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The Context of Jonah

Years ago, I had the privilege of taking a seminary class taught by the man who wrote the commentary for the book of Jonah in the ESV Study Bible. Dr. Futato was passionate about the book of Jonah and extremely knowledgeable, and as a result, I’ve come to embrace this book as my favorite book of the prophets.

The book of Jonah is a literary masterpiece. It’s simple but sophisticated. The book is easy to understand, and yet it’s rich and profound. A child can read it and understand it, and an adult can get more and more out of it each time he or she reads it.

The key verse of the book of Jonah is Jonah 4:11: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”

The key word for the entire book is compassion. Although the Assyrians were evil and rejected God, he still had compassion on them and a desire to see them saved from their sin. He sent Jonah to give them a message that they were to be destroyed. Jonah, however, did not share God’s compassion for the Ninevites. When God gave him his message for Nineveh, Jonah turned and ran the other way. When Jonah finally did deliver his message and they repented, he was angry with God for having compassion. The book concludes with a powerful lesson on compassion.

The following is the structure of the book, which is something called “modified parallel structure.” In this type of structure, there are seven major divisions to the book. The first three sections parallel the second three, and then the seventh section stands alone. This structure is used to show that the seventh section is the theme of the book. The overall theme of Jonah is the compassion of God toward unfaithful people. See the structure below and how the seventh section is about God’s compassion::

Part 1 (Jonah 1:1-2:10)
1:1-3 Jonah’s commission and flight
1:4-16 Jonah and the pagan sailors
1:17-2:10 Jonah’s grateful prayer

Part 2 (Jonah 3:1-4:11)
3:1-3a Jonah’s re-commission and compliance
3:3b-10 Jonah and the pagan Ninevites
4:1-4 Jonah’s angry prayer
4:5-11 Jonah’s lesson on compassion (stands alone – the overall theme of the book)

Again, the most important element in Jonah is God’s compassion. Although Jonah didn’t have compassion on the Assyrian Ninevites, God did have compassion and gave them a chance to confess their sins and turn to him. It’s a good thing that our God is a compassionate God. Otherwise, people like us would never have a chance to spend eternity with him.

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About Chad Young

Chad Young works in full-time college ministry, serving as Cru Global’s national director over the southeast region, leading the ministries in FL, GA, AL, and MS. He has served on the staff of Cru for fifteen years. He is the author of Authenticity: Real Faith in a Phony, Superficial World (InterVarsity Press), a discipleship-training manual, and magazine articles for Worldwide Challenge and The Collegiate. He frequently speaks at retreats and conferences and regularly writes devotionals for his website, findingauthenticchristianity.com. Chad, with his wife Elizabeth, travels the country to speak at churches and train church leaders how to make Biblical disciples. Chad currently resides in Atlanta, GA, with his wife Elizabeth and their four young children, Wyatt, Clark, Evelyn, and Josilynn. His hobbies include cheering on his kids in sports, following college football, and laughing with family around the backyard fire pit.
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