Background on Jonah
In the half-century during which the prophet Jonah ministered (800–750 b.c.), a significant event affected the northern kingdom of Israel: King Jeroboam II (793–753) restored her traditional borders, ending almost a century of sporadic seesaw conflict between Israel and Damascus.
Jeroboam, in God’s good providence (2Ki 14:26–27 26For the LORD saw the bitter suffering of everyone in Israel, and that there was no one in Israel, slave or free, to help them. 27And because the LORD had not said he would blot out the name of Israel completely, he used Jeroboam II, the son of Jehoash, to save them), capitalized on Assyria’s defeat of Damascus (in the latter half of the ninth century), which temporarily crushed that center of Aramean power. Prior to that time, not only had Israel been considerably reduced in size, but the king of Damascus had even been able to control internal affairs in the northern kingdom (2Ki 13:7 7Finally, Jehoahaz’s army was reduced to 50 charioteers, 10 chariots, and 10,000 foot soldiers. The king of Aram had killed the others, trampling them like dust under his feet.). However, after the Assyrian campaign against Damascus in 797, Jehoash king of Israel had been able to recover the territory lost to the king of Damascus (2Ki 13:25 25Then Jehoash son of Jehoahaz recaptured from Ben-hadad son of Hazael the towns that had been taken from Jehoash’s father, Jehoahaz. Jehoash defeated Ben-hadad on three occasions, and he recovered the Israelite towns. ). Internal troubles in Assyria subsequently allowed Jeroboam to complete the restoration of Israel’s northern borders. Nevertheless, Assyria remained the real threat from the north at this time.
The prophets of the Lord were speaking to Israel regarding these events. About 797 b.c. Elisha spoke to the king of Israel concerning future victories over Damascus (2Ki 13:14–19 14When Elisha was in his last illness, King Jehoash of Israel visited him and wept over him. “My father! My father! I see the chariots and charioteers of Israel!” he cried.
15Elisha told him, “Get a bow and some arrows.” And the king did as he was told. 16Elisha told him, “Put your hand on the bow,” and Elisha laid his own hands on the king’s hands.
17Then he commanded, “Open that eastern window,” and he opened it. Then he said, “Shoot!” So he shot an arrow. Elisha proclaimed, “This is the LORD’s arrow, an arrow of victory over Aram, for you will completely conquer the Arameans at Aphek.
18Then he said, “Now pick up the other arrows and strike them against the ground.” So the king picked them up and struck the ground three times. 19But the man of God was angry with him. “You should have struck the ground five or six times!” he exclaimed. “Then you would have beaten Aram until it was entirely destroyed. Now you will be victorious only three times.” ).
A few years later Jonah prophesied the restoration that Jeroboam accomplished (2Ki 14:25 25Jeroboam II recovered the territories of Israel between Lebo-hamath and the Dead Sea,£ just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had promised through Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher.).
But soon after Israel had triumphed, she began to gloat over her newfound power. Because she was relieved of foreign pressures—relief that had come in accordance with encouraging words from Elisha and Jonah—she felt jealously complacent about her favored status with God (Am 6:1 1 What sorrow awaits you who lounge in luxury in Jerusalem,£
and you who feel secure in Samaria!
You are famous and popular in Israel,
and people go to you for help.).
She focused her religion on expectations of the “day of the Lord” (Am 5:18–20 18 What sorrow awaits you who say,
“If only the day of the LORD were here!”
You have no idea what you are wishing for.
That day will bring darkness, not light.
19 In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion—
only to meet a bear.
Escaping from the bear, he leans his hand against a wall in his house—
and he’s bitten by a snake.
20 Yes, the day of the LORD will be dark and hopeless,
without a ray of joy or hope.),
when God’s darkness would engulf the other nations, leaving Israel to bask in his light.
It was in such a time that the Lord sent Amos and Hosea to announce to his people Israel that he would “spare them no longer” (Am 7:8; 8:2) but would send them into exile “beyond Damascus” (Am 5:27), i.e., to Assyria (Hos 9:3; 10:6; 11:5). During this time the Lord also sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn it of the imminent danger of divine judgment.
Since Jonah was a contemporary of Amos, see Introduction to Amos: Date and Historical Situation for additional details.
Date of Writing
For a number of reasons, including the preaching to Gentiles, the book is often assigned a postexilic date. At least, it is said, the book must have been written after the destruction of Nineveh in 612 b.c. But these considerations are not decisive. The similarity of this narrative to the Elijah-Elisha accounts has already been noted. One may also question whether mention of the repentance of Nineveh and the consequent averted destruction of the city would have had so much significance to the author after Nineveh’s overthrow. And to suppose that proclaiming God’s word to Gentiles had no relevance in the eighth century is to overlook the fact that already in the previous century Elijah and Elisha had extended their ministries to foreign lands (1Ki 17:7–24; 2Ki 8:7–15). Moreover, the prophet Amos (c. 760–750) set God’s redemptive work in behalf of Israel in the context of his dealings with the nations (Am 1:3—2:16; 9:7,12). Perhaps the third quarter of the eighth century is the most likely date for the book, after the public ministries of Amos and Hosea and before the fall of Samaria to Assyria in 722–721.
Many have questioned whether the book of Jonah is historical. The supposed legendary character of some of the events (e.g., the episode involving the great fish) has caused them to suggest alternatives to the traditional view that the book is historical, biographical narrative. Although their specific suggestions range from fictional short story to allegory to parable, they share the common assumption that the account sprang essentially from the author’s imagination, despite its serious and gracious message.
Such interpretations, often based in part on doubt about the miraculous as such, too quickly dismiss (1) the similarities between the narrative of Jonah and other parts of the OT and (2) the pervasive concern of the OT writers, especially the prophets, for history. They also fail to realize that OT narrators had a keen ear for recognizing how certain past events in Israel’s pilgrimage with God illumine (by way of analogy) later events. (For example, the events surrounding the birth of Moses illumine the exodus, those surrounding Samuel’s birth illumine the series of events narrated in the books of Samuel, and the ministries of Moses and Joshua illumine those of Elijah and Elisha.) Similarly, the prophets recognized that the future events they announced could be illumined by reference to analogous events of the past. Overlooking these features in OT narrative and prophecy, many have supposed that a story that too neatly fits the author’s purpose must therefore be fictional.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that Biblical narrators were more than historians. They interpretatively recounted the past with the unswerving purpose of bringing it to bear on the present and the future. In the portrayal of past events, they used their materials to achieve this purpose effectively. Nonetheless, the integrity with which they treated the past ought not to be questioned. The book of Jonah recounts real events in the life and ministry of the prophet himself.
Chapter 1 – God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and announce His judgment because He has seen how wicked they are. Jonah goes in the opposite direction to Joppa where he catches a ship for Tarshish. Before long a violent storm threatens the ship. Everyone prays to his god except Jonah who was asleep in the hold. The captain wakes him and Jonah tells him he is a Hebrew and is running from God. Following Jonah’s suggestion, the captain throws Jonah overboard and the storm stops. God sends a giant fish to swallow Jonah.
Chapter 2 – From inside the fish Jonah finally prays to God. He acknowledges God and finally submits to do the LORD’s will. After three days, the fish spits Jonah out.
Chapter 3 – God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh a second time. This time Jonah obeys. The city was so large it took him three days to walk from one end to the other. He reduces God’s message to one sentence. The king of Nineveh hears and repents. He orders everyone in the city to fast and pray. God hears and spares Nineveh.
Chapter 4 – Jonah watches from a hill side and is angry because God did not destroy Nineveh. God causes a plant to grow to shade Jonah. Then He sends a worm to destroy the plant, and Jonah gets mad. God chastises him because he was more upset about a plant than about the souls of thousands.
What was so important about Nineveh?
Why was Jonah so reluctant to go there?
Where was Tarshish in relation to Nineveh?
What was Nineveh like during this time? How wicked were they?
Did God send the storm?
Why does Jonah seem so calm? Why is he so willing to be thrown overboard?
Did the sailors and others come to serve God?
What type of fish could have swallowed Jonah?
Why did it take Jonah three days to pray to God?
What lesson did Jonah learn? Why did he decide to go to Nineveh?
What was Jonah’s attitude as he approached Nineveh?
What was Jonah worried about when he spoke God’s message?
What did Jonah know about God?
Why did God forgive Nineveh?
Why does Jonah watch from a distance?
Why is he mad at God?
What lesson does God teach Jonah using the plant and the worm?
Does Jonah change his mind about God’s sparing Nineveh?
Why do the men on the boat not try to stop Jonah from running?