Introduction to Jonah

James M. Rochford

Jonah lived between 800 and 750 BC. He himself was probably the author of this book, writing it towards the end of his life. If this is the case, then Jonah would be writing in the third person. But, so does Moses in the Pentateuch, so it’s possible that he wrote it (see comments on Exodus 6:26-27). If he did write it, then he must have understood God’s rhetorical question at the end of the book, which summarizes the entire book, “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 4:11)


Jonah is mentioned only once in the OT in the book of 2 Kings (2 Kings 14:25). There we learn that Jonah is from Gath-Hepher (in Zebulan) and that he was likely a contemporary of Jeroboam II (782-753 BC). Therefore, Jonah might fit into the period between the reigns of Adad-Nirari II (810-783 BC) and Tiglath-Pileser II (745 BC).

The Assyrians

The Assyrians were a particularly wicked people, and God called Jonah to preach judgment against these people in their own country! This would be like Gandalf asking Frodo to criticize Sauron’s foreign policy in Mordor! This must have scared Jonah to death. Jonah only mentions the violence of Nineveh once (3:8), but Nahum explains that the Ninevites were into plotting evil against the Lord (Nah. 1:11), continual cruelty (Nah. 2:13; 3:1; 19), prostitution and witchcraft (Nah. 3:4), and commercial exploitation (Nah. 3:16).

We have drawings of Assyrians holding the severed heads of the nations that they conquered. OT scholar and archaeologist James Hoffmeier writes,

The size of the Assyrian army is reported to have been just over 70,000 in Tiglath-Pileser’s day, and over 200,000 during Sennacherib’s reign (705-681 BC), if their figures are reliable.[1]

This area represents the largest empire in the ancient Near East up to this time.[2]

As battles rage, the brutality of the Assyrians is on display. Soldiers are shown beheading enemy troops, while others hold up the decapitated heads of the enemy for all to see. Further victims are impaled—the Assyrian mode of capital punishment. These inhumane practices were designed to intimidate the opposition and shake the confidence of those trying to fend off the Assyrian attack. The prophet Nahum who preached in the late seventh century BC offers a fitting description of Assyria (Nahum 3:1-3). It was this Assyrian war machine that demolished and deported the Israelites and seriously debilitated Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries BC.[3]

This is comparable to footage of the Nazi’s during World War 11, or Saddam Hussein torture videos. They were an evil people, who boasted in their evil. This would make a lot of sense as to why Jonah was reluctant to preach forgiveness to these people! When he arrived home after preaching, what would his people think? (“You just allowed Assyria to get off the hook?!”) And yet, God promised to forgive these people if they repented (Jer. 18:7-8).

Themes of Jonah

This book shows how even the most depraved Pagans will respond to the words of a prophet. We see this in other portions of Scripture: Pagans often respond to God’s word as delivered by a prophet. For instance, Nebuchadnezzar took care of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 39) and Daniel (Dan. 1-4).

This book shows that Jonah (Israel) is insensitive to God’s word and will. Here the prophet Jonah serves as a microcosm for the nation of Israel, showing that he doesn’t want to perform Israel’s mission to be a light to the Gentiles. He reverses the promises about God’s character, so that he can commit suicide, rather than following God’s commission! (Jon. 4:2-3). The Abrahamic Covenant is at the heart of this story. Ultimately, God wants to bless all the nations through the election of Israel (Ps. 145:9). It is God’s mercy that is so offensive to Jonah.

Jonah is unique because it is the story of a prophet who doesn’t want to follow God. This is a unique book among the prophets, because it is not a collection of prophetic oracles. Instead, it is a story about a prophet’s reluctance to do God’s will. It touches a different nerve than just the regular prophetic message. But notice that God gets the first and last word in the book.

Teaching rotation

The book can be taught all in one sitting.

Jonah 1 (Jonah RUNS)

Jonah is commissioned to preach judgment against Nineveh in Nineveh. Instead of going to Nineveh, he goes to Tarshish, which is in the complete opposite direction (West versus East). We find out later that Jonah fled because he didn’t want these people to be rescued (4:2). It wasn’t that Jonah fled because he didn’t believe that these people would repent; he fled because he believed that they would repent. Jonah foolishly believed that he could get away from the “presence of the Lord” (1:3). See Ps. 139:7-10. God will bring physical calamity on us, if he steer from his will (1:4). These Pagans are the ones that end up praying (1:14) and sacrificing (1:16) to Yahweh.

Jonah 2 (Jonah PRAYS)

Jonah prays from “Sheol.” Liberals believe that the Hebrews thought that Sheol was a place in the underworld or ground. It is actually a place of death, as described here (2:2). This couldn’t be referring to the ground. After the prayer of thanksgiving, God “commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land” (2:10).

Jonah 3 (Jonah PREACHES)

God speaks to Jonah a “second time” (3:1). When it says that God relented (3:10), it does not mean that God changed. It means that the people changed their relationship with God. God is always wrathful toward sinners, and he is always merciful toward the repentant. He never changes on this. By repenting, the people were brought under God’s mercy. He didn’t change; they changed their standing with him. The language being used is called anthropomorphic language. It is a man-centered way of describing what happened. It would be the same as saying, “The city of Columbus is to the West” if we were east of Columbus. If we were west of Columbus, we would say, “The city of Columbus is to the East.” Columbus didn’t move (or change), we did.

Jonah 4 (Jonah COMPLAINS)

Jonah still hoped that God would destroy the city (4:5). God’s mercy extends to the Pagans, but it even extends to the animals, too! If Jonah had compassion for the plant, then how much more should God have compassion on the people—and even animals—in Nineveh?

[1] Hoffmeier, James Karl. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion, 2008. 105.

[2] Hoffmeier, James Karl. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion, 2008. 105.

[3] Hoffmeier, James Karl. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion, 2008. 105.