A Deep Dive into Jonah: Part V
I. God Commissions Jonah, 1:1–2:10
A. A prodigal prophet running away from God, 1:1–17
While Jonah is identified immediately as a prophet of God, he is just as quickly identified as one that does not act like one. When God comes with an assignment for Jonah, the prophet flees in the opposite direction—a shock, no doubt, for the original audience! How could he do that? The rest of the pericope tell of the consequences of this act of disobedience with Jonah’s rebellion being emphasized by his interactions with pagan sailors, men you, in many ways, act more faithful to Yahweh than the prophet himself. Ultimately, God demonstrates his sovereignty, grace, and patience while demonstrating who he is and the way in which those who know him should respond.
i. God calls Jonah, 1:1–2
1:1. Yahweh’s word. The introductory line of the book of Jonah, i.e., the divine communication being given to a human prophet, would not come as a surprise to the original Hebrew audience. The phrase, וַיְהִי דְּבַר־יהוה, occurs over one hundred times in the Old Testament and is typically followed by the message God desires his servant to deliver to a soon-to-be identified audience (1). This is reflected in some modern English translations: “The Lord gave this message” (nlt), “The Lord said” (net). However, it should be noted that it is only in Jonah that this phrase, with its specific syntax, is found at the very outset of the book (2). Perhaps this is divine foreshadowing for the uniqueness that is the inspired writing that follows.
The chosen conduit of God’s message-to-be-delivered is identified as Jonah, son of Amattai. (יוֹנָה בֶן־אֲמִתַּי). The historicity of this prophet is verified by 2 Kings 14:25. “[Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel (v. 23)] restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke through his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher” (3).
From the passage in 2 Kings, Ferguson makes a number of helpful and illuminating observations about the possible privileges Jonah enjoyed during the time of his ministry.
Jonah experienced the privilege of service to God. He had the honour of being the mouthpiece for the Almighty, a messenger of Yahweh.
Jonah experienced the privilege of a sense of destiny. Living during a time of corrupt kings and unfaithful people, to be God’s prophet came with it a sense of purpose and calling.
Jonah experienced the privilege of spiritual fellowship. Second Kings includes the phrase “sons of the prophets” (2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1) pointing to a group of God-groomed men who were together devoted to Yahweh, gifted for his service, and loyal to one another (4).
Ferguson concludes that it is this Jonah, son of Amattai, a man privileged with service to God, a sense of destiny, and a spiritual fellowship, that is called at the outset of the book entitled with his name. Why is this significant? Perhaps if Jonah’s role as a blessed prophet of God is kept in mind, his actions to be described carry the dramatic punch they are intended to carry.
1:2. After introducing the two main characters of the book in the opening verse, i.e., God and Jonah, the author now introduces the first of two divine calls (cp. 3:1–2). The call to action given from Yahweh to his prophet opens with an imperative, Get up (קוּם; cf. nkjv, esv)! This is a command for Jonah to arise and prepare to move in the direction and for the purpose the Lord requires (5). It is a command that assumes a future action of obedience.
Go to Nineveh. The prophet’s projected destination was the Assyrian city of Nineveh, located on the eastern bank of the Tigris river (6). Nineveh being identified as Jonah’s mission field is striking for two reasons. First, Yahweh’s sending of a prophet to minister to a foreign nation directly (i.e. not indirectly through a prophecy to Israel) was without precedent in Scripture (7). There are instances, e.g., Obadiah’s judgement upon Edom, in which God sends a message of judgement to a foreign nation, but it is almost tangential to the promise being given to God's people.
Second, Nineveh in particular, and Assyria in general, was known for its barbaric cruelty (8). With the general purpose of Hebrew prophecy being a call to repentance for the experience of God’s mercy, a visit to Nineveh suggested divine compassion was, at the very least, an option for these vile people. For what good purpose would God want to extend mercy to a murderous, pagan nation?
The great city. Nineveh is described by Yahweh as the great city (הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה), indicating that “everyone is aware of Nineveh’s reputation as that large city” (9). It is well known and oft talked about. Perhaps this is why Jonah does not need clarification from God before he decides how to respond to the divine request. He know that Nineveh is no quaint village or township to whom he is supposed to travel and relay God’s word (10).
In addition to describing the significance of the pagan metropolis in question, this is also the author’s first use of a key word throughout the text: Great (גדול). It occurs fourteen times throughout the four chapters of Jonah (compared with only twenty-eight times in the other eleven minor prophets combined) (11). The table below shows each of the occurrences of the Hebrew root.
A summary of the authors use of גדול highlights some of the irony at work in this book. The target of God’s wrath and mercy is a great city (1:2; 3:2, 3; 4:11). God’s actions are great (1:4[x2], 12, 17) and they inspire great fear and awe in those who witness them (1:10, 16), even relatively great people (3:5, 7). Those familiar with the Bible would not be surprised by such statements. However, when used in conjunction with Jonah, the same word is used for more surprising reactions. The first time it is used of the prophet is to describe the great displeasure he has with the positive reaction of the people to whom he ministered (4:1). Finally, Jonah is said to be greatly pleased, i.e., thrilled (4:6), but it is not because of the salvation of the Ninevites or anything else God has said or accomplished but, rather, because of a mere plant.
And cry out against her, for they’re evil has ascended before me. God’s instructions for Jonah upon arriving at his destination are pointed—declare against the people of the city. Why? Because their evil ways have grown to a level that cannot be ignored any longer. As has already been stated, the wretched evil of the Assyrians was one of the reasons it was surprising for a prophet of God to be sent to this city. History fills in some of the specifics regarding this level of wickedness as it has been discovered that they were a cruel people who buried enemies alive, skinned them alive, or impaled them on poles and left them out in the hot sun to bake (12).
Thus, in the opening two verses the audience is given the setting. Jonah, a prophet of God is given a word of judgement to take against a vile people. While many commentators have taught that the book of Jonah is something of a missionary account, often rooting this understanding in the assignment given to the prophet by Yahweh himself, Ackerman suggests that there is no such indication permissible in this opening commission (13). The command that Jonah cry out against the pagans should be understood as more of a threat than an offer of the grace of God. Thus, Jonah’s assignment is nothing more than to visit a wicked city and proclaim its pending doom.
See, for examples of וַיְהִי דְּבַר־יהוה introducing a book, Joel 1:1; Mic. 1:1; Zeph. 1:1; Hag. 1:1; Zech. 1:1; Mal. 1:1. For examples in which the same phase is used in places other than the title of a prophetic writing but, nonetheless, introduces a to-be-delivered divine utterance, see 2 Sam. 7:4; 1 Kings 17:2, 8; 21:17.
Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah: An Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 48.
All Scripture quotations outside the book of Jonah, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New American Standard (NAS) Bible.
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 2–8.
Jack M. Sasson, Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation. (The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 70.
David W. Baker, T. Desmond Alexander, and Bruce K. Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 108.
Youngblood, Jonah, 53.
Sasson, Jonah, 71–72.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 44.
Warren W. Wiersbe, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the Old Testament (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1993), 599.
Arthur W. Ackerman, “The Purpose of Jonah’s Mission to Nineveh,” The Biblical World 12 (1898): 190–91.
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