Thursday, June 23, 2016

Jonah and the God of Sovereign Compassion

I recently finished preaching through the book of Jonah.  Every week for six weeks I continued to stress that this book is not about the fish—it is about God!  G. Campbell Morgan states the matter much more eloquently when he writes:[1]

Men have been looking so hard at the great fish
that they have failed to see the great God.

In particular the book of Jonah shows us a picture of the God of Sovereign Compassion.  Every chapter in the book contributes to demonstrating these attributes of sovereignty and compassion.  Below is a chapter-by-chapter survey of these themes.

Chapter One


·      The sovereign word of Yahweh comes to Jonah and commands him to speak a word of judgment against the wickedness of Nineveh. (vv. 1-2)

·      When Jonah fled from his mission the Lord “hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm.” (v. 4)

·      Jonah’s creedal-like confession emphasizes the sovereignty of God as Creator: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” (v. 9)

·      Even the Gentile sailors are brought to a place where they confess the sovereignty of Yahweh: “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for you, O Lord, have done as you have pleased.” (v. 14)


·      God “chases” Jonah by sending the great storm upon the sea.  This is subtle form of compassion.  God could have rendered an immediate judgment of death upon his rebellious prophet—this was done to another prophet in 1 Kings 20.35-36.  Instead, the Lord will pursue Jonah so as to bring him to a point of being ready to proclaim his message.

·      The Gentile sailors are brought to a place of authentic worship of Yahweh in verses 14-16.  The covenant name of God is appealed to and they make vows to sacrifice in the name of Yahweh.  God’s dealings with these men has brought about their conversion.

Chapter Two


·      At the end of chapter one in verse 17 it famously states, “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah…”  This language of “appointed” speaks of God’s direction and control.  The language of “appointed” will also figure prominently in chapter four.

·      When Jonah prays he recognizes the sovereign hand of God as the ultimate causative agent behind his being thrown into the sea.  In verse three he prays, “For you had cast me into the deep, …”  From 1.15 we know that the sailors “threw him into the sea.”  In his prayer Jonah goes back to the sovereign hand of God which has placed him where he is in the sea.

·      Verse 10 again shows the sovereign control of God over the fish.  The fish is “commanded” by the Lord and he obeys—unlike God’s reluctant prophet!


·      God’s compassion is demonstrated in his hearing the prayer of Jonah—“I called out of my distress to the Lord, and he answered me.  I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; you heard my voice.” (v. 2)

·      Jonah seems confident of God’s compassion toward him as he contemplates in faith that he “will look again toward your holy temple.” (v. 4)

·      Echoing language from the Psalms, Jonah confesses the deliverance of the Lord: “But you have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” (v. 6)

·      And, of course, verse 9 simply but profoundly states: “Salvation is from the Lord.”

Chapter Three


·      God again issues his sovereign word to Jonah that he should proclaim to Nineveh “the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” (vv. 1-2)

·      The Ninevehites repentance recognizes the sovereign hand of God.  They don’t presume a manipulating posture in their repentance.  Rather, they humbly declare: “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw his burning anger so that we will not perish.” (v. 9)


·      In this chapter the “word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time…” (v. 1).  God compassionately gives “second chances” (cf. Jesus with Peter in Luke 22.31-32).

·      God “relents” concerning the deserved judgment he was going to bring upon Nineveh.

o   What is important to note is that Nineveh’s repentance is rather shallow.  It doesn’t entail a conversion to full-blown “Yahweh-ism”—there is no circumcision; no repudiation of other gods.  It’s as if God is showing his people Israel that even pagan, violent Nineveh gets God’s compassion with a small amount of repentance.  If they, too, turn to God in repentance they will find the Lord to have a “hair-trigger” for compassion (cf. Joel 2.12-14).

Chapter Four


·      Repeatedly the verb “appointed” is used (as in 1.17) in reference to God’s power in orchestrating “natural” events.  A plant, a worm, and a scorching wind are all “appointed” by God to be used in specific ways (vv. 6-8)


·      Verse two has Jonah recite a bit of Israel’s theology drawn from Exodus 34.6-7: “…for I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.”

·      In response to Jonah’s anger the Lord does not destroy him or even level an accusation against him.  Rather, he asks a question—“Do you have good reason to be angry”—so as to lead Jonah to a place of repentance.

·      The Lord continues to labor with Jonah in verses 5-8 so as to bring Jonah to a place of understanding regarding God’s compassion.

·      Verse 11 in the crowning question of the book which shows God’s abundant compassion:

Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?

o   O. Palmer Robertson nicely comments on the last phrase regarding the animals:

The gentle downturn of the last phrase of the book of Jonah has memorialized forever the compassions of the Lord for the entirety of his creation.  Should not Jonah have compassion on Nineveh, a city with numerous people, "and also much cattle" (Jon. 4:11)?  God takes note when his lowliest creatures are terrified by the brutalities of insensitive human beings.  He hears the groanings of his entire creation, and will see that the whole created universe joins in the final redemption of mankind (Rom. 8:19-21).  (The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah—NICOT [Eerdmans, 1990], p. 205)

     [1] Quoted in Leslie C. Allen The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah—NICOT (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), 192.