Today we begin our walk through the Old Testament book of Jonah.
Jonah was a person, not a thing or a place. Jonah was a Jewish prophet in the Northern tribe of Israel, during the reign of King Jeroboam II, before the prophet Amos. We know this because Jonah was mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25.
This book of Jonah was written about Jonah and by Jonah. Even though the narrative is in the third person, historians and Bible scholars still attribute its authorship to Jonah. Other Old Testament writers often employed this same third-person writing style.
The book of Jonah is a historical narrative – a true story. Some secular historians view this book as an allegory, a fictional story used to illustrate a principle or purpose. Their argument is that no one could survive in the belly of a fish for three days. How are we to resolve this debate? Jesus made it crystal clear – He took the story of Jonah as literal fact (Matthew 12:38-41).
If you grew up attending church as a kid, you no doubt heard Jonah’s story many times. Most children’s stories about Jonah focus on Jonah’s disobedience, and God’s call on Jonah’s life no matter what. Jonah reluctantly agreed to obey God, but did so with a bad attitude. God changed the city of Ninevah, then taught Jonah a lesson about Jonah’s bad attitude via a plant/tree.
What most children’s accounts of Jonah’s story leave out (for good reason) is the incredible evil found in the city of Ninevah, where God had told Jonah to preach. After all, what parent wants their child traumatized with stories of people having their hands and feet amputated, their eyes gouged out, being skinned alive, or impaled? We can hardly consider such brutality as adults.
Yet the people of Ninevah were all that and so much more. The ruins of Ninevah are on the eastern bank of the Tigris river, across the river from modern-day Mosul, Iraq. The city was founded by Noah’s grandson Nimrod (see Genesis 10:6-12).
Jonah wanted no part of giving his life up, especially to the brutality of these brutal pagan monsters. When God said “go to Ninevah”, Jonah promptly ran the other way.
Sometimes when we disobey God, God simply uses someone else to do His will (think of King Saul, whom God picked David to take his spot, or John Mark who went home before Paul and Barnabas finished their missionary journey).
But sometimes God uniquely gifts and prepares a person to do a specific task. God then becomes the Great Hound of Heaven, tracking down that person and calling them to do His bidding. Moses, Jonah, and Saul (who later was renamed to the Apostle Paul) are all examples of God calling people to service despite their unwillingness to obey, then doing great things for His glory with that person.
In the case of Jonah, God used Jonah to redeem and call to Himself a pagan Gentile nation. This was God being true to His Word to call “all peoples” to Himself. The nation of Israel was to be the shining light of God to the rest of the nations. When Jonah obeyed, God did, in fact, call Ninevah to repentance. This was a praise, and also a shame on the people of Israel, whom God had called to minister to the surrounding nations.
Unfortunately, even though Ninevah repented during Jonah’s ministry, it did not stay true to the Lord. 150 years later, Ninevah had gone back to its old ways. The city was demolished in 612 BC. A record of the second attempt to call the city of Ninevah to repentance prior to its fall is recorded in the book of Nahum.
May we remember God’s love for all people of all lands, even evil empires like Ninevah.
May we also remember to be faithful and obedient to God’s calling on our lives.
I look forward to our journey through Jonah’s story.