Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice . . . you shall be my treasured possession. (Exodus 19:5)
To know Jonah is to love him," writes Lloyd John Ogilvie. "And the reason we love him is because he is so much like us in our response to God's guidance."1 The man Jonah is indeed like us in a number of ways. Learning to identify with him is our key to the meaning of his story—and our big mistake if we fail to do so. As Ogilvie suggests, we pick up a great deal from this book about God's guidance and about discovering his will. We learn about the danger we experience when we run from God's will, the deliverance we experience when we submit to God's will, the deliverance others experience when we fulfill God's will, and the depression we experience when we question God's will.
But the book of Jonah is about much more than discovering the will of God for us as individuals, as we'll see while getting to know this surprising story more intimately.
A Successful Prophet's Résumé
If this guy Jonah is like you and me, it isn't so obvious as we begin his story:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai (1:1)
Hearing or reading those opening words, the initial audience for the book of Jonah would have recognized immediately the biblical ring to them, because the same phrasing is so commonly attached to names like Samuel and Elijah. Like those men, but unlike you and me, Jonah is a prophet of the Lord God.
What else do we know about this prophet? Christians who feel well acquainted with Jonah's story often are surprised to learn that his background is mentioned earlier in the Bible, in the book of 2 Kings. There we read that Jonah had experienced a rare treat for a Hebrew prophet: he foretold something good for the nation of Israel, then saw it quickly happen.
It was during the days of Israel's King Jeroboam II, who reigned over the northern kingdom of Israel in the first half of the eighth century BC. This king beefed up a long section of Israel's northern border, strengthening its defense against any potential Assyrian invaders. King Jeroboam did this not just to implement his own military strategy, but, by the gracious prompting of God, he did it "according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher" (2 Kings 14:25).
Restoring this border was more than a mere maintenance measure. It was a critically urgent accomplishment in a moment of profound national need, as we quickly sense from the next verses: "For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter . . . and there was none to help Israel." God made it clear that he would not "blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam" (14:26-27).
So God truly cared for Israel, enough to act immediately—through its king—to fortify its national defenses. And Jonah had been given the privilege of conveying this good news to his countrymen. Here was a deliberate act of the Lord's deliverance; by this "he saved them."
Jonah must have won lasting fame after uttering this prophecy and quickly seeing it come to fruition through King Jeroboam's capable military leadership. The prophet had spoken, and what he'd spoken came to pass—the ultimate professional test for any prophet.
All this must only have intensified Jonah's sense of national and spiritual pride as a son of Israel. If God relied on popular tastes and consumer demand in crafting the books in his Scriptures, he might well have pulled together an inspiring tale about Jonah the hero from this particular setting and time period instead of giving us the story we have from later on. (Jonah might have liked it better that way too!)
It's also worth noting in this 2 Kings passage that Jonah "was from Gath-hepher," a town in Galilee in the heart of the northern kingdom, just three miles from where another Galilean, the carpenter Jesus, would grow up in Nazareth many years later.
Five centuries ago, the Renaissance painter Raphael created a brown-wash-on-black-chalk drawing of Jonah that seems to capture well how the prophet might have looked at this stage in his career.2 In typical Raphael style, Jonah looks gracefully heroic. The sturdy hand of his downward-stretched left arm grips the top of a stone tablet resting on the thigh of his thrust-forward leg. Against his broad chest, his right hand grips the folds of his flowing mantle, which drapes his muscular shoulders.
Jonah's face—with a short beard, fine nose, full cheeks, and a mature, receding hairline—is turned over his left shoulder. His eyes gaze behind him and upward, as if at that very moment he's hearing from heaven "the word of the Lord" that "came to Jonah the son of Amittai."
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." (1:1-2)
Many Old Testament prophets were given a word to speak "against" the surrounding powers and empires of those centuries. But to actually be sent to one of them to give God's judgment-message by personal delivery—that just wasn't part of a prophet's normal job description.
Jonah's assigned destination could not have been more imposing. He knows that the city of Nineveh is indeed "great"; the Hebrew word here is gadol, and it's a major theme-word we'll see again and again in key descriptions in Jonah. Nineveh—large, populous, well fortified—is the leading city in Assyria, the greatest world power of that day and the most disturbing long-term threat to Israel's security and survival.
Moreover, Nineveh is the reigning "sin city." Perhaps Jonah already knows that, but more important is the reminder that God himself is very personally aware of it: "Their evil," he says, "has come up before me."
That's the place to which Jonah is to arise and go and to "cry against it." The assignment probably takes his breath away. Jonah may already be a homeland hero due to his prophetic success toward building Israel's defenses, but if that means anything at all in proud, idolatrous Nineveh, it can only be a strike against him.
1 Lloyd John Ogilvie, God's Best for My Life (Eugene, OR: Harvest, 1981), daily reading for November 13.
2 Raphael's combined drawing of the prophets Hosea and Jonah (c. 1510) is in the Armand Hammer collection of master drawings, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Surprised by Grace is a storied presentation of the gospel from the book of Jonah. It's a story of sin and grace, of desperation and deliverance. It reveals that while we are great sinners, God is a great Savior. While our sin reaches far, his grace reaches farther. This story shows that God is in the business of relentlessly pursuing rebels—a label that ultimately applies to us all. He comes after us not to angrily strip away our freedom, but to affectionately strip away our slavery so we might become truly free.