The Minor Prophets: Jonah

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Editors Note:  Did you miss the start of Robb’s awesome series on the Minor Prophets?  Click here!

While the Minor Prophets are generally unfamiliar to most American Evangelicals, the one book that we all know and love is the book of Jonah. Jonah has captured the imaginations of cinematographers, illustrators, animators, and painters who have tried to capture in visual form what we read about in this fantastic little book. Jonah was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:23-28), who reigned from about 792-739 BC. He therefore ministered during a time of great prosperity in the northern kingdom (for more background on this time period, see my earlier post on the book of Amos, one of Jonah’s contemporaries). Furthermore, he had the privilege of announcing good news to the nation of Israel: their borders would be extended and restored to lengths not enjoyed since the days of Solomon. While other prophets often brought messages of doom and gloom to the people of God, indicting them for their covenant violations and warning them of the coming covenant curses, Jonah came with a message of restoration. In our reading of the book of Jonah, it’s easy to overlook these other aspects of Jonah’s ministry and to forget the positive message he was chosen to bring to Israel.

The Prophet Jonah by Michelangelo - Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

The Prophet Jonah by Michelangelo – Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Unsurprisingly, given what we know about the prophets, Jonah was also given a message of judgment. But this message of judgment was not directed toward Israel and Israel’s iniquities. Jonah’s message of judgment from God was directed at the hated Ninevites, those most barbaric and wicked people to the northeast of Israel. The Ninevites had proved to be a constant threat to Israel’s national security, and they eventually would conquer the nation of Israel when the Assyrians overthrew the northern kingdom in 722. What could be more delightful for God’s prophet than to pronounce God’s judgment on such dreadful enemies of God and His covenant people! Jonah, moreover, was not called to declare God’s coming judgment upon the Ninevites from within the confines of Israel, as Obadiah would do in the southern kingdom against the Edomites; Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and declare this judgment right there in the midst of that Gentile, pagan city. You might think Jonah was salivating at the chance to go and let the Ninevites know that God was going to destroy them.

Surprisingly, however, Jonah did the exact opposite of what God commanded. He hopped a ship to Tarshish, the westernmost city with which he was familiar (probably in Spain), and ran away from God’s call. We all know the story, and if you don’t know the story, you can read it pretty quickly. As you think through the book of Jonah, you might come across some popular misconceptions about the book. Let’s consider two possible errors people make when reading the book of Jonah that distort their understanding of the book and its main point.

The first misunderstanding that people often have about Jonah is the purpose of the great fish God appointed to swallow him. I have often heard people describe the fish as God’s judgment upon Jonah for running away, and only after Jonah had spent some time in the belly of the sea monster did he finally repent and acquiesce to God’s command to go to Nineveh. But is this really the case?

The critical chapter in understanding the purpose of the great fish is in Jonah 2, where Jonah prays to God from the stomach of the fish. Jonah had been on a ship headed to Tarshish when the sailors threw him overboard to calm the raging storm God had sent. Jonah 1:17 simply tells us that God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in the fish for three days and three nights. For most people, spending such an extended period of time in fish guts would not be considered luxurious lodgings. However, for Jonah, it appears the arrival of the God-ordained fish was a moment of salvation. Jonah 2:2 tells us that Jonah cried to the Lord from the depth of Sheol, indicating that Jonah believed he was tottering on the brink of death. He had been cast into the deep and into the heart of the seas, covered with waves (v. 3).  In verse 4, he recognizes that his descent toward the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea was God’s judgment upon him for his disobedience to God’s call. Nevertheless, although God had judged him, he still determined to pray. With seaweed blinding his eyes and water beginning to fill his lungs, Jonah found himself trapped in a prison of death (vv. 5-6). It was just as he was about to expire that God heard and answered his prayer (v. 7). For what did Jonah pray? For deliverance from death. For mercy from God. And deliverance came from God by means of the sea monster that swallowed Jonah alive and carried him to shore over a period of three prayer-filled days. In the belly of the beast, Jonah determined to do what God commanded him to do. God had spared his life by nothing less than a miracle, and Jonah was ready to comply with God’s orders. The great fish, therefore, was not an instrument of judgment for Jonah, but one of salvation and deliverance.

Pieter Lastman - Jonah and the Whale, 1621

Pieter Lastman – Jonah and the Whale, 1621

Another error people make when reading Jonah is in understanding the genre. Wrongly, many think that Jonah is fiction. They read the narrative as a parable written to teach a moral lesson, often a lesson condemning racism or ethnocentrism. However, to deny the historicity of the book of Jonah is a grave mistake. One day when the crowds surrounding Jesus asked Him for a sign, He referred to the book of Jonah and said that the sign of Jonah was the only sign they would be given (Luke 11:29). He then went on to assert, “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32). So, here’s the question: Was our Lord correct or mistaken in thinking the men of Nineveh were historical persons who would appear before the judgment seat of God? If Jesus taught that the Ninevites who heard Jonah preached would be present at the judgment, as He did, then the only possible conclusion is that Jonah actually did go and preach to people who lived in Nineveh, and those people genuinely repented of their sins! The book of Jonah is not a parable or a fictional tale, but it is historical narrative that relates what a literal man named Jonah preached and how a historical city named Nineveh responded to his preaching.

One lesson from this point that is vital to learn is that rejecting the historical nature of Scripture even at what might appear to be insignificant points brings about theological disaster. To deny the historicity of Jonah is to make our Lord mistaken at best or a liar at worst. Either option thoroughly disqualifies Him as the Son of God and Savior of the world. While narratives about sea monsters swallowing runaway prophets and cities lamenting and repenting might seem fanciful, secondary, or parabolic to modern sensibilities, biblical sensibilities must prevail for the believer. The Gospel is at stake in the book of Jonah.

Jonah is a critical book of the Bible, not a children’s fable. It is one place where the death and resurrection of Christ after three days in the grave is clearly foreshadowed. And it reminds us that no matter how wicked a city or nation may be, when God’s man shows up with God’s message and preaches with God’s power, anything can happen.

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