The book of Jonah, though not very lengthy, has a significant theological import that transcends the Old Testament period and contemporary times. Its explicit theological message illuminates on the specific qualities of God and the Christian mission in a forty-eight verse narrative history1. It involves a prophet who refuses to go for divine mission and is tossed into a storm, spends three days inside a big fish, and is returned to the beginning2. Subsequently, he obeys and delivers to the Ninevites a message of repent to avert an imminent doomsday.
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The people repent their sins and God spares them. However, Jonah becomes upset because God does not follow through with the punishment. The story may be divided into four sections: Jonah’s disobedience and escape, his prayer, obedience and repentance, and Jonah’s anger and the Lord’s rebuke3. It depicts the infinitude of God’s love and character and disparages the narrow ideology that God’s interest is limited to Israel as shown by His interest in the dwellers of Nineveh, Israel’s ancient enemies. It also communicates the inescapable nature of prophetic calling as shown by Jonah’s unsuccessful escape to Tarshish. The theological message explicated in the book of Jonah relates to obedience, forgiveness, the Lord’s goodness, pious devotion, and prayer.
Presentation of the Theological Themes in Jonah’s Message
The theological import of Jonah’s message is explicated through “obedience, prayer, goodness, praise, mercifulness, faith, and adoration”4. An examination of these themes would help us understand God’s qualities and characteristic actions.
The first theme evident in the book of Jonah is obedience. At first, Jonah disobeys God’s commission to deliver the message of repentance to the Ninevites. It is in Jonah 3:3 that the prophet finally obeys the Lord and goes to Nineveh. The subsequent verses focus on a test of obedience after Jonah submits to the Lord. While Jonah understood that God would forgive anybody who repents, the Ninevites did not5.
Therefore, the message of repentance to the Ninevites could be seen as a test of their obedience to God. It relates to God’s promise in Exodus 34:6 that He will make a nation out of the children of Israel6. It depicts God’s knowledge of the Ninevites’ sinful lives and Jonah’s disobedience towards Him. The theological understanding of praising the Lord is based on obedience, which engenders faith in Him.
Another theme that can be seen in Jonah’s story is prayer. The theological significance of prayer is evident in verse 2:7, where Jonah talks about the Lord’s holy temple and desire to pray. The theological import of this verse relates to the role of prayer and thanksgiving when faced with difficulties. In the Old Testament, Job’s prayer to remain faithful to God despite his suffering indicates the necessity of prayer in our lives7. In the book of Genesis, Rebekah also prayed to God to enable her to bear children. Therefore, Jonah’s prayer to God shows the necessity of prayer when faced with adversities.
God’s goodness also emerges as a key theme in the book of Jonah. The theological understanding of God’s goodness is conveyed in Jonah 3:10, where God does not bring disaster to Nineveh because they accepted His message and repented. His action depicts Him as a good God in character and therefore cannot be evil. However, Jonah was displeased with God for not going through with His plan.
The Lord’s praise is a dominant theme in Jonah 2:9, which says, “Salvation is of the Lord”. This statement justifies the act of praising God. It conveys a sense of ownership, glorifies God’s work in Salvation, and honors Him as the only Savior. Despite his disobedience, God was merciful to rescue Jonah and return him to his original mission8. God’s mercy is also evident in the way He forgives and does not punish the Ninevites after they repent. His mercy and position as the only savior demand praise and honor.
Jonah 3:1 says, “And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time”. This statement contributes to the theological understanding of God as a merciful Lord. God appears to Jonah the second time after rescuing him and invites him to deliver the message of repentance to the Ninevites. Because of His merciful nature, the Lord gave Jonah a second opportunity to answer to his prophetic calling. God’s mercifulness goes back to the beginning when Adam and Eve sinned against Him, but he let them stay in His presence9. This act of grace, which is replicated in Jonah 3, conveys the theological reality of the Lord’s mercy. He permits humanity to continue worshipping Him despite the fall of man in the Garden of Eden.
After Jonah preached to them, the Ninevites believed the Lord, wore sackcloth, and worshipped the Lord. Belief in God means having faith in Him. The people of Nineveh, upon hearing Jonah’s message, turned away from their sinful ways and started worshipping the Lord. It can be understood that it is their faith in God that turned them to the Lord. This statement shows that salvation comes by faith, not through moral works or self-righteousness.
The Ninevites’ faith in God made them repent and worship Him. In Jonah 3:7, God instructs them to put on sackcloth and “cry mightily unto God” to forgive them and spare the city. The depth of one’s conviction is shown through worship, which includes prayer, obedience, and praise. It is through repentance and forgiveness that one can fellowship with the Holy Spirit through worship. Thus, the essence of worship is to glorify the Lord for His grace through prayer and praise.
The Attributes of God
From a human perspective, describing all the aspects of God is challenging because of the mysteries that surround His nature10. The book of Jonah captures the theological particularities of God, which helps diminish the enigma surrounding His character. The specific attributes of God explicated in the book of Jonah are described in this section.
The Sovereignty of the Lord
God’s control over nature is evident in the book of Jonah. When Jonah disobeys God and attempts to flee by ship, the Lord sends a violent wind that rocks the ship, bringing great fear upon the mariners. This incident demonstrated God’s sovereignty over nature and all creation. In Jonah 4:8, the Lord’s absolute power over nature is seen when He appoints a “scorching east wind and the sun to beat down on the head of Jonah so that he fainted”. It shows God’s intent to manifest His wrath is to reproof disobedience.
God also demonstrates His power over creation when He commands a great fish to swallow and vomit a repentant Jonah on dry land after spending three days and three nights inside the fish11. In this case, the fish serves as an agent of salvation because it rescues Jonah from drowning. In Exodus, the Lord’s power is seen when He uses Moses to command the red sea to separate to allow the Israelites to escape their captors12.
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God’s sovereignty is evident in the inescapable nature of Jonah’s prophetic calling. At first, Jonah shows open disobedience to God’s commission to Nineveh by unsuccessfully attempting to flee from His presence. However, as we learn later, God rescues Jonah from the belly of the whale and returns him to his original mission. This story demonstrates that God’s plan is unavoidable and must be accomplished.
The book of Jonah also teaches about the theological meaning of the sovereignty of God’s mercy. God commands Jonah to preach repentance to the Ninevites, the perceived enemies of Israel. This action teaches us that Christians have a mission to preach God’s grace to all nations13. It affirms the inclusiveness of the Lord’s mercy for all humankind. It also confirms the wide scope of the Lord’s grace and mercy.
The Universality of His Mercy and Judgment
One of the central themes in the book of Jonah is God’s mercy to the Gentiles. The universality of the Lord’s mercy is explicated in chapter one when He sends Jonah to deliver His message of repentance to the Ninevites. God wanted to use the prophet as an “object and agent of His mercy” by repeatedly calling him to “arise” and “go” to Nineveh14. The theological import of this statement is that God uses people who have experienced His grace as agents to extend His mercy to others. In Isaiah 51:3, Israel is appointed as the light of the world because the nation has received God’s mercy. The recipients of God’s mercy, including the Israelites and Jonah, are the agents of the Lord’s mercy to the Gentiles.
In the book of Jonah, we learn about the universality of judgment. When Jonah attempts to escape to Tarshish, the Lord sends out a storm that rocks the ship. The sailors pray to their gods to save them and toss their wares off the ship. This account illustrates the universality of the Lord’s judgment. It shows that judgment is not limited to Israel, but extends to the Gentiles too, as He is the creator of the universe15. He has the right to judge evil because of His majesty and righteousness. During the storm, the pagan sailors “feared”, “cried”, and “threw” their wares; their reactions are reminiscent of end-time judgment.
The heathen responds to judgment as Christians do. Besides, they display a theology of hope when faced with an impending disaster. In Jonah 1:6, the ship’s captain tells Jonah to “call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not”. His outward responses depict him as someone with hope the God will save them despite their heathen practices. The theology of hope expressed by this pagan sailor affirms the inclusivity and universal nature of the Lord’s grace. After tossing Jonah overboard, the sea calms and the sailors make a sacrifice to the Lord concerned that God will punish them for their actions. However, the Lord extends His mercy to them and saves Jonah from drowning by commanding a great fish to swallow him.
God’s wrath becomes evident when He sends out a great wind that makes the sea tempestuous after Jonah flees from His presence. The theological meaning of God’s wrath relates to the punishment of an individual16.
In Jonah 1:11, the sea grew more “wrought and tempestuous” threatening to break the ship apart. God’s wrath is also seen when He sends a vehement wind and blazing sun to shine over Jonah to the point that he nearly faints. This punishment stems from Jonah’s displeasure with God’s action to spare the Ninevites after they repented. Jonah’s resentment exemplifies the narrow mentality of humans that only considers the Lord’s mercy to be proportionate to one’s moral efforts.
In the bible, we see God’s wrath inflicted upon idol worshipers in the book Zechariah and Revelation. The events described in Revelation relate to God’s punishment to non-believers during judgment day. They epitomize God’s wrath meted on the devil and sinners. From a theological perspective, God’s wrath stems from His will, i.e., the divine plan for everyone.
God’s wrath is inflicted upon a person as a punishment for disobeying His will. This means that punishment for sinners during judgment day stems from their refusal to accept Salvation through Jesus Christ, an action that goes against the will of God. The Lord had intended to destroy the pagan city of Nineveh if its inhabitants refused to repent. Wickedness and sin attract God’s wrath. The city was not destroyed because its inhabitants dreaded God’s wrath and the impending punishment. God also inflicts His wrath against Jonah when He sends a big fish to swallow him. It is only after he repents that God commands the fish to vomit him on dry land after three days and three nights inside the fish.
In the book of Jonah, salvation, and mercy are attributed to God’s will. He extends mercy to the Nineveh instead of death and destruction after its inhabitants repent their sins. Jonah’s anger towards God in chapter three stems from the Lord’s mercy to the Ninevites. It shows that God has the free will to show His mercy even to the gentiles. The Lord also uses people struggling with sin, e.g., Jonah, to proclaim His mercy and compassion for humanity. Jonah attempts to flee to Tarshish to avoid his prophetic mission and even turns his anger to God for not punishing the Ninevites.
From a theological perspective, the Lord’s free will is the grand plan or logic behind all occurrences. In Jonah 1:16, the heathen sailors, fearing the Lord’s punishment for tossing Jonah overboard, offered a sacrifice to God17. The ultimate reason for their actions can only be God’s will or grand plan. The Lord’s divine plan for each Christian ultimately leads to His glory as of the giver of salvation. God is glorified through actions such as offering sacrifices to Him and consecration as practiced by the sailors.
The Timing of the Lord
The preciseness of the timing of God is seen in Jonah 1:17. We read that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish before he was vomited in a dry land. God uses specific timing to achieve His will. While inside the fish’s belly, Jonah prays to the Lord for deliverance. God rescues him after three days and three nights of prayer.
Another instance where God uses specific timing in the Old Testament is in Esther 4:16, where Esther tells the Jews to refrain from eating or drinking for “three days, night and day”. The theological message of the specific timing of God in Jonah is repeated throughout the bible. Therefore, the particularity of the Lord as indicated by His specific timing in the book of Jonah resonates with His characteristic consistency throughout the bible.
The Inclusiveness of God’s Compassion
The book of Jonah centers on God’s compassion to Jonah and the Ninevites, a characteristic of the Lord. After God spares Nineveh, Jonah complains to the Lord that He is excessively merciful. In Jonah 4:3, Jonah infers that the Lord should destroy him for his complaints, ignoring God’s merciful nature. Jonah’s complaint relates to two theological truths repeated throughout the Old Testament. First, God’s merciful and compassionate nature to the Israelites is seen in Exodus 34. Second, God reveals His “divine responsiveness to human actions” such as repentance. In Jonah, God responds to the Ninevites’ prayer and repentance by sparing the heathen city from death and destruction. God is also responsive to Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the great fish.
Jonah’s complaint to God depicts him as a person who is critical of the Lord’s responsiveness and compassion. As Farmer puts it, Jonah’s view is that divine compassion is “debilitating morally and spiritually” in that it does not augur with being faithful to God to receive His mercy18. God’s mercy transcends moral effort or faithfulness to Him. A feeling of unfairness motivates Jonah’s outrage; he feels that the inhabitants of Nineveh do not merit God’s mercy given their sinful past.
Therefore, his objection is driven by the view that some sinners do not deserve divine compassion. We can draw a parallel between Jonah’s resentment and his celebration inside the fish after God forgives him. He does not want the same divine mercy to be extended to the Ninevites. However, we learn that God’s mercy transcends moral effort or entitlement.
One of the distinct characteristics of God that come out from the book of Jonah is the Lord’s revelation to His people. In Jonah 1:1, we are told that the word of God came to Jonah instructing him to arise and go to Nineveh. This passage shows that the Lord revealed Himself to Jonah through His word. Another instance of divine revelation can be seen in Jonah 1:7, when the sailors agreed to cast lots to identify the person causing the evil storm19. We learn that the lot fell on Jonah, a sign of divine revelation through the drawing of lots.
The act of God revealing Himself to His people occurs in many instances in scripture. In Genesis 37, the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream while in Kings 19 He reveals Himself through a voice. He also appears through windstorms and earthquakes in the book of Job. The Israelites used the casting of lots to determine where each tribe should live in the Kingdom. Therefore, divine revelation can take diverse forms, including through the drawing of lots. The essence of God’s revelation is to call certain people into His divine mission.
The divine mission entails God commissioning some people to fulfill His will. In Jonah 1:2, Jonah is called to deliver the Lord’s message of repentance to Nineveh to avert imminent punishment. The theological axiom evident in this passage is that the Lord sends people to proclaim His will. In First Kings 17, the Lord sends Prophet Elijah to go to Zarephath to a certain widow for sustenance. The unique thing about prophetic calling is that it involves people who have experienced God’s mercy and grace. The divine mission is inescapable as seen in Jonah’s failed attempt to escape from the Lord’s presence.
The book of Jonah gives a glimpse of God’s thought process. After the Ninevites received the Lord’s message through Jonah, they turned to God with fasting and prayer. God hears their cries and relents of the disaster He indicated would befall the city. Robert Chisholm observes that this passage does not mean that God has a wavering character; it rather shows that He is responsive to His people20. Numbers 23 says that the Lord is not a person to shift His stand or lie to His people.
Therefore, the relenting of the disaster characterizes God’s responsiveness to His people in consonance with the divine revelation. In the Old Testament, a prophet foretelling of death and destruction due to sin and the prophecy fails to happen is considered a sham. However, if the people heed his warning and repent, God relents of the destruction. God extends forgiveness and restoration to those who repent and turn away from their evil ways.
Another theological axiom we can learn from the divine revelation relates to the penalty for refusing God’s will. In other words, running from God’s will has some consequences. During the storm, Jonah tells the sailors to toss him into the sea because he knew the great storm was a punishment for escaping from His will21. The Lord used the sea storm as an instrument of punishment of the wayward prophet. Jonah calls the tempest “thy waves and thy billow” meaning that he knew that the storm was sent by God as a punishment for his actions. It is after Jonah is tossed overboard, the sea becomes calm once again.
Jonah knew the consequences of disobeying God all along. In Jonah 2:4, he says, “So I said, I have been expelled from your sight”, indicating that he had fallen out of God’s favor. He knew his affliction in the belly of the fish as a consequence of fleeing from the Lord’s presence. This statement shows that sin or disobedience has consequences. Similarly, the book of Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Every man shall be put to death for his sin”; this can be equated to Jonah’s suffering for his disobedience22. Jonah demonstrates that there are consequences for attempting to escape into exile.
This paper aimed to examine the theological message of the book of Jonah. God spares Nineveh from destruction after its inhabitants repented and prayed to Him. He rescues the fleeing Jonah and uses him to achieve His will. Jonah’s story explicates the theology of God’s will, mercy, wrath, sovereignty, and characteristic actions to achieve His grand plan. It shows that God’s mercy transcends moral effort or hypocritical piety.
Dyer, Charles and Eugene H. Merrill. Old Testament Explorer. Nashville: Word Publishing, 2001.
Ellison, Leon. Jonah. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version: Daniel and the Minor Prophets. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1999.
Garrett, James L. Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical. North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 1995.
Geisler, Norman L. A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977.
Hawkins, Stephens. Jonah. Meeting the God of the Second Chance. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1990.
Towns, Elmer. Theology for Today. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth and Thomson Learning, 2002.
Chisholm, Robert B. “Does God ‘Change His Mind’?.” Bibliotheca Sacra 152, no. 608 (1995): 387-99.
Farmer, David A. “Jonah: 3-4.” Interpretation 54, no. 1 (2000): 63-65.
Lawson, Steven J. “The Power of Biblical Preaching: An Expository Study of Jonah 3:1-10.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 631 (2001): 331-346.
Stuart, Douglas K. “‘The Great City of Nineveh’ (Jon. 1:2).” Bibliotheca Sacra 171, no. 1684 (November 2014): 387-400.
Walton, John H. “The Object Lesson of Jonah 4:5-7 and the Purpose of the Book of Jonah.” Bulletin of Biblical Research 2, no. 1 (1992): 47-58. 2016
- Leon Ellison, Jonah. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 27.
- Douglas K. Stuart, “‘The Great City of Nineveh’ (Jon. 1:2).” Bibliotheca Sacra 171, no. 1684 (November 2014): 389.
- Ellison 43
- John H. Walton, “The Object Lesson of Jonah 4:5-7 and the Purpose of the Book of Jonah.” Bulletin of Biblical Research 2, no. 1 (January 1992): 52.
- Ibid., 53.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations will be from the New American Standard Bible. Bible.
- James L. Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, (North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 1995). 167.
- Garrett, 171.
- Ibid., 173.
- Charles Dyer and Eugene H. Merrill, Old Testament Explorer (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2001), 51.
- Dyer and Merrill, 59.
- Ibid., 62.
- Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 114.
- Walton, 53.
- Steven J. Lawson, “The Power of Biblical Preaching: An Expository Study of Jonah 3:1-10.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 631 (2001): 334.
- Walton, 57.
- Geisler, 117.
- David A. Farmer, “Jonah: 3-4.” Interpretation 54, no. 1 (2000): 64.
- Ibid., 65.
- Robert B., Chisholm, “Does God ‘Change His Mind’?.” Bibliotheca Sacra 152, no. 608 (1995): 389.
- Elmer Towns, Theology for Today (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth and Thomson Learning, 2002), 91.