This prophecy may be seen as a drama in four acts, corresponding roughly with the four chapters.
A. Act 1 we may call, "A Prophet in rebellion" (1:1-1 6).
Called to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, Jonah headed for Tarshish, a Phoenician town on the southwest coast of Spain, as far from Nineveh as he could go. When a violent storm at sea made it obvious to the superstitious sailors that someone on board had offended some god, Jonah was found to be the culprit. At his suggestion, the sailors, against their will, were persuaded to throw him overboard. There Jonah was swallowed by a "great fish." Disobedience is redeemed by self-sacrifice.
B. Act 2 we may call, "A Prophet rescued" (1:17-2:10).
Jonah prayed to God from inside the great fish. God graciously heard his prayer, and, upon command, the fish "vomited out Jonah upon the dry land" (2:10).
C. Act 3 we may call, "A Prophet in revival" (3:1-10).
This time, when God called, Jonah went to Nineveh and preached God's impending judgment upon the wickedness of the imperial city. The result was tremendous. The whole city repented. Fasting and sackcloth were the order of the day. God decided to spare the city.
D. Act 4 we may call, "A Prophet's petulance" (4:1-11).
Jonah's preaching had been embarrassingly successful. He was indignant. Personally, he had hoped to see a wholesale holocaust at the divine hand. In chapter 4, God tried to explain to Jonah why He spared the city. He pointed out that mercy is a quality of God. Jonah indicated that he knew this, but that, personally, he was not for it, preferring death, even his own, to such an exhibition of divine forgiveness.
The prophet Jonah is not the hero of this story. He is rather the villain of the piece. God is the hero. The author's theology echoes John 3:16, "God so loved the world." A man with an accurate view of a greatand merciful God wrote this superb story. What are the characteristics of the God revealed to Jonah?
II. The God revealed to Jonah is a God of universal love
God loves all people. The Book closes with some painful questions that God asked His loveless prophet. With a soft but pointed sarcasm God asks Jonah: "Have you any right to be angry?" (4:4). The same question is asked about the vine that the cutworm destroyed. But the climax is this: "But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (4:11). Jonah was a bigot, selfish and arrogant; the God revealed to him was gracious in love, plenteous in mercy, loving everyone.
Religious people like Jonah put Jesus to death on the cross. Our Lord taught people about a God of universal love. God had a place in His love for the despised Samaritans; for an officer in the Roman army of occupation; and for the people of the land of Palestine who would not or could not keep the Jewish law. Had you asked Jesus why he loved these people, He would doubtless have replied, "Because God loves them."
Through the message of this inspired book God was seeking to reveal the universal scope of His love to Israel.
III. The God revealed to Jonah is a God who is sovereign
A. God is sovereign in His claims. Without explanation, "The word of Jehovah came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying: "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it" (1:1 -2). The God revealed to Jonah laid the claim of divine ownership upon Jonah's person, his time, and his talents, that he might communicate God's message to the people of Nineveh. Any person trying to get away from God will always find someone else going in his direction, just as Jonah did. There is sure to be a ship sailing for Tarshish on which the runaway can book passage. A college student came to our evening worship service saying that God had called him to preach and he was surrendering to that call. Immediately afterward he started running in the opposite direction. Three years later, in a revival, he came rededicating his life, saying, "I do not yet know where my Nineveh is, but I sure know the way to Tarshish." Don't we all?
B. God is sovereign in His complete control of things. The Book of Jonah is filled with evidence of this truth. It was God who sent the mighty storm to intercept Jonah. It was God who prepared the great fish that swallowed this disobedient prophet. Jesus did not regard this as a joke or tall tale, for He used it to illustrate His own resurrection: "Jonah was for three days and three nights, in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40). It was God who directed the fish to vomit Jonah out on dry land. It was God who gave him success in his preaching in Nineveh. Jesus also used this as an illustration: "The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here" (Matt. 12:41). It was God who prepared the gourd vine, and it was God who prepared the worm to destroy it. It was God who prepared the sultry east wind to beat upon Jonah's head. God is in control.
IV. The God revealed to Jonah is a God who disciplines His own
God repudiated absolutely Jonah's right to flee to Tarshish. He set a great tempest directly across his path to hinder his selfish purpose. He put Jonah in such a position that he was willing for his body to be used in preaching to Nineveh, though his heart was not in it and his spirit was wrong.
The New Testament teaches that whom the Lord loves, He disciplines. The writer of Hebrews tells us: "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons" (12:7). This same writer says: "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by" (12:11). We can be certain of the disciplined hand of God upon us if we are disobedient in Jonah-fashion at the point of communicating His message to others.
V. The God revealed to Jonah is a God who gives a second chance
There is a thrilling word here: "And the word of Jehovah came to Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee" Jonah 3:1, 2. Notice carefully the writer's words. He says, "The second time." There can be no doubt. The Scriptures teach the gospel of the second chance. The God revealed to Jonah did not utterly cast him off because of his disobedience, but came to him in love and grace, offering him another opportunity to serve.
And how he served! The chief city of the heathen world was startled by his voice proclaiming its overthrow: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be over-turned" (3:4). All Nineveh repented. No preaching, before or since, has ever accomplished such results.
God never gives up on us. Jesus described the shepherd hunting all over the mountainside for that hundredth sheep. He was unwilling to give up until he had found it. Jesus portrayed the housewife continuing her search in every corner of the house until the lost coin was found. He pictured the father of the prodigal keeping watch on the wall of his home until the figure of that disillusioned lad appeared on the horizon. Thank God for the gospel of the second chance!
VI. Above all, the God revealed to Jonah is eager and willing to save
Jonah knew that God was merciful and willing to forgive Qonah 4:2). The reason he disobeyed and fled to Tarshish was the fear that his preaching would be effective! "Now look what you've done!" he railed at God. "You did forgive them; and this makes me mad enough to die."
That was Jonah's problem. With God using him, he won the war. He didn't want to; and it made him so angry!
In its own context, the message of Jonah strikes at the narrow nationalist spirit of religious exclusiveness that characterized the Jewish people after the exile. This spirit, vividly portrayed by Jonah, is severely criticized by the overall impact of the Book. God is eager and willing to save all people.
But this book is also for our times. The Book ends abruptly, leaving Jonah mad out there on a hill above Nineveh, with his blistered baldhead and his withered gourd vine. Why doesn't the book tell us what this very minor prophet did, or what became of him? That problem was not the writer's; it is the reader's problem.
That problem is ours yours and mine. The question is: Are we willing to face the embarrassment of real religion? Are we willing to allow the battle for spiritual values to be a real war within ourselves? If not, what then?
Rafael Monteiro writes from Belem, Brazil, where he serves as pastor of a large congregation.