Big Lessons from Small Books #4: Jonah
(This series of articles is designed to reveal the beauty found within some of the smaller texts within our Bibles, and to whet our appetites for closer, more devoted study of every corner of our scriptures.)
Jonah is a rather strange little book. While strangeness is not an unusual characteristic to be found among the books of the Prophets, in Jonah this oddness seems quite concentrated. In the 48 verses of this book we find a prophet fleeing rather than preaching his message, a maritime “human sacrifice” to appease an angry god, a man surviving said sacrifice in the bowels of a great fish (during which he offers a rather long prayer given the circumstances), a prophet who is saddened by the success of his message of repentance to a wicked people, and concluding with Jonah’s being angry enough to die on account of a 1-day-old plant’s death. The term “strange” might not be strong enough.
Despite this, the story of “Jonah and the big fish” is one of the first stories we learn as young children (which follows our general tendency to focus on animal-based Bible stories with the young ones). As a result, how many of us have turned our attention as adults towards this text? If we will lay aside our presumption that we have learned all that can be learned from this “children’s story”, we will enable ourselves to see many powerful and compelling truths in this familiar text.
Jonah is NOT about the Big Fish
The story of Jonah is best remembered for the “great fish” that swallows Jonah after he is thrown overboard by the mariners in Jonah 1.15. And yet this “great fish” is not a key point of the story, but merely an unusual vehicle of salvation appointed by God to save Jonah’s life. While the use of a great fish is unique (and rather gross), God’s use of unusual methods to save people is a rather common occurrence in the Bible.
So what is the point of Jonah?
One key element of Jonah that runs throughout the text is the contrast between Jonah, a Jew, and the Gentiles who he encounters. In the first chapter we find Jonah directly refusing to obey God, seeking to flee God’s presence, being forced to wake up by the captain to call out to his god (which the text does not indicate that he did), and lastly suggesting homicide to the mariners to appease God’s wrath. How dimmed and skewed Jonah’s perception of God must be! We know from 1 Kings 14.25 that Jonah was at one point a faithful prophet who served during the reign of Jeroboam II. The man we see in the book of Jonah has more in common with the wicked king he once served than a faithful man of God.
By contrast, the gentile sailors have many admirable, though sometimes misplaced, characteristics. At the first sign of trouble (1.4-5) the gentile sailors call out to their pagan gods and take steps to keep the boat afloat. The captain wakes up Jonah to join them in their pleas, recognizing at least that Jonah’s god could potentially save them. Once told that Jonah feared the LORD (1.9), their response is telling: “Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.” While they likely did not know much about the LORD, they understood that one must not do what Jonah was doing. These random pagan sailors know you cannot outrun their pagan gods, but Jonah tries to outrun the Creator of the world! Furthermore, when Jonah suggests they toss him overboard they are hesitant to do so, instead fruitlessly rowing “hard to get back to dry land” (1.13). The sailors care more about Jonah’s life than Jonah cares about the nation of Nineveh. The book opens with the sailors concerned for the life and Jonah and closes with God concerned for the life of the Ninevites. In-between Jonah seems to care for no one but himself. Once the sailors realize their labors are in vain they pray to the LORD for forgiveness and pardon concerning Jonah’ life, and after the storm is calmed they “feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” (1.16). Despite their status as Gentiles, the mariners appear closer to being true believers in the LORD than Jonah has been up to this point. As a result, the Gentile sailors are spared God’s wrath, and the Jewish prophet Jonah is subjected to it.
Another way to see this contrast is to look at the difference between the prayers of the Gentiles in this book and the prayer of Jonah in Ch. 2. The Gentile sailors cry out to their Gods for salvation in 1.5 and ask Jonah to cry out in 1.6. In 1.14 they call out to the LORD: “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” In their prayers they show at least some form of reverence to God, an admission of potential guilt and a recognition of God’s ability to save or destroy. Furthermore, when the Ninevites are told their city would be destroyed, the Ninevite king commands his subjects to “cry out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” (3.8b) Compare these prayers with Jonah’s prayer in Ch. 2. Jonah does admit that God saved him from certain death, and he at least does offer thanks for being saved, but this prayer smacks of arrogant pride and assumption. (One key hint of this is in how many times Jonah refers to himself: “I”, “My”, “Me”, etc.) There is no praise of God beyond recognizing that God saved him. There is no vow of future obedience, nor is there any sign of repentance or sorrow for what he has done. It strains the mind to consider how one could not recognize their own guilt for sin while being in the belly of a great fish! Furthermore, Jonah seems to take a swipe at the pagans who threw him overboard: “Those to pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;” (2.8-9a). This sounds eerily similar to Jesus’ parable concerning the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.9-14. Jonah exemplifies the arrogant pride of the nation of Israel as a whole, and this thread runs throughout the text.
The contrast between Jonah and the Gentiles continues in the third and fourth chapters of the book. Jonah does eventually arrive at Nineveh and goes into the vast city with a message of judgment and destruction: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3.4). To Jonah’s surprise and chagrin, the people of Nineveh believed God, calling for a great fast and donning sackcloth. Even the Ninevite king left his throne and “covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes” (3.6). The repentance and sorrow of the city of Nineveh might be the fastest and most comprehensive display of repentance found in the scriptures! Lastly, notice that the Ninevites say something that should sound familiar: “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” (3.9). This statement is very much like the one made by the gentile captain near the end of 1.6: “Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” In 3.10 God relents from destroying Nineveh, just as he relented from destroying the vessel in 1.15.
In ch. 4 Jonah once again stands in stark contrast to the Gentiles. He is exceedingly displeased at God’s grace and mercy displayed toward Nineveh, and his prayer is one that is hard to imagine coming from the mouth of a Jew, much less a prophet: “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4.2-3). How backwards must a person be to refuse preaching a message of repentance because they fear that the people WILL listen, and that God WILL forgive them??? Perhaps it would be the type of person who would be sadder over the death of a 1-day old plant than the destruction of over 120,000 people and their possessions (4.5-11)! Once again, we see the contrast between the people of Nineveh, who were forgiven and spared, and Jonah, who was rebuked by God.
We see in this story the contrast between the Jewish people and the Gentile nations around them. The Gentiles in Jonah are in awe of God, fearing the LORD and offering up worship and repentance and sorrow because of their sins. They exhibit a zeal for God that shames the people of God, both then and now. They believed in the LORD with far less information and display of power than the Jews had been witness to during their long history before the LORD. As a result, they are spared the anger and judgment of God, while the Israelites, exemplified by the actions of Jonah, will be judged and punished by God.
This does bring up one final point about Jonah: God wouldn’t abandon His people forever. Jonah is cast into the deep waters to perish without a trace, which is what would have happened had God not spared Jonah’s life via miraculous intervention. Jonah spends “three days and three nights” (1.17) in the belly of the fish, which is quoted by Jesus as the length of time He would spend in the tomb following His crucifixion (Matthew 12.40). In this same fashion, the Jews would be cast out and rejected by God for departure and refusal to repent, but through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ salvation would be made available to the Jews, if they would call out to Him.
What other lessons can you find within the pages of this “children’s story”? What other stories in your Bible have you known your entire life, and as a result haven’t spent quality time with recently? Open those familiar texts once more, try and read them for the first time with fresh eyes and a ready mind. Rest assured, the well of God’s word has not run dry yet.