The principal character in this small prophecy is Jonah, son of Amittai. We read of him in 2 Kings 14:25, in which the additional information is given that he was from Gath-hepher, in the territory of Zebulon, known today as Khirbet Ez-Zurra. We learn also that Jonah was a servant of the Lord.
The following will serve as a working analysis of the book.
I. Chapter 1:1–3. Jonah receives a commission from the Lord to go to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh and preach against it. Its wickedness, that is, its idolatry and the practical manifestation of that idolatry in sins moral and social, was well known to God.
Jonah refuses to obey God and thinks that he can escape responsibility by taking a ship bound for Tarshish, a city which was probably located on the North African Coast near modern Tunis.
Chapter 1:4–6. In seeking to flee from the presence of the Lord, Jonah does not hold a view of God as a localized deity. Rather, he acts foolishly and unwisely as does every sinner who seeks to flee responsibility. No man can flee from God. The Lord hurls a great wind into the Mediterranean sea, and causes so great a storm that the ship is at the point of breaking. The sailors do not know the origin of the storm, and in their fear, each cries to his god. Although the ship is Phoenician, the sailors are of different backgrounds. Seeking practical means to remedy the situation, they cast overboard the ship’s rigging and cargo. By prayer and by action they seek for an alleviation of their condition. Jonah is lying in deep sleep in the lower deck. The captain cannot bear such indifference, rebukes Jonah, and commands him to call upon his god in the hope that Jonah’s God might keep them from perishing.
Chapter 1:7–16. The sailors believe that such a great storm has arisen only because someone on the ship has done something wicked. To discover who this is, they cast lots and Jonah is indicated. They question Jonah, and he frankly tells them that he is running away from the Lord, “the God of heaven which made the sea and the dry land.” What a tragic witness Jonah is to superstitious sailors! He claims that he believes in God, the Creator, but says that he is running away from that God.
What should the sailors do? Jonah knows that he cannot escape God. Because of him the storm has come, and if the sea is to be calm upon them, they must cast Jonah into the sea. This they seek to avoid, even to the point of calling upon the Lord, the God of Jonah, and rowing hard to bring the ship to shore. It is all in vain, however. When they cast Jonah overboard the storm is abated, and the sailors, deeply impressed by what has transpired, offer a sacrifice to the Lord who can do such wondrous things.
II. Chapter 2:1. Having been thrown into the sea, Jonah could look forward only to drowning, but the Lord, from whom he had sought to flee, has appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and in that fish he remains alive three days.
Chapter 2:2–10. From inside the fish Jonah prays in gratitude for the deliverance of his life. He remembers how close an escape he has had. He nearly drowned, but God has rescued him, and hence he would sacrifice with thanksgiving. His heart bursts forth in a triumphant cry, “Salvation is of the Lord.” Then the great fish, under God’s control, spues Jonah out upon the dry land.
III. Chapter 3:1–4. Again the command comes to Jonah to go to Nineveh and this time he obeys. Nineveh was an extremely large city, a fact that is emphasized by the words, “of three days’ journey.” The precise significance of this phrase is difficult to determine; possibly it implies that three days would be required to visit the principal places in the different quarters of the city. The actual ruins of Nineveh have a circumference of about seven and a half miles. But the description most likely includes not only Nineveh proper but the whole complex mentioned in Genesis 10:12, which would have had a far greater circumference. Entering the city, Jonah begins his message of doom.
Chapter3:5–10. Jonah’s mission is crowned with success. The men who hear believe God, and to show their sincerity, they proclaim a fast and wear sackcloth, rough cloth of goat’s hair. Even the king joins in repentance and proclaims that both man and beast must give the outward sign of repentance by wearing sackcloth. God sees the repentance and so repents of his decision to destroy Nineveh.
IV. Chapter 4:1–4. Instead of rejoicing at Nineveh’s repentance Jonah is displeased. Indeed, he is willing to die and prays to God to take away his life.
Chapter 4:5–11. Jonah, having preached, builds for himself east of the city a small cover of foliage for protection against the hot sun. God then seeks to teach him a lesson. A gourd, prepared by God, grows so that it becomes a shadow of protection. But a worm attacks the gourd so that it withers and Jonah is deprived of its shadow. Exposed to the elements he is again ready to die. Then God teaches his prophet the lesson. If Jonah can have pity on the gourd, which has cost him nothing, should not God have pity on Nineveh in which dwelt so many people that were as helpless as children, as well as cattle?
The Unity Of The Book
There are a number of questions which must be considered if one is to understand properly this remarkable work. Some scholars believe that the song of deliverance contained in the second chapter is not an integral part of the book but that it was added later. The contents of the psalm, so it is alleged, do not fit the context.
In reply it should be noted that if the contents really do not fit the context, it is strange that an editor should have inserted the psalm at this point. On closer examination, however, we note that the psalm does agree with its context. It is not a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from the belly of the fish but of deliverance from drowning. What a wealth of terms Jonah employs to describe the deep; he speaks of the belly of Sheol, the deep, in the midst of the seas, the floods, the billows, the waves, the waters, the depth, the weeds, the bottoms of the mountains, and the earth with her bars.
If we remove this beautiful psalm, the symmetry of the book is destroyed. As it stands, the psalm, when properly interpreted, yields a good sense and joins together the two halves of the book. As it stands Jonah is a literary unity.
How Shall We Interpret Jonah?
If the book is a literary unity, we are faced with a further question: what kind of book is Jonah? Are we dealing with fiction or with fact? Does the book record events which actually took place or are we dealing with a work of legend or fiction designed to teach a lesson?
As we read the book we note that it does not bear the remarks of a parable. The parables of Scripture are usually rather short and to the point, whereas such is not the case here. When Scripture presents a parable it does so for the purpose of teaching a particular truth. An application or lesson is usually drawn from the parable. To take but one example, when Nathan had told David the story of the ewe-lamb (2 Sam. 12:1–6) he immediately applied the story to David and preached to him. Nothing similar is found in the book of Jonah. No moral is given; no application is made. The whole is told as a straightforward narrative and we are left to draw our own conclusions.
The book purports to tell us of something that actually happened, and were it not for the miracle recorded, it is not likely that anyone would question whether the book recorded historical fact. The earmarks of straightforward narrative are at hand, and the presence of the book in Holy Scripture rules out the view that it is mere romance. What settles the question, however, is the usage which Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, makes of Jonah. Our Lord referred to the miracle of Jonah’s being in the fish, to the preaching of Jonah, and to the repentance of the Ninevites as historical facts (cf. Matt. 12:39–41; Luke 11:32). Here is the voice of infallible authority speaking. Jesus Christ says that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, and for a Christian there can be no greater authority.
But may we thus appeal to the New Testament for information on Old Testament questions? There are those today who say that such a procedure does not represent true scholarship. If, however, the New Testament is the Word of God, we must turn to it and listen to it whenever it speaks.
The Miracle Of The Fish
There may be readers who will acknowledge readily that Jonah is a literary unit and that it has the earmarks of straightforward history, but who will refuse to believe that Jonah could have been swallowed by a great fish and kept alive therein for three days. There are extant accounts of sailors who have been swallowed by fish and have survived the ordeal. Hence, we are told that the happening with Jonah was physically possible.
But if we have no stronger argument than that, our case is weak indeed. We are told that the Lord had appointed the great fish to swallow Jonah. Within the fish Jonah is not unconscious, but prays in language of beauty, largely derived from the Psalms. And when he is spued out, he is not affected by the fish’s gastric juices so that he no longer resembles a normal man, but is ready to receive a second commission to go to Nineveh and undertake that commission.
All of this points to the fact that we have here the account of a miracle. But can we today believe in miracles? Has not science showed us that miracles are impossible? Or has science told us that in this world where anything can happen there may be a place for miracles? It will be well to ask what a miracle is.
First of all we may note that a miracle is wrought by the supernatural power of God. Much of our difficulties with miracles would vanish if we thought of God as we should. He has all power, even to command the fish of the sea to do his bidding. If God could not perform the miracle of the fish, recorded in Jonah, he would not be omnipotent and hence not worthy of our trust. Satan cannot perform a true miracle, but only lying wonders.
A miracle is not just a display of power, but is intended as a sign or attestation of God’s redemptive plan. In the miracle recorded in Jonah, there was didactic purpose which we shall discuss later. Miracles themselves were a part of redemptive revelation. Through them, the true God of heaven and earth manifested his superiority over the gods of the nations and his full control over his creation.
The word repentance occurs in Jonah in two different contexts. In one instance (3:10) it is said that God repented over the evil he had purposed against Nineveh. One who studies the Scriptures will realize that this description does not suggest that God actually changed his mind. We may call to mind Numbers 23:19: “God is no man, that he should lie, nor the son of man, that he should repent.” We have rather to do with a strong, anthropomorphic expression which, spoken as men speak of one another, makes clear that God withheld judgment from Nineveh.
What, however, should be said about Nineveh’s repentance? Was it genuine? It is probably safe to say that Nineveh’s repentance was not real in the sense of that true repentance given by the Holy Spirit. Nineveh’s repentance is said to have extended even to the beasts. What is meant is probably that there was to an extent a determination to cease from evil ways, such as those recorded of Ahab (1 Kings 21:27–29). Whatever it was, at least Nineveh’s repentance was evidence that God was restraining the power of sin to such an extent that he withheld judgment.
The Purpose Of The Book
If the book is not a parable nor an allegory, but history, what is its purpose? To answer this question, we must consider its place in the history of redemptive revelation. Jonah was a type of Jesus Christ, and was sent to a great nation to preach repentance. He must first learn that he must be in the belly of the fish for three days. If Nineveh is to have life, Jonah must have “death,” represented by his experience. Our Lord thus applied the passage to himself. “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
The book of Jonah fits in well with Israel’s history. Because of her sin Israel must be punished, and that punishment God would bring about through an enemy. In order that the enemy may be preserved to carry out its divinely given task, it too must repent. Jonah’s preaching, while it was a rebuke to Israel, also caused the enemy to repent and thus the enemy was preserved. How powerful too was the Word of God among the heathen, and how good God is seen to be in his attitude toward them.
There are secondary lessons. The truth of God is not narrow and nationalistic, but must be preached to those who deserve it not wherever they are. But if men are to be saved, there must be death, even the death of the Son of God. The typical experience of Jonah could not save Nineveh, but the actual death of the eternal Son of God could and does save sinners. God is a God of mercy and extends his mercy widely. He desires not that any should perish, but his saving grace he extends only to those for whom Christ has died.
Of particular usefulness is a small pamphlet by G. Ch. Aalders: The Problem of the Book of Jonah, 1948, Tyndale Press, London. Another article of great value is that by Robert Dick Wilson: The Authenticity of Jonah, Princeton Theological Review, 1918, pp. 280–298; 430–456. The commentaries of Pusey and Keil are very helpful. In the Introduction to the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1949, the present writer has listed some of the recent literature.
EDWARD J. YOUNG
Professor of Old Testament
Westminster Theological Seminary
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