Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice . . . you shall be my treasured possession. (Exodus 19:5)
To know Jonah is to love him," writes Lloyd John Ogilvie. "And the reason we love him is because he is so much like us in our response to God's guidance."1 The man Jonah is indeed like us in a number of ways. Learning to identify with him is our key to the meaning of his story—and our big mistake if we fail to do so. As Ogilvie suggests, we pick up a great deal from this book about God's guidance and about discovering his will. We learn about the danger we experience when we run from God's will, the deliverance we experience when we submit to God's will, the deliverance others experience when we fulfill God's will, and the depression we experience when we question God's will.
But the book of Jonah is about much more than discovering the will of God for us as individuals, as we'll see while getting to know this surprising story more intimately.
A Successful Prophet's Résumé
If this guy Jonah is like you and me, it isn't so obvious as we begin his story:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai (1:1)
Hearing or reading those opening words, the initial audience for the book of Jonah would have recognized immediately the biblical ring to them, because the same phrasing is so commonly attached to names like Samuel and Elijah. Like those men, but unlike you and me, Jonah is a prophet of the Lord God.
What else do we know about this prophet? Christians who feel well acquainted with Jonah's story often are surprised to learn that his background is mentioned earlier in the Bible, in the book of 2 Kings. There we read that Jonah had experienced a rare treat for a Hebrew prophet: he foretold something good for the nation of Israel, then saw it quickly happen.
It was during the days of Israel's King Jeroboam II, who reigned over the northern kingdom of Israel in the first half of the eighth century BC. This king beefed up a long section of Israel's northern border, strengthening its defense against any potential Assyrian invaders. King Jeroboam did this not just to implement his own military strategy, but, by the gracious prompting of God, he did it "according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher" (2 Kings 14:25).
Restoring this border was more than a mere maintenance measure. It was a critically urgent accomplishment in a moment of profound national need, as we quickly sense from the next verses: "For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter . . . and there was none to help Israel." God made it clear that he would not "blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam" (14:26-27).
So God truly cared for Israel, enough to act immediately—through its king—to fortify its national defenses. And Jonah had been given the privilege of conveying this good news to his countrymen. Here was a deliberate act of the Lord's deliverance; by this "he saved them."
Jonah must have won lasting fame after uttering this prophecy and quickly seeing it come to fruition through King Jeroboam's capable military leadership. The prophet had spoken, and what he'd spoken came to pass—the ultimate professional test for any prophet.
All this must only have intensified Jonah's sense of national and spiritual pride as a son of Israel. If God relied on popular tastes and consumer demand in crafting the books in his Scriptures, he might well have pulled together an inspiring tale about Jonah the hero from this particular setting and time period instead of giving us the story we have from later on. (Jonah might have liked it better that way too!)