Philippe R. Sterling
While Israel is an ineffective servant under discipline, God preaches deliverance to the Gentiles through his prophetic messenger.
The book is written by Jonah the son of Amittai. Second Kings 14:25 states that he is a prophet in the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel (782-753 BC) and that he is from Gath-hepher which is about three miles north of Nazareth. Jonah is an historical prophet and the book is a record of what happened to him. Jesus refers to the book as history and ties his resurrection to Jonah’s experience (Matt 12:38-42).
Literary Structure and Content
The Book of Jonah divides into seven episodes. Episodes 1-3 and 4-6 parallel each other. Episode 7 provides a climactic lesson about God’s compassion.
Episode 1 – Jonah’s Call and Disobedience: God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against it but Jonah disobeys and gets on a ship to Tarshish (1:1-3).
- Jonah’s Commission: God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against it for its wickedness before God (1-2).
Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrians. Jonah does not like the Assyrians. They are a wicked people known for their depravity and cruelty. God wants Jonah to take a message of judgment to them.
- Jonah’s Disobedience: Jonah flees from the presence of God and gets on a ship to go to Tarshish (3).
God says “Go” and Jonah says “No”. Instead of going east to Nineveh, Jonah gets on a ship to go Tarshish which is 2,000 miles west of Nineveh. This is about as far from Nineveh that it is possible for Noah to go in that day.
Episode 2 – Jonah and the Pagan Sailors: God pursues Jonah by sending a storm that leads the sailors to call upon Him for their deliverance and hurl Jonah into the sea in accordance with Jonah’s instruction (1:4-16). Scene: On a Ship
This episode follows a reverse parallel structure with a single central point:
A God appoints a storm that threatens the ship (4).
B The sailors try to save the ship by hurling cargo and call to their gods (5-6).
C The sailors ascertain from the lot that Jonah is the cause of their plight (7).
D The sailors demand an explanation from Jonah (8).
E Jonah testifies that he is a Hebrew who fears Yahweh the Creator (9).
D’ The sailors demand an explanation from Jonah concerning his flight (10).
C’ The sailors ascertain from Jonah what they must do to save the ship (11-12).
B’ The sailors try to save the ship by rowing harder and call upon Yahweh (13-14).
A’ The sailors hurl Jonah into the sea and the sea stops its raging (15).
Postscript: The sailors fear Yahweh greatly and sacrifice to Him (16).
The heart of the structure is Jonah’s testimony of Yahweh (9). The postscript highlights the sailors’ response to the revelation of Yahweh (16).
Episode 3 – Jonah’s Thankful Prayer: Jonah responds with thanksgiving to God’s grace towards him in delivering him from death (1:17—2:10). Scene: In a Fish
- God appoints a fish to swallow Jonah and Jonah remains in the stomach of the fish for three days and three nights (1:17).
- Jonah prays from the stomach of the fish (2:1-9).
Jonah’s psalm has a reverse parallel structure:
Setting: Jonah prayed to Yahweh his God from the stomach of the fish (1).
A Prayer for Help: In his distress Jonah prayed to God and God heard him (2).
B Though expelled from God’s sight Jonah looked toward God’s holy Temple (3-6a).
C Descent: Jonah descended to the roots of the mountains -- death (6a).
C’ Ascent: Jonah ascended from the pit – God raised him from the dead (6b).
B’ As he was expiring Jonah continued to turn to God in His holy Temple (7).
A’ Prayer of Thanksgiving: Jonah promises to sacrifice and thank God (8-9a).
Postscript: Salvation is from Yahweh (9b).
- God commands the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land (2:10).
One of the sculptures found in Nineveh is that of Dagon the fish-god who is half-fish and half-man and who was said to send messengers from the sea. Jonah’s encounter with the fish may have contributed to the impact of his proclamation.
Episode 4 – Jonah’s Re-Call and Obedience: God calls Jonah again to go to Nineveh and prophesy against it and Jonah obeys (3:1-3a).
- Jonah’s Re-Commission: God re-calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s proclamation (1-2).
- Jonah’s Obedience: Jonah gets up and goes to Nineveh (3a).
Episode 5 – Jonah and the Pagan Ninevites: The people of Nineveh believe in God and turn from their wicked ways and God relents from the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them (3:3b-10). Scene: In Nineveh
Setting: Nineveh was a great city – 3 days walk (3b)
- Jonah began to go through the city proclaiming its destruction in 40 days (4).
- The people of Nineveh believed in God and fasted and put on sackcloth (5).
- The king of Nineveh put on sackcloth and sat in ashes (6).
- The king of Nineveh issued a proclamation that people and animals fast and put on sackcloth, and that everyone pray earnestly and turn from evil in hopes that God would relent of His declared judgment – Who knows, God may turn and relent (7-9).
- When God saw the repentance of the Ninevites He relented of the calamity He had declared (10).
Episode 6 – Jonah’s Angry Prayer: Jonah responds with anger to God’s grace towards the Ninevites in turning back His judgment from them (4:1-4).
- Jonah is angry with God’s action (1).
- Jonah questions God’s compassion which to forestall he had fled to Tarshish (2).
- Jonah asks for death saying that “death is better than life” (3).
- God questions Jonah’s anger (4).
Episode 7 – God’s Lesson on Compassion for Jonah: God teaches Jonah about His compassion for people and animals using a plant as an object lesson (4:5-11). Scene: Outside Nineveh
- Jonah builds a shelter east of the city and watches the city to see what would happen to the city (5).
- God appoints a plant to shade Jonah which makes him greatly happy (6).
- God appoints a worm which kills the plant (7).
- God appoints a scorching wind which with the sun afflicts Jonah and he begs to die saying “death is better to me than life” (8).
- God questions Jonah’s anger who answers that he is angry enough to die (9).
- God addresses Jonah’s compassion for a plant which comes up overnight and perishes overnight and brings up the question of His compassion for people and animals – Should I not have compassion on Nineveh? (10-11)
This episode is not in parallel with the other episodes. It provides a climax for the book. It ends with an unanswered question. This leaves the readers or listeners to wonder if Jonah’s attitude is their attitude. Should God not have compassion?
Theological Reflection and Application
Wickedness brings judgment. Disobedience brings discipline. Repentance brings compassion.
Everyone and everything obeys God: wind, sea, lots, sailors, fish, Ninevites, plant, worm, wind. Jonah who fears God does not obey. God says “Go” and Jonah says “No”. He does not want to obey because He knows that God is compassionate and might spare the Ninevites if they turn to Him.
[God] is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity (4:2). Whoever will call on the name of the LORD will be saved (Rom 10:13; Joel 2:32; Jonah 1:14; 3:8-9).
How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? (Rom 10:14-15a) Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).
Jesus compares His resurrection from the dead to that of Jonah (Matt. 12:38-40; 16:4). Jonah’s descent into death and ascent to life is a type of the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
Jesus commissions his disciples to go preach the good news of His death and resurrection to all creation (Mark 16:15). The person who believes will be saved.