How to Read Jonah

The Book of Jonah

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application.  

Jonah is the satirical story of a rebellious prophet who hates God for loving his enemies. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the book of Jonah, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video. 

Now that you have an overview of Jonah in mind, you can apply what you know to interpret specific passages in Jonah. Read about Jonah’s anger toward the Lord for having mercy on his enemies in Jonah 4:1–4. Utilize observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application to dissect the meaning of this passage. Use the ideas from the videos to inform your answers to the following questions about Jonah 4:1–4.

Jonah 4:1-4 (ESV)

Jonah’s Anger and the Lord’s Compassion

1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.2And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”4And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: Jonah is angry at the Lord and insults Him for his compassion. Jonah would rather die than live.

Observe: As you read the passage, what observations did you make about Jonah 4:1–4? (Consider the major characters, plot points, locations, cities, landmarks, time period, background information, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters. Also, take note of any information offered in the video.)
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Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) Jonah is angry at the Lord and insults Him for his compassion. Jonah would rather die than live. (Interpretation) Jonah is full of pride and does not want to be subject to a God who has mercy on enemies. 

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Jonah? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Consider insights from the video as well.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 

Example: Throughout the Old Testament, God has mercy on his enemies, giving them many chances to repent. God sends Jonah to Nineveh to call the people to repentance. Jonah is rebellious and hates God for being merciful to his enemies. Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies. God makes a way for his enemies to become His family, through Jesus. 

Contextualize: What themes does Jonah 4:1–4 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of Jonah? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the earlier books of the Bible?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: In my sin, I am God’s enemy, separated from Him. Because God is merciful and compassionate, He has made a way for me, through Jesus, to become His friend and be part of His family. Knowing this about the character of God, how is it that I see my enemies? Am I loving those I do not consider friends? Am I merciful toward them, as he is? Am I forgiving my enemies? Am I praying for my enemies and asking God to be merciful toward them, or am I content to be rebellious, like Jonah? This week, I can pray and ask God to enable me to love my enemies, and also for eyes to see the opportunities he gives me to do that.

Apply: How does the truth from Jonah affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week? If you're having trouble coming up with an application of this particular passage, how could you apply the main message of Jonah to your life this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps us wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Jonah, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Jonah this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.