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Jonah and the Prophets

The Old Testament book of Jonah, which we have been studying the past few weeks at Faith Church, is part of the section of the Bible often called the “Minor Prophets,” consisting of the 12 books from Amos to Malachi. These prophets are differentiated from the other Prophetic Books not because of their importance (like the minor leagues and the major league) or their age, but based on length of the book, as the “Major Prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) are longer than Jonah (which is only 4 chapters) or these other “Minor” prophets. One thing that is interesting to know about the Minor Prophets is that while we have them as 12 different books of the Bible, in the Hebrew Bible they consist of one book, known as the “Book of the 12.” Reading them together rather than separately puts them in a slightly different light.

Jonah is unique among these twelve, and not just because of the whole fish thing! He is unique in that this book is much more of a story than the other prophets; the other Minor Prophets are mostly different speeches from God that a prophet announced to the people or visions that the prophet had and told others. Jonah’s speech really only consists of 1 line, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overturned” (only 5 words in Hebrew!), though he also speaks to the sailors (ch. 1), to God in a psalm (ch. 2) and again to God (ch. 4). To be honest, it is much easier to read than the other prophets. While it might be easier to read, that does not mean that it is easy to apply, as Jonah presents a different emphasis than the other prophets when it comes to how Israel, and now God’s people in the church, should view others.

You will often find prophets speaking about the destruction of other nations. In fact, two whole books of the 12 Minor Prophets are devoted to describing the destruction that will come upon other nations, as the one-chapter book of Obadiah talks about how Edom (descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob and grandson of Abraham) will be destroyed for its godless actions and the three chapter book of Nahum talks about judgment upon Assyria and Nineveh because the repentance seen in the city of Nineveh in Jonah is short-lived. It is important to note that these messages were not given to those nations but to the people of Israel, giving them comfort that the oppression they had experienced at the hand of these nations would be avenged. At times, the message of judgment on these nations was meant to serve as a warning to the Israelites, as seen in the book of Amos when Amos speaks about judgment on other nations in the chapters 1 and 2 but then chapter 3 turns to the Israelites and warns them that they are not immune from judgment but will actually face it if they forsake God’s covenant with them, as God says to the people of Israel through Amos, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). In fact, while the prophets announce judgement on the other nations, they typically speak to the people of Israel and call for them to repent of their sins of idolatry and injustice, as the people fail to love God and neighbor as God calls his people to do in the Old Testament and the New Testament; books like Hosea, Amos, and Micah all speaking out loudly against idolatry and injustice, with idolatry a big theme in Hosea and injustice in Amos.

Jonah, however, seems to have a different message; it is meant to confront the Israelites not because of injustice within Israel (mistreating the poor, etc.) but because of the way they might have viewed other nations. The message of the book of Jonah is that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2), one who has concern for the Israelites but also for a great city like Nineveh in which there were “more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11), with God relenting from judgment when the people repent (Jonah 3:10). The Israelites, like Jonah, needed to realize that God’s grace is great enough to cover their sin and the sins of the other nations; God gives do-overs to Israelite and non-Israelite when they turn to him, and this do-over is on the basis of the Savior, Jesus Christ, who comes from Israel but for people of all nations.

Jonah failed to see how God’s blessings to him and the people of Israel were meant to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. The future day of the Lord featured judgment on wickedness in Israel and other nations, but it would also see blessing on other nations, with God’s name being great among all the nations (Malachi 1:11) and there being worldwide peace with nations coming to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, for blessing (see Micah 4:1-3 and Zephaniah 3:9-13). In fact, God’s promises to Israel was not just about the land that was promised to Abraham (see Genesis 12:1-3) but also the way the people in the land would bless the other nations. The land of Israel expanded during the time of Jonah (read 2 Kings 14:25-27), but the blessing of other nations did not, so the people needed to hear this message.

Jonah was sent to Nineveh to bring the possibility of a do-over there; this was unique in the time of the prophets but foreshadows the time of the New Testament in which we go forth and bring the message about God’s do-over to all the nations of the earth. May we not be like Jonah and disdain God’s grace towards others but rather learn from Jonah and the call that comes in this prophet who might be a minor prophet but has a major message for us; if God’s mercy is available for the violent and cruel people like those in Nineveh, it is available to anyone that we might have contact with. We long for the day when people of all nations will seek God, and this day is happening even now through God’s messengers in the church.

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