The book of Jonah is unlike any other prophecy book in the Old Testament Scriptures. Throughout the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament canon, we see the prophet’s message at the forefront. But in the book of Jonah, we see the prophet at the forefront, not his message. Although his message is woven within the bounds of the short book, it is seemingly not the primary focal point of the book.
Jonah was not your model prophet, in my opinion. You can see from this short little book that the Lord had a tough time keeping him focused on the task at hand.
The book of Jonah is a book of theology. We find a theology of three things: judgment, God’s unending love for mankind, and ourselves.
Jonah’s unintentional message and God’s judgment.
We know the story, all to well. Jonah is commanded by God to go and preach a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh. But Jonah paid his fare of disobedience and fled to Tarshish.
Let’s stop here.
One thing we should never do with Scripture is read something that is not actually written in the message of the text. In most cases, we shame Jonah because he disobeyed and fled to Tarshish. But Nineveh wasn’t just any evil city. Nineveh was an evil city that was associated with the Army of Assyria, the arch-enemy of Israel. Also, the city of Nineveh was full of Gentiles. It was customary for Jews to believe that Gentiles were unworthy of the message of the gospel, simply because they were not Jews.
Jonah is not simply avoiding God’s call, although this is definitely pertinent in Jonah 1. He is also thinking of himself a bit, which we can all own up to doing at times. It would be very difficult for you and I to consider going as missionaries to North Korea, as Americans.
However, while aboard this ship, a raging storm arises and forces the sailors on the boat to lighten the load so they won’t sink. The storm becomes so bad that it forces the sailors to pray to their gods in hopes that their gods would calm the storm. All the while, Jonah is asleep. These men finally wake Jonah and demand that he pray to his God as well. This is when the thoughts click in Jonah’s mind. So Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard so the storm will dissipate.
Avoiding Nineveh by boarding this ship, Jonah is thrown overboard by these sailors and immediately the storm “ceased from its raging.” Done. No more.
What most see here is an opportunity for Jonah to fix everything for everyone aboard this ship. But in thinking this, I believe we are reading something that is not in the text. What I believe Jonah is actually doing is trying to fabricate his own death by suicide. Jonah is try his hardest to avoid going to Nineveh, even if it means taking his own life. Instead of going to Nineveh like God commanded, he has decided it would be better for the Ninevites to die without hearing the gospel than for him to obey what God has commanded of him.
Of course, we know that God appoints a large fish to swallow him up once Jonah has almost drowned. And throughout Jonah 2, we see Jonah’s realization of what is happening. God is giving Jonah another opportunity to preach to Nineveh by appointing this fish to swallow him and vomit him up on dry land. One writer says,
“The book’s major irony would also be missing, that Jonah could accept thankfully the Lord’s merciful forgiveness but deny it to the Ninevites.”
We see the fish as God’s loving-kindness saving Jonah from drowning. However, with the words of Jonah 3:1, I don’t believe we should read this tone into the text. If you have children or have ever been in charge of a group of people, you will understand this thought: the more times they disobey you, the more your anger grows. I believe this is God in his discipline and reprimand telling Jonah to get up and go. Yes, God does give second chances, but also God, in his sovereignty, accomplishes his plans.
God’s unending love for all people.
A comforting point of theology is brought up in Jonah’s short book. After the fish fiasco takes place and Jonah finally obeys God’s command to travel to Nineveh and preach, something amazing happens – Nineveh repents. Jonah preaches the message saying,
“In forty days Nineveh will be demolished!”
Jonah 3:4, CSB
After Jonah preaches, he leaves to watch the destruction of the city. However, we see in chapter 3 that this is not what happens. The ruler of Nineveh decrees that the whole city wear sackcloth and sit in ashes over their sinfulness.
So what is the theological point here?
I believe we see here a salvation and a love of God that is extended to all people. This message from God was a message of doom and destruction. He is threatening to wipe out Nineveh completely, unless they repent and turn from their evil ways. One writer comments,
“Here one finds irrefutable evidence that God wishes not for the destruction of the sinner but for the redemption and reconciliation of all his creation.”
Even the most wicked of people can gain access into eternity in the presence of Almighty God. No matter how wicked someone is, God desires for them to know him and to spend eternity with him.
We can see ourselves.
The story of Jonah ends by a dialogue between Jonah and God. Jonah is awaiting the destruction of Nineveh by sitting where he can see the whole city. We see Jonah telling God the specific reason why he fled to Tarshish – because he knew God would forgive Nineveh if they repented.
The Lord provides a plant (castor oil plant) to shade him. However, the next day he appoints a worm to eat the plant where Jonah has no shade and Jonah is more worried about the plant than the people of Nineveh. Instead of rejoicing for Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah is throwing a fit because of his plant withering away. God says to Jonah,
“You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. 11 But may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?”
Jonah 4:10-11, CSB
What we see in chapter 4 is Jonah’s true self boiling to the surface. Jonah is angry and bitter at the repentance of the Ninevites and the forgiveness of the Lord. However, God uses Jonah’s outburst of emotion to rebuke him for being more concerned about a plant than the souls of 120,000 children in Nineveh who have no moral or spiritual compass.
In all honesty, I see myself more here than anything else. I focus much more on the things that don’t matter in life, like plants, than I do about preaching the gospels and seeking the only eternal parts of our human bodies – souls. If God would save Sodom and Gomorrah for only 10 righteous people, how much more does he care about the people of Nineveh or the people in your community?
The book of Jonah ends without any sort of reconciliation or repentance of Jonah. The only we know is that Jonah ended up angry and bitter because of the forgiveness and love of God toward the Ninevites. Instead of being concerned about souls, Jonah is more concerned with a plant.
For those of us who are believers, let’s make our priorities in line with God’s – God’s #1 priority is for the redemption of his creation. For those of us in ministry, let’s stop worrying so much about the “plants” in our churches and our ministries and start focusing on preaching the length, height, width, and breadth of the love of God for mankind.