Jonah and the People of God

The book of Jonah is not about a racist prophet. It’s not about a prophet who just hated Gentiles and wanted to see them perish at any cost. On the contrary, it’s a book about a prophet who knew the Law of God and had insight into the things that were to come. His actions may have lacked faith in the character of God, but they were not driven by irrational hatred.

The Assyrian Empire

What was Jonah’s motivation in failing to heed God’s word to go to Nineveh and preach to them (Jonah 1:2-3)? The final chapter makes it clear that Jonah ran away from Nineveh because “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2). In other words, Jonah was upset because he knew that God would forgive the Ninevites and he (presumably) didn’t want God to do that. But why wouldn’t he have wanted that?

To understand this, we need to bear in mind two things: firstly; the state that the people of Israel had gotten into and secondly; the blessings and curses set out in the Law of Israel. With regard to the first point, assuming that Jonah is the same figure referred to in 2 Kings 14:25, we can safely conclude that the northern kingdom of Israel and its kings had become thoroughly wicked by that point in time. They had rejected God and worshipped idols in his place, provoking God to anger time and again (eg. 2 Kings 13). And one of the major consequences of this, as outlined in the Law, was that Israel would face judgement from a foreign nation:

“The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.”
(Deuteronomy 28:49-50)

At this particular time in history, Assyria was a powerful force on the world stage. Hear the bold claims of the commander of the Assyrian army in 2 Kings 18:35: “Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?”

How is any of this relevant to our present study? Well, Nineveh wasn’t just any old Gentile city. It was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, the most powerful empire in the world. From Jonah’s perspective, if God was sending him to warn them of disaster, that meant only one thing: God wanted to raise them up as his vessel of judgement against the northern kingdom of Israel. And that’s exactly what happened (2 Kings 17).

So Jonah had every reason to be fearful. He didn’t want to see the people of God come under judgement. And yet, by failing to obey God, Jonah failed to heed the other half of the Law’s teaching, namely that after punishing Israel God would restore and bless them (Deuteronomy 30:1-10). Jonah should have been willing to let Israel come under judgement with the certain knowledge that it wouldn’t be the end. But Jonah failed – he didn’t trust the good character of God and instead of going to Nineveh, fled in the opposite direction (Jonah 1:3).

Jonah as Israel

Jonah’s waywardness in trying to flee from God stands in parallel to Israel’s waywardness as a people. Throughout the book, Jonah stands in for the people of Israel coming under God’s judgement. We see this depicted in two ways.

Firstly, there is the great fish which swallows Jonah (1:17). This fish represents the Assyrian empire which would consume Israel and take them into exile. The exile represented the curse of God upon Israel, a kind of spiritual death. Jonah’s language in chapter 2 is full of references to death and burial, with him referring to himself as as being in “the belly of Sheol [the grave]” (2:2) and in “the pit” (2:6). Jonah sinking into the depths represents the fate that would come upon Israel.

Secondly, there is the plant in chapter 4, which provides shade to Jonah until God takes the plant away and scorches Jonah (4:6-8). In the immediate context, the plant represents Nineveh, which Jonah should have pitied just as God did (4:9-11). But in a wider biblical context, the plant represents God’s blessing upon Israel, which is taken away when Israel comes under judgement. Just like the produce of the land which blessed Israel and then was eaten by the worm in judgement (Deuteronomy 28:39), so too was this plant which blessed Jonah eaten by a worm, so that the scorching sun of God’s judgement came upon his head (Jonah 4:7-8).

Hope and Redemption

But in the example of the great fish, we also see foreshadowed the promise of God to redeem Israel. Several times in chapter 2, Jonah speaks of returning again to the temple of God to offer sacrifice (2:4, 7, 9). So there is yet hope for the people of Israel under judgement. God is not finished with them forever.

And what’s more, God has great plans for his people during their time of exile. Despite Jonah’s waywardness, God still uses him to convert the sailors on a great ship (1:11) and the inhabitants of one of the most wicked Gentile cities in the ancient world (Jonah 3:10)! Instead of doubting God, Jonah should trust that the Lord has a good purpose for him, and for Israel.

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