Overview of the Book of Jonah


Overview of the Book of Jonah

Author: The author is unknown.


To encourage the Israelites to embrace God's call to extend his mercy to the nations.

Date: 750-613 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God calls his people to seek the repentance of the nations.
  • God's people will suffer divine displeasure if they fail to extend God's mercy to the nations.
  • God rightly delights in showing mercy to repentant Gentiles.


The author of this narrative is unknown. This fifth book of the Minor Prophets takes its name from its principal character, Jonah, son of Amittai (Jonah 1:1). Nothing is known of Amittai. Outside of this composition, Jonah is mentioned only in 2 Kings, where he is described as the prophet who proclaimed God's blessing to the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.). This monarch extended the borders of his kingdom at the expense of Syria "in accordance with the word of the LORD . . . spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher" (2 Kings 14:25).

Time and Place of Writing:

Based on 2 Kings 14:25, the events recorded in the book of Jonah should be assigned to the eighth century B.C. However, determining the chronology of the book's composition is difficult. The book has been dated at many different points between the eighth and late third centuries B.C. Its focus on Jonah's call to Nineveh would have been particularly poignant after Israel had suffered the destruction of Samaria by Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria in 722-721 B.C. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the author would have so greatly stressed God's mercy toward Nineveh if the Babylonian defeat of the city in 612 B.C. had occurred by the time of his writing. It seems most likely, therefore, that the book was written as early as the reign of Jereboam II (786-746 B.C.) and as late as the time just prior to Nineveh's defeat in 612 B.C.

The reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.) provides the setting for the Jonah story. This monarch was one of the strong military leaders of Israel's history. According to 2 Kings 14:25-28, Jonah supported Jeroboam by prophesying blessings on Jeroboam's kingdom, specifically the expansion of Israel's territory into Damascus and Hamath, thereby restoring Israel's northern boundary to the place it had been in the days of Solomon (1 Kings 8:65). It is clear that Jeroboam's reign, together with that of his Judahite contemporary Uzziah (783-742 B.C.), ushered in a period of remarkable peace and prosperity. The kingdom enjoyed population and territorial expansion, commercial growth and flourishing industrial activity. By all outward appearances the nation was enjoying the blessing of God. The future looked bright.

Even so, the prophets Hosea and Amos declared that the kingdom of Israel was in a state of social, moral and religious decay. Their messages consisted, in part, of condemnation, indictment and judgment for religious syncretism and social injustice (Hos. 1:2-8; 2:1-13; 4:1-5:14; 6:1-6; 7:11-16; 8:1-9:17; 11:1-12; 12:1-8; Amos 2:6-16; 3:9-15; 5:21-27; 7:7-17).

In this historical context Jonah resisted God's call to Nineveh. He obeyed reluctantly after experiencing God's judgment and eventually learned God's outlook on the value of the Ninevites. The God of Israel intended to spread his Kingdom to all nations. Yet given the unique relationship between the Lord and his covenant people, Jonah and many of his countrymen were held in the grip of intense nationalism and ethnic particularism, which blinded them to the purpose of Israel's election.

Through Jonah, God offered Jeroboam the blessing of military victory in retaking lost portions of God's Kingdom, including Syria (2 Kings 14:25-28). The events recorded in this book, however, show that Jonah also learned the importance of repenting of his disobedience and extending the mercy of God to other nations. The readers of this narrative were to learn from Jonah's experience that they were to repent of their own disobedience and help to bring God's blessings to all nations (Gen. 12:3).

Purpose and Distinctives:

In addition to teaching that God's mercy and love have universal aspects, the book maintains the theme of God's universal sovereignty, presenting God as the Creator, "the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land" (Jonah 1:9). Creation responds obediently to his every command (Jonah 1:4, 15, 17; 2:10; 4:6-8), just as the Assyrians of Isaiah's day did (Isa. 10: 5-6, 12). The book of Jonah emphasizes the universal power and sovereign control of God over humanity and nature, over life and death. See "Divine Sovereignty: Is God Sovereign or Am I Free?" and "God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth: What's the Relationship Between God and Creation?"

Four basic interpretive strategies have been posited for the book: allegory, midrash, parable, and historical narrative. An allegory is a technique of creating or interpreting literature so as to convey more than one level of meaning. The text of Jonah lacks typical indications that would call for an allegorical understanding-the text is presented in the form of historical narrative.

Midrash refers to a type of interpretation of Scripture that is basically expository in nature. As applied to Jonah, this approach treats the book as a commentary on passages such as Exodus 34:6-7 (Jonah 4:2) - a commentary in which the events referred to are not necessarily historical. Such an approach is out of step with credible defenses of the book's historicity, not to mention the witness of Christ (Matt. 12:39-42; Luke 11:29-32).

Interpreting Jonah as a parable is perhaps the most common approach. A parable is an extended metaphor or simile, a brief, fictitious story that illustrates moral, religious, or spiritual truths. The concept of parable is best illustrated in the teachings of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 13:45-46; Luke 10:29-37; 15:11-32). Second Samuel 11 is a good example of an Old Testament parable. This view understands the narrative as a moral story with a didactic aim. There are a number of objections to a parabolic interpretation, such as the unusual complexity and length of the story, and the identification of its main character (Jonah) as an actual historical figure (2 Kings 14:25). Most importantly, this interpretation has a tendency to deprive the book of its historical foundation, contrary to the New Testament's witness.

In spite of its surprises and sensational elements, the work should be understood as historical (prophetic) narrative. The story centers on a specific, historical figure and is presented as a trustworthy narration of a factual set of events. Jewish tradition regards the narrative as history, and Christ's allusions to the story (Matt. 12:39-42; Luke 11:29-32) lend further credibility to the historicity of the work. Yet like all historical narratives in Scripture, this book was written for a purpose other than simply preserving data. Jonah was designed to teach its readers how to live faithfully before God.

Christ in Jonah:

Jesus drew a connection between himself and "the sign of (the prophet) Jonah" (Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Luke 11:29). At a time when many Israelites refused to obey the prophetic word given to them, Jonah's release from the huge fish after three days and nights led the Ninevites to repentance. Jesus predicted that his upcoming release from the grave after three days would lead to the repentance of Gentiles, while many Jews would still reject his prophetic word. In a sense, then, the story of Jonah called its Jewish readers to repentance as it endorsed ministry to Gentiles, just as Jesus and his apostles did.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.