There are few people who haven’t heard the tale of Jonah and the great fish. Even those who have had little contact with scripture are likely to place the story of “Jonah and the Whale” in the same category of literary classics as “Noah’s Ark” and “David and Goliath.”
Countless pop culture interpretations, Sunday school lessons, and tongue-in-cheek adaptations of the book of Jonah have cemented its narrative in the minds of many.
However, while thousands have been entertained by this story of a man swallowed by a fish, much fewer have examined its deeper theological truths. In this chapter-by-chapter analysis of Jonah, the historical-cultural context, literary devices, and theological implications of the book will be explored in-depth to discover its overarching theological principles (fun, right?).
In other words, we need to take a look at how Jonah juxtaposes Jehovah’s justice against magnificent mercy.
“While thousands have been entertained by this story of a man swallowed by a fish, much fewer have examined its deeper theological truths.”
Here we go.
The book of Jonah stands in contrast to the other minor prophets, in that it is presented in a fully narrative format—with the exception of Jonah’s psalm in chapter two—and that it appears to have been written by a third party, and not Jonah himself. This idea is supported by Jonah’s atypical characterization as a childish and stubborn prophet who acts in direct violation of God’s commands.
Although it is possible that Jonah, in his later years, chose to write about his failures as a polemic against disobeying God, it seems unlikely he would characterize himself so harshly. Instead, it is logical to assume that Jonah’s story was passed on through oral tradition for some time before it was eventually transcribed. The identity of this scribe, however, is unknown.
The exact time of writing for the book of Jonah is heavily debated, but there are several clues in the text that point to a later, post-exilic, date of composition.
The phrasing in Jonah 3:3, stating that “Nineveh was an extremely large city” implies that Jonah was written sometime after the city ceased to exist. David Freedman states that the “way in which the city is spoken of appears to reflect the period when Nineveh was the capital of Assyria,” a condition that was realized in the “last century of its existence.”
In addition, the mention of Persian customs—such as the participation of animals in mourning—points toward a Persian cultural influence on the book. With this in mind, one can assume Jonah was written sometime after the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.
Furthermore, since the book of Jonah appears to have been widely accepted by 200 B.C. and was also cited in the apocryphal book of Tobit circa the fourth century B.C. a date of composition between the late fifth and early fourth century B.C. is most likely. This 300-year window places the author of Jonah somewhere within the Persian-dominated, post-exilic world. From this date of composition, one can more clearly discern the theological leanings of Jonah’s author.
“One does not easily dismiss a divine directive.”
Understanding the historical context of Nineveh is important if one hopes to properly interpret the book of Jonah. The nation of Assyria was directly responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. To the ancient Israelite, Jonah’s commission by God to preach in Nineveh—the capital city of Assyria at the time—would be akin to a Jewish man in the 1940’s being called to preach God’s message in Berlin, Germany. It is understandable, given the circumstances, why Jonah may have been reluctant to deliver a message of destruction to his nation’s enemies.
However, as Jonah was soon to learn, one does not easily dismiss a divine directive.
Jonah chapter one begins with minimal background information. The reader knows that Yahweh speaks, and that a man named Jonah hears Yahweh speak. However, the word that Yahweh delivers to Jonah is not to his liking: “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it” (Jonah 1:2) is Yahweh’s command. Instead, Jonah defies God by choosing to flee in the opposite direction of Nineveh.
The text does not immediately provide a reason for Jonah’s decision to flee. In fact, it is not until the closing chapter of the narrative that Jonah voices his concern to God. For now, the reader is simply told that Jonah has fled from Yahweh.
Jonah 1:3 mentions twice within one verse that Jonah fled “from [Yahweh’s] presence.” The irony of this situation, and the first theological principle of the book of Jonah, is that there is no place to which one can flee from God. In fact, the very next chapter indicates that Jonah’s attempt to flee has failed; for “[Yahweh] hurled a violent wind on the sea” (1:4) where Jonah had sought to make his escape.
Clearly, God intended for His message to be delivered. The prophet Jeremiah once voiced his own struggle with refusing to preach God’s message when he laments that “If I say, ‘I won’t mention Him or speak any longer in His name’ . . . I become tired of holding it in, and I cannot prevail” (Jer. 20:9).
The experiences of other Old Testament figures such as Moses (Exod. 4) and Balaam (Num. 22) attest to this attribute of Yahweh’s character. Put simply, chapter one affirms that the will of God will not be halted by human disobedience or inability.
The will of God will not be halted by human disobedience or inability.
Jonah’s selfish attempt to run from Nineveh results in his being judged by Yahweh. By extension, the pagan sailors who were with Jonah also suffer the same fate (1:5). When these sailors find their own invocations for divine assistance ineffective, they resort to waking Jonah and beseeching him to call upon the name of his god (1:6). It can be inferred that at this point Jonah still refuses to call upon Yahweh, as the narrative skips ahead to the sailors casting lots to determine the source of their ill fate (1:7).
After some additional prodding, Jonah relents enough to reveal the identity of Yahweh to the crew. This sparks a chain of events that, remarkably, leads to the sailors offering sacrifices to Yahweh, and making vows in His name (1:16).
The apparent conversion of the sailors in response to Yahweh’s wrath serves as a foreshadowing of Nineveh’s future submission to Yahweh.
Jonah, in contrast to the sailors, continually avoids a rightful response to Yahweh. When asked to intercede on behalf of the sailors to God, Jonah instead offers to be thrown into the sea—and almost certainly die (1:12).
Ironically, the pagan sailors act more righteously than Jonah by attempting to row to safety instead of indulging the prophet’s suicidal wishes (1:13), as well as praying to Yahweh—interceding in Jonah’s place—for forgiveness when their situation forces them to act (1:14).
If not for the “huge fish” (1:17) provided to Jonah by Yahweh, he most certainly would have perished on the open sea. Jonah’s cowardice is evident in this first chapter. He relies on strangers to provide him an escape through death, instead of relying on Yahweh to protect him from the people of Nineveh.
Chapter two is Jonah’s response to the great fish Yahweh sent to rescue him. In this passage Jonah appears to have a change of heart in light of being rescued from certain death. Jonah praises God in a psalm-like prayer that takes up the majority of the second chapter.
The book of Jonah states that the prophet “prayed to [Yahweh] his God from inside the fish” (2:1). It is particularly remarkable, then, that the language of Jonah’s prayer is primarily a language of fulfillment, and not one of despair. Jonah prays, “I called to [Yahweh] in my distress, and He answered me” (1:2), and claims that “You raised my life from the Pit, [Yahweh] my God!” (1:6).
This does not sound like the prayer of a man who has been swallowed by a fish and sits in its stomach, surrounded by darkness, cramped, and hungry. Jonah prays as if his prayer has already been answered by Yahweh—and, in fact, God does liberate Jonah from the belly of the great fish. This liberation is almost certainly due to Jonah’s pledge at the end of his prayer: “I will fulfill what I have vowed” (1:9).
Jonah’s experience demonstrates that God is willing to redeem His people when they turn from their disobedience. This is the second instance in the book of Jonah where God acts mercifully on account of people’s actions.
“God is willing to redeem His people when they turn from their disobedience.”
As a secondary note, the first two chapters also emphasize God’s complete control over nature. In chapter one, God controls the storm, and in chapter two, God makes use of the great fish. When Jonah repents, the next passage states that “[Yahweh] commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (1:10). In short, God is the ultimate authority over His creation.
Moving forward, chapter three narrates the renewal of Jonah’s divine mission. Luckily, this time Jonah gets it right.
Once again, the word of Yahweh comes to Jonah and speaks the same message as before, with some minor alterations: “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you” (3:2).
Unlike God’s initial word, Jonah is no longer commanded to “preach against” (1:2) the city due to its wickedness. Instead, God simply commands Jonah to speak the message God tells him to deliver. It seems that, after Jonah’s rebellion, God is treating him more authoritatively than before. Jonah is not given the reason for his mission again, but is simply informed to do as he is told. In essence, God has moved from treating Jonah as an exalted prophet, to treating him as a child in need of a firm hand.
Once he arrives in the city, Jonah goes about delivering God’s divine message. These seven English words—five in Hebrew—comprise the only actual prophecy in the book of Jonah. Nevertheless, the power inherent in Jonah’s proclamation is unmistakable:
“In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!” (3:4).
There are no explicit reasons for Nineveh’s destruction given by Jonah to the people. However, the Bible records that as a result of this prophecy the men of Nineveh “believed in God,” “proclaimed a fast,” and “dressed in sackcloth” in response to God’s word. The king of Nineveh himself reasons that “each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing” (3:8). He even goes as far as to include the city’s livestock in the process of fasting.
The king’s reasoning is bewildering: “Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish” (3:9).
The people of Nineveh were not given any reason to assume that Jonah’s proclamation of destruction hinged upon their continuing to do evil. Nevertheless, they chose to repent of their evil and seek the mercy of Yahweh.
Perhaps they had heard that the God of the Hebrews was not only just, but loving and merciful as well. Whatever the case may have been, Jonah states that “then [Yahweh] saw their actions” and “God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it” (3:10). In effect, God changes His mind about destroying the city of Nineveh due to the people’s repentance.
“Perhaps they had heard that the God of the Hebrews was not only just, but loving and merciful as well.”
The results of chapter three effectually counter-balance the message of chapter one. God’s will is unavoidable, of course, but God’s will can also be changed as a result of human action.
God willed for Nineveh to be destroyed because of its wickedness (1:2), and then God willed for Nineveh to be spared on account of its repentance (3:10). These instances do not cancel each other out, nor do they serve as ammunition for conflicting Calvinist and Armenian theologies. Instead, the author of Jonah has masterfully woven the narrative together in a manner that highlights the fully realized spectrum of God’s sovereignty. Put succinctly, God reserves the right to fulfill His divine plan, and the right to alter the plan to His liking, should He desire to do so.
Juxtaposition between the justice and mercy of Yahweh is a central theological theme in the book of Jonah. Chapter four capitalizes on this by narrating a heated exchange between an angry prophet (Jonah) and a God who appears to have gone back on His promise.
The narrative opens with Jonah, “greatly displeased” and “furious” (4:1) with Yahweh’s apparent decision to spare Israel’s hated enemies (how often do we feel fury when the unjust appear to prosper?). Jonah explains that this outcome is exactly the reason why he chose to flee from Yahweh’s presence in the first place.
Here, is the crux of the book of Jonah.
The key theological statement of the entire book is summed up in Jonah’s description of God. Jonah prays to Yahweh, saying:
“I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster” (4:2).
In this statement the reader is finally given a reason for why Jonah fled from Yahweh in the first place—he was afraid God would act according to His nature!
Jonah, despite being angry with God, rightfully determines why God spared the city of Nineveh. God is a being of compassion and mercy. Peter states in his epistle that God is “not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). However, because of his anger, Jonah fails to realize that this outcome is exactly what God desired.
“The reader is finally given a reason for why Jonah fled from Yahweh in the first place—he was afraid God would act according to His nature!”
Because of Jonah’s failure, God sees fit to teach him an object lesson through the use of the plant and the worm. By exploiting Jonah’s selfishness, God demonstrates that the people of the earth—all of His creation—are precious to Him because He is invested in their growth.
God challenges Jonah by asking him whether it is right to be angry about a plant he “did not labor over and did not grow” (Jonah 4:10), and follows it up by confronting Jonah with the much more valuable city of Nineveh “which has more than 120,000 people” (4:11).
The message of chapter four, and the book of Jonah as a whole, is that God will be merciful to those who repent and seek His favor. This attribute of God should serve as a comfort to those who have sinned in their past—namely, everyone—because He is “slow to become angry” and “rich in faithful love.”
Certainly, God is also just, and will not hold back His judgment forever. But the example of God and the Amorites in Abraham’s day demonstrates that He will wait to enact judgment until after one’s sin has “reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16).
The book of Jonah presents several important theological principles within its brief narrative. God’s mercy, as opposed to His justice, is at the forefront of the story. Jonah desires for the people of Nineveh to experience God’s justice, although he himself has already experienced the mercy of God both directly (through the great fish) and indirectly (through the salvation of the pagan sailors).
That Jonah still desires the destruction of Nineveh, despite his own experiences, is likely due to his own racist bias. As a Jewish prophet, he may have felt entitled to the salvation of Yahweh he received through his nation’s status as the chosen people and through his devotion as a (mostly) loyal Jew.
Moreover, as a Jewish man living in fear of Assyria, it makes sense that Jonah would have felt a great deal of animosity against the people of Nineveh. However, as the book of Jonah demonstrates, God’s election of Israel does not discount his faithful love for all other people, nor does it qualify Jonah’s attitude of exclusivity.
In response to the book of Jonah, Christians must be willing to receive its message and apply it to their own lives. Modern readers must ask themselves whether or not they have classified certain groups or individuals as “people of Nineveh,” deserving judgment instead of mercy. If one discovers that this is the case, they should learn from Jonah’s poor example, and seek instead to desire God’s mercy for people who are lost in sin.
“Modern readers must ask themselves whether or not they have classified certain groups or individuals as ‘people of Nineveh,’ deserving judgment instead of mercy.”
Moreover, Christians must be willing to submit to God’s authority, should He choose to use them as an instrument for delivering His message to lost people. The Great Commission of Jesus to the Church makes it abundantly clear what should be on the heart of every Christian. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) does not leave much room for interpretation.
It is God’s desire that “all nations” would repent and seek His will. The underlying mission of the book of Jonah is simply that God’s followers should be unified with the Father in seeking the repentance and salvation of all people.
Allen, Leslie C. The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1976.
Freedman, David Noel. “Jonah, The book of.” Page 941 in vol. 3 of Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by D. N. Freedman. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Stuart, Douglas. Hosea-Jonah. Word Biblical Commentary 31. Waco, TX.: Word Books, 1987.