Few books have attracted the attention of sceptics and rationalists more than this one. The fact that a human could be swallowed by a great fish and survive has been ridiculed as fanciful. However, as Morgan states, ‘Men have been so busy with the tape measure endeavouring to find the dimensions of the fish’s belly that they seem to have had no time to plumb the depths of the divine revelation’.1 In reality, to question the authenticity of Jonah is to question the testimony of the Lord.2
The prophecy of Jonah is remarkable in several ways:
Jonah’s place amongst the minor prophets is reinforced because the Lord clearly describes Jonah as a prophet, Matt. 12. 39, and the opening words of the book testify to that fact, ‘the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai’, 1. 1. As that phrase is repeated in chapter 3 verse 1, it reflects something of the patience of God with Jonah and yet the reality that God’s will is certain.
Overall, the very practical lesson is, as Paul wrote, that God’s ways are ‘unsearchable … and … past finding out’, Rom. 11. 33. Equally, although Peter wrote of the ‘the longsuffering of God … in the days of Noah’, 1 Pet. 3. 20, and that was for the salvation of only eight souls, in this instance we echo his later words that God ‘is longsuffering … not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance’, 2 Pet. 3. 9. The impact of Jonah’s preaching was significantly greater!
Although there are no explicit statements to confirm it, Jonah is generally accepted as the author of the book. From 2 Kings chapter 14 verse 25, Jonah prophesied in Israel mainly during the reign of Jeroboam the son of Joash. This makes him the earliest of the prophets, preceding Hosea and Amos who also prophesied in that period. He is described as ‘the son of Amittai’, v. 1, but there is no other scriptural record of his father.
His geographical base within Israel is designated as Gath-hepher, which lay further north than Nazareth in the Galilee region, called Gittahhapher, Josh. 19. 13, and on the boundary of Zebulun’s territory.
In the Lord’s instruction to Jonah, vv. 1, 2, He knows all about Nineveh. In human terms, it may be a ‘great city’, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, renowned for its palaces, but in moral and spiritual terms the verdict is rather different. God is not interested in the architecture, Matt. 24. 1, but in the people!
However, for Jonah this command was unpalatable. As Flanigan writes, ‘the very idea of a Hebrew prophet ministering to such a city was anathema’.5 Looking at the state of the nation of Israel, he may have asked himself, ‘is there not a work to be done here first’? So, in disobedience, Jonah takes his downward steps to Joppa, into the ship, and into the hold of the ship.
Sometimes the commands of God will appear strange to us. Why is God taking us in a particular direction when there seems to be so many opportunities elsewhere? The reality is that, as Solomon wrote, ‘no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end’, Eccles. 3. 11. We may not like or understand but we must trust and obey.
These may be experienced mariners, but they had a respect for the sea and the storm. They took various steps to weather the worst of the tempest, crying to their pagan deities and lightening the ship by casting their cargo overboard. All was to no avail. Finally, ‘they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah’, v. 7.
As Jonah reveals something of himself and his service, fear is heightened, cp. vv. 5, 10. What is remarkable is that Jonah, who knows his God, 4. 2, and knows what must be done to make the ‘sea … calm unto you’, v. 12, should ever think that he could ‘flee … from the presence of the Lord’, v. 3! Thus, at this point, the men having rowed hard in vain, they had to agree to Jonah’s instruction and cast him into the sea.
Here we should appreciate the greatness of the God whom Jonah served. Humanly speaking, to be cast into the sea in a raging storm would be a death sentence executed. The ship’s crew realized this, ‘let us not perish for this man’s life’, v. 14. However, ‘the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah’, v. 17 ESV. This sea creature was brought by God into the right place at the right time and, unlike Jonah, obeyed its creator’s command and swallowed up Jonah!
Amid adversity, Jonah resorts to prayer. In the content of that prayer, given in verses 2 to 9, we see something of the prophet’s feelings, vv. 3-7, and something of his appreciation of his God, vv. 2, 6, 9. We should not underestimate the intensity of Jonah’s experience.
In thinking on that experience, we can appreciate that this chapter furnishes us with material that illustrates the experiences of the Lord at Calvary, and we might well ponder such phrases as ‘all thy billows and thy waves passed over me’, v. 3, and ‘the depth closed me round about’.
Practically, there is much that should encourage us in our Christian life. Even in the most desperate of circumstances, we can rest in the knowledge that, ‘When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee’, v. 7. God awaits our cry, whether to minister to us in our extremity or to restore the wanderer. Whilst ‘the way of transgressors is hard’, Prov. 13. 15, the way back to the Lord should not be harder.
What a blessing that ‘the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time’, v. 1. God does not give up on His prophet and we should not give up on failures, otherwise where would any of us be? At the second time of command, Jonah obeys.
The size of Jonah’s task is given us in verse 3, ‘Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey’. Similarly, God tells us about its population, ‘more than sixscore thousand persons’, 4. 11. By way of comparison, this figure is slightly less than the UK towns and cities of Cambridge, Dundee, and Newport.6Remembering that he was just one man to preach throughout such a conurbation is significant, yet he went, and he cried, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’, v. 4.
Though we may be faced with overwhelming need and a message that is equally unpopular, let us think upon Jonah and see what God can do, even with a man who was marked by failure.
What an impact! Jonah is possibly the most successful preacher on the page of scripture. The cry goes up from the king and is obeyed by the people as a whole, ‘turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands’, v. 8. The reality of this repentance is evidenced in that they covered themselves with sackcloth, fasted, and gave themselves to prayer. What a revival!
But this raises a question when, in verse 10, Jonah records, ‘God repented of the evil, that he said he would do unto them’. Did God change His mind? Fausset comments, ‘The reason why the announcement of destruction was made absolute, and not dependent on Nineveh’s continued impenitence, was that this form was the only one calculated to rouse them … it was a truthful representation of God’s purpose towards Nineveh under its existing state, and of Nineveh’s due. When that state ceased, a new relation of Nineveh to God … came in, and room was made for the word to take effect … Prophecy is not merely for the sake of proving God’s omniscience by the verification of predictions of the future, but is mainly designed to vindicate God’s justice and mercy in dealing with the impenitent and penitent respectively’.7
Far from being pleased with the outcome of his preaching, Jonah is hurt, upset and angry. The manner and content of his prayer changes dramatically. Constable notes, ‘This one focuses on Jonah, but the former one on God. This one contains no fewer than nine references to “I” or “my” in the Hebrew’.8 In such a state, Jonah wants to end it all.
The lessons we can learn from this rather sad end to the book are of the remarkable grace of God in sending His prophet to Nineveh and the compassion He demonstrates to His prophet, even in such a low state, spiritually and mentally. Overall, and particularly in the preparation and destruction of the gourd, we need to learn to view things from God’s perspective rather than our own.
G. Campbell Morgan, Voices of Twelve Hebrew Prophets, Pickering and Inglis, pg. 31.
See, for example, Matt. 12. 39-41; 16. 4; Luke 11. 29-32.
This is assumed by the only other reference to Jonah and Amittai being in 2 Kings chapter 14 verse 25, and its context.
William Kelly, Lectures introductory to the study of the Minor Prophets, C. A. Hammond, pg. 206.
J. M. Flanigan, ‘Jonah’, in W. S. Steveley and D. E. West (ed.), What the Bible Teaches, Ritchie; Old Testament Commentaries, Ritchie, 2011, pg. 499.
Figures based upon a 2019 population estimate - projections derived from 2001 and 2011 census figures.
R. Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and D. Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the whole Bible, part of e-sword software resource. See also M. Horlock, ‘Jonah’ in Ivan Steeds (ed.), The Minor Prophets, Precious Seed Publications, 1992, pg. 112.
T. Constable, Expository Notes, part of e-sword software resource.