|9th Century Prophets||8th Century Prophets||7th Century Prophets||Exilic Prophets||Post-exilic Prophets|
The book is named after the principal character of the book, Jonah, whose name means “dove.”
The God of the Jews and the Gentiles.
To encourage the Israelites to embrace God’s call to extend his mercy to the nations.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1460.[/footnote]
4. Key verses
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. (Jonah 4:2)
5. Key truths
• God calls his people to seek the repentance of the nations.
• God’s people will suffer divine displeasure if they fail to extend God’s mercy to the nations.
• God rightly delights in showing mercy to repentant Gentiles.[footnote]Ibid., 1460.[/footnote]
The author is not named but tradition assigns it to Jonah which, in view of the unique experiences of Jonah narrated in the book, seems reasonable.
Jonah was the son of Amittai, from Gath-hepher in Galilee (2 Ki. 14:25). He was an Israelite prophet to Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. He has been called “The prejudiced prophet,” “the vacillating prophet,” “the prophet of God’s mercy,” “the prophet of catholicity,” and “the first foreign missionary.”
1. The Events
Jonah lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC) and prophesied the expansion of the northern kingdom, which took place later in Jeroboam’s reign (2 Kings 14:25). He was then called away from his popular ministry of national recovery to deliver God’s word of judgment to the Assyrians, the most ruthless people history had known.
There has been a long debate about which Assyrian king was mentioned by Jonah. There is some evidence that Adad-nirari III (810-783 BC) moved towards monotheism, which some attribute to Jonah’s ministry. However it was a moon-god monotheism which is an unlikely result of Jonah’s preaching. It is more likely that Nineveh repented during the reign of Ashurdan III (773-755 BC). Two plagues (765 and 759 BC) and a solar eclipse (763 BC) may have prepared the people for Jonah’s message of judgment.
2. The Composition
As noted above, although the text does not specify the author of this biographical account, it is fair to assume that it was composed by Jonah himself near the end of his life as he reflected on the most important event in his ministry. This would explain why he used the past tense in referring to Nineveh (Jonah 3:3), reflecting changes that had taken place over time. This would put the time of composition somewhere in the neighbourhood of 750-740 BC.
Critical scholars have usually placed Jonah in the post-exilic period, and viewed it as a fictional or allegorical tract against the Jewish nationalism and exclusivism of Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi. However, the teaching that God’s plan includes the Gentiles is not unique to Jonah in the Old Testament (Gen. 9:27; Gen. 12:3; Lev. 19:33; Is. 2:2; Joel 2:28–32).
III. Historical Analysis
|Date (BC)||Event||Scripture reference|
|786-746||Reign of Jeroboam II in the North||2 Ki. 14:23-29|
|755||Rising Assyrian power|
|722||Assyrian captivity||2 Ki. 17:3-6|
2. Historical Background
The long reigns of Jeroboam II in Israel (786-746 BC) and of Uzziah in Judah (783-742 BC) had created luxury and ease for many, and spawned poverty and injustice for numerous others. Assyrian weakness had allowed the two countries to focus their attention on their home turf without the economic and emotional drain that war always caused. Although Judah and Israel had grown prosperous and complacent, Assyria gradually grew in strength until it became a serious threat to both the Northern and Southern kingdoms.
a. The Narrative
There have always been some who have denied the historical nature of Jonah. We shall consider three views
The Old Testament has a number of allegories (Eccles. 12:3-5; Jer. 25:15-29; Ezek. 17:3-10; Ezek. 19:2-9; Ezek. 24:3-5; Zech. 11:4-17). All of them are short and their allegorical nature is self-evident. Those who take the allegorical view of Jonah use Jonah’s name (dove) as a symbol for Israel. The fish then stands for Assyria/Babylon which swallowed up Israel/Judah in the form of the exiles. Just as Jonah was commanded to preach to the Ninevites the post-exilic Jews were being encouraged to reach out with God’s Word to the Gentile nations. Nineveh is a symbol for the conversion of the Gentiles, and Jonah’s complaint represents the Israelites objections to Gentile inclusion in the covenant.
However, the text is unlike other Old Testament allegories. It is a detailed straightforward historical narrative. There is no evidence of any universalist or missionary spirit among the post-exilic Jews.
Many today take the view that the book is an “ethical parable” or “didactic fiction.” Old Testament parables are usually simple, concentrate on one central subject, and are accompanied by an interpretation. Some take the view that the book fits this definition. The parable is regarded as condemning the narrowness of nationalism or commending the universalism of God.
One difficulty with this theory is the length of the story in contrast to most parables which are far shorter. It is also rare to include miracle in parables. Conservative scholars do not deny the didactic aim of the book but maintain that the teaching is based on historical reality. The lack of some historical data (name of king of Nineveh, etc) does not render the remainder of the historical data invalid.
Up until a hundred or so years ago, Jewish and Christian tradition had usually viewed Jonah as a historical account. Evidence to support this can be found in the use Jesus made of the story in Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-30. If the repentance of the Ninevites was non-historical the power of Christ’s analogy is greatly diminished. C. F. Keil has pointed out that as narrative the book of Jonah is similar in content and form to the history of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-19; 2 Kings 2:4-6).
Nineveh is described as “the great city” (Jonah 1:2; Jonah 3:2; Jonah 4:11; Jonah 3:3) and “a three day’s walk” (Jonah 3:3) which the next verse seems to indicate as a measure of distance. Archaeological excavations have discovered a city which is much smaller. Even if taken to refer to the city walls, the circumference is only about seven and a half miles.
One solution is to include the suburbs of the administrative district of Nineveh which were within one to three days walk of each other (30-60 miles). This would also account for the size of population, said to be “more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand” (Jonah 4:11). Another solution is to see “three day’s walk” as referring to the size of Jonah’s task rather than the time taken to walk from one side of the city to the other. If he was preaching to the citizens as well as visiting the king it would require at least three days to complete.
c. The king of Nineveh (Jonah 3:6)
In Jonah’s day Nineveh was not Assyria’s capital and therefore was unlikely to have been the principal royal residence. However, as it was the capital city from 1265 to 1236 BC and again around 700 BC it is likely that the king had a royal residence there during Jonah’s day.
The fact that the king of the Assyrian empire is called “king of Nineveh” is not unprecedented in the Old Testament. Ahab was called “king of Samaria” (1 Kings 21:1) and Benhadad of Syria “king of Damascus” (2 Chron. 24:23 ).
There are twelve miracles in forty-eight verses. Although the debate here really comes down to the simple question of whether or not miracles are possible, there are examples of a few people who have been swallowed by whales and survived.
Many scholars find it impossible to believe that a heathen city would have repented so quickly at the preaching of an unknown foreigner. The narrative makes clear, however, that the power of God was involved, to which we can set no limits.
The miraculous overnight growth of the gourd is easily understood by faith, but no amount of explanation will convince the sceptic.
e. Linguistic considerations
As with other Old Testament books, the presence of alleged Aramaisms have been used to argue for a post-exilic date, and therefore, for a parabolic or allegorical interpretation. However, as has been shown in previous lectures, there is evidence to suggest that Aramaisms infiltrated the Hebrew language from its earliest days.
The presence of Aramaisms in the book cannot be made a criterion for determining the date, since Aramaisms occur in Old Testament books from both early and late periods. Furthermore, the recently discovered texts from Ras Shamra contain Aramaic elements (c. 1400-1500 BC).[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: Tyndale Press, 1953), 255.[/footnote]
J E Smith lists a number of reasons to support the historical nature of the book.[footnote]J E Smith, The Minor Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), Electronic Edition[/footnote]
(i) Argument from style and language. Simply stated, the book appears to be historical. Technical language, totally out of place in a parable, is used in the sailing episode and in the decree of the king.
(ii) Argument from didactic purpose. Without question this book has a didactic purpose. It teaches God’s universal love for all human kind. Only if the story is actually true, however, would it have had much of an impact.
(iii) Argument from canonicity. The book practically slanders a prophet. It would not have been allowed to remain in the canon unless it was regarded early on as true.
(iv) Argument from historical accuracy. Jonah was a historical character. Nineveh was notorious for moral depravity. The description of the size of Nineveh in the text is accurate. The mourning of men and cattle is documented by the Greek historian Herodotus (9:24). Joppa and Tarshish were historical cities.
(v) Argument from tradition. The Book of Tobit (14:4–6 , 15), written during the inter-testamental period, understood Jonah as historical. Josephus (Antiquities, 9:10.2) the Jewish historian also interpreted the book as sober history.
(vi) Argument from analogy. The analogy between the Book of Jonah and the account of Elijah is striking. Certainly the Elijah record was meant to be taken historically.
(vii) Argument from the behaviour of Jonah. It is unlikely that an eminent prophet would have been selected to be represented as so foolish, so wayward and so out of harmony with God if in fact he had not so proved himself.
(viii) Argument from authority. Jesus referred to Jonah’s stay in the belly of the great fish (Matt. 12:39ff .; Matt. 16:4) in such a way as to indicate that he regarded it as an actual occurrence. Even more decisive is Jesus’ reference to the men of Nineveh “rising up in the judgment” to condemn those who had rejected him (Luke 11:32). Men in a parable will not be present in the resurrection. Thus Jesus puts his endorsement upon the historical understanding of the Ninevite conversion. Sandwiched between the reference to the “sign of Jonah” and the reference to the Ninevites in the resurrection Jesus mentioned the visit of the Queen of the South to the court of Solomon. Certainly this was an historical incident. Jesus regarded the references to Jonah to be just as historical as that to the Queen. Every other instance where an Old Testament typical event is referred to in Scripture (e.g., John 3:14 ; 1 Cor. 10:1–11), a historical episode is involved.
It is important to come to terms with these clear statements by the Lord Jesus and to realize that one cannot reject the historicity of Jonah without also rejecting the authority of Christ.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]
IV. Literary Analysis
1. Comparative outlines
|Pratt||J E Smith||Murray|
God’s Response to Jonah
God’s Response to Jonah
The saving of a sinner
The saving of a city
The Great Sea: Jonah’s disobedience and God’s reaction
The Great City: Jonah’s obedience and God’s reaction
a. The Great Sea: Jonah’s disobedience and God’s reaction (Jonah 1:1-2:10)
a Jonah flees Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-17)
b Jonah judged (Jonah 2:1-9)
c Jonah taught/rescued (Jonah 2:10)
b. The Great City: Jonah’s obedience and God’s reaction
a’ Jonah goes to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-4)
b’ Nineveh saved (Jonah 3:5-10)
c’ Jonah taught/rebuked (Jonah 4:1-11)
A homiletic structure is proposed by Nelson:[footnote]Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps and charts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]
Chapter 1: I won’t go
Chapter 2: I will go
Chapter 3: I’m here
Chapter 4: I wish I hadn’t come
2. Original Meaning
Pratt says that while the book implicitly concerns all Gentile nations, it is helpful to read Jonah in terms of its particular focus on Jewish-Assyrian relations. Before the destruction of Nineveh, the Assyrians troubled Israel and raised hatred against them. If the book was written in this period, it spoke clearly to the need for Israelites to recognize:
• God’s call for Israel to minister to the Assyrians (Jonah 1)
• The need to repent of neglecting this call (Jonah 2)
• The power of prophetic ministry among Assyrians (Jonah 3)
• The need to have compassion even as God had compassion (Jonah 4)
Most prophetic books contain the preaching of the prophet. Jonah, however, is a prose narrative with only half a verse of verbal prediction (Jonah 3:4b).
The inclusion of Jonah among the prophets was based upon the prophetic character of the person rather than on the oracles he declared.
We can unhesitatingly agree that the book is different from the other books among the Latter Prophets. Yet when placed alongside the Elijah/Elisha materials in Kings we recognize that Jonah was written with the same kind of motive in mind. That is, it was written as a refined theological treatise on the life and activity of an ancient prophet. The writer has skilfully analysed and utilized the activities of Jonah to elevate the theological motifs that his prophetic ministry illustrated, so that theology and history are artistically interwoven.[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]
4. Literary contrasts and parallels
a. Jonah and the sailors
|He was a Hebrew with a rich history of YAHWEH’S faithfulness.||They were Gentiles with no history of YAHWEH.|
|He was monotheistic, believing in the one true God. (v. 9 )||They were polytheistic, worshiping many false gods.|
|He was rightly related to the true God.||They had no relationship with the true God.|
|He was spiritually insensitive, going in the wrong direction from God. (v. 5 )||They were spiritually sensitive, moving in the right direction toward God. They prayed. (v. 5 )|
|He was indifferent toward God’s will in spite of knowing Him.||They were concerned before God in spite of little or no knowledge of Him.|
|He was uncompassionate toward Nineveh. (v. 3 )||They were compassionate toward Jonah. (vv. 11–14 )|
|Jonah was rebellious and therefore disciplined, but not destroyed. (v. 17 )||They were brought to worship and commitment. (v. 16 )|
b. Jonah and the Plant
|God and Nineveh||Jonah and the Plant|
|God cared for the people of Nineveh||Jonah cared for a plant|
|God was concerned for the welfare of others||Jonah was concerned for himself|
|God created all that was in Nineveh||Jonah did not create the plant|
|God tended Nineveh||Jonah did nothing for the plant|
|The people of Nineveh are of eternal significance||The plant was temporal|
|God’s concern was and is for human life||Jonah’s concern was for personal comfort and selfish personal interest|
|God’s concern for Nineveh is proper and displays his love||Jonah’s concern for a plant rather than for people is improper; it displays selfishness and an improper perspective on life|
[footnote]Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps and charts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]
5. The Psalm of thanksgiving (Jonah 2)
The literary structure is typical of a thanksgiving psalm:
A Petition for deliverance (Jonah 2:2)
A review of the crisis (Jonah 2:3-6a)
A review of the deliverance (Jonah 2:6b-7)
Praise for the deliverance (Jonah 2:8-9)
Although Jonah was still in the belly of the fish he is not lamenting but thanking God. In Jonah 2:1,6,9 he talks as if he is already saved. This is because the fish was not an instrument of God’s judgment, but rather of his salvation, since it saved Jonah from death by drowning. This is not a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from a whale’s belly. It is rather a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from drowning; the figures of speech employed in this psalm have reference to drowning, not to a whale’s belly.
V. Thematic Analysis
1. The Divine pity
The theme of this prophecy is that God’s mercy and compassion extend even to the heathen nations on condition of their repentance.
Nothing could have pleased Jonah more than the destruction of Nineveh and of Assyria. He explains his initial angry refusal to preach to the Assyrians: “For I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” How did he know this? How did he know that God was that kind of a God? The answer is Exodus 34:6. Joel also quotes from this same passage (Joel 2:13).
He then explains his anger at the salvation of the Assyrians and the loss of his gourd. He was angry on the one hand because God spared a big city from judgement. He was angry on the other hand that God took away from him the pleasant shade of the moment. He had an awful imbalance in his standard of values and so God said, “You had regard for that gourd, that gourd that pops up in the night and dies in the night. Should not I have regard, concern for Nineveh, that great city where there are one hundred and twenty thousand people that can not discern between their right hand and their left, and much cattle?”
The essence of the narrative is, “You pitied the plant that you did not make, and you don’t think I should pity Nineveh (that I did make)?” God was showing him through the experiences that he had, both in his deliverance from the sea and the heat of the sun, how pleasant it is to receive the grace of God when you don’t deserve it. Now how is it Jonah, that you can’t apply this to the pagan people around you?
Accordingly, the plot offers a persuasive illustration of divine love that transcends the obstinacy of a foolish zealot who would rather die than lead an ancient city to repentance.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 349.[/footnote]
2. Gentiles saved
Although it is not a common theme, the Old Testament does reveal God’s concern for the Gentiles (Gen. 21:8-21; 2 Kings 5). Jonah reveals God’s compassion to the Gentiles in two ways.
Firstly, we note the contrast between the spiritually sensitive sailors with the reluctant Israelite prophet (Jonah 1). The sailors were more sensitive to the general revelation of God in nature than Jonah was to the special revelation of God in His Word.
The Gentiles’ general factual awareness of God is gradually transformed into a reverential awe as they move from a deistic conception of God to a particular faith in Yahweh (Jonah 1:16). Their “fear” moves from an elemental fear in verse 5, to a fear of the divine messenger (v. 10), and finally to a fear of Jonah’s God (v. 16). This emphasis through the sailors sets the tone for a major theme of the book – the reaction to the word by the Gentiles.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 203.[/footnote]
Secondly, God granted the Ninevites repentance and so spared them His judgment on their sins.
Although Jonah had conveyed no hope of deliverance, the Ninevites probably decided they had nothing to lose. Perhaps God would spare them if they truly repented. Their hopes proved true: When God saw their repentance, he relented and did not destroy Nineveh.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 454.[/footnote]
3. Israel rebuked
The book is not only a wonderful revelation of God’s mercy to Gentiles but is also a rebuke to Israel for failing to fulfil her responsibilities to the wider world. God had chosen her, not to keep the truth to herself, but to be a conduit of God’s word of grace to the nations of the world, even the cruellest and most ungodly.
Jonah’s reluctance and resultant depression stemmed from God’s compassion to, not just a Gentile nation, but a vicious and cruel imperial power that constantly threatened his homeland. Jonah felt Israel deserved better than to have its God forgive its enemies. It is Israel’s obligation to bear witness to them of the true faith; and a neglect of this task may bring the nation, like Jonah himself, to the deep waters of affliction and chastisement. Jonah an Israelite was cast into the sea and delivered in order that he might fulfil his mission. So the nation, because of its disobedience, would have to pass through the waters of affliction, that a remnant might return to accomplish Israel’s mission in the world. The ministry of Jonah also serves to point out the stubborn and rebellious character of the Israelites. Many prophets had arisen, and the nation had not repented, but when Nineveh heard the words of one prophet, it repented in sackcloth and ashes.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 394.[/footnote]
The theme of this prophecy (which is really a biography rather than a sermonic discourse) is that God’s mercy and compassion extend even to the heathen nations on condition of their repentance. It is therefore Israel’s obligation to bear witness to them of the true faith; and a neglect of this task may bring the nation, like Jonah himself, to the deep waters of affliction and chastisement.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]
The book of Jonah also served to challenge the nationalistic pride of Israel and her failure to comprehend the nature of her missionary task and the purpose of God to bestow his loving kindness upon all peoples. The change in Jonah’s own attitude is symbolic of the change God required of Israel as a whole.[footnote]Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps and charts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]
4. God’s will v Jonah’s will
The conclusion of the battle between God and Jonah was not a Job-like submission with Jonah repenting in dust and ashes, but it was nevertheless a triumph of God’s will over the prophet’s. The reader is left hanging on to the rhetorical question at the end, but it is rhetorical only in a formal sense because the answer has already been given in the Lord’s mercy on Nineveh. Indeed, Jonah had admitted against his own obstinate judgment that Yahweh was that kind of God (Jonah 4:2). It was a forced resolution that showed the prophet’s will vanquished by divine mercy.
5. God appoints/provides
A keyword is “to appoint” or “to provide.” Throughout the Story Jonah tries to escape God, but God utilizes his creation to bring him back. God provides a great fish (Jonah 1:17), a vine (Jonah 4:6), a worm (Jonah 4:7), and a scorching east wind (Jonah 4:8) to show Jonah that there is no way he can escape God. He is the God of Israel, the God of Nineveh, the God of the entire creation.
The real hero of the story is the Lord God. He dominates the action in the narrative: the Lord hurled a great wind on the sea (Jonah 1:4); the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah (Jonah 1:17); the Lord commanded the fish (Jonah 2:10); God relented concerning the calamity (Jonah 3:10); the Lord God appointed a plant (Jonah 4:6); God appointed a worm Jonah (4:7); God appointed a scorching east wind (Jonah 4:8). His control of the world extended to nature, to prophets, and to pagans. He was sovereign in judgment and even in mercy. “He did not do it” was Yahweh’s “cancelled” stamped across His decree of judgment (Jonah 3:10).[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]
God is the initiator of crises in human experience, and God resolves them. Gods ways are beyond human understanding and depend on a grace that cannot be anticipated or expounded, just as it cannot be measured. On that note, as a fitting summary of the whole, the book concludes.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 205.[/footnote]
VI. New Testament Analysis
1. A sign of Christ (Matt. 12:40,41)
Jesus himself compared and contrasted his ministry with the ministry of Jonah (Matt. 12:38-45; Luke 14:24-32).
As Jonah was an Israelite servant of God, so was Jesus Christ. As Jonah was sent because of the sins of the nations, so Jesus was sent to the Gentile nations (Jonah 1:6-14). As Jonah was cast into the depths for his sin, so Jesus was to go down to the depths for the sins of others. As Jonah was delivered from the depths after “three days and three nights,” so Jesus rose again after “three days and nights.” As Jonah’s resurrection led to the salvation of many, so the resurrection of Christ has saved many souls.
He is a greater than Jonas, because though Jonah went reluctantly, Jesus went willingly. Also though Jonah went to one heathen city, Jesus sent out His message into the whole world. Though thousands repented under Jonah’s preaching, millions have repented as a result of Christ’s message.
2. A sign to Israel
Jonah was typical of Israel’s attitude to the Gentiles, and is still typical of many Christians’ attitudes to the heathen today. Just as Jonah’s story was a rebuke to Israel for failing to fulfil its world mission, so it is to Christians today.
Jonah an Israelite was cast into the sea and delivered in order that he might fulfil his mission. So the nation, because of its disobedience, would have to pass through the waters of affliction, that a remnant might return to accomplish Israel’s mission in the world. The ministry of Jonah also serves to point out the stubborn and rebellious character of the Israelites. Many prophets had arisen, and the nation had not repented, but when Nineveh heard the words of one prophet, it repented in sackcloth and ashes.[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: Tyndale Press, 1953), 257.[/footnote]
Through Jonah this lesson is forcefully taught: God is the God of Israel, God is the God of Nineveh, God is the God of the whole world. As Paul reasons, is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also…’ (Rom. 3:29).[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 709.[/footnote]
VII. The Message of Jonah
Original Message: Just as God showed pity and mercy in delivering undeserving Jonah, so Israel should show pity and mercy in bringing the message of deliverance to the undeserving Gentiles
Present Message: Just as God showed pity and mercy in delivering His undeserving people, so they should show pity and mercy in bringing the message of deliverance to the undeserving world.