The Book of Jonah
The Book of Jonah, written primarily in the third person, does not explicitly name the prophet as the author of his own account, but there is no reason to doubt either the inspiration or the historical veracity of the book. Identified in 1:1 as the son of Amittai, Jonah came from a town called Gath-hepher, near Nazareth in the area that later came to be known as Galilee (2 Kings 14:25). This makes Jonah one of the few prophets who hailed from the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
During Jonah’s years as a prophet, Israel stood tall among the nations, although in a political rather than a spiritual sense. The reign of Jeroboam II (793–753 BC), who was an evil king before the Lord, saw Israel’s borders expand to their greatest extent since the time of Solomon. Increased prosperity resulted in a materialistic culture that thrived on injustice to the poor and oppressed, one of the key messages of Jonah’s prophetic contemporary, Amos.
However, rather than direct Jonah to prophesy to his own people, God commissioned him to Nineveh, a great city that would later become the Assyrian capital. At first unwilling to make the journey northeast to deliver God’s message, Jonah turned and aimed for the farthest westward point known to him, Tarshish, which some scholars believe was located in modern-day Spain.
After God eventually turned Jonah in the right direction, the prophet obediently prophesied to the people of Nineveh while Ashurdan III (772–754 BC) sat on the throne of Assyria. Although Assyria had been in a politically weakened state for some time, by the time of Jonah their cruelty to captives and other undesirables was well-known in Israel, creating an obvious need for Jonah’s message of repentance.
Jonah was one of only four writing prophets that Jesus referred to by name during his earthly ministry, with Isaiah, Daniel and Zechariah being the others. But Jonah received more than a mere mention. Jesus actually identified himself with the prophet’s three-day sojourn in the belly of the great fish, noting it as a foreshadowing of his own death, when Jesus would spend three days in the heart of the earth before his resurrection (Matthew 12:39–41). Jesus’ identification with the prophet at the lowest point of Jonah’s life finds echoes in the Book of Hebrews, where it teaches that Jesus: <<had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people>> (Hebrews 2:17). The book of Jonah stands as an important link in the prophetic chain, giving readers a glimpse of Christ’s death and resurrection hundreds of years before they actually occurred.
When the call of God came to him, Jonah could not see beyond his own selfish desire for God to punish the Assyrians. How could God want him to take a message of mercy to such people? Before Jonah could relay God’s message, he had to be brought to his own place of repentance. He had to learn something about the mercy of the Lord. Through his attempted flight to Tarshish, his shipwreck and his time in the great fish, Jonah was convinced in a powerful way that all salvation comes from the Lord (2:9). And because of God’s supreme power, only God decides where to pour out his salvation and his mercy (4:11).
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