Israel too was a country divided. The Northern Kingdom had split off years ago. They were coming out of a time of “prosperity and relative peace from pesty neighbors.” Years of fairly stable leadership had “created luxury and ease for many and spawned poverty and injustice for numerous others” (1). There had been grassroot stirrings that things were not right; a growing feeling of malignancy was creeping through the country’s moral fabric. The king at this time was a man named Jeroboam II. “He did evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 14:24). His namesake, Jeroboam I, was the founder of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who had quickly steered the people of God toward idolatry (1 Kings 12).
However, in the middle of all this stands Jonah, a man of God, who speaks for God and assures the king that God will restore the borders of the land. Jonah, in his lifetime, assured the nation that others would not infringe on their territory. But actually, the story of Jonah is the story of God caring about other nations, and opposing the pride of Israel, the people known by His name—all through the same mopey, reluctant prophet.
What we see follow in the book of Jonah is best described as satire. Perhaps, looking back, people realized just how silly this prophet was. Jonah himself was real, as seen by how Jesus references him alongside other historical figures (Matthew 12:38-42). But the book of Jonah makes a statement about the patriotic figure and his country. The people bearing the name and waving the banner GOD, if their resident “man of God” is any indication, seem to be the ones who respond least appropriately to Him. While the winds and waves obey His command, “pagans” from other countries bow the knee on a dime, and even the livestock repents when confronted with God’s word, the man of God from the people of God is vomited out by the fish that just can’t stomach his pride.
Jonah also shows an amazing lack of awareness for his surroundings. While the sailors offer sacrifices to Yahweh overhead, he vows in the belly of the beast that if God rescues him, he will worship Him in the temple . . . presumably the temple in Bethel presided over by a cow statue. The place they called “the house of the Lord” had never had God in it! Later, he is seething over God’s patience and compassion with the Assyrians (Ex 34:6-7) . His distortion field is massive: he can’t stand God for being so good, or see how twisted his own desires are, as he weeps for a weed when God preserves the entire populace of the Assyrian capital, including their cattle.
As Christians–God’s people who are supposed to represent him today–let’s read Jonah understanding that it was written to satirize people like us. When economic prosperity or simply a history of religiosity lead us to condemn God’s love for those we call our enemies, be careful. We may find ourselves swallowed up. Or as God asks Jonah—no matter what you think about what God is doing—“Is it right for you to be angry?”
- C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 39.
Watch: Bible Project video on Jonah
Listen: Jonah 1-4