A Theology of Yahweh in Jonah

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)!

Application Points
  • 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?


rich.cole11 said…
Dr. Phil,

I heard somewhere that according to Jonah's prayer in the fish's belly it is actually understood that he died while in the fish and that he was praying from Sheol for God to raise him to life so that he could complete the task God had charged him with. The conclusion thought being that this is what Christ was referring to as "the sign of Jonah". Is that accurate?
Edgar Martinez said…
Greetings to Brother Phil, and the question of rich cole11 is good question, Jonah was died into fish stomach? Jesus say about not give signal to bad generation from your days, but said that only the Jonah signal.....I will stand by for the answer, muchas gracias!
Steve Hight said…
Rich. Interesting. Challenging. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Philip Brown said…
The reference to Sheol in 2:2 and the description in 2:6 have been the basis for some (cf. NET, LEB) making the claim Rich Cole cited.

A literal translation of 2:6 reads, "To the ends of (the) mountains I went down; the earth--its bars [were] behind/around me forever; but/yet you brought up from (the) pit my life, O Yahweh, My God"

First, Sheol only relatively rarely has "hell" as its referent. Its normal reference is to the grave, or by metonymy, death. I'm sure Jonah expected that fish's stomach to be his grave!

The vocab used in 2:6 does not naturally refer to the underworld/netherworld. Nor does it appear likely given the entire context: a) Jonah was praying there (2:2); b) his prayer was heard (2:7); c) his life was ebbing/fainting, not gone (2:7).

What we know about hell (Luke 16) and judgment (Heb. 9:27) provide strong theological reasons for thinking that Jonah is not praying from hell and being heard and given another chance.

Jesus used Jonah's 3-day and 3-night stay beneath the earth's surface as an analogue to his own future burial in Matt. 12:39-41. Jesus did not compare his resurrection to Jonah's return to land, so, while there is a parallel there, it isn't what Jesus used Jonah for.

Bottomline: I see no good reason to think Jonah died, and a variety of good reasons to think he did not.
Philip Brown said…
If you're interested in Sheol, I have a word study on it on my website at http://www.apbrown2.net/web/sheolw6.doc
rich.cole11 said…
Dr. Phil,

Thank you for your research and study regarding this book. And thank you for answering my question.

I had been reading and studying Jonah on my own kind of randomly (since it would not have been the first place I wanted to go) and I was very encouraged by all of your material presented here. So thank you for putting in the time and the resources to share it ll here.

rich.cole11 said…
Another question: is there any evidence regarding the time of Jonah's mission to Ninevah? Is it before or after his work in 2 Kings 14:25?

rich.cole11 said…
More questions (sorry for the list):
Is there a relationship between the coming exile of Israel and the story of Jonah?
Philip Brown said…
Info about the date of Jonah's mission: most conservative OT scholars locate it during the reign of Asshur-dan III (771–754 B.C.)

Here's the intro to Jonah from the Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books by C. Hassell Bullock: "The ministry of the historical Jonah (to keep distinct the date of his ministry and the date the book was written) is generally placed within one of two time frames, either that of the Assyrian king Adad-nirari III (810–783 B.C.) or the reign of Asshur-dan III (771–754 B.C.). It is assumed that the kind of international exchange represented in the book could only have taken place during a time of Assyrian weakness. The brief note in 2 Kings 14:25 dates Jonah in Jeroboam’s reign, but that overlapped both of those Assyrian kings’ reigns. Some kind of revival occurred during the rule of Adad-nirari III, but its purpose was to concentrate worship upon the god Nabu (Nebo). That could hardly have been the revival that followed Jonah’s preaching. The reign of Asshur-dan III was a particularly troubled time in Assyria, with the solar eclipse of June 15, 763, and a famine that began in 765 and continued to or recurred in 759. Perhaps when Jonah arrived in Nineveh, the ominous eclipse and famine had already ripened the city for repentance.29
The book could have been composed any time between the middle of the eighth century and the canonization of the Twelve Prophets by the end of the fifth century."

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