During the month of May I have been conducting a series of studies at my church on the book of Jonah. I have led our study group through each chapter of Jonah, emphasizing the theological message of the book.
One of the resources I have been using in the preparation of these studies is an excellent book written for pastors and lay people. The book, The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary, was written by Terence Fretheim. As the subtitle of the book indicates, Fretheim presents a theological exposition of the book.
In his book, Fretheim acknowledges the contribution of Hans Walter Wolff to the formation of his theological understading of the book of Jonah. Wolff has written an excellent commentary on Jonah (see the bibliography below), a book that I also use in the preparation of my studies.
Wolff also wrote another book on Jonah, a book that has also been influential in my understanding of the book of Jonah. This book was originally published in German, but three chapters of this book were published in English in a book titled Jonah: Church in Revolt. This book compares the mission of Jonah to Nineveh with the mission of the church in our days. This is a great little book that pastors should read, study, and use some of Wolff’s ideas in preaching or teaching the book of Jonah to their congregations.
I have selected a short passage from Fretheim’s book dealing with Jonah’s message to the people of Nineveh. This short selection provides a glimpse on how Fretheim approaches the book of Jonah. The selection below is taken from pages 108-109 of Fretheim’s book.
“And [Jonah] cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” (Jonah 3:4).
Jonah’s message was a rather truncated one. There is no reason to think that anything else he had to say was of a different sort from that reported in verse 4. It was entirely a message of doom, with no reasons given (the same language is used of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:25, 29). Jonah’s message was thus incomplete when compared to other messages of the prophets against foreign nations. Thus, for example, there is no mention at all of the sins the people have committed (see Amos 1-2).
Moreover, to specify a brief time limit such as forty days was unexampled among the prophets. The closest are Isaiah 7:8 and Jeremiah 25:11-12, which refer to rather extensive periods of time, and are not spoken to the people involved. It would thus appear as if Jonah did not proclaim exactly “the message that I tell you” (3:2).
Jonah thus makes his message as vague and as blunt and as offensive as he possibly can. It is suggested that he delivered a message that would make it almost impossible for the people to respond positively. And yet they do so in a manner quite beyond the realm of human calculation. Jonah thus went to Nineveh obediently, but the conflict with God had not yet been resolved (see above, Chapter I). As a result his message was affected.
Moreover, it might be noted that this message was delivered by a man who had just been saved by God from, death in the sea. Jonah had just experienced the unmerited grace and goodness of God in his own life. Now he turns right around and makes it as difficult as possible for the Ninevites to experience God’s deliverance. No mention of sins to which they might repent, no glimmer of hope, just forty days and wham! A graceless message delivered by one living in the shadow of an experience of grace.
And yet no preacher has ever met with such success. Little effort, poor skills, a terrible sermon— and total success. And a foreign prophet, quite unknown to the Ninevites! God had prepared a way for this message so that in spite of the missionary it found its way into the hearts of the Ninevites. God can write straight with crooked lines. God can use even false prophets to accomplish his purposes. With such intractable human material God has worked, and continues to work. The place of the messenger is crucial in God’s ways of working with the world, but so often it seems as if the messenger hinders more than helps.
I hope this section of Fretheim’s book will motivate you to preach the message “that [the Lord tells] you” (3:2). I hope it will also motivate you to get a copy of the book and read it.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Terence Fretheim, The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977.
Hans Walter Wolff, Jonah: Church in Revolt. St. Louis, MO: Clayton Publishing House, 1978.
Hans Walter Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986.