The book of Jonah is a very intriguing book in the Old Testament for it is not like any other book. It is hard to accurately know which category of literature Jonah would fall into because it is drastically different. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament states that to appropriately categorize the book of Jonah, one should define it to be a prophetic narrative. However, it is unlike most prophetic narratives in that it does not glorify the man of God being spoken of or showcase him as a mediator. Jonah is portrayed as anything but a hero.# In reading the book of Jonah, one can see that at the very beginning of the book, Jonah runs from the voice and command of the Lord. To further set it apart from Old Testament prophetic books, this book is written about the person of Jonah and not what message he preached. The book opens and gives the bare minimum of information about Jonah. It provides that he is the son of Amittai, who is not known, and that he is called to go to Nineveh and preach.# Jonah’s personal story is not needed in order to develop and understand the book because the book is about Jonah’s development.
The authorship of the book of Jonah seems to be one individual because it has a consistent flow and theme throughout. However, there is some controversy that Chapter 2 of the book of Jonah is pieced into the whole of the book. It seems to be a Psalm of thanksgiving to the Lord before Jonah is even released from the fish. The writer of Jonah seems to have taken the already existing psalm and placed it into his work as a way to express the prayer of Jonah.# Jonah was a prophet and this could have been an instance where he realized what he had done. He saw that God would soon be delivering him because he wanted him to go share the news with Nineveh. Recognizing that he surely would have perished in the sea, Jonah saw the saving power of the Lord and was moved to a place of thanksgiving. It could be, though, that this really was how Jonah approached God from inside the fish because of what is seen as the book progresses. Another question to consider is whether the author could have been Jonah himself. This story carries a somewhat negative view of Jonah and is very critical of him, which makes it unlikely that Jonah would write in this way about himself. It is not the norm to see writers of the Bible portray themselves in this way, so it would be a lengthy assumption to say Jonah did.#
There are no instances in the book of Jonah which lead to an accurate account for when this book was written. In verse 3 of chapter 3 of the book, the author makes reference on how Nineveh was a great city. This could give some helpful insight to the time frame of the writing of this book since Nineveh fell in 612 B.C. However, there is nothing clear to display an accurate estimation of the date of writing. Even the way in which Nineveh is spoken of hints at it being during the time when Nineveh was capital of Assyria. These are examples that give strength to the author being from a later period writing the past down for parable sake.#
There is a rich theology within the book of Jonah and the Lord displays himself to Jonah as a God of power, grace, and compassion. This book gives us a highly complex relationship between God and Jonah. Jonah is a very stubborn and independent man who seems to frequently wrestle with doing what God wants him to do. At the very beginning of the book, in the first two verses, it is clear that God’s power is on display. He speaks to Jonah and tells him to go speak against, or warn, Nineveh of the destruction God will bring upon them. He has the power to destroy one of the greatest cities of that time. Nineveh was a great and powerful city; thriving and recognized. When Jonah hears the voice of the Lord, he runs from the call of God. There is a responsibility given to Jonah from the Lord and Jonah displays a lack of obedience and faith. It had been destined, by God, for Jonah to go to Nineveh. This book hones in on the journey of a man who was learning how to obey and act as a man should when the voice of the Lord comes to him. Jonah did not understand that fleeing to Tarshish would not stop God from accomplishing what he needed accomplished. Nobody else could complete this task given by God. It is not that everyone else was incapable of doing so, just that Jonah needed this moment.
“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god” (1:4-5). The Lord stirred up a storm to get the attention of Jonah and let him know that he was running in disobedience. All the sailors recognized the act of a supernatural force and began to fear and call on their gods. What can be seen here, is a God who has power to cause all men to fear him and submit to him. These men aboard the ship did not know or follow the God of the universe, but in that moment they had seen the power of God displayed. It goes on to say in verse nine that Jonah shared with them who he was and the God he serves, and they were terrified. When the men threw Jonah overboard, the sea calmed immediately and these men all realized the power the Lord possessed. They feared the Lord and offered sacrifice to Him, committing themselves to the Lord. Now, Jonah had also recognized God’s divine power and his anger for the disobedience of Jonah. He told the men he was running from God and when he came up from his sleep and saw the roaring storm, he began to fear that God had noticed his disobedience. There is a contrast between two fears in this first chapter: reverent and irreverent fear. The reverent fear came from the men who did not know the Lord. They were struck with a reverent fear that God was full of power and was worthy of praise. He created the land and sea and the storms that could ravish ships. They knew that what they had seen and experienced was sovereign and that the Lord was God. In contrast, Jonah ran from God with an irreverent fear. A fear that disobeys and is stubborn. This type of fear does not express gratification and honor to the Lord. To be reverent means to show respect and to take seriously the person or thing at hand. Jonah did not understand the seriousness of God and his calling for the city of Nineveh. A period of humility before God was experienced by Jonah as he stood in front of the men and told them to throw him overboard. Jonah began to realize that God was serious and the power and authority displayed before him was to be feared.
In chapter two of the book of Jonah, we see a man who is faced with responding to God’s power. “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights” (1:17). The power of the Lord spared Jonah inside of a fish and gave Jonah a chance to respond to Him. The whole second chapter gives the prayer that Jonah cried out to God from inside the fish. The interesting point to this prayer is that it seems to hold a confidence that God will deliver him from this situation. Confidence in the Lord differs from earthly confidence for it places all authority in the hands of the Lord. So in essence, what is called faith is allowing God to have all the authority to accomplish and deliver. Jonah prays with that confidence and minimizes himself, to the point of saying that he had turned from the way of the Lord and will now turn back. Jonah knows that God offers grace and deliverance to all people, but not all people receive that. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs” (2:8). The Lord is a gracious God and he provides the opportunity for his servant Jonah to repent and turn back to him. The journey of grace through God is displayed in the fullest when Jonah declares at the end of chapter two that salvation comes from the Lord. Jonah admits from his own mouth the magnitude of salvation that only God can give, even though later on he would not appreciate the salvation of Nineveh.
Through God’s gracious deliverance of Jonah, he sends Jonah into Nineveh to display His compassion for the lost. Jonah begins to speak of the destruction to come and shares with the Ninevites how God will bring wrath upon them for their wickedness, they turn to God and believe in him. The structure of the book of Jonah eloquently allows the reader to see Jonah’s redemption juxtaposed with Nineveh’s redemption before unveiling the bitterness of Jonah’s heart. The heart of God, which is full of compassion, allows for Jonah to receive grace from God in order to share that same opportunity with Nineveh. God is a jealous God and loves to see his people worship and depend upon Him. When Nineveh declared a fast and ridded themselves of all but God, there was a beautiful moment of compassion and salvation from the Lord. The king of Nineveh showed great persistence and endurance with declaring the fast and the lifestyle that his people would now live. He says not to eat or drink and only wear sackcloth and stay this way until God hears and shows compassion upon them. He believes that god is so full of love and kindness that he might forgive them of the wrongdoings and spare them from the destruction. The compassion of the Lord filled the hearts of the Ninevites, but turned the heart of Jonah.
When Jonah realized that God was going to exercise forgiveness and compassion on the city of Nineveh, he was so perplexed. He looked past all that God had done for him and became full of anger. Jonah felt as though God did not need him to come to Nineveh and share the warning with them because he knew in his heart that God would spare them. Rather than viewing it as God using him, he saw this as God teasing him and wearing him out. Jonah could not embrace the heart of compassion like God could and he left the city in fury. The Lord does not hold grudges and His grace never runs out for someone. He puts on display, through the journey of Jonah, that he loves His people and wants all men to fear and know Him. The irony of this, however, is that while all the men of the ship and hundreds of thousands in Nineveh were turning to God, the one God chose and sent could not release his selfish desires and fully turn to God. God can use anybody to save anybody, no matter what they have done. He has power, grace, and compassion that is more reviving than anything in the world.
When one looks at the Old Testament canon as a whole and studies Jonah through it, the findings are quite defining. One thing to note is that this is the only time in the Old Testament where God calls Israel to actively go share him with the Gentiles. Many Gentiles became converted Jews, but it was from seeing the contrast in lifestyle. When God begins to stir up the sea in the story of Jonah, the sovereignty of God over all creation can be seen just as he created the land and sea (Gen. 1:9-10). The hard-heart that Jonah displays throughout the book also allows us to revisit the hard-heart of Pharaoh and his reluctance to obey what God was commanding. Jonah even went as far as Pharaoh did in that he complied with going to Nineveh and warning them, but when God showed compassion, he regretted going and doing so. Pharaoh complied with letting the Egyptians go to freedom, but once he had released them, turned his heart again and pursued them (See Exodus). There is a similar comparison to the prayer of repentance offered up by Jonah with many prayers through the Psalms. It is almost as if this prayer of Jonah was pulled from the Psalms. The book of Jonah fits well into the context of the whole Old Testament, especially when looking at the theme of God as Creator, King, and Judge. He was able to display these roles through the story of Jonah along with the characteristics of power, grace and compassion.
The relevance of the book of Jonah echoes into today’s culture with many applications available. The Lord is still ever powerful, gracious, and compassionate and he still longs to see His people know an fear him. God still calls His people to action and gives them responsibility to share who He is and the warning He has for people living in sin. Many people today are caught up in the self-centered approach to life. They go through every day and every situation with the mindset that it has to work for them and fit their schedule. It has to appeal to them and if they think it is not worth the effort, they will run from it. Many people today run from the true God because it is to much work to know and fear Him. Others will reluctantly obey, but it has to be on their time or after they have gone through the pain of disobedience. Christianity is made so hard in today’s society because it takes the focus off of the “I” and puts it on the “Most High.” What if people today embraced the of being obedient to God for the difference it can make in someone’s life?
The church today desperately needs to be preaching God as creator, King, and Judge. The church needs to present the powerful, gracious, and compassionate God that is seen in the book of Jonah. People need to be able to go into a church on a Sunday morning and understand the responsibility and weight they have in obeying the voice of the Lord. There has to be emphasis put on what comes as a result of disobedience. There are so many people today, who live life the way Jonah lived life. They hear the voice of the Lord and they flee from it because they believe God will just find someone else. They try to avoid the responsibility which God has given to them and then wonder why they are going through so much struggle. There are many people in the church today who give themselves to God or pray the prayer of salvation, but then get so angry at God when he does not bless them the way they want. God provided so much for them and gave them great opportunities, but yet they fail to see through this lenses. Today’s society needs people who will fear the Lord with reverence and embrace the grace which God gives so freely. There is no shortage of power or grace for God and his compassion towards the people of Nineveh is the same compassion as for people today. What could happen if people began to push aside their gods and evil ways and positioned themselves in a place to wait for God to have compassion on them and use them? God used Jonah, a stubborn, hard-headed man, to save hundreds of thousands of people. There are hundreds of thousands more to be reached today. God wants to show himself to all people and make His name holy among them.