Jonah’s mission to Nineveh was addressed to Isra’el. The book was written not simply to record a historical narrative; in addition, it conveyed a message to the northern kingdom of Isra’el. In one sense Yonah is not the principal person in the book . . . ADONAI is. The LORD had the first word (1:1-2) and the last word (4:11). God commanded the prophet twice (1:2 and 3:2). He sent a violent storm on the sea (1:4). He provided a whale to rescue Yonah (1:17). HaShem commanded the whale to vomit Yonah onto dry land (2:10). God threatened Nineveh with judgment and relented in compassion (3:10). God provided a plant to shade His prophet (4:6). The LORD commissioned a worm to destroy the plant (4:7), and He sent a scorching wind to discomfort Jonah (4:8).
The book of Jonah contains only forty-eight verses. But in many ways the book is a microcosm of God’s relationship to the whole of His creation. Although the narrative is sometimes melodramatic, it covers serious subject matter. What then is the message God was seeking to deliver to Isra’el through His dealings with Jonah, the Ninevites, and natural phenomena like the sea, animal life, plant life and the wind?
First, one apparent message to Isra’el was God’s concern for the goyim, the Gentile nations. The Lord’s love for the souls of all peoples was supposed to be mediated through Isra’el, God’s elect and covenant nation (see my commentary on Genesis Dt – I Will Bless Those Who Bless You, and Curse Those Who You Curse). Through Isra’el the blessing of His compassion was to be preached to the nations (see my commentary on Isaiah In - He Made My Mouth like a Sharpened Sword). Hence, the book of Jonah was a reminder to the northern kingdom of Isra’el of her missionary purpose.
Second, the book demonstrates the sovereignty of God in accomplishing His purposes. Though the northern kingdom of Isra’el was unfaithful to its missionary task, God was faithful in causing His love to be proclaimed. In praise to ADONAI for raising him from the dead, Jonah proclaimed: Salvation comes from the LORD (2:9). Isra’el failed to proclaim God’s grace and mercy, but His work gets done in spite of human weakness and imperfection.
Third, the response of the Gentiles served as a message of rebuke to God’s sinful nation of Isra’el (John H. Stek, “The Message of the book of Jonah,” Calvin Theological Journal 4, 1969, pages 42-43). The spiritual insight of the sailors (1:14-16) and their concern for the Jewish prophet contrast starkly with Israel’s lack of concern for the Gentile nations around her. Yonah’s spiritual hardness illustrated and rebuked Israel’s callousness. In addition, Nineveh’s repentance contrasted sharply with Israel’s rejection of the warnings of Jonah’s contemporaries Hosea and Amos.
And fourth, Yonah was a symbol to Isra’el of her disobedience to God and indifference to the religious plight of other nations. Hosea, Jonah’s contemporary, graphically portrayed the unending love of God for His people by loving a prostitute (who was a symbol of Israel’s religious waywardness). Similarly Jonah symbolized Isra’el by his disobedience and disaffection. The LORD’s punishment of Yonah shows His wrath on Isra’el. Yet ADONAI’s gentle miraculous dealings with Yonah also picture His tender love and slowness of anger with her. As Jonah wrote the book from a repentant heart, the LORD desired that the nation would heed the lesson that Jonah had learned and be as repent as the wayward prophet and the Ninevites had done.14
The book of Jonah is a very short book, only four chapters and 48 verses in length. Nevertheless, it is a most fascinating book, and one with an important message, not only for Yonah, but also for modern readers 2,600 years later.