How to find the heart of the text

  • Sean Martin
  • 9 January 2019

What is the book of Jonah about? I’ve asked that question many times, and most people say something like, “Oh, it’s about Jonah and the big fish.” But is it? No doubt, a fish does show up in the book, but is it the main point? The book has forty-eight verses; the fish is mentioned in three of them. That’s about six per cent. Have we gotten distracted and missed something else God said?

The point is this: learning how to observe Scripture well enables us to get to what a text is really about. One of the best ways to observe well is by asking questions.

Imagine you were invited to a dinner party and you met someone new. What are the typical questions you might ask? “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “What do you do for work?” “When did you meet the host?” These are all good questions to get to know the basics about someone. But about is the key word here. You could leave that conversation knowing about someone. But knowing about and knowing are two different things

So, the person you met at the dinner party was named Joanne. She is from Australia, she’s a dentist, and she met the host three years ago when she moved to the USA. What might you ask now? Try why and how. Ask Joanne why she became a dentist and you would likely get a very interesting answer providing background and context to her decision. She might explain that she’s passionate about people having healthy teeth. Ask her why she moved to the USA. Ask her how she does a root canal and you would probably get a detailed explanation (maybe more than you bargained for!). By asking why and how, you are moving towards getting to know Joanne and why she became a dentist. You are getting to know her and what makes her tick. 

Now, back to Jonah. Imagine you’re reading chapter one for the first time. Where do you start? Well, it’s just like meeting Joanne.

Who is in chapter one? The Lord, Jonah the son of Amittai, mariners, and a fish.

Where are we? We can infer Jonah’s in Israel as he’s called to go to Nineveh, a city in Assyria that bordered Israel.  

What happened? A prophet flees the presence of the Lord (maybe he never read Psalm 139:7-12). God throws a wind at the sea. Everyone prays except for the prophet. Jonah is thrown into the sea. The sailors come to fear the Lord and make vows. The Lord appoints a fish to swallow Jonah.

There’s much more, but these are the basics about Jonah chapter one. How do we now find the author’s intent? It’s time to ask why and how.

Why did Jonah run? Why did the Lord pursue him? Why wouldn’t Jonah pray on the ship? Why did Jonah ask to be thrown into the sea rather than to say sorry to God and obey? Why was attention given to the sailors, especially their growing fear that resulted in sacrifices and vows? How can a man who fears the Lord (v. 9) run away and refuse to pray? How many verses contain prophecy? (Usually a prophetic book has lots of words from God to his people through the prophet.) How many verses explain Jonah’s behaviour and God’s response? Why is this important? Why does God care about Nineveh? Why does he care about pagan sailors? Why does he care about Jonah? What does this say to God’s people? Usually prophets are cast in a good light; why does the Bible tell us about a disobedient prophet? Why is this book here? How does it point us to Jesus?

Questions like these help us get to know what is happening in Jonah’s heart and what God wants to teach him, the original audience, and us today. They will move us from content to the intent of the author. They will take us from information about Jonah to the transformative purpose of the book. That is how change will occur as we wrestle with the message of this book and how it applies to our hearts.

Speaking of hearts, maybe the next children’s book about Jonah should have a heart on the cover rather than a whale. Just a thought!