Jonah, chronologically, is thought to be the first of the books of the prophets as the events of the book happen around 790BC. Jonah is listed as a minor prophet simply because the book on his ministry is short.
Jonah is famous , for one reason, because Jesus refers to him:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
There is a strong contention by a number of writers that Jonah is fictional as surviving in the belly of a fish for three days sounds preposterous. One view is that the whole book is a satire. However, in the above verse by our Lord, it certainly looks like our Lord believed in Jonah and there is another reference to Jonah in 2 Kings:
In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.
In the above verses, we see that Jonah ministered for God to God’s chosen people. Also in the above verse, he delivered a message about the border of Israel.
The book of Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets. In its four chapters Jonah only says one line of prophecy, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The whole book is a narrative of this one series of events. Additionally, we see something about this spokesman for God that we don’t see in the other prophets who have books. Jonah was not sent to one of the Kings of Israel or Judah, rather he was sent to Nineveh. Ninevah wasn’t in Israel or Judah, rather it was a huge city in the Assyrian Empire. There is some claim that Ninevah was the great city founded by Nimrod.
And we see some unique workings in God’s relationship with his spokesman, Jonah, when we see that Jonah doesn’t want to do what God wants him to do. In Jonah, we see an entire conversation between God and a man, albeit that man is a prophet of God, so there must be a line of communication between them. And then we have the famous story of Jonah and the great fish which is prophesied to be a forerunner of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
The fact that Jonah was sent to Nineveh brings up some interesting points about the Old Testament and God’s workings. It emphasizes the point that while the descendants of Abraham were certainly God’s chosen people God did interact with other peoples, at least from time to time in the bible. There are records of dreams and other signs given to people other than the children of Israel. While there may not be a lot of records of this type God has always been the God of all. An example of other people’s relationship with our Father God would be Melchizedek, the king and priest of Salem. Melchizedek was someone Abram paid tithes to, but Melchizedek was not one of the chosen people. And Melchizedek had to be somebody very significant as Christ himself is called our high priest after the order of Melchizedek:
We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
(Heb 6:19-20 ESV)
So as you probably know the story is that Jonah got the word to walk the streets of Nineveh telling them to repent. But he didn’t want to do it! So he hired a ship as if he could sail away from God Almighty! But as we know God caused a great storm, and to make a long story short, Jonah told the crew the ship to throw him overboard so that they wouldn’t get demolished in the storm. So the crew threw him overboard and he was swallowed by a great fish. Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish. After that time the great fish spit about on dry land. He did go and tell the people of Nineveh to repent. Which they did! But Jonah wasn’t happy about that, and he went and sulked on a hill.
So God had a little trick up his sleeve. God made a great plant to shadow him. But then he let a great worm destroy the plant! And he used the plant as an object lesson.
Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
(Jon 4:6-11 ESV)
Look at the detailed conversation going on here between Jonah and the Lord God. Before this we just see a simple directions that the Lord commanded Jonah:
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jon 1:1-2 ESV)
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” (Jon 3:1-2 ESV)
But in between those two very similar declarations by the Lord is this prayer by Jonah to the Lord. In the prayer notice his humility, his repentance.
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
(Jon 2:1-9 ESV)
So we see in the conversation between God and Jonah how Jonah was concerned over the welfare of the plant but not of the citizens of the great city Ninevah.
So, as a result, we learn a great deal about God, prophecy, and prophets in this book. We learn that God did communicate with people other than his chosen people, and some did have the heart to serve him, and accordingly, God rewarded them!
We learn that being a prophet is not always an easy task and that prophets don’t always want to do what they’re told! And we learned that God works with prophets, talking with them, to teach them and guide them. We learn that in the end Jonah did his job.
Furthermore, we learn that prophecies can have different outcomes depending on the response of the people. Nineveh went from being a city that was going to be overthrown to an example of a people that would judge the people of Jesus’ time.