Book Review – The Message of Jonah (Rosemary Nixon)

This is one of the most recent additions to the Bible Speaks Today series. It immediately stands out for its size. 220 pages for just four chapters of Jonah, which is significantly longer than Kidner’s contribution on the 52 chapters of Jeremiah. It averages out at just over four pages per verse.

There are effectively two introductions to the book. The first is a general introduction, and the second examines the literary genre of Jonah. Nixon starts by examining the history of interpretation of Jonah. She compares and contrasts the book with the other Old Testament prophets, and also contrasts Jonah himself with Jesus. Under literary genre she points out that chapter two is almost entirely poetic, and argues that we do not necessarily have to take the whole account as historical – it may be some sort of parable. Having said this, she appears to hold that Jonah was a real person, who really went and preached to Ninevah, and presumably really boarded a ship to Tarshish, so I was left a little unclear as to how exactly she combines a historical / parabolic interpretation.

One of the main reasons for the length of the commentary is that Nixon will regularly take a word or theme found in the text and explore where else it is used in Scripture. Thus there is actually commentary on much more than the text of Jonah in here. For example, there is a discussion on Cain in the land of Nod, as well as word studies on “swallowed”, “walk” and “message”.

Jonah’s problem was that cooperating with God in the salvation of his enemies was anathema to him. To go to Ninevah, the evil city, was for Jonah, to go to hell. Jonah is an image of resistance to God.

On chapter 2, Nixon points out a chiastic structure to the Psalm. Though Jonah had been ‘saved’ by the fish, in its belly he was hardly better than dead. Similarly, the people of Israel at this time had been ‘saved’ by forming an alliance with Assyria. Thus Jonah becomes a parable of Israel running from God towards their death. After being vomited up, Jonah has been delivered, but not transformed.

In chapter 3, Nixon sees another chiasm, and points out that God does not negotiate mutually agreeable callings with us. His call is ‘unreasonable’. In the fourth chapter, we slowly come to see Jonah’s real problem – he thought God was weak on sin and justice. He appears as a legalist reacting against the salvation by grace alone that God had offered to the Ninevites.

The commentary closes with an appendix considering the theme of repentance. The repentance of Ninevah was effectively a judgement on the lack of repentance in Israel. Nixon concludes by examining Paul’s anguish over the unbelief of Israel in Rom 9-11.

Despite being initially put off by what appeared to be a long-winded volume by BST standards, I thoroughly enjoyed working through this book. The slower pace allows a lot of interesting themes and angles to be pondered and explored. She even cites a few poems in between chapters. The end result is a commentary that not only sheds light on the book of Jonah but develops several key biblical themes, especially God’s indiscriminate grace. There were one or two places where I wondered whether she was hinting at a universalist position, but it was no more than a hint.

Overall I would say that if you have the time to read it, this will be a very profitable read, and will be especially useful for preachers looking for fresh ways to present one of the most well-known stories in the Bible.

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  1. Pingback: Commentary Series Review – Bible Speaks Today « wordandspirit

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