What is the Book of Jonah About?

Read this 3-minute introduction to help you find your bearings in the Bible story, and inspire you to read Jonah!


Historical Context

Jonah 1:1 specifically identifies the content of the book as the prophetic word that the Lord gave Jonah, whether Jonah wrote the account about himself or someone else wrote the account about Jonah.  

—Henrietta Mears 

Source: This content is from What the Bible Is All About, written by Henrietta Mears. Copyright © 1953, 2011 by Gospel Light. Copyright assigned to Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2015. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a division of Tyndale House Ministries., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.  

From Remember that the ultimate author of every book of the Bible is the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:21). He has written this book to equip you for life, to help you know the true God, and to give you hope (2 Timothy 3:16; Romans 15:4). The Holy Spirit wrote Jonah for your good and to lead you into joy.

Jonah prophesied during the peaceful and prosperous time of Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:23–28), who ruled in Israel (the northern kingdom) from 782 to 753 BC. This was a time when Assyria was not a threat to Israel. 

The Setting of Jonah 

c. 760 BC

Jonah prophesied during the prosperous time of King Jeroboam II of Israel (2 Kings 14:23-28). During this time the Assyrians were occupied with matters elsewhere in the empire, allowing Jeroboam II to capture much of Syria for Israel. The Lord called Jonah to go to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh to pronounce judgment upon it. Jonah attempted to escape the Lord’s calling by sailing to Tarshish, which was probably in the western Mediterranean. Eventually he obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh, at the heart of the Assyrian Empire.  

Unless otherwise indicated, this content is adapted from the ESV Global Study Bible® (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright ©2012 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Message Series

The Gospel According to Jonah by Christian Lwanda

Check out this phenomenal 4-part message series by Pastor Christian Lwanda. Pastor Lwanda speaks with clarity and passion, helping us understand the themes in Jonah, asking us searching questions, and leading us to Jesus Christ. His prayer is that through this series you would come to know the merciful and gracious God of the Bible.

Jonah Dictionary

As you read through Jonah, you might come across words and ideas that are foreign to you. Here are a few definitions you will want to know!

Pure; set apart; belonging to God. God is holy. He is perfect and without sin. Jesus is holy too. He is without sin and dedicated to doing what God wants. Because Jesus died to take the punishment for sin and then rose again, people who believe in him have the power to be holy too. God helps them to become more and more pure and loving, like Jesus.

A statue or other image of a god that is made by people and then worshiped as if it had the power of God. Idols are often made of wood, stone, or metal. Sometimes the Bible calls anything that takes the place of God in a person’s life an idol. God tells us not to worship idols but, rather, to worship only him.

A gift or offering given to God. A sacrifice usually involved killing an animal to pay for sin. The New Testament tells us that Jesus died as the once-for-all sacrifice for sinners and that no further sacrifices for sin are necessary.

(1) To be rescued (or delivered) from evil. (2) To be kept from danger or death. In the New Testament, salvation usually means to be rescued from the guilt and power of sin. By his death and resurrection, Jesus brings salvation to people who believe in him.

The permanent place in Jerusalem where the Jews worshiped God. The first temple was built by King Solomon and the people by following the instructions God had given Solomon’s father, King David. The temple was a very beautiful place. It was destroyed and rebuilt twice. In AD 64, the temple was destroyed again but was not rebuilt.

A promise, usually made to God.

Anything a person does to show love and respect. Some people worship idols. Some people worship the one true God.

This content is from What the Bible Is All About, written by Henrietta Mears. Copyright © 1953, 2011 by Gospel Light. Copyright assigned to Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2015. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a division of Tyndale House Ministries., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved. 

Tough Questions


The following insights are from pastors and scholars who have spent significant time studying the book of Jonah.

This book is not ultimately about Jonah. It’s not ultimately about a big fish. It’s not about the mariners. It’s not about the Ninevites. Ultimately, the book of Jonah is about a gracious God who extends his mercy to a people who do not deserve it.  

—Christian Lwanda 

Source: Christian Lwanda, quoted from his message, “The Running Prophet,” from his series The Gospel According to Jonah 

 And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. Unless Jonah can see his own sin, and see himself as living wholly by the mercy of God, he will never understand how God can be merciful to evil people and still be just and faithful. The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck, to show him these things. Jonah runs and runs. But even though he uses multiple strategies, the Lord is always a step ahead. God varies his strategies too, and continually extends mercy to us in new ways, even though we neither understand nor deserve it.  

—Tim Keller 

Source: Tim Keller, quoted from his book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy, published by Viking.

The real question is why was the book of Jonah written? What’s the theme? What’s it really about? It’s a great story; it’s a narrative. But what is it really about? Usually the more liberal commentators say it’s about race. It’s about Jonah’s nationalism and his racism. Other people say it’s about mission. It’s about how we must go into all the world and preach the gospel and not be afraid to do that, and not be unwilling to do that. And some people say it’s about grace—not so many do say that, but I’m going to tell you I think if you have to choose between race, grace, and mission, it’s mainly about grace… If you go through the entire book, you’ll see that that’s Jonah’s struggle. Here’s Jonah’s struggle: How can God be both just and merciful to such a wicked nation as the Assyrians?

The answer to that can’t happen inside the book of Jonah. In fact, the answer can’t even happen inside the Old Testament. The reason it can’t is because in the end the only way we’re going to see how God can be both absolutely just and yet absolutely merciful and forgiving at the same time is when you get to the cross. … Really the book of Jonah is mainly about grace and about Jonah’s inability to grasp grace, and his inability to understand how God could be both just and merciful. So, it’s about the gospel, even though the answer to the question doesn’t happen inside the book of Jonah. You have to put the book of Jonah in its context in the whole Bible and see how it points to the New Testament where alone we have the answer to Jonah’s question.

—Tim Keller

Source: Tim Keller, quoted from his message, “What A Minor Prophet Teaches Us About Race, Grace, and Nationalism,” published by The Gospel Coalition on YouTube