Literary Context and Clues for Preaching Jonah
It’s interesting to traverse over public ground and see fluorescent tape marking paths off of the beaten path. These markings are used by hikers, campers, hunters, and the like to help them identify a trail leading to a significant spot to which they desire to return. The problem with these rudimentary markings is that they not only tell the story of how one hiker, camper, or hunter can return to a place of interest, but they also proclaim to every other passerby how to do the same. With bright orange and pink marking the way, any of us can blaze a trail to discover a treasure worth remembering.
Looking through the book of Jonah one can find many similar markings left for us by the author which help us to properly understand and re-tell a treasure worth remembering: “salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9b).
Jonah is one of the twelve Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. The title “minor prophet” is rather misleading, however, for Jonah is a short book which carries a big message. This book has several unique characteristics which catch our attention. First is the introduction of the author in Jonah 1:1. Unique in that a typical authorial introduction is omitted, the book provides authorship while holding to its specific genre of historical narrative. We discover who received the initial “word from the Lord” (Jonah) and to whom the word was addressed: the Ninevites. Jonah son of Amittai is also referenced in 2 Kings 14:25 as having prophesied a reclaiming of Israel’s lands under Jeroboam II. We know, therefore, that the ministry of Jonah as recorded in the book of Jonah is only a portion of this prophet’s ministry before the Lord God.
The second unique characteristic of this book is the recipient of the Lord’s message. The city of Nineveh was an important city for the Assyrian Empire, the very empire who would soon decimate the Kingdom of Israel. The Lord God commanded a prophet of Israel to go to the enemy of his own people and declare a message of repentance. Jonah is the only book of “The Twelve” where a prophet solely prophesied to a foreign people. Nahum also prophesied concerning the city of Nineveh, but his prophecy declared the certainty of destruction, whereas Jonah declared a message to the Ninevites which had some element of repentance.
We encounter a third unique characteristic of Jonah when we consider the setting of the book. During Jonah’s ministry, he traveled from the Northern Kingdom port of Joppa on a ship bound for Tarsus, caught an “underwater Uber” ride in the belly of a fish, and finally arrived in Nineveh. The remainder of the book takes place in and around the city of Nineveh as Jonah anxiously awaits the action of the Lord God upon the Ninevites. It is in Jonah’s travels throughout his known world that we see the genesis of emphasis on God’s concern for all people. The climax of concern is seen in the Lord God’s final probing question to Jonah in 4:11 concerning not only all the people of Nineveh but the cattle as well.
These three unique characteristics work together to provide the big picture of what Jonah communicated to the Northern Kingdom and still communicates to us today: “Salvation belongs to the Lord”. We see this message drawn out by the consideration that since salvation belongs to the Lord it cannot be attained in any way but by God’s mercy and grace. When Jonah repented and confessed his need for God’s loving-kindness, God heard and answered. When the Ninevites heard the prophet’s message and responded with repentance, God heard and answered. Ultimately it is God’s character which we see on display in the book of Jonah (4:2), and it is that same character towards which we are led time and time again as we journey with Jonah towards those whom God loves. We must be certain to diligently proclaim God’s enduring faithfulness as we study and preach our way through this unique book of the Bible. In Jonah, we find ourselves pointed towards a treasure worth remembering, that “salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Zachary Tunnell is the Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Hawkins, Texas.