This week, we have begun reading a number of the minor, pre-exile prophets. These prophets were sent by God to very specific people (often kings) or situations to speak words of warning and comfort and to encourage Israel to covenant faithfulness. During our time, we will focus in on the most unique and strange of the minor prophetic books, Jonah.
Jonah is less a book of prophecy and more a book about a prophet. Not only is this a narrative story, but it is a pretty strange one, isn’t it? We have met Jonah before, remember? (He was prophesying to Jeroboam II in 2 Kings 14.) Did you know that most scholars agree that this book is written as a parody or satire of prophetic books? It is intended to contrast Israel’s (and our) stubborn heart with God’s patience, judgement, mercy and steadfast love.
From the beginning, this story is crazy. It feels more SNL sketch than typical Biblical narrative. Everything feels backwards. Jonah is called by God to preach a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire and the most powerful and brutal empire that the ancient world had yet known. BUT, instead of obeying God, Jonah boards a ship going the exact opposite direction.
The punchline kind of occurs at the opening sentence. Jonah (whose name means “dove”, an Old Testament symbol of purity) son of Amittai (whose name means “faithfulness”) within 3 verses proves to be faithless, disobedient, and impure in every way.
As the story progresses, we discover that Jonah is kind of a jerk. This “chosen prophet” is revealed to be reluctant, bitter, and full of curses for God himself.
We also see that God is exceedingly patient and merciful with all characters in the story. God calls Jonah to tell the most violent and powerful empire in the world to repent of their violence and evil. Jonah runs away. God pursues. Jonah reluctantly preaches a 5-word sermon with no mention at all of God in the hopes that Nineveh won’t repent and be destroyed. Yet the people of Nineveh repent. Jonah throws a temper tantrum because his message actually worked and God patiently reasons with him like a parent with a child.
You can see why people believe this is a satire meant to expose the reader’s own hard heart while we laugh (and you are meant to laugh) at Jonah’s. It uses exaggeration, surprise, drama and almost comic-book-like imagery (everything is either huge, “great city,” “great wind,” “great fish,” or tiny, “the worm”) to create a story where the God who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love is put on full display. And in doing so, the book of Jonah anticipates Jesus’ command to love even our enemies while confronting us with just how hard it is to actually do that.
Thinking back to how most prophets in the Old Testament are portrayed, why is Jonah’s immediate disobedience in v. 1-3 so surprising?
The Assyrians were known for their brutal and shocking violence. They regularly skinned people alive in the cities they conquered and would eventually do the same to Israel. Think of them as the Taliban of the ancient world. Hearing this, why does Jonah refuse to go where God wants him to go?
After Jonah’s short message, God relented from his plan to destroy Nineveh. Then this happened:
Jonah 4:1–2 (NLT)
This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the LORD about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.
How is Jonah’s character consistent with the character of Israel and its leaders/people throughout the Old Testament?
In the next few weeks we will leave the pre-exile prophets and dive into Old Testament wisdom literature. As you recall reading through the history books and pre-exile prophetic books in the past two months, how does the book of Jonah creatively encapsulate the condition of Israel before its exile to Assyria and Babylon?
Again and again in the prophets, we hear of God’s desire for Israel to turn from their disobedience and be faithful to him. In Jonah, we see God directly interacting with a character who is actively disobedient, even antagonistic towards God. What surprises you about God’s reaction to Jonah?
What part of Jonah did you find most surprising? Perplexing?
Was there a particular part of Jonah you found funny?
It takes being at the lowest of low, quite literally the bottom of the ocean, for Jonah to come to a place where he prays Read Jonah 2. Can you remember times in your life where you similarly were brought low and prayed a similar prayer? What was God’s response to you?
Jonah’s rage at God for being “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” is supposed to make us laugh but it should also reveal an uncomfortable truth about our own hearts.
Ask yourself these questions. Feel free to discuss as you wish.
- Who are the people or people groups I feel do not deserve God’s grace, mercy, and love?
- Why do I feel they do not deserve it?
- On a more macro, cultural level, who are the people or people groups our western American society says do not deserve God’s grace, mercy, and love whether explicitly or implicitly in the way it treats them?
- If God was gracious, merciful, and loving with them, how would I honestly react?
- How am I feeling now as I observe these ugly parts of myself and our culture?
End your time praying together, confessing the ways your hearts are like Jonah’s and asking the Holy Spirit to transform your hearts toward people you find hard to love.