The book of Jonah tells one of the most familiar, yet unique stories in all of Scripture. It’s a story of a rebellious prophet who despises God for loving his enemies.
Jonah is unique from other prophetic books because it is a story written about Jonah, rather than a series of stories or sermons written by Jonah.
Jonah is introduced in 2 Kings 14:23-25, during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Northern Israel. In this story, Jonah prophesies to the king that God’s favor will be with him when he goes to war against another nation. But the prophet Amos, who also lived during the reign of Jeroboam, rebukes Jonah’s prophecy in Amos 6:14 and proclaims that God’s favor will not be with the king, and his land will be oppressed.
The story of Jonah begins with Jonah’s commission to preach God’s message of coming judgment and the need to repent in Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, who conquered Israel and drove its people into exile.
So when he receives his commission from God, Jonah runs the opposite direction and boards a ship headed for Tarshish—as far west as a man could go in Jonah’s time.
While on board, Jonah falls asleep below deck and God sends a violent storm to wake him.
The sailors wake Jonah, and he convinces them that he serves God, and if they throw him overboard to his death, God will calm the storm.
The sailors relent and throw him overboard, but recognize the sin of throwing a man to his death, turn to God and ask for forgiveness. God listens to them, and calms the storm. Then the sailors give their hearts to God and begin worshiping Him after the sea calms.
As the story goes, Jonah is swallowed by a “great fish” and stays inside its belly for three days and three nights.
While inside the fish, Jonah prays to God. He thanks God for not abandoning him and promises to obey God’s command.
In chapter 3, God commands the fish to spit Jonah onto land and repeats His commission to Jonah: “‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you’” (Jonah 3:1).
Jonah obeys and travels to Nineveh, proclaiming this message: “‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned’” (Jonah 3:4).
Jonah’s brief message pierces the hearts of the people, including the king, who takes off his royal robes, puts on a garment of mourning, repents of his sins and believes in God. He then commands all of the city to repent and worship God.
So what Jonah had intended to be a message of destruction, God used as a message of repentance and transformation.
Rather than rejoice at the salvation of an entire city, Jonah grows angry at God for showing compassion and mercy to his enemies. He prays to God to kill him on the spot. He would rather die than see the Ninevites worship God.
But rather than kill Jonah, God teaches him a lesson. He provides a vine to shelter Jonah from the heat of the day as he looks out over Nineveh. But overnight, God sends a worm to destroy the vine. As Jonah sits in the sweltering heat, he again begs to be killed.
The book ends with God’s words to Jonah.
“‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people?’”
God reminds Jonah that the Ninevites are God’s creation, and though they have sinned greatly, they are still loved by the God of all compassion and mercy.
No one is too far gone for God.
Satire: Jonah is a satire—a story designed to expose character flaws by poking fun of them in ironic or exaggerated ways. The story is full of commonly stereotyped characters who do the exact opposite of what one would expect them to do. The prophet, who is supposed to be a man fully devoted to God, hates what God has asked him to do. The sailors, who are supposed to be vulgar and immoral, are repentant and turn to God with humble hearts. The king of Nineveh, who leads a murderous empire, hears Jonah’s sermon and immediately repents of his sin and turns to God; the book says that even his cows repent.
HOW DOES THIS FIT INTO GOD’S STORY?
Jonah offers a unique look at God’s plan for salvation. God’s saving power and mercy is greater than Jonah’s reluctance, pride and prejudice, and no one is too lost for God to save if they turn to Him in humility and repentance.
Studying the characters in Jonah allows readers to reflect on their attitudes toward the lost. Do we truly forgive and love our enemies? Or do we run away from the Lord about certain issues, afraid of being exposed?
Jesus shows us the path we ought to take.
“‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’” (Matthew 5:43-44).