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The significance of the story of Jonah.
The announcement of God’s forgiveness through his Son Jesus Christ is not a piece of news with which we are allowed to tinker.
The story of Jonah and the infamous whale (or fish) that swallowed him whole is, without doubt, one of the most well-known stories of all time, biblical or otherwise. Almost everyone knows about Jonah, sort of like how everyone knows about David and Goliath. There’s a familiarity with this tale that borders on presumption — we’re almost too familiar with it. That’s the problem that all too quickly surfaces when we approach some portions of Scripture: we assume too much, too quickly. The book of Jonah is one of those biblical accounts where it feels as if we already know all there is to know about it. What else is there to learn about a story we’ve heard a million times? Well, a lot, as a matter of fact.
The prophet Jonah is, perhaps, one of the most intriguing figures in Israel’s history, so it makes sense that the book that bears his name is one of the most unique entries not only in prophetic Scripture but also in the entire canon. There is almost nothing conventional or ordinary about Jonah — and I’m not even talking about the fish! The book of Jonah seems to be less interested in recording the prophet’s words as much as it records the events of his life (at least a few weeks of it). We know next to nothing about our title character other than the fact that he’s “the son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1), of whom nothing else is known. The only other time Jonah’s name surfaces in the Old Testament is in 2 Kings 14, where we learn that he’s from a place called “Gath-Hepher,” which, interestingly enough, was a village in the region that would be known as Galilee, approximately 3–4 miles from Nazareth.
That’s it for the prophet’s personal biography. In fact, to aggravate the “unknowns” of this book, we barely even know what he preached. In a book all about Jonah the prophet, there are only five Hebrew words (eight in English) preserved of Jonah’s actual prophetic declaration (Jonah 3:4). This, as you might well imagine, is very uncharacteristic when compared with the other Old Testament prophetic books, which are brimming with prophetic sermons and oracles. Indeed, prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos, among others, are mostly known for what they proclaimed. Jonah, however, is remembered for what he did — namely, run from God. “The book of Jonah,” Douglas Stuart comments, “is unusual among the prophets because it recounts a story about the prophet himself rather than mainly preserving the words that he preached” (455).
The scene where God calls Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh is, in many ways, homogenous with any other prophetic enlistment in Scripture (Jonah 1:1–2). You know the drill: “The word of the Lord” comes to an unassuming yet willing servant, effectively turning the life of that servant upside down as they enter a life of speaking as the voice of Yahweh to Yahweh’s people. Jonah’s calling, however, is distinct for two reasons in particular. (1) He was summoned to take “the word of the Lord” to a nation outside of Israel. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it,” the Lord told him. Even if this is out of the ordinary, it is not entirely unprecedented. There are other Old Testament examples of prophets of Yahweh venturing outside the borders of Yahweh’s people with the “word of the Lord.” (The ministries of Elijah in 1 Kings 17 and Elisha in 2 Kings 5 come to mind.) At any rate, this prophetic recruitment was anything but run-of-the-mill, as was the prophet’s reaction.
The other distinctive ingredient in this scene is (2) he did not surrender to God’s call but, instead, did the exact opposite. “‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:2–3). There is an unmistakable parallel between God’s assignment to “arise and go” and Jonah’s response to “arise and flee.” His task was to take God’s Word to the people of Nineveh, a city that sat approximately 600 miles northeast of Samaria where Jonah likely ministered. But instead of packing up and following the Lord there, he packs up and flees for Joppa, a coastal city with a bustling volume of ships taking off all the time.
Once there, he secures passage to Tarshish, a distant city many believe was located in modern-day Spain. You get the point, though. “Called to go east, he went west,” notes the late Tim Keller. “Directed to travel overland, he went to sea. Sent to the big city, he bought a one-way ticket to the end of the world” (13). Jonah is getting as far away as possible from where God had called him to go, a quest that included getting as far away as possible “from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). This, of course, was likely due to the location to which God called him to go. While I don’t intend to make excuses for him, we should take a moment to consider the historical context, which will help us to understand why Jonah did what he did, perhaps allowing us to sympathize with him.
According to 2 Kings 14, Jonah was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II, who is regarded as one of the most prolific and prosperous kings Israel ever put on the throne. Historical and archaeological findings suggest that he was the most successful monarch since the kingdoms split. Be that as it may, his success appears to be a direct result of Jonah’s prophecy (2 Kings 14:23–27). For as renowned as Jeroboam II might’ve been as a ruler, Israel’s flourishing was not because of his prowess but because of Jehovah’s pity. This season of favor was a gift from Yahweh that was intended to remind them who their Lord truly was. God, you see, was giving Israel something they didn’t deserve; privy to their affliction, he was proffering them a glimpse at how gracious he could be.
The mere mention of a city like Nineveh surely sparked a bevy of negative emotions in Jonah. During his lifetime, Assyria was a nation on the rise, much like Israel under Jeroboam II, with Nineveh being one of the better representations of Assyria’s ascendance. This sprawling metropolis is purposed to have been flanked by walls that were over one hundred feet tall and wide enough to fit three chariots side-by-side. The greatness of Nineveh was readily apparent (Jonah 1:2; 3:2–3; 4:11), even if all that splendor was crafted from the worst forms of cruelty you could ever imagine. The Assyrians, of course, were masters at using fear-based propaganda to intimidate their opponents. They were among the cruelest invaders this world has ever seen, and they made sure everyone knew about it.
Assyrian artifacts often depict intensely graphic scenes of their enemies being tortured in all kinds of gruesome ways, leading some to say that they were the “terrorists of the ancient world.” All of which to say, Nineveh was among the last places anyone with a brain would want to go. What’s more, being told to go to Nineveh was akin to being told to go to the very city that embodied the devil’s program against God’s people. Venturing to Nineveh went against every patriotic fiber in Jonah’s body, which, perhaps, makes it slightly more understandable why he ran. What’s fascinating about Jonah’s story, though, is that he didn’t resist the call of God to go to Nineveh out of fear of what they might do to him. Actually, as Jonah himself confesses later in the narrative, he resisted God’s call because he knew what might happen if he preached “the word of the Lord” to them (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah understood that his God-given mission to “call out against” the people of Nineveh likewise included an opportunity to repent, which is just to say that Jonah was more scared of God’s grace than he was of the Assyrians’ brutality. The story of Jonah is, in a nutshell, the story of a prophet running away from the call of God to preach to a group of people the prophet judged to be unfit for receiving God’s Word of grace and truth. He knew what kind of God he represented but he couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea of a people group as heinous as the Assyrians being the recipients of a divine word of prophecy. But in and through these events, the prophet Jonah is brought face-to-face with his misunderstanding of who his God was — and not just Jonah. “The message of Jonah,” writes Bryan Estelle, “is not merely a rebuke to Jonah the prophet, but is also a rebuke to the whole nation of Israel whom Jonah represents” (34). All of Israel is made to learn the same lesson, and so might we.
In my mind, the best way to understand the story of Jonah is to understand it in light of what happens in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). Jonah, who represents Israel as a whole, is a good stand-in for the grumpy older brother who pouts at his father’s lavish display of grace when the prodigal brother returns. The son who went rogue didn’t deserve to be embraced and forgiven any more than the Assyrians did. But that’s the point. The story of the prodigal son like the story of Jonah shows us that ours is a God like the father in Jesus’s parable. A God who runs out to embrace the rebels, whose heart is ready to forgive, and who is predisposed to show mercy even to those who don’t deserve it, also known as everyone.
God’s program, it seems, was to show Jonah and all of Israel that they, too, were among the undeserving. He intended to use the prophetic ministry of Jonah to the Assyrians to stoke the repentance of his own people. And he often does the same thing for you and me as well since none of us are worthy of or entitled to the smallest scrap of God’s favor. That’s the point. We are so quick to judge who should and shouldn’t be on the receiving end of our forgiveness. As Oxford don C. S. Lewis admits, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive” (115). But as Jonah eventually learns, you and I are not the ultimate arbiters of the grace of God. We don’t get to pick and choose who is and isn’t deserving of the message of forgiveness we have been called to proclaim.
The announcement of God’s forgiveness through his Son Jesus Christ is not a piece of news with which we are allowed to tinker. It’s not up for modification or doctoring. Nor does it need the least of our input. We are not editors, after all; we are heralds. We are “ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20). Accordingly, what we’ve been dispatched to declare is already settled for us. “The Christian sermon,” writes Virgil Thompson, “aims to deliver the redeeming Word of the Cross” (11). Ours is a message of singular significance and particular power, and it is all wrapped up in the divine word of reconciliation for the undeserving and blatantly guilty. It is the offer of Christ for the sinner notwithstanding the amount of sin and baggage they carry. Wherever God has placed you, wherever he’s called you, that is where the message of grace needs to be heard.
Bryan D. Estelle, Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel According to Jonah, The Gospel According to the Old Testament, edited by Iain M. Duguid (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005).
Timothy Keller, Rediscovering Jonah: The Secret of God’s Mercy (New York: Penguin Books, 2020).
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
Douglas Stuart, “Jonah, Book of,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
Virgil Thompson, editor, Justification Is for Preaching: Essays by Oswald Bayer, Gerhard O. Forde, and Others (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2012).