RSS

Encounters With God: Jonah, The Prodigal Prophet, An Introduction — Jonah 1

09 Jun

Jonah in His Time

Those who consider the Book of Jonah an allegory or a parable should note that 2 Kings 14:25 identifies Jonah as a real person, a Jewish prophet from Gath Hepher in Zebulun who ministered in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.). They should also note that our Lord considered Jonah a historic person and pointed to him as a type of His own death, burial, and resurrection. (Matt. 12:42; Luke 11:32).

The reign of Jeroboam II was a time of great prosperity in Israel; the nation regained lost territory and expanded both its boundaries and influence. But it was a time of moral and spiritual decay as the nation rapidly moved away from God and into idolatry. Jonah’s contemporaries Hosea and Amos both courageously denounced the wickedness of the rulers, priests, and people. It’s worth noting that Hosea and Amos also showed God’s concern for other nations, which is one of the major themes of Jonah.

While Jonah had a ministry to Nineveh, a leading city in Assyria, he also had a ministry to Israel through this little book. He discovered God’s compassion for those outside Israel, even those who were their enemies. God had called His people to be a blessing to the Gentiles (Gen. 12:1-3), but, like Jonah, the Jews refused to obey. And, like Jonah, they had to be disciplined; for Assyria would conquer Israel and Babylon would take Judah into captivity. Jonah’s book magnifies the sovereignty of God as well as the love and mercy of God. Jehovah is the “God of the second chance,” even for rebellious prophets.

Psa. 139:7-11 (NIV) Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”

Most people are so familiar with the story of Jonah that nothing in it surprises them anymore, including the fact that it begins with the word “and.” If I opened one of my books with the word “and,” the editor would probably wonder if something had been lost, including my ability to use the English language.

Jonah is one of fourteen Old Testament books that open with the little word “and.” These books remind us of God’scontinued storyof grace and mercy. Though it’s comprised of sixty-six different books, the Bible tells only one story; and God keeps communicating that message to us, even though we don’t always listen too attentively. How long-suffering He is toward us!

What is the Book of Jonah about? Well, it’s not simply about a great fish (mentioned only four times…3 verses out of a total of 84!), or a great city (named nine times), or even a disobedient prophet (mentioned eighteen times.) It’s about God! God is mentioned 38 times in these four short chapters, and if you eliminated Him from the book, the story wouldn’t make sense. The Book of Jonah is about the will of God and how we respond to it. It’s also about the love of God and how we share it with others.

The narrative of Jonah seduces the reader into thinking of it as a simple fable, with the account of the great fish as the dramatic, if implausible, high point. Careful readers, however, find it to be an ingenious and artfully crafted work of literature. Its four chapters recount two incidents. In chapters 1 and 2 Jonah is given a command from God but fails to obey it; and in chapters 3 and 4 he is given the command again and this time carries it out. The two accounts are laid out in almost completely parallel patterns.

 

SCENE 1 Jonah, the pagans, and the sea

SCENE 2 Jonah, the pagans, and the city

 JONAH AND GOD’S WORD

1:1 God’s Word comes to Jonah          3:1 God’s Word comes to Jonah

1:2 The message to be conveyed         3:2 The message to be conveyed

1:3 The response of Jonah                   3:3 The response of Jonah

JONAH AND GOD’S WORLD

1:4 The word of warning              3:4 The word of warning

1:5 The response of the pagans     3:5 The response of the pagans

1:6 The response of the pagan leader    3:6 The response of the pagan leader

1:7ff How the pagans’ response was ultimately better than Jonah’s

3:7ff How the pagans’ response was ultimately better than Jonah’s

 

JONAH AND GOD’S GRA CE

2:1–10 How God taught grace to Jonah through the fish

4:1–10 How God taught grace to Jonah through the plant

Despite the literary sophistication of the text, many modern readers still dismiss the work because the text tells us that Jonah was saved from the storm when swallowed by a “great fish” (Jonah 1:17). How you respond to this will depend on how you read the rest of the Bible. If you accept the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ (a far greater miracle), then there is nothing particularly difficult about reading Jonah literally. Certainly many people today believe all miracles are impossible, but that skepticism is just that—a belief that itself cannot be proven.  Not only that, but the text does not show evidence of the author having made up the miracle account. A fiction writer ordinarily adds supernatural elements in order to create excitement or spectacle and to capture reader attention, but this writer doesn’t capitalize on the event at all in that way. The fish is mentioned only in two brief verses and there are no descriptive details. It is reported more as a simple fact of what happened. So let’s not get distracted by the fish.

The careful structure of the book reveals nuances of the author’s message. Both episodes show how Jonah, a staunch religious believer, regards and relates to people who are racially and religiously different from him. The book of Jonah yields many insights about God’s love for societies and people beyond the community of believers; about his opposition to toxic nationalism and disdain for other races; and about how to be “in mission” in the world despite the subtle and unavoidable power of idolatry in our own lives and hearts. Grasping these insights can make us bridge builders, peacemakers, and agents of reconciliation in the world. Such people are the need of the hour.

Yet to understand all of these lessons for our social relationships, we have to see that the book’s main teaching is not sociological but theological. Jonah wants a God of his own making, a God who simply smites the bad people, for instance, the wicked Ninevites and blesses the good people, for instance, Jonah and his countrymen. When the real God —not Jonah’s counterfeit—keeps showing up, Jonah is thrown into fury or despair. Jonah finds the real God to be an enigma because he cannot reconcile the mercy of God with his justice. How, Jonah asks, can God be merciful and forgiving to people who have done such violence and evil? How can God be both merciful and just?

That question is not answered in the book of Jonah. As part of the entire Bible, however, the book of Jonah is like a chapter that drives the Scripture’s overall plotline forward. It teaches us to look ahead to how God saved the world through the one who called himself the ultimate Jonah (Matthew 12:41) so that he could be both just and the justifier of those who believe (Romans 3:26). Only when we readers fully grasp this gospel will we be neither cruel exploiters like the Ninevites nor Pharisaical believers like Jonah, but rather Spirit-changed, Christ-like women and men.

Many students of the book have noticed that in the first half Jonah plays the “prodigal son” of Jesus’s famous parable (Luke 15:11–24), who ran from his father. In the second half of the book, however, Jonah is like the “older brother” (Luke 15:25–32), who obeys his father but berates him for his graciousness to repentant sinners. The parable ends with a question from the father to the Pharisaical son, just as the book of Jonah ends with a question to the Pharisaical prophet.

 

Why should we study the book of Jonah?

  1. Because it is God’s inspired word. All scripture is worthy of serious study because of its origin – it comes directly from God!

(2 Tim 3:16-17)  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, {17} so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

This study will enable us to become completely furnished for every good work. It will enlighten us concerning instruction which is in righteousness. It will be profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training.

The Old Testament scriptures are a valuable source of study for modern believers:

(Rom 15:4)  For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

  1. Because it is relevant to our modern needs. Have you ever been angry with God? Have you ever allowed your personal feelings to become a wall between you and another? Have you ever become so disgusted that you just wished you would die? Have you ever sunk to the depths of self-pity? How often have you relied upon your directions instead of God’s directions for your life? Jonah was a man who experienced anger, resentment, prejudice, inflated trust in self-direction, discouragement, self-pity, joy, faith in God and a host of other emotions.
  2. It presents us not only a true picture of ourselves, but also a clear picture of our great and glorious God in heaven. Jonah thought he had a good idea of who God was and what He was like, but as we read the book we see that Jonah conceived of God only what he wanted and not as God really was (again a problem which we all share in common if we are honest):
  • God is the great Creator of the world
  • He’s in control of everything, even using the natural elements to achieve His ultimate will
  • He’s pictured as One who delivers the penitent, no matter who they are
  • He cares for all His creatures…pagan seamen and inhabitants of Nineveh just as much as He does Jonah
  • He is pictured as a God of goodness…refuting modern thinking that “God of Old Testament is bad and God of New Testament good”
  • God’s heart is large enough to care for all; His hand is adept at providing for all needs

(Acts 10:34-35)  Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism {35} but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.

(Rom 3:29)  Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,

We all have stereotypes, and many of these should probably be shattered as well. Jonah is a prophet who does not fit into the stereotypical mold of our thinking when it comes to a prophet of God. He is decidedly different from the other prophets which we find in the Scriptures.[1] The Book of Jonah is written to shatter the stereotype which we have of prophets, especially the prophet Jonah.

Jonah is unique in several ways. First, Jonah is a prophet more by what he is and does than by what he says. Given the biblical content of Jonah’s words as recorded in Scripture, we would have difficulty making a paragraph out of his prophetic messages. (His protests would add more words, but they are not direct words of prophecy. They are more pathetic than prophetic.) Jonah was a man of very few words, but his works, his deeds, were highly prophetic.

The Book of Hosea portrayed Gomer as a picture of Israel, and Hosea, her husband, as a reflection of God. Joel used the plague of locusts to prophesy of the coming of the armies of Israel’s enemies, who would swarm into the land in judgment. So, too, Jonah was a graphic representation of the nation Israel. Just as Jonah received a clear command from God and disobeyed, so Israel was characterized by her disobedience to the commandments which God had given through Moses.

Prophecy is much more than verbal proclamation; it is often dramatization. The Book of Jonah dramatizes the sad spiritual state of Israel, a condition which was reflected in her disobedience to God’s commands and to her divine calling, a condition which would require divine discipline.

Second, Jonah was the only prophet who is recorded as having run away from God. Jonah is not known for his piety, but for his prodigality. Jonah, in his rebellion and disobedience, in his hardness of heart, was a man who typified the rebellion of the nation Israel. As the Lord said to Moses, centuries earlier, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people” (Exod. 32:9).

Third, Jonah is a prophet who is unique not only by his waywardness, but also because the book never portrays him as having repented and as having been restored to the “joy of his salvation.” We see the failures of many men in the Old Testament, but usually these men come to the point of repentance and restoration. David sinned greatly, but he repented. Abraham, Jacob, and Elijah, all had their times of failure, but they grew to maturity, to faith and obedience. Such is not the case with Jonah. Other than the likely possibility that Jonah was the author of this prophecy, we would have little basis for assuming that Jonah ever repented.

It is at this point that I must inform you that I do not see any repentance in Jonah in this short book. Our predisposition to the “pious bias,” that tendency to assume that Old Testament saints must have been doing the right thing for the right reasons—a great fallacy—is very evident in the Book of Jonah. Most all of the commentaries want to see Jonah repenting somewhere in the book, some as early as chapter 1. Frankly, I do not see any repentance, which I think is one of the significant lessons of the book. Beware of making excuses for Jonah. The book is intended to cause the reader to feel more empathy for the pagan (the sailors in chapter 1, the Ninevites in chapters 3 and 4 than for this prodigal prophet.

I believe that Jonah, at virtually every point in this brief book, typifies Israel’s hardness of heart and unrepentant spirit. The book is not written to leave us with a warm, fuzzy, good feeling, but rather to leave us very discomforted, for just as the Book of Jonah closes with no solution to Jonah’s sin, so the Old Testament closes with no solution for Israel’s sin. Only the coming of Christ gives us the sense of relief, repentance, and restoration which God wants us to experience.

About the Prophet Jonah

Those who consider the Book of Jonah an allegory or a parable should note that 2 Kings 14:25 identifies Jonah as a real person, a Jewish prophet from Gath Hepher in Zebulun who ministered in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 b.c.). They should also note that our Lord considered Jonah a historic person and pointed to him as a type of His own death, burial, and resurrection (Matt. 12:41; Luke 11:32).

The reign of Jeroboam II was a time of great prosperity in Israel; the nation regained lost territory and expanded both its boundaries and influence. But it was a time of moral and spiritual decay as the nation rapidly moved away from God and into idolatry. Jonah’s contemporaries Hosea and Amos both courageously denounced the wickedness of the rulers, priests, and people. It’s worth noting that Hosea and Amos also showed God’s concern for other nations, which is one of the major themes of Jonah.

While Jonah had a ministry to Nineveh, a leading city in Assyria, he also had a ministry to Israel through this little book. He discovered God’s compassion for those outside Israel, even those who were their enemies. God had called His people to be a blessing to the Gentiles (Gen. 12:1-3), but, like Jonah, the Jews refused to obey. And, like Jonah, they had to be disciplined; for Assyria would conquer Israel and Babylon would take Judah into captivity. Jonah’s book magnifies the sovereignty of God as well as the love and mercy of God. Jehovah is the “God of the second chance,” even for rebellious prophets!

Very little is said of the prophet Jonah outside of the Book of Jonah itself. In 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah is said to have prophesied that the southern kingdom of Israel would expand its borders during the reign of Jeroboam, a wicked king. It does seem safe to conclude that this “Jonah” is the same person as the “Jonah” who is the subject of the Book of Jonah, especially since both are identified as “the son of Amittai”[2] (cp. 2 Kings 14:25; Jonah 1:1). The prophecy of Jonah to Jeroboam conveys some important background material to enhance our understanding of this book.

We are told, In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and reigned fortyone years. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin. –He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gathhepher-. For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, which was very bitter; for there was neither bond nor free, nor was there any helper for Israel. And the LORD did not say that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, but He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash (2 Kings 14:2327, emphasis mine).-

Jonah was therefore a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel, whose predecessors were Elijah and Elisha. Hosea and Amos would likely have been Jonah’s contemporaries. Assyria, whose capital city was Nineveh, had already begun to exercise her dominance in the near East, but for a time her control would wane, allowing Israel, under Jeroboam’s leadership, to expand her borders. In the text cited above, it is stated clearly that Israel’s prosperity during this period was solely due to the grace of God and to His compassion on His people, who were greatly afflicted. It was not godliness on the part of the nation, or its leadership, which could be viewed as the basis for God’s blessings. Thus, just as Jonah’s ministry in Nineveh would result in an outpouring of God’s grace, so his ministry in Israel would result in God’s grace – with one exception, that is; Israel did not repent of her evil deeds, and God blessed the nation anyway, while the Ninevites sincerely repented of their sins. In this sense God’s grace was even greater to the Israelites than it was to the Ninevites, for God had promised to forgive those who repent (cf. Jer. 18:78). –

Israel’s prosperity would not last long. Amos, Jonah’s contemporary, warned of God’s coming day of judgment on Israel. He condemned Israel for her oppression of the poor and her perversion of justice (5:1113). All the while, the people of Israel continued to practice the ceremonial rituals of worship, but God said,-

“I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24). –

Because of her sin, God promised judgment:

“Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts (Amos 5:27).

While the warning of Amos is general in nature, speaking only of Israel’s future exile, Hosea specifically indicated that Israel’s captor would be Assyria:

They will not return to the land of Egypt; But Assyria—he will be their king, Because they refused to return to Me. And the sword will whirl against their cities, And will demolish their gate bars And consume them because of their counsels (Hosea 11:57).-

Some scholars find it more difficult to “swallow” the miraculous accounts of this little book than the fish found it to swallow the prophet. I am not going to spend much time or effort to prove the miracles, since these are ultimately a matter of faith. The God who is the Creator of the universe would have no difficulty in accomplishing the miracles described in this book. From our study of this book, it will become evident that the most difficult miracle is that of softening the hardened heart of the prophet. All that is necessary to observe is that our Lord understood the account of the Book of Jonah to be literal (Matt. 12:3941), and so we need only follow in His steps and do likewise.-

[1]1 “Generally the prophetic stories in the OT seek to glorify the man of God in the sense that he is revealed as a noble mediator of God’s own power and glory. But Jonah is no hero: he is deliberately portrayed in a very poor light. The concern of a number of OT prophetic narratives is to trace the process whereby a divine oracle was fulfilled. This book, on the contrary, breaks the pattern surprisingly by showing how and why a divine oracle, concerning the destruction of Nineveh, was not fulfilled.” Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 175.

[2] The name “Jonah” means “dove,” although we would probably be inclined to think of this prophet as a “hawk.” “Amittai” means “[My] true one.”

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 9, 2022 in Encounters with God

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: