Jonah is a unique book in many ways. It is the only recorded account of God sending a Jewish prophet to preach to a foreign country. Jonah is the only prophetic book that is chiefly about the prophet instead of the prophet’s message. Jonah is the only Minor Prophet in narrative form. Jonah is the only Minor Prophet mentioned by Jesus and the only Old Testament character that Jesus likens to Himself (cf. Matt 12:39-41; Luke 11:29-31). Finally, and most amazingly, Jonah is the only preacher who hoped he wouldn’t succeed!
We know little of the prophet except for the book bearing his name and one other reference (2 Kings 14:23-25) in the reign of Jeroboam II, who ruled Israel from 793-753 B.C. Since Assyria is the target audience of Jonah’s mission, it is assumed that Assyria must have been in turmoil to so readily repent due to Jonah’s preaching. Had Assyria been at the height of power, it is assumed that her arrogance would have precluded her from responding favorably to God’s message. A period of such Assyrian weakness matching Jeroboam II’s reign would date the book around 760 B.C. But precisely dating the book is only “educated guessing.”
While liberal scholars see the story of Jonah as “allegory” or “parabolic” teaching, there is nothing in the narrative to suggest it is to be understood figuratively. It appears the author intended his book as an historical record of actual events. Further, the Jews never hesitated to include Jonah in the canon of Old Testament Scripture. Why would they willingly accept a book that emphasized mercy to an inveterate enemy of both Israel and Judah, unless it was considered historically accurate? Even more to the point, Jesus likened Jonah’s “three days and three nights” in the belly of the great fish as being true of the Son of Man being “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). If Jonah’s incident was “fictional,” then, pray tell, why Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not equally “fictional”? Jesus also stated that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah (Matt 12:41). If the citizens of Nineveh never repented because of Jonah’s preaching, Jesus’ statements regarding them are “untrue” and His reproach to His contemporaries based on Jonah’s story quite unfounded!
The account of the great fish swallowing Jonah alive, holding him within its gut for three days, and disgorging him onto land while not killing him in the process has led countless liberal scholars to explain it away by any means possible! Most of these scholars have adopted the allegorical/parabolic approach to the book. Others explain it by natural-istic means, citing references throughout history to men swallowed alive by whales and sharks and disgorged virtually unharmed. Jack P. Lewis has rightly stated: “The continuous debate over whether there are fish in the Mediterranean that could swallow a man is actually beside the point since it is said that the Lord prepared the fish” (Minor Prophets, p. 40). If we will let God be God, then nothing is too hard for the Lord to do (Jer 32:17).
The target audience of Jonah’s story is the Jews themselves. They would have shared his prejudice against the Gentiles, especially an enemy like Assyria. Even in New Testament days this “separation” from the Gentiles is clearly portrayed in Cornelius’ conversion and aftermath at Jerusalem in Acts 10-11, the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, and the hypocrisy of Peter and Barnabas in regard to not eating with their Gentile brethren in Galatians 2. If there is one overreaching lesson from the book, it is this: “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16a), and “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). (1) Jonah’s story compellingly rebukes our parochial tendencies to only love “some” people (same color, nationality, or socio-economic standing). (2) And we too often care only for what affects us personally (just like Jonah caring for the plant shielding him from the burning sun), while caring not at all for the teeming millions perishing in their sins!
The true and living God of the Bible is sovereign over all mankind – Assyrian, Israelite, or American. No one can run away from Him. And all men will give account of their deeds to Him one day (cf. 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 20:12).
I close with this statement from the article on “Jonah, Book of” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1982): “In its abrupt end, the reader is suddenly addressed by the word of God: it is no longer a simple story about Jonah, but one about the reader himself… In the final analysis, it is the prophet himself who is judged and, through him, those who read his story.” — By Chuck Durham, Biblical Insights, 2012