There is no reason to doubt that Jonah is the author of the book, although this is routinely challenged in circles of higher criticism. The candor of the book harmonizes with what we know about the person of Jonah. Little is known of Jonah outside this book. 2 Kings 14:25 mentions Jonah’s father Ammitai in the days of Jeroboam II. Neither is spoken of elsewhere in the Old Testament, which suggests this is the same Jonah. From this verse we may assume that Jonah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom, his birthplace was in Gath-hepher, not far from Nazareth, and he exercised his prophetic office before or during the early reign of Jeroboam II. He was a rough contemporary of Hosea and Amos.
All the above assumes that this book is not legend, but the actual history of the man named Jonah. The weight of much modern scholarship sees this book as an allegory, legend, or fable. For some of us that is overcome by the long reference to the book by the Lord Jesus (Matt. 12:39-40) in which he compares the days of Jonah and his own days. This will only satisfy those who have such a view of Scripture. The student of the Bible can find the widest discussion of the historicity or allegorical character of the book. Much of that is based on an anti-supernatural bias that typifies such commentaries.
The object of the book is the nature of racial and religious prejudice, the nature of repentance, and the gracious width of the mercy of God. Beyond that, the narrative story itself is fraught with implications that go beyond mere propositions or the reduction of the book in a systematic way. Just as the parables of Jesus operate as stories of the whole, Jonah also addresses us in subliminal ways that cannot be reduced to propositions or epigrams, or systematized. Reading Jonah is an experience that shapes the life of those who read it in ways that only a narrative can do. To reduce it to a series of propositions trivializes the book.
Jonah lends itself to a four-part series. There are four major movements in the book and that almost conforms to the four chapters.
Chapter 1 ends with the dramatic throwing overboard of the prophet, hence the title. It is good in this sermon to emphasize the downward movement of the story. Jonah goes down to Joppa, down to the ship, down to the bottom of the ship, down to the bottom of the big fish, and literally to the bottom of the bottom of the sea.
Chapter 2 brings desirable relief from this downward movement. As Jonah sinks down to the bottom his prayers go up to God. Ultimately Jonah goes up to the dry land somewhere in the vicinity of Nineveh.
Chapter 3 in a sense begins the book again when the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time. The brevity of his five word sermon, the enormity of the city, and the totality of repentance by king, people, and even sack-cloth wearing animals frames this chapter.
Chapter 4 resolves the tension embedded in the book throughout to this point. Why did Jonah go as far away from Nineveh as he could get? The answer: Jonah knew the nature of God as a gracious, compassionate, loving God who does not wish to send calamity (4:2). That is, Jonah did not wish for God to be as good to pagan Ninevites as God had been to Jonah himself. The story of the gourd, the worm, and the wind shows Jonah’s miniature world of self-regard and virtual signaling.
The book ends with no resolution. You might consider a creative fifth sermon on Jonah 5. What are the possible outcomes of this deliberately unfinished book and Jonah’s inconclusive life?
Big Idea for the Whole Series: God can use everything at his disposal to demonstrate the wideness of his mercy in the face of narrow judgmental prejudice.
Text: Jonah 1:1-16
Title: Man Overboard
Exegetical Idea: Jonah ran away from the calling of God, but God used his power to arrest Jonah and convince unbelievers that Jonah’s God is the living God.
Big Idea: God can use everything to reverse our course and to center us in his will.
Text: Jonah 1:17-2:10
Title: Underwater Praying
Exegetical Idea: God put Jonah in a place where he cried out to God and God answered using the big fish as both judgment and rescue.
Big Idea: Through prayer God can take the worst thing that happens to us and turn it into the best thing.
Text: Jonah 3:1-10
Title: A Five Word Sermon that Saved a City
Exegetical Idea: God used Jonah’s brief messages to bring repentance to the most unlikely of people, the Ninevites.
Big Idea: God can use the briefest of messages to convert the worst of his enemies.
Text: Jonah 4:1-11
Title: A Mad Prophet, a Hot Wind, and a Hungry Worm
Exegetical Idea: God used a hot wind and a hungry worm to confront Jonah’s ungodly prejudices and remind him that having received grace he should offer grace.
Big Idea: If we have experienced grace, do not disgrace grace by refusing to give grace.
Jonah presents the vivid image of a man who had experienced the grace of being one of God’s chosen people but who refused to offer the message of that grace to those he considered beyond grace. God used everything at his disposal to cause Jonah to retrace his steps, offer the message of repentance to those who did not deserve it, and to rejoice in the opportunity. Jonah, however, does not rejoice and the book is left open-ended. The book is ripe with applications.
Hurt People Hurt Others (Jonah 1:7-10)
You may run from God’s desire to use you to offer grace to those who do not deserve and who have hurt you. The pews are filled with spouses, businesses persons, parents, children, and church members who have been hurt by marriage, business partnerships, family relationships, and church fights. The radical call of Jonah to move toward those we need to forgive can produce the reverse action if we are not ready to repent of our hostility.
You Contradict the Christian Gospel when You Refuse to show Grace (Jonah 1:5)
A good pagan can make a bad Christian look worse. Jonah became a sailing and sleeping impossibility. While the pagan on the deck were calling out to their gods, the prophet of the living God was asleep. The captain had to wake him up to get to the prayer meeting of the pagans. When you refuse to show grace in family, work, community, school, and church you can look worse than the pure pagans in your neighborhood who are kindly and helpful.
Your Life Is Either Going Down or Up Jonah 1:1-17)
Be careful that the trajectory of your life is not headed down. Jonah went down to Joppa, down to the bottom of the boat, and ultimately down to the bottom of the sea. Be careful the trajectory of your life. Up or down?
God can Use the Worst Things that Happen to You to Lead You to Prayer, and that can Have the Best Outcome (Jonah 2)
Do you let God use the hard circumstances of your life to harden you or turn you to prayer?
Pray, Especially when it Seems Hard to Pray (Jonah 2:10)
There is no place too deep, far, or dangerous that you cannot pray your way out. You can pray during the worst day of your life and God can make it the best day of your life.
Keep the Vows You Make to God (Jonah 2:9)
Some people will promise God anything to get out of bind. Jonah made promises to give and to live in a way that would please God. Have you kept the promises you made to God in bad days now that you are in better days?
God can Use You Exactly Where You Are, at the very Bottom of the Bottom or Where He Meant You to Be in the First Place (Jonah 2:10-3:1)
Tell Others what God has Told You (Jonah 2:3)
You can speak a few words where God sends you that can have electrifying results.
Show Your Repentance (Jonah 3:7-10)
Repentance demonstrates itself not only in inward emotion but in clear outer behavior that you have repented.
Show Mercy (Jonah 4:2)
Let God change your mind toward your enemies from judgment to mercy. You have received mercy. Let God be as merciful to others as he is to you.
When You Have Shown Some Mercy, Show More (Jonah 4)
Show mercy and help mercy find those who do not deserve it considering the character of God and his mercy to you.
God Is Using all the Rubbish in Your Life to Get You Where He Wants You (Jonah 4:5-7)
God can use waves, winds, and worms—anything in your lived experience—to change your merciless attitude. Do you react to God’s activities in your life in a way that leads to mercy?
Let Go of Prejudice or it will not Let Go of You (Jonah 4:9)
A godless response to the mercy of God is to hope God still judges your enemies. Do you let go of anger and prejudice or embrace it?
Jonah reflects the tensions in late Judaism between the rigid, virtue signaling of those Jews who considered themselves the only chosen people of God to the exclusion of all others and the merciful desire of God to bless the whole world through his chosen people. This viewpoint ultimately led to the Pharisees in the New Testament. It avoided the clear statement of God’s universal purpose for his chosen people spoken to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). The Book of Ruth shows a similar universal desire on God’s part to bless all people. Boaz the descendant of Abraham marries a woman from the pesky and hated Moabites and takes her into God’s family. Jonah foreshadows the coming Christ who, although a Jew, gave himself for the whole world.
Jonah also influenced early Christian art. The major motif on the earliest Christian stone sarcophagi looks like a modern comic book. Carved into stone on the top row of frames are Jonah being swallowed by the fish, Jonah in the fish, and Jonah coming out of the fish. Just beneath those three frames on the Christian burial chambers are pictures of Jesus being laid in the tomb, Jesus in the tomb, and Jesus coming out of the tomb. These carvings preceded the presence of the Cross on Christian sarcophagi. The earliest Christians got the message.
Jonah contains a theology of the providence of God’s sovereignty. God can send as his ambassador the storm, the wind, the gourd, and the worm to get his will done in the life of Jonah. There is an underlying theme in the book pointing to the sovereignty of God in the circumstances of our lives. He can take the worst of things (Jonah 2) and turn them into the best of things (Jonah 3), nowhere seen more clearly than at the Cross.
Jonah presents a radical theology of repentance. The pagan Assyrians repented upon hearing a message of five words in Hebrew and Akkadian. They knew little or nothing of the God of the Hebrews or his ways. Yet the God was looking for the slightest evidence of faith on their part to save the nation. There is an ironic contrast between the Assyrian willingness to repent and Jonah’s unwillingness.
There is an equally revolutionary view of the mercy of God. Jonah’s basic problem is not revealed until Jonah 4:2, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah had a personal problem with the grace of God to others while he enjoyed it himself. He is the very image of the proud in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14). Jonah and the Pharisees excel in virtue signaling while dissing the other.
My Encounter with Jonah
I have taught and preached Jonah in large wealthy churches and in small, marginalized churches. I have seen the universal appeal of the story in homogeneous majority culture churches for one reason and in marginalized, disempowered churches another reason. The story speaks judgment to those who consider themselves “better than” the “other” who does not deserve the grace of God. On the other hand, the “other” who has been dismissed, considered unworthy, discounted, and condemned can take courage from the same book that God is really a God of outrageous grace.
The book speaks to me before it speaks to others. I let the text interpret me before I interpret the text. Jonah is a good book to become the subject speaking while the preacher is the object listening. I have had to ask myself what I am running away from, how is God using the reversals in my life to make me retrace my steps, and how God has used the worst things in my life to be the best things that ever happened to me. I must sit down on the hill with Jonah and ask if I want God to be as good as he really is to those who I do not consider worthy of it.
James Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).
T.T Perowne, Jonah in The Cambridge Bible for Schools (London: Cambridge Warehouse, 1878).
Jack M. Sasson, Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
 T.T. Perowne, Jonah in The Cambridge Bible for Schools (London: Cambridge Warehouse, 1878) is typical of older scholars who take the book as literal history. As late as 1985 T.D. Alexander, “Jonah and Genre” TyndaleBulletin 36, 1985: 35-59 argues for the historicity of the book. R.B. Salters, Jonah and Lamentations in Old Testament Guides Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1994 is an example of a popular study guide that dismisses all possibility the book is historical.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.