By Barnard C. Taylor
Parallel reading: 2 Kings 14:23-29; Nahum.
1. Date and Occasion of the Book
The events connected with the career of Jonah here narrated belong to the time of the prosperous reign of Jeroboam, already considered in connection with the prophecies of Hosea and Amos. It was the time of the excessive wickedness of the Israelites. The king had followed the advice of Jonah in some of his policies, and had extended his dominion thereby. (2 Kings 14:25.) The kingdom of Israel had been greatly reduced by the Arameans in the reigns of the immediate predecessors of Jeroboam, but the time for the final punishment of the people had not yet come, and deliverance was wrought through Jeroboam. But his successes led to even greater sin. The former help of Jehovah was forgotten. The obligation to serve God was ignored. The teaching of Elijah and Elisha had grown dim. There were schools of prophets, but they were inefficient to stop the rapid course of apostasy. The doom of Israel was not far away. It was at such a time that the teaching of the mission of Jonah was given. The book of Jonah cannot be rightly understood without considering the condition of Israel at the time.
2. The Purpose of the Book
We have in this book the history of acts of Jonah, rather than a record of the words of Jonah. The book gives Jonah’s mission rather than Jonah’s prophecies. Yet the book is wholly a prophecy. It was intended to teach the Israelites that God demanded repentance from sin, and that in his great mercy he would forgive if they repented.
Jonah was commanded to go to Nineveh, and predict its early overthrow. Aside from the idolatry that prevailed in Nineveh usually, we do not know what special sin led to this special threat. It may have been worse idolatry, greater immorality, or the intention to advance against Israel to destroy it. The particular occasion of the prophet’s mission, so far as Nineveh is concerned, is not given, and it is immaterial.
Jonah’s mission to this heathen city was not meant for Nineveh, so much as it was for Israel. The announcement of the prophet that the great city was to be overthrown was made without condition, yet a condition must have been implied, for when the city repented in sackcloth, the calamity was thereby averted. The warning then was to secure repentance, and the repentance brought forgiveness. By this Israel was to be impressively taught that the mercy of Jehovah was great enough to save from destruction even this wicked, heathen city, Israel’s greatest foe.
A further purpose of the book of Jonah, though this is not so obvious, may have been to teach that Jehovah was not only sovereign over all peoples, but was concerned about their religious condition, as well as that of Israel. The people of Israel was not chosen for its sake alone, but that through it the nations of the earth might be blessed, and though the highest form of such blessing would be secured through the Messiah, before he should come the blessing of God’s mercy and love might be theirs. The other prophets, as Isaiah, do teach that the Gentiles were to be united with the Jews as one people of God to serve him.
3. Chief Points to Be Noted
Other prophets delivered messages about the outside nations, but they were not sent to preach to them. The reason that Jonah at first refused to go was because he expected the people of Nineveh would be forgiven by God, and that he did not wish. They were Israel’s enemies, and Jonah wished them destroyed. He probably would have gone gladly if he had expected his threat would have been fulfilled.
Even the sailors were made to know Jehovah through the presence of Jonah, and their prayer was heard.
The fish that God prepared to swallow up Jonah was of importance, but we should not regard the fish as the chief thing in the book. The great teaching of the book should not be obscured by a flippancy that makes it all an occasion for a joke.
The Ninevites may already have known of the God of the Israelites, and thus were the more ready to heed his prophet’s warning. Their repentance was evidently sincere, though it may not have been lasting.
Jonah would gladly have seen the destruction of Nineveh but grieved for the gourd.