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A Whale of a Tale: 4 Things to Help You Catch the Book of Jonah

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Bible, Old Testament, Sermons

There aren't many Bible stories that can claim a recent Bruce Springsteen song and a Veggie Tales movie, but Jonah can. And it makes sense. The story offers everything we love: a villainous hero (or is he a heroic villain?), fast-paced action, profound insights about the human condition, and a mesmerizing look at God's scandalous mercy. It is one of the few Old Testament books that seems to speak to everyone—scholar or preschooler, the specialist in Hebrew syntax or one who barely knows English (and it's your mother tongue!).

Of course, the best way to grab hold of Jonah's message is to read it. It's short enough that you could read it daily for several days. Jonah is also one of those stories where knowing the end really helps you at the beginning.

Here are a four things to help you go deeper into this odd prophet's message.


Jonah doesn't say much about himself in the book that bears his name, but we learn a few things back in 2 Kings 14:23-27. In that passage he is identified in several important ways. He is the "servant" of Jeroboam II, a king who ruled for "forty-one years" in Israel (v. 23, 25). Despite this king's "evil," his reign was marked by massive expansion and a kind of political and military golden age for the northern kingdom. Its destruction was not far away, only a few decades after Jeroboam's death, but during this period in the middle of the 8th century BC things looked good.

Jonah also spoke "the word of the LORD, the God of Israel" and was called "the prophet" (v. 25). He prophesies to Jeroboam, but the book of Jonah also demonstrates his calling. He hears from God and speaks that message to others.

He also came "from Gath-hepher" (v. 25), a village in the northern kingdom near the Sea of Galilee. It was only a few miles from Nazareth and very close to Bethlehem. Both 2 Kings 14:25 and Jonah 1:1 identify him as "Jonah the son of Amittai." Anything else about Amittai is lost to us, but adding "the son of _____" after a person's name was a way to signal importance in the Bible.


So, what exactly is the book of Jonah? Scholars spend a lot of time analyzing types of biblical writing and trying to articulate exactly what a given passage is. Is it history or fiction? Poetry or prose? And if it's history, what kind of history? There are categories and sub-categories and sub-sub-categories. Sometimes this is extremely helpful, but sometimes not so much.

The style of Jonah has thus gotten a lot of attention. Some see the dramatic episodes and view it as an unusual kind of parable. Others see its obvious attention to historical detail and the fact it reads much like one of the episodes in the life of Elijah (1 Kgs 17ff.). They would say it is simply narrative or history.

I think it's best to use a phrase like theological history to describe Jonah. Like the opening chapters of Genesis or events in the life of Christ, sometimes things happen in a particular way that are meant to convey layers of meaning. The events of Jonah 4 are an example. God will cause a plant to grow just to kill it to make a point to the embittered prophet. The belly of the great fish will be a symbolic "Sheol" that God delivers his rebellious evangelist out of (Jonah 2:2).

This means that we ought not doubt the historical reliability of the book, but we should also not miss the layers of meaning in its history. It is history, but it isn't mere history.


What do we need to know about the city of Nineveh? It was an ancient city first mentioned in Genesis 10:11-12. Eventually it would be at the center of the Assyrian empire. During Jeroboam II's lifetime Assyria was in a state of decline. Perhaps this is why preaching like Jonah's might have had such an impact. They would be occupied with their own struggles for a little while longer, but in 722 BC they become a crushing force that will nearly wipe out Israel's northern kingdom. Jewish readers of this Minor Prophet could not miss that Nineveh is the eventual capital of the Assyrian kingdom, and any talk of God's mercy to this godless nation would be offensive because many lived to see Assyria devastate their families and destroy their cities. Assyria's conquest of Israel is described in 2 Kings 17:6ff, just a couple chapters after Jonah is mentioned. We don't know for sure if Jonah preached to Nineveh during Jeroboam II's reign in the middle 700s BC or after the fall of Israel. Most scholars think it was during Jeroboam's reign, but it could have been later. Either way, from Genesis 10:11-12 to the end of the Bible Nineveh and Assyria are always identified with the enemies of the people of God, or at least those outside of the covenant of God and thus his promises. And that brings us to the fourth key to remember as we read Jonah.


What is the point of the story? Some stories feed you the meaning as you go, and the whole story adds on to that initial truth. Most TV cop shows tell you in the first sixty seconds who died, and you know for the next 42 minutes (if you're watching on Netflix), you'll be watching as suspects come and go until the last sixty seconds when you learn who did it and why.

Jonah isn't written like that. For the first three chapters you're reading about a conflicted man on astounding adventures who's having direct interactions with the living God. You know he's a reluctant prophet, but you don't know why. You know God is trying to teach us something, but it's not clear what.

Well, like a joke that leads to a punchline, Jonah builds until chapter four. In the final chapter you get some sense of the point of the whole story. This comes in two ways, both of them a bit indirect. First is a rant that Jonah speaks against God's plan for Nineveh. Immediately after Nineveh repents and God "relented of the disaster" he threatened to bring on them, we don't get another psalm by Jonah celebrating God's mercy. We get quite the opposite:

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Jonah 4:1-2

Jonah's bitterness at his appointed errand has to do with the character of God—God is merciful to the undeserving—and the recipients of that mercy. When Jonah himself receives mercy he sings a hymn (Jonah 2), but when Nineveh receives the same undeserved mercy Jonah is ready to die in frustration (4:3). God's mercy for Jonah is nothing short of scandalous. God's mercy is reinforced by the last two verses of the book:

And the LORD said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And 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 4:10-11

Again Jonah is held up for comparison and found wanting. He gets emotionally attached to a plant which he didn't make grow and which lasts a day. For this prophet Nineveh isn't worth the affection given to a plant. The Lord, on the other hand, "pities" the multitude in Nineveh. They repented of their evil and so avoided the judgment of God (Jonah 3). Thus, with Nineveh, like the sailors in Jonah 1, Yahweh is proving again to be "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster"? (4:2).


This means that Jonah speaks to us like the prodigal son parable in Luke 15:11-32. In that parable the two sons each have a message to speak to us. The prodigal reveals the undeserved and non-judgmental grace of God to the radically undeserving. Yet, Jesus was speaking this parable to Pharisees who trusted in themselves (15:1-2). The older brother thus speaks in the parable as well. He felt deserving of the rewards the father was giving to the prodigal and saw his hellion brother as an unworthy traitor. The very self-righteousness of the older brother became a wall that prevented him from receiving the free grace of the father—free grace that must be received as a gift and cannot be earned!

Jonah speaks these two messages to us as well. To the humble who feel unworthy he speaks of God's scandalous mercy that is available to all without qualification. But to the proud and self-righteous Jonah speaks to our hard and calloused hearts and warns us against judging those to whom God has chosen to extend mercy. God's mercy is a free mercy that he dispenses as he pleases: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" (Rom 9:15, citing Exod 33:19).


For you and I to receive God's mercy, it's going to take something much more than Jonah and his amazing journey. We need Jesus, who is "something greater than Jonah" (Matt. 12:41). Nineveh repented in some way of their blindness to God's judgment, but for us to be recipients of God's eternal mercies we need more than a cranky prophet: We need a Savior.

Jonah points us to that Savior. Jonah's preaching points to "something greater" in the preaching of Jesus. The Ninevites responded to Jonah's warnings of judgment, but Jesus promises eternal life to all who believe in him (John 3:16-17). And Jonah's time in the "belly of the great fish" points to "something greater," the time when "the Son of Man [was] three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt 12:40). Jesus was beaten, crucified, buried, raised from the dead, and exalted to God's right hand so that you and I could receive mercy.

God's mercy is for undeserving prodigals like the Ninevites, and it is a mercy for self-righteous older brothers like Jonah himself. God's scandalous mercy is available to us, so let us receive it! And it is available to all, so let us tell others about it!

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