Jonah, Theology of

Jonah, Theology of

Jonah is a book that probes the perplexing question of why God's mercy is sometimesdispensed to people who do not seem to deserve it. Nationalities seem to be subdued. Jonahis a Hebrew, not an Israelite ( 1:9 ). He ignores aseries of questions seeking to ascertain his nationality ( 1:8-9 ). The racialorigin of the sailors is not mentioned. Jonah's audience is called "the men ofNineveh, " not "Assyrians." There is no direct reference in the book toIsrael's election or to their special salvation history.

Neither is there any mention of the historical sins of the Assyrian military machinethat were so well known in the ancient Near East. The king of Nineveh is nameless, as isthe captain of the ship. Identities or nationalities are not important. Rather, the stressis on the relationship of people to God. The Book of Jonah is not a story about Jew andGentile but about how God relates to total repentance by those who are least expected toexhibit it.

God. God is in total control of the forces of nature but is not part of them.The sea is not a person but a part of creation. Yahweh can make it rage or be still ( Jonah 1:4 Jonah 1:13 Jonah 1:15 ).He can send the wind and cause a storm ( 1:4 ). He can removethe clouds and make the sun bear down with all its force ( 4:8 ). He can use thefierce desert wind to carry out his plan ( 4:8 ).

He can appoint huge denizens of the deep ( 2:1 ) or commission atiny worm ( 4:7 )to do his will. If he wishes, he can make a special plant come up from the earth tofulfill his purpose ( 4:6 ).He can also control people—even those who have not previously known him. In 1:15 thesailors throw Jonah into the ocean, but in 2:4 the action is attributed to Yahweh. He isthe God of heaven but also Creator of the sea and dry land ( 1:9 ).

The corollary of the doctrine of creation is that the Creator's prime desire is topreserve life and not to take it. He has pity on the teeming masses of people and animalswho may be in danger of destruction because he is both their Creator and Sustainer ( 4:10-11 ).

There is no escaping this sovereign Creator. One cannot even go out on the sea to thefarthest reaches of the earth where the Word of God has never been spoken ( 1:4 ; cf. Isa 66:19 ). Jonahcannot even hide in the lowest deck of the ship ( 1:5 ). Here thecaptain meets Jonah and unknowingly repeats some of the wording of Jonah's originalcommission ("Rise, call" Jonah 1:2 Jonah 1:6 ).

The sovereign Lord even controls the casting of the lots so that they identify Jonah asthe source of the calamity ( 1:7-10 ). Thesailors know that God is sovereign and that he does whatever he wants ( 1:14 ). He cannot beresisted even by the most stubborn individuals. His will cannot be countered byprofessional expertise or by the most intense will power ( Jonah 1:5 Jonah 1:13 ). Hecannot be manipulated into action by incantation or ritual.

God is "gracious and compassionate, … slow to anger and abounding in love, aGod who relents from sending calamity" ( 4:2 ). He is notwilling that any should perish but that all should come to salvation. In Nineveh God sawtheir deeds not their nationality ( 4:10 ).

Humankind. All people are first and foremost the creatures of God. Israel has nocorner on piety. Gentiles in life-threatening situations somehow instinctively act withthe same fervent piety as the greatest of the Old Testament saints. When they experiencesalvation, they make vows and thank offerings. When faced with death, they may evenoutstrip any form of piety ever recorded. When they believe in God, the same vocabulary isused of them that is employed to describe the faith of the patriarch Abraham ( 3:5 ; cf. Gen 15:6 ). Themessage of the book is that God's choice transcends nationality or race. His people may befound in the least likely of places ( 3:4-5 ).

Religious people want to usurp God's sacred prerogative to choose those who are his.Jonah believes that those who worship idols automatically forfeit saving grace ( 2:9-10 ). Hebelieves that because he performs certain rituals he is therefore entitled to it. He is ofcourse unaware that the sailors, apparently under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, havealso offered sacrifices and made vows ( 1:16 ).

It seems to be human nature to attempt to achieve salvation by works. Sailors pray butalso throw out cargo, cast lots, row, and interrogate ( 1:5-13 ). But inthe end they learn that God is sovereign and people must be saved by simple submission tohis will ( 1:15 ).

Ethics. The Gentiles in the Book of Jonah are not reproved in any way for theiridolatry. The sin is identified as evil conduct and violence in their hands ( 3:8 ). According toIsaiah 59:6-8 this might include the shedding of innocent blood and various types ofinjustice. Whatever it would include the Ninevites already know what it is, and what theyare to do about it. They are given no instruction by the prophet about piety.

The sanctity of life is a central theme of the book. Even though the sailors know theymust throw Jonah overboard, they are afraid of shedding innocent blood ( 1:14 ). In otherlot-casting scenes that identify a person allegedly threatening the life of the community,the judge after ascertaining what was done seeks to pass the death sentence forthwith. Butin Jonah one sees these "judges" doing everything they possibly can to avoidcarrying out the death penalty. In the Book of Jonah not only is the taking of life a lastresort, but every possible step must be taken to preserve life.

Jonah's anger and displeasure at the sparing of the great city ( 4:1-2 ) aredescribed with the same vocabulary used to portray Cain's murderous wrath ( Ge 4:5-6 ). LikeCain Jonah is questioned about his attitude ( Jonah 4:3 Jonah 4:9 ; Gen 4:6 ). Like CainJonah leaves the presence of God ( 1:3 ; Gen 4:16 ). They bothgo to the east and build something ( 4:5 ; Gen 4:16-17 ).Jonah is extremely happy as he watches to see what will happen in Nineveh ( 4:6 ). In using thelanguage and style in which Cain is pictured the author clearly labels Jonah's callousattitude about human life as murderous.

Salvation. Salvation is Yahweh's exclusive possession ( 2:10 ). God issovereign and can have mercy on whomsoever he chooses ( Exod 33:19 ; Rom 9:15 ). Otherprophets were confronted with death for deviating from details of their calling ( Num 22:33 ; 1 Kings 13:24 ).Jonah refuses the entire commission, afterwards rebukes God ( 1:3 ; 4:2-3 ), and almostdares God to kill him. Yet he escapes unscathed at the end of the book.

God seems ever willing to accept sincere repentance even if it comes from people whohave had a death pronouncement spoken over them ( 3:4-10 ). Thus thebook might be thought of as a midrash on Jeremiah 18:7-10. These verses lay down thegeneral rule that any nation under the ban that repents will find life. The Book of Jonahis a specific, concrete example of that ruling.

At the beginning of the book Jonah appears as the opposite. Here we have an accreditedprophet who has been the servant of the Lord. He brings himself to the gates of death byhis disobedience. His defection shows how easy it is to become alienated from God. In 1:3five short actions follow each other in rapid sequence. Everything seems to go likeclockwork to get the prophet started toward the city of Tarsus.

While life still remains, it is never too late to pray for salvation. As Jonah is atthe point of losing consciousness, he remembers, and his prayer leads to his deliverance ( Jonah 2:1 Jonah 2:6 Jonah 2:8 ).Jonah and the Ninevites appear as paradigms illustrating the least likely candidates forsalvation.

One who is truly penitent must, like the king of Nineveh, remove all symbols ofpersonal sovereignty and abdicate the throne to acknowledge the total lordship of God ( 3:6 ). Interestingly,salvation by faith is not emphasized. In 3:10 God sees the deeds of the Ninevites that arean outgrowth of their belief in God ( 3:5 ).

Paul Ferguson

See also Prophet,Prophetess, Prophecy

Bibliography. L. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah; J.Bewer, Jonah; E. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible; T. Fretheim, TheMessage of Jonah; A. Lacocque and P. Lacocque, The Jonah Complex; J. Magonet, Formand Meaning; D. Stuart, Hosea-Jonah; H. W. Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Jonah, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.