Jonah: Deep Dive Part One

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| PS STEVE BURGESS

Not many of the Old Testament’s have garnered more renown than that of Jonah. This is primarily due to the most sensational feature of the book - the whale (or, as some are swift to interject, the ‘big fish’). However, Jonah is not about a whale…not entirely, at least.

Jonah is one of twelve books categorized among ‘The Minor Prophets’. The word ‘minor’ relates to their length and is not intended to imply the inferiority of status. Jonah is one of the most unique among them, as all of the other books focus primarily on the t the Prophet’s oracle, whereas the book of Jonah focuses on the life of the Prophet in relation to God and to the people whom he was called to prophesy to.

Of course, given the stupendousness of the whale’s consumption of the Prophet, there have been questions asked concerning the historicity of Jonah. Many Christians consider it to be more like a parable or a fictional story with a moral (perhaps such as; ‘if you run from God in disobedience, He will go to great lengths to arrest you eventually’). I don’t believe that such moralizing is necessarily invalid (although, I would urge caution). However, generally, when the Bible intends for us to take something as parabolic, this is clearly indicated for us in Scripture.

Others take Jonah to be purely allegorical, with incidents directly corresponding to the real-life plight and experiences of Israel at the time. For example, the whale might be taken to be metaphorically representative of the exile. I do see there to be some allegorical worth to Jonah (we’ll get to that later), but not in a way that undermines historicity.

Both parables and allegory are valid literary devices that we see employed by Biblical writers, but I do think it’s important for us to hold to Jonah as historical. Jonah was a real, historical person who prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II in the eighth century BC. Jonah was the son of Amittai, and also appears in 2 Kings 14 as a prophet hailing from Gath-Hepher, just north of Nazareth. Israel treated Jonah as historical. Jesus treated Jonah as historical. It is written in a style that is consistent with a historical account. Therefore, this is one of those occasions where we must confront and overcome our disbelief and accept, by faith, a Biblical record of history.

The story itself is handily divided into 4 easily discernible sections.

1-   Jonah receives the message to proclaim the Word of the Lord to Ninevah. Jonah rebelliously flees from the Lord and is ultimately swallowed by a whale.

2-   Jonah prays for deliverance.

3-   Jonah goes to Ninevah and proclaims the Word of the Lord. The people to Ninevah repent.

4-   Jonah vents his anger towards God for His compassion toward Ninevah.

God is the main character of this story, whereas Jonah’s role is a supporting one. God calls Jonah. God orchestrates the circumstances which see Jonah in the belly of a whale. God is (of course) the object of Jonah’s prayer and God is the one who commissions Jonah with His message for the wicked people of Ninevah. Ultimately, it is God who illustrates to Jonah the whole point of the book in the final chapter.

Why was Jonah so opposed to going to Ninevah? This question is key to understanding the whole story.

Once Jonah eventually obeyed God’s call and went to prophesy to the wicked people of Ninevah, the whole nation repented!

Jonah 3:6-9  “The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

In response to the repentance of the people of Ninevah, God responded to them with grace and compassion

Jonah 3:10 “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”

These were the sort of results that would make any evangelist greatly rejoice- but Jonah was not an evangelist. And so, we read in Jonah 4:1-2:

“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And 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.”

So, why was Jonah so opposed to going to Ninevah? Was it because he was afraid of death? No - He volunteered to be cast into the wild sea. Was it because of some kind of Jewish disdain for Gentiles? No - after all, Jonah initially fled to the Gentiles. It seems as if Jonah had a particular objection to God showing His ‘patience and steadfast love’ to the people of Ninevah and ‘relenting from disaster’.

Back in 2 Kings, we read about the first recorded occasion where Jonah was called upon to prophesy, to King Jeroboam II.

2 Kings 14:23-29 - In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-Hepher. For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel. But the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash. Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam and all that he did, and his might, how he fought, and how he restored Damascus and Hamath to Judah in Israel, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? And Jeroboam slept with his fathers, the kings of Israel, and Zechariah his son reigned in his place.

This may have been Jonah’s thought also - ‘I went to prophesy to an exceedingly wicked king- and instead of judgment, I was sent with a message of divine compassion; (‘He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-Hepher’). It didn’t work. It doesn’t work. Grace and compassion and patience doesn’t change the wicked…it just gives rise to more rampant wickedness. That’s what happened in my land with King Jeroboam II. That’s what will happen in Ninevah too.’

Jonah’s message to Ninevah has summed us thus; “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). There’s an undertone of glee in his proclamation; a kind of retributive wringing together of the hands at the thought of a divine execution of wrath on the people of Ninevah. Quite unfortunately for Jonah, the people repented. He didn’t see God’s justice executed on Jeroboam II. He didn’t see God’s justice executed on the king of Ninevah. Now, he’s angry and he boastfully launches into an attack on the whole economy of God’s dealings with man.

Twice God asks - ‘do you well to be angry?’ (or, ‘do you have any right to be angry?’). Jonah stubbornly insists both times that he does, but God illustrates the contrary.

Jonah 4:5-11 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

In other words, ‘Jonah, for your selfish purposes, you had compassion for the plant. For my loving purposes, I had compassion for the lost people of Ninevah. And you have no right to be angry when I show compassion to whom I will to show compassion’.  As Paul said in Romans 9:14-16:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

One more question - was Jonah dead or alive when he was swallowed by the fish? Most contend that he was alive. However, consider the following -

Was Jonah swallowed by the fish at the surface or in the depths of the sea? Many depictions show the whale with his mouth open at the ready to catch Jonah as he was cast from the boat. But listen to the language of chapter 2 - ‘For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.’ and ‘The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains.’ That sounds more to me like the whale picked up a lifeless body at the bottom of the ocean than it does a ‘kicking-and-screaming prophet fresh off the boat’.

Secondly, Jonah says ‘I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.’ ‘Sheol’ explicitly refers to the grave or ‘the abode of the dead’.

If Jonah was dead once the whale picked him up, then Jonah is also a startling foreshadowing of Christ’s death and resurrection. After all, Jesus Himself said in Matthew 12:40- “For just 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”

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Steve Burgess 

Steve Burgess along with his wife Dawn is the Senior Minister at C3 South City in Christchurch, New Zealand. Together, they are parents to Sacha, Lucy and Wesley. They are passionate about the Word, hospitality and sport (well, Steve anyway).

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