Jonah is the fifth in the row of the twelve minor prophets. In the four chapters of his book, we get to know a prophet who values his own importance more than the importance of God.
But more than the prophet, we get to know the God of this prophet. Although Jonah is not obedient, God does not put him aside. Jonah gets a second chance from God. Jonah finally does what God has asked him to do, although still not wholeheartedly. His selfishness continues to prevail. Still God does not push Jonah aside, but teaches him new lessons.
We are allowed to listen, not as spectators, but as persons concerned, because Jonah is in all of us. The message that the book of the prophet Jonah contains for us is not only the content of his preaching to Nineveh, but also the patience of God with our unwillingness too, to do obediently what He tells us. In this book of the Bible God shares with us His considerations to make us willing witnesses to His Name.
Middelburg, March 2006 – revised in 2018 – translated 2020
Who was Jonah?
Of the ‘minor prophets’, Jonah is undoubtedly the best known. In addition to what we find out about him in this book, we read the following in 2 Kings: “He [King Jeroboam] 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 Gath-hepher” (2Kgs 14:25). We can conclude from this that he acts as a prophet in Israel shortly before or during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 BC). Further we read here about him that he is a “servant” of the LORD God and “prophet”. The Lord Jesus also speaks of him as “Jonah the prophet” (Mt 12:39).
Most probably Jonah is the author of the book of the same name. Only he can tell about what is happening on the ship (Jonah 1), about his stay in the fish (Jonah 2), about his dissatisfaction and his expressions about it against God (Jonah 4).
His name means ‘dove’. He must go with a message that leads to peace – of which the dove is a symbol – to a city over which God’s judgment must come. But Jonah does not act according to his name. He does not seek the peace of the city. Why he doesn’t do that, we will see later.
The name of his father, Amittai, means ‘reliable’ or ‘the truth of the LORD’. Jonah does not honor that name either. He is not reliable as a servant of the LORD. He flees his mission. But no one can escape from God. God forces him to proclaim “the truth of the LORD” to Nineveh.
He comes from Gath-hepher in Zebulon (Jos 19:13), north of Nazareth in Galilee. The remark made by the enemies of the Lord Jesus, that no prophet arises from Galilee (Jh 7:52), is therefore clearly an error.
The book of Jonah, the target of Bible criticism
The great importance that the Jews attach to the book of Jonah is shown by the fact that they read this book during the Day of Atonement. Bible critics have always had a great interest in this book. But this interest is expressed in the many attacks that have been made on the book.
It has been claimed that Jonah never lived. Others have said that Jonah’s history is the product of an imaginative spirit or based on a legend. But, as someone has said, less faith is needed to accept this simple history than the many foolish assumptions made to deprive it of its supernatural character.
Every attack on the book is in fact an attack on the Lord Jesus, Who completely confirms the historicity of this book by referring to it. He does this twice (Mt 12:40-41; 16:4). In the same way He refers to many more events in the Old Testament that are called into question, such as the creation of heaven and earth in six days of 24 hours, the institution of marriage, the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
To faith, both references by the Lord Jesus are sufficient to consider the book of Jonah as belonging to the inspired Scriptures. Anyone who does not believe, or argues away His reference to it and thus questions the authority of His statement about Jonah, brutally denies His Godhead. A compromise is not possible.
Jonah – James
The fact that the book of Jonah has a place in the Old Testament is just as special as the letter of James in the New Testament.
1. The Old Testament is especially dedicated to the history of God’s gracious intentions with Israel. Yet in the book of Jonah we find a history of God’s gracious dealings with Gentiles.
2. The New Testament unfolds God’s counsels for the church. Yet in the letter of James we find a letter which is addressed to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad (Jam 1:1b), that is the whole people of Israel.
Through the book of Jonah we learn that, in the time when Israel is at the center of God’s dealings, God also has a heart full of compassion for the nations outside the chosen people. The book testifies that God is also the God of the Gentiles and not only of the Jews (Rom 3:29). It is the great missionary book of the Old Testament. As far as we know Jonah is the only prophet who has been sent to the Gentiles with a message especially for the Gentiles. From the letter of James we learn that although God now forms a totally new, heavenly people, the church, from the believers of Israel and the nations, He does not forget His old earthly people Israel.
The lesson of Jonah
This book uncovers the workings of the heart of a man who is a believer and also a servant of God. The reason Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh is not because he is afraid of the city, but because he knows God. In this book God’s heart is also exposed. But although Jonah knows God, he is not lined up with God’s thoughts. He does not share in God’s mercy. The thought of his own importance overshadows everything. Because he does not know God’s heart, he does not really know God.
The book gives us a lot of insight into the character and life of the much discussed and often despised prophet. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he writes about himself in a way that man naturally does not. Without any excuse Jonah shows his own wrong mind and wrong behavior. Would anyone have ever published such an honest account as Jonah did? Everyone in the book obtains a status better off than Jonah.
Jonah is not just anyone. Just to him the Lord has entrusted His testimony. And it is precisely in this person with such a high calling that the very low character of human nature is exposed. That low character is that he wants to be important because of the important message he has to deliver. He only wants to carry out the task he receives if he can shine through it himself. As a result of this vainness and pride, he cannot accept the fact that God is showing grace to others.
Disciples of the Lord
People with an attitude like Jonah cannot accept God revealing His thoughts or Being through anyone else. They themselves have to do the things, they have to have the honor of it. All their thoughts about God are limited to their own viewpoint. That viewpoint is that the message is entrusted to them and nobody else.
The same attitude is found with a few disciples of the Lord Jesus (Lk 9:54). When they come with the Lord in a village of the Samaritans, they are refused! That cannot be the case. Fire must come down from heaven! That is the only appropriate response to this gross insult, they are convinced of. Well, they ask the Lord because of decency. But in the meantime they have given room to the natural feelings of their hearts.
It seems as if they stand up for the Lord, but essentially they want to take revenge for this treatment because they themselves feel rejected. And executing revenge is the revelation of power. In this way they want to show that they are important, that power lies with them and not with those who refuse to receive the Lord.
Jonah: That’s me
If we do not recognize anything of ourselves in Jonah and the disciples, there is no need to continue reading. Then this prophetical book contains no message for us. This book makes it clear that those who are connected with God Himself must submit to His power and bow to His grace. If that submission is not there, the awareness of God’s favor leads to unfaithfulness and self-glorification.
Just like Jonah, we are able to misuse the privileges God has given us to show off. If that happens, we ourselves are often blind to it. In that case, through our behavior we darken or hide the knowledge of Who God is in Himself. An additional effect of dealing in this way with the possession of these privileges is the rise of a harsh party spirit. Just look at the Pharisees as we see them in Scripture. Then we look in a mirror again. What do we see? Anyone who knows himself a little and is honest, will admit that he encounters or finds something of the Pharisee in his own heart too.
If we read on because we want to discover something of ourselves in Jonah, and in the disciples and in the Pharisees, we will make another great discovery. Above all, we will see God showing Himself in His grace, both for Nineveh, including children and animals, and for His straying servant Jonah. Then we can apply that to ourselves as well. The result will be that we praise God for His great grace in which He has taken care of us.
A prophetic book?
It may be surprising that there is no prophecy in the book. We could say there is only one prophecy, in Jonah 3 (Jona 3:4). And that one is pronounced, that it would not be fulfilled. The rest of the book describes the prophet’s attitude towards God and the way God goes with him.
Now the special thing about this book is that the story itself is prophecy. The story gives prophetic truths in historical form, in the form of events. The prophecy is depicted here. Jonah is a picture of Israel. An ancient orthodox Jew answered the question why Jonah is read every Day of Atonement in the synagogue: ‘We are Jonah.’ In the person Jonah the whole history of Israel is told.
The Lord Jesus applies what happens to Jonah to Himself in His death and resurrection (Mt 12:39-41). When He explains the sign of Jonah, He first points to His death (Mt 12:40), which He connects to Jonah’s stay in the fish. Then He points to his preaching and its consequence in Nineveh (Mt 12:41). The sign of Jonah about which the Lord speaks means that after His death and resurrection the preaching will go to the Gentiles. This is a serious reproach for those to whom the Lord speaks, but who do not listen to Him.
The Lord uses the history of Jonah in the fish and his subsequent preaching as a sign of what awaits the people of Israel. They will not listen to Him Who is more than Jonah. The men of Nineveh do listen to Jonah. In the judgment, the men of Nineveh will rise up to condemn the rebellious generation to whom the Lord Jesus came. Thus the Lord gives, in relation to what happened to Jonah, a prophetic message.
The second time the Lord Jesus refers to Jonah (Mt 16:4), He does so with the intention of showing His opponents that judgment was imminent. The sign of Jonah here means that Israel was about to be thrown into the sea of nations. Matthew adds meaningfully: “And he left them and went away.”
Jonah as a picture of Israel
Israel, like Jonah, was chosen by God to be His witness to the nations around them (Isa 43:10-12; 44:8). But Israel has used the truth of God which it should have proclaimed for themselves. We like the truth of God when we can cloth ourselves with it, in order to increase our own importance. This was the case with Israel. The people of Israel were the vessel of God’s witness in the world and boasted in it because it clothed them with honor. For this reason they could not accept that grace was given to the Gentiles. Like Jonah, Israel was unwilling to carry out its task as a witness and was always disobedient (Jdg 2:11-19).
By fleeing, Jonah wants to escape the task of proclamation. He begrudges the great heathen world Divine mercy because he fears that the preaching of penance will save Nineveh from imminent destruction (Jona 4:2). That is precisely what he does not want. He wants those pagans to die. In this Jonah reflects the attitude of Israel toward the nations (1Thes 2:14-16).
But Jonah cannot be compared with a false prophet who prophesies from his own heart. Just as Jonah disappeared into the sea, so Israel is scattered among the nations. As a result, the nations have come to know God (Rom 11:11).
Jonah is miraculously kept in the fish. Thus God has kept Israel through all the ages and they will return to their land (Hos 3:5; Jer 30:11; 31:35-37). Jonah had to learn that he is as dependent on the grace of God as Nineveh is. Israel must also learn this (Rom 11:32).
Division of the book
I The disobedient prophet (Jonah 1:1-2:10)
1. The flee (Jonah 1:1-3)
2. The storm (Jonah 1:4-6)
3. The responsibility of Jonah (Jonah 1:7-10)
4. Jonah rejected (Jonah 1:11-16)
5. The protection of Jonah (Jonah 1:17-2:1)
6. A psalm of thanksgiving (Jonah 2:2-9)
7. The liberation (Jonah 2:10)
II The aggrieved Prophet (Jonah 3:1-4:11)
1. The preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:1-4)
2. The conversion of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-10)
3. Displeasure of Jonah (Jonah 4:1-4)
4. God reprimands Jonah (Jonah 4:5-9)
5. The Mercy of God (Jonah 4:10-11)