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April 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 2 · pp. 16–22 

Jonah: Deliverance and the Sovereignty of God

Donn K. Rojeski

I have long been fascinated by the book of Jonah. Perhaps it is the fast-paced story itself which intrigues me. What child has come through the Sunday school without encountering the marvelous story of Jonah and the “great fish?” Then there is the story of God pursuing his chosen messenger to bring him back from his fight. Jonah is reclaimed by God and recommissioned for service in the very assignment from which he fled in the first place. Jonah is reclaimed from both the end of the world and the bottom of the sea. In this sense, Jonah is a love story. God refuses to let his servant renounce his commission and run away. From early childhood on we learned from this story not only of God’s great love but also that God is everywhere. There is no place we can be where he is not able to watch over and protect us.

However, Jonah is not merely a children’s story. God’s love and omnipresence are also demonstrated in his concern and compassion for the Ninevites. The Assyrians were among the most feared peoples anywhere in the world. Their brutality and atrocities were widely known; and Nineveh was their capital city. That God could forgive such incredible wickedness as Nineveh represented stands as an eternal testimony to God’s compassion for all people. There are no people of whom forgiveness is not available if they truly repent.

Such themes as these have been amply covered. But there is a deeper message within this masterful short story. And the story of Jonah is indeed a masterful one. In 48 verses a mere 1328 words, we encounter a distinct plot, development of characters, a wealth of emotions, historical data, and lofty spiritual truth. 1 Perhaps for these very reasons Jonah has been slighted in modern theological studies. The story has been left to speak for itself, while skeptical scholars pick at the miraculous elements of the story.

There are, I believe, two powerful themes presented within this poignant vignette. The first is deliverance; the second is sovereignty. {17}


The strong emphasis upon God’s compassion for Jonah and for Nineveh has already been mentioned. For this reason Jonah has always been a favorite source of material for missionary messages. Jacob Myers stresses this element when he treats Jonah as an attack upon Israel’s narrow, particularistic tendencies.

There was always a tendency among the Hebrews to regard God’s election solely as conveying special privilege. But that was a complete misunderstanding of the election love of God. He chose them to be his servant, and laid upon them the obligation of informing the nations of God’s concern for them and witnessing before them the meaning of his salvation. 2

With this as a base, several writers see in Jonah an emphasis upon the universal character of God’s love and compassion. Eric Rust is typical of this approach.

The whole is gathered up in the story of Jonah in which the universal gospel of grace is presented in a parabolic form grounded in a historical base. . . . Jonah is Israel running away from its task, and that task is to overcome its narrow nationalism and particularism by declaring God’s grace even to Nineveh, to the other nations. Like Jonah, God’s people had to learn that God’s mercy was extended to all peoples. 3

Whatever center an Old Testament theology may present, the emphasis in Jonah on universality can be tied in nicely. Leslie Allen ties Jonah into a covenant theme by identifying a covenant formula in 4:2 as depicting God’s loving care for all nations. 4

But there is more to Jonah than a critique of Israel’s particularistic tendencies and a simple declaration of God’s loving concern for all nations. Three of the four chapters in this little story deal with deliverance, each from a different perspective. In chapter one a group of sailors are saved from the ravages of a storm; in chapter two Jonah is saved from certain death by drowning; and in chapter three Nineveh is saved from destruction. History gives us no information from which to evaluate the long range effects of the deliverance in any of these episodes. Yet the author gives clear evidence that both the sailors and the Ninevites believed that Israel’s God was indeed responsible. The offerings and vows of the sailors in 1:16, and the sackcloth and ashes, fasting, and renunciation of evil ways of the Ninevites in 3:5-8 were clearly intended to show to the reader the genuineness of their repentance. 5

The case of Jonah himself is much more complicated. Any repentance on the part of Jonah is dependent on the controversial psalm of chapter two. Most scholars have seen this psalm as either a later addition {18} to the story or as having been subsequently misplaced. Neither position shows any understanding of the psalm or its intended meaning. Fortunately, more recent commentators have shown a greater understanding and present a more meaningful analysis. George Landes even makes the psalm a central feature of his study of the message of Jonah. For him, the psalm represents the second of two prayers delivered by Jonah. The first, though not included in the narrative, is delivered as Jonah sinks into the sea, and is alluded to in 2:2 and 7. The second is this psalm, which Jonah delivers upon being swallowed by the fish. 6 The psalm is then a song of thanksgiving for having been rescued by God from drowning. When Jonah finds himself in the belly of the fish with air to breathe, he is certain that God has decided not to let him die for his disobedience, he reasons, drowning would have been sufficient and appropriate. He is still alive, so God must have further plans for him. That is sufficient cause for praise. Ellison states this position succinctly.

The simple fact is that this psalm is a thanksgiving for rescue from drowning or destruction. . . . the fish, however uncomfortable it may have been for Jonah, was the means of his preservation. Jonah, once he had been preserved from drowning, knew that his life would be preserved. 7

This act of deliverance brought Jonah to repentance as 2:10 clearly shows. In each instance—the sailors, Jonah, and Nineveh—God responds with deliverance from the imminent perils which beset the prayerful penitents. As such,

. . . the book of Jonah . . . is part of the evidence for the most important truth imaginable, namely that the Almighty God seeks to bring men to repentance and will pardon those who truly repent. 8

Sadly, in two of the three instances (we know nothing of the subsequent lives of the sailors), the repentance is relatively short-lived. In chapter four we find Jonah bitter over the outcome of his mission to Nineveh and asking God to take his life. He cannot rejoice with God at the repentance of Nineveh and her ensuing deliverance. History also tells of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians around 721 B.C. and of the total destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C. But for the time it lasted Nineveh’s repentance was surely genuine, for Jesus verified their sincerity in Matthew 12:41.

As we have seen, deliverance is clearly a central theme in Jonah. But it is not the only theme present in this powerful story. God is also presented in the book as an absolute sovereign; in fact Jonah himself might claim that God is arbitrary and capricious.

There is no automatic connection between repentance and salvation. {19} There must come a time when the offer of deliverance is no longer extended and God’s judgement is all that remains. The sea captain (1:6) and the king of Nineveh (3:9) clearly recognized this possibility. But it did not prevent them from claiming the hope of salvation and act accordingly.

No matter how much we may, like Jonah, desire to put God in a box to be manipulated according to our interpretations of justice and mercy, it is simply not possible.

God will always act in ways that are consonant with his ultimate salvific purposes. But such a confession of faith is not reducible to a formula whereby it can be determined just how God will act in specific instances. The “divine perhaps” thus safeguards the divine sovereignty and enables grace to remain truly grace. 9

God had long before made this clear to Moses, when on Mount Sinai he told him, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:19). God remains totally free to do as he wills, yet this absolute sovereignty must not be interpreted as caprice, leaving the faithful in a perpetual state of anxiety.


If this is the end of the message of Jonah, the author has not done the masterful job usually attributed to him. All of this can be gleaned from the first three chapters. Nothing would have been gained by the addition of chapter four. It is chapter four which calls us to examine Jonah’s attitude toward his mission, his reluctance to comply with God’s command, and God’s condescension to explain himself to Jonah.

Many suggestions have been advanced, but most prove totally inadequate. Jonah may have been fearful of Nineveh, but a coward he is not! Nor is he anti-Gentile per se. He is clearly willing to proclaim God’s greatness and deliverance to the Gentile sailors and even willing to be cast into the sea to almost certain death that those sailors might be spared from the wrath of God which he sees behind the storm. And later he does fulfill his mission to Nineveh.

I propose that there are three forces working together in Jonah’s mind which produce his reluctance. Together they may be characterized as disagreement with God.

First, Jonah cannot accept a God who can change his mind. Jonah is no fool; he recognizes that to take a prophecy of doom into Nineveh can be for no other reason than to give Nineveh a chance to repent and avert the impending peril. A prophecy of doom could just as easily be {20} pronounced from the safety of his own homeland if it were for any other purpose. Grace Emmerson takes this position. For her, there is no room in Jonah’s theology for a God who changes his mind and ruins the credibility of his prophets. 10 Poor Jonah has not caught the full vision; for the real issue is not whether God can change his mind, but whether Nineveh can change her direction and heart.

The second force at work within Jonah’s mind is a sense of disillusionment. Chaim Lewis advocates this position, comparing Nineveh to Hitler’s Germany, and her treatment of enemies to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

His is a case of loss of faith. His sombre view of human nature leads him to doubt the redemptive value of repentance. The evil in man will soon enough overwhelm his all too transitory will to goodness. How, then, can an act of contrition be enough to undo the amassed evils of a lifetime? For him there can be no wiping the slate clean—certainly not in respect to Nineveh. 11

Third, Jonah cannot accept God’s conception of justice. Here is the heart of Jonah’s rebellion. Frustrated by a God who seems open to changing his mind and beset by a general case of disillusionment, Jonah is additionally at odds with God over the question of justice. The three together are too much for him. He not only refuses to serve, he tries to flee from the very presence of God. Jonah’s conception of justice resembles what modern Christians have called a good works philosophy: deliverance must be merited by the cumulative actions of a lifetime. For Jonah, Nineveh is a symbol of all that is evil in the world, a symbol of all the peoples who oppose God. 12 If any deserved to perish, it was the Ninevites. No other nation had wielded the sword so unmercifully. And Israel had suffered grievously at her hand. Now this destroyer was to be offered the possibility of being spared.

To Jonah this must have been sheer madness. Such a circumvention of all that goes by the name of justice! In the face of such injustice what difference does faith make after all? For Jonah, God, if he is to be truly God and if Israel’s faith is to be meaningful, must conform to canons of righteousness that relate divine response to human conduct in ways that are consistent, if not predictable. 13

Aware that any repentance would likely be short-lived, Jonah could even picture himself as a traitor to Israel, God’s chosen people. God must be wrong; deliverance of this foe just was not right. Jonah would not compound the error if he could help himself. Yet God condescended to try to explain himself to his wayward prophet. Though Jonah does not accept it, the defect in his thinking about justice is made clear. The incident of the gourd provides the backdrop. {21}

Since the prophet has expressed himself so clearly on his affection for the gourd which afforded him shade and comfort, he can now be shown how he has tried to deny God His strong love for those much more important than the gourd. 14

There is a distinction which must be made between the two seemingly parallel questions that God asks Jonah. The first question (4:4) deals with deliverance; the second (4:9) deals with destruction. God is showing Jonah that he has challenged God on both sides of justice: Jonah has questioned the rightness of both God’s salvation and his judgment. Nor is the sphere of God’s deliverance and destruction limited to Nineveh; it includes Jonah and Israel as well. God is seeking to bring Jonah (and the reader) to the realization that

the gifts of God were given to them in the first place quite apart from the question of justice, hence the loss of such gifts or a comparable gift to others should not raise the question of justice. 15

Unlike the eschatological counter-arguments of most Old Testament writers when dealing with similar challenges, the author of Jonah uses a direct appeal to the sovereignty of God and the complete lack of standing on the part of his creatures even to consider bringing charges against God. Jonah could not lift himself above the level of human existence in which he is inextricably enmeshed to bring charges against heaven. Jonah cannot bring God into court. He does not understand the issue. He is creature; God is creator. Yet God still condescends to explain.


  1. Frank E. Gaebelein, Four Minor Prophets, Their Message for Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1970), p. 64.
  2. Jacob Myers, Hosea to Jonah, Layman’s Bible Commentaries (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1959), p. 163.
  3. Eric C. Rust, Covenant and Hope (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1972), p. 179.
  4. Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, New International Commentary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), pp. 193-194.
  5. Ibid., pp. 212, 223-225.
  6. George M. Landers, “The Kerygma of the Book of Jonah,” Interpretation, 21 (January 1967) 2, pp. 15-16. See also Allen, pp. 184-185.
  7. H.L. Ellison, The Prophets of Israel (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969), p. 59.
  8. Allen, p. 179. {22}
  9. Terence E. Fretheim, “Jonah and Theodicy,” ZAW 90 (1978) 227, p. 232.
  10. Grace I. Emmerson, “Another Look at the Book of Jonah,” The Expository Times 88 (December 1976) 86, pp. 86-87.
  11. Chaim Lewis, “Jonah—A Parable for Our Time,” Judaism 21 (Spring 1972) 159, p. 162.
  12. John D. W. Watts, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, Cambridge Bible Commentary of the New English Bible (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 77.
  13. Fretheim, pp. 227-228.
  14. Charles L. Feinberg, The Minor Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1977), p. 150.
  15. Fretheim, p. 234.
Donn Rojeski is a graduating seminarian at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and an assistant pastor at the North Fresno MB Church.

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