The book of Jonah is unique among the Minor Prophets in that it tells the story of the prophet himself, unlike the other eleven books, which are clearly more typical prophecies. Jonah—it means "dove" in Hebrew—lived in Gath-hepher, a town of Zebulun north of Nazareth in Galilee, and he was the son of Amittai ("truthful"). The only other biblical mention of him appears in II Kings 14:25, which associates Jonah with the period just prior to or within the reign of Jeroboam II. Apparently, he was a contemporary of Amos.
Jonah's story is familiar to most people, even those who do not profess to be Christian or Jewish. God charges the prophet to go to Nineveh, the capital of Israel's hated enemy, Assyria, to prophesy of its imminent destruction. Jonah, though, flees to Joppa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish, attempting to get as far away from God and Assyria as possible. A huge storm rages, and the ship's crew chucks Jonah into the sea after the prophet admits that the storm is chasing him. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah, and after three days and nights, it spews him onto a beach, from whence he travels to Nineveh to proclaim God's message to the Assyrians. Amazingly, they repent, and God promises not to destroy them. At this, the prophet pitches a fit of anger, whereupon God teaches him a valuable lesson on His mercy.
The book must be juxtaposed against the other Minor Prophets, perhaps especially Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, and Habakkuk, to see how it fits. As we saw earlier, Amos and Micah are dire warnings of Israel's looming destruction. Obadiah foretells the same for Edom; Nahum, for Assyria; and Habakkuk, for Judah. Jonah sits in the midst of these, a prophecy in the form of story, in which the doomed nation repents and God relents. God is a merciful God, and the destruction promised in His prophecies can be averted if their targets humble themselves and submit to Him. As Isaiah writes, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:7).
The focus of Jonah, however, is on the prophet and his reactions to these situations. We see his emotions: denial, avoidance, dismay, resignation, fear, despair, humility, boldness, disbelief, anger, hopelessness, and perplexity. He is overwhelmed by what God wants him to do, uncertain about how it will affect him, driven relentlessly by God's will, and at a total loss about what it all means! Through his experiences, Jonah comes to realize, "How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (Romans 11:33). The reader leaves him as he sits outside Nineveh, bewildered and contemplating his incomprehensible God.
Jonah provides one of the most significant and recognizable Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Jesus Himself refers to it in Matthew 12:40: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." It is the only sign Jesus gave to prove that He was the Christ, a sign that was completely out of His ability to control since He would be dead. The Father Himself would have to intervene to raise His Son from the dead. Thus, Jesus puts His stamp of approval on this often-mocked book.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Meet the Minor Prophets (Part Two)