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1. Jonah: God’s Mercy to the Nations

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Words to Anchor your Soul

You are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment.

Jonah, speaking of God in Jonah 4:2b (NET)

How familiar are you with anchors? I grew up near the Texas Gulf coast and spent many hours there with my friends riding the waves in inner tubes or on floats. We generally paddled out past the breakers and floated back until we got caught in them; then, we pushed back out and started over. Eventually we found ourselves far from “home,” the area of beach where we began and where all our stuff was. I remember one scary day when a strong storm blew in, pushing us far out and way down the beach very quickly and violently.

The only way to prevent items from floating away with the current is to be attached to the ocean floor by an anchor.

Picture your soul anchored well so that you don’t drift away from God—either slowly by simply letting culture carry you away or quickly because of a brewing storm. Although God’s prophets wrote their messages thousands of years ago, they still speak to us today, warning us when we have drifted from God and calling us back home. Often we are unaware of how far from home we’ve gone.

I’ve personally floated away from God by drifting slowly as well as quickly in a violent personal storm. If God had not hung onto me by his Spirit and the truth of his Word, I would still be adrift today. Even now danger looms if I let go of the anchor and listen to other voices.

As you study the Old Testament, keep in mind that God is the same God he has always been. Although the original audience had a different culture, we can apply the message to today.

Part One Study: Background and Context

To understand the Bible, context is crucial. This section provides background to help you understand what you’ll be reading and journaling about. (If you aren’t familiar with journaling or if that sounds hard, read “Journaling 101” in the Appendix.)


Let’s start by putting the prophetic books into the context of the entire Bible.

The Bible is one big story that connects many shorter stories and other writings. (If you have never studied God’s big story, you may want to download our journaling study The ONE Story at which puts the whole Bible in context—a must to understand it.)

I grew up in a Christian home and a Bible-teaching church. I knew all the major Bible stories and understood that Jesus died for me and loves me. But somehow I never grasped the ONE story behind them that brings all the stories together. So to help those of you who have never really studied the big picture of the Bible, here is a quick summary of the parts of the One Story.

Before people rebelled against the God who made and loved them, creation was perfect. It was a time we call Paradise. The first people lived in harmony and unity without sin, disease, or death in perfect relationships with God and one another. But Paradise didn’t last because they rebelled against the God who made and loved them, marring all their descendants and even all creation. Ruin ensued and is characterized by the hatred, disease, and broken relationships we all experience because we align ourselves with other “gods” instead of the Creator, just as our ancestors did. Although creation has been marred, glimpses of what used to be remains because we are all still made in God’s image although it is now distorted.

Since the Ruin, God has been at work to heal broken lives and relationships by realigning people with himself and his great purposes. Although he constantly seeks the best for people, we go our own way instead of loving God—the core issue in the dysfunction of sin.

The meta-narrative (big story) of the Bible tells us that some time after the Ruin occurred, God reached out to Abraham and his descendants, known as the children of Israel and later called Jews. He designated them as his representatives to the world and the people through whom he would send his ultimate agent of restoration. God blessed the Jews with special revelation so that they could know and worship him and experience right relationships with one another. Despite this honor, God’s chosen people rebelled against him over and over, unwilling to worship him alone. But God’s love is persistent, and he continued reaching out to them through the Old Testament prophets. These people who spoke for God provided encouragement to persevere, warning of God’s judgment, and promises of the future King or Messiah.

Eventually the Promised One came to earth as the man Jesus, one with God the Father and the Spirit, and brought Reconciliation between God and mankind by his own death and resurrection. He heals those who follow him from their brokenness with God and gives them power to restore their relationships with one another. His death made the way for all people who align their lives with him to be restored to God’s original purpose. When Jesus left earth and returned to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to empower and lead the church, which is comprised of all who believe.

Although Reconciliation between humans and God has been made possible, the effects of the Ruin linger. Those who believe in who Jesus is and what he has done for us are now to exhibit a taste of what his kingdom is like to the world around us. This period of time is often called the Already but Not Yet because we enjoy many of the blessings of God’s kingdom, but not its fulness. His kingdom is our real home, and we are aliens in this world. Our loyalty to God alone brings unity among his people.

Thankfully, the story gets even better. Someday Jesus will return and institute a new and perfect world according to all the promises the prophets have spoken. God will fix all that is ruined by sin and recreate paradise. We call this Restoration.

The Minor Prophets

This study’s focus is the books called the Minor Prophets.1 They record the messages of people who spoke for God, known as prophets, as they preached to a world in Ruin in the centuries before Jesus came. Their writing brought God’s people hope of Messiah and a coming Restoration.

All of these prophets lived in the centuries after the Jewish nation was divided into two parts and before Jesus’s birth: Israel in the north (ten tribes) and Judah in the south (two tribes).

Although their messages were initially for a particular people at a specific time long ago, the underlying principles apply to the present time between Reconciliation and the final Restoration, the time of the Already but Not Yet.

We will move somewhat chronologically through the Minor Prophets. The dating comes from clues within the books or educated guesses by scholars. (See the chart “History of Old Testament Israel” in the Appendix section “Understanding the Prophets.”) After studying Jonah, we will work our way through three periods of prophetic messages: the time preceding the Assyrian Exile of the ten tribes called Israel, the period of Babylonian power and exile of the southern two tribes, and the era after the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity.

With each book of prophecy, I’ve added an icon/image representing its message.

The Story of Jonah

Although its date isn’t precise. Jonah’s book is likely the earliest of those that we’ll study. He prophesied in the 8th Century B.C. during the reign of King Jeroboam II, who ruled from 793-753 B.C.2 Jonah is very different from the other Minor Prophets. Instead of recording Jonah’s message, it provides a biographical story of the prophet himself. It won’t take you long to figure out why I’ve chosen an image of a backpack for Jonah.

There has been much controversy about the book’s historicity. Many scholars insist that these events are impossible and interpret it as a parable or allegory. Others insist upon a literal meaning, partly in response to those who criticize it on the basis of human reason. Jonah’s literature is similar to the narratives about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings which are called “prophetic narrative.”

Dr. Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. of Dallas Seminary comments:

Unlike the exodus and the resurrection of Jesus, the historicity of the Book of Jonah is not foundational to redemptive history and the biblical faith. Unfortunately, the debate over the book’s historicity has often distracted interpreters from focusing on its theological message, which is not affected by how one understands the book’s literary genre. Whether the book is labeled historical narrative, legend, parable, or something akin to a historical novella, its themes seem apparent.3

In other words, don’t let your perspective of its historicity prevent you from believing its message. Jesus used stories to teach, and perhaps that is what Jonah did, but God is perfectly capable of bringing these events to pass literally.

Read more background in the Appendix section “Understanding the Prophets”.

*** Search in your Bible for introductory material to the prophets, or use commentaries or resources to discover more about the prophetic books or Jonah specifically.

Journal about this section’s reading, recording your questions or thoughts.

Part Two Study

Now that we have a sense of the historical context for the Minor Prophets and Jonah in particular, let’s dive in. Because it’s Jonah’s story rather than a message from God, it’s a lot easier to understand, and yet, it contains deep truths and timeless principles.

One more background detail that may help you with the story: Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that would eventually conquer Israel, the northern kingdom. At this time the Assyrians were still gaining power and were not yet a direct threat to God’s people.

Read Jonah 1-2, or since it’s a short story, you may want to read it all at once.

*** Read Hebrews 12:5-13 and journal about its relationship to Jonah’s story.

Journal your responses to these questions:

  • In what way do you identify with Jonah’s response to God’s instructing him to go to Nineveh?
  • How do you see God’s sovereignty (his rule) over all things in Jonah’s story so far?
  • What do you learn about God’s worldview that Jonah didn’t embrace?
  • What is God saying to you from this story?

Part Three Study

Begin by asking God to speak. Then review what you’ve already read of Jonah’s story.

Read Jonah 3-4.

*** Tim Keller says that Jonah’s story parallels that of the Prodigal Son in that Jonah is the prodigal in chapters 1 and 2 and the elder brother in 3 and 4.4 Journal your insights.

Journal your thoughts on these topics:

  • The Ninevites’ response to Jonah’s message.
  • Compare Jonah’s sources of anger and happiness in Chapter 4 and what they reveal about you.
  • Ask God to reveal if you have hardened your heart against showing mercy in any way—personally, nationally, or judicially to any people groups. (A few ideas: wealthy, poor, immigrant, uneducated, highly educated, intelligent, unintelligent, Democrat, Republican, Black, White, Asian, etc.) Confess that sin before God and your group.

Jan’s Story

Years ago while I was living in New York, my pastor called me into his office, along with his assistant pastor. He said that the Bible teacher at the Presbyterian Old People’s Home on Long Island was moving away and they needed someone to take her place. Both of them had prayed and God told them I was to be the new teacher. I said that was impossible because I was just learning the Bible, I didn’t have the gift of teaching, and I’d never been around old people as all of my grandparents had died while I was a baby. They told me to go home and pray about it for a week before giving them my answer. I went home and once again fell to my knees sobbing to God about this impossible situation and as I was praying, God changed my heart and gave me a desire to teach this class.

Our four children were all in grammar school, so I drove out there for my first class and told them that I felt like Moses when God told him to lead His people out of Egypt. I told them that I was just learning myself and would have to use the Living Bible. One of the women raised her hand and said that was fine with them. She said that I had a loud, clear voice and that’s what was most important to them. Every Friday, God kept my children healthy for the next three years while I taught. Then my husband was transferred to Houston and on my final day, they gave me a farewell party. Once again I cried all the way home because I would miss all of these grandparents whom God had given to me.

1 The prophets from Hosea through Malachi are called Minor Prophets, not because their messages were minor but because their books are shorter than those of the Major Prophets.

2 Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 406.

3 Chisholm, 408.

4 Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (New York: Viking, 2018), 18-21.

Related Topics: Prophets, Women's Articles

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