A Catechetical Study of the Book of Jonah

by Peter M. Berg



If there ever was a biblical account with its meaning lost in a muddle of contradictions by critics and defenders alike, the account of Jonah is such a story. Most of the attention devoted to “Jonah and the whale” serves only as distraction from the chief import of the account. Early rabbinic sophistries held that Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarepheth, whom Elijah raised from the dead. It was also held that he attained immortality in this life. It was believed that the fish which swallowed him was created at the beginning of the world for that very purpose. There were also fanciful tales about his activities inside the fish.


The sophistries did not end with the rabbis. Modern critics are put off by almost every aspect of the account (e.g. the fish, the conversion of Nineveh, and the ending of the book). Aldous Huxley, no friend of Christianity, wrote in his poem, Jonah:


                                              Seated upon the convex mound

                                              Of one vast kidney, Jonah prays

                                              And sings his canticles and hymns,

                                              Making the hollow vault resound

                                              God’s goodness and mysterious ways,

                                              Till the great fish spouts music as he swims.


However, this distraction is not just the fate of the skeptics. Those who consider themselves conservative Christians have become distracted as well. The account has become a shibboleth for some for determining orthodoxy. As the bumper sticker defiantly reads, “If the Bible said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I’d believe it!” No wonder many unbelievers view Christians as stooges. Yet the determination of one’s orthodoxy deserves much more than the “fish test”. Questions pertaining to the atonement, the nature of faith, the sacraments, etc. are much more germane than who swallowed whom. Nor is it helpful for modern Christian apologists (usually of the Evangelical stripe) to point to examples from history which might give credence to this “fish story.” The example of a 19th century New England whaler who was swallowed by a whale and emerged alive (though blind, bald, and bleached white) is of no help in determining the truthfulness of this account. In fact it serves to reduce the miracle of Jonah’s entombment to the realm of a natural possibility. Efforts to verify the veracity of this account are an encroachment upon the Holy Spirit’s self-authenticating ministry. Jesus speaks of Jonah as a historical personage, and that ought to be enough. The efforts to “help” Jesus and his Holy Spirit tend to distract us from the true meaning of this account, especially its Christology.


Having offered a warning against distraction, it should be stated that the orthodox church has always accepted the historicity of this work, and that the questions pertaining to its truthfulness have serious implications elsewhere. Christ is likened to both Adam and Jonah. Actual events in the life of Christ and the theological significance of his life are typified by these two. If both are reduced to metaphorical status, especially Adam, then many interpretive problems arise. If Adam’s sin is a metaphor for human sinfulness, then how do we interpret the atonement? Is it an actuality or something to be metaphorically interpreted? Furthermore, if Christ is a historical personage but Adam is not, when in the recesses of time do we go from historical persons to metaphorical beings and events, especially as we consider the lineage of Christ? It should also be noted that the metaphorical and parabolic in the scriptures are set in indefinite times and places. The prophet Nathan’s story told to David about the rich man who stole a poor man’s lamb has no place names, proper names, nor time designation. It is essentially, “Once upon a time…” Not so with the account before us. It is set in a specific identifiable historical framework, and it is about a specific named prophet identified elsewhere in the OT scriptures.


Something more: A majority of Christians still believe in Christ’s physical resurrection and that they and their deceased loved ones will be raised up on the last day. To believe in the bodily resurrection and yet balk at the story of Jonah seems odd. The latter miracle is of minor status compared to the former. Finally, skepticism about the record of the miraculous in Scripture is not exclusive to the modern scientific world. St. Augustine could say that the account of Jonah was “a matter of much jest and much laughter to pagans” of his day.


The biblical interpreter has much bigger fish to fry than questions about historicity, even though he accepts Jonah as history. Jonah provides the interpreter and his catechumens with a high Christology. It is a rich resource for preaching and catechesis. It is a call to repentance and faith: faith in the incomparable mercies of God. Indeed, the mercy of God in Christ is the central theme of this narrative. The main player in this story is neither the fish nor the prophet. Yahweh is at the center of every aspect of this and every other piece of Bible history. Yahweh, the God of steadfast and faithful grace, who is slow to anger and plenteous in redemption, is the initiator throughout. His word came to the prophet. He commanded him to preach. He appointed the fish. He speaks and Jonah is returned to land. Nineveh repents at his word. He spares the wicked. He gives the shade plant, the worm, and the east wind. He has the final word. In our time he has spoken that Word again, who is his Son, the Word incarnate. Finally, the story of Jonah is the story of the Lord’s Christ, who is our Jonah, our worm, our salvation, and God’s own answer to his final, penetrating question addressed to his pouting prophet.


Although Jonah is ultimately about God’s grace in Christ, its ending leaves us with a somber thought for our pondering. This word of the Lord is an unsparing condemnation of all racial and religious pride. It is a condemnation of all self-righteousness and of all human reason. It is a solemn warning to those who have the treasure of the gospel that they do not become castaways. As St. Paul said, “…so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Co 9:27) God bless our study of this word of his, which is at one time a solemn warning to evildoers, but also for their comfort and salvation.


About the Prophet and the Author


2 Kings 14:23-25 tells us that Jonah ministered during the reign of the Israelite king, Jeroboam II. This places Jonah in the latter half of the 8th century B.C. Israel and Judah had long been separated. Although Jeroboam II perpetuated the sins of the northern kings before him, the Lord allowed him to regain territories which had been lost to the Syrians, thus fortifying the borders of Israel. In spite of this success, prophets like Amos and Hosea, warned of the Lord’s displeasure with Israel. Assyria had oppressed the northern tribes. At this point, however, this nation was in a brief period of decline. It was at this time that the Lord called the prophet Jonah to the Assyrian capitol Nineveh. This call is the background of the book of Jonah. Ironically, Assyria became the instrument of God’s final judgment upon the northern kingdom in the year 722. The northern tribes were carried away into oblivion. Only Judah remained. In this way Nineveh became the city of God.


The time-honored tradition about the authorship of Jonah, both among Jews and Christians, is that the prophet himself was inspired to write it. In contrast many modern scholars place its time of writing in the post-exilic period (after Judah’s return from Babylon). It may well have been written by one of the prophets who were Jonah’s contemporaries. The question about the human authorship of the book remains open – its divine authorship does not.


Martin Luther was especially drawn to the book of Jonah. He wrote two commentaries on the book, with the first appearing in 1525 and the second one a year later (American Edition, Volume 19). The message of the book was especially dear to him on account of the situation of his day. The Reformation cause seemed to be floundering. The rebellion of the peasants had been mercilessly crushed by the princes. Both the serfs and their masters cast accusations at Luther. The Enthusiasts, who had played a role in the Peasants’ War, were spreading their spiritualistic, non-sacramental version of the Reformation throughout Europe, drawing many into their conventicles. The Lutheran lands were still in a precarious position over against the papacy and the empire. For these reasons the success which Jonah’s preaching enjoyed in Nineveh, a success won against all odds and in spite of the prophet’s unworthiness, gave Luther comfort as he faced the foes who stood against him. Our study will bring forward many of the insights which Luther gives in his commentaries. The American Edition of his works will be cited. The insights of the ancient church fathers have also been gleaned.


Chapter One


Note:  Jonah is different from most of the prophecy in the OT in that it is exclusively set in narrative form. Therefore it is helpful to read it in longer sections, which will not be a great chore since the narrative is very economical and to the point. The traditional chapter divisions of the book designate that there are four sections. We read the first chapter.


1)  Luther observes that God does not capriciously judge and destroy nations and people. What does he often do before he sends his judgments? Give examples of this.


2)  With your knowledge of the geography of the ancient world in mind, tell why Jonah’s travel plans were a marked example of disobedience.


Note:  It is at this point that we owe God’s disobedient prophet our understanding. In spite of paying passage to Tarshish, Jonah’s actions are understandable given the animosities of the time. While Jeroboam II was permitted to fortify the borders of Israel against Syria (a medium size foe), his efforts would be fruitless against the much larger and more powerful Assyria. Already in Jonah’s day Assyria was a much feared and hated enemy. It is difficult to come up with an analogous situation in our own age, but let this suffice:  It would be as if the Soviet Union overran our nation during the years of the Cold War. Soviet soldiers raped, pillaged, and murdered our citizens. Churches and parish schools were closed. U.S. citizens were given no more than slave status. Brutal beatings, unlawful searches, and unexplained imprisonments were commonplace. You are mourning the loss of your entire family who had been locked away and brutalized in a concentration camp. It is now that the Lord comes to you and says, “Go to the Soviets and tell them to acknowledge their sins and comfort them with the promise that I have forgiven them in the blood of my Son, and that they shall not suffer harm for their atrocities.” Like Jonah, we too might be tempted to flee. In addition, there is not only the animosity which Jonah surely felt, but also the fear of confronting a hostile people and the enormity of the task before him. Young seminarians upon graduation look forward to their first assignment. Nineveh is Jonah’s assigned parish, but he finds no reason for joy in this call. It is still Nineveh, city of wickedness and vice; but in spite of its new pastor’s lack of joy, it will become St. Nineveh. However, we have many miles yet to travel.


3)  There is another factor to consider when we ponder Jonah’s reaction to his call. If the Lord is now offering grace to the enemies of Israel, what night that say about Israel’s future?


Note:  In this vein the church father Jerome (+420) observes:  “The prophet knows, the Holy Spirit teaching him, that the repentance of the Gentiles is the ruin of the Jews.” (Commentary on Jonah)  However, we still must assert that Jonah sinned in his flight. We say this especially in view of his refusal to preach the saving gospel to those in great need.


4)  Humanly speaking the odds were stacked against Jonah, and the task was enormous. In view of this it was all the more important that Jonah focus his faith and actions upon one thing and one thing only. What was that thing (1:1)? Upon what shall we focus when faced with the following events:  a) the death of a loved one and our own deaths,  b) a conscience terrorized by a particular sin,  c) the loss of our job,  d) opponents of the gospel within the church and the loss of friends due to our confession of faith?


Note:  Luther says this in his commentary:  “But (Jonah) sinned, as I said, in this respect, that he looked not to the Word of God, by whom he was being sent, but to the work itself, to which he was being sent…. However, right faith goes right on with its eyes closed; it clings to God’s Word; it follows that Word; it believes the Word even when all creatures are against it…. (AE 19:8)


Note:  Just as we often look at the gift and not the Giver of gifts, so we look at the task or the trouble and not at the word of the Lord which says, “Fear not.”  This is why the Lord frequently strips us of all visible support so that we have no choice but to lean upon him.


5)  Before Nineveh would hear the summons to repent, Jonah himself would have to heed that summons. What is the beginning of that call to repentance for Jonah? (1:4)


Note:  Jonah, the fallen son of Adam and Eve, believed the folly of his sinful ancestors that one can hide from the Lord. But the Lord says, “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” (Jer 23:24)  Consider the words of the English poet Sir Francis Thompson (+1907) in his poem The Hound of Heaven:


                                  I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

                                     I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

                                  I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

                                     Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

                                  I hid from Him, and under running laughter.


                                  But with unhurrying chase,

                                  And unperturbed pace,

                                  Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

                                  They beat – and a Voice beat

                                  More instant than the Feet-

                                  ‘For all things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’


                                  Came on the following Feet,

                                  And a Voice above their beat-

                                  ‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’


Note:  The tempest continues unabated. Jerome observes, “A tempest arises in a calm; nothing is secure when God is against us.”(Commentary on Jonah)  The great preacher of the ancient church, John Chrysostom (+407), wrote, “’They threw overboard the wares that were in the ship into the sea; but the ship was not getting any lighter,’ because the entire cargo still remained within it, the body of the prophet, the heavy cargo, not according to the nature of the body but from the weight of sin. For nothing is so heavy and onerous to bear as sin and disobedience.” (Homilies on Repentance and Almsgiving)


Note:  In the emotions and actions of the pagan sailors we see sinful man at his religious “best”. He has belief in a god, he fears death, he prays to his god believing that he might receive help, he engages in good works, and finally he offers sacrifice to placate his god. Yet, all is desperation, for God for pagan man is Deus Absconditus (the hidden God).


6)  For these frightened sailors the Deus Revelatus (the revealed God)  will come to them in the person of Jonah. Indeed, Jonah is a type of Christ for these men. However, he is a type of Christ set in a negative way, a sort of anti-hero. The beginnings of the Christological understanding of Jonah come in verses 5b-6 and in verse 7.  Please comment.


Note:  In regard to Jonah’s disobedience Luther notes that earlier commentators made excuses for Jonah’s sin. Luther takes a contrary position:  “Let us rather exaggerate (Jonah’s sin) for our own comfort. Moreover, because Jonah was a son of grace, that sin was forgiven him, no matter how great it was.” (AE 19:6)  The Bible paints the portrait of the saints that went before us with warts and all that we might have comfort in the grace of God displayed to them.


Note:  At this juncture in his commentary Luther has an excursus on the casting of lots. He notes that if one casts lots with an unbelieving heart or in order to tempt God (e.g. to learn things intended to be hidden from man), then the casting of lots is evil. But he goes on to say, “However, in the case of urgent distress or in danger of death, to cast lots is not tempting God – unless you are openly wicked.”(AE19:12) We also note that God blessed the casting of lots in the case of the selection of Matthias to the apostolate. (Ac 1:26)


Note:  The Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ vesture, but our robe of righteousness is not left to chance. Jesus becomes obedient unto death. He is cast into the sea of death, into our death, into the tomb (fish) and we are allotted his righteousness.


7)  The lot fell to Jonah. Comment on Jonah’s confession of faith and the reaction of the sailors (1:9, 10)


Note:  Just as Jonah was willing to sacrifice himself to save others, so Christ offers himself for the redemption of the world. However, the sailors would not have “innocent” blood on their hands, and in this they stand in stark contrast to the Jews before Pilate who said, “His blood be on us and on our children.” (Mt 27:25) Yes, let his blood be on us and our children! Let us be baptized into his blood! But how does this come about? First it comes about when Jesus, the Word, is cast into the utter suffering of our damnation. Then this redemption comes to us when water and the Word are joined together. Throw Jesus, the Word, into the water and a great calm comes upon the stormy seas of the world! When Jesus has made a full atonement for all sin, then the wrath of God is calmed. St. Paul enjoins husbands, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and clean it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.” (Eph 5:25-27) For an example of water, Word and calm in one pericope let us look at Matthew 14:22-33.


8)  Let’s consider another ship tossed in a storm with sailors casting the cargo overboard, but to no avail. Give the name of the famous biblical personality who was shipwrecked on an island and the connections between this event and the one detailed for us in chapter one.


Note:  What can we say on the day of judgment but what Dr. Luther wrote on his study wall, “Baptizatus sum!” That is, “I am baptized!” I have been Christened!” For what is Holy Baptism but all Christ, all gospel, all pardon and peace.


9)  After throwing Jonah into the deep, how do the sailors resemble the repentant thief on the cross?


Note:  Jonah is in horrible straits. He wishes to die, and his death comes under the sway of God’s judgment upon his actions. How awful to die alone and to die under God’s wrath! There can be no worse fear in all of life. Yet, let us be charitable. Jonah knows the outcome of impenitence. Luther sees the prophet accepting his fate in faith (as flawed as this faith was). If the others are to be spared, then he must die. He has no conceivable chance of obeying the Lord’s call to his parish at Nineveh, or so it seems. This is the end. Like Christ, Jonah absolves all the others of their sin, accepts blame, and is willing to suffer death in their stead and face his Maker. “So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea,” and then, on the third day….. Well, we’ll get to that soon enough.


Chapter Two 


Note:  When early Christians identified themselves in the acrostic code, “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior,” the acrostic spelled the Greek word ikthees, which means fish. A simple continuous line drawn in the shape of a fish told fellow Christians that believers lived or gathered for worship at a certain place. The symbol reminded believers that they too, like fish, needed water to survive: the water married to the Word in Holy Baptism. The symbol also reminded them of Jonah and the typology which was implicit in this account. The mind of Jonah was not far from Christ either. Now entombed in the great fish he prays. His prayer is in psalm form. We consider Jonah’s psalm.


1)  To whom does Jonah pray? (vv 1, 2)


2)  Luther comments that when in distress hold up your need and God’s goodness to God. How does Jonah do this?


Note: Indeed, as Luther once said, take a fistful of God’s promises and rub them in his face. Note how Moses does this In Exodus 32. We look at this pericope.


3) Look at the footnote for verse 2. What was sheol? How will this play into the Christological interpretation of this account later on?


4) Jonah doesn’t give another thought to the men who had pitched him into the drink. Why not? (see v 3)


Note:  Luther notes that the ungodly (and this applies to Jonah) flee from the very one who can help them. He says, “Turn to the very One who is angry and punishes, and resort to no other.” (AE 19:72)  This is the habit of little ones who have been scolded by their parents: they cling to the one who is angry. However, the unbeliever and our flesh can’t learn this truth.  On account of this, our flesh is to be slain and the unbeliever needs the powerful message of a Jonah.


Note:  In fact Luther goes on to say that if God does not display his anger toward us, then we will have no reason to call on him. He writes, “When God holds his anger in check and his punishment in abeyance and fills our wants and treats us well, we are so insolent, bold, arrogant, and saucy that no one can get along with us. No menace of God, no alarm of God…. We meet everything with mockery and contempt. And on the other hand, when God does punish us, we grow so dejected and despondent that no consolation, no kindness, no mercy is able to revive our courage and to strengthen us. No matter how God deals with us, we are obnoxious. Behold how haughty the peasants and how abject the lords were in the recent horrible uprising. Attempts to plead with and to frighten the peasants availed not, nor did consolation and exhortation serve their purpose with the lords. And today the lords’ defiance and arrogance again knows no bounds…They will not mend their ways until they again feel God’s wrath.” It is at that time that the reformer’s advice applies, “Turn to the very One who is angry and punishes, and resort to no other.” Incidentally, after advising both the peasants and the lords and being rebuffed and blamed by both sides, Luther decided to marry. “It will please my father,” he said, “and make the angels laugh.”


Note:  Jonah, like most Israelites, would have been well versed in the Psalter. The last line of verse 3 is a direct quote of Psalm 42:7b.


5)  In spite of his great predicament Jonah still speaks in faith. Give an example from his psalm (note the tension that remains for Jonah in the example you cite).


Note: Jonah expresses the hope that he will see the Temple again. The Temple was the embodiment of God. Though Yahweh is a spirit, there is locatedness with him. As spirit God is hidden from us (Deus Absconditus). Therefore, if he is to be found, and he desires to be found, then there must be this locatedness with him. Temple, priesthood, vestments, altar, sacrifices, annual festivals, etc. were all places and things where God could be found. Of course his greatest epiphany of himself is through the Incarnation, the true Temple of God, to be destroyed and on the third day raised up again.


Note:  The “root of the mountains” spoken of in verse 6 simply recognizes that the mountains by the sea actually begin below sea level and not just at the shore.


6)  Verses 8 and 9 contrast salvation by human merit and salvation by God’s grace in Christ. How so?


7) In verse 10 we have an expression reminiscent of God’s act of creation. Comment.                                    


Note:  Let’s consider another section in St. Matthew and its Christological import.  Matthew 12:38-42.


8)  According to this pericope what did the account of Jonah mean for Christ and those of that “wicked and adulterous generation” who were seeking a sign?


9) Why is attempting to see a sign from God a faithless thing?


Note:  Incidentally, the new signs and wonders of the New Testament era are preaching, the sacraments and the Church. Here we see God!


Note:  The agent of death for Jonah now becomes the agent of life. The old words of the committal rite can cut either way: “In the midst of life we are in death” or “In the midst of death we are in Life.” The church father Cassiadorus (+ 540) wrote, “The whale was a house of prayer for the prophet, a harbor for him when shipwrecked, a home amid the waves, a happy resource at a desperate time. He was not swallowed for sustenance but to gain rest; and by a wondrous and novel precedent the beast’s belly yielded up its food unharmed…” (Exposition of the Psalms)  Remember, Jonah is a type of  Christ, though in a negative way, an unChrist so to speak. Jonah emerges from the fish vomit to take his parish at Nineveh. He does so in shame. On the other hand, Jesus emerges from the tomb redolent with the sweet smell of incense and in triumphant glory. Jonah reluctantly goes to his parish. Jesus joyously sends preachers to their respective charges, parents to their children, missionaries to their missions, teachers to their classrooms, lay witnesses to their witness, and martyrs to their martyrdom, all with the glorious message of the redemption freely given through Christ. All this is set in stark contrast to this gloomy prophet.


Note:  Of note is another pericope in Matthew (17:24-27). As Jonah came out of the fish, and Christ out of the tomb, so the temple tax for Jesus and Simon comes out of a fish. We turn there.


10) Why didn’t Jesus have to pay the temple tax? Why did he pay it anyway?


Note:  It is fitting that the temple tax came out of the mouth of a fish. Just as the fish symbolizes the faithful who also live in water (Baptism), so the coin out of the mouth symbolizes offerings and charity freely given. And when the faithful freely give, without constraint and without thought of recompense, then they are living out the life of Christ who lived and died for them, as Jesus told Simon, “…for my tax and yours.”


Chapter Three


Note:  Jonah finally assumes his parish at Nineveh. He preaches his inaugural sermon there. Unlike Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue, which ends in rejection, Jonah’s sermon is a roaring success. Chapter three.


1)  A few matters of lesser importance. We’ll deal with the first in this question, and the second in the note that follows. Critics question the factualness of the statement, “a visit (to Nineveh) required three days,” noting that Nineveh was a relatively small city by modern standards and the length of time to “visit” would have been considerably less. Your thoughts.


Note:  Critics have also been put off by the mass conversion of the city. Some Bible scholars, however, have pointed to a possible secular reference to this event. The Ninevite king, Adadnirarii III (805-782 B.C.) instituted religious reforms about the year 800 B.C., perhaps a veiled reference to Jonah’s visit. Later kings of the city, devoted to the Assyrian gods, would obviously put forth a revisionist version of the history. Ancient kings were notorious for leaving only flattering records of themselves and their realms in official records. Don’t we also have our own “spin doctors” today?


2)  Why must the word of the Lord come to Jonah a second time? (In this regard, consider the second giving of the Law through Moses.)  Can you name another reluctant prophet who had to be restored to his office which he left due to cowardice and frustration? (Hint: 1 Kings 18:16f)  How did the Lord restore him to his office and work?


Note:  Luther in his commentary sees important implications here for the office of the Holy Ministry. He writes, “This is written that we may guard against undertaking anything without God’s word and command. The first command of God had been nullified by Jonah’s disobedience. Thus if God had not repeated his order, Jonah would not have known whether or not he was still to execute it.” (AE 19:81)  A little later he states that this primary word of God (the divine call) is for the comfort of both the preacher and the people, “…so that he (both preacher and people) may be sure that both Word and the office are divine and commanded by God.” The issue here is not prestige, but rather the certainty of God’s truth for those who preach and those who need the comfort of the gospel. This is the thrust of Augsburg Confession, article V (about the Ministry) and AC article XIV, which states that no one may preach in our churches who has not been properly called. Concepts like this, put forth in 1526 are the genesis for Philip Melancthon’s work that culminated in the Augustana (1530). This is why an ordained clergy is so important. The root word of ordained is order. Disorder disturbs faith, order serves faith. If “everyone is a minister” then there is no order. No one is certain if ecclesiastical acts are valid. Jonah must be ordained again by the Lord for the sake of the prophet and his parish. This ordering, or shall we say reordering, can be seen in Jesus reinstatement of Peter in his apostolic office, as recorded in John 21:15f.


3)  See Jeremiah 23:21f and comment on the church scene today.


4)  Nineveh is called a “great city” and “a very important city.” This is true from two different viewpoints.


5)  Jonah calls out, “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (3:4) Note other forties in the Bible and the significance of that number.


Note:  Luther sees this as the greatest sermon ever preached. “Neither Christ nor all the apostles and prophets were ever able to bring Jerusalem to that point by means of their words and their miracles, though they ministered to it for a long time and preached from one end of the city to the other.” (AE 19:85)  Luther’s comments are even true of Pentecost. That three thousand were converted seems extraordinary to many, and it leaves people wondering if we ought to expect this kind of growth in our day. Actually the Pentecost number is somewhat underwhelming. Though ancient cities were not as large as our own, Jerusalem was still a large city, with its population swollen by pilgrims attending the feast of Pentecost (estimated population of 100,000, perhaps doubled due to the feast). It is also a city that had been catechized thoroughly in the Word; ripe for the picking we might say. In view of that the number is less impressive. What is impressive is that anyone is converted at all. Indeed, that one sinner repents is a miracle of divine power and is the occasion for much rejoicing among the angels in heaven.


6)  We read, “The Ninevites believed God.” (3:5) Then the people, followed by their king, did something that was very common in the Middle East. What was the significance of their actions?


Note:  Fasting and the imposition of ashes have long standing in the Christian Church. Fasting engages the entire person and is a constant reminder of what that person is meditating upon during the fast (e.g. During Lent, the Passion of Christ.)  The sign of the cross in ash imposed on the forehead on Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. However, let us also be reminded of another sign of the cross which trumps the sign of death; it is the signing of the Holy Cross in the baptismal rite. This is the sign of Life!


Note:  Gregory of Nazianzus (+390) urges, “Let us sow in tears, so that we may reap in joy. Let us show ourselves people of Nineveh, not of Sodom. Let us amend our wickedness, lest we be consumed with it. Let us listen to the preaching of Jonah, lest we be overwhelmed by fire and brimstone. And if we have departed from Sodom, let us escape to the mountain. Let us flee to Zoar. Let us enter it as the sun rises. Let us not stay in all the plain. Let us not look around us, lest we be frozen into a pillar of salt…” (On the Father’s Silence)  The men of Sodom did not give themselves up to God in a thank offering, but to one another in degradation. Yet all must go up to God, whether willingly or unwillingly. The men of Sodom went up to God as a whole burnt offering, a holocaust. Likewise, the yearning of Lot’s wife for the high life of Sodom showed that she was not the salt of the earth as Jesus described his followers. And so, she literally became salt. “Every knee will bow” at the name of Jesus, St. Paul said, whether buckling in abject fear or in grateful adoration. One way or another all will be whole burnt offerings, all will be salt, and all knees will bow.


Note:  Maximus of Turin (+423)speaks highly of the King of Nineveh in his commentary on Jonah:  “The king conquered enemies with a display of valor. He conquered God, however, by humility. He is a wise king who, in order to save his people, owns himself a sinner rather than a king. He forgets that he is a king, fearing God the King of all….When he forgets that he is a king of men, he begins to be a king of righteousness. The prince, becoming religious, did not lose his empire but changed it.”


7)  God spares Nineveh from his wrath in order that Nineveh might be an agent of his wrath. How so?


Note:  A people that were not his people have become his people, and the people who are his people will be rejected. Warnings aplenty for self-assured churches. Will the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South rise up against our generation on the Last Day?


Note:  Luther: “Where the Word of God grows sparely, there the hunger for it and the earnestness with which it is sought are strong; but where it flourishes abundantly, there a satiety and a disdain for it are found.” (AE 19”90)


Note:  The Lord’s frown now turns to a smile. God works his “alien work,” as Luther called it, so that he might do his real work. That alien works is the preaching of the Law, hell, and damnation. This alien work is also accomplished through disease, personal troubles, and approaching death. Our compassionate Father does not want to preach this message and he does not want to vex his children, but he must. He must, so that he can preach the message which he truly loves to preach, the gospel. Here we have the greatest sermon of all time and here the greatest response to the gospel of all time. One would think that the preacher who was privileged to preach this sermon, and was privileged to see the work of the Spirit with his own eyes, would have fallen to his knees in humble gratitude. We read on.


Chapter Four


Note:  Anger and prejudice toward our enemies is a terrible bile which can sour our joy in the Lord. Thus Jonah. Luther: “This is, I think, a queer and odd saint who is angry because of God’s mercy for sinners, begrudging them all benefits and wishing them every evil.” (AE 19:91) Perhaps not so odd, dear Doctor, just let someone cross the people in this class.


1)  Note Jonah’s extraordinary confession of faith in verses 1-4.


Note:  In spite of this confession about God’s mercy, Jonah is in effect blaming God for his mercy.


Note:  Luther makes a most interesting observation about the state of Jonah’s faith. He notes that the prophet was exhibiting the same attitude while aboard the ship headed for Tarshish. He writes, “And yet he has enough faith at the same time to ask God to let him die; he does not care to live any longer. He could not have prayed thus if he had not trusted God implicitly. What comment are we to add here? How can such faith and such evil exist side by side?” Without excusing Jonah’s lamentable sin, Luther goes on to point to God’s dealings and conversation with Jonah. “But at the same time we must concede that he remained in the faith and was acceptable to God, since he conversed so affably with Jonah and granted him a token, acting like a man who chats and deals in a friendly way with his fellowman.” (AE 19:91) Let’s not be too incredulous about the possibility of saving faith in the heart of this mean-spirited man. Do you have faith? But of course, in spite of all the hateful bile in which it soaks. We are, indeed, walking contradictions. That’s why the only way we can deal with God, and he with us, is in mercy, mercy that is personified in him who is mercy, Jesus Christ, our true Jonah!


2)  The Lord’s words, “have you any right to be angry?” are echoed in the words of another master in one of Jesus’ parables. Comment.


Note:  Again Luther:  “Is (Jonah) not tempting God anew to cast him into a thousand oceans and whales because of his murmuring against God and his trying to justify himself?” (AE 19:92)


3)  What a shock for Jonah that God calls Nineveh his city, even though these people were uncircumcised and did not observe the Law of Moses. This was an ominous sign for God’s chosen people. Note a similar shock experienced by Simon Peter as recorded in the Book of Acts?


Note:  Jonah takes his seat at the 50-yard line, so to speak, to see what will happen. We know what he wanted to see. He was a prophet of God, committed to speak the judgments of Yahweh. He had promised judgment. If this did not happen, then he had become a false prophet, an intolerable thought. He had forgotten, and he did not want to remember, that his preaching held out another ending to the story.


4)  As the pouting prophet waits, something quite unexpected happens:  a shade plant springs up. Note carefully who provided this. Why does this occurrence and God’s conversation with Jonah reveal that God is mercifully dealing with a man of faith, albeit a man on the brink of disaster?


Note:  Of interest is the fact that in Hebrew Jonah means “dove” and Nineveh means “beautiful”. Although in sackcloth and ashes, Nineveh had become beautiful to her Savior through faith, but Jonah was not yet fulfilling the meaning of his name, for though the Spirit (dove) has done its work, Jonah has no peace of soul and no love in his heart.


5)  Let’s see if you can see the Christological aspects of the following things, just as your namesake, Dr. Luther did (your entire grade for this course depends on your answers): a) the plant which gives shade (note that Jonah finds comfort and delight in this plant), b) the worm (consider what the worm does to the plant), c) the Ninevites.


Note:  In his interpretation of these details Luther shows himself a student of the church fathers, for he essentially takes up Augustine’s handling of the text. He writes: “Christ is the worm, as he says in Ps 22:6, ‘I am a worm, and no man.’ He is this by reason of the shameful crucifixion and the shame heaped upon him. And yet this poor crucified Worm stings such a fine shrub that it withers. With this slight sting, that is, with the despised gospel, he dashes such a mighty kingdom and people to pieces.” (AE 19:103) He concludes his commentary referring to St. Paul, who said (Rom 11:11) that the trespass of the Jews meant that salvation would come to the Gentiles. Luther then writes, “…it is better and fairer that Judaism should die (which, after all, was unprofitable and without spirit, all leaves and no fruit) than that it be preserved and the whole world be brought to ruin. That is the judgment which was pleasing to God. And therefore it is fitting that we Gentiles thank him for his mercy. For the Jews sustained no loss if they were willing to believe and abandon their Judaism; and for us, all of salvation depends on this. May God help us to attain this. Amen.” (AE 19:104)


Note:  On another occasion the Reformer makes this observation about Christ the worm spoken of in Psalm 22: He notes that the body of the lowly worm typifies the Incarnation. The barbed hook, however, is the deity of Christ, hidden in flesh. The big fish Satan sees the tasty morel writhing in pain upon the cross, nearing death, and concludes that this is it for the Son of God. He swallows the little worm. But the hook is set and the big fish is caught! His gullet is ripped open by the hook, and all we small fry swallowed up by the big fish swim free!  We return to the ending of the book.


6)  The book’s ending simply cannot be improved. Read it again (4:9-11). Comment on its absolute genius, especially as it engages us.


Note:  Walter Roehrs in the Concordia Self-Study Bible makes this wonderful and penetrating observation:  “OT and NT unite to pose the question designed to be perpetually disturbing to smug men or smug churches who claim God’s unlimited mercy for themselves and yet would limit it for others. The story of Jonah reminds us that these ‘ethical’ protests against mercy for scoundrels stem from an unethical root, from disobedience to the Word of our gracious God.” In this brilliant ending Jonah does not answer God’s question, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” However, the New Jonah, Jesus Christ, came and answered that question in everything he said, did, and suffered. And the answer is, “Yes, I will have mercy. Even on those who would withhold it from others. Shouldn’t you have mercy upon one another?” §



This study is provided for pastors. Reproduction and use is permitted. The Reverend Peter M. Berg catechizes the congregants of Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois.