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These expository Bible studies on the Book of Jonah cover one of the best known stories in the Bible.
Who hasn't heard of the man who was swallowed by a whale? Well, more on the whale later. But even unchurched people have heard the story.
As you may know, after the reign of Solomon, the nation of Israel divided into two. The southern kingdom was known as Judah, and northern kingdom was known as Israel. The prophet Jonah was a northerner and prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II in the 8th century BC. Mention is made of him in 2 Kings 14:25.
At this time, although Israel was prospering under Jeroboam's reign, it had been forced to pay tribute to Assyria - a brutal and oppressive empire - since the previous century. For this reason, the Assyrians were the enemies of Jonah and his people.
Jonah's mission was pure and simple: Go to Nineveh, one of Assyria's principal cities and a royal residence, and preach the message God would give him. Simple it may have been, but the reluctant prophet had other ideas. Instead of going to Nineveh, hundreds of kilometres to the north-east, he decided he would try and outsmart God and go to the western Mediterranean. It's never a good idea to try to outsmart God, and Jonah's little trick failed completely.
The reason Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh is plainly stated in the text. He knew God to be "gracious and merciful" (Jonah 4:2) and therefore may well spare the Assyrians if they demonstrated genuine repentance. That was the last thing Jonah wanted. He wanted his enemies to suffer.
Well, long story short, there's no evidence to say that Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale. The text says "a great fish" and although it could be a whale, it isn't necessarily so. It could also have been a type of fish that is now extinct. Whatever happened, it was a miraculous event, so attempts to relate this event to modern day parallels are irrelevant, especially given that if you dig a little deeper on some of these stories, they are not actually reliable or provable.
Questions have been asked as to why it was that a totally pagan city like Nineveh was so responsive to the message of a foreign prophet. In answer to this, it has been pointed out that the people of that time were very susceptible to natural events that they believed to be omens. That included occurrences such as a severe flood, a total solar eclipse, or a famine, all of which happened around that time.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to know the exact date of Jonah's preaching, but since events such as these had the effect of destabilising a regime and making the king's position precarious, it might easily have predisposed the Ninevites towards accepting the message of God's judgment. However, given the fact that about 3,000 people repented on the Day of Pentecost under Peter's preaching (see Acts 2:41), and the power of many modern day revivals, it could just as easily have been the result of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The identity of the plant in Jonah 4:6-10 is unknown, but it seems likely to those who have researched the subject that it might have been a castor-oil plant. This plant has large leaves and withers easily when slightly damaged.
There is no doubt that, from the start, Jonah's attitude was a long way from perfect. However, there are other factors that may have influenced him later in the story. Both are mentioned in 4:8.
The first is the east wind. It is believed that this may have been a wind called the scirocco, a very hot wind that has been shown to reduce serotonin levels causing depression. On top of that, we are told that the sun "beat on Jonah's head." This may well have compounded the prophet's problems by causing sunstroke
So what is the point of this interesting little book? Perhaps there are a number of lessons for us. First is God's sovereign right to show mercy to whomever he will. The Assyrians may well have been a savage nation as well as Israel's enemy, but God is never looking for opportunities to bring judgment. His compassionate nature means that He is seeking reasons for mercy. And always that mercy is given to the undeserving.
Another lesson is that of forgiving our enemies. The book of Jonah shows clearly the utter hypocrisy of expecting and enjoying God's unmerited favour (grace) on the one hand, while on the other, hoping that our enemies will be duly punished. Those who hope to receive God's incredible mercy should themselves be prepared to extend mercy and forgiveness to others.
Third, it cannot be overlooked that God desires wholehearted obedience. Which is something that Jonah failed in abysmally. His first response to God's mission is to run away. Having then been outmanoeuvred by God, he goes on his mission, but with such bad grace that God has to give him an object lesson in priorities.
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