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Jonah – Study on Divine Mercy



Q: In Jonah, what was the writer trying to say to the original audience about the wideness and depth of God’s mercy compared to their understanding of divine mercy at that time, and how is that relevant for us today?




Historical Background

  • When did Jonah live? Where else is he mentioned in the Bible?
    • A Hebrew prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel in the 8th century B.C.
      • Contemporary of Amos
    • He came from Gath-hepher, a Zebulunite town, near Nazareth
    • He’s also mentioned in 2 Kings 14: 25
      • We’ll get to why this may be important to know for our study of the book of Jonah
    • Authorship and Date
      • When was this book written and for what audience?
      • Jonah’s mission took place around 760 B.C. well before Israel and Judah had fallen to their enemies: Assyria and Babylonia
      • The written text itself was composed in its final form between the 5th and 4th centuries BC, towards the end of the Persian period. It is thus a postexilic book.
      • Must’ve been written after the destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C.



What kind of genre is this?

  1. Genre: Narrative
    1. It may also have been an allegory, a historical narrative, a legend, a parable, a tragedy or a sermon.
  2. It’s also written in the style of a parable, with exaggerated descriptions
  3. It’s important to note the use of irony throughout the text
    1. It is open to fair argument that the writer wrote in irony and intended the reader to be aware that the events may not be recorded exactly as it happened. It is possible that the theological truth behind the comic drama was well understood by the original readers and we ought to look out for the key message behind the amazing story.
  4. Going back to 2 Kings 14: 25, what can we know about Jonah and also more importantly about the state of mind Israel was in at this time? (Might want to read 2 Kings 14: 25 out loud.)
    1. Possible historical context: Israel’s pride
    2. Soon after Jonah’s nationalistic and triumphal prediction of territorial expansion for the realm of wicked Jeroboam II in 2 Kings 14: 25, Israel began to gloat over her new-found power and wealth. Because she was relieved of foreign pressures, Israel felt jealously complacent about her favored status with God (Amos 6: 1).
      1. It was during this time that God sent Amos and Hosea to pronounce judgment upon Israel
      2. And it was during this time (supposedly) that God sends Jonah to Nineveh
        1. If one interprets this as a historical narrative
      3. What do you think is the main theme of narrative?
        1. God’s concern for the Gentiles
          1. This important book describes vividly God’s compassion for the Gentiles and His dismay that Jonah did not share this concern. This is a study of Israel’s reluctance to acknowledge God’s compassion for the nations.
        2. How would an 8th century BC listener react to this story of God’s mercy for Israel’s enemy? What do we know about Nineveh which was the Assyrian capital?
          1. Though it’s not strongly stated in Jonah about Assyria’s wickedness (except Jonah 3: 8, 10) other prophets talk about their evil ways:
            1. “From you has gone forth One who plotted evil against the LORD, A wicked counselor.” – Nahum 1: 11 (in reference to Assyria)
            2. Also cruelty and plundering in war (Nahum 2: 12 – 13; 3: 1, 19)
            3. Prostitution and witchcraft (Nahum 3: 4)
            4. Commercial exploitation (Nahum 3: 16) (NASB Study Bible, p. 1295)
          2. Therefore, it would’ve come as a shock to an Israelite reading Jonah how God had spared such a wicked city and nation.
        3. Jonah 1: 2
          1. NIV has “preach against it…”
          2. However, LXX has it “preach in it” rather than “preach to it”: What difference would this have made?
            1. This is significant b/c Jonah would’ve understood it to have been an assignment born from God’s compassion on Nineveh and not one of judgment.
              1. Hence we may understand Jonah (a nationalistic prophet) trying to run away from God and the prophet’s statement in 4: 2 where he says, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious  and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love,  a God who relents   from sending calamity.”  (NBC, p. 818)
  5. What is the first instance we see of God’s mercy towards Gentiles?
    1. God showed mercy and compassion toward the prayers of the pagans on the ship with Jonah (Jonah 1: 14, 16)
    2. From God’s actions toward the sailors and later on to the Ninevites, what do we see that God wants the most from all persons?
      1. The most obvious lesson is the importance of repentance in God’s eyes. God responds to repentance more than he desires retribution – even for the enemies of his people and to pagans as well
        1. In Jonah 3: 4 where do you see God’s mercy in action?
          1. Jonah said God would give them “forty days” of warning for them, thus implying that repentance could prevent punishment.
          2. The people of Nineveh recognized this common way of giving a warning. They knew that if no chance for repentance were present, no time period, definite or indefinite, would have been specified.  (NBC, p. 820)
  6. Remember the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12: 3. What did God’s covenant promise to Abraham state?
    1. This recalls God’s compassion and mercy for all whom he has made. The goal of the covenant is that ALL the people of the world will be blessed … through the obedience of Abraham’s descendants.
    2. Their blessing was strictly for the purpose of blessing the people of the world (Ps. 145:8-9, 13, 17).
    3. The Israelites themselves are NOT the final object – the people of the world are. Israel was supposed to be the conduit of God’s blessing.
      1. Jonah was blessed only in order to bless the Assyrians of Nineveh – the mortal enemies of Israel. His refusal led God to change his plans and use Jonah’s reluctant obedience to affect the final outcome that God had intended all along.
  7. Secondary theme of narrative: justice vs. mercy
    1. What is the biblical definition of mercy?
      1. We can think of mercy as compassion in action; it is aid rendered to someone who is miserable or needy, esp. someone who is either in debt or without claim to favorable treatment. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, p. 548)
      2. Hebrew word for mercy is “hesed” which is often translated as “lovingkindness” and “goodness.” (ibid)
      3. The most important fact about mercy in the Bible is that it is almost wholly the domain of God and is one of his main attributes.
        1. God shows his mercy in two primary ways:
          1. Acts of providence by which he sustains vulnerable creatures
          2. Forgiveness of sins (ibid)
      4. Ironically, Jonah the creature calls for justice while God the creator speaks for mercy.
        1. The writer exposes Jonah’s all too human flaw, a vestige of jealousy that is troubled by the Mosaic teaching that God is gracious and merciful.
        2. Not to mention, God’s mercy and graciousness towards Jonah after all his rebelliousness and disobedience towards Him.
          1. Jonah reacts badly to what God did in chapter 3: 10 (where “God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them.) and he became angry.
            1. Jonah’s hatred for his enemies was so great that he even resented the very nature of God! He protested via prayer!  (NBC, p. 821)
        3. It’s also ironic that pagans and the Assyrians understand God’s mercy better than the Israelite Jonah.
  1. Knowing a bit about the intended audience for this book, what does God want to get across to them?
    1. Really about Himself and who He was.
    2. Jonah was the foil so that God can teach the Israelites about the nature of compassion and the character of God.
      1. Jonah was not sent to preach monotheism, so the repentance of the Ninevites was not as impressive as one might think since it did not involve any change in their religion. We have no idea if the Ninevites turned to YHWH exclusively.
        1. The people had acted according to their own religious traditions, on what little they knew, and their actions were graciously accepted by God.
        2. Historically we know that Nineveh was destroyed in 612 B.C. as predicted by Habakkuk and others. (NBC, p. 821)
      2. The purpose of Jonah’s proclamation was God’s declaration of what love means – not to Nineveh – but to Jonah, and by extension, to Israel.
        1. If read allegorically, Jonah means “dove,” a metaphor for Israel (Hosea 11: 11; Psalm 74: 19)
      3. Why was Jonah so upset at God in 4: 3 when he says, “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me…”
        1. To Jonah, God’s mercy to the Ninevites meant an end to Israel’s favored standing with Him.
          1. Jonah shortly before had rejoiced in his deliverance from death, but now that Nineveh lives, he prefers to die. (NASB Study Bible notes, p. 1297)
  2. God’s determination to save Assyria, a hated and feared foreign nation, moderates the nationalistic view that God is only concerned about the nation of Israel.
    1. The power of God’s message through Jonah stands in contrast to what was happening at the time the book itself was composed. Just when the policies of Ezra and Nehemiah were fostering narrow nationalism and doctrinaire exclusivism, the unknown prophetic author of Jonah proclaimed the mystery of God’s compassion.
    2. Jonah 4: 11 “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh…”
      1. God had the first word and also the last. The commission He gave Jonah displayed his mercy and compassion to the Ninevites, and his last word to Jonah emphatically proclaimed that concern for every creature, both man and animal.
      2. Ezekiel 33: 11 – God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but (desires) rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.”
      3. Jonah and other Israelites rejoiced in God’s special mercies to Israel but wished only His wrath on their enemies.
      4. God here rebukes such hardness and proclaims His own gracious benevolence. (NASB Study Bible notes, p. 1298)
      5. “do not know … their right and left hand…”
        1. Like small children the Ninevites needed God’s fatherly compassion
        2. God’s compassion even extended even to domestic animals
    3. Re-emphasizes that all of creation belongs to God – God’s sovereignty.
      1. Exodus 33: 19 “I will be gracious to who I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”
        1. God is sovereign and has the freedom to do what He wills or desires to do regardless of our opinion most of the time.





  1. The book of Jonah is a revelation of God’s character and attitude toward his creation given to Jonah and through Jonah to Israel and to us. How we react to it is likely to depend largely on the position in which we find ourselves. (Ellison, Expositor’s CD-ROM)
  2. Do you see tendencies in Christianity or the church today toward a nationalistic bent?
    1. This poses a challenge in the way we think about blessings, especially when our nations are at war. What do we pray for when we ask God to keep our troops safe? Do we pause to consider the troops of our enemy nations and their own relationships with our Lord?
      1. Even our enemies deserve God’s compassion.
    2. God is not on “our side.” Question is, are we on God’s side and on His agenda, keen to His will and desires and not our own?
    3. Also how we “Americanize” Christianity these days and say how God is always behind American agendas and policies.
  3. Jonah in the self-confidence of one who knew God’s character (4:2) had apparently grown completely indifferent to the fate of God’s creation outside Israel. We need hardly be surprised, for this attitude has been all too common within the church, and indeed within some small local churches. (Ellison, Expositor’s CD-ROM)
  4. Also, getting a bit more personal here, implicitly the readers are asked: Are we like Jonah? Are our values distorted?  Do we hate our enemies and wish – or pray- ill for them while accepting forgiveness and grace for ourselves?  How do you react in your personal life where Jesus taught that his followers must love their enemies (Mt. 5: 44)?
    1. It is a teaching often hard to bear, but a teaching that cannot be disobeyed. (NBC, p. 821)
  5. In Jesus we find the mercy of God embodied and displayed in action.
    1. Jesus “had compassion for them, b/c they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9: 36)
    2. In Jesus the primary facets of God’s mercy- forgiveness, deliverance, restoration- are given concrete shape. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, p. 548)
  6. The theme of God’s mercy extending out to Gentiles and every nation comes to fulfillment in the NT
    1. Formerly the Gentiles “had not received mercy” but now they “have received mercy” (1 Peter 2: 10) and so, like Israel, they have been newly constituted as “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (1 Peter 2: 9 RSV) (ibid)




  • New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition, Marshall, Millard, Packer, Wiseman, Ed., Inter-Varsity Press, 2007
  • New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Wenham, Motyer, Carson, France, Ed., Inter-Varsity Press, 1994
  • Expositor’s Bible Commentary, The, Pradis CD-ROM:H. L. Ellison, Jonah/Exposition of Jonah/II. The Obedient Prophet (3:1-4:11)/E. God’s Mercy (4:10-11), Book Version: 4.0.2
  • Zondervan NASB Study Bible, Alan R. Millard & John H. Stek, contributers, Jonah, Kenneth Barker, Gen. Ed., Zondervan, 1999
  • Ron Choong, “14 Jonah & Micah”, PT-Amos – Job, 2009
  • Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, Gen. Ed., IVP Academic 1998



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