The book of Jonah poses a piercing question: What happens when God makes friends with your enemies? Jonah was called to preach to Nineveh at a time when the Assyrian empire was weak, and Israel was strong. During the reign of Jeroboam II, Jonah had prophesied that Israel’s king should “restore Israel’s borders from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah” (2 Kgs 14:25). Unlike his contemporaries Amos and Hosea, Jonah did not preach against the sins of Israel, the northern kingdom. The former were called to confront the sins of Israel, but Jonah was to go and preach a message of mercy to Israel’s enemies. In Jonah’s mind, there was something unjust in all of it. The book of Jonah fits the mold of a literary tragedy. The prophet helped pagan sailors and the people of Nineveh to know God’s mercy but stiff-armed the God of mercy who spoke to him.
The drama began when Jonah disobeyed God’s call to preach His mercy in Nineveh. Jonah boarded a ship headed for Tarshish, “from the LORD’s presence,” a phrase repeated for emphasis (Jonah 1:2, 3). When the storm came, the pagan sailors tossed Jonah overboard. Jonah experienced God’s delivering power through the great fish that kept the prophet alive for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17)
Jonah initially turned from his hardness, and thanked God for sparing his life. Jonah’s prayer in ch. 2 shares points of contact with Psalms 88, 103, and 107. Jonah confessed, “Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love, but as for me, I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from the LORD” (Jonah 2:8-9). Once on dry ground, Jonah traveled across a vast desert for over 300 miles until he arrived in Nineveh. The prophet’s brief message, “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4), compelled the king of Nineveh and all the people to believe. God recognized their repentance and spared the city from destruction.
But “Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious” (Jonah 4:1) at God’s mercy upon the Ninevites. Jonah was so bothered by God’s decision to spare Israel’s enemies that he even prayed for God to take his life (Jonah 4:3). To emphasize His sovereignty over those who benefit from His kindness, the Lord caused a plant to grow up quickly and provide Jonah relief from the intense desert heat. But when the Lord caused the plant to wither, Jonah wanted to die (Jonah 4:8). Jonah was concerned about a temporary plant, but the Lord was concerned about a great city (Jonah 4:10-11).
Jesus cited Jonah’s ministry to argue for His supremacy in the storyline of Scripture.
(1) Jonah came alive out of the fish, but Jesus came alive out of the tomb. After the initial phase of excitement over Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Matt 4:13-17//Mark 1:14-15//Luke 4:14-15), many began to question the authenticity of Jesus’ messianic claims. Some hearers rejected Jesus outright (Matt 8:28-34//Mark 5:1-20//Luke 8:26-39). The Jewish leadership of the day was so spiteful and ignorant that they accused Jesus of blaspheming (Matt 9:3//Mark 2:6-7//Luke 5:21) and casting out demons by the ruler of demons (Matt 9:34//Mark 3:22//Luke 11:15). Despite their disbelief, Jesus’ opponents continued to ask Him to perform a sign for them. Jesus announced that in due course they would receive a sign, the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jesus said that Jonah’s three-day stay in the belly of the great fish anticipated His three-day burial (Matt 12:39b-40//Mark 8:12//Luke 11:29-30). The greatest proof of Jesus’ Messiahship would not come in the signs He performed in Galilee but what would soon take place in Jerusalem—where He would be crucified and rise from the dead. The fish was sent to keep Jonah alive. Jesus, on the other hand, would die and rise from the tomb.
(2) The Ninevites will arise at the judgement and condemn the audiences that rejected Jesus’ message. Wicked Nineveh repented when they heard Jonah’s message, “in 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). Because of the hardheartedness of the Pharisees, Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look—something greater than Jonah is here!” (Matt 12:41).