The story of “Jonah and the whale” is almost as ubiquitous as any “tale as old as time.” Jonah remains one of the most recognized prophets in the Old Testament (OT) corpus, which is paradoxical considering the book of Jonah contains almost no record of the prophet’s actual prophetic message. Indeed, there are only five (!) Hebrew words that are preserved from the message Jonah delivered to people of Nineveh, which led to their repentance, encapsulating only a single verse in the English translation of the OT.1 (Jon 3:4–5) Such is what makes the prophecy of Jonah unlike any other prophetic book in the OT canon. “None other,” writes D. Stuart, “is so dominantly biographical and so minimally reflective of a prophet’s preached words.”2
Rather than incorporating a robust collection of Jonah’s divine proclamations, the narrator of the book of Jonah is primarily concerned with painting a sweeping narrative of the prophet’s life. “The book of Jonah,” Stuart continues, “is unusual among the prophets because it recounts a story about the prophet himself rather than mainly preserving the words that he preached.”3 This atypical prophecy is, then, less prophetic and more dramatic, sharing similar storytelling tropes as portions of Daniel, Ruth, and Esther, among others. (Ex 4:24-26; Num 12; Jgs 14—16)4 Notwithstanding its use of didactic dynamism and expressive sensationalism, one should not assume that the book has been exaggerated or embellished in some way so as to make it less historical or trustworthy. Indeed, despite being a book which is comprised of only a few weeks of Jonah’s life, the vividness of the narrator’s chronicle serves to capture one’s attention and convey a stunning message about God himself. “Jonah is not a sentimental story,” Stuart comments. “It is told without embellishment but with an emphasis on engagement with the imagination.”5
What persists through this conveyance of the misadventures of Yahweh’s runaway prophet is a breathtaking reminder of Yahweh’s fundamental nature. This highlights the most prescient difference between Jonah and the other OT prophetic books — namely, that the message of Jonah is only rightly appreciated as one discerns its corporeality in the life of Jonah. Instead of analyzing a prophet’s divinations, Jonah affords one with a stunning lesson in divine forbearance and forgiveness, with the prophet himself serving as proxy (and foil). The recipient of divine deliverance and blessing begrudges any notion of his enemies receiving the same. (Jon 4:1–3) Such was Jonah’s prophetic downfall: he reckoned himself the adjudicator of divine grace.
The book of Jonah serves, then, Stuart concludes, “as a bulwark against the narrow particularism that allowed Jews to think that they alone were worthy of God’s blessing.”6 As a prophetic book, Jonah broadens one’s view of God’s covenant concern for humanity by widening the extent of his mercy. (Jon 4:10–11) One is invited, therefore, through the course of Jonah to introspectively examine whether their comprehension of who God is needs revision. “The person who resents the mercy of God to his or her enemies,” writes Stuart, “shows enmity to God’s purposes and discontinuity with God’s thinking.”7 Jonah, then, is a spectacular specimen of what Jesus Christ would later embody: faithful love and forgiveness for even those outside the promise, for enemies, for sinners. (Mt 5:44; 9:12–13; 12:41) Such is how Tullian Tchividjian summarizes this “tale as old as time”:
Jonah is a storied presentation of the gospel, a story of sin and grace, of desperation and deliverance. It reveals the fact that while you and I are great sinners, God is a great Savior, and that while our sin reaches far, his grace reaches farther. This story shows that God is in the business of relentlessly pursuing rebels like us and that he comes after us not to angrily strip away our freedom but to affectionately strip away our slavery so we might become truly free.8
D. Stuart, “Book of Jonah,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 455.
Tullian Tchividjian, Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 18–19.