In the book of Jonah, the author uses his former self as an object lesson for God’s people. Israelites believed themselves to be better than the Ninevites. Yet the Ninevites repented immediately at the word of the Lord. Their quick response and God’s gracious forgiveness put the apostate Israelites to shame. If Israel were truly superior, then they should repent all the quicker. And if Israel were truly better, then God should be all the quicker to forgive them.
In a masterful stroke of prophetic genius, Jonah the author uses the self-righteous mindset of the ancient Israelites against itself. And by exposing the former idols of his own heart–and those of his fellow Israelites–Jonah calls his readers (both in ancient Israel and in the Church today) to repentance.
A Book Written by a Changed Man
Throughout the book, Jonah is portrayed as rebellious and churlish. However I agree with Tim Keller’s view (outlined in his excellent Counterfeit Gods) that, sometime between the time the end of the events recorded in the book and the actual writing of the book, Jonah had had a change of heart.
So when he wrote the book, Jonah the author was a man who had been chastened and humbled. He was re-committed to the Lord. When we read his book, therefore, we can distinguish between Jonah the character (running from God, angry with God) and Jonah the author (portraying his own former silliness to get readers’ attention and bring about change in their hearts).
A People on the Brink of Judgment
An Israelite nationalist through-and-through, Jonah wanted the best for his people.
Yet he could see the writing on the wall: Israel was both idolatrous and self-righteous. They believed their status as covenant people made them impervious to God’s wrath. At the same time, they smugly disregarded the covenant and turned away from God to idols. They had set up idols in their cities and in their hearts (Ezekiel 14:3). In short, they were just like Jonah had been.
Jonah knew that sin incurred God’s wrath (Jonah 1:2 makes that clear). Israel, steeped in sin in Jonah’s day, was therefore on the verge of being punished by God.
I believe that, when Jonah the author put pen to parchment, he did so with the intent of warning Israel and calling them to their own repentance, just as he himself had repented.
During his adventure on the way to Nineveh, Jonah had experienced both the discipline and the radical mercy of God, and he now wanted Israel to avoid the former and embrace the latter.
A Book Written with a Particular Purpose
Jonah the author uses his former self, Jonah the character, and his journey to the pagan city of Nineveh as an object lesson. Jonah the character is an example of stubborn and godless Israel, in need of repentance. Nineveh, on the other hand, represents the worst of the worst sinners. The ancient Israelites reading Jonah’s book would have clearly seen that.
In the story, Jonah the character (reluctantly) warns the Ninevites of their impending doom, and they immediately repent. The Israelites reading about this in Jonah’s book would have been astonished by this. After all, they believed they were better than the pagan Ninevites!
On the other hand, Jonah the character (a stand-in for sinful Israel) runs from God, resists God, and resents God for his mercy to sinners. By including Jonah the character’s own foolishness in the story, Jonah the author is holding up a mirror to every Israelite reader of his book. It’s as if he’s saying, “Do you see how silly you are, running from God?”
A Worldview Turned Against Itself
Now we come to the heart of my thesis.
Jonah the author is using the worldview of the Israelites against them. The Israelites believed they were better than the Ninevites. We see this worldview reflected plainly in the actions of Jonah the character.
“Fine,” Jonah the author seems to respond. “If we’re so much better than the Ninevites, then we ought to be that much quicker to repent and trust in God. And if we’re really so much better than them (as we claim), God will be all the more ready to forgive us!”
In the story, the Ninevites responded immediately to Jonah’s warning that they would be destroyed. They turned from their evil ways, put on sackcloth, and began fasting. By highlighting this astonishingly quick repentance of this city that was the apex of sin and idolatry, Jonah the author both shames the Israelites (for their stony-hearted refusal to repent) and exhorts them to return to the Lord (“If those wretched Ninevites can figure this out, surely God’s covenant people ought to get it!”).
Do you see how crafty Jonah the author is being here? His readers picked up his book, thinking it was going to be an exciting tale about a rebellious prophet, a big fish, and a sinful city, only to discover that the author is primarily focused not on Nineveh’s repentance, but on their own.
It is like a kind of biblical authorial intrusion. It is as though, while his readers are laughing at Jonah the character’s stubbornness (especially contrasted with Nineveh’s unexpected repentance), Jonah the author turns to his readers, points his finger at us and says Paul Washer-style, “I don’t know why you’re laughing. I’m talking about you.”
Jonah the author is one crafty prophet. His readers never saw it coming.
A Motif Picked Up By Jesus Christ
Something that lends support to my thesis that Jonah the author is using his adventure in Nineveh as an object lesson for unrepentant Israel: Jesus himself does the same thing.
In Matthew 12:41, the Lord uses the Ninevites as an example against his unbelieving audiences. He says,
“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching; and look–something greater than Jonah is here.”
In other words, if the Ninevites were so quick to respond to Jonah, how much more should Jesus’ Jewish audiences have responded to Jesus!
And it follows that, if they should have responded with repentance, how much more should Christians today respond in repentance when confronted with our own sin!
A Message for All Generations
On the surface, this book is about the repentance of a single generation of Ninevites. Below the surface, however, it’s a powerful parable for all generations about the need for God’s people to get down off their high horses and repent of their sin. God is both rightfully wrathful over our sin *and* unbelievably quick to forgive sinners when they repent.
Jonah’s message is the message of that “better Jonah,” Jesus Christ, who provided the ultimate means for forgiveness when he died on the cross for God’s people. It has been said that, for followers of Christ, “All of life is repentance.”
The object lesson of Jonah and the Ninevites was a strong call to Israel to turn from their idols and repent. History and Scripture show us that they did not get the message. Shortly after Jonah’s time in Nineveh, a strengthened Assyria invaded Israel and destroyed it.
Nineveh, Jonah and Israel all had their idols. And we have ours. Perhaps ours are the same as theirs. Probably, ours are distinct. However, idols are idols are idols, and our devotion to them stunts our spiritual growth and forfeits the blessings God’s people are supposed to be enjoying in relationship with him (Jonah 2:8).
The entire book of Jonah screams to God’s people: REPENT! Followers of Jesus today must hear the call of this book.
Jonah the character called pagan Nineveh to repent. Jonah the author was calling apostate Israel to repent. Jesus the Messiah called the Jewish people of his day to repent. And, bringing the story of Jonah to life as God’s people read it, the Holy Spirit is calling us to repent today.