Background

Jonah’s name means “dove,” and in various English translations the name has been given as Jonas, Jona, and Jonah. His hometown was Gath-Hepher located northeast of Nazareth in the tribal allotment of Zebulun in northern Israel (Jos 19:13), and his father was Amittai (Jon 1:1). All that we know about him and his ministry aside from what is provided in this book is revealed in 2 Kings 14:25. Jonah had predicted that the Lord would restore the boundaries of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 BC).1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

See also the Chronology of the Old Testament Kings, the Chronology of the Prophets, and the Chronology of Latter Prophets and Intertestamental Period.

Authorship and Date

Regarding the authorship and date of writing, nothing explicit is provided in Scripture. It is assumed that Jonah had given his prophecy regarding Jeroboam’s territorial expansion early in the king’s reign (2 Ki 14:25) or possibly during the reign of his father Jehoash (798-782 BC) when the restoration of ancient boundaries was begun (2 Ki 13:24-25). The events related in this book are not dated, however, and we do not know how long he lived or how long his ministry continued. A reasonable view is that Jonah himself wrote the book sometime after his return from Nineveh, perhaps near the end of his ministry. An estimated time of writing would then be about 760 BC.

Content

The distinctive nature of the book of Jonah is revealed in several ways. Rather than being a series of oracles of the prophet, this book tells of an episode in the prophet’s life. The compact nature of the book is also memorable: the whole story is told in 40 verses, with another 8 giving Jonah’s thankful prayer (Jon 2:2-9). The sensational and supernatural aura that surrounds the events of the book and captures the reader’s attention from start to finish is another distinctive characteristic of the book.

Purpose for Writing

The central message of the book of Jonah is the compassion of God and his divine right to show his mercy as well as his power wherever and whenever he chooses. The nation of Israel, the prophet Jonah, and the city of Nineveh are all secondary “characters” in this drama. We are being taught primarily about the great compassion and international sovereignty of our Lord.

It is not mainly a book on evangelism, but it certainly includes the truth that God’s gracious plans were not limited to Israel, as Israel too often imagined. It is not primarily a call to repentance, though that message is obviously included and also stood as a preaching of law against Israel. In attitude and action Jonah serves as an object lesson for God’s unfaithful people and also for Nineveh in their common need for divine mercy. The repentance displayed by the heathen Nineveh stands in stark contrast to the hardheartedness of Israel and served to prepare for the message of the “classical” prophets who would appeal to Israel just as Jonah addressed Nineveh. The concluding chapter clearly testifies against the attitude of rejoicing in one’s own salvation but resenting others’ salvation and is seen by many to be somehow incomplete (since we never find out how Jonah responded or whether the repentance of Nineveh has long-term effects). But the book ends where it should end – speaking of divine compassion.

In view of the New Testament revelation that uses Jonah as a type of the buried and resurrected Christ, one may also say this prefiguring of the Messiah is a central message of the book. How much of this was understood by the Old Testament believers is impossible to say.

Those who recall the events of the eighth century BC may also state this as a dominant message of the book: The Lord here preserves Assyria from self-destruction long enough to punish Israel through Assyria. In the first half of that century, Israel was not concerned about Assyria. Before the century was over, however, the Northern Kingdom has fallen prey to Assyria as the Lord carried out his long-standing threats against his apostate people.

Christ Connection

Just as Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days and then set free, so Jesus died, remained in the grave for three days, and rose again (Jon 1:17; Mt 12:40). It was this “sign of Jonah” that Jesus used to prophesy his resurrection on a number of occasions, calling people to repentance as Jonah called the people of Nineveh to repentance (Jon 3:4-10; Mt 12:38-45; 16:4; Lk 11:29-32).

The book of Jonah also shows us the extent of God’s love and grace. Jonah was angry that God would extend his grace to the enemies of the nation of Israel. In the final chapter God tries to teach Jonah that he cares for all people (Jon 4:1-11). Jesus is not just the Savior of Israel or of a select few people we deem to be worthy; he is the Savior of all people (1 Jn 2:2).

Notable Passages

  • Jonah 1:1-3
  • Jonah 1:9-12
  • Jonah 1:17
  • Jonah 2:1,6-7,8-9
  • Jonah 2:10
  • Jonah 3:4
  • Jonah 3:9-10
  • Jonah 4:10-11

Outline

  1. Jonah’s call and flight (Jon 1)
  2. Jonah’s deliverance and prayer (Jon 2)
  3. Preaching and repentance in Nineveh (Jon 3)
  4. Jonah’s anger and the Lord’s rebuke for him (Jon 4)

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.