In my earlier post on this blogsite about the minor prophets, I summarize the lessons from Jonah this way: “Don’t disobey God or be parochial. God wants all peoples to follow him; He answers prayers; He’s against violence and idols and is pro-sacrifice.” True enough, but since this is one of my favorite Bible books — certainly my favorite minor prophet book, and rivaling even the major prophet Daniel book — I thought I would return to it.
Most of the prophetic books are simply the warning words of the prophet, and so there’s no plot (in this respect, the prophet books in the Old Testament are similar to the epistles in the New Testament). Jonah, on the other hand, is really more about the prophet than quoting the prophet, about what he did and what happened to him rather than what he said.
So there is a plot, and it’s exciting and interesting, with some twists and a rather provocative ending. What’s more, the book is short and to the point: only four chapters, with 17, 10, 10, and 11 verses respectively. And it’s in prose, except for the prayer/hymn in chapter 2.
Here’s a chapter-by-chapter summary, though there’s really not much excuse for not just reading it, it’s so short and crisp.
Chapter 1: The Lord tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a big city filled with sinners, and preach against their wicked ways. But Jonah disobeys, and hops on a boat headed in the opposite direction. So the Lord hurls a great storm at the boat. The terrified sailors pray to no avail, each to his own god, and insist that Jonah (whom they had to awaken in the hold of the ship) do so as well. Then, casting lots and talking with Jonah, they figure out that he is to blame for the storm and, at Jonah’s suggestion and because nothing else is working, they throw him overboard. The sea becomes calm, the now God-fearing sailors make vows and a sacrifice to Him, and God provides a great fish to swallow Jonah, who “was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.”
Chapter 2: From the stomach of the great fish, Jonah prays contritely and thankfully to the Lord, and after hearing this the Lord commands the fish to vomit up Jonah onto the dry land, which he does. Except for the first verse and the last, the whole chapter simply quotes Jonah’s prayer.
Chapter 3: In this chapter the Lord repeats his instruction to Jonah to go preach in Nineveh, which this time Jonah does, telling the Ninevites that in 40 days the city will be overthrown (that one verse is the only actual prophecy in this book). Astonishingly, the chastened people, including the king himself, all repent, and God relents and does not destroy the city.
Chapter 4: But Jonah is displeased with this turn of events! He tells God, I was afraid this would happen — you are such a softie (similar language to Joel 2:13, Exodus 34:6) — which is why I ran away before, and now I’m so miserable please just let me die. God asks Jonah if he has good reason to be angry, but Jonah just finds a spot outside the city where he can watch it, and sits there. It’s hot, and so God has a plant grow to shade Jonah, which makes him very happy. But then God sends a worm to make the plant wither, and He also sends a scorching wind with the hot sun, and so Jonah again asks for death. God asks Jonah this time if he has good reason to be angry about the plant, and Jonah says You bet I do, and God replies with these two sentences that are the last two verses in the book: “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
A couple of historical notes: First, Nineveh is on the Tigris River, was at one time the world’s largest city, and was the most important city and soon to be the capital of Israel’s archenemy, the evil Assyria, which ultimately captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel. According to my NIV study Bible, while Jonah doesn’t go into detail about Nineveh’s wickedness, the prophet Nahum does: “Nahum says that Nineveh was guilty of (1) evil plots against God (Nahum 1:9), (2) exploitation of the helpless (Nahum 2:12), (3) cruelty in war (Nahum 2:12, 13), [and] (4) idolatry, prostitution, and witchcraft (Nahum 3:4).” Second, the boat Jonah gets on is headed to “Tarshish,” and that may be in Spain or Sardinia, but the point is that it’s as far as possible in the opposite direction.
In notes I used when leading a discussion of this book in adult Sunday school class, it says that someone (I doubt it was me) has observed a parallel structure between chapters 1-2 and then chapters 3-4: first, God commands and Jonah reacts; there is then, second, pagan acceptance of God; and finally, third, we read about a prayer and talk with God.
We have a very active and engaged God in this book: sending a storm, providing a great fish to swallow someone and then spit him up, making a vine and then sending a worm to eat it, and finally sending a scorching wind — to say nothing of His conversations with Jonah. Note, by the way, that it’s actually lucky for Jonah that he was swallowed, since otherwise he would surely have drowned (the verbs in my translation of 1:17 is that God “provided” the great fish).
And I very much like this big-picture point made in the MacArthur Study Bible (Biblical citations omitted): “Jonah is a picture of Israel, who was chosen and commissioned by God to be His witness, who rebelled against His will, but who has been miraculously preserved by God through centuries of exile and dispersion to finally preach His truth.”
While Jonah is an Old Testament minor prophet, this is of course very much a New Testament kind of story. God loves everyone and is open to saving anyone who turns to Him and repents, Jew and Gentile alike. The MacArthur Study Bible notes that this is the only instance of God sending a prophet to a foreign land to preach to the Gentiles there. And the all-too-human Jonah is rather like the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable, is he not?
And there are (at least) these three New Testament references to Jonah, all spoken by Jesus:
Matthew 12: 39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Matthew 16: 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
Luke 11: 29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
So, what do the last two verses in the book — two sentences spoken by God — mean? It seems to me that He’s telling Jonah, “You love a short-lived plant that was simply a brief gift, so how can you begrudge My love for a city full of people, structures and creatures that took years, decades to fashion and are part of my intricate and complex Creation?”
I’ll note finally that “120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand” is often interpreted — and this is the most plausible interpretation to me — to mean very young children. The suggestion is that surely even the Ninevite-hating Jonah can’t wish for the deaths of such innocents. And those final words, “as well as many animals” — how curious! Is God teasing Jonah in some way?
- In the Septuagint, it’s “Jonas.”
- Jonah is mentioned in II Kings 14:25: “He [King Jeroboam II of Israel] was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” My Sunday school notes say, “became statesman who helped recover some of Israel’s territory; tomb in Nineveh [!].”
- We may not think of Jonah as heroic, and we know there is no love lost between him and at least some nonbelievers, but in 1:12 he volunteers to die in order to save the his pagan shipmates.
- Jonah, Ruth, and Esther can be grouped together in their own special little category, can they not?