The book of Jonah records one of the most provocative stories in the Bible. It contrasts God’s and humans’ attitudes toward sinners.1 It is a story of God’s love and compassion that stands in contrast to human indifference, condemnation, and bigotry toward wayward sinners who are in need of salvation. Its primary purpose was to teach Israel that God’s love is for all people, not just for Israel. The book is also for God’s people throughout history who find it hard to accept the truth that no person is out of the reach of God’s love and salvation.
The person of Jonah
The book was most likely written by Jonah himself as his personal testimony of God’s salvation for both the Ninevites and himself. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah was from Gath-hepher, a town in Galilee not far away from Nazareth. He was a prophet of God from the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II, who reigned from 793 to 753 b.c. Under this king, Israel enjoyed peace and prosperity; after many years of political and economic decline, the situation in the kingdom significantly stabilized. The borders of the land expanded to an extent that had not been witnessed since the golden age of Solomon (see 2 Kings 14:23–29), filling the Israelites with national pride.
At that time, Assyria was in a slight decline due mainly to weak rulers. However, the reputation of Assyria, which was characterized by cruelty, was known throughout the ancient world. Ancient Assyrian records show the ruthlessness and cruelty that the Assyrians exercised towards captives. In 722 b.c., the Assyrians captured the capital of Samaria, displaced the 10 tribes, and scattered them among the nations.
Running from God
The book begins with God ordering Jonah to warn Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, of impending destruction. However, Jonah declined the call and boarded a ship to Tarshish, in the opposite direction from Nineveh, attempting to run away and hide from God. Isaiah describes Tarshish as one of those cities and regions that have not heard of God’s fame or seen His glory (Isa. 66:19). Jonah chose that distant city to run away from God—to be out of His reach.
Why was Jonah unwilling to go to Nineveh? He explained later in the book that it was because he knew that God was gracious and compassionate. If the Ninevites somehow repented, God would forgive them and spare the city destruction (see Jonah 4:2). This would cause Jonah embarrassment, and he would become an object of ridicule. Another reason could have been that Jonah was well aware of Assyria’s brutality. Since Assyria was the enemy of Israel, he could have been motivated by fear and, as a result, refused to deliver to Nineveh the message of impending destruction.
However, Jonah’s escape from God was expressed by his descent. While God ordered him to rise and go up to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1, 2; 3:2, 3), he first went down to Joppa (Jonah 1:3), then further down to the ship (v. 3), and then even further down to the lowest part of the ship (v. 5). Finally, he sank to the bottom of the sea, where he ended at the lowest possible point, the very realm of death (Jonah 2:6; see Ps. 88:4–6).
However, the good news is that no person is outside of God’s reach, regard-less of how deep he or she has fallen. Even if we descend as low as Jonah, God will be there, ready to save us.
The great city
Nineveh is described as “the great city” (Jonah 1:2; 3:2; 4:11).2 Jonah 3:3 states that it was “an exceedingly great city” (NKJV). This description refers not only to the size of the city but also to its importance to God. The city is populated with “more than a hundred and twenty thousand people” (Jonah 4:11), who are to perish.
This great city was filled with evil (translated as “wickedness”) that reached to heaven (Jonah 1:2; 3:8, 10). About a century after Jonah, the prophet Nahum addressed Nineveh as “city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims” (Nahum 3:1). However, God wanted to save this great city filled with evil. That was the reason why He wanted to send Jonah to them with a warning message.
The content of the whole book seems to revolve around two words, great (occurs 14 times) and evil (occurs 10 times). These words are central to the theological message of the book. Unfortunately, their meanings are usually lost in Bible translations and replaced by other words. The word for evil in Hebrew is used in the book for calamities that come upon people as a result of their evil ways. When people do evil, an evil comes upon them.
God’s great acts of salvation
God wanted to save Nineveh, a city outside of the nation of Israel, from the evil that was about to come upon them. Great acts are required to preempt great evil. To save that great city, God used great means and activities. He sent a great wind (Jonah 1:4a) that stirred up a great storm on the sea (vv. 4b, 12), threatening to destroy the ship. The sailors were in fear for their lives (v. 5). While they were fighting for their lives, Jonah was sleeping. They woke him up to pray to his God. Jonah admitted that all the evil that came upon them was because of his disobedience to God. Finally, to save the ship, the sailors threw him into the sea.
God’s great activities resulted in a great response from the sailors. As the storm subsided, they “greatly feared the Lord” (v. 16), offered a thanksgiving sacrifice, and made their vows to Him (v. 16). God even used this situation to reach out to the sailors from various lands.
Next, God ordered a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish. During that time, he learned that it was impossible to run away from God. He prayed, asking God for forgiveness. God heard his prayer and ordered the fish to cast him safely upon the land.
After the great deliverance, God once again ordered Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh. This time the reluctant prophet obeyed. In response to his preaching, the whole city, together, believed the message (Jonah 3:5–9). The powerful and proud monarch led the city in repentance; he humbled himself by taking off his royal attire, covering himself with sackcloth, and sitting down in the dust. Likewise, the people and animals humbled themselves by putting on sackcloth and engaging in a total fast, thus expressing full sorrow and repentance. They turned away from their evil ways and begged God for mercy (v. 8). Jesus presented the repentance of the Ninevites as an example of genuine repentance to the Jews of His day (Matt. 12:41).
As a result, God heard their prayer. He relented from the evil He had determined to bring upon them. This is expressed in the verse that is the key text of the book: “When God saw what they did, and how they turned from their evil, He had compassion and did not bring upon them the evil He had threatened” (Jonah 3:10, my translation).
This record of Nineveh’s repentance brings hope and comfort to every per-son regardless of how deep he or she has been in sin. The truth is that God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Jonah 4:2) and is ready to accept a person who repents as much as He was ready to accept the Ninevites.
Evil in Jonah
The repentance of Nineveh was not pleasing to Jonah. In contrast to the sailors and the Ninevites, Jonah responded to God’s great work of salvation with great anger (v. 1). He had a very bad attitude toward heathens, he could not believe that the wicked could be forgiven. The realization that God had decided to spare the city upset him greatly. His attitude is completely contrary to God’s character. God has pity, but Jonah does not (cf. vv. 10, 11).
At this point, the Hebrew reading of Jonah 4:1–6 gives us deeper insight into Jonah’s situation, something that is generally not expressed in Bible translations. This is how Jonah 4:1 reads in Hebrew: “However, it was an evil to Jonah, a great evil.” Only here, concerning Jonah, are the words for great and evil conjoined.
Jonah 3:10 stated that God saw that the Ninevites turned from their evil ways. So God relented from the evil He had threatened to bring upon them.
To Jonah, however, God’s compassion toward the Ninevites and His readiness to forgive them was “a great evil.” In other words, while the Ninevites had repented and turned away from their evil ways, Jonah was filled with evil. For him, God’s love toward the Ninevites was an evil thing—so much so that he assumed for himself the role of judge, thus putting himself above God.
God asked Jonah whether it was right to be so angry because He showed mercy upon an evil city that responded with repentance to His message. Such great repentance of a wicked city should have caused the prophet to rejoice greatly. In response, Jonah told God that he had known that this would happen. He knew that God was gracious and compassionate and that if the Ninevites somehow repented, He would forgive them and not bring calamity on them (Jonah 4:2, 3). That was the reason that he had run away in the first place.
Now, his fear came true. He felt that God’s forgiveness was about to cause him embarrassment. He became indignant to the point of death. The person who earlier had prayed to God not to let him die now asked God to take his life (v. 3).
So Jonah went outside of the city and made for himself a booth on an elevated place overlooking the city. He sat there in the shade, hoping that God would change His mind and somehow destroy the city. However, the sun’s heat became unbearable. To help Jonah in his discomfort, God caused a plant to grow quickly over the booth to provide some extra shade over him. The plant made Jonah very happy; he obviously felt great joy only when he personally received blessings (v. 6).
Then, surprisingly, God sent a worm to destroy the plant. Next, He sent a scorching east wind that brought unbearable heat upon Jonah’s head, causing him to nearly faint (v. 8). Jonah’s discomfort escalated, so he again wanted to die: “It would be better for me to die than to live” (v. 8).
A preacher God wants to save
Once again the Hebrew text gives us deeper insight into what was going on: as Jonah was outside of the city hoping that God would change His mind and somehow destroy the city, God caused a plant to grow quickly over his head to “deliver him from his evil” (v. 6). In other words, God’s purpose in growing a plant was not so much to protect Jonah from the heat of the sun but rather to deliver him from the evil that was in him. God’s activities regarding Jonah were for the same purpose that they were used for the Ninevites. Both the rapid growth of the plant and the sending of the worm to destroy it were God’s object lessons used to teach Jonah and help him gain a broader understanding of the universality of God’s compassion and love for sinners, and thus free him from his prejudice and bigotry.
The book concludes with the dialogue between God and Jonah. Jonah realizes that he needs repentance as much as the people in Nineveh. Although the book does not state whether Jonah changed, he obviously did because the book that he wrote was his testimony of God’s compassion toward sinners, especially himself.
Although a record of God’s acts of salvation in antiquity, the book of Jonah offers a number of life lessons for today’s Christians. The central focus of the book of Jonah is not so much about the salvation of Nineveh as it is about Jonah’s salvation. The story of Jonah describes the great acts and patience of God toward His runaway child whom He tried to save as much as He tried to save the sailors and the Ninevites. However, it appeared that it was easier for God to change pagans than to influence a proclaimer of His Word.
A city God wants to reach
The greatest lesson that comes from the story of Jonah is the reaffirmation that God has, from the onset of sin, been trying to reach past the borders of Israel to save His people. Jonah illustrates how difficult a concept this is for people of God to grasp.
The book of Jonah is not just about the Jonah of the past but is also about the many Jonahs throughout history until today. We each have to ask our-selves whether we behave like the Jonah of old, for there is a kind of Jonah reflected in all of us. Our focus cannot be transfixed solely on Jonah. To what extent do we believe that God’s grace extends beyond the walls of the church? Do we believe that God loves people everywhere and wants to save them as much as He wanted to save the people of Nineveh? The Israelites of old were rebuked for their response to the surrounding cities (Matt. 12:41). Are we any better than they?
The story of Jonah confronts us—whether believers in the pew or pastors—with our prejudices and helps us gain a broader understanding of the greatness and universality of God’s compassion for the cities. The book urges us not to withdraw into a state of religious pride, exclusivity, and self-centeredness. God’s people were always called to be a blessing to others. The book of Acts informs us that the early church was also filled with prejudice against the Gentiles. So God chose Joppa—the same place where centuries earlier Jonah tried to run away from his task—to show Peter that no one is outside the reach of God’s love and salvation but that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35).
1 I am indebted for many insights in this article to Terence E. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg,1977); James Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, The NIV Application Commentary (GrandRapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 17–132; James Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1993); and John R. Kohlenberger III, Jonah and Nahum, Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 9–75.
2 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture references are from the New International Version.