In Jonah, Yahweh speaks to Jonah (Jon. 1:1; 3:1; 4:4, 9, 10), revealing Himself as a personal being who communicates directly to his prophet and through him to gentile sinners for their salvation. Yahweh speaks to the fish and it obeys (Jon. 2:10), revealing His ability to communicate to His non-human creation and its submission to Him.
Jonah seeks to flee from Yahweh’s presence (Jon. 1:3) and learns that Yahweh is no less present on the way to Tarshish, in a fish’s belly, or in Assyria than He is in Jonah’s homeland (Jon. 4:2a). What David describes (Psa. 139:7-12), Jonah experiences. Yahweh is omnipresent.
Yahweh’s sovereignty is evident in hurling a storm (Jon. 1:4) then quieting its raging (Jon. 1:15). He controls the lot to locate a sinner (Jon. 1:7; cf. Prov. 16:33) and guides His prophet to save pagan sailors (Jon. 1:12). He appoints a fish to swallow the fugitive (Jon. 1:17), a plant to grow for shade (Jon. 4:6), a worm to attack a gourd (Jon. 4:7), and a scorching east wind to buffet His angry prophet (Jon. 4:8). Yahweh, “the God of Heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (Jon. 1:9), does whatever He pleases (Jon. 1:14). Creation responds with immediate obedience to the commands of its sovereign Creator.
Yahweh’s justice and mercy send Jonah to reveal Nineveh’s impending doom (Jon. 1:2; 3:1). Doom comes upon wickedness (Jon. 1:2), implicitly revealing Yahweh’s righteousness and His demand for holiness from all humanity (Jon. 2:4, 7). Mercy comes as warning, for unanticipated disaster cannot be averted. God’s warning serves notice that He wants to turn aside his wrath (Jon. 1:2; 3:9) and relent from His determined calamity (Jon. 3:10; 4:2). Repentance is the key (Jon. 3:8-10; cf. Matt. 12:39-41; Luk. 11:29-32).
Yahweh’s graciousness and compassion, well-understood by Jonah (Jon. 4:2), manifests itself in hearing prayer, refusing prayer, and granting salvation. His gracious compassion hears the prayer of pagan sailors (Jon. 1:14), his fainting prophet (Jon. 2:7), the fasting Ninevites (Jon. 3:10), but compassionately refuses Jonah’s plea to die (Jon. 4:3‑4, 8-9). Yahweh saves pagan sailors who fear Him (Jon. 1:15-16), Jonah from his well-deserved fate (Jon. 2:9-10), and the Ninevites from the punishment their sin deserved (Jon. 4:11), for salvation belongs to Yahweh (Jon. 2:9). The theological pearl of Jonah drops hot from the displeased prophet’s lips: “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jon. 4:2).
The contrast between Yahweh and Jonah is a profound indictment not only of the prophet, but of the people he represents. God cares about the most wicked people on the planet and wants to save them. Israelites care more for plants than people (Jon. 4:10-11). They fear God with their lips (Jon. 1:9) but flee from him with their lives (Jon. 1:3, 10). Idolatrous pagans outstrip God’s prophet in their fear of Yahweh (Jon. 1:14-16), and wicked Assyrians are prompter to admit guilt and repent than self-righteous Jonah (Jon. 3:5-9). Jonah endangers others’ lives to flee from the possibility of God saving more than 120,000 of his enemies’ lives. Both Jonah (Jon. 4:2) and Yahweh (Jon. 3:9) are angry, but Jonah is angry over repentance, forgiveness and loss of personal comfort; Yahweh is angry over wickedness, rebellion, and idolatry. Jonah’s anger is quick to destroy life; Yahweh’s slow to save it.
Jonah’s text lies thick with layers of irony. Connecting these layers and accentuating them are key terms: ra‘ah רָעָה occurs 7x (Jon. 1:2, 7, 8; 3:10; 4:1, 2, 6) with a range of meanings from wickedness, to calamity/disaster, to ill-pleasing, to misery. The wickedness (ra‘ah) of Nineveh (Jon. 1:2) will bring disaster (ra‘ah) upon it. Jonah’s wickedness brings disaster (ra‘ah) upon the gentile sailors (Jon. 1:7, 8) and upon himself (ch. 2). God sends a plant to save him from his ra‘ah (Jon. 4:6)! Perhaps there is deliberate ambiguity here to exploit the polysemous nature of ra‘ah. If Jonah does not turn from his wickedness (ra‘ah), calamity (ra‘ah) will certainly overtake him and discomfort/displeasure (ra‘ah) will be the least of his concerns! God sends a gourd to rescue Jonah from greater dangers than sun stroke. Hesed occurs twice, yet figures largely throughout the story. Yahweh is abundant in it and does not forsake it either to sinners or Jonah (Jon. 4:2); Jonah abandons hesed to Yahweh and suffers calamity in the midst of which he accuses pagans of abandoning hesed, and boasts of his thanksgiving vows (Jon. 2:8, 9). When Jonah is about to die because of his own sin, he repents and prays that God would spare his life (ch. 2). When Nineveh repents and God spares them, Jonah prays that he would die (ch. 4)!
- How does Yahweh’s compassion for Ninevites—the worst of the worst—manifest itself in your life?
- When last prompted by Yahweh to share His mercy with a Ninevite—did you head for Joppa or Assyria?
- If you, like Jonah, profess to fear God, how do you evidence your fear of God?
- Have you repented like Jonah or like the Ninevites?