Jonah is not really a kid's story; it is a prophetic word that is amazingly written. Join us and examine the patterns, repetitions, and other literary devices the author uses to encourage the readers to go deeper.
One of the things David and I have realized is that since Jonah is often relegated to the realm of children’s literature, most adults never really take the time to read and study it. I think that even my perspective of the book was tainted by that view- it’s a good story (narrative).
We hope that you now see it as a bigger piece of literature than that. Not only is it historical satire, but it is prophetic allegory.
One thing I have come to appreciate through this study if the beautiful way in which this book is written. Not only is it all the things we talked about, but it is chocked full of other little nuggets that reveal more about the nature of God and his relationship with his creation.
Why do this sermon?
This sermon is our version of the chicken special 😊 It is the meat of Jonah with all of the extra pieces, the left overs, that make this book so special.
We found it worthwhile to chew on these topics, and even though it’s going to be a little different than a “normal” sermon, we hope that you find it worthwhile too. (And we promise this is the last week we’ll spend on Jonah!)
To help us all digest this, it is helpful to look at some of these things in groupings:
Patterns, Structures, Repetition & Other Literature
Jonah 1:1–17 (CSB) — 1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because their evil has come up before me.” 3 Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s presence. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the Lord’s presence. 4 But the Lord threw a great wind onto the sea, and such a great storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart. 5 The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship’s cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep.
Exodus 24:1 (CSB) — Then he said to Moses, “Go up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders, and bow in worship at a distance.
Part of the “UP” mentality is that heaven was considered “UP” and that is the dwelling place of God, so any time you are going up you should be getting closer to God.
Psalm 139:7–8 (CSB) — Where can I go to escape your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
Going “DOWN” is to go farther away from God, like to the grave (or Sheol).
Psalm 30:3 (LEB) — O Yahweh, you have brought my life up from Sheol. You preserved me alive from among those going down to the pit.
Jonah 2:6 (LEB) - I went down to the foundations of the mountains; the Underworld—its bars were around me forever. But you brought up my life from the pit, Yahweh my God.
This pattern is foundational for the Biblical story and is used over and over to show the contrast of life and death, earthly and heavenly, God and mankind, good and bad.
Remember, the concept of the earth being a sphere, a globe, is a relatively recent revelation! When we read the creation story in Genesis we picture God creating the earth as a round planet, orbiting the sun, right? Well, that’s not how they would have pictured it thousands of years ago, especially in near eastern cultures. They would have read creation as more two-dimensional, with several layers, and boundaries between them. You have the human living space, and below that is the place of death. Above it is the spiritual living space, where God lives, and that’s where you want to go. That’s how they would picture it in their imagination, and that’s one reason you see this pattern all over, from the very beginning of the Bible. And even though we know “up” and “down” is relative, we still think of God being in “that” direction, while people on the other side of the earth also think of God being in “that” direction, and technically those are two opposite directions.
Jonah could have said that God was over sailors and prophets, or over Israel and the nations, but he didn’t. He mentioned “sea” and “dry land”. What other stories remind you of the phrase “dry land”
The Israelites when they left Egypt crossed the sea on “dry land”. Joshua led Israel across the Jordan “on dry land” into the Promised Land.
The sea is often associated with chaos and death. Dry land is then associated with deliverance and safety.
This was established, again, with the creation story. The earth was an inhospitable ocean of chaos, out of which God provided land, a mountain, to separate people from the chaotic waters. And then the flood story unfolds like an “uncreation” with the land and everything on it being overtaken by the overwhelming storm and waves.
However, this concept of sea and dry land also creates a sense of structure to the book! Structure is another tool that is used to help understand themes of a book.
Chapter 1, Jonah declares that Yahweh is the God of the sea and the dry land.
The book is divided this way:
The book is also divided by the calling of Jonah by God:
What about chapter structure?
The book of Jonah seems to read like 4 somewhat connected yet very diverse scenes in a play. Though the original language did not have chapter and verse demarcation, there are some very natural places for the story to break, right?
But the way you choose to view the story will impact the way that you interpret or even apply parts of the story. Here is a fun exercise you can do with any book of the Bible: try to outline the structure of the book from different perspectives.
I think one of the most interesting perspectives from this last part is how God chose to use a broken human to join him on his mission of redeeming other broken humans. Going back to the flood story, we know that God promised not to wipe everyone out again, even though he know we’d deserve it:
Genesis 8:21 (CSB) – When the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, he said to himself, “I will never again curse the ground because of human beings, even though the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth onward. And I will never again strike down every living thing as I have done.
But not only does he want to relent from disaster, he wants to redeem us by his power, because left to ourselves we throw ourselves into the water. WE bring the flood of destruction on ourselves. But God wants to reconcile his relationship with humanity:
2 Corinthians 5:19 (CSB) — That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us.
Repetition can help with tone as well as seeing the overall message. How many times things are repeated can be an indicator of importance, just like when certain words that are normally used are omitted - their absence then speaks of the importance (such as repentance in the book of Jonah).
During the message we brought out how the word “great” was used over and over. But there are other words that are repeated. One of them is the word for “trouble” or “evil” or “bad”.
TROUBLE (ra’, ra’ah): 1:2 (evil), 1:7 (trouble), 1:8 (trouble), 3:8 (evil), 3:10 (evil & disaster), 4:1 (displeased), 4:2 (disaster), 4:6 (trouble)
4:1 - “The literal translation is “But it was evil to Jonah with great evil.” In other words, the term “evil” (rāʿāh), which has been repeatedly applied to the Ninevites, now characterizes the prophet.” ~ Expositor’s Bible Commentary
When we talked about Hebrew literature, we mentioned that when there are patterns, one of the things to look for is the break in the pattern. There is one chapter that does NOT use this word, “trouble”, and it is chapter 2.
In Chapter 2, Jonah prayed from his “distress” but it is a slightly different word.
This word can be translated trouble, and the ROOT of that word is “tsar” which means restraint, or to be tied up or enveloped. It’s very clever wordplay which ties into the concepts seaweed being wrapped around his head, being in the belly of a fish, and enveloped and overwhelmed by the waves in the depths of the earth. Jonah prays “from his despair” or “from his place of overwhelming restraint, where he couldn’t move.” It is interesting that though the actions of Jonah were morally, theologically “bad” he prays, NOT to ask for God’s forgiveness of his “ra-a” or “evil,” but for God to spare him from the “bad place” he was in.
In any case, it is obvious that the book is trying to emphasize that when we turn our back on God and ignore his commands it will go “bad” for us!
Again, this is not a new concept, but a theme that has been carried through the entire Tanakh: Law, Prophets and Writings.
Genesis 4:7 (CSB) — 7 If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” ~ Law
Jeremiah 26:4–6 (CSB) — 4 You are to say to them, ‘This is what the Lord says: If you do not listen to me by living according to my instruction that I set before you 5 and by listening to the words of my servants the prophets—whom I have been sending to you time and time again, though you did not listen—6 I will make this temple like Shiloh. I will make this city an example for cursing for all the nations of the earth.’ ” ~ Prophets
Proverbs 14:22 (NLT) — 22 If you plan to do evil, you will be lost; if you plan to do good, you will receive unfailing love and faithfulness. ~ Writings
Though it is not uncommon for the name, “Yahweh” and the title, “God” to be interchanged, sometimes it can be a clue to something that is going on.
The first time we have recorded that God revealed his name to a human was with Moses and the burning bush. This name was revealed to the one who would represent Yahweh to his people:
Exodus 3:13–15 (CSB) — 13 Then Moses asked God, “If I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what should I tell them?” 14 God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the Israelites: The Lord [Yahweh], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever; this is how I am to be remembered in every generation.
For the Jews, this is a specific name that they were given to call the God of creation; their God! When the sailors in Jonah ask who Jonah is, what does he say?
Jonah 1:9 (CSB) — 9 He answered them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord [Yahweh], the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”
All throughout the book of Jonah, the name and the title of Yahweh are interchanged and even combined in spots.
Some interesting things to note:
Jonah tells the sailors about Yahweh, and they pray to Yahweh, acknowledge the sovereignty of Yahweh, worship Yahweh, offer sacrifices and make vows to Yahweh.
It never says that Jonah told the Ninevites about Yahweh, and we only read that the Ninevites prayed to God to see if God would have compassion on them. In 3:10 is says that God (Elohim) repented or changed his mind. God never becomes Yahweh to the Ninevites.
All throughout the book, Jonah and Yahweh are on a first name basis. UNTIL you get to chapter 4 when Jonah goes out of the city to wait for its doom. There is a change in that it is God acting against Jonah in chapter 4 – perhaps as if to point out that Jonah truly has behaved, in Yahweh’s eyes, like the pagan nations.
“In the rest of this section, the divine name Elohim (“God”), which has been used consistently for God’s dealings with Nineveh, is now used for his dealings with Jonah. The use of “Lord God” (Yahweh Elohim) in this verse forms a link between the two usages” ~ Expositor’s Bible Commentary
One of the other interesting things to note is that Jonah’s name is mentioned 18 times. However, God and Yahweh are mentioned 38 times. What does that tell you?
NOTE: I have the entire book included in the notes and I have the title highlighted in one color and the name in another. You can see it at the end of these notes. This is a great way to study patterns and repeated words in scripture.
I want to thank those of you who brought in children’s books for me to read. Most of these are missing not only major sections of the story but missing the purpose of the book! I have a pile of books, here are some of the things I noticed:
NOTE: IF you read repentance as going in the opposite direction, and Jonah first fled away from Nineveh and then went to Nineveh, he disobeyed and then obeyed, it is possible you can see that as repentance. However, the rest of the book shows a lack of genuine repentance.
Thought: while it is OK to simplify the stories of the Bible so our kids can understand them, we should make sure we are not altering the meaning of the stories or force an application.
There was a guy from the North Country named Thomas John Carlisle, born 1913 in Plattsburgh, NY and died 1992. He was a Presbyterian minister and a poet. I only know about him because of a reference made to him by Tim Mackie, a scholar and teacher from Portland, Oregon and co-founder of the Bible Project. So it was wild when I found out that Thomas John Carlisle was from the North Country. But I really wanted to bring him up because he created a body of work inspired by the book of Jonah which I think is, in contrast to the kids’ stories, the grown-up, adult theologian’s reflections on Jonah. He wrote some 80 poems inspired by Jonah, and put them together in a single volume, and I just find his style and his intuition to be wonderful! He really captures the spirit and the message in really clever ways, so I wanted to share just a few of his poems that I’ve been able to find around the internet:
Let’s Cool Down
a better way
Your silly streak
of mixing love
with righteous judgment.
All I need
to do is take the next flight west
beyond Your jurisdiction.
This will give you time
for sober second thoughts,
to swear off this kick
of simpleminded kindness.
Inside the Monster
I was as low as I could get
when I remembered
that my distress
impressed me with His apparent absence
when His premised daily presence
hadn’t meant a blessed thing.
Finding myself in that hole
with my soul fainting, and rolling
with the swell of my swollen ego
was good enough to kill me
I saw stars in the dark
and started home on a welcome
Counselor to the Almighty
Think twice before You pardon.
even in ashes
but repent again
of their repentance.
Take the wiser bias
of my advice.
Confine Your charity
to such good neighbors
as your humble servant.
chided his stupid
and incredible Creator
for His addiction
it were some
A Deity ought
to be dependably capricious
to keep the natives in line.
would wipe out
in a hurry.
would make a perfect
once he was safely
Question. I hate God's enemies
with perfect hatred.
Why can't God
do as much?
First, God’s word is AMAZING! If you are new to reading the Bible you can read it and understand more about God. But even if you have read it a dozen times, you can study and still find that there is more to learn!
Proverbs 2:1–10 (NLT) — 1 My child, listen to what I say, and treasure my commands. 2 Tune your ears to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding. 3 Cry out for insight, and ask for understanding. 4 Search for them as you would for silver; seek them like hidden treasures. 5 Then you will understand what it means to fear the Lord, and you will gain knowledge of God. 6 For the Lord grants wisdom! From his mouth come knowledge and understanding. 7 He grants a treasure of common sense to the honest. He is a shield to those who walk with integrity. 8 He guards the paths of the just and protects those who are faithful to him. 9 Then you will understand what is right, just, and fair, and you will find the right way to go. 10 For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will fill you with joy.
But a second lesson is that God is adamant about HIS story being told in, among, and through humans!
It’s important to recognize that God is in control, but that he has made us active participants in his plan for creation, from the very beginning, and has relentlessly worked to keep it that way in spite of our repeated rejection of him. Our way of thinking can often be very selfish. If God is in control, why doesn’t he just take care of everything for us? Why do I need to be a part of it? And why aren’t MY desires being met? Maybe if I just have enough faith God will give me more things, more comfort, and squash my enemies! That’s how worshipping an all-powerful God works, right? Well, no. That’s a Jonah way of thinking, and it’s not right. Jesus showed us a different way to live, sacrificially and humbly, he and said the most important thing we can do, the starting point from which everything else flows, is to love God and love others, including our enemies. That’s so simple, but so radical.
I want to share one last poem from Carlisle. I think this so wonderfully sums up the conclusion of Jonah in a way that makes you look down and suddenly realize that laser is on your chest:
And Jonah stalked
to his shaded seat
and waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting
for a host of Jonahs
in their comfortable houses
to come around
to His way of loving.
Chapter 1 (LEB) — 1 And the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Get up! Go to the great city Nineveh and cry out against her, because their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah set out to flee toward Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh. And he went down to Joppa and found a merchant ship going to Tarshish, and paid her fare, and went on board her to go with them toward Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh. 4 And Yahweh hurled a great wind upon the sea, and it was a great storm on the sea, and the merchant ship was in danger of breaking up. 5 And the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his elohim. And they threw the contents that were in the merchant ship into the sea to lighten it for them. And meanwhile Jonah went down into the hold of the vessel and lay down and fell asleep. 6 And the captain of the ship approached him and said to him, “Why are you sound asleep? Get up! Call on your elohim! Perhaps your elohim will take notice of us and we won’t perish!” 7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots so that we may know on whose account this disaster has come on us!” And they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they said to him, “Please tell us whoever is responsible that this disaster has come upon us! What is your occupation? And from where do you come? What is your country? And from which people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear Yahweh, the Elohim of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were greatly afraid, and they said to him, “What is this you have done?” because they knew that he was fleeing from the presence of Yahweh (because he had told them). 11 So they said to him, “What shall we do to you so that the sea may quiet down for us?” because the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 And he said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea so that the sea may quiet down for you, because I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you all.” 13 But the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to the dry land, and they could not do so because the sea was growing more and more tempestuous against them. 14 So they cried out to Yahweh, and they said, “O Yahweh! Please do not let us perish because of this man’s life, and do not make us guilty of innocent blood, because you, O Yahweh, did what you wanted.” 15 And they picked Jonah up and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 So the men feared Yahweh greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows. 17 And Yahweh provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Chapter 2 (LEB) — 1 And Jonah prayed to Yahweh his Elohim from the belly of the fish 2 and said, “I called from my distress to Yahweh, and he answered me; from the belly of Sheol I cried for help— you heard my voice. 3 And you threw me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the sea currents surrounded me; all your breakers and your surging waves passed over me. 4 And I said, ‘I am banished from your sight; how will I continue to look on your holy temple?’ 5 The waters encompassed me up to my neck; the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6 I went down to the foundations of the mountains; the Underworld—its bars were around me forever. But you brought up my life from the pit, Yahweh my Elohim. 7 When my life was ebbing away from me, I remembered Yahweh, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. 8 Those who worship vain idols forsake their loyal love. 9 But I, with a voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you; I will fulfill what I have vowed. Deliverance belongs to Yahweh!” 10 And Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out on the dry land.
Chapter 3 (LEB) — 1 And the word of Yahweh came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up! Go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim to it the message that I am telling you.” 3 So Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the word of Yahweh. Now Nineveh was an extraordinarily great city—a journey of three days across. 4 And Jonah began to go into the city a journey of one day, and he cried out and said, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be demolished!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed in Elohim, and they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth—from the greatest of them to the least important. 6 And the news reached the king of Nineveh, and he rose from his throne and removed his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. 7 And he had a proclamation made, and said, “In Nineveh, by a decree of the king and his nobles: “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything! They must not eat, and they must not drink water! 8 And the human beings and the animals must be covered with sackcloth! And they must call forcefully to Elohim, and each must turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? Elohim may relent and change his mind and turn from his blazing anger so that we will not perish.” 10 And Elohim saw their deeds—that they turned from their evil ways—and Elohim changed his mind about the evil that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.
Chapter 4 (LEB) — 1 And this was greatly displeasing to Jonah, and he became furious. 2 And he prayed to Yahweh and said, “O Yahweh, was this not what I said while I was in my homeland? Therefore I originally fled to Tarshish, because I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate Elohim, slow to anger and having great steadfast love, and one who relents concerning calamity. 3 And so then, Yahweh, please take my life from me, because for me death is better than life!” 4 And Yahweh said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 And Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city, and he made for himself a shelter there. And he sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would happen with the city. 6 And Yahweh Elohim appointed a plant, and he made it grow up over Jonah to be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. And Jonah was very glad about the plant. 7 So Elohim appointed a worm at daybreak the next day, and it attacked the plant, and it withered. 8 And when the sun rose, Elohim appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he grew faint. And he asked that he could die and said, “My death is better than my life!” 9 So Elohim said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “It is right for me to be angry enough to die!” 10 But Yahweh said, “You are troubled about the plant, for which you did not labor nor cause it to grow. It grew up in a night and it perished in a night! 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know right from left, plus many animals?”