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How the Book of Jonah is the Prodigal Son Story

March 17, 2013

Having recently finished reading Jonah (something I’ve only done a handful of times, sadly), it is now one of my favorite books of the Bible. One of the most fascinating things I found about Jonah is how the whole story is basically a perfect parallel to the the parable Jesus would later tell that we know as “the prodigal son.” To show you what I mean, I will hit some of the key verses from the prodigal son story and parallel them to the story of Jonah and Nineveh; however, this is by no means the first time this relationship has been written on. One additional note, in the book of Jonah, the parable is flipped, and we spend the majority of the time watching the actions of the elder brother (Jonah) instead of the younger brother.

  • “…the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). When we look in the account of Jonah we find Nineveh described in this verse, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). So here we have the younger brother, living wickedly (after acting wickedly toward his father) and the nation of Nineveh also described as wicked.
  • But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him…” (Luke 15:20). Here is how Jonah himself describes God’s position toward the city of Nineveh: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Jonah 4:2). In the same sense that the father in Jesus’ parable had compassion for the younger, wicked son, so too God had compassion on the city of Nineveh when they came seeking redemption.
  • Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). Jonah 3:8-9 recounts a similar humbling of the people of Nineveh when they said, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” In both cases, the wayward party realizes their sin, understands it’s just consequences, and asks for grace.
  • But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate‘” (Luke 15:22-23). Similarly, we see in Jonah that, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10). The undeserved grace of God is given to both the Ninevites and the younger brother.
  • The older brother became angry and refused to go in [to the party for his brother]” (Luke 15:28). In Jonah we see an almost identical response from Jonah, at the salvation of the Ninevites, watch: “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry…’Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:1 & 3). Both Jonah and the elder brother see the grace shown to the younger brother and are deeply angered.
  • So his father went out and pleaded with him [to come into the party]” (Luke 15:29). God comes to Jonah and asks him the same thing that the Father was probably asking the elder brother, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4) In both cases the Father  seeks to bring the ‘elder brother’ into the ‘party.’
  • Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29). The elder brother is indignant that all his work obeying his father has gone to waste. We see his obvious motivation for obeying his father was to get his stuff, not to have Him. “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah knew the Ninevites deserved to be destroyed for their contempt of God and His people, so he is indignant that instead of destroying them, he is treating them like His own children. They are getting the treatment that only the Israelites deserved, in his opinion.
  • At the end of both books is an abrupt, if not semi-hopeful, ending. The father in the parable tells the son of the grace he was excited to show the younger brother, and in the book of Jonah, God says something very similar concerning his treatment of the Ninevites.

jonah_angryNeither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.” – Timothy Keller (The Prodigal God)

There it is, the story of the Prodigal Son in the story of Jonah. To me the biggest takeaway is that the reason these are similar stories is because they are both about the gospel, and who the gospel is for. It’s for law-breakers and law-keepers. The rebellious and the straight-laced. The humble and the prideful. You and me.

rembrant-prodigal-son-detail

God’s love and forgiveness can pardon and restore any and every kind of sin or wrongdoing. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done… There is no evil that the father’s love cannot pardon and over, there is no sin that is a match for his grace.” – Tim Keller (The Prodigal God)

Also…the stars as bullet points were not my choice…I don’t like them.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2013 6:07 pm

    Sweet parallel! I hadn’t seen that before, and I like how you highlighted it so clearly with the examples.

    I’m glad too that you’re back to blogging (perhaps?)!

    Also… nice stars.

  2. Nem Mingo permalink
    July 4, 2015 5:36 pm

    Excellent comparesonof events happened in the life of Jonah and in the life of prodigal son

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