Like most people raised in a churchgoing home, I have been aware of the story of Jonah since childhood. As a minister who teaches the Bible, however, I have gone through several stages of puzzlement and wonder at this short book. The number of themes is a challenge for the interpreter. It seems to be about so many things.
Is it about race and nationalism, since Jonah seems to be more concerned over his nation’s military security than over a city of spiritually lost people? Is it about God’s call to mission, since Jonah at first flees from the call and later goes but regrets it? Is it about the struggles believers have to obey and trust in God? Yes to all those—and more. A mountain of scholarship exists about the book of Jonah that reveals the richness of the story, the many layers of meaning, and the varied applicability of it to so much of human life and thought.1
I discovered that “varied applicability” as I preached through the book of Jonah verse by verse three times in my ministry. The first time was at my first church in a small, blue-collar town in the South. Ten years later I preached through it to several hundred young, single professionals in Manhattan. Then, a decade after that, I preached through Jonah on the Sundays immediately after the 9/11 tragedy in New York City. In each case the audience’s cultural location and personal needs were radically different, yet the text of Jonah was more than up to the task of powerfully addressing them. Many friends have told me over the years that the Jonah sermons they heard were life changing.
The narrative of Jonah seduces the reader into thinking of it as a simple fable, with the account of the great fish as the dramatic, if implausible, high point. Careful readers, however, find it to be an ingenious and artfully crafted work of literature. Its four chapters recount two incidents. In chapters 1 and 2 Jonah is given a command from God but fails to obey it; and in chapters 3 and 4 he is given the command again and this time carries it out. The two accounts are laid out in almost completely parallel patterns.
I have just completed a six session Bible study based on Tim Keller’s new book, The Prodigal Prophet (the book of Jonah). It is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription plan. The idea is to invite each participant to purchase their own book. Sessions include:
Prodigal Prophet, Lesson #1
Chapters 1, 2
Running from God / The World’s Storm
Prodigal Prophet, Lesson #2
Chapters 3, 4
Who is My Neighbor?
Embracing the Other
Prodigal Prophet, Lesson #3
Chapters 5, 6
The Pattern of Love
Running from Grace
Prodigal Prophet, Lesson #4
Chapters 7, 8
Doing Justice, Preaching Wrath
Prodigal Prophet, Lesson #5
Chapters 9, 10
The Character of Compassion
Our Relationship with God’s Word
Prodigal Prophet, Lesson #6
Chapters 11, 12
Our Relationship with God’s World
Our Relationship with God’s Grace