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Background Considerations:

  • The nature of prophecy. The popular definition of prophecy is almost always tied to predictions of the future. But the future is only part, in fact a small part, of the prophets’ arena of concern. They probably are better described as forthtelling, rather than always foretelling. The present response to God is central, even if the future (or the past, for that matter) needs to be called into service. Prophets were primarily preachers; their major task was to call people into a saving relationship with God. What tools did they use to accomplish their purpose?
    This leads to a question about conditional predictions. While it is clear from a close reading of the prophetic books that many predictions simply carried a rhetorical force to help people change their minds, many of the promises and threats were dependent on the response of the people. How does the story of Jonah fit into this suggestion?
  • The rates of success among prophets. It might prove interesting to chart out the success ratings of the prophets in the Bible and see who appears to have been more productive in terms of moving people to respond positively to God. How would Isaiah have done? What about Ezekiel? Jeremiah? Haggai? Moses? Jesus? Given the stunning turnaround on behalf of the Ninevites, how does Jonah react to his success? Are we to understand something through the irony here?

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Read through the entire book of Jonah.
  • Jonah 3:4-5 – prophetic message and popular response. Five words in the Hebrew represent Jonah’s message – yet / forty / days / and Nineveh / will be overthrown (or turned around). Not much for long sermons. Why is this? Did Jonah expect or hope for a positive response? How did he think about the cruel enemy of his people and God’s command to help rescue them? In their response to God, they “believed in God.” They put confidence in God, became firm in God. What role did fasting (not mentioned a lot in the Old Testament) play, and the wearing of sackcloth?
  • Jonah 3:6-9 – royal response and decree. Is there any humor to watch for in this scene of the story? Any irony? How or why would foreigners trust in a God, whose people they had already battled successfully, especially when most people believed that battles were won or lost on the basis of the strength of a people’s god? Who all has joined the fast besides royalty? The people and the animals – none were to eat or drink, no sheep, no goat, no donkey. Can repentance be legislated? Or, is theremore here than meets the western eye in terms of corporate personality, a sense of wider community participation? On what is a hope for reprieve based, in the words of the king? Maybe God will repent. What does this mean? Is the king closer to the truth about God than Jonah?
  • Jonah 3:10 – divine response. Is there anyone in the Bible who repents more than God? What does it mean that God repents? (A good Bible dictionary would be useful here.) Usually in the Old Testament people repent with the word shuv (to turn completely around) and God normally repents with the term niham (to change one’s mind, go in another direction). Does God change?

Contributions to the study of Jonah

  • These verses speak volumes about the encounter between God and humans, about human and divine repentance, about changing one’s course.

Lessons for Life

  • Should we be open to surprises about how and when God might decide to demonstrate extraordinary mercy and compassion? “Who knows, God may yet …?”

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