Jonah is confronted on the boat he uses to flee Nineveh.

What is in Jonah?
Jonah is the thirty-second book of the Bible and one of the Old Testament prophetic books. Jonah is only four chapters long, and is unique among prophetical books for focusing on the prophet and his story more than the prophet’s message (in this case, the message Jonah has for Nineveh). The story of Jonah and the whale is a fairly common children’s story, yet that makes up only a small portion of the book. In the book, the Lord calls Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and call them to repent. In 2 Kings 19:36-37, we see King Sennacherib of Assyria make Nineveh his home, where previously he had attempted to lay siege to Jerusalem. There he was assassinated by his sons, which should be a small glimpse into why God decided to judge Nineveh. Jonah, being one of the most rebellious prophets in the Bible, does not want to go and offer mercy to Nineveh. He travels instead to Tarshish, where he hopes he will be able to escape God (already, this sounds futile!). God causes the seas to become stormy. The ship’s crew figures out that Jonah is the cause, and Jonah tells them that casting him overboard would make the sea calm down. They do this, and then Jonah is eaten by a sea creature (not necessarily a whale, although the size of a whale makes it a likelier choice). Inside the creature, Jonah cries to God, and God makes the creature spit Jonah out.

Once again, Jonah is charged with going to Nineveh, and this time Jonah accepts. He goes and warns Nineveh that there is forty days until it shall be overthrown. Nineveh believes, repents, fasts, and is ultimately saved. God relents, and no disaster befalls the city. Oddly enough, Jonah is unhappy about this. In his eyes, the evil Nineveh did not deserve mercy. The Lord simply responds by first questioning Jonah about whether his anger helps him, and then by giving Jonah a small lesson. While Jonah is resting outside the city, God provides him with a plant for shade. The next day, God made the plant wither, leaving Jonah to suffer under the beating sun. God then asks Jonah about his anger, and Jonah responds that he is angry enough to want to die. Finally, God responds that if he felt that strongly about preserving the fleeting lifespan of a plant, something that Jonah had no part in creating, then shouldn’t God have an infinitely larger stake in a city of 120,000 people (and their animals) that He created? The takeaway from that question is that God’s mercy extends to every one of His created beings.

Who wrote it?
The author of Jonah is unnamed in the text, but there’s a high likelihood that Jonah had a role in either the writing or telling of the story.

When does it take place?
2 Kings 14:25 mentions Jonah prophesying to Jereboam II. Jereboam II’s reign was in the early 8th century B.C., so the events of the book happened sometime in or possibly around that period.

When was it written?
See above for info on the earliest date. Unfortunately, there’s a wide gap between the earliest date and the latest date. Sirach 49:10, an apocryphal book (a book not commonly accepted in the Bible and therefore not recognized as a divinely inspired work, but still may contain religious teachings and traditions of value) from the 2nd century B.C., mentions the Twelve Prophets, a grouping of prophetical books in the Bible today that includes Jonah. This means the book would have had to be written by this date.

Who is in Jonah?
There is the prophet Jonah, and the recipient of his prophesying is Nineveh, a village of pagan worshippers and the capital of Assyria.

How does Jonah apply to me today?
The book of Jonah is short and sweet. It speaks to the mercy of God and our willingness (or perhaps lack thereof) to accept that even people who have done so much evil still have the chance to repent, at least for a time. Looking ahead to the New Testament, Jesus fulfills this mercy perfectly by extending His hand and offering each and every person salvation from our sins, no matter what they may have done in the past. As Christians, we are called to be in Jonah’s position and deliver the news of free salvation far and wide.


Recommended resources:

As for all posts in this series, a book introduction in a good study Bible will provide more information than listed here. The ESV Study Bible is one recommendation.
The Bible Project video on Jonah


Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0