Jonah is well-known and loved for the amazing and ironic events it recounts. Although Jonah is the main character, the book’s main purpose is not to teach us about him but to teach us about God. Through Jonah’s experience, God, the all-powerful Creator, reveals that though he is a God who will pour out his wrath on the wicked, he is also one who eagerly pours out his mercy on those who repent—including those we would too quickly deem to be beyond mercy.
Jonah was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel during the politically prosperous but spiritually dark reign of Jeroboam II (793–753 BC). Despite Jeroboam’s spiritual failures (see 2 Kgs 14:23–24), God allowed him to continue the expansion of territory begun under his father, King Jehoash. This expansion, predicted by God through Jonah (2 Kgs 14:25, 28), eventually brought Israel’s territory back to approximately what it had been in the glory days of David and Solomon (see 1 Kgs 8:65). When Jonah prophesied, nationalistic zeal was running high.
The book of Jonah records the prophet’s visit to Nineveh, a key city in the Assyrian empire. Assyria’s power had swelled in previous decades. During that time, Shalmaneser III of Assyria (858–824 BC) extended the influence of the empire well into Palestine. Assyrian annals from that period record Shalmaneser confronting the Israelite king Ahab (1 Kgs 17–22), among others, at the famous battle of Qarqar (853 BC). But during the reigns of Jehoash (798–782 BC) and Jeroboam II (793–753 BC) in Israel, Assyria’s dominance in the region waned because of failed leadership and continued resistance on the frontiers. Jonah preached in Nineveh when the Assyrian empire was at this low point, probably around 755 BC.
Setting of Jonah, about 755 BC. When God called Jonah to prophesy judgment in NINEVEH, ASSYRIAN power was at a low point, but the Assyrians had already proven to be brutal enemies. When God’s call came, Jonah fled the other direction—he took a ship from JOPPA toward TARSHISH, which was probably located at the far end of the MEDITERRANEAN SEA. Jonah later obeyed God’s call and preached to the people of NINEVEH. Assyria thus incurred no judgment in the time of Jonah.
Some years following Jonah’s visit to Nineveh, Assyria began reasserting itself throughout the Near East during the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (744–727 BC). In 722 BC, a few decades after Jonah, Assyria sacked Samaria and brought the northern kingdom of Israel to an end. A century later, the prophet Nahum of Judah announced the imminent destruction of Nineveh and the Assyrian empire for its pervasive wickedness. Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians in 612 BC. The repentance brought about through Jonah’s preaching evidently took no lasting root.
The book of Jonah falls naturally into two parts. Chapters 1–2 recount Jonah’s initial rejection of the Lord’s commission to warn Nineveh of the judgment it had incurred because of its wickedness. Instead of heading for Nineveh, Jonah set out by ship in the opposite direction (1:3). The Lord sent a raging storm to chasten the prophet. After a frantic attempt by the pagan sailors to appease whatever god had been offended, Jonah was “discovered” and was cast overboard. God showed his power by calming the storm, and in a twist of irony, the pagan sailors worshiped God while his prophet presumably plunged to a shameful death. But God had other plans and showed his power to save Jonah. Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish,” within which he apparently repented (ch 2). After three days and nights, the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land.
In chs 3–4, God renews his commission of the prophet to preach to Nineveh. This time Jonah obeys, leading to yet another irony. Nineveh repented en masse upon hearing Jonah’s warnings (ch 3), and God refrained from executing the judgment that Jonah had warned was coming (3:10). Jonah, not able to accept God’s outpouring of mercy toward Israel’s pagan enemies, moved from selfish anger to suicidal despair (ch 4). God once more deployed his power over nature to chasten Jonah, this time through the rapid growth and demise of a plant that shaded the pouting prophet from the sun. The book ends rather abruptly, leaving Jonah and the reader pondering God’s final question to the prophet: Should God (and his people) not desire sinners to receive God’s mercy rather than his wrath?
New Living Translation Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), Jon.