According to 2 Kings 14:23-25, Jonah preached during the time of Jehoahaz and Jereboam II, around the year 780 B.C. Verse 25 shows that he also prophesied in Israel as well as in Nineveh. Jonah came from Gathhepher, a little town about four miles northwest of Nazareth in Galilee. This is important because in Jesus’ day the Jews and their leaders recognized Jonah as a great prophet, and his origin contradicts the Pharisees’ assertion in John 7:52 that “no prophet came from Galilee.” This probably explains why Jesus compared Himself with Jonah in Matthew 12:39-41 and 16:4. Jonah was a contemporary of Amos and Hosea.
The message of Jonah’s book is two fold: First, God is willing and anxious to save even heathen nations if they repent –His love is infinite and universal, and He cares about ALL people. Second, Jehovah is the one universal God. He is the only true God to whom the heathen can turn for blessing and salvation.
Nineveh was the capitol city of the Assyrian Empire. God commanded Jonah to go there and preach that those people needed to repent of their evil and turn to Him, lest they be destroyed. Jonah initially objected to this task, and boarded a ship headed in the opposite direction from Nineveh. The book of Jonah is easily dividable into four parts that correspond to its four chapters: First, Jonah is called to preach to the heathen people of Nineveh, and chooses instead to “run from” God (chapter one). After being swallowed by the great fish in 1:17, Jonah reevaluates his disobedience and “runs to God” by praying for deliverance (chapter two). In chapter three (the third part of the story), we see Jonah finally “running with God” by going to Nineveh to do as God had instructed him, offering the people salvation if they would repent of their sinfulness (which they did, 3:5-10). Finally we see Jonah “running past God” (in chapter four) by complaining when He kept His promise of salvation to the king and city of Nineveh.
IMPORTANT POINT: If we believe the words of Jesus are true, we must believe that the “story” of Jonah (including his being swallowed by a fish) is also true, for Jesus references it as being a factual account (Matthew 12:39-41).
The “sins” of the Assyrians/Ninevites (1:2) had to be determined according to the laws given to the patriarchs, because this heathen nation was never under the authority of Moses’ law, and where there is no law, there can be no sin (Romans 4:15).
Notice in 1:9 that Jonah claimed to “fear” (reverence, respect) God; but true fear of God entails obedience to His will, however, Psalm 103:17-18. By trying to “outsmart” the Lord, Jonah demonstrated disrespect for Him rather than godly “fear” (cf. Hebrews 12:28). The men who cast him out of the ship evidently recognized this fact, verse 10.
Chapter two records Jonah’s prayer, offered while in the belly of the fish: He reviews the experience of being thrown overboard and swallowed, and in verse 7 notes that it was when his life was “fainting away” that he “remembered” (to call to mind) the Lord. This is the case with altogether too many people! The Lord God should be the “appeal” of first resort, not the last! What does it take to get you to turn to Him?
The importance of God’s message is emphasized in 3:2, as the Lord commands Jonah to “preach the preaching that Ibid thee.”We are not at liberty to choose either the “parts” of His message we will present (cf. Jeremiah 26:2 and Acts 20:20 & 27), or those to whom we will (or won’t) present it (cf. John 12:32; Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4)!
A final lesson/warning comes from chapter four, where God’s man is rebuked for caring more about the shade of a gourd vine than he did about the souls of the people of Nineveh. If we are truly wise, we will study how to love and care about the things our Lord prizes!