1. The Book and its Hero. This little book stands alone amongst the writings of the prophets with which it is grouped. It does not contain any prophecies, except the message of Jonah to the Ninevites, yet it is placed with the books of Amos and Micah, which contain hardly anything else. It is written in prose, except the Psalm in Jonah 2, and appears at first sight to be a simple narrative of fact, yet it is separated from both the groups of books to which the histories of the OT., Samuel and Kings, Chronicles and Ezra, belong.
The hero of the story lived in the reign of Jeroboam II, king of Israel, in whose time Amos's work was accomplished. According to 2 Kings 14:25, he prophesied the recovery from Syria of the lost border possessions of Israel. That fixes the date of his activity, as there recorded, in the first half of the 8th cent. b.c. He is said to have belonged to Gathhepher, a town of Zebulon, and his grave is still shown in the vicinity of Nazareth.
The Author of the Book. But the author of the book before us cannot have been the hero of the story. That is proved, (1) by Jon 3:3. 'Nineveh was an exceeding great city.' The Hebrew makes it plain that the writer is looking back on a time already past, writing to those who are no longer familiar with the greatness of Nineveh. But as Nineveh was the metropolis of the world till its fall in 607 b.c., this book must have been written after that date. Further, no writer of the time when Assyria was the greatest of the world-powers would have described its ruler as 'the king of Nineveh,' any more than Napoleon at the height of his power could have been called king of Paris. (2) As is shown in the notes, the Psalm in Jonah 2 is full of allusions to various Psalms. Most of these are certainly later than the 8th cent. (3) The language of the book contains words and phrases which were unknown before the captivity. Hence it is generally agreed that the book was not written earlier than the 5th or 4th cent. b.c., in the period following the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, three centuries after Jonah's day.
Character of the Book. Many Christian and Jewish expositors formerly considered the whole book a literal narrative of actual facts. At the present time nearly all scholars judge it to be an OT. parable, or instructive story, made to convey in pictorial form great spiritual truths. Against the strictly historical view of the book may be urged, (1) the complete silence both of the OT. and of other history as to any such conversion of the Ninevites as that described in Jonah 8. On the contrary, they are uniformly described as idolaters, and threatened with the direst punishment: cp. especially the whole prophecy of Nahum, or Isaiah, Jonah 10, 37, etc. (2) The book breaks off most abruptly, giving no account at all of the future fortunes either of Jonah or of the repentant people. From the literary point of view this is one of the beauties of the book (see on
Jon 4:11), but it seems to show that the design of the writer was not the writing of history. (3) To many readers the whole book suggests inevitably that we are in the world of parable, as surely as does the 'Pilgrim's Progress' or the 'Holy War.' A modern reader may find difficulty in understanding how in such a parable an incident like that of the great fish could be introduced; to him its very strangeness might suggest that it was not mere invention. But to a Jew of the 4th or 5th cent. no such difficulty would appear. In Jeremiah 51:34-44 (the whole passage should be carefully considered) the Babylonian captivity had already been compared to the swallowing of the nation by a huge dragon, and the deliverance from the exile to being cast out alive from the devourer's maw. Other OT. passages, such as Job 7:12; Job 26:12 (RV) Psalms 74:13, show how familiar was the thought and the dread of the monsters of the deep. To represent a great disaster occurring to a man who ran away from duty by such an image, was as natural as was the picture of the Slough of Despond to a man who lived in a marshy and ill-drained locality. Against this view devout Christian thinkers used to urge the references of our Lord in Matthew 12:39-41; Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:29-30, which they supposed compelled us to accept the narrative as historical. It must be carefully observed that those who hold the position advocated here, do not challenge the authority of our Lord, but only the justness of this method of interpreting His words. It may fairly be said that He is using an illustration which is equally forcible whether it is drawn from fact or from poetry. Just as we refer to the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan, in precisely the same terms we should use were their adventures historical facts, so may Christ have done here. On the whole, then, we conclude with confidence that though it is possible that a historical tradition of the mission of Jonah to Nineveh suggested the writing of the book, its author has freely worked on this material, and has subordinated everything to the conveying of spiritual truths. So in the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27), our Lord starts from the well-known incidents of the visits of Herod the Great and Archelaus to Rome, 'to receive a kingdom,' and from that point develops the story with its urgent lessons. So in his historical plays Shakespeare uses the old Chroniclers. But the historical parts of Macbeth or Richard the Second are of little interest to us, compared with the analysis of motive and the insight into character that are of such abiding value. It is of great interest to observe that in the OT. as in the NT. the natural human love for a story is so often appealed to, so that 'truth embodied in a tale may enter in at lowly doors.'
Aim and Teaching of the Book. The one pervading aim of the book is to exhibit the true relationship between man and God, only realised by understanding what men are, and what God is. In opposition to the teaching of later Judaism, with its bitter contempt and hatred of the heathen world, and its belief that God regarded it in the same way, the author is eager to show how kindness of heart and readiness to repent of sin may be found everywhere amongst men, and are always acceptable to God. So in the story of the voyage the heathen sailors shrink from the thought of violent or unjust dealings with Jonah, and both they and the people of Nineveh reverently own the power of Jehovah, so soon as His claims are put before them. With this may be compared our Lord's words in Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 11:31-32, and His choice of the Good Samaritan as the type of brotherly kindness, in contrast with the priest and the Levite.
From such teaching about mankind follows naturally the teaching about God. He is revealed as full of infinite compassion, looking pitifully upon the thousands of innocent little children and helpless cattle in the great city, swift to hear and receive the cry of penitence. It is in accordance with this general view that God's individual dealings with His disobedient servant are set forth. He may punish, but is always at hand to deliver. He is willing to reason with His messengers as He does with Jonah in Jonah 4. Again, we compare our Lord's picture of the pleading of the father with the elder brother (Luke 15:28-32).
One other truth is brought out with great beauty in Jonah 4, where Jonah's pity for the gourd is made an image of God's pity for Nineveh. We are taught that man may trust his nobler instincts as being true revelations of God, and from his own compassion argue upwards to find such qualities in perfection there.
'Though He is so bright, and we so dim, We are made in His image to witness Him.' Nowhere else in the OT. is there so close an approximation to the great saying of 1 John 4:7, 'For love is of God, and every one that loveth is begotten of God and knoweth God,' We see, then, that in this little book of 48 vv. we reach the high-watermark of OT. teaching. It is of priceless value, and will remain so as long as men need to learn what God thinks of the teeming masses in the world's great cities, what we ought to think of them, and how God judges us by our judgment of them.
5. It should be noted that many scholars give a more particular application to the story than has just been set forth. To them it is an allegory, teaching the meaning of the history of the nation. Jonah stands for Israel, intended from the first by God to be the missionary people to the rest of mankind, but refusing to recognise its destiny. The swallowing by the fish represents the captivity, the deliverance the return from exile. Read thus, the book is at once a reproof and an appeal to those who, like the community in Jerusalem, even after their marvellous restoration, were still narrow and bigoted, hating the nations round them, not able even yet to understand the breadth of God's love. 'Who is blind, but my servant, or deaf as my messenger that I send?' It is claimed that this permits a closer application of the vv. quoted from Jeremiah 51. Against this, however, must be set the significant fact that the rest of that passage breathes the old bitter spirit of hatred against the heathen world. Further, the perfection of the allegory is certainly spoilt if both the great fish and the great city have to represent, in different connexions, the same thing.
Doubtless national implications axe not excluded. But one is disposed to think that the real appeal of the book is to the common conscience of the people, perhaps also to some who claimed to be prophets, but could do nothing but repeat the harsh and cruel denumciations of days that ought to have been left behind for ever.