As noted in the introduction, the Book of Jonah is an outlier among the twelve prophets. It does not take place in Israel. The text gives no indication of its date. It does not contain prophetic oracles, and the focus is not on the people to whom the prophet is sent, but on his own personal experience. Nonetheless, it shares the perspective of the other prophets that God is active in the world (Jonah 1:2, 17; 2:10), and that faithfulness to God (or lack of it) underlies a three-fold link among worship, socio-economic health and the environment. When the sailors pray to the Lord and obey his word, the sea is calmed, and God provides for the wellbeing of the sailors and Jonah (Jon. 1:14-19). When Jonah returns to proper worship, the Lord returns the environment to its proper order: fish in the sea, people on dry land (Jon. 2:7-10) When Nineveh turns to the Lord, the animals and humans band together in harmony, and the socio-economic violations cease (Jon. 3:4-10). Jonah’s setting is different from the rest of the Twelve Prophets, but not his theology. The unique contributions of the book of Jonah are 1) the focus on the prophet’s call and response; and 2) the recognition that God is not working to bless Israel against the other nations, but to bless the other nations through Israel.
Douglas Stuart, vol. 31, Word Biblical Commentary: Hosea-Jonah (Dallas: Word, Inc., 2002), 431.
Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 434.
As is typical with Twelve Prophets, the Book of Jonah begins with a call from God to the prophet (Jon. 1:1-2). Unlike the others, however, Jonah rejects God’s call. Foolishly, he attempts to flee the presence of the Lord by taking a ship to foreign shores (Jon. 1:3). This imperils not only him, but his shipmates, for—as we have seen throughout the Book of the Twelve—breaking covenant with God has tangible consequences, and the actions of individuals always affect the community. God sends a storm. First, it ruins the mariners’ commercial prospects, as they are forced to throw all the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship (Jon. 1:5). Eventually it threatens their very lives (Jon. 1:11). Only when Jonah offers to be thrown into the sea—which the sailors reluctantly accept—does the storm abate and the danger to the community subside (Jon. 1:12-15).
The purpose of a call from God is to serve other people. Jonah’s call is for the benefit of Nineveh. When he rejects God’s guidance, not only do the people he was called to serve languish, but the people surrounding him suffer. If we accept that we are all called to serve God in our work—which is probably different from Jonah’s work, but no less important to God (see Theology of Work Project article Vocation Overview)—then we recognize that failing to serve God in our work also diminishes our communities. The more powerful our gifts and talents, the greater the harm we are apt to do if we reject God’s guidance in our work. Undoubtedly we can all bring to mind people whose prodigious abilities enabled them to do great harm in fields of business, government, society, science, religion, and all the rest. Imagine the good they could have done, the evil they could have avoided, if they had submitted their skills first to the worship and service of the Lord. Our gifts may seem puny in comparison, yet imagine the good we could do and the evil we could avert if we did our work in service to God over the course of a lifetime.
Jonah disobeys God’s call because he objects to God’s intent to bless Israel’s adversaries, the nation of Assyria and its capital city, Nineveh, and when he ultimately relents and his mission is successful, he resents God’s mercy to them (Jon. 4:1-2). This is understandable, for in time Assyria was to conquer the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:6). Jonah is being sent to bless people he despises. Nonetheless, this is God’s will. Apparently, God’s intent is to use the people of Israel to bless all nations, not just themselves (see "Blessing for All Peoples (Jeremiah 29)" in Jeremiah & Lamentations and Work).
Is it possible that we each try to place our own limitations on the reach of God’s blessings through our work? We often assume we have to hoard the benefits of our work for ourselves, lest others gain an advantage over us. We may resort to secrecy and deception, cheating and cutting corners, exploitation and intimidation, in an effort to gain an advantage over rivals at work. We seem to accept as fact the unproven assumption that our success at work has to come at others’ expense. Have we come to believe that success is a zero-sum gain?
God’s blessing is not a bucket with limited capacity, but an overflowing fountain. “Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (Malachi 3:10). Despite the competition, resource constraints, and malevolence we often face at work, God’s mission for us is nothing so puny as survival against all odds, but the magnificent transformation of our places of work to fulfill the creativity and productivity, the relationships and social harmony, and the environmental balance God intended from the beginning.
Although Jonah initially refuses to participate in God’s blessing for his adversaries, in the end his faithfulness to God overcomes his disobedience. Eventually he does warn Nineveh, and to his dismay they respond passionately to his message. The entire city, “everyone great and small” (Jon. 3:5b), from the king and his nobles to the people in the streets to the animals in their flocks, “turn from their evil ways and the violence that is in their hands” (Jon. 3:8). “The people of Nineveh believed God” (Jon. 3:5a) and “when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” (Jon. 3:10). This is dismaying to Jonah because he continues to want to dictate the results of the work God called him to. He wants punishment, not forgiveness, for Ninevah. He judges the results of his own work harshly (Jon. 4:5) and misses out on the joy of others. Do we do the same? When we lament the seeming lack of significance and success in our work, are we forgetting that only God can see the true value of our work?
Yet even Jonah’s small, halting moments of obedience to God lead to blessings for those around him. On the ship, he acknowledges, “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven” (Jon. 1:9) and sacrifices himself for the sake of his shipmates. As a result they are saved from the storm, and moreover, they become followers of the Lord. “The men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (Jon. 1:16).
If we recognize that our own work in God’s service is hobbled by disobedience, resentment, laxity, fear, selfishness or other ailments, Jonah’s experience may be an encouragement to us. Here we have a prophet who may be even more of a failure at faithful service than we are. Yet God accomplishes the fullness of his mission through Jonah’s halting, flawed, intermittent service. By God’s power, our poor service may accomplish everything that God intends.
In light of Jonah’s experience, we might fear that God’s calling will lead us into calamity and hardship. Wouldn’t it be easier to hope God doesn’t call us at all? It is true that responding to God’s call may require great sacrifice and hardship. Yet in Jonah’s case, the hardship arises not from God’s call, but from Jonah’s disobedience to it. The shipwreck and the 3-days burial at sea in the belly of the great fish arise directly from his attempt to flee God’s presence. His later exposure to the sun and wind and his despair almost to the point of suicide (Jon. 4:3-8) are not hardships imposed by God. They come because Jonah refuses to accept the blessings of “a gracious God [who is] merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon. 4:2).
The truth is that God is always working to care for and comfort Jonah. God moves people to compassion for him, as when the sailors try to row the ship to land rather than accept Jonah’s offer to be thrown overboard (Jon. 1:12-14). God sends a fish to save Jonah from drowning (Jon. 1:17) and then speaks to the fish to tell it to expel Jonah back to dry land (Jon. 2:10). He grants Jonah favour among the enemy population of Nineveh, who treat him with esteem and heed his message. He provides Jonah shade and shelter at Nineveh (Jon. 4:5-6) in his time of greatest need.
If Jonah’s case is any example, God’s call to serve others in our work need not come at the expense of our own well-being. To expect otherwise would be to remain trapped in the mindset of the zero-sum game. Given the extraordinary measures God takes to provide for Jonah when he rejects God’s call, imagine what blessings Jonah might have experienced if he had accepted the call from the beginning. The means to travel, friends ready to risk their lives for him, harmony with the world of nature, shade and shelter, the esteem of people among whom he works, and astounding success in his work—imagine how great a blessing these might have been if Jonah had accepted them as God intended. Even in the diminished form that Jonah forces upon himself, they show that God’s call to service is also an invitation to blessing.
A classic exploration of this topic is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1966), originally published in 1937.