These are the notes for our weekly Bible study at the Normandy Apartments. Normally, I do not make extensive notes. I usually write out several questions about a text. This week, we are starting a new study, and I felt that a few introductory notes were needed before we get into the text of the book of Jonah.
"I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (Jonah 4:2, NIV).
Although never explicitly stated, the book of Jonah appears to be an autobiographical work by the prophet himself.
Jonah was a prophet living in the northern kingdom of Israel under King Jeroboam II (793-753 BC; 2 Kings 14:23-25), the most powerful of the northern kingdom's rulers. The northern kingdom had always been corrupt: following false gods, listening to the false promises of those false gods, and even sacrificing their own children to appease the false gods at times. Nevertheless, God had not given up on the people of Israel yet. A minority continued to be loyal to the true God, and a few prophets like Jonah continued to appear in the northern kingdom.
The Assyrians were the most powerful and evil enemies of Israel during those years. Ninevah was their capitol city. For Jonah to be called to preach to Ninevah would have been like a Jewish prophet being called to preach to Berlin during World War II. It was hostile territory. The people were not inclined to respect a man of God, and the man of God knew that the people were guilty of horrible and violent sins against the people of God.
The book of Jonah is almost entirely narrative. It focuses on actions rather than the message of the prophet. Other books of prophecy reverse the emphasis. Most prophetic literature focuses on the prophet's message, but not his actions.
Some people attempt to discount the book of Jonah because they doubt the miracles. However, the Christian faith is built upon miracles, from the miracle of creation to the miracle of Christ's resurrection. The miracles of the Bible were recorded because they happened. Furthermore, Jesus Christ accepted and taught the historicity of the story of Jonah, just as he accepted and taught the historicity of the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon (Matthew 12:39-42). He did not differentiate between the miraculous account about Jonah and the mundane account about Solomon. We will follow his example during our study.
God is the hero of the book of Jonah. Through a reluctant and whining prophet, God is determined to get his message to the capitol city of the Assyrians. As Harold Shank noted, "The book of Jonah is an argument against any who seek to keep God for themselves..." (College Press NIV Commentary: Minor Prophets Volume 1, Hosea-Micah, p. 330). God reaches out beyond his people to his enemies. He warns of destruction, but when he sees repentance, God is quick to forgive.
In the book of Jonah, we notice a God who is in control. He will not take no for an answer from Jonah when the prophet does not want to warn Ninevah. God controls the weather, animals (the fish and the worm), and plants (the vine). He uses whatever is needed to reach both his prophet and his enemies.
One interesting aspect of the view of God in the book of Jonah is the view of God as Creator. He uses creation to reach his creatures, both people and their cattle or livestock according to the last verse of the book.
In the end, God challenges our prejudices. Contrary to all expectations, the city of Ninevah converted to God. We see people and write them off as hopeless. God sees people and offers them hope.