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Jonah, the Reluctant Prophet
Although some skeptics have asserted that the book of Jonah was written after the exile, there is really no reason to believe this. “Jonah the son of Amittai,” was a real person, mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet from Gath Hepher in the territory of Zebulun during the time of Jeroboam II, king of Israel. Ninevah, first mentioned in Genesis 10:11 as one of the ancient cities founded by Nimrod, was the capital of Assyria and notorious for its wickedness and cruelty.
The heart of this book was to show the concern of YHWH for nations other than Israel, and how He chooses to use His people—however reluctant—to confront the sins of the guilty and bring them to repentance. It also shows God’s mercy and how quick He is to forgive when even ignorant, pagan people cry out to Him.
Jonah Chapter 1
When the word of YHWH came to this Israeli prophet, telling him to go and cry out against the city of Ninevah, Jonah the son of Amittai was not happy (Jon. 1:1-2). Assyria [whose capital was Ninevah] was one of Israel’s chief aggressors at this time, a cruel and idolatrous people hated by the Hebrews. Jonah was apparently one of many Israelites at that time who believed YHWH was for the descendants of Abraham only, and cared nothing for the nations outside of his own.
Therefore, thinking he could “flee…from the presence of the Lord,” Jonah went to Joppa, the nearest seaport in Israel, and boarded a ship going to Tarshish, a seaport in southern Spain (v. 3). According to Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts, Ninevah was about 550 miles northeast of Israel, while Tarshish was as far in the opposite direction [about 2,500 miles] as a person could travel in the then-known world (p. 259). It was not uncommon in the days of antiquity for people to believe that the various deities were merely regional gods (e.g.—1 Kings 20:23 & 28). This may have been Jonah’s idea, yet YHWH did not allow him to cling to this misconception for long.
Not long after its departure from Joppa, the ship was struck by a violent storm so ferocious that boat was beginning to break apart from the waves (Jon. 1:4). All the mariners were terrified and called out to their gods while they threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship (v. 5). Jonah, meanwhile, was asleep in the lower decks, oblivious to it all. When the captain of the ship found him, he urged Jonah to call on his God, too (6).
When the superstitious seamen decided to draw lots to see who might be the cause of the storm, Jonah was implicated (7). He told them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (8-9). He had previously mentioned that he was trying to get away from his God, so they were really upset, now, hearing that this deity Jonah had offended had authority over both the land and sea (10). They asked Jonah what needed to be done to appease his God (11). “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12, NIV).
That must’ve seemed a little too extreme to the sailors, so they tried rowing to land instead (13). When this only made the storm worse, the men cried out for God not to hold Jonah’s death against them, and then threw the prophet into the sea, as he had said (14-15). Instantly, “the sea ceased from its raging,” convincing these pagan mariners that YHWH truly was God, so they made sacrifices and vows to Him (15-16).
Jonah, meanwhile, had the good fortune of being swallowed by a “big fish,” which YHWH had been kind enough to prepare for that purpose; otherwise, the prophet would surely have drowned in the sea. Verse 17 says “And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Almost every child has heard the story of “Jonah and the Whale.” The throats of most whales are not large enough to admit a man’s body, although a large sperm whale or blue whale might be able to swallow a man whole. Sperm whales grow to a length of up to 70 feet and don’t chew their food. In fact, whole sharks and giant squid have been found in the stomachs of these marine mammals. They have multi-chambered stomachs like cattle—the first of which doesn’t have digestive juices, but crushes its food. It is doubtful a man could long endure that kind of pressure. A great white shark is big enough to swallow a man, but its razor sharp teeth would’ve dismembered poor Jonah before it gulped him down. So what could it have been?
I’d place my bet on the two largest sharks—the basking shark or the whale shark. Both are plankton eaters, so their mouths are huge to allow them to suck in large quantities of the tiny critters they eat, but their teeth are small. They also have a much slower metabolism, so a human body could last three days without deterioration. Whale sharks, the largest true fish in the sea, grow up to 65 feet long. To see a photo of a whale shark with a diver, go to this National Geographic site. Although many scientists swear these gentle giants live almost anywhere except the Mediterranean Sea, one was actually caught there as recently as 2006. Basking sharks can reach lengths of 40 feet. To see one of these with a diver, check out the second photo on the Neatorama page, “The Ten Weirdest Sharks Ever”.
Many people dismiss this book, because they think it is impossible for someone to be swallowed by a marine creature and survive for three days in its stomach. Yet Jesus referred to this verse and stated it as fact, when the Pharisees demanded a sign from Him. In Matthew 12:40 He told them, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Jonah Chapter 2
During this three-day period, Jonah prayed to YHWH his God (Jon. 2:1). In poetic language, he described his location as “the belly of Sheol [the abode of the dead],” and said the Lord heard him cry out from there in his affliction (v. 2). He said God had cast him into the deep and caused the waves to pass over and around him (3). With “weeds wrapped around my head,” the prophet said he sank “to the very roots of the mountains” (Jonah 2:5, NIV & 2:6, NLT). He was certain he was a goner, “But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God.” He concluded his prayer, saying:
“When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the LORD. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple. Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the LORD alone.” (Jonah 2:7-9, NLT)
In response to this prayer, YHWH spoke to His fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land (10).
Jonah Chapter 3
God again told Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach the message He gave him (Jon. 3:1-2). Having learned his lesson, the prophet did what he was told this time, hiking inland to the city and then making the three-day trek [some Bible translators say it should actually be thirty] from one end of Ninevah to the other (v. 3). His message: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4, NLT).
Now to fully grasp the impact of this message—and the messenger—you need a little background information. The people of Ninevah were very superstitious. Bible historians tell us they had already experienced two plagues (in 765 and 759 B.C.) and a solar eclipse (763 B.C.) [Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, p. 256]. So they knew something was up. They were also worshipers of the god Dagon, who was half man/half fish. So when this guy came into their city, reeking of fish guts and claiming to have been in the belly of a big marine animal for three days and nights, these guys paid attention. There may even have been eyewitnesses who saw him barfed up on the beach to collaborate Jonah’s story. That kind of thing didn’t happen to just anyone who was able to live to tell of it!
There was also something about Jonah’s appearance that captured their attention. Years ago, I read an article about a man who was swallowed by a whale shark, which was chased down days later by rescuers. They had full-color photographs of this fellow, who looked awful but was removed from the fish alive. The digestive juices in the shark’s stomach had removed most of the pigment from his skin, so he looked kind of like Michael Jackson’s hands—pale and blotchy all over. His clothes were reduced to rags. The acid had also dissolved his hair, so he looked like someone with a bad case of alopecia.
Because they believed God’s word through Jonah, the people of Ninevah took off their nice clothes, wore sack cloth and went without food for days (v. 5). Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and sent a royal decree, commanding every man and beast to deny themselves of food and water and cover themselves with sack cloth (6-8). They were ordered to cry out to God and turn from their evil ways, in hopes that God would change His mind about destroying them (8-9).
When YHWH saw that their repentance was genuine, He did, indeed, decide not to carry out His threat against the Ninevites (10).
Jonah Chapter 4
Jonah was not at all happy with God’s decision (Jon. 4:1). He told the Lord that was the very reason he ran away in the first place, “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, NIV). The prophet was so bummed out about the whole deal, he told the Lord he wanted to die (v. 3). God asked whether it was right for the fellow to be so angry, but Jonah didn’t answer (4).
Jonah went outside Ninevah and set up a make-shift tent to see how everything would play out (5). God graciously provided a plant to grow up and shade the prophet from the sun and relieve his misery (6). With no hair or pigment, the slightest amount of sunlight would’ve been torture to Jonah’s sensitive skin! This relief was short-lived, however, as “God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered” (7). Not only that, but the Lord sent a relentless east wind and let the sun beat down so intensely on Jonah’s head that he felt faint (8).
Again, the prophet was suicidal. “Then God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’ And he said, ‘It is right for me to be angry, even to death!’” (9).
God pointed out that he was so “concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight” (Jonah 4:10, NIV). YHWH, on the other hand, had created the people of Ninevah. So naturally He was concerned for their well-being—especially considering there were over 120,000 persons, not including livestock—“who cannot tell their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11, NIV). Whether this just meant that the 120,000 citizens of the city were uninformed as to what was right and wrong, or whether He was counting the young children alone who didn’t know any better, we cannot be sure. In any case, God was trying to impress on Jonah that He was just as concerned about these people as anyone in Israel.
There are many lessons to be learned from this short book:
- One of the first is that you don’t try to argue with or run away from God. He always finds you, and He always wins the argument.
- Second, God supplies whatever we need to learn our lessons and to carry out His mission—whether it be a big fish, a vine or a strong east wind.
- God warns us about our sin, in the hope that we will repent—be sorry for our sins and turn away from our wrong-doing to Him.
- Finally, He is concerned about all people, everywhere, and will go to great lengths to reconcile us to Himself.
Although Israel was His chosen nation, YHWH’s intention was to use them to reach out to all the nations of the earth. As with God’s people in the Old Testament, so now it is with believers in Christ under the New Covenant. It is our job to tell everyone—including our mortal enemies—that God loves them and wants them to turn from their sin and be reconciled to Him.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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