The book of Jonah is based on the life of a nationalistic prophet who lived during the days when Jeroboam II was the king of Israel (2 Kings 14:25).
Most people who read the book of Jonah emphasize the miracle of the great fish swallowing the prophet and miss completely what the book has to say about Jonah’s God. Readers of the book of Jonah are so fascinated by the events of chapter 2 that they seldom read chapter 4, where the truth about the nature of Jonah’s God is revealed.
The book was not written to emphasize what Jonah preached. In fact, the book has only one sermon and that sermon contains only five words in Hebrew. However, that sermon must be understood in the context of the political situation of the eighth century B.C., the time when Jonah lived.
The book tells about how God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire to preach a message that unless the people of Nineveh repented, judgment would come upon the city. Jonah rebelled against the divine call and instead of going to Nineveh, he boarded a ship going to Tarshish, a place located in the opposite direction from where the prophet was called to go.
To understand the stubbornness and rebellion of Jonah, it becomes important to understand the Assyrians and their policies toward other nations. When Tiglath-pileser III became king of Assyria in 745 B.C., his goal was to establish an empire that would go from the Persian Gulf to Egypt.
In order to achieve his goal, Tiglath-pileser implemented several programs to extend Assyrian supremacy over the Ancient Near East. First, Tiglath-pileser established a policy of permanent conquest. Each nation conquered by Assyria became a province of the empire. Each conquered nation had to pay an annual tribute to Assyria.
Second, an administrative system of regional governors was set up by Assyria to rule over the provinces. Each province had to provide for the needs of the Assyrian army in case of war. They were required to provide food, soldiers, and slaves. Each citizen of the provinces became an Assyrian citizen.
Third, Assyria enforced a policy of brutal reprisal in case of revolts. The Assyrians enforced this policy of terror by means of violence, pain, and suffering. In addition, a policy of mass deportation was reintroduced by Tiglath-pileser.
This policy of mass deportation meant that after conquering a nation, Tiglath-pileser took the survivors of the upper class along with professional and skilled people of that nation and relocated them to other parts of the Assyrian empire. Then, he would bring war prisoners from other nations and settle them in the conquered nation.
The people of the Ancient Near East hated the Assyrians. They had inflicted so much pain and so much suffering that the prophet Nahum declared that the fall of Nineveh and the destruction of the Assyrian empire was “good news” (Nahum 1:15 ) to those who have been subjected to the Assyrian yoke.
God desired to give the Assyrians an opportunity to repent and be saved, but Jonah desired the destruction of the Assyrians because of the suffering and pain they had caused on so many people. Jonah saw it as his patriotic duty to do everything he could to help the destruction of Assyria, even shirking from his responsibility as a prophet of God.
Even though Jonah ran away from Yahweh, he eventually came to Nineveh where he had to preach a message of judgment: “Another forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4). The last word of verse 4, נֶהְפָּֽכֶת (nehpāket) is a Niphal participle. This may indicate that, in the mind of Jonah, Nineveh would not escape judgment. Nineveh was a city already destroyed.
In their book, A Translation Handbook on the Book of Jonah, Brynmor Price and Eugene Nida (1978: 55) wrote about Jonah’s message:
“No reason is given to the people for the threat of destruction and no alternative of repentance is offered. It is as though Jonah is only concerned to carry out his commission to the absolute minimum, and he seemingly has no concern for the well-being of those to whom he preached.”
Jonah was not concerned for the situation of the people of Nineveh, but Jonah’s God was. When the people of Nineveh repented as a result of Jonah’s message, God forgave them:
“God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do” (Jonah 3:10).
In reaction to God’s act of compassion, Jonah prayed:
“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. I knew how easily you could cancel your plans for destroying these people” (Jonah 4:2).
This verse clearly describes the nature of the God of the Bible. A study of the attributes of God reveals how God deals with people, even people as evil as the Assyrians:
“Gracious God” means the God who inclines graciously to the humble and needy, and who exercises his supremacy on behalf of the inferior. Thus, Jonah knew, that even to an evil people like the Assyrians, God was infinitely full of gracious love, even though they did not deserve it.
“Compassionate God” means the kindly and solicitous providence of the one who protects and sustains endangered life like a mother sustains her young.
“Slow to anger” means the patient deferment of the wrath that has been deserved, in which God does not destroy the guilty.
“Abundance of unfailing love” means that God’s dealing with people is based on his faithful and unfailing love. The divine kindness to the Assyrians is a visible demonstration of unmerited grace which culminates in the forgiveness of sins.
“Relents from evil” means that Yahweh reconsiders the intended punishment even when the acts committed deserve punishment.
Jonah knew that because of the gracious nature of God, God would change his mind concerning the evil that was about to be inflicted upon the Assyrians and would replace it with good the moment the wicked Ninevites repented.
In the end, the reader of Jonah can understand the prophet’s despair: God did not bring divine judgment upon the wicked Assyrians. On the contrary, because of his nature as a merciful and compassionate God, a God who is slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love, a God who easily cancels his plans for punishing evil people, God forgave Israel’s enemy and did not destroy them, even though they deserved to be punished for the evil and destruction they had caused.
What kind of God does not punish people who deserve to be punished? Only a God who is concerned for people, even when they are evil and wicked: “‘I don’t want wicked people to die,’ declares the Almighty LORD. ‘I want them to turn from their evil ways and live’” (Ezekiel 18:23 GWN). Yahweh’s great love and compassion for people move him to withdraw divine judgment when people are willing to repent from their evil ways.
However, this is not the nature of God that is portrayed in the media, in books, and in the blogsphere. People who read the Old Testament, for instance, say that one of the disappointing things they discover when they read the Bible is the capriciousness of the God of the Bible.
People who have a negative view of the God of the Old Testament are generally disappointed with what they often call God’s diabolic behavior. These people say that God is very capricious, constantly describing himself as a merciful and forgiving God, but who is not a God who is merciful. They say that the God of the Old Testament is constantly killing innocent people and demanding the murder of men, women, and children in a way that is extremely troubling.
What these people have in common is that their reading of the Bible is one-sided. They are only looking at what God does and not at what God does not do. They probably never look at what the evil people do and whether they deserve judgment when the day of their judgment is due upon them because of their evil deeds.
People in our society are judged when they break human laws. In many states, the punishment for premeditated murder and other violent crimes is death. However, what happens when people violate divine laws? Those who believe that people and nations are not under divine laws do not accept divine sanctions when violations of these laws occur on a grand scale.
The people of Nineveh were not Israelites, but they were under the sovereignty of a God who is the God of all nations. The Assyrians were very cruel and violent. They inflicted much pain on prisoners of war. Their treatment of conquered people was atrocious and inhumane. They deserved to be judged for their crimes against humanity.
Jonah changed his feelings from pleasure to anger because of a plant. The merciful God also changed his mind out of love and compassion for the people of Nineveh after they repented. He said to Jonah: “So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than a hundred and twenty thousand childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?” (Jonah 4:11).
This is the true nature of the God of the Old Testament. This is the God of the Bible that people need to meet, the gracious and compassionate God, the God who is slow to get angry and who is filled with unfailing love, the God who changes his plans about punishing people when they repent from their evil ways.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Price, Brynmor and Eugene Nida. A Translation Handbook on the Book of Jonah. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1978.