Discovering Jonah

Background Information

Though the book of Jonah, the fifth of the minor prophets, is only 48 verses long, it provides one of the most controversial, fascinating, and well-known Old Testament stories. Though it is classified as prophecy, it resembles the content and form of historical narrative literature instead. Yet as historical narrative, it receives a lot of attention from critics who claim it presents a fictional story, similar to other ancient historical myths.

These critics deny the historicity of the book, claiming that the supernatural elements like Jonah surviving three days inside the great fish’s stomach, the sudden start and end to the sea storm, and the sudden start and end to the vine and worm. They claim other historical inaccuracies as well, all of which are not as clear or conclusive as they suggest. Such people will also suggest that this book is either as an allegory, a work of didactic fiction, or something similar.

Such critics only arose, however, beginning in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, evidence for this being an accurate historical account include: (1) the book recognizes actual historical locations and people, (2) its opening verses are written in the same manner and style as other historical writings, and (3) ancient historical figures of repute regarded this book as historical, as well, including early church fathers and Josephus.

The most significant evidence, though, for the historical authenticity of this book is the testimony of Christ himself. He cited Jonah’s three-day stint in the belly of the great fish as a precursor to his own resurrection (Matt 12:40). He also acknowledged the repentance of the Ninevites and their future appearance at God’s judgment of mankind, acknowledging them in tandem with the Queen of Sheba, another historical figure (Luke 11:32).

Though this book is called “Jonah,” we don’t know that Jonah wrote the book which recounts a series of events from his prophetic ministry. Though it is certainly possible for Jonah to have written this book, we can’t say conclusively that he did. We do know, however, that Jonah was indeed a historical figure and a prophet in Israel, since he is acknowledged in 2 Kings 14:25. This OT reference places the events of this book sometime in the eighth century, during the reign of Jeroboam in the northern kingdom and Amaziah and Uzziah in the southern kingdom. Being from Gath-hepher, near Nazareth, he would have been one of the few prophets from the northern kingdom.

Historically speaking, Jonah likely ministered during the reign of Assure-dan III of Assyria. This was a period of military weakness, fear and superstition, and widespread epidemics and death in Assyria. These dynamics made it an ideal time for Jonah to announce a message of divine judgment. Many other details also show fastidious intentionality. The more you read and study this book, the more fascinating details you will notice.

Purpose and Outline

Bible scholars and teachers increasingly recognize the high degree of literary excellence and quality of this book. Chapters 1 and 3, as well as 2 and 4, feature numerous parallel details that show intentional organization and thought. Serious intentionality is also portrayed in the formation and arch of the two significant discourses. Key details such as dry land, fish, sea, storm, and wind appear throughout the first half of the book, while flocks and herds, a plant, the sun, wind, and a worm appear throughout the second half.

A simple outline of this book may be as follows:

  • Jonah’s rejects God’s call (Ch. 1)
  • Jonah’s receives God’s mercy (Ch. 2)
  • Jonah receives God’s call – reluctantly (Ch. 3)
  • Jonah resents God’s deliverance (Ch. 4)

The Message of the Book

Tony is a hard-working, no-name lawyer in LA.

He rescues small business owners from financial ruin. (He’s also a Christian.) One day his secretary informs him that a potential client named Mike is on the line. Mike’s smiling face is plastered on billboards all over the city advertising his car rental agency, renting luxury sedans and world-class sports cars to the rich and famous. According to Tony’s secretary, Mike’s company is on the brink of bankruptcy. This kind of case is Tony’s specialty, his “bread and butter” you might say, so he would normally jump at this call. But there’s one small problem.

Tony and Mike were college roommates. While Tony worked hard to survive, paying his own way through school, Mike was the life of the party. He never studied, stole Toney’s pocket change from the dorm room, cheated his way to the top of their class, graduated with honors, and – worst of all – persuaded Tony’s fiancé to end their engagement and marry him instead. Since then, twenty years had passed and the two had never spoken. Feelings of bitterness and resentment flooded Tony’s mind every time he passed one of Mike’s glitzy billboards. With Mike on the brink of ruin, would Tony pick up the line? Or would he turn the job away and let Mike suffer?

Mary is a newly retired third-generation homeowner.

(She’s also a Christian.) She inherited her house from her parents, who inherited it from her grandparents years before. Her grandparents were one of the first residents to settle in the neighborhood, buying land and building their home by hand. For generations, the community had been a quiet, cozy place to live. Everyone knew each other, spoke the same language, shared the same culture, and voted for the same political party. But times they are changing.

People from outside are slowly moving in and changing the neighborhood culture. (This change has increased rapidly over the past year.) They’re first-generation immigrants from another country, speak a different language, are *not* quiet, have wild, late-night parties, and put up yard signs for candidates of the other political party. For years, Mary enjoyed sitting on her porch swing in the evening, chatting with neighbors and waving to cars passing by. But now she feels angry and doesn’t even want to say hi. She doesn’t like feeling this way, but it’s as though her neighborhood is being stolen away. With Christmas right around the corner, she has a decision to make. Will she take plates of fresh-baked cookies to all the homes on her street, as she had done for years? Or will she give in to her cynical thoughts and quit that tradition once and for all?

Can you feel Tony and Mary’s struggle?

Do you know people who do bad things, promote wrong values, make you feel uncomfortable, and threaten your way of life? We live in a polarized society where feelings of resentment run deep. But when we as God’s people resent the ungodly people around us, we underestimate the greatness of God’s mercy. Of all people, we should be the most merciful of all, and that’s why we need a true story like Jonah. It reminds us to offer God’s mercy to all people, no matter how bad they may be. Let’s walk through this story together and warm our hearts to the difficult and very bad people in our lives.

This story opens with clear instructions from God (1:1-2).

They tell us what he wanted the other main character of the story, Jonah, to do. He told him to go to Nineveh. “That great city” “identifies Nineveh as a well-known city just as one might refer to New York [City] today.”[1] Once he arrived at the city, Jonah was to “cry out against the city” to let the people know that God was taking notice of their wickedness. From what we can tell, this sounds like a message of judgment, doesn’t it? It sounds like, “Your wickedness has gotten so bad that God is going to send some terrible consequences.” So, what was the wickedness of Nineveh?

Nineveh was a major center in the Assyrian Empire that represented the Empire as a whole.

This Empire had a bad reputation that “included idolatry and pride (Isa 10:5-19; 36:18-20), cruel oppression (2 Kgs 15:29; 17:6; Isa 36:16, 17), and especially inhumane warfare.”[2] It was known for extreme brutality.
  • One Assyrian engraving shows King Shalmaneser III in front of three stakes, with the heads of eight enemy soldiers on each one.
  • Another shows him shaking the hand of a prisoner of war whose feet and other hand had been cut off. In the background is another prisoner impaled on a stake with all his hands and feet cut off, and a building decorated with the heads of other soldiers.

They had even taken the lives of some of Jonah’s own people and forced his nation to pay taxes. The Assyrians were the big, bad bullies of the world at that time.[3]
Even so, the Empire had fallen on hard times and was in a weakened position in Jonah’s time.

Military pressure from the north consumed Assyria’s focus and resources.[4] They had also endured a devastating famine and a major solar eclipse had recently spooked them all. These factors caused internal instability and infighting among its major cities, including Nineveh.[5] This bad reputation and the weakened position of Assyria was the backdrop of Yahweh’s assignment for Jonah to call out their wickedness.

Rather than seize this opportunity, Jonah ran the other way (1:3).

But why?  Wouldn’t he have relished the opportunity to announce Assyria’s destruction? Was he scared they might behead him? That he ran away is also surprising because this wasn’t the first time God had given him an assignment. Once he had given him the task of telling his own king, Jeroboam II, that Israel would take back all their land (2 Kgs 14:25).

This was good news, and Jonah had not run away from that mission. Yet he ran away from this one, as fast and as far as possible. Tarshish was somewhere in southern Spain, as far west as he could go, which was a dangerous and expensive journey.[6] But he was determined to get away from “the presence of the Lord,” which means that he was putting in his resignation.[7] He no longer wished to serve as Yahweh’s prophet.

Despite Jonah’s resistance, God’s persistence was more (1:4-16).

So he blew a massive storm onto the sea that nearly sunk the ship. As the sailors panicked and rushed to save their lives, Jonah slept at the bottom of the boat. Does this strike you as odd? It seemed odd to the sailors, especially since he didn’t even ask God to save their lives. This begins to reveal that Jonah’s problem was not being afraid. It was something else. Though God cared deeply about getting his message to Nineveh, Jonah could care less. So the sailors cast lots (which is like rolling dice) to see who was the reason for this storm, and the lots pointed to Jonah.

When they questioned him further, he proudly announced being a Jew who worshiped the God who rules over land and sea, which terrified them even more. He even told them he was running away. Isn’t it strange how we can say we follow God and feel all proud about that, but then we disobey him in our actions and reflect the opposite of his nature?

To solve the sailor’s problem, Jonah finally offered a solution – throw him overboard. Ironically, the pagan sailors had such compassion for him that they tried hard to row back to shore instead. But when their efforts failed, they prayed to Jonah’s God for mercy, threw Jonah overboard, then offered sacrifices to God afterward, too. How is it that salty, idol-worshiping sailors were more sensitive to God than the prophet Jonah? Why was Jonah so calloused that he’d rather die than deliver God’s message?

Despite Jonah’s resistance, God’s mercy was more (1:17).

God was so determined that he assigned a fish to swallow Jonah alive. We don’t know much about this fish other than it was large. Some say it was a whale, but we don’t know. Others say God created a fish just for this occasion, but the word “prepared” doesn’t mean that – it just means to “assign, appoint, [or] provide,” much like Yahweh had assigned Jonah to go to Nineveh.[8]

Whatever happened, this mysterious fish did exactly what God assigned it to do – no arm-twisting required – which could hardly be said of Jonah. In fact, Jonah was so determined to resist God that he refused to respond for three whole days. Imagine three days of pitch-black, suffocating conditions in a fish stomach, with seaweed wrapped around your body (2:5).

This disgusting experience finally changed Jonah’s mind (2:1-10).

Now, this prayer is not as humble as you might expect – just melodramatic. Jonah used lots of quotes and allusions from the Old Testament Psalms, which sounds quite pious and religious. Yet he emphasized his suffering in a theatrical way, sounding as helpless and pitiful as possible, as though he felt sorry for himself. (Do you feel sorry for him?) What’s more, he never admitted doing anything wrong. He even ended his prayer by comparing himself with the pagan sailors who threw him overboard. This was a “holier than thou” moment for sure.

In Jonah’s mind, he worshiped the Lord and deserved God’s salvation, but the sailors worshiped idols and did not.[9] Ironically, they had worshiped the Lord on the boat out of genuine reverence, but Jonah gave lip service. They had already received God’s mercy, but Jonah was three days late. Even so, “the Lord spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (2:10). He had given Jonah mercy he didn’t deserve. Now Jonah was no longer wrapped with seaweed in the darkness of a fish’s stomach – he was sprawled out on dry land under the hot, scorching sun.

God gave his instructions to Jonah again and this time he obeyed – on the outside (3:1-4).

Now, to obey was no small feat … especially if Jonah traveled by feet! Nineveh was about 500 miles east, a journey of at least one month.[10] The city, with its suburbs, was also so large that it would take three days to walk through from one end to the other. Jonah didn’t walk all the way through it, though. He only entered one-third of the way, which means he didn’t make it to the city center or the palace.

From his public location, Jonah announced with a loud voice to whoever was passing by, “Nineveh will be overthrown in forty days!” (His message was so short it would fit into a tweet!) From what we can tell, this was the message God had told Jonah to give. It was a short message and it was all about judgment. So why did Jonah resist this job so strongly? Wouldn’t he be eager to preach this message to the brutal, godless enemies of his people?

The people responded to Jonah’s message quickly and word traveled fast (3:5-10).
From oldest to youngest, the people believed in God. In fact, they were so serious that they declared a fast. Even the ruler of the city did the same. He was so serious about repenting that he demanded a fast for not just the people but their animals, too. He urged people to “cry earnestly to God” (3:8). He also urged them to repent from his or her evil behavior, especially from the violent and brutal things they had done (“the violence that is in his hands”).

Why? Because he asked, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (3:9). Now, this gets to the heart of Jonah’s story. This is the part of Jonah’s message that hasn’t been told. He had announced judgment, but not a call to repentance and with no offer of mercy. So here’s the question…

How did the main characters of this story respond to Nineveh’s repentance (3:10-4:4)?

As you expect, they responded in opposite ways. God was pleased with Nineveh’s repentance and turned down his plans of judgment as a result. Jonah was displeased with Nineveh’s repentance and turned up his anger instead. This difference answers the burning question we’ve had from the beginning. Why did Jonah run away? Why did he resist the chance to tell Nineveh about God’s judgment? He wasn’t afraid they would behead him. He was afraid God would forgive them!

He finally admitted this, saying, “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, one who relents from doing harm” (4:2). Jonah was so upset that he wanted to die. He couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Nineveh enjoy God’s mercy. He wanted them to get their just rewards. He wanted them to get finished off when they were down. So God asked a very important question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4). Unlike God, Jonah wasn’t angry over Nineveh’s sin. That would’ve been appropriate. He was angry over Yahweh’s mercy. Was that appropriate?

To answer his question, God set Jonah up (4:5-11).

In a fit of anger, Jonah had gone outside the city on the other side. He had come from the west and given his message only one-third of the way into the city. He had now walked two more days to the city’s far side. Perhaps he walked through the city to see if everyone had actually repented, hoping that some did not. Having seen everyone in full repentance mode, he went outside to “see what would become of the city” (4:5).

I suppose he was holding out hope that God would still judge them. But was he really planning to sit their almost forty days? Seriously? Whatever the case, he felt really miserable. He had a rotten attitude and was sitting in a pathetic, makeshift shelter in the sweltering heat waiting for fire to fall from the sky, but the only fire that was falling was the scorching rays of sunlight on his head.

Well, in Chapter 2, God prepared a large fish to rescue Jonah from the windstorm in the sea. Now, he would prepare something else – a small gourd-like plant to shield Jonah from the sun. For this, Jonah was quite thankful for a change (4:6). I can almost see him smiling, can you?
  • But after a day of Jonah’s comfortable shade, God prepared a tiny grubworm to damage the plant so it would wither away (4:7).
  • Then he sent a strong wind and scorching sunlight to beat on Jonah’s head (4:8). So Jonah nearly fainted and wished once again to die. What misery! 
  • That’s when God asked Jonah a question again, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” (4:9).

Before, he had asked if Jonah was right to be angry about the Ninevites getting mercy (4:4), but Jonah didn’t answer. This time, however, Jonah answered, and rather dogmatically, too. “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” What a response for a plant of very little value! And here comes the punch line.

Why did Jonah feel sorry for a plant, but not for people (4:10-11)?

That’s the question that God asked Jonah at that moment. “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” God sets this up in such a way that makes Jonah’s attitude towards the people of Nineveh look absolutely absurd.

This is an argument of extreme opposites, from minimum to maximum, smallest to largest, unimportant to important. On the one hand, Jonah felt compassion for a single, solitary plant in the desert. He did nothing to get it (no work, no money, no effort – nothing). It popped up overnight and lasted less than a day, taken down by a measly grub worm. Crazy, right?

On the other hand, God felt compassion for Nineveh, a great big city with more than 120,000 people living there. That’s a lot of living, breathing people made in God’s image, isn’t it? One temporary plant versus 120,000 eternal souls – now that’s not even close.

Now, what does “who cannot discern their right hand and their left” mean? This phrase describes “not deviating from [God’s] divine law and revelation.”[11] God is reminding Jonah here that though everyone sins, people like the Ninevites, unlike the Jews, didn’t know God’s moral expectations well enough to grasp the true awfulness of their sins. They knew they were bad – they just didn’t know how bad.

That’s why they need someone to speak to them for God. But Jonah didn’t want them to have this opportunity, he just wanted them to be judged – even though he had been the recipient of God’s mercy repeatedly throughout this story! Jonah was fixated on seeing judgment, but God was focused on giving mercy. Who was right?

What about Tony and Mary?

Should Tony pick up the phone and fight hard to save Mike from bankruptcy, even though Mike did him dirty in college? Yes! Should Mary take plates of cookies to the neighbors on her street, even though they’re changing the culture of her neighborhood and making her life less comfortable? Yes!

For both, these are opportunities to share God’s love and mercy to those who need it most. These are opportunities that may open doors for the gospel.

What about you? What people do you resent?

This is a hard question to answer, isn’t it? So please be honest. Do you wish for God’s mercy for them or his judgment? It’s easy to believe God is merciful and to want that mercy for ourselves. It’s even easy to want God’s mercy for people in faraway places of the world. That’s why we send missionaries there.

But what about people who’ve hurt us and those we love? What about people who make our lives uncomfortable and do bad things? Sadly, what we know about God and how we treat other people don’t always match. When this occurs, we’re just as disgusting, repulsive, and absurd as Jonah, though we say we’re following God. We look for people to blame for our problems, then relish their demise. We whisper, “I can’t wait to see them get what they have coming.” This is not the godly way.

As Christians in America today, we should want God’s mercy for all people.
 We should offer it to as many as we can, no matter how bad they may be, where they’re from, how they got there, or what they’ve done. We should reject the polarization that permeates our society. It should have no place in the church. Racism, pride, bigotry, hatred, and resentment should go away.

We can do this by building relationships, having conversations, and building points of contact with people “outside” our Christian worldview. They may have sinful behaviors, broken lives, and misguided views, but that’s precisely why we should reach out to them, not turn them away.

God has not called us to bring them to justice. He has called us to bring them the message of his mercy through the gospel. We can’t do this by running away or by sitting back to wait for their demise. We should go out and get involved in their lives, bringing them the message of God’s salvation, hoping for their repentance, and rejoicing in God’s mercy.

[1] JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, ed. H. Wayne House and William D. Barrick, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 415.

[2] James E. Smith, The Minor Prophets, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1994), 102.

[3] Joyce Baldwin, “Jonah,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 544-45.

[4] Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah, ed. Daniel I. Block, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 33.

[5] Baldwin, “Jonah,” 545.

[6] Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, vol. 31, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1987), 450-51.

[7] Smith, The Minor Prophets, 103.

[8] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 977.

[9] Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, 469-70.

[10] Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, vol. 19B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 256.

[11] Baldwin, 590.

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