What a fascinating book this is! In it we see only one small segment of Jonah’s life and prophetic work. Yet, due to the nature of the message, we know more about the personal life of Jonah than we do about the life of any of the other “Minor Prophets.” Only one statement in the entire book of Jonah records words which Jonah preached or predicted to other humans: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).
Historical setting: Jonah, the son of Amittai, prophesied during the days of King Jeroboam II of Israel (2 Kings 14:25), somewhere around B.C. 780. At that time, the Assyrian Empire was the dominant power in the Middle East, and Nineveh was its capital city. Nineveh is mentioned a number of times by Jonah (Jonah 1:2; 3:2-7; 4:11), and it is the place to which God sent His prophet to preach. The Assyrians were notorious for their cruelty and would have been one of Israel’s adversaries. That may help explain why Jonah was reluctant to go preach there when Jehovah first charged him to do so.
A chapter-by-chapter breakdown: Where is Jonah? Chapter 1 – Jonah is in a boat and cast into the sea; Chapter 2 – Jonah is inside a huge fish; Chapter 3 – Jonah is preaching in Nineveh; Chapter 4 – Jonah is sitting outside of Nineveh, waiting to see what will become of the city.
Some key thoughts:
(1) One – The book contains a powerful message about one prophet (Jonah), the inhabitants of one city (Nineveh), and the one true God.
(2) The actions of the Lord God dominate the book. He is referred to as “Lord” or “God” about forty times (in forty-eight verses). So, if you take God out of the narrative, there would not be a whole lot left! What actions of Jehovah do we see in this book?
– He sent out a great wind into the sea (1:4).
– He prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah (1:17).
– He spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah out on dry land (2:10).
– He prepared a plant/gourd, a worm, and a vehement east wind (4:6-8).
– He spoke to Jonah (1:1,2), delivered the prophet out of the fish’s belly (ch. 2), spared the Ninevites (ch. 3), and in the end rebuked Jonah (ch. 4).
(3) This book reminds us that the God of heaven is a universal God Who sees all, knows all, and cares about all people in all places, including the Ninevites.
Other memorable lessons: Though the people of Nineveh were not Israelites and thus were neither part of God’s chosen nation nor under the law of Moses, they were accountable to the Lord God. The Bible speaks of their “wickedness” (1:2) and “evil way” (3:10), meaning that they were transgressors of God’s law. So, yes, during the Old Testament era the Gentiles were obligated to serve Jehovah. Jesus said the people of Nineveh repented when Jonah preached to them (Luke 11:32), which again implies that they had sinned by violating God’s law.
It is impossible to run away from God! Jonah foolishly tried to escape “from the presence of the LORD” (1:3,1), but he failed miserably. One might ignore or forget about the Lord, but that does not mean that the Lord forgets about him!
Jehovah has the whole world in His hands. Yes, the earth is His and the fullness thereof (Psalm 24:1). In the book of Jonah, we see the Lord using a storm, the sea, a fish, a plant, a worm, a strong wind, and even a reluctant servant – all for His purposes. I may not understand completely all of God’s actions, but I must recognize His sovereign right to act as He desires.
By his experience inside the fish, Jonah was reminded that the Lord God was His only source of hope. The worst thing in the world is to be separated from the Lord, and Jonah came to realize this, turning to God out of his affliction (2:1,2,6,7) and proclaiming, “Salvation is of the LORD” (2:9).
We must be prepared to preach what God says and do it where God wants it done. God’s charge to Jonah was, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you” (3:2). When God names the place(s) that He wants His servants to carry His message, they need to comply. Jonah refused to do so the first time around, but later did. And the message? We must preach a “thus says the Lord” because that is what God wants people to hear!
Jonah, a spokesman of the Lord, struggled with his attitude. He knew that God is gracious, merciful, and abundant in lovingkindness (4:2). He knew that if he proclaimed God’s word to the Ninevites and they chose to repent, then God would spare them. That is exactly what happened, and tragically, Jonah was not happy about it (4:1-11). How sad. It is a great reminder to all of us to maintain a proper spirit.
A pointer to the Christ: Jesus said it this way: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). That was a prediction of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, and He spoke of it as “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 16:4). Yes, Jonah was a real person, and yes, “the fish story” really happened. So did the Christ’s resurrection!
— Roger D. Campbell