Commentary on the Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah was most likely written by the prophet Jonah in the 8th century BC (sometime between 793 – 753 BC). Jonah lived in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II and he (Jonah) is specifically mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25.

Jonah’s ministry began right after Elisha’s ended and Jonah was likely a contemporary of both Amos and Hosea in Israel. Amos warned Israel that she would be exiled “beyond Damascus” and Hosea specifically prophesied that Israel would be ruled over by the nation of Assyria, in which Nineveh is a major city.

The Book of Jonah is a straightforward narrative, so rather than recapitulate the story, I will instead answer some of the common questions that are raised about the story.

Question 1: Where was Nineveh and why was it considered wicked by God?

Answer 1: Nineveh was a major city and administrative district in the nation of Assyria. It was approximately 500 miles, or 1 month’s journey, from Israel. According to D. J. Wiseman in New Bible Dictionary,

It lay in the upper Mesopotamian plain, bounded on the west by the Syrian desert, on the south by the Jebel Hamrin and Babylonia, and on the north and east by the Urartian (Armenian) and Persian hills. The most fertile and densely populated part of Assyria lay east of the central river Tigris (‘Hiddekel’, Gn. 2:14, AV). The Heb. ’aššûr (Assyr. aššur) is used both of this land and of its people. The term Assyria was sometimes applied to those territories which were subject to the control of its kings dwelling at Nineveh, Assur and Calah, the principal cities. At the height of its power in the 8th–7th centuries BC, these territories included Media and southern Anatolia, Cilicia, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, Elam and Babylonia.

The Assyrians were a war-like people known for committing brutal atrocities against their enemies. Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page write, in Amos, Obadiah, Jonah: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary),

Archaeology confirms the biblical witness to the wickedness of the Assyrians. They were well known in the ancient world for brutality and cruelty. Ashurbanipal, the grandson of Sennacherib, was accustomed to tearing off the lips and hands of his victims. Tiglath-Pileser flayed victims alive and made great piles of their skulls.

Question 2: Why did Jonah get on a ship heading west for a city in Spain (Tarshish) instead of going east to Nineveh where God commanded him to go?

Answer 2: There are two possible reasons. One, Jonah did not want to be God’s missionary to such a cruel and brutal group of people. Two, Jonah knew, because of the prophets Amos and Hosea, that Israel would someday be conquered by Assyria, so Jonah didn’t want anything to do with the nation who would soon subjugate his own people.

Question 3: What swallowed Jonah?

Answer 3: The Hebrew word allows for any large sea animal. It could have been a whale or a large fish of some kind. It had to be large enough to fit an adult male inside of it and there are plenty of sea creatures that have this capacity.

Question 4: What does Jonah pray about in chapter 2?

Answer 4:  Jonah realizes that he would have drowned if God had not provided the sea creature to save him, so he is thanking God for saving his life.

Question 5: Why would the Ninevites be so willing to repent after hearing a foreign prophet, Jonah, for only one day?

Answer 5: Leaving aside God’s influence on them, there may be other historical reasons why the Ninevites were so receptive to Jonah’s message. Walter Kaiser Jr. and Duane Garrett explain in the NIV, Archaeological Study Bible:

Nineveh’s historical situation during this period may explain the readiness of the king and his people to accept Jonah’s message. Assyrian power was at a particularly low point during the reign of Assur-dan III (773– 756 B.C.). Assyria had suffered military reverses, diplomatic setbacks, famine and domestic uprisings. In addition, an eclipse had taken place on June 15, 763 B.C., and this could have been regarded as a terrible omen (there had also been an eclipse in 784 B.C.). With all of this going on, it is not surprising that the Ninevites would have been especially jittery and ready to pay attention to a foreign prophet who suddenly appeared in their city.

Question 6: Why was Jonah angry with God after Nineveh repented and God did not bring calamity on them?

Answer 6: For the same reasons stated in answer 2 above. Jonah wanted God to punish Nineveh, not show mercy to them.

Question 7: What lesson does God teach Jonah in chapter 4?

Answer 7: Jonah is angry with God for killing a plant that was covering his head, and yet he is perfectly happy to allow God to kill 120,000 people living in Nineveh. The people of Nineveh belong to God, just as the people of Israel belong to God. A true prophet of God should pray for God’s mercy on all mankind, not just the tribe or nation to which he belongs.