Jonah’s Context: Jonah’s entire preaching ministry is recorded in one sentence, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4b) Unlike the other minor prophets, the Book of Jonah is not a written record of the prophet’s preaching, but instead is a short biographical record of a unique period of the prophet’s ministry. The nature of the book, thus, creates two challenges to discovering the precise era in which it was composed. First, who wrote the book? Is it possible that the prophet would write an account that portrayed him in such a negative light? Furthermore, why include a narrative of the prophet’s reluctance to preach in the middle of a collection of prophetic preachers? Second, the book provides no specific details about the audience, which leaves scholars with a range of nearly five hundred years in which Jonah could have been composed (750-250 B.C.). Although it is difficult to pinpoint the era in which the book was written, Jonah presents several important theological themes signifying God’s love reaches far beyond any one nation and is directed at even the most heinous people.
Jonah’s Message – Theological Theme(s): Although the book is primarily a biography of the prophet, the narrative is about God, not Jonah. The two primary themes are: 1) Don’t act like Jonah, and 2) God will not alter His character for anyone. Jonah represents the wrong attitude toward God and humanity. He is willing to receive mercy, but reluctant to proclaim the message of mercy to others. God, however, demonstrates an unwavering faithfulness to His own character. That is, He is a merciful God that will fill the earth with worshipers from all ethnicities (cf. Rev. 7:9-10). The focus must quickly shift from what was Jonah like to what is God really like? Questions about Jonah’s identity lead to speculation; however, the question about God’s character is made absolutely clear. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2b).
Significance of “God’s Message to Jonah” for Christians:
1. God’s mercy is not limited by nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, or any other man-made distinction.
2. We must recognize and repent of our unbiblical attitudes toward those who are in need of God’s mercy.
3. Our disobedience will not alter the character or mission of God.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” . . . 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Jonah 4:1-4, 11 (ESV)
Jonah in Matthew 12:38-45 (cf. v. 38-41):
What does this rather peculiar reference by Jesus to the prophet have to do with the book of Jonah? What is the significance of the reference to Jonah and Nineveh in the ministry of Jesus?
1. Jonah’s captivity in the great fish (whale?) is used by Jesus as a typological reference to His own burial and resurrection. Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of His own death and resurrection is a demonstration of his omniscience (lit. “all-knowledge”). Furthermore, His comments demonstrate that He knew that His resurrection would be God’s greatest and final sign to Israel.
2. Although they would receive the most significant and greatest sign (miracle) in human history—the resurrection of the Messiah—the majority of Jews would still reject Jesus as the Christ, the living Son of God. Unlike Nineveh, whose inhabitants repented in response to Jonah’s preaching, the Jewish leaders willfully rejected Jesus’ message and, later, they rejected the sign of His resurrection. One far greater (in every way) than Jonah stood before them, yet they rejected Him. Therefore, the people of Nineveh stand analogously as a witness to testify to the unbelief of Israel.