The Book of Jonah: A Brief Summary

Brief Outline:

I. Jonah Flees to Tarshish from the Presence of God (chapter 1)
II. Jonah Prays to God and is Delivered (chapter 2)
III. Jonah Obeys and Preaches Gods Message (chapter 3)
IV. Jonah Regrets Gods Mercy and is Admonished (chapter 4)


The book of Jonah, a Minor Prophet of the Old Testament, is about an Israelite prophet who reluctantly obeys God without genuine repentance. This narrative, which has often been labeled myth, legend and even allegorical, was written during the reign of Jeroboam II (780 B.C.) The text itself does not purport to speak of anything but people, events and places within the context of an actual historical setting. Dr. Gleason Archer suggests that the book “was composed by Jonah himself” in the “neighborhood of 760 B.C.”

The mythological perspective would make Jonah no more than a mere mythical character such as Hercules or Zeus. The allegorical perspective simply deems the work as parabolic of certain symbolisms within the text itself (e.g. Jonah is Israel, the fish is Babylonian captivity). The parabolic view does have some value in spiritual application but is not the style of the text itself. While the text of Jonah is apparently historical it also signifies the “shadow of things to come” (Colossians 2:17). The early Jewish historian Josephus viewed it as historical and even Christ Himself vouched for its truth (Matthew 12:39-41).

Historical Context:

Jeroboam II brought about one of Israel’s greatest eras of political strength and territorial expansion (793-753 B.C.). 2 Kings 14:25 tell us this of Jeroboam II:

He restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher. (2 Kings 14:25 NKJV)

Jonah supported this territorial restoration of Israel and God used Him “according to the word of the Lord God.” Despite being the great-grandson of Jehu Jeroboam II was the first king of the Northern Kingdom (ten of the twelve tribes). He followed a pattern of wickedness set forth by his predecessors and further entrenched it for those who followed. In fact, during the reign of Jeroboam II the wickedness grew so that the prophet Amos would eventually condemn him for his greed and immorality (See Amos 4:4; 7:10-17). The Northern Kingdom would go on to have 19 kings but sadly none of them ever attempted to bring their people back to God .

Jonah was a famous statesman and would have been known among his people. He was the son of Amitai who was also a prophet of Israel (see 2 Kings 14:25; Jonah 1:1). Throughout the book we see Jonah’s fluctuation from stubbornness to repentance back to stubbornness again. Jonah was self-willed (1:1-3), pious to Hebrew tradition (1:9), momentarily courageous (1:12), prayerful (2:1-9; 4:1-2), reluctantly obedient (3:3-4), a selfish bigot (3:4-10; 4:1) and very concerned with his own reputation (4:2-3). Throughout the text we find Jonah to be strong and yet at times exhibiting weakness of character. Even the initial prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:1-10) was ego driven and in 4:1-2 his prayers turn accusatory towards God. Jonah was a man who reluctantly obeyed and yet was still unrepentant until the end.

Summary of Chapters:

Chapter One: In the first chapter we see that Jonah evades the command of God to cry out to the Ninevites to turn from their great wickedness (1:2). Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, an arch enemy of Israel. Historically the Assyrian hordes had inflicted much persecution and suffering upon the Israelite people.

God, being so eager to save them, would allow repentance that would result in forgiveness. Instead of being obedient, as is common among the stubborn Israelites, Jonah fled to Tarshish by way of Joppa, thinking he would evade the presence of the Lord.

Joppa was once a major port of Israel, a gateway (See 2 Chronicles 2:15-16; Ezra 3:7; Jonah 1:3; Acts 9:36-43; Acts 10:5-23). Its activity has now been replaced by the modern day city of Tel Aviv. The Joppa coastline is strikingly beautiful with deep blue waters and in mythology was the very location which Andromeda was supposedly chained to be consumed by a sea monster to appease Poseidon. Joppa was also the same port which Solomon used to receive the cedars of Lebanon for construction of the temple (2 Chronicles 2:15-26).

Jonah feared that the Ninevites would repent of their evil ways and be spared the impending doom that was certain against the city. The fact that God would forgive the Ninevites was also alarming to Jonah because it would mean that God would use Gentiles, if they repented, and become vessels used by God. As the Biblical story unfolds we see this is indeed the case for salvation to everyone who will believe and repent.

Jonah was so prejudiced and bitter against the Ninevites that he would rather have died instead of delivering the message of repentance. The behavior of Jonah did not reflect the character and values of God rather it demonstrated Jonah’s prejudice and cultural attitudes which was shared by all of Israel. Instead of allowing God’s work of transformation to be done in the people of Nineveh, as well as in the life of Jonah, he ran from God and avoided the pain of admitting his own prejudice.

God acted immediately upon the disobedience of Jonah by sending a storm (1:4) and a giant fish in his path to get his attention. The mariners and captain began to call upon their gods. In 1:6 the captain even appeals to Jonah, whom was found “sound asleep” (NLT) in the hold of the vessel, to pray to his God for deliverance. Soon the mariners began to cast lots to see who may be bringing the curse or storm upon them. The lots fell upon Jonah who was willingly tossed overboard. Once Jonah was tossed overboard the storm ceased!

By arrangement of God Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish and remained there for three days and three nights (1:17). The Hebrew (dag) and Greek (ketos) word for “fish” refers to a huge fish, of any species, or even a “sea monster” (NASB). Some have a hard time believing this actually happened but they may as well deny God as the creator of all living and the divine architect of nature. Dr. Carl F.H. Henry has noted that a persons “concept of God is determinative for all other concepts; it is the Archimedean lever with which one can fashion an entire world view.”

1:17 suggests that this sea monster was “arranged” (NLT), “appointed” (NASB), “provided” (NIV) or “prepared” (NKJV) just for this occasion possibly to not only keep Jonah from drowning in the depths of the sea but also to transport him to his eventual destination—Nineveh. The debate over whether or not such a fish exists or has been found and recognized by modern science, somewhere in the waters of the Mediterranean, is besides the point since the text reveals that God “prepared” the fish. Dr. Gleason Archer writes the following concerning the “great fish”:

“Numerous cases have been reported in more recent times of men who have survived the ordeal of being swallowed by a whale. The Princeton Theological Review (Oct., 1927) tells of two incidents, one in 1758 and the other in 1771, in which a man was swallowed by a whale and vomited up shortly thereafter with only minor injuries.

One of the most striking instances comes from Francis Fox, Sixty Three Years of Engineering (pp. 295-300), who reports that this incident was carefully investigated by two scientists (one of whom was M. DeParville, the scientific editor of the Journal Des Debars in Paris). In February, 1891, the whaling ship, Star of the East, was in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands, and the lookout sighted a large sperm whale three miles away. Two boats were lowered and in a short time, one of the harpooners was enabled to spear the creature. The second boat also attacked the whale, but was then upset by a lash of its tail, so that its crew fell into the sea. One of them was drowned, but the other, James Bartley, simply disappeared without a trace. After the whale was killed, the crew set to work with axes and spades removing the blubber. They worked all day and part of the night. The next day they attached some tackle to the stomach, which was hoisted on deck. The sailors were startled by something in it which gave spasmodic signs of life, and inside was found the missing sailor, doubled up and unconscious. He was laid on the deck and treated to a bath of sea water which soon revived him. At the end of the third week, he had entirely recovered from the shock and resumed his duties…His face, and neck and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness and took on the appearance of parchment. Bartley affirms that he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, for he lost his senses through fright and not through lack of air.”

Throughout the book of Jonah we see God preparing for Jonah; making a way of escape and provision for him. His provisions are not always according to our pleasure nevertheless those who have yielded their lives to God have made him captain of their human vessels. God prepares a “great fish” (1:17); a “plant” for shade (4:6); a “worm” to destroy the plant (4:7) and a “vehement east wind” (4:8).

Several years later Christ pointed to this same story in Matthew 12:40 as a figure of His own death, burial and resurrection. Matthew 12:40 states:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (NKJV)

Chapter Two: In the second chapter we see that Jonah prays to God and obtains deliverance. In fact, most of the content of these ten verses make up the prayer of Jonah. While in the belly of the giant fish Jonah turned to God in prayer (2:1). Even in the depths of the sea and in the belly of a giant fish God came to Jonah and dealt with his heart. The giant fish is often a main character in Sunday school lessons however the giant fish is neither hero nor villain. God and Jonah are the main actors in this narrative and the Ninevites possibly secondary.

Jonah’s resistance to God seems worse than that of Moses, Amos or even Jeremiah who all struggled with their respective assignments or purposes from God. Israel’s behavior is strikingly similar to the behavior of Jonah and certain parallels can be made without forsaking the historical import of the text.

A reading of the second chapter records the prayer of Jonah who called to God from the “land of the dead” (2:2 NLT) and “sank down to the very roots of the mountains…imprisoned in the earth” (2:6 NLT). It is interesting to note that modern scientist have found that most mountains have begun from the floor of the ocean. In 2:9 Jonah utters the most profound words of the chapter: “for my salvation comes from the LORD alone.” (NLT) or “salvation is of the LORD” (NKJV). In fact, these few words sum up the message of the Bible.

Here we see that Jonah acknowledges God as the only source of salvation by providing the great fish but still does not repent or acknowledge the divine mission appointed to him prior. The greatest of efforts of Jonah to evade the presence and command of God were futile and God even made a way of escape.

In 1:10 the fish vomited Jonah onto dry land giving him a second opportunity to carry out the divine commission appointed to him. As the divine architect God has the ability to command nature to do His will in the form of the supernatural. The Scriptures record Balaam’s donkey given the ability to speak (Numbers 22:28); the star of Bethlehem was used as a sign to the wise men (Matthew 2:2) and another fish was provided to the disciples with a coin in his mouth to pay temple tax (Matthew 17:27).

The exact location that the fish deposited Jonah is not certain. Some assumptions have been the coast of Palestine, Syria or even near Joppa where Jonah originally boarded for Tarshish.

Chapter Three: The third chapter records Jonah finally being obedient to God and fulfilling the prior commission to cry out to the Ninevites of God’s impending wrath. It is interesting to note that Jonah was to proclaim the divine message—“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (3:4 NIV)—to a people who despised and had inflicted persecution upon his race. A modern day example could be an Israeli religious leader walking through a densely populated capital city of Iran or even Syria proclaiming that the entire populous must turn from their wicked ways, including the tenets of Islam, and repent to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In 3:1 the word of the Lord comes to Jonah for the “second time” (KJV, NASB, NIV). Unlike before Jonah responded in obedience. After the proclamation for them to turn before being overturned the Ninevites “”believed God”; “declared a fast” and all of them “put on sackcloth” (3:5 NIV). Note that the order of their actions is started in belief or faith. For all those who would a repentant life before God there must first be faith. Ones object of faith will determine future actions as well.

Putting on sackcloth was a sign of mourning (1 Kings 20:31); anguish as in the case of Jacob who donned such a garment at the news of Josephs fake death (Genesis 37:34) and also for fasting (Isaiah 58:5). The sackcloth garment was made of goat or camel hair. In Jonah 3:8 even animals mourned in sackcloth at the decree of the Ninevite king.

3:10 records that God “relented concerning the calamity He had declared” (NASB). The relenting does not indicate a change in the character or ontological essence of God rather it points to the wonder of His mercy and love in dealing with man in the existential realm. God is never surprised by human actions but thankfully allows man to turn from his ways and align themselves with His divine plan. We should also remember that God had sent Jonah to warn the Ninevites to repent and turn from their ways. If God had continued with destroying them He would have been going against His own distinctions between good and bad; right and wrong.

Chapter Four: In the final chapter we see that Jonah has obeyed God but his heart never changed (see Jonah 4:1-3). He was “greatly displeased and became angry” (NASB) because God had relented and granted mercy to the Ninevites—sparing them from destruction. Jonah begins to reveal his psychological reason for evading His divine command earlier—he knew Gods grace and compassion would prevail if the Ninevites repented. As is common to humanity and even Israel in that day Jonah felt his way was best and sought to accomplish that end. Jonah 4:2 states:

“And he prayed to the Lord and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” (NASB)

Jonah was so angered and distraught that Nineveh had repented he asked the LORD to “take my life from me” (NASB). Often times, cultural heritage and self-will is so deeply rooted in a person that abandoning those concepts and moving forward is frightening to the point of desiring death rather than life. At this time Israel was in a state of moral decline and perhaps Jonah felt at a loss because his fellow countrymen would not be stirred to future holiness because of God’s mercy and compassion. We can only speculate, but it is possible he felt his only weapon to fight (Gods judgment) against this moral decline had been lost.

Perhaps the irony, selfishness and contradictory misplacement of Jonah’s anger is readily seen in 4:10-11 which states:

But the LORD said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (NKJV)

In most any other occasion, it is probable, Jonah would have cared little for a plant. Even more so when the lives of over 120,000 people were at stake. With vicious heat beaming down upon him there is a reasonable purpose for concern but this is not what should have concerned him the most.

These two verses do reveal a certain the progressive nature of sin and disobedience (see 2 Timothy 3:13). Rather than be concerned about restoring man to right relationship with God he was blindly taken up with concerns about a plant which cannot enter into fellowship with God.

As the narrative comes to a close God readily points this out to Jonah and perhaps simultaneously revealing the spiritual nature of Israel as a nation.

Purpose: As we see throughout the Old Testament Israel was constantly backsliding and disobedient to God. Scholars have suggested that Jonah is a type of this behavior; a book revealing the character of Israel.

The allegorical interpretation of the book of Jonah is tempting yet it should not be given to the whole of the book. Dr. Gleason Archer notes that “numerous features of the narrative can scarcely be fitted into the allegorical pattern.”

What is the purpose of this book? Many answers to this question can be discovered by study, however; we should look at the actual teaching and information found in the text itself.

From the text it should be readily discerned that God has an eternal plan and purpose for all mankind if he will only repent and turn to Him. Second, when humans are presented with a divine command that is contrary to cultural heritage or self-will they are likely to evade the task altogether or seek to employ their own will.

Third, God is the divine architect of nature and is able to use it for His will and purpose. Ones concept of God does form his subsequent beliefs and actions. Fourth, God will judge and punish the wicked but will also relent and grant mercy if they turn to Him in repentance and humility.

Fifth, by the seemingly immediate repentance of the wicked Ninevites, in all social and economical classes, it can be seen that the most depressed or wicked mission fields can yield proper response. Sixth, this narrative beautifully demonstrates Gods willingness and foremost concern to show mercy and love towards his creation.

The Jonah narrative should have demonstrated to Israel that if they truly repent and turn God was willing to restore them. It also indicates that if they did not repent from their ways God would use any person or people group that was willing to yield themselves to Him. A glimpse at the New Testament and the Incarnation of God Himself, to redeem everyone who believes, is a further testimony of this.

At the coming of our Incarnate Lord we see that it was Gentiles who received the message of Christ rather than the Israelites, who would eventually disbelieve and even crucify the Son of God (See Matthew 12:38-42).

1. Archer, L. Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. © 1968 Moody Press pg. 296
2. Short, Melton. The Old Testament Made Simple. World Impact Ministries. Clanton, AL. pg. 45
3. Henry, F.H. Carl. Remaking the Modern Mind. Grand Rapids, Mich. William B. Eerdmans, 1948

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