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The Book of Jonah is about Jonah. That might be stating the obvious but it is easy to over-emphasise the other parts of such a fascinating episode of Scripture. In Jonah we have a range of human characters as well as the wind, the whale, the plant, the worm and the sun.

If we focus on the sailors, the main message might be... desperate times call for desperate praying. If we focus on the Ninevites, the main message might be... the importance of prompt and thorough repentance, cattle included. If we focus on the fish, the main message might be... well, not sure ... maybe God’s love for the animals of the world – animals as God’s servants?! Putting the emphasis anywhere else means Jonah would be a supporting character illustrating the folly of disobeying God. With this in mind what is the big message of the Book of Jonah?

In both Jewish and Christian interpretation commentators agree that there is much to like about Jonah. Without a doubt he gets off to a bad start and running away from the call of God is not to be recommended, but he is still held up as a model in three vital respects.


One thing that’s hard not to admire about Jonah is his doctrine. His knowledge of the Bible and theology seems pretty good. Look how he describes himself in 1:9, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” So he knows the covenant name of God, he knows God’s abode and he knows that God made everything. Now look at his prayer from the belly of the fish in 2:8-9

“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

So he hates idolatry and he sees salvation by grace as a gift! He knows the most cherished doctrine of the church.

And then look at his prayer to God in 4:2b with its allusion to Ex 34:6-7, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” He seems to have covered the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the one true God, the doctrine of salvation by grace, and the doctrine of God’s love pretty well. What we believe matters and we don’t want to be left to people’s personal preferences or feelings when it comes to what we know about God.


A second thing to admire is his preaching. If you like his doctrine, check out his sermon in 3:4b. It has to be the most economical and effective evangelistic sermon in history – just 5 words in Hebrew, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Suddenly the whole city repents – from the king at the top to the beasts in the field at the bottom.

He even manages an allusion to another Old Testament reference when he uses the word “overthrown” which is the same as Deuteronomy 29:23 in describing what happened to Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim.


The third thing to admire is the repentance we see in 3:1-3,

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.”

The Reformers mostly saw Jonah as an illustration of repentance. He fled in disobedience but then he turned around after being given a second chance and listened to God’s voice. Even when we’ve run far away from God, and Jonah had, we can still return to him. Jonah encourages us when we’ve blown it big time.

So, there is much to like about Jonah... or is there? Appearances can be deceiving and on closer inspection the book of Jonah contains some surprises that lead us to draw different conclusions about Jonah. If we are to go back over Jonah’s supposed positives in greater detail we find some disappointing flaws.


Firstly, is his doctrine sufficient?

The reality of his self description in 1:9 as a Hebrew who worships God who made the sea and the dry land is dripping with irony. How does he think he is going to run away from the creator of the stuff he stands on and then floats on? Where does he think he can hide? His own behaviour undermines his confession.

The fish swallowing Jonah and Jonah praying from its belly is a tad surprising. He prays in 2:8-9 with a certainty of salvation that sounds entirely presumptuous. He takes God’s mercy to him entirely for granted. He doesn’t pray a confession but instead he assumes he’ll be saved and pre-emptively thanks God for it. To top it off, he’s not thankful that the pagan sailors did their best to save him but rather has a jab at those who cling to worthless idols.

Now look again at his prayer to God in 4:2b with the allusion to Ex 34:6-7. He admits to knowing how gracious, compassionate and abounding in love God is and yet he can’t stand the fact that God might have mercy on Ninevah.

We rightly put a premium on Christians knowing what they believe. We can know our doctrine and quote the Bible at length but if we undermine this with our own words and actions we make a mockery of precious truths. Christian maturity is not about what you know, but using what you know.

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” Heb 5:15


Secondly, is his preaching something to emulate?

He might be efficient and effective in his preaching but his heart is not in it. He preaches pure judgement without any instruction for repentance nor any offer that God might relent.

Even if we assume that this opportunity for repentance is implied, there is no denying that Jonah is hoping and expecting that Ninevah is to be destroyed. After completing his task he sits safely outside the city but once he is aware that God’s mercy has arrived he has no thought for the newly repentant city taking a further step of faith. There is no hint of any desire to follow through on caring for those who hear and obey the voice of God.


Thirdly, can we really admire his repentance?

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in 4:1 when Jonah becomes irate over the deliverance of the Ninevites. The fire and brimstone that he is waiting and hoping for does not arrive. He is overcome with a righteous anger but God questions if this anger is in fact right. By the end of the book there is no sign that Jonah has allowed his mind to bend to the will of God. Jonah may have turned from his outward disobedience and eventually followed the command of God but clearly his heart is not at peace with the plans of God.

Jonah says, “I’m so angry I wish I were dead” (4:9).

When it comes to repentance, it is the Ninevites, not Jonah, that are the ones to emulate!

Therefore, The Book of Jonah is a satirical debunking of the orthodox prophet who has no mercy. We must allow God to extend his mercy to whomever he wishes even when it violates our standards of justice, since absolute justice would mean destruction for all. We need to be careful not to exclude people who are different to us, especially those on the fringe. The whole book makes it clear that if you want to be in line with God’s purposes then we need to be willing to bless those who curse us.

But the truth is that the Book of Jonah is not about Jonah but about God. We learn that God is sovereign. That he gets done what he wants to get done. He has providence over nature. He can handle a disobedient prophet. He is the king of the cosmos and his will is unstoppable when he wants something to happen.

We also learn that God has a view to care for those who have turned their backs on him. There is a message of mercy for entire nations. There is no escaping his voice of compassion for others.

The smart thing to do, of course, is to trust and obey.