The Book of Jonah
The book of Jonah does not contain much of a prophetic message like we find in the other prophets. Jonah is a biography, a drama. For centuries the Church has heard lessons and sermons from Jonah which intuitively find the essence of their message in Jonahs life. If we look purposefully at Jonah as "Gods message to Israel given in drama", then we can more freely enter into not only what God wanted Nineveh to hear, but what was the impact of Jonahs life to be on Gods people.
This should not be surprising, although it is intended to be striking. Hebrews 1:1 tells us that God spoke to the Old Testament saints "in the prophets ... in many ways"*. Some of these "ways" include dreams, visions, dramatic demonstrations (Jeremiah), living examples (Isaiah, his wife and children), and the very life of the prophet. Jonah and Hosea are two particularly striking examples of how the life of the prophet contained the message to Gods people.
In view of this perspective on the book of Jonah, its interesting to note Jesus reference to the prophet. Matthew 12:38-45 records Jesus answer to Jewish leaders when they demand a sign from Him: they will not be given a sign except for the sign of Jonah. Jesus describes this sign in terms of death and burial. What Jonah experienced in this particular instance, not what he preached, was prophetic of what Jesus would experience. A careful look at Jonah shows that the breadth of his experience has also been prophetic of Israels experience among the nations: isolation, "swallowed", and thrust back to their land.
This does not take anything away from Jonahs message to Nineveh. It gives a powerful context in which to examine not only Gods warning to a sinful nation, but also to examine those who have the message God wants to share with the world.
The book of Jonah is a sharp, penetrating look at the heart of the evangelist, and it is a precious look into the compassionate heart of God.
Who Was Jonah?
Jonah is without a doubt the most well-known of the minor prophets, and he is probably more familiar to most people than Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel.
What do we know of Jonah, the man? Like Joel, Jonah tells us the name of his father, Amittai. Amittai is only mentioned in connection with Jonah, so we dont know much of the family line. We do know, however, that Jonah lived in Gath-Hepher (2 Kings 14:25), a town in northern Israel, part of the land occupied by the tribe of Zebulun. This makes Jonah a citizen of the northern kingdom of Israel (which was quite vulnerable to attacks from Syria and Assyria). During this period of time, Assyria was the dominant world power, greatly feared by most of the middle east (see the Background information).
We get a fascinating glimpse into Jonahs life in 2 Kings 14:23-27. This passage demonstrates Gods great compassion even when things are so bad that nothing but judgment might be expected. We are reminded that though Gods anger burns against sin, He will work to preserve His people. He used the prophet Jonah to announce that Israel would experience a time of political and geographic expansion. And He used the evil king Jeroboam II to save the people of Israel (northern kingdom) from their great affliction and suffering.
The passage in 2 Kings 14 might give us a bit of insight into why Jonah didnt want to go to Nineveh. Preaching during the reign of an evil man like Jeroboam II (also prophesying during this time were Hosea and Amos) showed Jonah that his view of deserved judgment and Gods willingness to show compassion might be at odds. Jonahs own explanation of why he ran the other way supports this idea (see Jonah 4:2).
If God was willing to extend His mercy and compassion on His own disobedient people, might He not relent in punishing Nineveh if they responded with repentance to Jonahs preaching? It is one thing to spare Israel from impending wrath, but Assyria? The fact of Gods blessing to Israel gave precedence to His willingness to extend His grace much further than we might be willing to reconcile in our own hearts. Read Matthew 18:21-32 with this in mind.
The Background of Jonah
The Mission of (United) Israel
Israel was to be a blessing and a witness to the nations around them. Genesis 12:1-3 show that God wanted a special nation to rise up in the world as being distinct, one that bore His name and demonstrated the richness of His grace and love. Deut. 7:6-11 (and the whole chapter) shows that God purposefully chose Israel as the best instrument to show the world Who He is since their very existence and all of their accomplishments would be by His hand alone.
While God intended Israel to be exclusively His nation, He did not intend for them to be isolationist with respect to their special relationship with God. The blessings of God upon Israel were to be seen by all (Deut. 28:9-14), and they were to be "a light to the nations" (Isa. 42:6)
The Assyrian Empire
At the time of Jonah, Assyria (whose capital city was Nineveh) ruled the world, though their empire had been declining for centuries1. About 400 years after the period of Assyrias greatest expansion, Kings David and Solomon were able to take control of large areas adjacent to Israel and formerly under the throne of Assyria. Assyria fought hard through these many decades to try to recapture what was slowly escaping their grasp.
Jeroboam II occupied the throne of Israel during Jonahs day (2 Kings 14), and Ashur-dan II sat on the throne of Assyria2. During the reign of Ashur-dan Nineveh experienced two plagues (765 and 759 BC) which indicated divine disfavor to them. Also, on June 15, 763, they experienced a total eclipse of the sun3. Jonah probably brought his message to Nineveh in 759.
Tarshish has long been associated with a region on the southern tip of Spain. This view has sufficient support and seems valid with respect to references to Tarshish and to Jonahs desire to flee from Gods presence (see 2 Kings 10:22; 22:48; 1 Chron. 7:10)4.
The coastal city of Tyre was "the daughter of Tarshish" (Isaiah 23:10), which probably refers to the fact that Tyre was the port of entry into the middle east for the goods traded between Palestine and Spain. As Davis puts it, "the commerce with Tarshish was the making of Tyre"5. Joppa was directly tied to Tyre as the port of entry for goods coming into Israel from various origins routed through Tyre.
"Ships of Tarshish" referred not only to ships originating from that country, but came to refer to any ship capable of hauling great loads all over the Mediterranean Sea6. In his attempt to run from God, Jonah went to the very convenient port of Joppa where he knew great shipping freighters would be entering and leaving Israels port almost daily. He planned to sail all the way to Spain, about 2500 miles west; Nineveh was only a couple hundred miles east.
Outline of Jonah
Title: Responsible Evangelism
Theme: Learning the Proper Motivation for Evangelism
1. The Urgency of Evangelism, the Desperation of the Lost
2. A Close-up of the Grave
3. God at Work ... The Availability Principle
4. Gods Motivation to Reach the Lost
Jonahs heart: anger (4:1-4)
Gods heart: compassion (4:5-11)
The Message of Jonah
Since Jonahs message is related to us in drama, there are several points to be gleaned from his experiences. It must be noted, though, that this type of interpretation and application does not presume that Jonah is a myth nor even allegorical. Jonahs experience was quite dramatic, but no more so than the experiences of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, or of Jeremiah or Hosea. With Jonah, it was a miracle that he survived his experience with the great fish, just as it is miraculous that Israel survives as a nation today after being swallowed up by so many other nations.
The Message of Urgency
People are desperate for hope and a kind word from God, even though they might not know Him nor how to approach Him. In Jonah 1, his interaction with the sailors demonstrates their urgent desperation to know how to find favor with God.
To people in distress, the wrath of God is very real and very terrifying. These are prime opportunities for evangelism, but the evangelist must be careful to give the full picture. Contrast Jonahs message to the Tarshish sailors with that of the Apostle Paul to his shipmates in Acts 27:18-26. Paul was aboard a ship in the Mediterranean, just like Jonah; the storm system that assailed Pauls ship was probably the same as that which threatened Jonahs ship.
The storm demonstrated to Jonah that life and death are the core issues, and that both life and death are in Gods hands. The terror of the sailors should have shaken Jonah to his senses.
The Message of the Grave
Jonah was not immediately swallowed up by the great fish. His re-telling of the experience shows that he was at the point of drowning (2:7) before the fish swallowed him. God made Jonah keenly aware of the corridor leading from life to death for the lost: it is full of terror; it is a conscious experience; it is a place where the absence of God is painfully and deeply felt (2:3-10).
Jonah had made the decision to flee from Gods presence, and he now saw what it was like to die in such a condition. All through his descent into death, Jonah cries out naturally for the comfort only God can bring. Jonahs experience shows us that the threat of death is not situational or circumstantial as much as it is relational: it is not so much when or how death comes as it is whether you enter the presence of God or fall further from His life-giving grace.
The Message of Immediate Grace
The revival of Nineveh was awesome. Sometimes it seems like it takes an inordinate amount of time for justice and retribution to come from the hand of God, yet His grace and mercy are always ready to be poured out.
The timing of Jonahs ministry to Nineveh was such that they were quite prepared to respond (see Background notes). The God of Israel was well known throughout the regions around Palestine, and His powerful deliverance of Israel from Egypt was never forgotten (Joshua 2:10; 9:9; Judges 6:13; 1 Sam. 8:8; 2 Kings 17:7; Nehemiah 9:9). His wrath was known and feared, but he wanted Israel also to demonstrate His grace and kindness (see Background notes, "The Mission of (United) Israel"). Read Romans 9:22-24.
Jonah shows us that it is not the prophet nor even the willingness of the prophet that brings "success" in evangelism. It is the power of Gods word used by the Spirit of God to reach His dying creatures.
The Message of Compassion
Jonah 4 brings the point of the book into sharp clarity. While Jonah was motivated to seek Gods mercy for his own life (Jonah 2), he still thought it wrong to allow others to live when they deserved death (Jonah 4:2). God uses the miraculous plant to show Jonah that life brings refreshment and relief whereas death can cause great distress to more than just the thing that dies.
The motivation of God to reach the lost is that of creator and loving husbandman, that of the author of life itself having to put to death His Own creation. Things which bring us comfort, joy, and relief are nothing compared to the life of everlasting souls made in the image of God.
As a father grieves over and longs for a reconciled child, God calls all people to Himself. He is the father of countless prodigal nations. We need to answer the question in Jonah 4:10,11.
1John D. Davis, Davis Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975.
2John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: the Old Testament. Victor Books: 1985.
4Davis, Davis Dictionary of the Bible.