People speak more against the book of Jonah than about any other Old Testament book. And they always talk about one thing. That is, about the ‘great fish’ that swallowed Jonah. They always discuss if it is a fact of history. And this tends to direct interest away from facts about God that are in the book.

The book of Jonah is different from other Old Testament books of prophecy. Most of the book is about Jonah's life. Other books of prophecy do not say much about the prophet himself. We read about Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25. There, we see that he served as a prophet in the Northern Kingdom (Israel). This was when Jeroboam II was king. It means that Amos and Hosea were also prophets at that time. Joel may have been serving then too.

Dr Graham Scroggie was a Christian writer. He said that Jonah was not about a big fish. It was about being a missionary in a foreign land. There was another famous writer. His name was Campbell Morgan. He said that Jonah shows how wrong it is not to share God's true message.

The main subject of the book of Jonah is God's generous love. The writer told Jonah's story in a clear and exciting way. It is important to make this good news public. There seem to be two types of people who believe. It has been like this all through history. There are believers who guard God's message. Then there are believers who declare God's message. Of course, these people must be sure that what they declare is true.

We can divide the book into four sections.

Disobedience (Chapter 1:1-17)

Nahum spoke about the land of Assyria too. He told about punishment for them.

[Note: Nineveh was the capital of Assyria.]

If God had given the same message to Jonah, it would have been easy. He would have obeyed immediately. But he went in the opposite direction instead. We could wonder why he did this. He was not a coward. But he was feeling confusion. And he was feeling disappointment.

We might be like that. Things might not happen as we think that they should. Events might be a puzzle to us. We feel that God has become unjust. And this was just how Jonah was feeling. He did the sort of thing that we sometimes do. He tried to get away from God. But, like Jonah, we find that every route for escape closes. Wherever we go, God is waiting for us. (Compare Psalm 139:7-12.)

We might accuse God of being unjust or not sensible. We might not do this with words. But we might do it by our attitudes. These sorts of thoughts were in Jonah's mind when God spoke to him. God called Jonah to go and preach. And this made Jonah think that:

God was unjust. The Assyrians were an evil nation. They were very wicked. Everyone knew about them. Their cruelty was awful. And Jonah thought that their punishment should be great. They should have God's anger against them.

We may have difficult circumstances in our lives. At times like this, we might accuse God too. We might say that he is not just. People ask a common question. They say, ‘Why do wicked people succeed, while good people suffer?’ Psalm 73 deals with the subject.

God was not sensible. God's command to Jonah was a puzzle. But it was more than that. It was not just a religious mystery. There was no sensible explanation for Jonah's mind either.

Jonah probably knew what would happen. The other prophets who were alive at that time knew it too. God had said, ‘I will use Assyria like a stick. In anger, I will use them to punish Israel’ (Isaiah 10:5). So, of course, Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. Perhaps the people would listen to him. And God would not punish them. Then, later, they could bring more trouble to Israel. And, in the end, this is actually what they did.

Jonah thought that going to the people of Nineveh would show that he was against his own people. It seemed to him that he would then be on the enemies’ side. Jonah is a very human story. Things do not always happen as we hope that they will happen.

Despair (Chapter 2:1-10)

We might resist God's authority in our lives. And, at these times, God has his own way to deal with us. We saw this in the book of Joel. Jonah thought that he was getting away from God by leaving the country. But there is no escape from God (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

Some people try to do a similar thing. They stay away from church. They avoid being with other Christians. But God has all power! He has great mercy too. And, here, God prepared something for Jonah. It was a very unusual experience (2:3).

Two prophets served just before Jonah served. They were Elijah and Elisha. There were often special events at the same time as their messages. They were things that only God could do. Another name for them is ‘miracles’. And these events helped to show that the messages were from God. (Read 1 Kings 17:3-7,14-16; 18:13-39; 2 Kings 2:11-12, 19-22; 3:16-20; 4:1-7; 5:1-14.)

Jonah came from Gath Hepher. This was a town in Galilee (2 Kings 14:25). It was less than an hour's walk from Nazareth. Of course, Nazareth was where our Lord Jesus lived. God saved Jonah in a wonderful way. It was a miracle. Only God could have done it. This is because he controls all that he has created. God is in control. Jesus especially liked this story. God saved Jonah from death. Jesus actually died. But he came alive again. Read Matthew 12:40-41. This passage links the two events.

Notice three things. In his despair:

Jonah reminded himself about God's word. All of chapter 2 is a selection of thoughts from the Psalms. We should know the Bible, which is God's Word, like this. Then we could think about it when things are difficult.

Jonah remembered God's mercy (2:4). God did not throw him away. Jonah ran away from God! But he looked to the place of mercy. In bad times, we need to say: ‘I will look again’.

Jonah recognized God's sovereignty (his ruling power) (2:9). ‘Salvation (rescue) comes only from the Lord’. It is God's right to save. He can choose those whom he wants to rescue. God saves people whatever their culture or nation is. But Jonah still had to learn this fact.

Deliverance (Chapter 3:1-10)

God had corrected the prophet. Jonah continued on his journey. He was obeying God now. But he seemed to have no sympathy. He did not pity the people (3:10-4:2). He was just doing his duty. We, too, can be like this in our service. But our attitude is as important as our activity. The quantity of work is not what matters. It is the quality of that work.

Jonah now obeyed God and went to Nineveh. He preached to the people. Notice their reaction.

It was: from everybody (3:5).

  • in public (3:16-17). There was nothing secret about it.
  • genuine (3:7-8). They showed that they were sincere too. They did this by refusing to eat or drink.

The result was:

  • prayer (3:8). ‘Let everyone pray to God. This is urgent’.
  • action (3:8). ‘Everyone must change his life and stop doing bad things’.
  • belief in God (3:9). ‘Maybe God will change his mind’.

If only people would agree with God's Word like this today!

Disappointment (Chapter 4:1-11)

This chapter records Jonah's disappointment. But there is something that is more important. It tells about God's disappointment with Jonah. God wanted Jonah to preach. Jonah was willing to do it. And God wanted to forgive. But Jonah wanted to stop this. He did want to see the people of Nineveh live. He said that he would rather die (4:3)!

Jonah was very sorry that the plant died. But this was only because it gave him shelter. He was not sad or sorry that many people could die. And this would include thousands of innocent children (4:11). God must change our selfish attitudes too. He must make us want to share him with everyone.

Notice something. God created all things. He cares about people. But he cares about animals too (4:11b). People today often use the word ‘Conservation’. This means to restore and protect our world. But this was important to God long before people thought about it. (Read Deuteronomy 20:10-20; 22:1-7.)