions show. He does not fear God. If he did, he would have obeyed the first time, and at the least, been praying because of the storm.
What stand’s out in this section?
They would eventually learn that Jonah’s God was the true God.
1:10 shows that the men were amazed that Jonah would do something to displease his God. They spent their life in fear of their gods, trying to please and pacify them. It is ironic and sad that those who worship the true God - the only God worth fearing - and experience His grace, take advantage of His grace and do not live their life in an effort to please Him.
1:13 shows that the heathen sailors had more compassion than Jonah. They did not want to throw him overboard and tried desperately to get to land without doing that. They begged Jonah’s God’s pardon for what they had to do. This is also a contrast with the man of God who had no compassion on the people of Ninevah.
God responded by calming the sea .
The sailors recognize that the true God is Jonah’s God, so they pray to Yahweh. And after the sea calms, we see that they feared Yahweh and offered sacrifices to Him and made vows. They were probably vows that they would follow and obey Him. This is in contrast to Jonah who disobeyed God.
God is not through with Jonah. A great fish comes along and swallows him. There is more irony here. If you remember, Jonah went down, down, down in the first few verses. Now God is sending Jonah down to the depths of Sheol (2:2). At least that is what it felt like to Jonah.
Jonah finally prays and thanks God for his deliverance even before he is delivered. This shows that he is convinced God answers prayer.
Some think that at this point Jonah is repenting, especially since he now goes and preaches to Ninevah. But let’s look at his prayer:
Nowhere in his prayer did he mention his own rebellion and sin, so there is no real confession going on here.
He piously considered himself better than the pagans (cf. vs 8-9). What is ironic and sad is that we have already seen that the sailor’s came out looking better than Jonah.
I think Jonah is making a big assumption here that God would deliver him. He certainly didn’t deserve it.
We will see by Jonah’s actions in chapter 4: that he didn’t really repent here.
Feinberg points out that the life of Jonah parallels the history of the nation of Israel, and the phrase, “Salvation is from the Lord” is a key ingredient in that parallel. Like Jonah, Israel was chosen. Like Jonah, Israel rebelled. Like Jonah, Israel received discipline (dispersion and abuse by other nations up to the present day). Israel looks to military alliances and national defense as the solution but until Israel recognizes that Salvation is from the Lord, there can be no ultimate deliverance. (Charles L. Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, p. 141-43).
I think the life of every individual is also parallel to Jonah’s experience. God calls us, but we rebell. We search for life in everything else but God until we come to a point in our life where we are so low that we finally recognize our inability and come to the conclusion that Salvation is from the Lord.
God is gracious and He does answer Jonah’s prayer and the fish delivers Jonah to the beach outside of Ninevah.
God repeated his command to Jonah to go to Ninevah. I think it shows the grace of God that He gave Jonah a second chance.
This time Jonah obeys. It seems that there was no complaint this time. God had gotten Jonah's attention.
Jonah's message is a simple one - “In forty days Ninevah will be destroyed!” There wasn't a lot of persuasion. I don't think Jonah tried very hard to persuade them. He would have gone into town, said his piece and left saying something like, “Well, I told them. It's their own fault now when God destroys them.” I think this also shows that Jonah hasn’t really changed his attitude. It seems to me he is obeying, but grudgingly.
But the people of Ninevah heard him and believed him and repented. And this was a thorough repentance. Everyone from the king down to the cows were crying out. I'm sure the animals were just hungry, but it probably seemed like they were repenting too.
God is gracious and does not destroy the city.
Jonah is furious when he sees the people's repentance. He knows now that God is not going to destroy them. Here we also see his true heart and further proof that he did not repent in chapter 2. The truth comes out about Jonah's fleeing from God in the beginning. He knew God would forgive them if they repented, but Jonah hated the Assyrians so much he didn't want to even give them the chance to repent.
Why did he hate them? The Assyrians were a dominant world power during this time and had even defeated Israel in a few battles and exacted tribute from Israel. Assyria wasn't just a non-hostile Gentile nation. It was an active enemy of Israel.
So Jonah goes out of the city to pout and see if maybe God will destroy them. It is hot so God causes a plant to grow and give Jonah shade. The text says Jonah was “extremely happy about the plant.” Then, when the plant withers, Jonah wants to die. Doesn't it seem a little odd that Jonah would be so happy about the plant and so distraught over a plant’s death? I think the author is trying to make a point to us about how Jonah is all mixed up in his priorities.
God's question brings the point home. If Jonah is so upset about the death of a plant, which he didn't even plant, How much more should God be concerned about the death of human beings.
(1) We learn about the character of God.
(2) We see his omnipotence as he controls the wind, the sea, the fish and the plant. And all of his power is directed toward a single goal - the reclamation of sinful humans - both Jonah and the Ninevites. (Chisholm, Interpreting The Minor Prophets, p. 129)
(3) We see his love and compassion as he gives Jonah a second chance and as he forgives the Ninevites.
(4) We see that God answers prayer. He answered the sailors' prayers, Jonah's prayer and the Ninevites' prayers.
(5) I think it ironic that God would spare the Assyrians so that they could destroy the Northern kingdom of Israel only a few decades later.
(6) I think this book shows that Jonah knew a lot about God. He presumed on God's grace and assumed his deliverance while still in the fish. He knew God was compassionate and gracious and would not destroy the Assyrians if they repented. So, although Jonah knew about God, he did not want to obey him. It could even be said that Jonah disobeyed in the name of justice. (Chisholm, Interpreting The Minor Prophets, p. 130) The Assyrians certainly had committed enough atrocities that they deserved judgment, and Jonah wanted them to get their due. But he was ignoring the sovereignty of God and disobeying God. He also was displaying a double standard. He was forgetting that Israel had been forgiven many times for her sins and that he himself had just been forgiven for his disobedience. He was a walking contradiction. I think we need to be careful that we do not fall into the same trap.
Jonah and the law of love:
I think Jonah gives us a negative illustration of love. I see Jonah as a good example of how we tend to judge others and consider ourselves to be better than others. I mentioned at the beginning of the series that the prophets were more concerned about the present failings of the people to follow the law than with future predictions. Jonah’s life illustrates this failure. Jesus summed up the whole law in one phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jonah definitely illustrates not loving one’s neighbor. Loving involves forgiveness. Jonah would not forgive the Assyrians for their evil. Instead, he clung with pride to his heritage as a Jew, the chosen people of God, and he condemned the Assyrians. I think Jonah mistakenly thought that he deserved the favor of God. I think his prayer in chapter 2 demonstrates that. He called on God for deliverance without repenting of his evil. Why did God choose Israel? Because they were the biggest nation? Because they were more spiritual than the rest? No. He chose them out of grace. If you read Eze 16, you will see a good description of what Israel was like and what God did for them. It also describes how they became proud and forsook God. They certainly did not deserve the special relationship with God.
Jonah forgot that. If he had recognized his evil, he would have seen that he was just as bad as the Ninevites. This reminds me of the parable of the unforgiving servant, who was forgiven an enormous debt by the king. He in turn refused to forgive a fellow slave a small debt. When the king found out, the unforgiving servant was handed over to the torturers until he could repay the debt. I think God was torturing Jonah to try to make him see his evil, so he would repent and so he would recognize that he was no better than the Assyrians. He should have forgiven them and gone to help them. The message of the unforgiving servant is that we should forgive, because we have been forgiven. Jonah was forgiven and delivered from the fish, but he did not see it that way.
When I read Larry Crabb and Dan Allender’s books, they say that love means moving into another person’s life to build them up, to help them see their evil so they will repent. It usually involves sacrifice on our part and forgiveness for the harm they do to us. I see Jonah as failing to do this. He failed to forgive and therefore was unwilling to move toward the Ninevites to help them see their evil so they could repent and have a relationship with God. He failed to love.
For more info on Jonah, check out http://www.isidore-of-seville.com/jonah/jonah.html