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Introduction to the Book of Jonah

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General Info

For most people, the first thing that often comes to mind when we think of the Book of Jonah is, the “big fish story”.  Yet, it’s much more than that.  It is somewhat unique in that, in most books of the prophets, God generally chooses to focus on the various people and nation to whom the prophet is preaching or ministering to.  In addition, the other books tend to follow most prophets through oracles and events over a ministry that spanned decades.  Jonah, a prophet from Israel, also may have had a long ministry, but in the book of Jonah, God chooses to focus on one particularly short message.  In addition, rather than centralizing on the interaction with nations, although the response to Jonah’s message was very important, the book gives great details regarding His dealings with the prophet himself.  We often see God as a macro-manager, but in Jonah, we see Him also as a micro-manager, interested in all details of His people’s lives.

In the Protestant Canon, Jonah is grouped with the other eleven books in the section called the “Minor Prophets”.  Each of the twelve books are named for its author and main character.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, the twelve books of the minor prophets (along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets”.

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Brief Survey

The book of Jonah opens with God commanding the Israeli Prophet Jonah to go and preach a warning to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria.  Since Israel and Assyria were hated enemies, Jonah was reluctant to go because he knew that the people of Nineveh would likely repent an received mercy from God.  Rather than arguing with God, the prophet simply ran away in the opposite direction, boarding a ship headed for Tarshish in Southern Spain.

After Jonah set sail, the Lord sent such a violent storm that even the pagan sailors  realized that it was a divine act.  They cast lots to find the one responsible and the lots fell on Jonah.  After confessing that the storm was God’s judgment on him, he asked the crew to throw him into the sea.  The men resisted, but finally gave in when it became apparent that any other efforts would be futile.  As soon as Jonah was thrown overboard, God calmed the sea.  The pagan sailors became so frightened that they worshiped God while His prophet presumably sank to his death.  God still had plans for His prophet, so He sent a “great fish” to swallow Jonah, who would be inside the fish for the next three days and nights. 

Since a person’s choice of activities are severely restricted when inside a whale, Jonah decided to call out in prayer to the Lord in chapter 2.  He thanked God for saving him, quoted several passages from the Psalms, and vowed to complete his commission.  God then commanded the fish to spew Jonah out onto dry land.

In chapter 3, God repeats His initial command to Jonah.  This time, after his attitude adjustment, the prophet obeyed and went straight to Nineveh.  Upon arrival, he started through the city proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned”.  We aren’t told if there was more to the message, but we do know that the Ninevites believed God, repented, and declared a fast.  Even the King of Nineveh, took off his royal robes, put on sackcloth, and issued a proclamation for everyone to give up their wicked and violent ways, and to call urgently to God.  When God saw their repentance, He had compassion on them and canceled His plan of destruction.

In chapter 4, we find Jonah, rather than celebrating his successful crusade, again becoming angry with God because of His compassion toward the Ninevites.  He confessed that the reason he fled earlier was that he knew God would have mercy on those the prophet hated.  He even asked the Lord to take his life.  God then used a miracle of nature, a rapid growing shady plant and a worm to illustrate His love for people of all nations.

The book ends with a question, if Jonah was so concerned with a plant that sprang up and died overnight, should God (and Jonah) also be concerned about the fate of the heavily populated city of Nineveh?  While Israel enjoyed a special status as God’s chosen people, the other nations were to be blessed through them (Gen 12:2-3; Ex19:5-6).

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Key Verses

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”  But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish.  He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port.  After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD. (1:1-3)

The sea was getting rougher and rougher.  So they asked Jonah, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”  “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm.  I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” ... Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.  At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.  But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights. (1:11-12, 15-17)

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God.  He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.  From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry...  When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.  Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.  But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you.  What I have vowed I will make good.  Salvation comes from the LORD.”  And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.  (2:1-2, 7-10)

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”  Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city--a visit required three days.  On the first day, Jonah started into the city.  He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”  The Ninevites believed God.  They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.  When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.  Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.  But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth.  Let everyone call urgently on God.  Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.  Who knows?  God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”  When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (3:1-10)

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.  He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?” (4:1-4)

Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine.  But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint.  He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”   But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said.  “I am angry enough to die.”  But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:6-11)

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Author and Date

The author of the book does not explicitly identify himself.  Most conservative interpreters believe the author to be Jonah the prophet from Lebo-hamath, son of Amittai (2Ki 14:25).  An old Jewish tradition has suggested that Jonah was also the son of the widow from Zarephath that was raised from death by the prophet Elijah (1Kg 17:7-24), but this cannot be confirmed.   Some have questioned that Jonah was the author due to the prophet being referred to in the third person, but we find this practice to be quite common throughout the OT, such as with Moses (Ex 11:3) and Samuel (1Sam 12:11), just to give a couple of examples.  The internal autobiographical information and the first-hand detailed descriptions strongly point to Jonah as the author, or at the least, dictating the book’s contents to a scribe.

The context of 2Kings 14:25 (see 2Ki 14:23-28) places the events of the Book of Jonah during the long reign of Israeli King Jeroboam II (see additional info in the “Historical Background” chapter below.  Thus, the original intended audience for the book would have been Israel (maybe Judah also).  Jonah’s attitude toward Assyria and their capital city of Nineveh was typical for most Israelis.  Like Nineveh however, Israel was also spiritually bankrupt.  Yet, the Israelites wanted God to destroy Assyria while granting mercy to Israel.  Though none are recorded in the Bible, Jonah may have pronounced similar judgments on Israel.  We do know that, shortly afterward, the Judean prophet Amos would prophesize messages of judgment against Israel, so Israel could follow Nineveh’s example and repent, or ignore the lesson and be exiled.

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Historical Background and Timeline

See Historical Background of the Minor Prophets, Chronology of the Minor Prophets and Chronology of the Monarchy Timeline for additional info.

During the reign of Jeroboam II in the first half of the eighth century BC, Israel was enjoying a period of abundant prosperity and national pride, but the nation was spiritually, morally and ethically bankrupt.  Assyria was still relatively weak, having yet to become the dominant regional power that she would achieve within the next few decades.  This allowed Jeroboam to enlarge Israel’s territory to the extent that they possessed during the reigns of David and Solomon.

Historians typically place Jonah’s visit to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, during the reign of Assyrian King Asher-dan III (773-755 BC), who succeeded his brother Shalmaneser IV.  Historians also record a total solar eclipse (763 BC) sandwiched between two plagues (765 and 759 BC) that likely helped prepare the Assyrians for Jonah’s message of doom.

931 BC Division of the Kingdom into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah
931 - 910 BC Jeroboam I as first King of Northern Kingdom of Israel - Institutes Idol Worship
793-753 BC Jeroboam II King of Israel
791-740 BC Uzziah (aka Azariah) King of Judah
~780-750 BC Jonah Prophet of Israel to Assyria (Nineveh)
~765-750 BC Amos Prophet of Judah to Israel
~755-715 BC Hosea Prophet of Israel
722 BC Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The overriding theme of the book is God’s immeasurable love and compassion for all people, that everyone should not perish but come to repentance and salvation.  This extends not just to Jonah, the prophets, Israel and the saints, but as for pagans such as the sailors and Ninevites.  That said, the love of God alone will not save us.  We’re all still responsible for our beliefs and actions in response to His love.  Still, this lesson should very prevalent in all our lives today.  Since God desires the repentance, salvation, and discipleship of all (including those outside our social circles), we should be about spreading the Gospel and discipling the believers to all who will listen.

A closely related theme is that of God’s sovereignty, not only with respect to the salvation or judgment over nations and individuals, but over creation (nature) itself.  In Jonah, we see God causing and calming a storm, sending a large fish to save Jonah from drowning, and creating a plant to provide shade for the prophet.  There is nothing beyond God’s control, so as Jonah learned, it is futile to run from Him.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

There are two primary challenges that we face when interpreting the Book of Jonah.  One is related to the literary genre used by the author, and the other is in regard to the historicity of the book itself.  The disagreement over literary style can be stated by the question “Is the narrative in Jonah historical or a fictional (allegory, parable, commentary) tale meant to convey a spiritual message”?  Likewise, the question of historicity can be simply stated, “Is the story Jonah fact or fiction”?  As we readily see, these two challenges are so closely inter-related that we can treat them as one.

Historicity of Jonah

We first note that biographical (and autobiographical) narratives are often used in the prophetical books to give historical information, to symbolically illustrate a message, or both.  One of the best known examples is the narrative use of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer that symbolically illustrated Israel’s turbulent relationship with God.  In addition, other prophets such as Ezekiel would often act out God’s oracles of judgment to better drive home the message.  Yet in none of these occasions did the symbolism void the historicity.

In our opinion, the Biblical evidence leans very heavily to the position that Jonah is a historical narrative.  First, we know from 2Kings 14:23-28 that the prophet Jonah himself is firmly established as a real historic person.  Next, the literary type of narrative in Jonah doesn’t appear to smoothly conform to the proposed categories other than historical narrative.

Finally, the ultimate proof of the Historicity of Jonah comes from the statements of Jesus Christ Himself.  In an encounter between Jesus and the Jewish scribes and Pharisees recorded in Matthew 12:38-42 and Luke 11:29-32, the Jewish religious leaders request a sign from Jesus.  Knowing this request came merely from intellectual curiosity, He replied, “A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  He also corroborated the repentance of the Ninevites by further stating, “The men of Nineveh will stand at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now One greater than Jonah is here.”  Jesus obviously took the Book of Jonah to be historical narrative, so we’re certainly not going to argue with Him.

In August 2022, we added a separate article examining some of the miracles in Jonah entitled, Jonah and the Big Fish - Historical Narrative or Tall Fish Tale.  We also added Additional Questions and Answers pertaining to Jonah in January 2023.

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The chapter breakdown makes a nice outline for the Book of Jonah.  In chapter 1, Jonah flees from God’s Will, before repenting and submitting to God’s will while in the belly of a great fish in chapter 2.  In chapter 3, Jonah reluctantly fulfills God’s Will by preaching to the Ninevites, and in chapter 4, Jonah is angry and questions God’s Will.

1:1 - 1:17 Jonah Flees from God
2:1 - 2:10 Jonah’s Prayer of Thanksgiving and Repentance
3:1 - 3:10 Jonah Preaches in Nineveh and the People Repent
4:1 - 4:11 Jonah’s Anger and God’s Compassionate Rebuke

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