Preparing for Jonah

Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us!

- Father Mapple in Herman Melville's Moby Dick

This Sunday we launch into a mid-summer sermon series on the book of Jonah. Jonah is one of the shortest Old Testament books and belongs to the prophetic genre. It is numbered among the twelve "minor prophets" in the Old Testament - a name derived from the short length of the books. Jonah is not only one of the most engaging stories in Scripture but is also one of the most well-known stories of all time. Even people who have never read the Bible are familiar with this tale.

The purpose of this blog post is to briefly answer five introductory questions in order to help you understand the book of Jonah and prepare to engage with the sermons. The questions are these:

  1. Who was Jonah?
  2. Where did this book come from?
  3. What was going on in Jonah's world during the time of this story?
  4. Is this story historical?
  5. What are the messages of Jonah?

Who was Jonah?

Jonah the son of Amittai (Jonah 1:1) was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel during the 8th century BC. The only biblical data that we have on Jonah comes from the book that bears his name and also an illuminating verse from 2 Kings. 2 Kings 14:25 says: 

[Jeroboam II] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.

From this verse we know that Jonah prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II who reigned from 793-753 BC. We also know that he was from the mountain town of Gath-hepher, situated in northern Israel close to Nazareth. Furthermore, it appears that Jonah may have been a popular prophet because he prophesied good things about Israel.

Where did this book come from?

The book itself is anonymous and does not tell us who wrote it. If Jonah wrote the book then it would come to us from the 8th century BC, the original audience being the northern kingdom of Israel and also the southern kingdom of Judah. It's also possible that it was written by an anonymous author from a later time period in Israel's history. But it could not have been written later than the third century BC because we have references to Jonah coming from this time.

Because we cannot clearly know who the original audience was we must be satisfied with saying that this book is written for God's people in each successive generation. Indeed, its message is enduring and has meaning for God's people in every generation.

What was going on in Jonah's world during the time of this story?

During Jonah's time Jeroboam II reigned in Israel and Uzziah reigned in Judah. Uzziah was a good king but Jeroboam II, like most kings of the north, was wicked in the eyes of the Lord. Still, the northern kingdom flourished during Jonah's day. They experienced an age of peace and prosperity brought about by the Lord in spite of the sins of their leaders.

Yet Assyria loomed as an ominous threat to the north of Israel. Though during Jonah's day Assyria was in something of a decline and was not at war with Israel, they had been at war with Israel in the past. And within 100 years of Jonah's time God would use Assyria to destroy Samaria and completely wipe out the northern kingdom - carrying them into exile. Nineveh, by the way, was one of the capital cities of Assyria.

Is this story historical?

Many have argued that this story should be understood as an extended parable because of its literary nature (Jonah is a literary masterpiece) and because of its extraordinary claims. Jonah, for example, is swallowed by a giant fish and lives again and the pagan city of Nineveh apparently repents and worships Yahweh - both events appearing non-historical.

But in contrast to Father Mapple's view that Jonah is a series of "yarns", there are very good reasons to take this story as history, only one of which will be mentioned here. Jesus considered the story of Jonah to be historical. In Matthew 12:41 Jesus said:

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

Here Jesus assumes that the men of Nineveh truly did repent at the preaching of Jonah and that we will interact with them at the judgement at the end of the age. If Jonah's story was not historical then we obviously couldn't do these things that Jesus says we will do. Our position at Faith is that the story of Jonah is historical.

What are the messages of Jonah?

Jonah is a complex book that presents many profound messages to God's people. Here are just a few important ones:

  1. The failure of God's people to be a light to the nations
  2. God's compassion on the pagan nations
  3. Israel's failure to repent contrasted with the nations' willingness to repent
  4. God's absolute sovereignty over creation

We look forward to embarking on this journey with you. We pray that this series is a blessing for your soul as Jesus Christ is presented to you through the story of Jonah.

Here's an outline of how we'll cover Jonah through the month of July:

July 3 - Jonah 1:1-16

July 10 - Jonah 1:17-2:10

July 17 - Jonah 3:1-5

July 24 - Jonah 3:6-10

July 31 - Jonah 4:1-11