The book takes its name from the chief person in the story, a prophet who had become known for his accurate forecast of the growth of Israel (the northern part of the divided kingdom) under Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:23,25). Additional contrasts to other prophetical books are the small amount of the prophet’s preaching recorded in the book, and the small amount that is written in poetry. The book is mostly narrative and is directed towards teaching one major lesson.
Purpose of the book
During a time of national prosperity such as Israel enjoyed under Jeroboam II, people readily became selfishly nationalistic. The only threat to Israel’s continued prosperity was the rising power of Assyria to the north. When a hostile neighbour was planning to attack Assyria’s capital Nineveh, God told Jonah to go and warn the Ninevites of the attack. He was to urge the people to repent of their wickedness, so that they might avoid destruction (Jonah 3:4-5,10). Jonah preferred to see Nineveh destroyed. In his view, that would have been a fitting judgment on Assyria and a welcome relief to Israel. God had to show Jonah that he was the controller of all nations, and he would have mercy on whomever he wished (cf. Rom 9:15). God was not the God of Israelites only, but the God of all people and all nations (cf. Rom 3:29). God was pleased when the Ninevites repented. In fact, their repentance was in sharp contrast to the stubbornness that usually characterized the people of Israel (Luke 11:32). Since God’s people had so often experienced the love and mercy of God, they were to show similar love and mercy to others. The lesson of the book reaches its climax in the final few verses. God took no pleasure in the destruction of men and women, and neither should his people. Instead they should, like God, desire their repentance and forgiveness (Jonah 4:10-11).
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Contents of the book
When told to go and preach repentance to the Ninevites, Jonah disobeyed God and fled by ship in the opposite direction. When he was thrown overboard, God saved him by sending a great fish to swallow him alive (1:1-17). From inside the fish, Jonah thanked God for saving him, whereupon the fish vomited him out, still alive (2:1-10). Jonah then went and preached to the Ninevites and they repented (3:1-10). This displeased Jonah, because they had now escaped the judgment he had hoped would fall on them. God then taught Jonah a lesson by destroying a big leafy plant that had been sheltering him from the burning sun. Jonah did not want the plant to die, and neither did God want the Ninevites to die (4:1-11).