Background of Jonah
Author and Date
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 Lord called Jonah to go to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh to pronounce judgment on it. Jonah attempted to escape the Lord’s calling by sailing from the seaport of Joppa to Tarshish, which was probably on the shores of the western Mediterranean. Eventually he obeyed the Lord and traveled overland to Nineveh.
The primary theme in Jonah is that God’s compassion is boundless, not limited just to “us” (Jonah and the Israelites) but also available for “them” (the pagan sailors and the Ninevites).
1. God is in sovereign control over all events on the earth.
2. God is determined to get his message to the nations.
3. People need to repent from sin in general, and from self-centeredness and hypocrisy in particular.
4. God promises that he will forgive when people repent.
The story of Jonah includes seven episodes, with the first three paralleled by the second three. The final episode stands alone as the climax of the story:
A. Jonah’s commissioning and flight (1:1–3)
B. Jonah and the pagan sailors (1:4–16)
C. Jonah’s grateful prayer (1:17–2:10)
A’. Jonah’s recommissioning and compliance (3:1–3a)
B’. Jonah and the pagan Ninevites (3:3b–10)
C’. Jonah’s angry prayer (4:1–4)
D. Jonah’s lesson about compassion (4:5–11)
The Setting of Jonah
The Global Message of Jonah
The theme of Jonah is God’s saving mercy toward the nations of the world. The Lord’s compassion is not only for insiders like Jonah and Israel but also for outsiders like the Ninevites. Jonah vividly displays the heart of mercy God has for all people groups of the world, even those known for their godlessness. If only they will repent, God’s compassion is available to any persons from any nation or ethnicity.
Jonah in Redemptive History
God’s Global Intent
God called Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This commission was hindered with the fall into sin, but was given in grace once more to Noah and then to Abraham and the patriarchs (Genesis 8:17; 9:1; 17:20; 28:3; 35:11). Abraham, however, was called not only to be fruitful and become “a great nation” but also to “be a blessing” so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3). Abraham and his children were to be a channel of divine blessing to the whole world.
Built into the Old Testament story from very early on, then, is God’s desire to reach the ends of the earth with his goodness and saving mercy. Israel was not called out and chosen by God solely for her own sake—she was called out so that she might bring blessing to the nations (Isaiah 42:6–7; 49:6). Part of the tragedy of Israel’s persistent faithlessness and idolatry over many generations was their ethnocentrism: they turned their focus inward rather than spreading divine blessing to the nations around them. Paul speaks of Israel’s failure in this regard many times, as in his letter to the Romans (Romans 2:1–29). Jesus too addresses the Jewish failure to bring God’s blessing to the nations, as in the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:33–46; compare Luke 24:47; John 10:16; Acts 1:8).
Jonah’s Role in God’s Global Intent
This inward focus of Israel is also seen in Jonah. The prophet at first refuses to go to Nineveh, the godless Assyrian city, because, he says, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah failed to see that God’s compassion was for all people; the very “steadfast love” he had received in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:8) was the “steadfast love” he did not want to share with the nations (Jonah 4:2), yet which they desperately needed, and which God stood ready to give to them.
With the coming of Christ, the blessing of God finally begins to flood out to the nations. Indeed, Jesus’ commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel picks up and extends the commission given to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and subdue the earth, multiplying not only physically but also spiritually (“make disciples of all nations”; Matthew 28:19). And one day the blessing experienced by the Ninevites will be fulfilled in cosmic proportions as Jesus Christ is worshiped by a “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
Universal Themes in Jonah
The Compassion of God
This is the key theme of Jonah. It is the note on which the book ends, as the Lord asks a despondent Jonah, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). God’s merciful compassion is not restricted to insiders. His mercy is for all who repent. Divine compassion is shown not to those who think they deserve such compassion but to those who receive it with repentance and humility—as the Ninevites did.
God’s Sovereign Purposes
God does whatever it takes—from a storm at sea to a great fish to the miraculous response of repentance by the Ninevites—to bring his boundless compassion to the nations. As Jonathan said to his armor bearer, “nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6). God delights to invite his people’s glad participation in what he is doing in the world, yet he is not bound by their obedience or disobedience. No matter how God’s people respond, God will accomplish his saving purposes for the world.
The Universal Need for Grace
The Ninevites needed grace for their wickedness. But Jonah, the insider, the prophet, also needed grace. He was shown grace in the belly of the fish, and yet his heart remained stubborn even at the end of the story. He is resentful, refusing to feel the same pity for Nineveh that he felt for a small plant (Jonah 4:5–10). In short, he is a sinner—a hard-hearted man who is in need of mercy, the same mercy that God extended to the Ninevites. The steadfast love shown to Israel is needed by Israelites just as much as by the godless nations to whom Israel was called to bring it. The story stops where it does precisely in order to make this point.
The Global Message of Jonah for Today
The message of Jonah is an urgent call for the global church to extend to others the compassion they themselves have received.
One way we do this is through tangible acts of love such as financial generosity, hospitality, sharing of resources and personal possessions, and advocacy on behalf of those in need politically or socially. One thinks, for instance, of the alarming rate at which human trafficking and slavery are spreading. Such horrors demand active advocacy.
A second and even more crucial way we can extend compassion to others is through the spoken Word, just as Jonah did (Jonah 3:3–4). Mindful of the “steadfast love” God has shown to us in Christ, we speak to others of the same steadfast love that is available to all the peoples of the world, regardless of class, ethnicity, or any other socially defining marker. The gospel of Christ crucified is that which is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), and we gladly and courageously pass it on to those who have not heard it.
We speak the gospel to lost people with confidence, knowing that the results are in God’s hands. Humanly speaking, no one in Nineveh was less likely to respond to Jonah’s preaching than the king. But God sovereignly caused Jonah’s preaching to pierce the hearts of the Ninevites, “from the greatest of them to the least of them,” including the king (Jonah 3:5–9)!