First off, if you have been following from the beginning, congratulations! With today’s post, we are halfway done with our reading plan!!
Today we will consider our first prophetic book. After Elisha’s death, we read of a prophet named Jonah who prophesied in Israel (2 Kings 14:25). This is the same famous Jonah from the book bearing his name. Jonah is one of the 12 Minor Prophets. They are called “Minor” only because of the relative short length of their books. They are in no way less important than Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. The function of the prophets was not, contrary to popular belief, to predict the future. They were sent by God to charge Israel and Judah with legal violations and call them to repentance. That they do also predict the future is a supernatural work meant to verify their words of indictment and call to repentance.
Jonah is one of only two prophets that resided in the Northern Kingdom (Hosea is the other). However, his book is about his prophesying in Assyria. As we have seen since the dividing of the kingdom (1 Kings 12:16-24), Israel, the Northern Kingdom, is being rejected by God. That Jonah prophesied in Israel and Assyria (the great enemy of Israel!) shows that God considers the Northern Kingdom as no different from the rest of the heathen nations. Jonah has a big problem with that, as we will see.
While the story of “Jonah and the Whale” is popular, that is not the point of this book. In clear view is God’s sovereignty. The ultimate point is that God is sovereign over salvation. He saves who He will, even heathens who are His enemies (see Rom 5:6-10). This is very important for the overarching history of redemption recorded in the Bible. God has rejected Israel, and has begun His rejection of Judah. He is using history, and His prophets, to show that His salvation is not reserved for only one physical people. It is, and always has been, for the whole world (see Gen 12:3).
The book begins with Jonah on the run from God. God called the prophet to go to Assyria’s capitol to prophesy (1:1-2). Note that implied in verse 2 is the whole world’s knowledge of, and obligation to obey, the moral law of God (see Rom 1:19-20, 2:14-15). Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, though, so he tries to go to the other end of the world (v. 3). Literally, in his day, the Mesopotamian lands (including Assyria) were the far east of the known world, and Tarshish (modern day Spain/Portugal) was the far west. Note that Jonah believed he was escaping the presence of God, by leaving the Promised Land. That God is shown to be everywhere is another indication that His salvation is not intended to be limited to national Israel.
And we see the sovereignty of God in the storm on the sea (v. 4). Prayers to false gods did nothing (v. 5), so the sailors want Jonah to pray to his God (v. 6). God’s sovereignty is evident in the casting of the lots (v. 7 – see Prov 16:33). When Jonah explains to them what is going on, the sailors start to think that this YHWH may be more than just another local deity (v. 10). In verse 12, we see that Jonah knows what God is doing, and would rather die than take the chance Nineveh would repent. Before throwing Jonah overboard, the sailors pray to YHWH – this God more powerful than theirs – that He would hold them guiltless for Jonah’s death (v. 14). God’s sovereign power is displayed through the immediate calming of the storm (v. 15 – see Mark 4:35-41). Implied in verse 16 is that the sailors have traded their false gods for YHWH.
And verse 17 explicitly credits the sovereign God of the universe for the great fish. Note that the verb is better translated “had appointed,” as in, God sent the fish on his way to be there for Jonah before the moment came. Jesus twice refers to Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish as typological of His death and resurrection (Matt 12:40 and 16:4).
Chapter 2 records Jonah’s prayer of repentance to God (2:1). Jonah knows he should be dead (v. 2). Note that the sailors threw him into the sea (1:15) – a free act on their part – yet Jonah credits it to God (v. 3). God is sovereign even over the free acts of men. We see that Jonah was not afraid to die – maybe even eager considering the circumstances – because he knew he would be in God’s presence (vv. 4-5). Jonah recognizes that God has saved him from death (v. 6) which has led him to “remember” the Lord (v. 7). This is the same word used of God when He acts according to the covenants He has made (Ex 2:24, Lev 26:45). Jonah is saying that he will honor his calling as prophet and do what God is calling him to do (v. 9). And God sovereignly has the fish come near the land and release Jonah (v. 10).
After being released from the fish, God again calls Jonah to go to Nineveh (3:1-2), and this time Jonah goes (v. 3). Jonah will obey, but he won’t like it. He prophesies very simply (v. 4). However, the Hebrew word Jonah uses is (perhaps purposefully) ambiguous. The word can mean “overthrown”, as in, destroyed (as in 2 Sam 10:3). But it can also mean “turned”, as in, changed by God (as in 1 Sam 10:6). What is Jonah saying? Either way, it was all the people needed to repent (v. 5), including the king (v. 6), who calls for a national fast (v. 7) and repentance (vv. 8-9). And God responds with mercy (v. 10). Jesus not only uses the fish incident to refer to His own death and resurrection, but He calls Jonah himself (the one calling for repentance) a sign (Luke 11:30).
Jonah is not happy (4:1). This is exactly why Jonah didn’t want to come here and prophesy (v. 2). Now think about this. Jonah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom. He saw the sin of his people, their refusal to change, and the horrible cycle of wickedness they were stuck in. And he knows that YHWH is a forgiving God to the repentant. And yet he would rather see the repentant destroyed and his own people preserved. He wanted YHWH to be only the God of physical Israel. And when he is faced with the realization that this is not the case, he again wants to die (v. 3). So God asks Jonah to consider his anger, and his desire to keep YWHW for Israel alone (v. 4).
And then God teaches Jonah a lesson. Jonah goes out of the city and watches, still hoping God would destroy them (v. 5). So God, in His sovereignty, makes a plant grow to shade Jonah (v. 6). Note that the Hebrew literally says YHWH did this to save Jonah from his “wickedness” or “evil”. God is giving this object lesson to Jonah to call him to repentance. So Jonah enjoys the shade. But the next day, God sovereignly makes a worm eat the plant (v. 7) and sovereignly sends some extreme heat Jonah’s way (v. 8). Jonah again says he wants to die.
So God asks Jonah a question. Is he right to be angry that God took away the protection (the plant) He provided from the punishing heat (v. 9)? In other words, is Jonah angry that God removed His mercy (represented by the plant) from him? Even though Jonah did nothing for the mercy (v. 10)? If Jonah thinks it’s wrong that God removed the plant (His mercy), what about those in Nineveh? Those Who God sovereignly brought into being? Those Who God sovereignly chose to show mercy to?
That the book ends where it does shows that the whole point is that God is sovereign over everything, including salvation. As He told Moses:
I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.Exodus 33:19
This should be nothing but an encouragement for those God has called to salvation. As we have enjoyed God’s mercy, we should desire that all people would know His mercy.