It will help at the outset for me to affirm that the world of the Bible is the real world, where God is free to act within and to interact with His creation. Herein donkeys talk, axe heads float, people are raised from the dead, and fish swallow people.
When most people think of the Book of Jonah, they think of Jonah being swallowed by the “whale.” And yet, the great fish only occupies about 11 verses in the entire account. Thankfully, the Book of Jonah has a more poignantly theological focus than merely chronicling a fish swallowing a man. In reality, the story is not even about Jonah. God is the main character in the book of Jonah, and the real story is about His compassion on a reluctant prophet and a city full of heathens. The Book of Jonah shows Israel that salvation is not only for them.
The book begins with the commission of Jonah. In chapter 1, God tells Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and preach repentance (1:2), because God is planning to destroy the city if they do not turn from wickedness. Jonah, however, rejected the command of the Lord and sought to flee to Tarshish on a ship (1:3). However, the Lord “hurled” a great wind down on the sea, which caused the ship’s sailors to fear for their lives (1:4-5). At first, Jonah is indifferent to their plight -– he sleeps (1:5). The captain of the ship begs Jonah to pray to his “god” in the hopes that the entire crew will not drown (1:6). When the storm failed to subside, the sailors decided to cast lots to find out who was responsible for their calamity (1:7).
The lot fell on Jonah. The sailors questioned him about what could be causing the storm, and he confesses that he is a Hebrew and acknowledges that he worships the God who created both the sea and dry land (1:8-9). Jonah then confessed that he was fleeing from the Lord, which only caused them to be more frightened (1:10). Jonah, realizing the storm wouldn’t subside until he left, told them to throw him into the sea (1:12). The sailors initially refused, but their efforts to row to land were only causing the storm to worsen. So they prayed to the Lord and asked not to be held responsible for Jonah’s death as they threw him into the sea. This caused the sea to stop raging, and the sailors “feared the Lord greatly” (1:14-16).
Then the Lord caused a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he remained in the belly of the fish for three days and nights (1:17). After this, Jonah prayed to the Lord, acknowledging that God had preserved him. Jonah returns to the Lord, and promises to fulfill the vows he has made (2:9). After this, the Lord caused the fish to vomit Jonah up onto the dry land (2:10).
The Lord gives Jonah a second chance, telling him once again to go preach repentance in Nineveh (3:1-2). At last, Jonah journeyed to Nineveh (3:3). From the text, it seems that shortly after Jonah started preaching, people in Nineveh started repenting. Word of the happening reached the king, who himself repented, covering himself with sackcloth and ashes (3:6). He then issued a decree that no one in Nineveh would eat or drink until God answered their cries for him to withdraw his burning anger (3:9). God saw the repentance of the Ninevites, and so he withheld destruction from them (3:10).
However, this did not sit well with Jonah, who became angry (4:1). He was displeased because the Lord had shown mercy to Gentiles, and told God that his reluctance to see Gentiles saved from God’s wrath was the reason he had refused to obey in the first place (4:2). But even in his anger, Jonah acknowledges that God is a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (4:2). He then asks for the Lord to kill him, because “death is better to me than life” (4:3). Then Jonah went out of the city and made himself a shelter so he could see the city (4:5). God appointed a plant to grow over Jonah and provide him shade, which made Jonah very happy (4:6). The next day, however, God sent a worm to kill the plant and appointed a “scorching” wind to torment Jonah so that he became faint (4:7). Again, Jonah begged for death (4:8). God asks if Jonah has a good reason to be angry, to which Jonah replies that he does have a good reason to be mad about a plant withering (4:9). Here, the trap is sprung. God then shows Jonah that he has more compassion on a mere plant than he does for an entire city of people (4:10-11).
The book of Jonah isn’t ultimately about the life and times of the prophet Jonah. The canon of Scripture has one overriding metanarrative: the Son of God and His sacrifice for His people. Jonah is meant to show us Christ. The Book of Jonah is important because it clearly foreshadowed the preaching of the Gospel to all men. Although the book consists of only 58 verses, it is a wonderful example of God’s plan of salvation for men from every nation, tribe, and tongue. God’s mercy and grace were not limited to the Israelites.
The Israelites felt a spiritual superiority to other nations because of the covenant God had made with Abraham. Through Jonah, God was showing Israel (and Jonah) that His plan of mercy was for all nations (4:2, 10-11). Nineveh’s repentance was meant by God to shame Israel because of their refusal to repent even after being preached to by many prophets. This is consistent with the words of Christ in Matthew 11:23 where he told the inhabitants of Capernaum that if Sodom and Gomorrah had heard the words he was speaking and seen the miracles he performed, they would have repented and never have been destroyed. Christ also used the repentance of the Ninevites to prove the hardness of the Pharisee’s hearts (Mt 12:38-41). Nineveh repented at Jonah’s balky warning, but the Pharisees refused to repent for the greater Jonah.
The failure of Jonah to understand how God could have mercy on Gentile heathens correlates to the Jewish Christians’ struggle in the New Testament (Acts 10) of how Gentiles could receive God’s grace. But Jonah’s logic was, to him, commonsensical. The Assyrians had done wrong in the sight of the Lord, and Jonah thought they should be punished, repentant or not. Jonah learns, however, that God’s compassion is not a deficiency; His forgiveness is not a weakness. Jonah failed to realize that his own life was a prime example of God’s mercy in the face of open rebellion. Even though Jonah rebelled against God and tried to flee to Tarshish, God gave him a second chance to obey.
Readers must come to the book of Jonah as intended recipients of God’s communication, not just as a disconnected audience. We must realize that the objective of the entire Old Testament is to point readers to Christ, that the Bible itself is the Gospel. The first three chapters of the Book of Jonah are a typical story with a resolution that is agreeable to all. Jonah is reluctant to preach to the Gentiles, but when God teaches him a lesson, he is repentant and goes to spread God’s word. It seems like an ideal ending for the book of Jonah when the people respond to his message; the entire city (including the king) repents. But the fourth chapter is the problem at first glance. How could a missionary not be happy that people are responding to his message? But when we examine the fourth chapter more closely, we can better understand the grace of God in our own lives.
Jesus even tells a parable that is similar in structure to the book of Jonah. When Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, many storytellers would have ended the tale with the feast for the son who came home. But Jesus continues the parable and tells of the elder son who was jealous because his younger brother was treated well even though he had sinned greatly. The son who stayed home had not committed grievous sin, and was angry with his father for welcoming the prodigal son instead of chastising him. Jonah is in many ways like the prodigal son’s elder brother: prideful in his own self-righteousness and unwilling to offer the same grace he once received.
When Nineveh, which had been very evil in the sight of the Lord, wholeheartedly repented and sought God, God turned away His wrath and accepted their contrite spirits. This angered Jonah, who had evidently forgotten his own rebellious ways. He was angry that the promises the Lord had made to destroy the city were now void. In his spitefulness, he thought he was merely at odds with Nineveh, but he had insulted the God who had recently shown Jonah great mercy and grace when he did not deserve it. But God did not punish Jonah’s selfish anger, rather, he showed Jonah great mercy by helping him understand the global scale of His mercy and grace.