Jonah stands definitively apart from all the other writing prophets (those whose prophecies are collected in a defined book of the Bible) in that his is the only book of the prophets that is primarily a narrative and is biographical, possibly autobiographical.
The closest to Jonah is Hosea, whose marriage is the story behind the prophecy. But while Hosea’s story gives way to several chapters of prophecy, Jonah is a story about the prophet from beginning to end. And Jonah is one of the great stories of the Bible that interests both adults and children, the only one to find a place in a children’s book of Bible stories.
Because Jonah is Jonah’s story from start to finish, Jonah is more like the non-writing prophets, most notably Elijah and Elisha, who each provide several exciting stories; except that Jonah is one story in four scenes, not multiple stories.
A contemporary of the prophet Amos, Jonah, son of Amittai, was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th Century BC during the reign of King Jeroboam II. Jeroboam was an evil king, yet God had mercy on Israel during his reign in that it was a time of peace and prosperity. The long standing Syrian threat to Israel ended with Syria’s defeat by Assyria; and Israel’s previously eroded boundaries were restored in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.* 2 Kings 14:25 So, we know Jonah was an active prophet, prior the story of the Book of Jonah.
The four chapters of the Jonah Story could be titled:
1. Jonah Disobeys God and Runs Away, but is thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by a “:great fish.”
2. Jonah “gets religion” inside the fish and prays an amazing prayer, asking for and celebrating his rescue by the LORD.
3. Jonah Reluctantly Obeys God and does what he was supposed to do in the first place, preach in Ninevah.
4. Jonah Complains about God’s Grace, disappointed that God held back his judgment against Ninevah.
If you’ve never read Jonah, or not for a long time, this would be a good time to take a 10 minute break from the post and read the story….
Welcome back! Did you see the Gospel in Jonah? No? Just a strange story about a man being swallowed by a fish and living through it.
Let’s look more closely.
The Gospel in Jonah, chapter one – At a time when the newest and greatest threat to Israel was Assyria and its capital, Ninevah, God told his prophet, Go to the great city of Ninevah and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me. 1:2 Why a peaching mission to Nineveh? Why was Jonah unwilling to go?
Chapter one doesn’t explicitly say why Jonah went the other way, but we find out later in chapter four, preaching against is God’s means of awakening the hearers to bring them to conviction of sin, calling them to repentance. So the book starts with an example of the Good News we read 2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise [his promise to judge sinners], as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh because he didn’t want his enemies to repent and be saved. He didn’t want good news for Israel’s enemies. He wanted them to be punished.
The Gospel in Jonah, chapter two – The setting of scene two is the inside of the great fish. What was this? Was it a whale? Most likely it was a whale as there was no alternative Hebrew word for whale. Thus “fish” had a broad enough usage to cover even sea mammals, a category outside of today’s classification of “fish.” As to the believability of Jonah surviving and being conscious enough to pray inside this sea giant, two things can be said. There are credible historical examples of seamen being swallowed by whales and surviving.** But even apart from that possibility, the Bible records divine acts called miracles, which are wonders outside of the normal way of things.
With a short introduction and conclusion, the bulk of the chapter is Jonah’s prayer for and celebration of his salvation from the storm and the “great fish.” He cried out to God for help. God heard him and rescued him. Salvation comes from the LORD. 2:9. And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. 2:10. The Gospel/Good News continues as God answers prayer and delights in saving Jonah from death, even though he was not deserving..
The Gospel in Jonah, chapter three – This has to be one of the most thrilling chapters in all the Bible. Jonah, now obedient to the LORD, went to Ninevah, walked and preached through the city, announcing the judgment of God on the wicked city. And throughout the city, both people and king responded. They believed. They repented. They fasted. They prayed.
The king’s decree appealed to the people, Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish. 3:8, 9 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. 3:10
This could be called the greatest revival in history. Time to celebrate!!! The Gospel/Good News of God’s love and grace is evident. God desires to save, not condemn.
The Gospel in Jonah, chapter four – Can you imagine Billy Graham returning home from New York in 1957 after the most successful and longest evangelistic effort in history and being mad at God about the results? But that’s what Jonah did. We might have worried about Jonah’s taking the glory on himself for being such an effective preacher. But that didn’t happen. Jonah was mad because God was gracious. He didn’t want God to be gracious. In fact the reason Jonah refused to peach in the first place is because he knew God was gracious.
O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 4:2
Jonah knew God’s heart for people because he knew the story of the Exodus and numerous other examples of God’s mercy. He knew Exodus 34:6, 7 – The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. Jonah knew God’s Gospel heart for the lost, but he didn’t have God’s heart for the lost.
One more thing… I would not have seen the heart of the Gospel so powerfully illustrated in Jonah until Jesus pointed it out, recorded in Matthew 12:38-41. Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
I would not have thought of it just by reading the Old Testament account, but Jesus tells us the story of Jonah is an advance illustration of Jesus’ own experience of death and resurrection, which is the very heart of the Gospel. Jonah was as good as dead inside that great fish. But God kept him alive brought him out of that place of death, figuratively raised from the dead. Jesus really was dead, having been crucified and killed for our sin. But Jesus was literally raised from the dead. That’s Gospel/Good New for us, especially for all who will trust in Him for salvation.
Ninevah repented before a much lesser and unwilling preacher. If we refuse to repent after hearing the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection for us, we are more worthy of condemnation than the ancient pagan city of Ninevah. But our Good News God continues to offer His grace through His Son, Jesus Christ. Will you bow before Him?
* Gath Hepher was a town not far from present day Nazareth and just north and east of the Valley of Megiddo.
** Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Moody Press, 1964/1974. See footnote on page 314 of