For being only four chapters and 48 verses, the book of Jonah demands a lot from its readers. In the original language, it becomes clear how well-crafted the book is. In four chapters, there are at least four chiasms that organize the book, and on the whole, Jonah is a literary masterpiece. At the same time, the book is best understand in combination with the rest of the Minor Prophets—consider the way Jonah’s rebellion mirrors that of Edom in Obadiah, or the way the king of Nineveh preaches Joel 2:12–14 (see Jonah 3:6–9).
Still, if Jonah demands a lot from its readers, it gives even more. In its four scenes, it gives its readers an incredible vision of God, his grace, his power, and his purpose among the nations. In other words, in the rebellion of Jonah, a (false) prophet of the Lord, we find much about God’s grace.
Over the next two months, our church will be spending ample time in this book, along with a few other Minor Prophets. So in this post, let me introduce a few themes we will see again and again—namely, God’s sovereignty, the book of Jonah’s satire, and the promise of second chances for sinners who repent and turn to God.
First, the book displays the sovereignty of God over all creation and all nations. In Jonah 1 the Lord hurls a storms at Jonah when the prophet runs from the Lord (v. 4). Then when the sailors were unable to row out of the storm (v. 13) and were forced to throw Jonah overboard, the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, miraculously saving him from a watery grave (v. 17). Likewise, in chapter 4, the Lord appointed a plant (v. 6), a worm (v. 7), and a wind (v. 8) to chasten the rebellious prophet. In all of these steps, we learn how the God of creation uses secondary means to accomplish his purposes.
In addition to God’s rule over creation, the book of Jonah also shows the sovereignty of God over all nations. In chapter 1 we see pagan sailors come to an understanding and fear of the Lord (v. 16). Likewise, in chapter 3 the whole city of Nineveh—king and cow included—repent, fast, and cry out for Yahweh’s mercy. In these instances, Jonah teaches us that God cares about all nations, not just Israel (cf. Isaiah 19:19–25), a lesson that Israel needed to learn.
Second, the book of Jonah is filled with satire. Instead of finding a godly prophet who represents the Lord with faithfulness, we find a wicked prophet who represents the sin of Israel. Unlike Hosea who portrayed the Lord to the people; we find in Jonah a Gomer who portrays Israel as rebellious people. In contrast to Jonah who flees from the Lord and goes down into the depths, we find pagan sailors and Assyrian enemies coming closer to the Lord as they repent and offer sacrifices to Israel’s God. All of these events are backwards in comparison with other prophetic books. Therefore, they teach us that Jonah is not a simple story of historical detail; it is a satire filled with irony and indictment upon Israel.
In reading Jonah, then, we must exercise caution. It is not a tale of the prophet’s second chance. Rather, in his rebellion God exposes the heart of Israel, a people who can put God’s words on their mouths, as in Jonah’s prayer, but who struggle to keep him in their heart. In this way, the book is meant to expose the heart of the reader, who in Jonah’s day and ours need to repent of religious smugness and receive God’s grace in order to be gracious to others.
Grace Given for Second Chances
Third, Jonah is a book of second chances, but not the way we typically think. Often the book is described as Jonah’s second chance, but this is only minimally true. Yes, Jonah 3:1 shows Jonah resuming the commission he was given in the first chapter. However, by the end of the book it is clear Jonah has not changed and his second chance has only solidified the anger and wickedness of his character.
Instead, the prime focus of second chances are found in the pagan sailors and the wicked Ninevites. In both instances, and in spite of all Jonah’s efforts, we find the nations coming to acknowledge the one, true, and living God. This displays the missionary heart of God and the place of the nations in God’s plan of redemption. From the beginning (see Genesis 12:1–3), God has desired to bless all nations through the nation of Israel.
In the book of Jonah, this desire is evidenced and takes another step forward towards God’s ultimate goal—the coming of Jesus Christ. In Jesus we find a true seed of Israel, a true prophet, and the true Lord. Amazingly, the story of Jonah which indicts Israel and interrogates the prophetic office also foreshadows the events of Christ’s life, namely the three days and three nights Jesus spent in the belly of the earth.
Pick Up Jonah, Read, and Pray
All in all, Jonah is an amazing book. But it is one that requires repeated readings, a willingness to look for the authors literary purposes, and a commitment to the God who created the world, controls all creation, and directs all history to the true prophet, priest, and king—Jesus Christ.
Starting this Sunday we will take the next six weeks to consider the story of Jonah. Let me encourage you to read the book and pray for God to use his story reveal your heart and his grace. In this way, the book of Jonah, which reveals so much about God’s character, also transforms us as we gaze upon the God of Israel. May God be pleased to use his Word to make us more like him as we study this ancient story.
For more on this book, see this helpful video from The Bible Project.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds