The book of Jonah falls in the category of the Minor Prophets, but it is not like the other prophetic books; Jonah is very different. This book seems to act more like a narrative than a prophecy because it tells the story about a prophet, rather than written word directly from a prophet in the first person, foretelling of the future. However, this does not mean that “the word of the LORD” (1:1) did not come to Jonah. In fact, this is a story about the word of the LORD coming to Jonah, commanding him to go and preach to the Ninevites, calling out against them for their moral sin, which is a great offense to the holy God. Even though they are not Israel and under the Mosaic Covenant.
When we read through the Major Prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah for example, we find that much page space is taken up about God’s judgement on Israel and Judah, the nations, a coming savior, Israel’s restoration, and Jerusalem’s last days. The Minor Prophets tell more on judgement that is to come, like on Israel’s enemies, on Israel, and Judah in Amos. Obadiah tells of God’s punishment on Edom; Micah prophesies of judgment on Samaria, Judah, false prophets, and tells of the coming Messiah; and Nahum prophesies of the destruction of Nineveh for their wickedness more than a century after Jonah, which provides a sort of sequel to Jonah’s story. Jonah is not like these other prophets, because it is a narrative telling the story of a nation that was promised destruction if they did not turn from their wickedness and turn to Yahweh. It is not a book of mere prophecy, but a story of redemption and repentance that flows out of the word of God. But first, what does “prophecy” mean?
Biblically speaking, “prophecy” is revelation given to men from God through the means of a prophet, or God’s messenger. At times it is a message of distant future hope or destruction, or even near future hope or destruction. Sometimes it is a call to repentance, like here in Jonah, and other times a foretelling of absolute judgment. Here, in the book of Jonah, Jonah’s prophecy, given to him by God, is a brief and concise call to repentance.
God first tells Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me,” (1:2). In chapter three, God commands Jonah again saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you,” (3:2). Jonah enters the city preaching, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4). What this tells us about “prophecy” is that it is not merely a foretelling or forthtelling of the future, but it can also be, at times, a call to believe God at His Word. It is a revealing of the character and nature of God, revealing His holiness, mercy, and justice. It is gracious that God even reveals anything to us, sinners, about Himself or what He is doing or going to do.
Nineveh Outside of the Covenant
The book of Jonah is saturated in revealing, reminding, and expounding on the covenants of God. It is according to the law of God, that is lovingly revealed and articulated through the Mosaic Covenant and other places in Scripture, that we can clearly see our evil and sin for what it truly is, a transgression against a holy God (Jonah 1:2; Rom. 7:7-25). The people of Nineveh, even though the Mosaic Covenant was not made with them, are still seen by God as unholy and unrighteous, thus, deserving of destruction and death which is the curse for breaking God’s covenant and law with all men (Deut. 28:15-68).
Their moral corruption is an offense to the holy God of the whole earth. However, God shows mercy to even send a prophet to clearly and verbally warn them of what is to come unless they repent of their ways. The miraculous happens, which does not happen often with the Hebrews; Nineveh hears the Word and believes God (3:5). God saves a pagan nation from the wrath and punishment they rightly deserved. We often think of God having nothing to do with Gentile nations except in direct relation to Israel, but here God sends a prophet, an Israeli prophet, to an idolatrous, savage, uncovenanted (outside of the Mosaic Covenant though not the covenant of works made with Adam) nation to preach good news from Yahweh and the nation is saved from their sin.
But what does this tell us about “covenant”? Did God change the way he normally works in relation to sin with men? Was Nineveh brought into the Mosaic Covenant in order to be saved? No. The Mosaic Covenant was not intended for that purpose to begin with. So then how was it that Nineveh was saved and could repent of their sin? By grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), the same as with Abraham, who believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness before the covenant of circumcision was made with him (Gen. 12:6), and the same as Rahab had faith, even though she wasn’t in the Mosaic Covenant (Joshua 2:1-21; Heb. 11:31). What their faith in? The promised eternal life given to them by God, and ultimately, in Christ.
By Grace Through Faith
Both of these examples show us that it is not by being in the covenant of works, where membership is contingent upon perfect obedience, that we find God’s soul saving and effectual grace since we cannot perfectly obey this covenant because of sin. Abraham and Rahab were obviously not saved by their works in a covenant, but by Christ’s perfect obedience to the whole law of God given in the Old Covenant, His work on the cross, and His resurrection from the dead, thereby leading to their true saving faith and repentance, then resulting in good obedient works of the law (James 2:21-26; Rom. 4:1-12).
Therefore, the Ninevites, like Abraham, Rahab, and many others in the Old Testament, were saved by grace through faith under the New Covenant promised to them that was later established in Christ, also known as, the Covenant of Grace (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 9:15; 12:24). In writing about Abraham being promised of a Covenant of Redemption in Gen. 12, Nehemiah Coxe writes:
“This is a covenant that conveys the grace of life to poor sinners by a free and gracious promise which admits of no other restipulation in order to covenant interest except believing. It is of faith because it is of grace (Romans 4:16) and this way is the only way of life. There is but one covenant of spiritual and eternal blessing in Christ Jesus, founded in the eternal decree and counsel of God’s love and grace, which is now revealed to Abraham. There is but one seed, which is of true believers in union with Christ, promised to him as the heirs of this covenant and the grace given by it,” (Covenant Theology From Adam to Christ, p. 79).