Why is Jonah in the Bible?

Our church are currently studying the book of Jonah on Sundays and in our midweek Life Group.  It’s a fascinating story but unusual in the Bible in that it focuses not on God’s plan for Israel but takes the action many miles away to a pagan city. So why is it there and what is it teaching us?

First of all  though, let’s clear up a couple of things.  There has been a tendency to treat the book as a literary construct, as fiction, a moral story not rooted in fact. Whilst this would not take away from infallibility and inerrancy, I see no particular reason to treat it as such.  Jonah is recognised as a historical figure in 2 Kings 14:25.

Secondly, some people have quibbled with songs that talk about “Jonah and the Whale” wanting to point out that Scripture describes a big fish.  I don’t think we should assume that the Old Testament authors are using exactly the same classifications and demarcations for creatures that we do today.  They would have been more interested in whether the creature belonged in the sea, the air or on the land than whether it was a mammal. 

Jonah tells the story of how the prophet is sent by God to preach judgement in Nineveh, the capital city of Israel’s deadly rivals, Assyria.  He refuses and flees the other way, boarding a ship (note he pays his fare despite sometimes being portrayed as a stowaway), finds a place in the hold and goes to sleep. He is awoken by the sailors distressed at a fearsome storm, begging him to start praying.  He insists that they throw him into the sea and when they do, the storm ceases.

Jonah is swallowed by a large sea creature and there in its stomach he cries out to God. He is vomited up on the shore and makes his way to Nineveh where he proclaims judgement.  He then leaves the city and waits at a safe distance for the judgement to come.  However, the people repent and so God shows mercy.  Jonah is angry at this.  God provides a tree that grows quickly offering him shade and his mood recovers but then when God sends a worm to consume the inside of the tree so it withers, Jonah’s anger is renewed.

There are lots of lessons to learn as we read through the book, however it benefits from a single sitting read and the punchline is at the end.

Then God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“Yes,” he replied. “It is right. I’m angry enough to die!”

10 So the Lord said, “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 Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people[c] who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?”

Jonah’s values and priorities are all wrong.  He prioritises his own comfort and therefore an inanimate object over the lives of many people.  He is happy to bring a message of judgement but has no time for God’s grace and mercy when it is offered out to a people who are not his people.

There are a few instances in the Bible where  a message is delivered for other people but in fact, the primary audience remains Israel and Jonah is one such example.  Whilst the people of Nineveh need to hear the warning of judgement, the purpose is so that God’s people will hear and learn something about him.

First of all, I believe that they were meant to recognise their own need, that they had opposed God and chosen idolatry. God had sent many prophets to warn them but would they like the Assyrians listen?

Secondly they were meant to see that God’s great love and compassion was not constrained to one ethnic race, them.  Instead, it was available to others.  The Gentiles mattered to God.

Thirdly they were supposed to grasp that yes God is a holy and just God, they were meant the warnings of coming judgement but they were also meant to discover that God is compassionate and that his mercy is great.  

When we read Jonah, we too should be reminded that we deserved judgement but that God has shown great mercy.  We should be prompted too to seek to reach others with this good news because God’s love and compassion overflows and is for all peoples.

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