The tale of “Jonah and the Whale” is a common children’s Sunday school lesson, normally focusing on the repentance of Jonah and God’s desire for repentance. Where it is true that God desires that all repent from evil, it is not the only lesson to be learned from the story. The main theme of the book of Jonah is the fulfillment of God’s holy plan. This theme is followed with three underlying themes which are required for the God’s plan to become complete for this story. Those underlying themes are God’s authority over creation, salvation through faith and salvation available to all mankind.
God’s authority over creation is expressed mainly in two places, chapters one and four. The sea raged at the appointing of the Lord (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 1.15,16). The great fish swallowed Jonah (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 1.17). The plant grew up to shade Jonah from the heat upon God’s command (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 4.6). The worm was appointed by God to destroy the plant (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 4.7). Finally the scorching wind was at the command of God (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 4.8). God has control over all creation, but has provided that man is able to choose. Where God has control over all mankind, he has given the gift of freewill, so Jonah would have to be encouraged to repent and follow, whereas the fish, for example, had no choice. It is not that God could not have forced Jonah to repent, rather that he allowed him to make his own choice based on His encouragement.
It is this same type of choice that is an expression for faith which is required for salvation. God’s plan was for Jonah, but the choice to repent was his own. God encouraged strongly, but Jonah chose (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 3.3). It was the same for Nineveh. They had the promise of destruction if they did not repent. The promise was God’s encouragement, but the choice was their own. Nineveh could easily have chosen to ignore God’s call to repentance and been destroyed. Instead they chose to repent from their wickedness (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 3.5).
There is a logical nature to the idea of salvation for all which is alluded to in this book. If wickedness existed before the Abrahamic covenant with Israel, then certainly salvation from wickedness existed as well, or all from that time would have suffered eternal condemnation. Faith in God was the way to salvation just as it is today, and just as it was for Israel. We see a glimpse of this on the boat when the men, who are probably polytheistic in religion, recognize the deliverance and the authority of God and offer sacrifice and worship to Him (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 1:14). Nineveh as well expressed their belief in the true God when they chose to believe Jonah’s words and repented of their sins (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 3:5-10). They worshiped through fasting and grieved their sins with sackcloth and ashes.
The themes of God’s authority over all creation, salvation through faith and salvation for all are critical in establishing consistency of God’s plan for Jonah with that of the new covenant. And they are important in recognizing the fulfillment of God’s plan. There are two major events that took place within the book of Jonah that represent this fulfillment. The first is that God’s plan for Jonah was to preach His words to Nineveh, which was fulfilled (The MacArthur Study Bible, Jon. 3.4). The second is that it is possible God required Nineveh to recognize Him in order for the Assyrian empire to align with Israel in later years when Nineveh would become the capital of Assyria (This is based on the assumption that Jonah was an early prophet). Regardless of the reason for Nineveh’s repentance, it was part of God’s plan, which was fulfilled.
The MacArthur Study Bible: Updated New American Standard Translation. MacArthur:
Thomas Nelson Inc., 2006.