But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” - Jonah 2:9 (ESV)

 Jonah is the story of what is perhaps the greatest revival in history. Jonah is also the story of what may be the most the most unwilling preacher ever to be used to spark a revival. The text above represents Jonah’s highest and lowest points. It is the highest because Jonah makes a crystal clear declaration of the sovereignty of God in salvation. But it is the lowest because the context of the prayer is Jonah praying from the belly of a great fish who was delivering Jonah to the coast from which he had fled. Jonah did not want a revival in Nineveh, but the God to whom salvation belongs would not take no for an answer. 

 The Big Idea of Jonah

I have taught that the big idea of Jonah is the following: Salvation belongs to Yahweh. This is a lesson Jonah is more willing to concede regarding his salvation than he is regarding the salvation of others. 

An Outline of Jonah

Jonah is neatly divided into four chapters. In the first chapter, Jonah is sent to Nineveh, which is to the northeast, but flees west instead. 

Chapter 1 – Jonah Flees from Nineveh

In chapter one, Jonah is sent to Nineveh to prophesy against it. Jonah gets on a ship and heads west, in the opposite direction to which Yahweh had directed him. Yahweh causes a storm to threaten to capsize the ship. Eventually, Jonah is outed and he has the sailors throw him overboard. The storm calms and Jonah is swallowed by a fish. 

Chapter 2 – Jonah Arrives at Nineveh

In chapter two, Jonah prays to Yahweh from the belly of the fish. Jonah recognizes Yahweh’s sovereignty and power. Jonah also recognizes Yahweh’s mercy on him. Jonah ends the prayer with what I consider a representative passage for the whole book by saying, “Salvation belongs to Yahweh!” At that, the fish spits out Jonah onto dry land toward the east where Yahweh had originally sent him.

Chapter 3 – Nineveh Repents

In chapter three, Jonah passes through the city of Nineveh, preaching and prophesying its destruction in forty days. The entire city repents, led by the king himself. It is the greatest revival recorded in Scripture and possibly in history. The king decrees that every person and even the animals should show signs of mourning and lament in hopes that Yahweh will relent and not destroy them. This is what happens. Yahweh relents and does not destroy Nineveh.

Chapter 4 – Jonah Is Angry

Perhaps surprisingly to the reader, Jonah is incensed at Nineveh’s pardon. He complains to Yahweh that Yahweh’s pardon is precisely what he did not want for Nineveh and that this is the reason he fled in the first place. Yahweh causes a plant to grow that shades Jonah from the heat. A worm eats it and Jonah is infuriated. Yahweh asks him if he is right to be angry about the plant that grew up and withered in a day while he is all too happy for an entire city of people and animals to be destroyed. The book ends with Yahweh asking Jonah a rhetorical question: Shouldn't Yahweh pity Nineveh?

Benefits of Jonah

Jonah is full of points and tidbits that merit our attention. God’s sovereignty is in display in sending Jonah, then the storm, then the fish in chapter one. Jonah is a living example of Psalm 139, where David remarks that there is nowhere he could flee from Yahweh’s presence. Jonah tries and fails. 

Then there is Jonah’s prayer in chapter two. We can scarcely find a simpler or more compelling prayer of confession and repentance in the Bible. It may very well be Jonah’s prayer for salvation. In any case, Jonah recognizes God’s power and mercy to save. He also recognizes that Yahweh is the one to whom salvation belongs. 

There is also Nineveh’s revival. Has a greater revival ever been recorded? It is unlikely. What an example of the unpredictability of people’s responses to God’s message. Jonah emphasized judgment without mercy, perhaps obscuring Yahweh’s intended message. The people respond seeking Yahweh’s mercy, and they find it. Nineveh defies our ability to craft the right message in the right way to save people. It is not we who save but God. To Yahweh belongs salvation. 

Finally, there is the fourth chapter. Jonah breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly. Yahweh asks Jonah whether he should have pity, but the abruptness of the ending leaves the question dangling like a loose thread in the reader’s mind. Should Yahweh have pity or not? What would Jonah say? Jonah is silent, leaving us to answer the question for ourselves. And as we consider what Jonah might have said, we realize we only have what we think. The question is not intended for Jonah at all, but for us. Should Yahweh have pity? Do we believe he should? With whom do we side? Are there people whom we so hate that we would begrudge their salvation? May it never be.  

Jonah reminds us that God is God and we are not. Jonah is everyman, a stand-in or representative of mankind. God created man in his own image, male and female, to fill the earth and subdue it. Instead, we attempted to subdue God and fill both heaven and earth. Having turned from God, we now turn on each other. Our days are filled with petty squabbles and geopolitical intrigues. Neighbor does not love neighbor, and so nation does not love nation. Instead of a world filled with love, we are a world filled with competition, with warring sides seeking to subdue one another rather than the earth.

Jonah stands as a stark reminder that, for all our self-obsession as individuals and as mankind, God is there, and it is with him that we chiefly have to do. Salvation is what we need, and it belongs entirely to him. We need to be redeemed, transformed, revitalized, renewed, and sanctified. Yahweh’s final question exposes our perspective for what it so often is – self-serving, self-centered, and self-righteous. We are understandably shocked by Yahweh’s mercy and kindness to a people like the Ninevites, but Yahweh is understandably shocked by our hypocritical outrage at others’ sin. The difference between Jonah and the Ninevites is far less than the difference between both of them and Yahweh. Jonah deserves Yahweh’s mercy and compassion no more than Nineveh does. We deserve the same no more than Jonah. Jonah shows us that we are all Jonah. It also shows us that we are all Ninevites. God is God. He is unlike us, and that makes all the difference.

On Jonah and Living for God Through Christ