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4. Jonah

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The Book of Jonah

Authorship. The only reference to Jonah in a historical context is found in 2 Kings 14:25 where Jonah prophesies the restoration of Israel’s borders. This places the prophet in the eighth century. However, the Book of Jonah is presented in a “non-historical” setting. Certainly the book is historical and the events historical, but their presentation demands a question as to the purpose of the book. I am setting out these theses in the form of sermons I preached in Irving TX several years ago.

“Thesis #1: The Gospel Belongs in the Market Place”

This opening sermon on a series in the Book of Jonah is designed to encourage believers to look beyond the limiting horizons of our present situation to God’s design for the world. It is also designed to challenge believers to become involved in personal evangelism and foreign missions.

The Dallas Morning News of January 15, 1992 had four major religious news stories. Even though three were from the religious section, this many columns devoted to religion and much of it to the evangelical faith indicates a high degree of interest in the subject. We are told by various polling services that a very large number of people claim to be “born again.” Church attendance continues to be higher in the US than perhaps any other country. Here in Dallas alone, we boast of two seminaries which combined make up probably the largest seminary student body in the world. We have a large number of Bible churches and others who identify themselves as evangelical. Surely, one might legitimately ask, with this number of people claiming to be Christians, there will be a large impact on the life style of an urban area. What we see instead is a rising tide of violence, an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease (usually biblically illicit sexual activity), and hatred and bitterness between peoples. Both newspapers and television feature ads and columns pertaining to psychics and astrologers. Furthermore, the conduct of those who claim to be Christians does not seem to be much different from that of those who do not so claim. It is surely symptomatic that several leaders of the “Bible believing” movement have come under intense criticism for conduct that is either outright immoral or at least unexpected of those who claim to be following the lowly Jesus.

Evangelical Christians are increasingly finding themselves a subculture. Like other religious subcultures, the primary goal is to maintain the status quo. We develop mores and practices which we share in common with other evangelical groups and with which we are very comfortable. I attended one of the most “high tech” and professional Christmas cantatas in California three years ago I have ever seen. One had to have tickets even to get into the performance, it was so popular. It was very entertaining, and while I am sure it had an evangelistic purpose, I came away wondering what kind of an impact it ultimately had. I attended a “Fourth of July” program at a Christian retreat center some years ago that left me feeling entertained, but very spiritually empty. As Greek Orthodox people tend to want to preserve their traditions and are not interested in turning others into Greek Orthodox (just to take one example), so Evangelicals are increasingly working “in house” rather than making an impact on the pagan community around them.

It is with this situation in mind that I want us to approach the book of Jonah. Because Jonah is such a striking story, it is easy to get caught up in the story line and overlook the purpose of the book. The account of Jonah’s call and disobedience is unparalleled in the OT. No other prophet is called to go to a foreign city. No other prophet disobeys by taking a ship to the Phoenician west. No other prophet encounters an experience with sailors that results in his being thrown into the sea. And above all, no other prophet was swallowed by a great fish and subsequently was vomited up to the shore. In fine, the story is unique.

But why did God put this story in the canon? Was it to teach that disobedience suffers punishment? Was it to teach that God is able to create great things? Was it to teach missionary principles? Certainly, the historical aspects are very important, but these are obviously not the reason the book was written. I believe that the concept of God’s compassion on the pagan world is the theme of the book. This shows the universalistic theology of the Jews, but it also indicates a reluctant reception of that theology on the part of some.

The book of Jonah is also unique among the OT books. We believe it should be taken as an historical account: that Jonah was indeed a prophet; that he was swallowed by a large fish; and that he preached to the historical city of Nineveh. Nonetheless, the account is given in marvelous story telling fashion, containing literary devices to make the point of the message even sharper.

What can we know about the historical context of the book of Jonah? There is nothing internal to tell us anything about dates. We know that Nineveh as the capital of Assyria dominated the area of Syria and Palestine off and on from 900-600 B.C. We know that they were a powerful and cruel people. They showed no mercy (an important word in Jonah) to those they conquered and even less to those who rebelled against them after they had taken an oath of allegiance to the Assyrians. But into what period does Jonah fit?

During the ninth century B.C., Israel had suffered terribly at the hands of the Syrians or Arameans. Their army was reduced to virtually nothing. We read in 2 Kings 13:7, “For he left to Jehoahaz of the army not more than fifty horsemen and ten chariots and 10,000 footmen, for the king of Aram had destroyed them and made them like the dust at threshing.” But God had mercy on them and 2 Kings 14:25 tells us that God allowed Israel and Judah to restore their borders to the same extent as that in the days of Solomon. This was prophesied, says the author of Kings, by Jonah ben Amittai from Gath Hepher. The kings of Israel and Judah during this time were Jeroboam II and Uzziah (Amaziah). We know that these two kings had long contemporaneous rules early in the eighth century. Thus we can place Jonah’s time in this period, but we cannot pinpoint it in the fifty year era involved. He had to be early in Uzziah, Jotham’s rule because he prophesied the expansion.

What was happening in Assyria during this time? We know that an Assyrian ruler (Adad Nirari III) had come west and defeated the Syrians. This of course took pressure off Israel and Judah and allowed them to rise from their previous century of decline. After this, however, the Assyrians themselves, under the pressure of mountain invaders and internal disasters, also declined. This decline was so serious that the Simon Cohen says “Assyria lay nearly prostrate before its northern foe; it was impoverished and dispirited. Well might a prophet be believed who would proclaim: ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” (HUCA 36 [1965] 158). There are other contacts which caused Jonah’s message to be received which we will take up later.

The Jews of the OT much as the Jews of our time considered themselves a unique people with little or no spiritual obligation to those around them. Proselytes came to Judaism, but they were seldom sought. In a recent Public Television program on intermarriage among Jews, one rabbi said quite explicitly, we are not interested in converting people to Judaism. They are interested in preserving their ethnic (and for some, religious) purity. In the second part of Isaiah are some of the loftiest and most sublime statements of the Lord’s concern for all people, but it probably never filtered down very far. The book of Jonah, therefore, is a statement made through the wonderful medium of the story of Jonah of God’s compassion even of a pagan people like the Ninevites who were enemies of the Jews. Jonah’s reluctance to bring that message mirrors the Israelites’ equally stubborn disinterest in the relation of the Assyrians to God. My hope is that we as believers will be challenged anew by the book of Jonah to show compassion on the pagan world around us—not just in theory but in consecrated practice. I plan to use the book as a springboard for discussion about the mission of the church in the world, and over the next few weeks to interact with some of the ideas of the book in that direction.

Jonah the prophet encounters two pagan groups: the Phoenicians in chapter 1 and the Assyrians in chapter 3. We will discover a number of similarities between the two encounters. For today, I want us to go through chapter 1 to see the issues confronting Jonah and us as God seeks to reach a lost world through those who own him as lord.

1. Jonah was given a very clear commission. The church likewise has a mandate: to preach the good news and to disciple. Everything else the church does is secondary, but this is clearly and unequivocally stated in the Bible. We have no more choice in the matter than Jonah had.

2. Jonah tried to flee from the Lord’s presence (milpene Yahweh מִלְפְּנֵי יהוה). This phrase occurs twice. It means at least to leave the land of Israel and the temple where God would address him directly. In 2:4 he says “I have been expelled from Thy sight” (nigrashti mineged ‘eneka נִגְרַשְׁתִּי מִנֶגֶד עֵינֶיךָ). This is a deliberate effort to escape his responsibility. Dare we hide from God in a “sub cultural enclave” and miss what God has ordered us to do?

3. The name of God revealed to Israel (Yahweh) appears 12 times in chapter 1. This personal name representing God’s covenant relationship with his people was unknown outside Israel. The Phoenician sailors worshipped many Gods. Baal was only one name they called upon. Jonah had the name of God to reveal. God in our time has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. It is through his name that we have access to God, and it is that name we are to preach to a needy world.

4. The Phoenician sailors were in desperate need. The world in which we live could not be more desperate. Jonah was not even conscious of their need, let alone concerned. He went below and fell into a “deep sleep” of no concern.

5. God forced Jonah’s hand both with the Phoenicians and with the Assyrians. He bore clear testimony to both groups with marvelous results. Joe Mellon in France said to me, “Everyone talks about the French people being agnostic, but I am able to talk with them freely every day and they listen and interact with me.” May God do whatever He must do to get us more involved in this glorious task of reaching the world of Texas and the world beyond.

“Thesis #2: ‘The Great City’ is the Target of God’s Program”

I grew up in a little hollow in West Virginia called Riffle Run. There were no more than a dozen families who lived along the two branches of the creek. We walked to our one room country school with a population of around 20. We walked to church with a similar population. Town was three miles away, which meant a six mile walk if we needed something from the grocery store or walked home from high school. We had hills all around us. We could climb the rock-faced mountains, explore caves, trap fur, fish and swim in the Little Kanawha River—in fine, it was a glorious experience growing up in the country. Cities then and now were disdained. Only those who grew up in the Big Apple or the Windy City enjoy the taste. We tend to speak of San Francisco, LA, Chicago and above all New York as awful places which we would be better off without. We don’t like cities.

The vast majority of early missionaries were from rural areas in this country. It was unusual to meet a missionary from a large city. Consequently, they tended to go to rural areas when they went to Africa, South America or India. The twentieth century, however, has thrust the populations of the world into cities. From Nairobi, Kenya to Mexico City, innumerable multitudes have crowded into cities little prepared to handle the influx. Poverty, crime and family disintegration have replaced the quiet stability of the rural areas from which these people come. The poor of Rio de Janeiro build flimsy huts up the side of the mountain of the Christ of the Corcovado, a tourist attraction, and when the rains come, their “houses” are washed down the side of the mountain. Mexico City may be the largest city in the world with 18,535,000 in 1978. The annual growth rate at that time was said to be 2.9%. At that rate there would now be 26,877,000 in that vast city.

The Book of Jonah was not written to tell us about urbanization of the world, nor about strategies for reaching those vast urban areas, but it does say something about the great city of Nineveh and says it in such a way as to draw attention to it. I want us to look at the four occurrences of this phrase to see whether they are instructive for us.

Nineveh, that great city, was wicked (1:1).

There are numerous occurrences of the word “great” in Jonah: 1:1,4, 4,10,12,15; 2:1, 3:2,3; 4:1,7,11. Only “great city” has the definite article. God has singled out this city to give it emphasis, and as we read the book, we must ask why that emphasis was placed there.

Cities are “great” because of the civilization there. City, citizen, and civilization are from the same Latin root. Art, music and education flourish in a city. Unfortunately, these same things tend to have the seed of destruction within them, because the leisure to follow such pursuits tends to self-indulgence and sin. Then judgment must follow. Gen. 18:20-21 speaks of the end result of Sodom and Gomorrah’s civilization and the judgment that came upon it.

Cities are “great” because of the sheer number of people there to be reached. The ministry of missionaries is essentially the same in Sao Paulo, Brazil as it is in the States. Vast numbers of people are to be reached in the city dwellings. David and Jerrine Berkey will be working with the large numbers of apartment dwellers and others in Caracas. Paul’s great desire to go to Asia (and Ephesus in particular) was no doubt because of the size.

Cities are “great” because they become a “melting pot” of peoples and nationalities. People can be reached when they are out of their rural culture and brought to the cities where their horizons are pushed back. They thereby become more open to new ideas, including the Gospel.

Nineveh was a “great city” because God wanted his message to be proclaimed to it.

It is important to note the difference between 1:2 and 3:2. “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and cry against it (1:1), but “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry out to it” (3:2). There is only one letter difference in the Hebrew, but the difference is great. Chapter 1:2 is judgmental “against it” (‘aleha עָלֶיהָ); 3:2 is gracious “to it” (’eleha אֵלֶיהָ). Before judging the city, God gave it an opportunity to repent.

We are not in a large city in terms of today’s standards. However, we are in a city and in a metroplex. The international character of Dallas is outstanding. The Hispanic population is large and the black community is fairly large. “Little Asia” is also significant. We dare not turn our backs on a city to which God has sent us to proclaim a message. Our Tarshish may be our little building on Texas Street. Our vision must include reaching out to a city that ranges from Los Colinas to south Irving.

Nineveh was a great city because it belonged to God (3:2)

The phrase “exceedingly” in 3:2 is literally “to” or “for God.” Because the word for God in Hebrew has to do with might or power, it is sometimes used to modify a noun. This is how the NASB has taken it. It could also mean the city was great “to or for the gods,” that is the gods of Assyria, and would refer to the many temples and deities in the city. However, I believe the literal translation is the better one: the city of Nineveh belonged to God. The three days’ journey describes the physical size (some 1800 acres), but the book of Jonah is talking about more than physical greatness. This city belonged to God.

Could we have a vision that Irving belongs to God? Indeed it as any city is full of rebellion against the holy God, but he loves it none the less, and wants us to share in that love. May he help us go a “day’s journey” and proclaim that love.

Nineveh was a great city because it was full of people in great spiritual need (4:11)

Jesus was moved with compassion when he saw the multitude because they were as sheep having no shepherd. God’s compassion was evident over this city, but Jonah was unwilling to participate in that compassion. He was willing to preach a message of judgment, but not one of salvation. It is easy to hate criminals, perverts, and violent people, but God’s message is one of grace to just such people. Those closest to God’s heart share his love for such people.

“Thesis #3: The Message is Everything”

The word “call” is very important in the English language. My dictionary has 15 meanings for the verb, 15 for the noun and another 13 when it is used with other words such as “call in, up, out, etc.’ NASB has translated this word in Jonah with “cry,” “call,” and “proclaim.” The use of this word in Jonah includes proclamation of a message. We also have something to say to our society and we must say it clearly.

Pagan condemnation (1:2)

God has made it clear that the world system in which we live is hostile to God and vice versa. John 15:18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” As a result, God has judged the world: “He has appointed a day in which he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31). This situation means that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). But God has redeemed us from this world system: “Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:4). Redeemed people are admonished to recognize this situation and avoid entanglement with the world (1 John 2:15-17). Have we become too friendly with that which God hates? When Christians are falling right and left to adultery, divorce, sexual immorality, lying, and cheating, is it any wonder the Church is weak? Jonah was to deliver a message of condemnation against a wicked city.

Pagan compassion (3:2)

We have already indicated the difference in prepositions in 1:2 and 3:2 (“against,” “to”). There is a slight nuance here that I believe indicates a change of emphasis. In spite of God’s promise of judgment against Nineveh, He promises compassion if the city repents. God says the same thing through Jeremiah in the famous potter chapter (18). The only hope for the desperation felt in this world is “that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . .” The same compassion awaits you. “For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

Pagan religion (2:5,6; 3:5)

The problem with the world is not the lack of religion, but too much religion. Jerusalem is full of black robed Christian priests, orthodox Jews, and white robed Muslims, yet hatred and injustice are the rule of the day. In Jonah’s day the religious attitude of the Phoenicians is illustrated in their prayers of desperation (ch 1). Likewise, the Assyrians called a fast as part of their effort to avoid the judgment proclaimed by Jonah. There is plenty of religion today, but the truth of the gospel of simple faith in Christ’s redemptive work must be preached and believed.

Pagan repentance (1:14,16; 3:8)

The nature of this repentance is not clear; nor is the long term result. However, there was a response to the preaching of the message. Large numbers of people are coming to the Lord in Eastern Europe and Africa. We must not grow discouraged with the proclamation. It is God’s responsibility to deal with results. We should use all available means to get out the Word.

Personal conviction (2:3; 4:4)

Jonah had to accept God’s purposes in the world. This learning experience was thrust upon him by his presence in the fish. This psalm of Jonah is a collage of theological ideas from the Psalms (which Jonah had no doubt memorized). By calling out to God in the midst of affliction, he came to conviction of the person of God. As a result, he was able to call out the message God gave him (4:4) with conviction. Likewise, we need to have solid conviction of our relationship with God in order to have conviction about our preaching. What does it mean to have the “call” of God in our lives?

“Thesis #4: The Content of the Message is Everything”

We live in an ecumenical age in which it is popular to reduce our messages to the least common denominator. It is not happily accepted when we insist on the uniqueness of Christianity. Jonah had to stand for the truth in a time of hostility. We need to examine the message we proclaim and make sure we do not dilute it.

Our God is the great creator (Jonah 1:9)

Jonah’s confession exalted God as the God of the universe. Pagan religion held to local gods. When one left the territory of one god, he sought out the god of the next territory. The king of Syria miscalculated when he believed that Yahweh was the God of the mountains or the God of the valleys (1 Kings 20:23). The idea of only one God, who controlled the elements because He had created them was foreign to the pagan world. When Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, the issue was “who can bring rain.” Elijah argued that only Yahweh, not the storm god, Baal, could bring rain—and He did.

“I am a Hebrew,” he confessed, and as such acknowledged that he was a member of the people of God—chosen by God to be a witness of God’s grace in that choosing. He goes on to say, “I fear Yahweh Elohim of Heaven,” the one who revealed himself to Moses as Yahweh, the covenant keeping God, but also the powerful God who is able to execute all His will. Furthermore, he does not dwell in tents or temples, nor is he carried about as a talisman; He dwells in Heaven.

This God “made the sea and the dry land.” The Canaanites (of whom the Phoenicians were a part), worshipped many gods, including Yam (the Sea) and Baal (the god of fertility). Jonah is confessing that his God is the creator of all. We read in Exodus 20:11 that in six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth. Nehemiah 9:6 has become a creedal statement: “Thou alone art the Lord. Thou hast made the heavens, the heaven of heavens with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. Thou doest give life to all of them. And the heavenly host bows down before Thee.” This creatorship is assigned to Jesus in John 1 and in Mark 4:41, the disciples say, “Even the wind and the sea obey him.” The creedal statement of Nehemiah becomes a bulwark in times of adversity for the disciples (Acts 4:24). Our faith in God’s authority and power, demonstrated through creating and sustaining the world provides us with confidence in the shifting circumstances of our time and gives us courage.

This God is also sovereign (Jonah 1:14). The Phoenician sailors call upon Jonah’s God, even calling Him Yahweh. Just before tossing Jonah overboard they pray, “Do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for Thou, O Lord has done as thou pleased.” These pagans recognized that God the creator had caused the seas to be roiled as a punishment of Jonah, and they recognized that He had every right to do so. Can we accept God’s work in our lives and in the world around us? Can we accept the wonderful teaching of Romans 8:28-30?

Our God is just (Jonah 3:4)

1. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”—Nineveh was a wicked city and had to be judged.

The Assyrians, like all people in the ancient east, were idolaters with all that implies. They especially worshipped the astral deities (sun, moon, and stars). While not atypical, they were a cruel people. The pictures of the siege of Lachish on the walls of Ashurbanipal’s palace depict extremely cruel acts against the Jews of that city. Consequently, the God of love must deal with them. His love is not maudlin; his love is disciplined and firm. It will not tolerate rebellion.

2. Judgment must come upon the whole world—John 3:16-21.

Jesus makes it clear that the judgment of God must come upon the world of unbelief. In our post-modern age, it is not politically correct to talk about particularism in faith, but the alternative to faith in Christ for eternal redemption is eternal judgment. Our hearts need to be moved with compassion as we see the vast multitudes of people roaming through life as sheep without a shepherd. In this post 9-11 atmosphere, it is easy to hate. May God give us love!

Our God is gracious (Jonah 3:10)

1. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

The pagan deities of the ancient world were harsh and unforgiving. They were also capricious and unpredictable. Consequently, people lived in fear of them. The God of Israel, however, is a consistent God. He hates sin, but he loves the sinner. One gets the feeling that the God of Islam, while referred to as the all compassionate one, is nonetheless harsh and unforgiving.

2. Willingness to receive God’s grace brings forgiveness.

God’s predictability is shown also in his willingness to forgive. Like the father of the prodigal son, the father is always waiting with open arms. Just as the older brother could not comprehend such grace, so much of the world today cannot comprehend the grace of God that the worst sinner can be forgiven.

3. Even promised judgment can be averted by repentance.

God’s message through Jonah is much like that of Jeremiah. Even if God has predicted judgment on a people or a nation, if that nation will repent, God will change His mind. It is not possible to comprehend the enigma of this action. Philosophically it is a contradiction, but with God it is not. He will open his heart even after pronouncing judgment if the people will only repent. Jonah could not comprehend such grace. Neither could Israel as a people.

“Thesis #5: The Message Will Have an Impact (Jonah 1 and 3)”

The generation prior to Jonah found the Israelites in the North prostrate before the Arameans or Syrians (2 Kings 13:1-7). Relief for both Israel and Judah came when the great Assyrian general Adad-Nirari III defeated the Arameans at Damascus in 805 B.C. This allowed Israel and Judah to expand their territories in an unprecedented way. (Jonah prophesied this expansion, 2 Kings 14:23-25). This was early in the 8th century (Jeroboam II, 793-753 B.C.). The Assyrians, however, declined rapidly after Adad-Nirari III. From 782-745 (the time of Jonah) they were in serious trouble. The people from Mt. Ararat defeated the Assyrians. Their western colonies revolted. There were revolts against the king in the Assyrian cities themselves. The country was left an impoverished and disordered land with restricted borders. A now prosperous country (Israel) has a message of the one true god (Yahweh) and a prophet to preach it (Jonah) to a now desperate international power. Is there an analogy today? Impotent Assyria is comparable to impotent Russia and Eastern Europe. The Christians in the United States have a message of salvation and hope. We also have the personnel to take it? Will we respond like Jonah or will we have a vision of the grace of God for the whole world?

The tendency of the evangelical church today is to become insular. We are developing a sub culture of schools, churches, and societies that effectively cut us off from the market place. God calls upon the church to be salt and light and that include the requirement to reach out to the lost in our own country and cross culturally.

The Phoenicians repented (1:6)

They feared. This word includes the semantic range of awe and worship. They were absolutely convinced of the existence of Yahweh the God of Israel and of His ability to control all the forces of nature. This kind of fear always produces a response.

They offered sacrifices. The Old Testament system required animal sacrifice as a symbol of devotion and reverence. It was substitutionary as well as symbolic. The physical gesture of sacrificing indicated the level of their faith in the God of Israel.

They made vows. Making vows was an evidence of the depth of the devotion to God. They no doubt involved promises to do certain things when they returned to dry land. We often scoff at “fox hole conversions,” but they are often times genuine.

Desperation led to a response. It is unfortunate that the state of the human condition often requires us to be brought to the point of desperation prior to our willingness to humble ourselves before God. Naaman, for example, had to have leprosy before coming to the God of Israel (2 Kings 5). Faced with the inevitability of death, the Phoenicians repented. Perhaps as our world is hurtling toward self-destruction, we may see repentance in our time.

The Ninevites repented (3:7-9)

The King of Nineveh was sufficiently astute to recognize an opportunity when he saw it. Devastation was being predicted by Jonah, and the king was determined to avert it. He thus decreed a series of actions. He first proclaimed a fast of both food and water. Then he required that all (humans and animals) wear sackcloth, a sign of mourning and repentance. Thirdly, they were ordered to call on God. This would no doubt be understood by most to refer to Assyrian gods, but the king may well be referring to Jonah’s God, Yahweh, the God of Israel. Finally, he orders all to “turn from their wicked way and from the violence in their hands.”

The hurts of the world are so profound that it is difficult for us to even think about them. The suffering in Darfur, for example, is overwhelming to our sensitivities. We feel we must look away. The violence in our cities as well as in our suburbs is so frightening, that we would rather pretend it does not exist. All the efforts of the UN, however well intentioned, will not solve the problems of violence, hatred, and disfunctionality that characterizes the world in which we live. Only the Gospel will change that.

What is our responsibility?

The old three-fold opportunity still presents itself. Christians should be Praying (2 Thes. 3:1-2), Giving (3 John 5-8), and Going (2 Kings 7). These three are not necessarily separate. You may be required by God to do all three. Are you willing?

“Thesis #6: Jonah the Worm vs. God’s Compassion”

“Compassion” means to feel similarly to someone else. Lack of compassion is illustrated by the way criminals can shoot people and feel no remorse. A major characteristic of God throughout the OT is that he is compassionate. Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s intercession. A delightful line in the movie Yentl occurs when her father closes the blinds lest the neighbors see a woman reading the Talmud. (God understands more than the neighbors.) Often times we are less compassionate than God. On the other hand God is not compassionate unless there is repentance.

God changed his mind when he saw repentance (3:10)

A century after Jonah, God revealed himself through Jeremiah to Israel as a compassionate God. (Jeremiah 18). As a matter of fact, He is bold to say that even if he has determined judgment against His people, if they will repent, He will change His mind. There is much discussion today about what these two passages mean theologically. Does the immutable God actually change? Or is this merely an anthropomorphism (accommodation of God’s thinking to man’s). From a missiological point of view, it does not matter: God is a compassionate God, and He will forgive those who have genuinely repented even if they deserve judgment.

Jonah Resented God’s Compassion (4:2)

It may seem strange that Jonah was unhappy that God wanted to forgive the Assyrians until we remember what an enemy Assyria was to Israel. They were a vicious and violent people (as were most nations in those days). The Jewish people hated, loathed, and feared them.

He tried to stop it by fleeing (ch. 1). Perhaps he feared God would leave him looking foolish by changing his mind. Subordinates never like it when their superior overturns their decision to deal harshly with a customer!

He knew that God was compassionate (Exod. 20:6). God is truly compassionate, and that has been his revealed characteristic from the beginning. He delights in showing mercy to thousands—when those thousands have chosen to obey Him.

He knew that God changed his mind about calamity as judgment (4:2). This theology is the same mentioned above in Jeremiah 18. God will change His mind if people will only repent. Jonah knew this and resented it in the case of the Ninevites. May God give us His mind concerning our enemies! May he encourage us to love our Moslem neighbors in spite of the hostility that religion shows to Christianity.

He wanted to die (4:3). This is a cry of self-pity and echoes Elijah’s moan years earlier when he was fleeing Jezebel (1 Kings 19:4). However, God kept Jonah alive in the whale, and He would keep him alive in Nineveh. He has a job to do.

God chided him (4:4). God delightfully interacts with Jonah by asking him a question. “Is this kind of attitude justifiable”? The answer is obvious to all but Jonah who will continue to protest to the end. “O would the gift that God would give us to see ourselves as others see us.”

Jonah and the Worm Serve the Same Function (4:5-11)

God made a shade (His mercy) to protect Jonah from his discomfort (calamity or evil mera‘atho מֵרָעָתוֹ) (4:6) See my discussion below on the literary uses of ra‘ah (רָעָה The little bush gave a measure of respite in a part of the world that becomes unbearably hot. Jonah appreciated that compassion on God’s part but resented His compassion in the larger arena of sin and forgiveness. Jonah’s discomfort is a micro example of the spiritual “discomfort” the Assyrians had.

To dramatize His parable, God made a worm to attack the tree. The bush represents God’s compassion on the Assyrians. The worm represents Jonah who attacks God’s compassion. The worm does turn. Who would have thought that Jonah would be the worm, but he is. To fight against God’s compassion is to be a worm indeed.

Then God made an east wind to beat on Jonah (4:8). Not only is there scorching heat, now the fiercely hot east wind blows unrelentingly on his head. The wind represents God’s judgment. The bush protected Jonah from the judgment, but now the worm has destroyed the bush. So God wants Jonah to feel the pressure he in turn wanted applied to the Assyrians.

Jonah pled to die (4:8). Once again Jonah falls into his self-pity. He begs God to let him die. He believes the judgment (east wind) is so harsh, that his only option is to die. Is he beginning to get the message?

God chided him (4:9-11). Once more God gently asks Jonah if his attitude is appropriate and Jonah insists that it is. Well, says God, if you are upset over the loss of one little bush (you had compassion it), why should I not be upset over the loss of a great city full of people who are groping spiritually.

And so the story ends—or does it? The message of Jonah is both universal and timeless. The only question is whether we will be upset over a bush or a city full of people.

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From Sasson, Jonah in Anchor Bible, p. 317 (word count is from the Hebrew text).

A Jonah’s monologue—39 words (vv. 2-3)

B God’s query (unanswered)—3 words (v. 4)

B’ Jonah’s query (sotto voice) — 3 words (v. 8)

C Dialogue: God— 5 words (v. 9)

C’ Dialogue: Jonah—5 words

A’ God’s monologue—39 words (vv. 10-11)

וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֙ל וַיֵּ֥רַע אֶל־יוֹנָ֖ה רָעָ֣ה גְדוֹלָ֑ה וַיִּ֖חַר לֽוֹ׃ WTT Jonah 4:1

אֶל־יְהוָ֜ה וַיֹּאמַ֗ר

Jonahs monologue 93 words

אָנָּ֤ה יְהוָה֙ הֲלוֹא־זֶ֣ה דְבָרִ֗י עַד־הֱיוֹתִי֙

עַל־אַדְמָתִ֔י עַל־כֵּ֥ן קִדַּ֖מְתִּי לִבְרֹ֣חַ תַּרְשִׁ֑ישָׁה כִּ֣י יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּ֤י

אַתָּה֙ אֵֽל־חַנּ֣וּן וְרַח֔וּם אֶ֤רֶךְ אַפַּיִ֙ם֙ וְרַב־חֶ֔סֶד וְנִחָ֖ם

וְעַתָּ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה קַח־נָ֥א אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י מִמֶּ֑נִּי כִּ֛י ט֥וֹב עַל־הָרָעָֽה׃

מוֹתִ֖י מֵחַיָּֽי׃ ס

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה 4

Gods query 3 words

הַהֵיטֵ֖ב חָ֥רָה לָֽךְ׃

 

וַיֵּצֵ֤א יוֹנָה֙ 5

מִן־הָעִ֔יר וַיֵּ֖שֶׁב מִקֶּ֣דֶם לָעִ֑יר וַיַּעַשׂ֩ ל֙וֹ שָׁ֜ם סֻכָּ֗ה וַיֵּ֤שֶׁב

וַיְמַ֣ן 6 תַּחְתֶּי֙הָ֙ בַּצֵּ֔ל עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִרְאֶ֔ה מַה־יִּהְיֶ֖ה בָּעִֽיר׃

יְהוָֽה־אֱ֠לֹהִים קִיקָי֞וֹן וַיַּ֣עַל׀ מֵעַ֣ל לְיוֹנָ֗ה לִֽהְי֥וֹת צֵל֙

עַל־רֹאשׁ֔וֹ לְהַצִּ֥יל ל֖וֹ מֵרָֽעָת֑וֹ וַיִּשְׂמַ֥ח יוֹנָ֛ה עַל־הַקִּֽיקָי֖וֹן

וַיְמַ֤ן הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ תּוֹלַ֔עַת בַּעֲל֥וֹת הַשַּׁ֖חַר  7 שִׂמְחָ֥ה גְדוֹלָֽה׃

לַֽמָּחֳרָ֑ת וַתַּ֥ךְ אֶת־הַקִּֽיקָי֖וֹן וַיִּיבָֽשׁ׃

וַיְהִ֣י׀ כִּזְרֹ֣חַ הַשֶּׁ֗מֶשׁ וַיְמַ֙ן 8

אֱלֹהִ֜ים ר֤וּחַ קָדִים֙ חֲרִישִׁ֔ית וַתַּ֥ךְ הַשֶּׁ֛מֶשׁ עַל־רֹ֥אשׁ יוֹנָ֖ה

וַיִּתְעַלָּ֑ף וַיִּשְׁאַ֤ל אֶת־נַפְשׁוֹ֙ לָמ֔וּת וַיֹּ֕אמֶר

Jonahs query (sotto voice) 3 words

ט֥וֹב מוֹתִ֖י מֵחַיָּֽי׃

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־יוֹנָ֔ה 9

Dialogue God 5 words

הַהֵיטֵ֥ב חָרָֽה־לְךָ֖ עַל־הַקִּֽיקָי֑וֹן

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר

Dialogue Jonah 5 words

הֵיטֵ֥ב חָֽרָה־לִ֖י עַד־מָֽוֶת׃

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה 10

Gods monologue 39 words

אַתָּ֥ה חַסְ֙תָּ֙

עַל־הַקִּ֣יקָי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָמַ֥לְתָּ בּ֖וֹ וְלֹ֣א גִדַּלְתּ֑וֹ שֶׁבִּן־לַ֥יְלָה

וַֽאֲנִי֙ לֹ֣א אָח֔וּס עַל־נִינְוֵ֖ה הָעִ֣יר 11 הָיָ֖ה וּבִן־לַ֥יְלָה אָבָֽד׃

הַגְּדוֹלָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֶשׁ־בָּ֡הּ הַרְבֵּה֩ מִֽשְׁתֵּים־עֶשְׂרֵ֙ה רִבּ֜וֹ אָדָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר

לֹֽא־יָדַע֙ בֵּין־יְמִינ֣וֹ לִשְׂמֹאל֔וֹ וּבְהֵמָ֖ה רַבָּֽה׃

Some Literary Aspects in Jonah

Repetitive phrases generally beg for interpretation. Watch for the word “call” (qara קָרָא) “Arise call against Nineveh,” 1:2); “Arise, call on your god,” 1:6; “They called on Yahweh,” 1:14; the word “fear” (yare' יָרֵא) “The sailors were afraid,” 1:5; “I fear Yahweh,” 1:9; “They feared,” 1:10; “They greatly feared Yahweh,” 1:16; and the word “hurled” (hetil הֵטִיל) “Yahweh hurled a storm,” 1:4; “They hurled cargo,” 1:5; “Hurl me overboard,” 1:12; “They hurled him overboard,” 1:15. There are patterns in the book of Jonah around these words.

There are two contacts with the “pagans” in the book: ch. 1 (Phoenicians) and chs. 3-4 (Assyrians). There is a striking parallel in the interaction between Jonah and the two groups. The parallelism can be expressed in the following way.

 

Phoenicians

A

Call against (al ) Nineveh (1:2)—Pagan condemnation

 

B

Call on your god (1:6)—Pagan religion

 

 

C

They called on Yahweh (1:14)—Pagan repentance

 

Jonah

 

 

 

D

I called from my affliction (2:3)—Personal conviction

 

 

 

D

He called within 40 days . . . (4:4)—Personal conviction

 

Assyrians

 

 

C

They called on God (4:8)—Pagan repentance

 

B

They called a fast (3:5)—Pagan religion

A

Call to (el ) Nineveh (3:2)—Pagan compassion

The A, A’ units provide the object of the call. Nineveh is called a great city four times. In 1:2 the word “great” conjures for us its importance as the capital of the Assyrian Empire that dominated the Middle East for about three centuries. Key words are “call,” “against,” “wickedness,” “before me.” Thus A is repeated in A’ with one difference. The Hebrew word for “against” ‘al עַל) is used in 1:2 but the word “to” (’el אֶל) is used in 3:2. A speaks of pagan condemnation: Assyria’s wickedness has “come up before God.” But is there a softening indicated in 3:2? There is often little distinction between these two prepositions in Hebrew (particularly to be observed in Jeremiah), but it may be that the author wants us to recognize a changing in God’s attitude in A’.

The phrase “great city” in 3:2 means the same as it did in 1:1, but the same phrase in 3:3 (“a great city to God”) means something else.1 The ambiguity introduced by the author is displayed in the fact that the city is great to God, taking three days to go through it. Now we have physical as well as metaphorical usage, and that is intended. It is a “great city” in terms of empire and in terms of size, but it is also “great” in spiritual importance to God. Finally, in 4:11 the city is referred to in terms of God’s compassion. The city is full of spiritually unlettered people. Should God not be concerned with it?

Another polysemantic word occurring frequently in Jonah is ra‘ah (רָעָה). Sometimes the word is physical, referring to calamity (e.g., Isa 45:7 “I create ra‘ah”) (1:7, 8; 4:2, 6). At other times it is used metaphorically of “evil” (1:2; 3:8, 10). The failure of God to judge the Ninevites was “evil” to Jonah (4:1). Nineveh is an “evil” city that deserves the “punishment” (ra‘ah) of God. He also sends “calamity” against the sailors in order to punish Jonah for his disobedience.

A genuine paronomasia is found in ch. 4, and therein lies at least one key to the meaning of the book. The purpose of the qiqayon bush was to “ease his discomfort.” Literally this phrase is “to deliver him from his discomfort” (ra‘ah). The qiqayon bush becomes a symbol of grace. As God was going to protect Nineveh upon her repentance, so he was protecting Jonah. Jonah delighted in the bush as God delights in grace. Furthermore, the worm (God’s creation also) quite happily, though obliviously, destroyed the bush (God’s grace to Jonah). Jonah, on the other hand, was a prophet. He should have understood God’s grace. Instead, like the worm, he was willing to destroy the shade of God’s mercy over the Ninevites.

The B, B’ units indicate the religious practices of the pagans. The sailors were praying desperately when their ship was about to be swamped. The ship’s captain demanded of Jonah that he likewise pray to his god. They were not concerned about particularism, they simply wanted deliverance from their angry gods. Likewise, the Assyrians called a fast. Jonah’s era was a period of trying times for the Assyrians.2 Consequently, when Jonah preached, “within 40 days Nineveh will be overturned,”3 they believed in god (note “god” not “Yahweh”). This is a nuance, but one wonders if there is a distinction between the normal turning to pagan deities in sackcloth and a thorough-going repentance of the king’s command.

The C unit of 1:14 says that the Phoenician sailors actually feared Yahweh with a great fear.4 This means that they have accepted Jonah’s confession of faith in Yahweh, the God of Heaven who created the sea and the dry land (1:9). Thus, he claims for Yahweh universal rule and ownership. This is no local deity Jonah worships.5

In the C’ unit, the Assyrians at the King’s command wear sack cloth, fast and above all “turn from their wicked way.”


1All versions say something like “exceedingly great,” but Jack Sasson (Jonah in the Anchor Bible) agrees with me.

2Cohen (S. Cohen, “The Political Background of the Words of Amos,” HUCA 36 (1965) 53-160) says, “Assyria lay nearly prostrate before its northern foe; it was impoverished and dispirited. Well might a prophet be believed who would proclaim: ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’”  He goes on to say, “Although the book is a piece of didactic fiction, it is based on a sound historical reminiscence, for the prophet Jonah ben Amittai (II Kings 14:25) could very well have lived about the time when Nineveh was threatened with capture and destruction.”

3The word “overthrown” (nehpaketh (נֶהְפָּכֶת) is so often used of Sodom and Gomorrah that it is probably designed to evoke that image.

4Elliger in BHS suggests that “Yahweh” (אֶת יהוה) is added, but in light of Jonah’s great confession in 1:9, the object of their fear does not seem misplaced.

5For the Canaanites the deities would be Yam and perhaps Dry Land.

Related Topics: History, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Prophets