1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. – Jonah 1:1-3 ESV
The rather diminutive book of Jonah contains one of the most familiar and well-loved stories in the Bible. This seemingly far-fetched but delightful tale about a disobedient prophet who gets swallowed by a whale has been recited by generations of parents to their children as a cautionary warning of what happens to those who fail to obey God. Over the centuries, countless children’s books have been printed that depict the adventures of Jonah and his aquatic companion with colorful cartoons and kid-friendly language.
But could there be more to the story than a moralistic Sunday School lesson about obedience and faithfulness? Do the four chapters of this Old Testament book contain a deeper and more significant message than most of us realize? I think the answer is yes. And over the next weeks we, like Jonah, will go to great depths to see what God may be trying to tell us through the pages of this timeless book.
To truly understand the book of Jonah, we have to remember that its author was not just telling a story, he was communicating a message from God. Like every other book included in the Canon of Scripture, Jonah was “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). And Paul goes on to tell us that each and every book in the Bible has a far more important purpose than simply conveying a story. They exist so “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
In the end, the 66 books of the Bible are not just a collection of ancient stories, poems, historical records, or biographical accounts. They are the Spirit-inspired revelation of God to man. Together, they contain the story of God’s relationship with humanity. It is, in reality, a single book with one solitary author: God Almighty. And like all good books, it has a beginning (Genesis) and an end (Revelation). And between its opening chapters and its closing epilogue, it contains a wide range of divinely-inspired stories that are designed to provide its readers with a greater grasp of and appreciation for God. And the book of Jonah is no exception.
Yet, over the centuries, scholars and biblical commentators have debated the authenticity and veracity of the story of Jonah. Some have labeled it as nothing more than an allegorical tale containing hidden intended to convey important spiritual truths. Others have deemed the book of Jonah as parabolic in nature. In other words, it is nothing more than an extended parable designed to teach a heavenly message through a fictional story – much like Jesus did.
What makes the story of Jonah so hard to accept as a historical or biographical record is the very thing that makes it so compelling: The part about Jonah being swallowed by a whale or large fish. This one aspect of the story challenges its credibility and forces many to deem it a fictional account that was never intended to be considered factual. But the book of Jonah is not unique in its depiction of inexplicable and seemingly unbelievable stories of supernatural phenomena. In fact, in many ways, the book of Jonah mirrors the biblical records of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The lives of these two men, as described in the books of 1st and 2nd Kings, are filled with seemingly impossible and incomprehensible stories that defy explanation and stretch the bounds of credulity. Elijah called down fire from heaven that “consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” ( 1 Kings 18:38 ESV). On another occasion, Elijah met the needs of a starving widow by providing her with a jar of flour that never went empty and a jug of oil that never ran dry (1 Kings 17). And when it came time for Elijah’s prophetic career to come to an end, God removed him from the earth in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2).
From the creation account found in Genesis to the record of Jesus’ resurrection contained in the gospels, the Bible is filled with stories that defy the imagination and explanation. But, after all, it is the story of God. And according to Jesus, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).
In studying the book of Jonah, we must keep in mind that its author had a Jewish audience in mind when he wrote it. There are aspects to the story that would have immediately resonated with them as the chosen people of God. They would have recognized the bigger story contained in the description of Jonah’s epic and ill-fated journey from the land of Canaan to the depths of the sea in the belly of the whale. Written at a time when the Assyrian empire was reaching its zenith of power, they would have understood Jonah’s reticence to heed God’s call to go to Nineveh. The Assyrians were immoral and brutal. They were feared for their excessive acts of cruelty and their insatiable hunger for conquest.
But the Jews who heard the account of Jonah would have recognized that this was far more than a story about an individual man and his stubborn refusal to heed the call of God. They would have clearly understood that Jonah was intended to be a not-so-subtle representation of them. He was a Hebrew who had been called by God to deliver a message to the most powerful and sin-plagued city on the planet. But he would refuse God’s commission, choosing instead to run from God’s presence and accept the consequences for his disobedience. He would rather die than run the risk of watching the despised Assyrians repent and be spared by a merciful God.
When the author’s Jewish audience heard God order Jonah to “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh” ( Jonah 1:2 NLT), they would have been reminded of God’s call to Abram, the great patriarch of the Jewish people.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Genesis 12:1 ESV
Abram, a resident of Ur, located in the region of the Chaldees, had been ordered by God to pack up his family and belongings and head to the land of Canaan. And God had promised this Gentile unbeliever that He would make of him a great nation.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV
Don’t miss that last statement. God had promised Abram that his descendants would be a blessing to the nations of the earth. And God would later explain to Abram’s descendants how that was going to take place.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.” – Isaiah 42:5-7 ESV
And God would later reiterate that promise through the prophet Isaiah.
“I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 ESV
Now, centuries later, God is issuing a call to Jonah, a descendant of Abram, and demanding that he leave the land of Canaan and head to “Nineveh, that great city” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). He is being commanded to leave the land of promise and head to a people who epitomize godlessness and unrighteousness. The city of Nineveh is evil incarnate and yet God is calling Jonah to carry the light into the darkness so the blind may see and those imprisoned by sin might be set free.
And when Jonah refused God’s call, the Jewish audience would have recoiled at his stubborn act of disobedience. But as the story of Jonah’s flight from God unfolds, they would have recognized that his rebellious response was intended to condemn their own failure to be a light to the nations. Jonah will later describe himself as “a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). Yet, here he was refusing to obey the very one He claimed to fear. He was running from God. And this story of his flight from God rather than be the light of God, is the story of Israel. Jonah becomes the stand-in for the people of God. And this story will reveal how God’s rebellious people failed to play their appointed role as His light-bearers to the world. But this very same story will point to God’s unwavering love for the world and His grand redemptive plan to save the lost from every tribe, nation, and tongue. In a sense, Jonah foreshadows the coming of another Hebrew who will heed the call of God and take the message to the Gentile nations, opening the eyes that are blind, bringing out the prisoners from the dungeon, and releasing from the prison those who sit in darkness. Jesus will become the faithful Jonah and the true Israel who would fulfill God’s call to be a light to the nations.
Centuries later, Jesus would read from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, not far from the place where Jonah was born.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:17-18 NLT
And when He was finished, Jesus would close the scroll and boldly proclaim, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT).
So, there is far more going on in the book of Jonah than a tall tale regarding a runaway prophet and a large fish. And it is so much more than a moral lesson about obedience. The book of Jonah is ultimately about the love of God for a lost and dying world and His unstoppable redemptive plan that no stubborn prophet or rebellious people will keep from being fulfilled. This entire book is about the faithfulness of God, not the unfaithfulness of Jonah. And it is about His unstoppable plan to shine the light of His grace and mercy into the darkness of sin that pervades His creation.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.