The book of Jonah is not easily categorized or studied. Its perceptual constructs blur the line between novel and concrete events to recreate the mental and spiritual puzzle the author endured when God supernaturally breached the borders of his freewill to orchestrate an authentic ministry. Jonah’s written contribution is enormously valuable, as it seems to present the negative side of the generalized pattern of a preacher’s test: calling; prayer/communication; ministerial evidence; and, obedience and compassion. For the most part, it is an account of what not to do. It comforts those called into ministry by illustrating how colossal God’s movements and disciplines can be—done only to an extent that confronts and corrects disobedience and evil, both within and without His preacher. The purpose of this paper is to provide an exegetical and interpretive commentary of the book of Jonah, based upon its narrative theme of a preacher’s test, for contemporary use as a practical guide for those coming into ministry.
In Hebrew, the name “Jonah” means “dove,” which implies “peace; anointing; or being sent by God,” replicated in the New Testament by the “Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting” on Jesus after His baptism (Matt 3:16). The book is prophetic, “characterized as being the word of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1) and dated between 825-782 B.C. in that II Kings 14:25 sets Jonah’s prophesy “during the reign of Jeroboam II” (824-783 B.C.). The book is the Old Testament version of Acts, with the mercy and sovereignty of the Lord, in both the orchestration and result of ministry, as the main theme. Through a series of fantastical/actual, unfortunate/fortunate events—the viewpoint of which shifts based upon spiritual perspective (i.e., man’s/God’s, natural/divine), and Jonah’s humorous eight-word sermon, God supernaturally led 120,000 souls to repentance and halted “the Assyrian captivity of Israel…some 130 years” (Jonah 3:4, 4:11). The Lord commissioned Jonah to go to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh—a great city of wickedness, “second in size only to Babylon,” in what is now “modern-day [Mosul] Iraq.” Nineveh was a threat to the northern kingdom of Israel in Jonah’s time and was characterized by idolatry and violence, “known in the ancient Near East for the brutal atrocities it inflicted on its war captives.”
The book of Jonah is “unique in that the entire prophecy is written in the third person,” yet this does not discredit Jonah’s authorship, so much as reflect the literary or stylistic device of biblically appointed exemplification and holistic inclusion; and others, such as Daniel, Isaiah, and Jesus, often did the same (Is 37:21; Dan 1:8-9; Matt 12:39-41; Heb 12:2, NKJV). In addition to this exceptionality, “Jonah was the only Old Testament prophet to attempt to run from God.” The book is masterfully designed to be the ultimate preacher’s test, in that it is a “didactic, prophetic narrative” full of ministerial lessons in perception, divine use and humility after a direct encounter from God (Jonah 1:1, 4, 17; 2; 3:1; 4:4, 9-11). Jonah is “clearly presented as a historical and not a fictional figure,” which refutes the notion that the book is a work of fiction. Although it contains parabolic features, Jonah moves beyond the status of a parable in its divine supernatural-over-natural sovereignty; literary, dichotomistic complexity; and proven socio-political historicity, such as known cities, legitimate names, and actual events (i.e., Nineveh, Tarshish, Joppa; Amittai; Assyrian hostility to Northern Kingdom). Jesus’ affirmation and validity of both Jonah’s status as a prophet and the specific content of the book (i.e., three days/nights in the belly of the sea monster) adds to its literal credibility and literary impact which aims at ramping up one’s experiential belief via the witnessing of God as He intervenes beyond the natural line to orchestrate ministerial purpose amidst circumstantial opposition (Matt 12:40-41; Luke 11:29-32). Though the book of Jonah is rooted in historical events, the literary genre is a tragedy/comedy which offers no psychological or spiritual boundary between the minister and God. The book of Jonah leaves no protective wall between natural and supernatural physicality, in that the extent of man’s free will becomes a bubble that is burst once God directly presents His omnipresent reality and His omnipotent will. In short, Jonah exemplifies there is no place, internal or external, where one can hide from God.
Jonah is “not the principal person in the book; God is.” Critical scholars “with their antisupernatural bias, have denied the authenticity” of the book, discrediting factual basis based upon the growth rate of the shade plant or the existence of a fish capable of swallowing a man. The plant “may have been a castor-bean plant (Ricinus communis) which grows rapidly in hot climates to a height of twelve feet [and] easily withers if its stalk is injured.” The King James Bible Commentary contests the nonexistence of the fish:
Other commentaries have suggested the fish was a dogfish, which has a stomach so large that once the body of a man in armor was found in it. Still others suggest that the fish was a shark, some of which grow to a weight of ten thousand pounds and to a length of thirty to forty feet, and in whose stomachs full-grown horses have been found.
The question posed here is not the existence of a colossally-sized shark, but how a horse became lost at sea so as to be swallowed by one, coupled with the odds of man finding that shark and opening its stomach. Likewise, while both the fish and plant can be naturalistically authenticated, this debate circumvents the pervading message of the book—God orchestrates circumstance. This understanding is the true analytical and perceptual challenge to the reader and an appointed messenger of God will be required to negotiate it, given one gets their orders from God Himself, not man (Exod 20:3; John 10:4-5; Gal 1:11-12; Acts 9:1-19; Rev 2:7). The book of Jonah reveals that God’s utilizes His sovereignty to influence obedience in those entering ministry, in a type of preacher’s test.
The Preacher’s Call (Chapter One)
Jonah 1:1 begins with a personally spoken [amar; to say] “word [dabar] of the Lord” to which there were no other recorded witnesses other than God and Jonah alone. Along with equating Jonah’s commission to that of other Old Testament prophets (i.e., Is 38:4; Dan 9:2; Jer 25:3), this phrase demands Jonah’s full belief in the ability to hear from God personally in order to obey and act on it. The measure of Jonah’s belief and obedience (which is inconsistent) to the voice of God sets the story along its ministerial course (which is, associatively, rocky). God lays this private, communicative relationship down as the foundation for everything to follow, therefore, the orderly pattern for Jonah’s ministry is God’s spoken word (Jonah 1:1-2; 3:1-2); Jonah’s listening (3:3); Jonah’s speaking (3:4); and, finally, Jonah’s writing (1-4). According to this framework, no matter the scope or scale of a ministry, the basis of its beginning, middle and end is God’s spoken word and the listener’s belief in and obedience to it (Jonah 1:1, 4:10-11). “Son of Amittai” means “son of my faithfulness,” and Jonah presumed himself of Godly character by being Hebrew, and stating, “I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). The main themes of the book include “God’s sovereign control over events on the earth” and “the full assurance that God will relent when people repent,” and, as Jonah exemplifies, these themes also apply to those appointed by God who exhibit unbelief regarding a ministerial call or who are in disobedience to God’s will.
As aforementioned, “Jonah” means “dove,” and there are several symbolic references which equate Jonah with Noah’s experience in Genesis 8: sending out a bird to find land (Jonah 1:1; raven/dove, Gen 8:6-11); the time frame of forty days (3:4; Gen 8:6); the specific mention of livestock/animals (4:11; Gen 8:1); and the notion of an ark (or fish) miraculously delivering God’s elect from sea to land in the merciful sense of second chances. In addition, Nineveh succumbed to a literal flood in 612 B.C. in its capture by the Medes and Babylonians. In 1:1-2, Jonah is initially commissioned by God to call out, or proclaim [qara], against Nineveh, reminiscent of the New Testament proclamation of the Gospel message where the act denotes “preaching by a herald sent from God” (kerusso; Phil 1:12-18). Nineveh was a “great” [gadol] city—a word used eleven times throughout the book (Jonah 1:2, 4, 12, 16, 17; 2:5; 3:2, 3, 5; 4:1, 11) as a “stylistic technique [to show a] giantesque motif” which presents the notion that both the divine method and effect of one’s ministerial call is immeasurable by any natural standard. In his lesson to the minister, Jonah portrays that no natural circumstance should be viewed as too bizarre, too large, or as merely pointless—God is providential and limitless. He will do what He wants, how and when He wants. In addition to being “an exceedingly great city of three day’s journey” or, comparatively, the “New York City of Jonah’s time,” the wickedness, or ra’ah, of the city was also great. Ra’ah, denotes “evil, disaster, or discomfort” and is used eight times throughout the book (Jonah 1:2, 7, 8; 3:8, 10; 4:1, 2, 6). In order to confront this evil, God sends Jonah—an event which begins with the term, “Arise” [qum], used commonly in the Old Testament as a commission by God “to stand, to be established, to send, to accomplish, to cause to be valid and to come forth,” with ties to the New Testament command of resurrection from death into new life [egeiro] (Matt 12:38-42).
Jonah, however, “went down [yarad] from the presence of the Lord,” a term which signifies a spiritual and literal descent from grace into such things as “battle; the threshing floor; sinking into water; or, going down to Sheol (Jonah 2:2-3).” Rather than arising to God’s call, Jonah descended spiritually and, therefore, physically traveled in the direct opposite direction of Nineveh and “boarded a ship at Joppa, bound for Tarshish, about 2,500 miles west.” Elizabeth Achtemeier states:
The author of this story is using word symbols to portray the terrible implication of Jonah’s disobedience. To flee from the Lord means death. In good storytelling fashion, that is not spelled out for us at the beginning, but is revealed gradually as the narrative proceeds. Jonah decided that he, rather than Yahweh, knew what was the best course of action, he set himself to correct God, and that is always dangerous.
The term “Tarshish” is used in Jonah 1:3 three times, perhaps symbolically signifying three long journeys at sea (Is 23:1, 14) or spiritual bouts or stages in contention with the Lord, paralleled by Nineveh’s metaphorical, or literal, size of three days’ journey or walk (mahalak; Jonah 3:3). This figurative/literal linguistic continuity utilized within the book of Jonah reveals a “supernatural-to-natural” manifestation in Jonah’s life and ministry, which progresses within the pattern of the numeral three. This notion is reinforced in chapter four by God’s three questions—the first and last of which remain unanswered (Jonah 4:4, 9, 11), and the second answered poorly (4:9b), all in accordance to Jonah’s actual ministry (1:3; 3:4; 4:1, 5, 9). The questions of chapter four and the spoken commission by God (1:1-2; 3:1-2) are disobeyed by Jonah at a rate of two-thirds. His one-third acceptance of ministry was done only at the threat of death and miraculous navigation in the form of a fish orchestrated by God. Jonah’s desire for God to punish the Ninevites he had just preached to revealed his impure motives as their spiritual leader (Jonah 3:4; 4:1, 5, 9). In addition, “went down” and “from the presence of the Lord” are phrases mentioned twice, while Jonah entered into Nineveh at a time or distance of only one day (echad; Jonah 3:4). Why did he not travel all three days? Part of the tragedy of the book of Jonah is the ministerial opportunities that seem to be missed due to Jonah’s contention with God’s methods. Branson Woodard considers the book of Jonah a biblical tragedy, similar to the fate of Samson or Saul:
[This is a book] which reveals the calamitous dimension of the downfall of a Hebrew protagonist. The recipient of a divine call to missionary service—and of chastisement for his obstinate disregard of Yahweh’s grace—Jonah is a tragic figure whose spiritual estrangement throughout the narrative intensifies his death-in-life. Jonah is being sent to the Gentile people. His other alternative is the infinitely more dangerous, unholy and unloving option of refusing Yahweh’s call altogether. For Jonah to ignore his mission is to ignore his God—a crisis indeed.
In consideration of the three questions of chapter four, and only one negative answer given, it would appear that Jonah 1:3 indicates two spiritual and physical/experiential attempts of Jonah to yarad, or descend, from the Lord’s presence, as evidenced by his heading for Joppa (where Peter’s ministry began and led to his “vision of tolerance” for the Gentiles in Acts 9:36-43; 10). This is done in the midst of his heart refusal of the three opportunities in Nineveh replaced here by the three mentions of Tarshish (opposite direction of God’s calling/questions). The last ministerial event regarding Nineveh is unrecorded, as God’s third question concludes the book (Jonah 4:10-11). Jonah gives no answer to God, and the only indications given in the text are the three mentions of Tarshish (1:3) as literary clues that Jonah likely denied any future ministry and dropped communication with God (Jonah 1:3; 4:9b, 11). The thin ray of light is his authorship of the book and Jesus’ personal endorsement (Matt 12:40).
God’s Orchestration of Circumstance
Upon Jonah’s disobedience of 1:3, the Lord intervened and orchestrated unavoidable circumstantial change. He “hurled” a great [gadol] storm against the ship with exact precision and power enough that the sailors’ efforts proved futile (Jonah 1:5, 13). “Hurled (hiphil of twl) is used of [Saul] throwing a spear [at David] in 1 Samuel 18:11 and for casting lots in Proverbs 16:33,” where David escaped Saul’s attempts to kill him twice, reflective of Jonah’s two descents from the presence of the Lord (1:3), and where, respectively, lots are plainly decided by the Lord (Prov 16:33). In another similar but briefly detailed account, the Lord “met Moses and sought to put him to death,” until Moses fully obeyed God’s commission (Exod 4:24). Likewise, Jeremiah asks the Lord, “Why is my pain perpetual and my wound incurable,” to which the Lord replies, “If you return [and give up your mistaken tone of distrust and despair], then I will give you again a settled place of quiet and safety, and you will be My minister; and if you separate the precious from the vile, you shall be My mouthpiece” (Jer 15:18-19; AMPC). In these life/death crises of division between good and evil, teachers are indeed judged more strictly according to God’s methods as krisos, or judge, with the outcome being recovery (a type of salvation/resurrection) or death (Jas 3:1). Wayne Slusser states:
Similar to Jonah, people [today] run from God. For whatever reason, it seems that the Christian’s agenda…always looks better than what God sovereignly provides. Often in a distressful and hopeless situation, Christians realize what they brought upon themselves is a break in fellowship with God. The real perplexity [of Jonah] is that all the while he was trying to run from God, the ultimate conclusion is that he found himself banished from God’s presence.
In addition to physical duress, cargo and finances (in the form of fare) were lost over the course of God’s discipline (Jonah 1:3, 5).
Jonah’s predicament may be reflected against Matthew 8:23-34, in that both accounts involve a boat or ship and a great storm which was life-threatening (Jonah 1:4-5; Matt 8:23-25) and also have the main character asleep in the hold (Jonah 1:5; Matt 8:24). In Jonah’s account, the captain woke him up, ordering him to “arise” [qum], and in the New Testament account, Jesus was awakened to “save us” [sozo] creating a reinforcing parallel between the Lord’s resurrection and salvation. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus states, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” In addition, in both accounts of departing “to the other side of the sea,” the messengers arrive at the exact predestined location upon a shore, casting out evil or demons (Jonah 2:10, 3:1; Matt 8:18-34). The difference is that Jesus’ reaction to the storm (God’s predestined and active will) was calming and, due to obedience, void of the further dejection, descent, and trauma unique to Jonah’s experience of being thrown into the sea by his fellow shipmates and swallowed by the great fish (Jonah 1:15, 17).
In Jonah 1:8, the sailors demand to know on whose account the calamity [ra’ah] has struck them. They inquire about Jonah’s occupation (I know your record of works…) and country of origin (I know where you live…) in a line of interrogation that is echoed in Revelation where Christ addresses those who are able to “hear, listen to and heed what the Spirit says,” which applies to Jonah (Rev 2:11, 13; 3:8, 15; AMPC). Obedience to the spoken word of God is crucial, from the individual (Jonah 1:1-2; 3:1-2; 4:10-11) to the church as a whole (Jonah 3:4-5, 10), as Revelation 2:11 states, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The speaker must first hear, then be willing to be a mouthpiece so the Spirit can speak to the churches/masses—through him. Jonah is a literary and personal example of the methods God uses to make His preacher. The account of Jonah 1:4-16 has many parallels to Acts 27-28 such as: the external threat of death via a great wind, or act of God (Jonah 1:4; Acts 27:14); loss of cargo (Jonah 1:5; Acts 27:18); the salvation of the sailors (Jonah 1:16; Acts 27:44); and the internal threat of death via man (Jonah 1:15; Acts 27:42). Both accounts detail journeys with the symbolic “three day” time frame (Jonah 1:17, 3:3; Acts 27:19, 28:7, 12, 17).
Ra’ah is translated as trouble, disaster, or calamity (NASB), but essentially means evil, or the opposite of living and goodness. Calamity is a term which describes baptism [bapto], in this case, moving beyond a symbolic water baptism to that orchestrated by the Spirit of God via natural disaster and other perceptually expanding events. Considering Jonah’s descent from the presence of the Lord, ra’ah was visited upon him by necessity until he relented and submitted to God’s will. It is probable that Jonah was plagued with doubt as the miserable subsurface to his blatant acts of disobedience. In Acts 27:23-25, Paul alone hears from an “angel of the God to whom I belong,” yet he publically attests, “I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:25). Paul exhibited the utmost confidence in God’s ability to communicate to him (even via angels), and in his God-given ability to hear from God correctly, by wielding the authority to preach God’s spoken word to other people. This skill, required of God’s preacher, also requires much faith in God. This Old/New Testament comparison of preachers leaves readers with Jonah’s eight-word sermon set beside Paul’s lifetime of proclamation—and that passed on to generations (Phil 1).
The Preacher’s Prayer (Chapter Two)
Paul is a minister who hears from God and is so sure of this trait that he is willing to be a public mouthpiece for God, regardless of circumstances or personal or spiritual acceptance or rejection (Phil 1:27-30). However, Paul first had his road to Damascus encounter and the Lord spoke to him, similar to the command to Jonah: Arise, and go into the city… (Jonah 1:2, 3:2; Acts 9:1-9). Three days of not seeing (similar to Jonah in a dark fish’s belly, Jonah 1:17) was followed by immediate preaching or ministry, effective and sustained by God as evidenced by Paul’s escape from death, in a type of God’s reversal of ra’ah (Jonah 3:4, 5, 10; Acts 9:20-25). Jonah 2 details his conversion into new or resurrected life and acceptance of ministry in a prayer similar to the general pattern of many Psalms, or more specifically to Psalm 107:23-32, where he calls upon the Lord in distress (Jonah 2:1; Ps 107:26), is overwhelmed by billows to the point of death (Jonah 2:3-5; Ps 107:27), leans upon the Lord alone for salvation (Jonah 2:6-7; Ps 107:29), and finishes in praise and thanksgiving with a vow to God in the effective leadership, or ministry, of others (Jonah 2:7-9; Ps 107:31-32). This conversion to obedience begins with holy communication, where God answered Jonah and heard Jonah’s voice (2:2)—a quality which God is sadly denied in return (Jonah 4:4, 10-11).
In his prayer of baptism, Jonah recounts the things he had witnessed regarding God’s power of natural orchestration (Jonah 2:3-6), which resembled a life-threatening form of bapto, or “submerging; dipping under; sinking or immersion in water; or to be overwhelmed with calamity.”  Jonah describes being cast into the deep, first by man, then by God (Jonah 1:15, 17; 2:3). He was engulfed, surrounded or encompassed [aphaph], twice by the waters and the flood to the point of “turning around” [sabab]. This term is inclusio in the text, bracketing Jonah’s turning away from sin (darkness in the belly of the fish/Sheol) and looking (with the heart) toward God’s Holy temple (Jonah 2:4), which may equate Jonah’s double-baptism experience (water/man; Spirit/fish) to two of God’s calls to ministry (Jonah 1:1-2; 3:1-2). Jonah is in the heart of the seas with billows passing over him to the point of death (Jonah 2:3-5). This form of God’s baptism was done to cleanse and purify Jonah, so that he could be reborn [gennao], as the “belly” [meeh] of the fish may be translated “womb” (Jonah 2:4, 6-10; 3:1-5; John 3:5; Acts 1:5). He resurfaced as a speaker for the Spirit of God to use (Jonah 3:4).
This traumatizing physical experience included a mental or perceptual element to overcome, described as “weeds…wrapped around my head,” in that a naturally elective descent from God (Jonah 1:3, 5) results in an exponential descent to the depth of Sheol which Jonah could not have foreseen (Jonah 2:2). Here Jonah is brought so low, he encounters the “roots of the mountains” and is surrounded by the “earth with its bars around me forever” (Jonah 2:5). Jonah is describing, what is at least a type of, hell. Similarly, in Matthew 12:40, Jesus places Jonah in the belly of the sea monster and the Son of Man in the heart of the earth. “Weeds” [suph] logically refer to seaweed, which might have been wrapped around Jonah’s entire body, but the phraseology strictly limits it to his head, which reveals Jonah’s psychological challenge in dealing with matters of life, death, and God’s impending decision regarding his case, and the term also infers the “reeds of the Red Sea,” a story Jonah may have been considering.
The weeds wrapped around Jonah’s head, and his associative psychological duress, resemble the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head during His crucifixion, as well His mental anguish prior to it (John 19:1-7; Matt 26:36-46). In Jonah’s mind, as he was awaiting God’s decision to save or take his life, he was deciding if he would minister for God and lead the Ninevites should God part his version of the “Red Sea.” Was Jonah waiting on God’s decision for three days and nights, or was God waiting on Jonah’s decision (Heb 12:11)? Though Jonah was psychologically, physically and spiritually a “bruised reed,” in a state of Kingdom of God inversion (descending to the roots of the mountains; Jonah 2:6), the Lord pardoned him from the “earth with its bars,” saving Jonah’s life by speaking [amar] and, therefore, causing the fish to vomit Jonah “up again,” or qo, onto dry land, making him free indeed (Is 42:3; Matt 12:20; John 8:36). In this occurrence, similar to Peter’s “walking on water” faith upon which the Lord builds His church, Jonah rises up in spirit, soul, heart and mind, at least enough to effectively preach eight words (Jonah 2:6-9, 3:4; Matt 14:22-23, 16:18).
Vow to Ministry
Jonah’s vow to the Lord (I will sacrifice to You) is vocal (with the voice of thanksgiving and a gift to preach), in answer to the Lord bringing his life “up from the pit” (Jonah 2:6-9). This transition includes a ministerial element built into the resurrection in that Jonah considers the spiritual state of the Ninevites (those who regard vain idols and forsake their faithfulness) in repentance of his own, and vows “I will pay,” in confession of his former error, owing his salvation to the Lord (Jonah 2:8-9). Jonah is “thrust into the harvest,” similar to the prayer of Matthew 9:38, when the Lord commands the fish to vomit Jonah up onto the dry land. Jonah has been catapulted into ministry to the traumatic extent which would: solidify his faith that he indeed heard from God; make him bold enough to speak to any human being or group no matter how hostile; and be respectful enough of God’s authority as owner and master of his life.
The Preacher’s Evidence (Chapter Three)
Along with Jonah’s resurrection, as “Salvation is from the Lord,” he is asked to “pay” his vow and keep his word uttered in private prayer as he is recommissioned a second time via God’s spoken word to “Arise” and “go” (Jonah 2:9; 3:1). As the fish was appointed, or manah, and commanded by God via His spoken word, so is Jonah, as God repeats His command (Jonah 1:1-2, 17; 2:10; 3:1-2). With the term, manah, the book of Jonah, “shows [the Lord’s] sovereignty over the creatures of the sea; in 4:6 it shows his power over plants; in 4:7…over crawling creatures; and in 4:8 it shows his power over the wind.” In Jonah 3:1-2, God humorously grants Jonah a second opportunity to perform as well as water, plants, creatures and the wind. The Lord did not change the place of Jonah’s ministry, but the preaching intensifies from a generalized “cry” [qara] to “proclaim [qara] the proclamations which I am going to tell you” (3:2). This entails a more exacting prescription of faith, which requires that Jonah believe that he can hear from God, not only in general terms, but in a very detailed manner—word for word.
The book of Jonah opens with the mysterious and distant, prophet-commissioning phrase, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah” (1:1), but it ends with the Lord speaking directly to Jonah in a very communicative manner (4:9-11), as in a dialog between close friends:
Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
Jonah 2:2 describes numerous communicative terms: and he said, “I called out of my distress to the Lord, and He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice.” Clearly the communication between God and Jonah becomes more distinct throughout the four chapters, in the development of God’s hearing, obedient, and speaking minister. The term “said” [amar] is used sixteen times in the NASB, initially in argumentative dialog between Jonah and the captain or crew during Jonah’s disobedience and natural crises (Jonah 1:6-12, 14). During Jonah’s time in the fish’s belly, the communication is between Jonah and God strictly, as it typically is when a believer is in serious trial (Jonah 2:2, 4). Upon Jonah’s resurrection, there are two main instances of the spoken word: Jonah’s mini-sermon, and the king’s proclamation to the people (Jonah 3:4, 7). The book finishes out with a detailed conversation between Jonah and God (Jonah 4:2, 4, 9-10).
In 3:3, Jonah obeys the spoken word of God [dabar] exactly, arising [qum] according to God’s recommission. Jonah cried out on the first day’s walk through the city, which is scaled to be three days’ walk (3:4). His eight-word sermon, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown,” is humorous in that the effect of “120,000 persons” and their animals are spared from destruction (4:11) based upon the supernatural working of God to move their hearts to repentance. Jonah barely needed to show up, in a sense, but yet, God required him to. In a course of irony, one wonders if the enormity and rarity of this outlandish string of events was done for the sake of Jonah’s conversion of faith or the Ninevites’. As the king of Nineveh exclaims, “Who knows…” (3:9). In essence, it was for both. God’s intensity permeated through Jonah’s spiritual maturity in that moment in an event which seemed to reflect God’s concentrated power upon the masses like light being beamed across the room through a very small projector.
An underlying question the evidence presented in chapter three seems to answer is: Jonah, do you hear from Me or not? Chapter three gives an account of what Jonah witnessed of God moving on the earth through his obedience to utter eight simple words (Jonah 3:4). Then the people of Nineveh believed in God, called a fast, and put on sackcloth—all of them (Jonah 3:5). This word of the Lord reached the Ninevite king who immediately rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes along with the people (Jonah 3:6). He then issued a proclamation to save the city from the destruction of the Lord, ordering a fast of food and water; beasts to be covered in sackcloth (!); and for men to “call on God earnestly” and to turn from wickedness and violence (Jonah 3:6-8). Humor is evident in the brevity of Jonah’s sermon, coupled with its outlandish effectiveness, making Jonah’s self-proclaimed righteousness from being Hebrew (1:9), though disobeying a direct word from the Lord (1:1-3), pale in comparison to the repentant evidence of the heathen to an indirect word from the Lord (3:5-9). In addition, one muses how the Ninevites could come up with such a vast amount of sackcloth (stored in a warehouse?) enough to cover even the beasts, which also kept the fast (Jonah 3:7-8). Regardless, the verdict, based on the overwhelming evidence of response, was that Jonah could indeed hear from God and preach very effectively.
On the tragic side of this comedy, Jonah was personally educated in God’s recompense (anger; ra’ah), and the people were concerned to turn from God’s anger (3:9), yet, it is not recorded that Jonah uttered a word beyond the aforementioned eight. If Jonah did not explain God’s wrath, yet the people responded in a manner exemplifying their understanding and fear of it, how did the Lord communicate it other than via miraculous and spiritual communication (Acts 2, 10)? The king’s reference to God’s “burning anger” [aph charon] is a two-fold recompense, or described at a level of double-intensity, in that God’s “fierceness” is coupled with the “nostril or breath” of His wrath. The two-fold recompense of God is mentioned favorably in Isaiah 61:7 (instead of your former shame you shall have a twofold recompense), after it is mentioned unfavorably in Isaiah 40:2 (Jerusalem has paid double for all her sins). The fact that God’s anger is described as two-fold in Jonah 3:9 echoes the severity of God’s dealings with Jonah to get him to heed God’s second ministerial calling. The notion of God’s breath mentioned in the form of this two-fold anger lends itself to a pneumatological interpretation of Jonah’s effectiveness. It was Jonah’s countenance and God’s Spirit meeting together in a warning so unmistakable, it was immediately heeded from the least to the greatest (Jonah 3:5). Jonah, mysteriously communicating holiness via the level of fear God instilled in him, also instilled this intensity in the hearts and minds of the Ninevites through one sentence (Jonah 3:4). When the people turned from their wickedness (ra’ah), God did not allow (ra’ah), or disaster, to come upon them (Jonah 3:10). This signifies that evil comes upon people through their own election—it is not the preference of God to afflict and He does so, as exemplified by the book of Jonah, only to the extent necessary to incite their understanding, belief, repentance and obedience.
The Preacher’s Obedience and Compassion (Chapter Four)
Chapter three concludes with God relenting [nacham], just as the king had hoped (3:9), concerning the calamity which He had declared to bring upon the city of Nineveh due to their wickedness (Jonah 1:2; 3:10). When the Ninevites turned [shub] from their evil [ra’ah], God withdrew calamity [ra’ah]. The text simply states, “And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). This transaction makes it incredibly clear that evil, in the form of calamity and destruction, is only allowed by God for the goal of repentance, whether against an individual (in this case, a fearer of the Lord who would not obey God’s voice and preach) or a great city (Nineveh, due to their own evil works). When Jonah repented, God commanded the fish to release him. When the Ninevites repented, God did not allow calamity.
Jonah asked the Lord for salvation in the fish’s belly, promising thanksgiving and sacrifice in exchange (Jonah 2:9). He showed mercy to the pagan sailors by instructing them to “throw me into the sea, then the sea will become calm for you” (Jonah 1:12). Yet the Lord’s same salvation for the repentant Ninevites angered [charah] Jonah (Jonah 4:1). This poses the theological tension between God’s mercy and justice in the center of God and Jonah’s personal relationship. Jonah’s mercy toward pagans (Gentiles; 1:12), but not the Ninevites (4:1), shows his personal battle regarding particular theodicy as he “questioned the wisdom of God’s sovereign purpose at this time.” Baker, Alexander and Waltke explain:
Jonah’s reaction to Nineveh does not reflect his attitude to Gentiles in general. To say that the Ninevites are representative of all Gentiles creates real difficulties in trying to determine the purpose of Jonah. The most obvious [reason for his anger] would be that Nineveh, as the capital of the Assyrian Empire, was responsible for the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-23). This explains Jonah’s antipathy for Nineveh; he perceives the eventual outcome of his mission and passionately feels that he cannot be party to something which would ultimately mean the destruction of his own nation.
In 4:2, Jonah finally admits that God’s sparing of the Ninevites is the reason he ran from the initial call to preach (Jonah 1:1-2). Jonah evidently loved Israel, which likely contained his family and friends, being the “son of my faithfulness,” or son of Amittai (Jonah 1:1). Jonah’s love for others may have been part of the reason God called him, or deemed him worthy, to be an ambassador. This same love blinded Jonah to God’s providential purposes, or greater love. In saving the Ninevites, God saved the Israeli nation from them (for approximately 130-150 years), but Jonah had no way of perceiving God’s timeline or viewpoint. In 4:2, Jonah reveals his prideful reasoning as incorrect when he states that his fleeing was to protect his own country, for, had God not sent Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, Jonah’s worst fear would have happened. Jonah’s natural reasoning and loyalty to his own people supplanted his loyalty to God, and negated all his vows uttered from the depths of Sheol, where Jonah is now asking to return (Jonah 2:2; 4:3). God asks, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” Jonah ignores the question, just as he ignored the first request spoken by God, and he does not answer God’s voice (Jonah 1:1-3; 4:4-5). Spiritually, Jonah is sinking to a lower level in 4:4-5 than he was in the fish’s belly, because he has been instructed to know more of God, and he has witnessed the effectiveness of being called by God to preach. Jonah is, in essence, looking back, like Lots’ wife; turning back from the plow; and taking offense at the Lord—three things warned about in the New Testament (Luke 7:23, 9:62, 17:32). In the preacher’s test, the first question the book of Jonah presents regards God’s sovereignty and human obedience to it—will the preacher revere and trust it over personal reasoning or perception?
In 4:5, Jonah goes out of the city and sits down, signifying his reluctance to obey the Lord. He made shelter for himself and sat under that, watching to see if the Lord would destroy the city after he preached to it. Jonah’s choice to sit down [yashab] is an act of tarrying, or a form of reluctance or disobedience, which may again represent two ministerial callings of the Lord which Jonah refused: the first in Jonah 1:1-3 and the potential third mission which was never asked, at least in the text, due to failed relationship (Jonah 4:11). God appoints a plant to grow to deliver the prophet from discomfort [ra’ah], a potential New Testament foreshadowing of the Vine (John 15:1-11), for which he was grateful and joyful [sameach]. The NASB renders this emotion “extremely happy” due to God’s favor, blessing and comfort from misery (Jonah 4:6). Then God appoints a worm, potentially representative of the serpent (Gen 3:1), to destroy the plant, along with a “scorching east wind” (Jonah 4:8). Jonah responds by requesting death a second time, potentially trying God, (Jonah 4:3, 8). God asks a duplicate question, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” This echoes the numerical pattern similar to Jonah’s commission to “arise” and “go” (Jonah 1:2; 3:2; 4:4, 9). When the plant (natural circumstance) was “up,” Jonah was happy. When the plant (natural circumstance) was “down,” Jonah was angry. In phraseology fitting to Jonah’s sinking fish and being vomited up onto land, Paul states that he has “learned the secret” [mueo] of how to perceive both “being brought low” and being “over and above” by “experiencing mystery,” and being initiated into the “revelation of learning to be content in Christ in every scene of life—no exceptions” (Phil 4:12). Regarding the preacher’s test, Jonah presents a second question—is the preacher’s loyalty to God rooted solely in emotionalism tied to natural circumstance?
The second of God’s three questions is the only one answered by Jonah in the text (Jonah 4:9). Jonah answers in a stubborn frame of mind, “I have good reason to be angry, even unto death” (4:9). Knowing God orchestrates circumstances and eternal destinies, Jonah does not seem to be thinking about his heavenly future. He is obsessed with temporal or natural conditions and, in his perplexed and miserable state, he is fixated on the Ninevites’ pardon, perched at a vantage point where he can best stare at the city and his problem (Jonah 4:5). Regarding his display of emotional extremes, including happiness about the plant (Jonah 4:6-8), the text suggests Jonah’s resistance and incessant negative attitude went beyond the state of the Ninevites to his perception of God and His methods. According to the text, Jonah does not want the Ninevites spared (Jonah 4:1-3), nor does he want to be in any personal discomfort (Jonah 4:6-8). He cannot perceive that God is working with him to develop him into a consistent and effective minister. He can only see the temporary affliction of the process, not the eternal result. God offers evidence, which should make Jonah far happier than a shade plant: God had compassion on a great city of more than 120,000 persons, and their animals (Jonah 4:11). This should be a reason for rejoicing and a bolster to Jonah’s faith regarding his relationship with God. With the phrase, “persons who do not know the difference between their right hand and left hand,” God indicates His providential power, even in matters normally perceived to be caused solely by humans—calamity (left/war) and blessing (right/peace). As several Minor Prophets illustrate, the removal of God’s grace was often due to judgment of sin which then allowed Israel to be overtaken and cast into exile. John Walton affirms, “It is God’s compassion that motivates His grace. It is [the Ninevites’] ignorance that, in some ways, makes them objects of God’s compassion.” Preachers are sent to teach and exemplify—not in pride and judgment, but in patience, compassion and mercy. In the preacher’s test, the third question the book of Jonah presents regards God’s sovereignty and human compassion—will the preacher realize that God is providential and humans are secondary to that fact?
Modern secularism, within and without the church, permeates the belief and practice of “hearing from God” with doubt. Atheists and even professed believers may accuse Christian leaders of being false prophets, or even mock those who “hear from” God, labeling such faith as a form of insanity. Biblically, this type of persecution is nothing new (Mark 3:21; 2 Cor 5:13). Hosea 9:7-8 describes the “days of recompense” when “the prophet is considered a crazed fool and the man who is inspired is treated as if mad or a fanatic, [this is] because of the abundance of…iniquity and because the enmity, hostility and persecution are great.” The tragedy shown in the book of Jonah is the minister’s own doubt that he (or she) can hear from God—much mental, physical and spiritual duress results from this double-minded problem. Belief in God’s spoken word is a recurrent theme in the Bible from the prophets, through the early church, to the forecast of Revelation. In the Acts 27 wind and shipwreck, which miraculously preserved and positioned Paul’s ministry, his absolute belief in his divine appointment and in his anointed ability to hear from God was instrumental in the crew’s deliverance and unity (Acts 27:23-25). This type of unshakable faith is imperative for the minister’s survival, and countless believers, regardless of timeframe. The book of Jonah is applicable to Christian leaders today who must negotiate pervasive secular humanistic environments and naturalistic, or atheistic, influences in religious academia.
Disobedience and unrepentance begins with unbelief (Jas 1:8; 4:8; Rev 3:16). The initial issue of Jonah may have been doubt that he heard from God at all, so he fled in the opposite direction, forcing God’s hand, as it were. Jonah indeed heard correctly, but angered the Lord through blatant disobedience. Jeremiah 30:24 (AMPC) explains ra’ah, or calamity, inflicted upon half-hearted ministers and believers ironically inundated with double-souled/minded unbelief: “the fierce anger and indignation of the Lord shall not turn back until He has executed and accomplished the thoughts and intents of His mind and heart.” When Jonah truly believed, at the threat of death in the belly of Sheol, his life was spared and his ministry was made extremely effective—both proven to be by the grace of God, solely. Unfortunately, Jonah reacted to the necessary anger of God with a delayed, unnecessary anger, rather than with acceptance, taking responsibility for his sin. It was his own election to flee from God which affected his mind, heart and soul far deeper than his Hebrew title or religious piety could shield him. The four very brief chapters of Jonah help answer the problem of evil, particularly that calamity is often divinely allowed in response to man’s evil—and that only in order to achieve repentance and obedience to God. How is God to teach man to obey without affliction? This knowledge equips the minister to communicate repentance effectively, yet compassionately, better understanding the spiritual use, and God’s methods, regarding human suffering.
Finally, the preacher is paramount due to God’s election. Though in His omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience He does not need to, it is God’s will to use ministers as instruments of holy communication on the earth. When anointed by God, via circumstances orchestrated by God, the preacher can become a point of reflection of God to the people. He or she can speak and be seen, becoming a communicative “projector” that amplifies and magnifies God’s message, or light of revelation, upon the masses. He or she can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in prevention of human (unnecessary) evil (ra’ah), staving off the resulting disciplinary calamity (ra’ah). Jonah’s simple sermon resulted in 120,000 repentant souls and postponed a war. This helps the modern-day preacher intellectually understand his or her place and how exponentially important the position actually is.
Within the book of Jonah, the prevalent use of communicative speech is notable, in repetitive terms such as “cry, proclaim [qara], call, said, answer [anah], and hear.” In consideration of the case of Jonah, much heated dialog is exchanged between a minister and other people during times of disobedience and refinement; and the more people try to save themselves and each other apart from God, the “more tempestuous [enraged] the sea continues to grow against them” (Jonah 1:11, 13). Spiritual baptism results in communication directly with the Lord, and this occurs during times of great trial and consecration (Jonah 2) after which the minister will be required to speak salvation to the masses as God leads (Jonah 3:2). Change is miraculously orchestrated in both the minister and those to whom he or she is appointed by God to minister to (Jonah 3:5; 4:10-11). The conversations detailed in the beginning, middle and conclusion of the book are not between Jonah and other people—they are between Jonah and God. The art of divine communication, coupled with an understanding of God’s election to use preachers, equips those called into ministry today to confidently and boldly proclaim the Gospel.
The book of Jonah is masterfully designed to expand the human mind to accept the character of God, who exhibits compassion, patience, and an extreme sort of ironic humor to try a minister’s faith and loyalty. This brand of humor is only done to the extent required to produce a speaker brave enough to fulfill the rather wild, counter-intuitive, life-threatening mandate to preach God’s judgment to an entire evil and hostile city, with no support at all but God. Left to one’s own devices, this notion of merely “hearing from God” would be erroneously dismissed for personal survival reasons. Only after a tour through the bizarre depths of Sheol (Jonah 2:2) would personal belief in and obedience to the voice of God seem the better option. The tragedy and comedy found within the pages of Jonah invite the reader to choose an attitude regarding God’s methods—like the plant, will they be up or down? The book of Jonah shows the massive lengths God goes to in order to develop a preacher. To claim that the book of Jonah is fiction minimizes the authoritative lifeline it throws out to ministers being trained and catapulted into ministry by God today. It also blatantly “[impeaches] the integrity and [teaching] capacity of Jesus,” in that Jesus certified Jonah as an authentic prophet, using his experience of three days and three nights in the fish’s belly as prophetic and literal evidence of Himself as the soon-to-be resurrected Messiah (Matt 12: 38-45). Jesus believed in and advocated for the Old Testament, including the book of Jonah, as absolute truth and reality and modern believers are expected to do the same.
This paper has provided an exegetical and interpretive commentary based on the emergent theme that the book of Jonah provides a spiritual test for contemporary preachers, with emphasis on calling and belief; holy communication; ministerial evidence; and obedience and compassion. Based upon Jonah 4, three questions are presented for those called into modern day ministry:
Will I revere, trust and obey God and accept His sovereignty over my personal reasoning or perception?
Is my loyalty to God rooted solely in emotionalism tied to natural circumstance?
Do I have compassion for all people, recognizing that God is sovereign and humans are secondary to that fact?
The preacher’s test is to be navigated by God’s spoken and written word. Careful consideration of the three questions above, based upon God’s inquiry to Jonah, shows that ministers’ emotions and circumstances (Question 2) are to be regulated, or bordered, by an absolute regard for God’s sovereignty (Questions 1 and 3). God is in control of His ministers and their circumstances, therefore, their joy can and ought to be rooted in the Lord. The book of Jonah is both a challenge and support to those entering contemporary ministerial callings. It teaches that preachers can trust in God’s absolute providence, adjust to His methods, and elect not to be angry at God or man, regardless of events.
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 ESV Study Bible, Jonah (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1687.
 Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995, by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Biblegateway.com, accessed December 3, 2018, https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-American-Standard-Bible-NASB/#copy.
 King James Bible Commentary, Jonah (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1034. (Author’s Note: ESV Study Bible, Jonah, 1683, dates the book and the reign of Jeroboam more narrowly at 782-753 B.C.)
 King James Bible Commentary, Jonah, 1034.
 Ibid. (Author’s Note: Another approximation is 150 years, according to the following footnote.)
 John D. Hannah, “Jonah,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1985), 1464-70.
 King James Bible Commentary, Jonah, 1032.
 Hannah, “Jonah,” 1461.
 ESV Study Bible, Jonah, 1684.
 ESV Study Bible, Jonah, 1684.
 Hannah, “Jonah,” 1462.
 Hannah, “Jonah,” 1471.