Exegetical Notes on Jonah
- Outline of the book of Jonah – one popular outline of Jonah, which could be used in a sermon series, is:
- Running from God (chapter 1)
- Running to God (chapter 2)
- Running with God (chapter 3)
- Running ahead of God (chapter 4)
- About Jonah the prophet — Jonah son of Amittai also appears in 2 Kings 14:23-25, recording Jonah’s prophecy to the Israelite king Jereboam that he will be victorious in capturing the area from Labo Hamath to the Dead Sea. Although this victory actually was achieved in fulfillment of Jonah’s prophecy, Amos later confronted the same king Jereboam because the pride and arrogance of Israel in winning this battle, rather than giving God the glory for winning the victory, would result in that area would be lost back (Amos 6:13-14).
- Note Jonah’s journeys on a map – Nineveh is about 500 miles east of Jonah’s hometown of Gath-Hepher (about 3 miles from Nazareth), but instead he went due west toward Tarshish, a fishing village near the Strait of Gibraltar in Southern Spain, about 2,500 miles west. He probably would have gone to the caravan road just west of Gath-Hepher, which caravans traversed from Egypt to Assyria. If he turned right, he would go to Assyria. But he turned left to go south to the seacoast city of Joppa, from whence he would sail farther west toward Tarshish.
- The city of Nineveh – Nineveh was one of the largest and greatest cities of the ancient world, with at least 120,000 citizens (3:3, 4:11). It was located in northern Iraq, across the Tigris River from the modern-day city of Mosul.
- The structure of the book of Jonah – The book of Jonah has an interesting structure that might be described as “mirror images,” or “book ends,” or, more technically, a chiastic structure. In chapters 1 and 4, the prophet is rebelling against God. In chapters 2 and 3, the prophet is obeying God, albeit not always with a good attitude. Chapters 1 and 4 are the book ends on either side of the prophet’s grudging obedience in chapters 2 and 3.
- God’s love for all people — The overarching theme of the book of Jonah is the love of God for all persons (and even animals), despite the prophet’s stubborn resistance to loving the Ninevites whom the Israelites feared and hated. As the book ends, Jonah is pouting on the hill, but God asks him if saving the city of Nineveh was not more important than his petty comfort. This is not a new theme in the Old Testament. It goes back at least to the Abrahamic covenant, in which the special relationship between God and Abraham was not just for Abraham’s own blessing, but so that through him “all the families on the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Unfortunately, Jonah never catches this vision. Much like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, Jonah exemplifies unforgiving, pharisaical attitudes toward sinners (4:1-2). God had compassion on Nineveh; Jonah didn’t (4:11).
- Unexpected heroes/role reversals – Jonah is a book filled with unexpected role reversals. We expect the prophet of God to be the “hero” and the pagan sailors and pagan king to be the villains, but the surprise ending is that the pagans turn out to be more faithful to God than his prophet, for they repent and trust God. It should not be lost on the reader that the prophet of God is clearly depicted as being disobedient and stubborn, never fully sharing the vision of God to reach all people.
- 1:6 – Note the contrast between the sleeping Jonah with the vigilant crew, reminiscent of Jesus’ disciples sleeping while He prayed at Gethsemane Matt 26:36-46).
- 1:9-12 – Note that the sailors who worshipped pagan gods believed Jonah’s proclamation that Jehovah had authority over the wind and the sea.
- Note the surprising contrast that the wind, sea, storm, sailors, fish, pagan king, Nineveh, the plant, and the worm all obeyed God, but not Jonah.
- Note the contrast between Jonah’s stubbornness and exaggerated frustration, asking to end his life (1:17; 4:3, 8-9), contrast to pagan sailors who revere the sanctity of human life, and fear God.
- Jonah prayed for salvation in chapter 2, but against the Ninevite’s salvation in chapter 4.
- The sanctity of life (1:13-17, 3:7-8, 4:11) – Even after Jonah invited the sailors to throw him overboard, the sailors still attempted to keep rowing through the storm out of a respect for human life, and only granted his request to throw him into the sea as a last resort to save their own lives. As they did so, they asked for God’s forgiveness. God not only values human life, but also the animals. God voices His concern that had judgment taken place, not only humans but also their animals would suffer.
- The sign of Jonah (1:17, 2:2-9) – Jonah alludes to his near-death experience in the fish as being “in the belly of Sheol” (2:2), “You raised my life from the Pit” (2:6), and “as my life was fading away” (2:7, HCSB). In the New Testament, Jesus referenced Jonah’s three days and nights in the fish as a sign foretelling of His own three days in the “heart of the earth,” referring to his coming death, burial, and resurrection (Matt. 12:39-41, 16:4, Luke 11:30-32).
- Did Jonah speak God’s full message? – It appears at first blush that Jonah may not have proclaimed God’s entire message. The specific message Jonah is to preach is not cited in either of God’s two calls to Jonah (1:2, 3:2). When a message of judgment or a prophecy of the future is given to people in Scripture, many times it includes a possible alternative if the people repent. In the text, it is the pagan king of Nineveh who raises the possibility of repentance, not Jonah (3:8). In both 3:8 (regarding the Ninevites turning from their sin) and 3:9 (regarding God turning away the judgment that had been prophesied) the Hebrew word used is shub, usually translated “turn” or “repent.” What Jonah does say is that Nineveh will be overthrown (3:4), using the phrase nehpaket. This expression does mean to overthrow, but it does also carry the connotation of turning around or repenting. So perhaps Jonah at least implicitly was hinting at the possibility of repentance. As he complains to God in 4:2, he knew that God would alter Nineveh’s destruction if they repented.
- Divine appointments – The word translated as “appointed” appears four times in the book of Jonah, in each case with God as the subject. God appointed a fish (2:1), a plant (4:6); a worm (4:7); and an east wind (4:8).
Application of Jonah to Our Lives
Chapter 1 –
- What is your “Nineveh” – the thing God wants you to do that you don’t want to do?
- The cost of disobedience – Jonah’s disobedience not only led to his own punishment, but a scary near-miss for the pagan sailors. Our disobedience costs not only ourselves but those around us.
Chapter 2 –
- God delivers us even when we resist His guidance in our lives.
Chapter 3 –
- God gives a second call, a second chance to Jonah. God gives second chances (1:1, 3:1).
Chapter 4 –
- God loves all people. Do you? God loves even your The Ninevites were Jonah’s enemies, whom he found it difficult to love. Who are your Ninevites?
- Do you let petty frustrations with the daily things of life overwhelm what God is trying to do through your life?
- If God appoints even a worm to accomplish His purposes (4:7), He can definitely use you!
- Are your attitudes toward sinners pharisaical or redemptive (4:11)?
- What role are you playing to proclaim God’s Word and the Gospel to all nations?