Bible Study Helps: Jonah

Here is helpful material as you study the book of Jonah:

This famous book may be best known for the story of a great fish swallowing up a reluctant prophet, but it contains much more, including some major theological truths. Divine sovereignty, repentance, forgiveness and God’s concern for pagan lands (in this case, Nineveh) are among the main emphasis found here. As Sinclair Ferguson puts it:

It is really a book about God, and how one man came, through painful experience, to discover the true character of the God whom he had already served in the earlier years of his life. He was to find the doctrine about God come alive in his experience. It is this combination of doctrine and experience that makes Jonah such a fascinating, instructive and practical book.

 

The best sub-title for Jonah might be Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, because it is these two biblical emphases which come to the fore throughout its pages. Jonah was forced to learn in his flight from God that God is sovereign. He rules over all things. He also learned that the pulse-beat of God’s heart has an evangelistic rhythm. He loves men and women and he will pursue them with his love in order to bring them to repentance and faith.

There are various differences between Jonah and the other biblical prophets. Achtemeier lists some of these:

The book of Jonah is different from all other prophetic books. Instead of being a collection of prophetic oracles, it is a story about a man named Jonah, who is never called a prophet in the book. To be sure, it opens with the familiar prophetic phrase, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah” (1:1), but there is only one brief prophetic oracle in the whole book (3;4).

 

Unlike the other prophets, Jonah is sent to preach not to Israel but to the foreign city of Nineveh in Mesopotamia. A covenant context for his preaching is entirely missing. The story, with the exception of 2:2-9, is in prose rather than in the familiar poetry of the other Minor Prophets. And far from being a mouthpiece for the word of God, Jonah is a disobedient and angry servant.

A few of the major themes of the book can be explored a bit further. The overwhelming mercy of God is clearly a major emphasis found here. We see it extended to Jonah, to the pagan sailors, and to the pagan Ninevites. God certainly is a God of the second chance. As Bruckner comments:

The storm is God’s severe mercy for Jonah and the sailors; it is necessary in order to deliver them from their own sui generis lives. It is the wind of the Spirit that shakes the ship’s beams and opens our ears and hearts to the words of God. The sailors’ conversion is God’s faithfulness to his word of witness, even in the form of a weak witness from Jonah. As in Christ’s death, God turns our condemnation (the crowd’s betrayal, Jonah’s sinking) into our salvation (resurrection/great fish).

 

God’s mercy toward our enemies and the call for God’s people to trust him enough to proclaim this mercy form the double theme of Jonah. God’s mercy pursues Jonah. God called his prophet to speak to a people who were about to be destroyed for their violent crimes against humanity. He sent Jonah so that they might repent and be saved. God does not let Jonah go or leave him to wallow in his rebellion, but he quickly brings him to repentance. He pursues him through the storm and gives him an opportunity to fulfill his prophetic calling before the sailors, to good effect. God assigns a fish to rescue Jonah from drowning, saving both Jonah and his aborted mission. In spite of his rebellion, Jonah is “God’s dear child” [as Luther put it].

Another big ticket item found in this book is the fact that an entire pagan city seems to have repented following Jonah’s eventual preaching to them. I have discussed this point elsewhere, so I share part of that piece here:

One of the most incredible things in the entire book has to do with what we find in chapter three. There we read about an entire evil, pagan city, Nineveh – the capital of the Assyrian empire – repenting! …

 

One can only pray, “Do it again Lord”. If the evil Assyrians can repent en masse – at least in one big city – there may be hope yet for pagan nations today. Of course in this case a prophet of God was specifically raised up to bring the message. And it took a while for that message to finally get delivered!

 

Let me look at a few aspects of this incredible story, and bring in some commentators to help me along the way. First, we must consider just how amazing it was that the Ninevites actually even bothered to listen to Jonah. As Warren Wiersbe states:

 

“From a human perspective, this entire enterprise appears ridiculous. How could one man, claiming to be God’s prophet, confront thousands of people with this strange message, especially a message of judgment? How could a Jew, who worshiped the true God, ever get these idolatrous Gentiles to believe what he had to say? For all he knew, Jonah might end up impaled on a pole or skinned alive! But, in obedience to the Lord, Jonah went to Nineveh.”

 

Remarkable indeed. Second, this certainly was an incredible turnaround. Such an evil and wicked city, known for its violence and bloodthirstiness, actually heeds the prophet’s word and repents. What a revival. As James Montgomery Boice says of Jonah’s preaching:

 

“The result was the greatest and most thorough revival that has ever taken place. Writes Gaebelein … ‘If the miracle of the fish is great, that of this chapter is greater. For here is the record of nothing less than the greatest mass conversion in history. Though generalities must always be used with caution, we may say that never again has the world seen anything quite like the result of Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh’.” billmuehlenberg.com/2021/06/23/what-an-incredible-turnaround-lessons-from-nineveh/

Image of The Message of Jonah: Presence in the Storm (The Bible Speaks Today Series)
The Message of Jonah: Presence in the Storm (The Bible Speaks Today Series) by Nixon, Rosemary (Author) Amazon logo

Related to the above themes is the fact that God cares about the whole world. God is a missionary God, and so should his people be. But ancient Israel often lost sight of the fact that it was called by God not just to be blessed, but to be a blessing to other nations as well.

As Baldwin writes: “Israel’s nationalistic outlook needed correcting, hence the emphasis on God’s concern for the people of Nineveh (4:11). The hoped-for outcome would be a greater missionary vision in Israel instead of a narrow, particularistic emphasis.” Or as Stuart comments:

What happens to Nineveh and to Jonah happens precisely because of what God is like. The audience of the book is thus invited implicitly to revise their understanding of what God is like, if they indeed shared Jonah’s selfish views. In ancient Judaism the book served as a bulwark against the narrow particularism that allowed Jews to think they alone were worthy of God’s blessing while other peoples were not. To a more modern reader the message may be seen in light of Jesus’ own teaching about forgiveness: it is the sinners, not the righteous, who most often may recognize their need for forgiveness and do something about it (Matt. 12:41; cf. Luke 15:10). No one should oppose God’s mercy in receiving sinners into the Kingdom.

Further study can be enhanced by consulting the following commentaries, almost all of which are from a conservative/evangelical perspective.

Critical commentaries

Achtemeier, Elizabeth, Minor Prophets 1 (NIBC)
Alexander, Desmond, David Baker and Bruce Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (TOTC)
Allen, Leslie, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah & Micah (NICOT)
Baldwin, Joyce, Jonah, in Thomas McComiskey, The Minor prophets, vol. 2 (Baker, 1993)
Bruckner, James, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (NIVAC)
Craigie, Peter, The Twelve Prophets, vol. 2 (DSB)
Ellison, H. L., Jonah (EBC)
Goldingay, John, Hosea – Micah (BCOTPB)
Mackay, John, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (FB)
Nixon, Rosemary, Jonah (BST)
Smith, Billy and Frank Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (NAC)
Stuart, Douglas, Hosea – Jonah (WBC)
Timmer, Daniel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (TOTC)
Youngblood, Kevin, Jonah (ZECOT)

Expository and devotional commentaries and studies

Estelle, Bryan, Salvation and Judgment: The Gospel According to Jonah (P&R, 2005)
Ferguson, Sinclair, Man Overboard! (Banner of Truth, 1981, 2016)
Keller, Timothy, The Prodigal Prophet (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018)
Phillips, Richard, Jonah & Micah (REC, 2010)
Timmer, Daniel, A Gracious and Compassionate God (IVP, 2011)
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Amazed (Victor, 1996)

Perhaps my recommended volumes would include Baldwin, Bruckner, Nixon and Timmer.

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6 Replies to “Bible Study Helps: Jonah”

  1. I always wondered why the Ninevites listened to this strange man from another land and repented on mass. Not sure if you neglect this or were unaware of it, that the reason for the Ninevites repentance was that one of the pagan gods they worshipped was Dagon the half man/fish god whom the Philistines and Phoenicians also revered, the fact that Jonah was spewed out of a great fishes mouth on their shore was enough to spread the word and convince them that Dagon or a prophet of Dagon was here.
    See this article by H Clay Trumbull from 1892:
    https://archive.org/details/jstor-3259078

  2. I have read a commentary that said the enzymes inside the stomach of a whale/fish are quite potent.

    After 3 days inside the stomach of a fish/whale the skin of Jonah would have been bloched and peeling. His hair would of been falling out.

    So when Jonah walked into Ninevah the very sight of him would of instilled a sense of fear.

    God can use our failures.

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