Jonah’s importance in the bible is well known: in the story, Jonah, tries to run away from God and ends up on a ship in a storm. He is thrown overboard, swallowed by a Whale and cries out to God for help. God answers and the whale spits him back up onto shore. Jonah then goes ahead and delivers the message of God to Nineveh, fulfilling the act he was previously running away from.
Recently, I decided to study Jonah in depth and try to find the importance of Jonah as a biblical text. Looking beyond the ‘children’s version’ that we so often hear, I searched out commentaries and worked my way through the entire book. I began to see Jonah’s importance with new eyes and realised how so often, the ‘whale moment’ takes centre stage; I had missed out on so much of the importance of Jonah in the rest of the story.
‘This whaley got me!’
Jonah consists of four chapters. The well known story of Jonah’s encounter happens in the first two chapters. In chapter 3, Jonah goes to Ninevah, and in chapter 4, things get a little confusing. Why don’t you take a read?
I recommend you pause to take a look at Jonah in the bible, particular Chapter 4.
I had never even noticed that this part of the story existed. Jonah ends up sitting outside of the city, distressed and angry. We witness Jonah and God converse and see an encounter enfold: Jonah angrily questions why God would forgive the people of Ninevah, and God answers, ‘do you have a right to be angry?’
The passage is full of rhetorical questions as Jonah gets angry, and even says, ‘I wish I were dead!’ The book ends with a similarly strange happening: God makes a plant grow to shade Jonah and then it withers the next day, making Jonah angry again. God answers: ‘You were concerned about this plant even though you didn’t make it grow. Should I not be concerned for Ninevah?’ (Paraphrased.)
And just like that, the book ends! What?! Did the writers just give up and leave it unfinished? Has someone fallen asleep and not recorded a conclusion to the story? And what on earth is that plant section about? Weird!
If you’re just as confused as me, then do not worry. Stick with me, and we can go on a journey together to discover some deeper truths and unpack the meaning of this biblical encounter between Jonah and God.
Unpacking Jonah’s Importance
The book of Jonah makes up part of a collection of Old Testament prophets, all whom deliver a message from God to his people. Uniquely, the book of Jonah tells us more about Jonah’s life and journey in delivering the message, than it does about the actual message. The author evidently felt that the life of Jonah had more importance than the message to the Ninevites: the importance of Jonah as a book, is to tell us about Jonah’s journey and God’s compassion for Ninevah.
We can let Jonah’s life point us to God and teach us some lessons.
A four-chapter account of Jonah’s story ends, as mentioned, in a slightly strange and abrupt set of questions posed by God to Jonah.
The rhetorical ending
Ever posed a rhetorical question? In our literary culture and language, rhetorical questions and writings commonly exist. The art of rhetoric is a clever and well known method of posing questions, not to be answered, but to either make a statement, produce effect or imply an underlying truth. As a collection of God-inspired writings (stories, accounts, poetry…), the bible also uses literary devices and in Jonah, we see rhetoric.
Yes, the book of Jonah really does end abruptly. The important questions that God poses are rhetoric: ‘Do you have the right to be angry at me?’ ‘Should I not have compassion or concern for Ninevah?’ God poses these to imply that He alone is God. They imply that God can do as He likes, and that we really shouldn’t get angry at God. As the book ends on these questions, we as readers become more engaged – the rhetoric goes unanswered, which draws us into the conversation.
God is actively laying the question before us: who do we think God is? We are invited to explore and ponder the deep questions of Jonah for ourselves.
With that in mind, let’s explore more of Jonah’s story…
Patterns of Grace
(Read Jonah 4:1-11 for reference)
When Jonah gets angry, he admits a faulty motive. At the start of chapter 4, Jonah confesses that the reason he ran away in the first place, was because he didn’t want God to forgive Ninevah. Jonah literally decided that they weren’t worthy of grace and intentionally wanted to stop God from being compassionate. This is a huge issue in itself. But even after Jonah survives the whale and decides to go to Ninevah, he gets angry at God.
Jonah doesn’t just overstep, he reveals that all along, his heart was against God’s. He lacks reverence for who God is. More so, he actually says, ‘I wish I were dead,’ without acknowledging that God could take his life away in that moment – be careful what you wish for Jonah! Yet, at every moment, God patiently offers grace. God doesn’t strike Jonah down, or condemn him. God patiently offers gentle rhetorical questions and in the mean time, provides comforting shade from the sun by making a plant grow beside him.
Each time Jonah steps out of line or his motives attempt to care more for his glory than God’s, God simply offers grace. This is the importance of Jonah’s angry encounter: we see a God who is slow to anger, full of grace and patiently loving. Jonah fails, God is gracious.
Fuelled by blessing more than God himself
So Jonah fails, and God graciously offers compassion and rhetorical questions to gently remind him of who He is. God provides a shady plant to comfort him. Jonah is ‘very happy’ about this. Isn’t that lovely?
But, the next day, this plant withers and Jonah gets angry again. The blessing Jonah had has disappeared – so where is God? Why has God given him something and then taken it away again? How is that loving or kind?
I definitely relate to this. I think we all at times in our lives can become angry or frustrated when life seems to be full of blessings which suddenly seem to disappear overnight. It’s so easy to question God and like Jonah, grow angry…
The problem is this: I think Jonah was more fuelled and focused on the blessing, than on God himself. He was more happy about the plant, than about the fact that God was caring for him. The plant was the means of God’s care, not the care itself. The plant withered, but God’s love and faithfulness remained present. Jonah didn’t quite see that, and he got angry.
Jonah’s Importance: the struggle
(You may wish to briefly scan Jonah 2:1-10 to accompany this overview)
Similarly, in Chapter 2, whilst in the whale, Jonah cries out to God in desperation. God miraculously moves and rescues him, causing the whale to spit him out onto dry ground. Jonah comes to realise how greatly God has rescued him, which then propels him to go to Ninevah after all.
In the miraculous whale moment, Jonah realises that he mustn’t turn away from God or seek out his own plans. He makes a vow to follow God. We read of this great salvation moment, when Jonah decides to follow God, because of how He has delivered him! How exciting?!
In chapter 3, Jonah goes to Ninevah and delivers a message of warning, that if the people of Ninevah continue in wickedness, they will experience God’s judgement. But, the Ninevites turn back to God and God is gracious and forgives them, giving compassion in place of judgement.
This throws Jonah. The word that Jonah spoke in faith and in power, is not fulfilled – judgement doesn’t come. God moves in a better way and Jonah doesn’t like it. It’s no longer about Jonah’s message but about God. In fact, Jonah is left looking a little silly and unpopular, so he runs away from the city to the outskirts – to sulk!
When we don’t see the fruit
Jonah doesn’t see the fruit that he expected in his ministry. Suddenly, it’s not about Jonah and his message. Jonah is out of the equation and instead, it’s about God’s grace for Ninevah.
Jonah, who was miraculously caught up in an incredible whale-based encounter with God, had probably expected that this power and miraculous work would continue as he went to Ninevah. Jonah probably believed that God would tangibly work through his message, and perhaps, he would become a ‘feared’ prophet. When God does the unexpected, by deciding not to do what Jonah’s message predicted (in showing compassion instead of judgement), Jonah is confused.
Jonah falls into the temptation of forgetting the real good news in his earlier miraculous whale moment: God’s grace saved him.
Jonah was so focused and propelled by the power, miracle and blessing of his testimony itself, that He forgets to trust in God, just for being God.
Jonah is living fuelled on the blessings of God rather than on God himself. Jonah is more worried about how his ministry turned out for his own glory, than about surrendering to God’s higher and often unexpected ways.
God’s answer in rhetoric could be interpreted as this: ‘Who is God? Me or you?’
Jonah should follow God because He is God – not just because of the blessings he can receive from God. Jonah didn’t quite grasp this when he made his vow after the whale encounter.
Additionally, we see how even Jonah, who experienced God in such a powerful whale moment, still messed up. The story doesn’t end with Jonah on dry land, saved and living obediently as we so often hear when it’s retold. We get to see how Jonah wrestled with questions, with unexpected plans, mistakes, temptations… And we witness God’s incredible grace and compassion. I find that so encouraging! We see what it is to be human in Jonah and how God lovingly corrects and challenges us, in place of condemning.
Jonah’s importance in the bible prompts us to look at our own lives. Jonah needed a heart check, and we to can ask ourselves the hearty questions:
- Am I fuelled by the blessings that God graciously provides, or by faith in God himself? Have I become more dependent on prosperity with God, instead of depending on God himself who is faithful and good?
- When God doesn’t move in the way that we expect, will we acknowledge that He owns the glory and has determined best?
- Have I been angry about a situation in my life? Can I let go, repent and trust in God’s grace again today?