This month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship.
This year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:
- week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
- week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
- week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)
After studying the text of Jonah in some detail, this week we are examining the over-arching themes and message of Jonah, as well as its impact upon the New Testament.
Key themes: what we learn from Jonah …
… about God
The most important things we learn from Jonah are really about the character and nature of God. There are a number of lessons that the reluctant prophet has to learn but we might highlight four of them:
First, you cannot run away from God! “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” writes the psalmist (Psalm 139:7). Jonah has to learn this lesson for himself as he attempts to flee from God by taking a ship headed for the end of the world, or so it was thought (Tarshish). Yet, Jonah discovered what so many others have learned over the millennia: there is nowhere we can go – not even the realm of death itself – where God cannot find us.
Second, God is Lord and Maker of all creation. As we read through our Old Testament in chronological order (i.e. the order in which we believe it was written, not the canonical order in our modern Bibles), we can see a developing understanding of this fact amongst God’s people. When the author of psalm 86 writes, “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,” (Psalm 86:8) we are left wondering a little about their theology! Monotheism actually developed gradually over time, as the Israelites slowly realised that their God was not just a local or national god, but the sole God of all time and space.
We can see this developing understanding in Jonah, in the wonderful conversation on the boat between the mariners and Jonah. The captain exhorts Jonah to “Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” (Jonah 1:6). Note, “your god”. Eventually, both these mariners and the inhabitants of Nineveh, seemingly, will realise that Yahweh is their God too. Crucially, Jonah must come to realise that Nineveh is a city belonging to God too (Jonah 3:3): he is the God of the Assyrians as well.
Third, God continually holds justice and mercy in balance. The story of Jonah arguably rests upon this “theological crux” as one commentator puts it (Youngblood, 153). For God to be God he must be just. God cannot be arbitrary or vindictive, and God is not. In this story, both Jonah and the inhabitants of Nineveh act in ways that defy God and his commandments (although the exact sins of the Ninevhites are unclear); both deserve to be punished. Yet in both cases, God also shows them mercy. He does not carry out the sentence of divine judgement by drowning Jonah or destroying Nineveh. Instead, he offers them a second chance. One of Jonah’s chief complaints, and the central irony of the book, is that he does not believe that God should show the same mercy to Nineveh as God has done to himself!
Fourth, in a related point, God seemingly is capable of changing his mind. This idea is very shocking to many Christians and many would argue that this is a mis-reading of the text. As good students of our Bible, though, we cannot deny the fact that we repeatedly read of God seemingly changing his mind throughout the Old Testament: in fact, he does so about 27 times (Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, 1 Sam. 15:11, etc.). How are we to understand such divine indecisiveness?
There are a number of facts to remember here, of course. We believe that God is omniscient, i.e. all-knowing, and so, it could be argued, God knows exactly what his creation is going to do before they do it. In this case, therefore, he already knew that the people of Nineveh were going to demonstrate true repentance, therefore they would be spared. We also believe that God is eternal, something that we find almost impossible to comprehend. God operates outside our notions of time and space, and cannot be confined to simplistic linear notions of causality. What the people of God understood as a divine change of mind, therefore, was simply their mis-perception of the divine nature, arguably.
Perhaps more significantly, though, it demonstrates that everyone has the opportunity to change their future. We often read in fiction about the power of ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’, and how people are trapped into a particular way of acting, or a pre-determined end to their lives. The story of Jonah – along with many others – demonstrates that that is a fallacy. With God, and most importantly with Jesus Christ, we all have the ability to change our destinies. There is always the opportunity to repent, to seek forgiveness for things we have done wrong, to escape from the evil situations in which we find ourselves. Everyone gets another chance with God.
… about insiders and outsiders
As we have already noted, Jonah is very upset that God seems to be treating other nations with the same mercy that he extends to Israel. When we appreciate something of Assyrian history and the violence they meted out to their enemies (including Israel), then we may have some sympathy with the prophet’s perspective! The Assyrian kings conquered a huge empire with fire and the sword, and they showed little mercy to their own enemies. Yet the message of Jonah is that even these bloodthirsty warriors were somehow part of God’s creation and as worthy of his attention as Israel.
We have to be very careful how we interpret this point, though. There is absolute no denying that Israel has a special purpose and role in God’s divine plans for humanity in the Bible. To take but three examples at random:
- Genesis 12:1-3 – “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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 the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
- 7:6 – “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
- Psalm 135:4 – “For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His own possession.”
There is no Biblical basis for denying the unique role that Israel had, and arguably has, in God’s purposes. To do so risks an anti-Jewish, even anti-Semitic, interpretation of scripture.
However, it is also clear that in the Old Testament we see a developing role for Israel as a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) among the gentiles:
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’
How Israelites should treat and regard gentiles, and the nations round about them, is often a controversial topic in the Old Testament. After the return from Exile in Babylon, some in Israel argued that they should be completely separate from all gentiles, including the foreign wives that some people had married:
“The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites …. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.’ When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled.” (Ezra 9:1-4)
As we said in the first session, we are not completely sure when Jonah was written but it may well have been during this period. It may have been an attempt to present a contradictory opinion to such views, arguing that God had a role for gentiles and Jews. The book of Ruth may have had a similar purpose.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes repeatedly of the need to recognise that God has plans for both Jews and Gentiles in his Kingdom. Writing about his fellow Jews, he writes: “as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29). We must always recall that Jesus and all the apostles were faithful Jews, and that the history of the Church has too often been stained with the blood of persecution and anti-Semitism. The message of Jonah, though, is a reminder to everyone – Jew, Christian or whoever – that no one has a monopoly of God’s truth and love!
… about creation
Finally, it is worth noting what a crucial role the animal kingdom plays in the book of Jonah. Fish, worms and plants all are central characters! God shows his concern not only for the people of Nineveh, but also its animal inhabitants. They even get the last word in the book (Jonah 4:11)!
This reminds us how inter-dependent humanity and the rest of creation are. Jonah’s fellow ‘minor’ prophet Joel writes movingly of how the animals of Israel share the nation’s suffering, when disaster falls upon Israel (Joel 1:18):
How the animals groan!
The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
even the flocks of sheep are dazed.
This is something that, again, Paul picks up in his letter to the Romans:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)
Jonah in the New Testament
For such a short book, Jonah seems to have had a surprisingly big impact on the New Testament and its world. It seems to have affected how the gospel writers record the story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, which Jesus calmed (Mark 4:37-41). There are several similarities between this episode and that of Jonah: a terrible storm; the danger of death; and someone sleeping in the bottom of the ship, who is rudely awakened:
- The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (Jonah 1:6)
- …they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:38)
Crucially, though, Jesus displays the faith and confidence in God that Jonah so disappointingly lacked. We may also see parallels with Paul’s nautical misadventures in Acts 27.
In Matthew’s gospel, Peter is described as “Simon son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17). This may be a misunderstanding of ‘John’ (see John 21:15) but it is tempting to see some parallels and contrasts between the faith of Jonah and Peter.
Most importantly, though, is the ‘sign of Jonah’, to which Jesus referred to on at least two occasions:
“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!” (Matthew 12:38-41)
“The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away.” (Matthew 16:1-4)
(See also Luke 11:29-32.) The interpretation of these passages is not entirely clear-cut and deserves a whole post in its own right. Jesus repeatedly declined to perform signs – like a travelling wonder worker or fairground sideshow. Instead, he seemingly alludes to Jonah 1:17: “Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights”. Jonah, who seemed to be dead, was rescued by the hand of God and returned to life. In the same way, Christ foretells that he would spend three days enclosed in the darkness of the tomb, actually dead, but would return to life on Easter Sunday. This was the ‘sign of Jonah’, greater than all other signs and miracles. It was the only one people needed to witness and comprehend in order to understand who Jesus truly was.
This is certainly how early Christians understood it, and we find repeated allusions to the prophet’s story in early Christian arts, particularly in the decoration of sarcophagi. For them, this Old Testament story about a prophet who refused to do God’s will pointed the way to the much greater truth that God was going to reveal to his people in Jesus Christ. A true prophet who would show, once and for all, the depths of God’s love and power – and his determination to save all creation.
I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:
- Youngblood, Kevin J., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Jonah. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 2013.
The following are also available:
- Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
- Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
- Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
- Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).