Jonah: An Overview
I am excited today to begin a short new series in the book of Jonah! Alright, I will not judge you and you do not need to feel embarrassed either. Go ahead. Go to the table of contents to find Jonah. It is a small book, tucked between Obadiah and Micah (of course that does not help you find it at all). We will be digging into the treasure of God’s Word in this book for the next several weeks. If you haven’t noticed, I love going back and forth between different genres of the Bible. We invested a whole year in the first epistle of Peter and now we are going into back into a historical narrative to finish out 2010.
I have never preached through Jonah or even in Jonah, so I’m excited for the ride the Lord will take us through in this book. This book is probably as one pastor put it, the most well known, yet least understood book in the whole Bible. We will need to first drop any notions of what we think this book is about and the attitude of “Oh I know this already” if we are going to allow God to meet us here. Let’s pray to God to strip us of our pre-understanding of this book and for the grace to look at it with His fresh eyes.
So what do we do first when we start looking into a book of the Bible to study? We first need to look at the background. We will also need to fly over the entire landscape of the book and see the entire forest (big picture) before looking at the trees. By the way, that is what you should do first if you ever study a book. See where it fits in God’s redemptive history, study the background and then go ahead and study the verses.
Why Jonah you ask? I will get to that at the end of today. There is a method to my madness. But we need to first lay the groundwork.
I. The Author
Who wrote Jonah? We are not 100% sure, but the traditional view is that it is Jonah himself, even though it is written in the third person (this is not unusual to do in the Bible since Daniel, Moses, Isaiah and others have done the same). Also, some scholars wonder if a prophet would write something so critical of himself, but the details are so personal, so unless Jonah shared these intimate moments with someone, it has to be from Jonah. Nevertheless, regardless of which human wrote this, God put this beautiful book together for us.
II. The Places
Let’s take a moment and look at some places mentioned in this book. We have Nineveh, Joppa and Tarshish all mentioned. Take a look at the map:
Notice Nineveh (capital of Assyria), where God tells Jonah to go. Nineveh was located on the east bank of the Tigris River, about 550 miles from Samaria, capital of the Northern Kingdom. Then notice where Jonah tries to go: Tarshish (completely opposite direction!). So keep this in mind as you read the story.
III. The Prophet
Who was Jonah? His name means “dove.” I think we should not over-interpret and read into this, but I did think it was interesting that Hosea calls Israel “a silly dove” who flies away looking for peace in all the wrong places (Hos. 7:11). It’s amazing how Jonah is like that in this story!
Jonah 1:1 also says that he was son of Amittai. Because of this identification, we only have one other clue as to Jonah’s background found in 2 Kings 14:25. There we find that Jonah son of Amittai was a prophet during King Jeroboam II’s reign (781 to 746 BC). This means that Jonah was also a contemporary of both Hosea (Hos. 1:1) and Amos (Amos 1:1).
We find that God used Jonah to tell the King to beef up Israel’s northern borders to protect it from any potential invasion of any enemies. In fact, “Israel’s Jeroboam was able to expand his nation’s territories to their greatest extent since the time of David and Solomon by occupying land that formerly belonged to Aram (northeast toward Damascus and north to Hamath).” We see that though this King was not following the Lord, the Lord, because of His love and care for Israel, still blessed Israel politically. Jonah most likely won lasting fame as his prophecy came true. It probably also intensified his sense of national pride.
However, the Lord was not going to simply sit back and excuse Israel’s continued rebellion and disobedience to Him. In fact Hosea warned Israel that if they did not repent, Assyria would come and take them into exile (Hos. 11:5). Amos also warned that God would send Israel “into exile beyond Damascus” (Amos 5:27). And wouldn’t you know it, in 722 BC, Assyria came and took Israel into exile (2 Kings 17). Why do I share this with you? This information will help us understand the mind of Jonah. I am wondering if Jonah, aware of these prophecies, was reluctant to go and have God bless the one nation that will lead to Israel’s downfall?
IV. The Book
I don’t know if you know this, but Jonah is one of the most greatly attacked books of the Bible. Some people have a harder time swallowing Jonah than the big fish did. But what surprises me is why some of these skeptics wait until Jonah to be skeptical? Wouldn’t you think the Creation narrative, including the creation of man and woman, the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah for starters would be on your list first? If God can do those things, He can surely keep a man alive in a giant fish for three days.
God is a God of miracles. I have no reason to doubt Jonah because of the fish. Really, it’s not even about a fish, as we will see. Also, not only is Jonah a real historical person as we saw in 2 Kings, Jesus refers to Jonah: "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40). Do you doubt Jesus’ understanding of Jonah?
As a result of skepticism, some have said Jonah is a parable or an allegory, meaning, a story with deep symbolic meanings, but not real. I don’t have any reason to believe this. It is a real, true, historic story with huge lessons for us.
The book is short, with only 48 verses. Let’s look at the structure. I am borrowing this from Rosemary Nixon’s commentary on Jonah. There are several parallel elements here:
|Chs. 1-2||Chs. 3-4|
|Word of God to Jonah 1:1||Word of God to Jonah 3:1|
|Response of Jonah 1:3||Response of Jonah 3:3-4a|
|Gentile Response 1:5||Gentile Response 3:5|
|Action of Captain 1:6||Action of king 3:6-9|
|Sailors and Jonah 1:7-15||Ninevites and God 3:10|
|Disaster Averted 1:15c||Disaster averted 3:10c|
|Response of Sailors 1:16||Response of Jonah 4:1|
|God and Jonah 2:1-11||God and Jonah 4:2-3|
|God’s Response 2:11||God’s Response 4:6-11|
Interestingly, God initiates both sequences and concludes both sequences. So this book is not about a fish (4x), or Nineveh (9x) or Jonah (18x), but God (38x). It is God and His grace in pursuit of rebels, whether it’s a hometown prophet or a wicked pagan city. More on that in a second. Also, there is a contrast between Gentiles and Jonah. Jonah the one who was supposed to be fearing God, does not, but the Gentiles (whether the sailors or the Ninevites) do show fear. There is wickedness in Nineveh, but we also wickedness in Jonah, which is worse (similar to the prodigal son/elder son comparison in Luke 15).
V. The Theme
This series is rather short, but I am calling it “Grace in Pursuit.” God is a stronger pursuer than we are a runner. We can run from God (or think we can), but though our sins reach far, His grace reaches farther. This grace is not just for pagan lost people, but rebellious believers as well.
VI. Why Jonah?
So why Jonah? Why study this book? I think this book, Lord willing, will hammer home some very important lessons for us. First of all,
a) We are Jonah-like rebels in our hearts
I am praying that the Lord, in His grace, show us where we are rebelling against God. When I say “rebellion,” I mean a refusal to do what God clearly requires. You might be like, “What? Me? A rebel?” Jeremiah says our hearts are deceitfully wicked above all things (Jer. 17:9). There are areas in all of our hearts where we don’t want to do what God wants us to do. We are running, running from the light and into the darkness. The writer uses a lot of contrasts. God tells Jonah to “arise,” but Jonah goes “down,” whether it is down to Joppa toward Tarshish, or down into the bottom of the ship or down into the waves and down into the belly of the fish. The king of Nineveh arises and repents when Jonah preaches, but Jonah sits and complains.
The question is not if we have rebellious tendencies but where do we have rebellious tendencies? And the longer we keep ignoring God’s voice in those areas, the harder our hearts will be, the farther we will run from God and the harder it will be to get back. You will see that every character is obedient in this story except Jonah: the sailors, the Ninevites,and even the fish, the worm and the plant! Yet God wants to turn our rebellion into repentance.
b) Our God of grace pursues rebels, whether pagans or preachers
In this story, we see our God whose grace outruns our rebellion. All throughout this book, we are met with a God who is patient, compassionate, loving, and relentlessly pursuing not only the Ninevites, but also his own prophet. We see God taking care of Jonah even when Jonah cannot take care of himself. We see divine love beneath the waves.
And my prayer is that when we face different waves in our lives and relationships caused often by our own rebellion, we will experience His love beneath them. It is only His love that will help us turn our rebellion into repentance and revival. I hope and pray that we will realize that no matter how far we run, we cannot outrun God and His grace! AMEN!
c) Our God of truth calls us to stretch our love beyond our comfort zones
Jonah loved the comforts and securities of being home. But Jonah is also a book about mission. God’s love cannot be contained just within the borders of Israel. And we are like Jonah when we don’t want to dialogue with unbelievers. I’m sure if you were a Gentile and lived near Jonah and wanted to know more about God, he would put a sign that says, “Do not disturb.” We are like Jonah when we refuse to let God stretch our hearts (taking Peter’s image of loving one another EARNESTLY (1 Pet. 1:22) more to be like His heart for the lost. And have you been seeing that God is doing just that during our Friday nights? He not even sending us to Nineveh, but has brought Nineveh to us! But before we look at unbelievers’ wickedness, we need to see our own wickedness of hoarding God’s love, lovelessness for the lost and self-serving attitudes.
d) We need to see a fresh view of the greater Jonah
Jesus Himself said, “someone greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:42). We will find a lot of similarities and dissimilarities with Jonah and Jesus. Jesus Himself said the Scriptures testify of Him (John 5:39). I think most of all we will see why Jesus is greater than Jonah. Jonah was disobedient, but Jesus was obedient. Jonah was angry over the Ninevite’s repentance, but Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s refusal of repentance. While Jonah wanted to hoard God’s blessing, Jesus lavishly gave it all way, whether it was Jew, Samaritan or Gentile, man, woman or child. So I pray at the end of this series, we will have a fresh view of Jesus etched in our hearts, showing us how much of the gospel we still need today.
So you can see there is a lot in this short book for us from the Lord. Let’s look at the four reasons for “Why Jonah?” Dialogue with the Lord right now as to which area the Lord is speaking to you right now. Perhaps you need a fresh view of Christ and the Gospel and you want the Lord to fan fresh faith and fire in your heart for Him. Or perhaps it is hard for you to go beyond your comfort zone. Would you ask the Lord, especially as we continue to do outreach on Friday nights, to help you be stretched beyond your comfort zones? Or maybe there are areas of clear rebellion. You know what the Lord wants you to do, but you refuse to do it. Confess this and ask the Lord to help you repent. And if you would dare do so, you will find that our God is not a drowner of rebels, but a pursuer, Savior, restorer of rebels. Praise God!
Stedman, Ray. “Jonah: The Reluctant Ambassador.” http://www.pbc.org/files/messages/3127/0232.html accessed 24 November 2010.
From the ESV Study Bible.
Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-). Vol. 1: The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (1462). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
Nixon, Rosemary (2003). The Message of Jonah. The Bible Speaks Today (31). Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.
Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary (1460–1461).
Tchividjian, Tullian (2010). Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (27). Crossway: Wheaton, IL.
Nixon, R. (24).
Tchividjian, T. (18).