Most people are so familiar with the story of Jonah that nothing in it surprises them anymore, including the fact that it begins with the word "and." The kjv translates the Hebrew connective "now," while the niv and nasb ignore it completely. If I opened one of my books with the word "and," the editor would probably wonder if something had been lost, including my ability to use the English language.
Jonah is one of fourteen Old Testament books that open with the little word "and." These books remind us of God's "continued story" of grace and mercy. Though the Bible is comprised of sixty-six different books, it tells only one story; and God keeps communicating that message to us, even though we don't always listen too attentively. How longsuffering He is toward us!
What is the Book of Jonah about? Well, it's not simply about a great fish (mentioned only four times), or a great city (named nine times), or even a disobedient prophet (mentioned eighteen times). It's about God! God is mentioned thirty-eight times in these four short chapters, and if you eliminated Him from the book, the story wouldn't make sense. The Book of Jonah is about the will of God and how we respond to it. It's also about the love of God and how we share it with others.
In these first two chapters, Jonah has three experiences.
Jonah must have been a popular man in Israel, because his prediction had been fulfilled that the nation would regain her lost territory from her enemies (2 Kings 14:25). Those were days of peace and prosperity for Israel, but they were autumn days just before the terrible winter of judgment.
Jonah the prophet disobeys God's call (Jonah 1:1-3). Jonah got into trouble because his attitudes were wrong. To begin with, he had a wrong attitude toward the will of God. Obeying the will of God is as important to God's servant as it is to the people His servants minister to. It's in obeying the will of God that we find our spiritual nourishment (John 4:34), enlightenment (7:17), and enablement (Heb. 13:21). To Jesus, the will of God was food that satisfied Him; to Jonah, the will of God was medicine that choked him.
Jonah's wrong attitude toward God's will stemmed from a feeling that the Lord was asking him to do an impossible thing. God commanded the prophet to go to Israel's enemy, Assyria, and give the city of Nineveh opportunity to repent, and Jonah would much rather see the city destroyed. The Assyrians were a cruel people who had often abused Israel and Jonah's narrow patriotism took precedence over his theology. Jonah forgot that the will of God is the expression of the love of God (Ps. 33:11), and that God called him to Nineveh because He loved both Jonah and the Ninevites.
Jonah also had a wrong attitude toward the Word of God. When the Word of the Lord came to him, Jonah thought he could "take it or leave it." However, when God's Word commands us, we must listen and obey. Disobedience isn't an option. "But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46, (nkjv).
Jonah forgot that it was a great privilege to be a prophet, to hear God's Word, and know God's will. That's why he resigned his prophetic office and fled in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Jonah knew that he couldn't run away from God's presence (Ps. 139:7-12), but he felt he had the right to turn in his resignation. He forgot that "God's gifts and His call are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29, niv). At one time or another during their ministries, Moses, Elijah, and Jeremiah felt like giving up, but God wouldn't let them. Jonah needed Nineveh as much as Nineveh needed Jonah. It's in doing the will of God that we grow in grace and become more like Christ.
Jonah had a wrong attitude toward circumstances; he thought they were working for him when they were really working against him. He fled to Joppa and found just the right ship waiting for him! He had enough money to pay the fare for his long trip, and he was even able to go down into the ship and fall into a sleep so deep that the storm didn't wake him up. It's possible to be out of the will of God and still have circumstances appear to be working on your behalf. You can be rebelling against God and still have a false sense of security that includes a good night's sleep. God in His providence was preparing Jonah for a great fall.
Finally, Jonah had a wrong attitude toward the Gentiles. Instead of wanting to help them find the true and living God, he wanted to abandon them to their darkness and spiritual death. He not only hated their sins—and the Assyrians were ruthless enemies—but he hated the sinners who committed the sins. Better that Nineveh should be destroyed than that the Assyrians live and attack Israel.
Jonah the Jew becomes a curse instead of a blessing (Jonah 1:4-10). God called the Jews to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3), but whenever the Jews were out of the will of God, they brought trouble instead of blessing. Twice Abraham brought trouble to people because he lied (vv. 10-20; 20:1-18); Achan brought trouble to Israel's army because he robbed God (Josh. 7); and Jonah brought trouble to a boatload of pagan sailors because he fled. Consider all that Jonah lost because he wasn't a blessing to others.
First of all, he lost the voice of God (Jonah 1:4). We don't read that "the word of the Lord came to Jonah," but that a great storm broke loose over the waters. God was no longer speaking to Jonah through His word; He was speaking to him through His works: the sea, the wind, the rain, the thunder, and even the great fish. Everything in nature obeyed God except His servant! God even spoke to Jonah through the heathen sailors (vv. 6, 8, 10) who didn't know Jehovah. It's a sad thing when a servant of God is rebuked by pagans.
Jonah also lost his spiritual energy (v. 5b). He went to sleep during a fierce storm and was totally unconcerned about the safety of others. The sailors were throwing the ship's wares and cargo overboard, and Jonah was about to lose everything, but he still slept on. "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man" (Prov. 24:33, niv).
He lost his power in prayer (Jonah 1:5a, 6). The heathen sailors were calling on their gods for help while Jonah slept through the prayer meeting, the one man on board who knew the true God and could pray to Him. Of course, Jonah would first have had to confess his sins and determine to obey God, something he wasn't willing to do. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Ps. 66:18). If Jonah did pray, his prayer wasn't answered. Loss of power in prayer is one of the first indications that we're far from the Lord and need to get right with Him.
Sad to say, Jonah lost his testimony (Jonah 1:7-10). He certainly wasn't living up to his name, It appears that the sailors gave Jonah a nickname: "he who is responsible for causing all this trouble" (Jonah 1:8, niv). Since the lot had already fallen on Jonah, the crew didn't need to ask him who was to blame. He was to blame, and they knew it; and that's why they gave him that embarrassing nickname. The kjv, nasb, and niv all make the nickname into an unnecessary question. for Jonah means "dove," and the dove is a symbol of peace. Jonah's father's name was Ammitai, which means "faithful, truthful," something that Jonah was not. We've already seen that he wasn't living up to his high calling as a Jew,- for he had brought everybody trouble instead of blessing, nor was he living up to his calling as a prophet, for he had no message for them from God. When the lot pointed to Jonah as the culprit, he could no longer avoid making a decision.
Jonah had already told the crew that he was running away from God, but now he told them he was God's prophet, the God who created the heaven, the earth, and the sea. This announcement made the sailors even more frightened. The God who created the sea was punishing His servant and that's why they were in danger!
Jonah the rebel suffers for his sins (Jonah 1:11-17). Charles Spurgeon said that God never allows His children to sin successfully, and Jonah is proof of the truth of that statement. "For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives" (Heb. 12:6, nkjv).
We must not make the mistake of calling Jonah a martyr, for the title would be undeserved. Martyrs die for the glory of God, but Jonah offered to die because selfishly he would rather die than obey the will of God! He shouldn't be classified with people like Moses (Ex. 32:30-35), Esther (Est. 4:13-17), and Paul (Rom. 9:1-3) who were willing to give their lives to God in order to rescue others. Jonah is to be commended for telling the truth but not for taking his life in his own hands. He should have surrendered his life to the Lord and let Him give the orders. Had he fallen to his knees and confessed his sins to God, Jonah might have seen the storm cease and the door open to a great opportunity for witness on the ship.
It's significant that the heathen sailors at first rejected Jonah's offer and began to work harder to save the ship. They did more for Jonah than Jonah had been willing to do for them. When they saw that the cause was hopeless, they asked Jonah's God for His forgiveness for throwing Jonah into the stormy sea. Sometimes unsaved people put believers to shame by their honesty, sympathy, and sacrifice.
However, these pagan sailors knew some basic theology: the existence of Jonah's God, His judgment of sin, their own guilt before Him, and His sovereignty over creation. They confessed, "For you, O Lord, have done as You pleased" (Jonah 1:14, niv). However, there's no evidence that they abandoned their old gods; they merely added Jehovah to their "god shelf." They threw themselves on God's mercy and then threw Jonah into the raging sea, and God stopped the storm.
When the storm ceased, the men feared God even more and made vows to Him. How they could offer an animal sacrifice to God on board ship is a puzzle to us, especially since the cargo had been jettisoned, but then we don't know what the sacrifice was or how it was offered. Perhaps the sense of verse 16 is that they offered the animal to Jehovah and vowed to sacrifice it to Him once they were safe on shore.
The seventeenth-century English preacher Jeremy Taylor said, "God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy." He was referring, of course, to being happy with God's will for our lives. For us to rebel against God's will, as Jonah did, is to invite the chastening hand of God. That's why the Westminster Catechism states that "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." We glorify God by enjoying His will and doing it from our hearts (Eph. 6:6), and that's where Jonah failed.
Jonah could say with the psalmist, "The Lord has chastened me severely, but He has not given me over to death" (Ps. 118:18, nkjv). God prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah and protect his life for three days and three nights. We'll consider the significance of this later in this study.
From an experience of rebellion and discipline, Jonah turns to an experience of repentance and dedication, and God graciously gives him a new beginning. Jonah no doubt expected to die in the waters of the sea, Some expositors believe that Jonah actually died and was resurrected, and base their interpretation on statements in his prayer like "From the depths of the grave [Sheol-the realm of the dead] I called for help" (2:2, niv) and "But You brought my life up from the pit" (v.6, niv). But Jonah's prayer is composed of quotations from at least fifteen different psalms, and while some of these psalms describe near-death experiences, none describes a resurrection miracle. The reference to Sheol in verse 2 comes from Psalm 30:3 (and see 16:10 and 18:4-6), and the reference to "the pit" comes from 49:15, both of which were written by David. If these two psalms describe Jonah's resurrection, then they must also describe David's resurrection, but we have no evidence that David ever died and was raised to life. Instead, these psalms describe frightening experiences when God delivered His servants from the very gates of death. That seems to be what Jonah is describing as he quotes them in his prayer. Furthermore, if Jonah died and was resurrected, he could not be an accurate type of Christ (Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Luke 11:29); for types picture the antitype but don't duplicate it, for the antitype is always greater. It's a dangerous thing to build an interpretation on the poetic language of Scripture when we don't have a clear New Testament interpretation to lean on. but when he woke up inside the fish, he realized that God had graciously spared him. As with the Prodigal Son, whom Jonah in his rebellion greatly resembles (Luke 15:11-24), it was the goodness of God that brought him to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Notice the stages in Jonah's spiritual experience as described in his prayer.
He prayed for God's help (Jonah 2:1-2). "Then Jonah prayed" (2:1) suggests that it was at the end of the three days and three nights when Jonah turned to the Lord for help, but we probably shouldn't press the word "then" too far. The Hebrew text simply reads, "And Jonah prayed." Surely Jonah prayed as he went down into the depths of the sea, certain that he would drown. That would be the normal thing for any person to do, and that's the picture we get from verses 5 and 7.
His prayer was born out of affliction, not affection. He cried out to God because he was in danger, not because he delighted in the Lord. But better that he should pray compelled by any motive than not to pray at all. It's doubtful whether any believer always prays with pure and holy motives, for our desires and God's directions sometimes conflict.
However, in spite of the fact that he prayed, Jonah still wasn't happy with the will of God. In chapter 1, he was afraid of the will of God and rebelled against it, but now he wants God's will simply because it's the only way out of his dangerous plight. Like too many people today, Jonah saw the will of God as something to turn to in an emergency, not something to live by every day of one's life.
Jonah was now experiencing what the sailors experienced during the storm: he felt he was perishing (1:6, 14). It's good for God's people, and especially preachers, to remember what it's like to be lost and without hope. How easy it is for us to grow hardened toward sinners and lose our compassion for the lost. As He dropped Jonah into the depths, God was reminding him of what the people of Nineveh were going through in their sinful condition: they were helpless and hopeless.
God heard Jonah's cries for help. Prayer is one of the constant miracles of the Christian life. To think that our God is so great He can hear the cries of millions of people at the same time and deal with their needs personally! A parent with two or three children often finds it impossible to meet all their needs all the time, but God is able to provide for all His children, no matter where they are or what their needs may be. "He who has learned to pray," said William Law, "has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life."
He accepted God's discipline (Jonah 2:3). The sailors didn't cast Jonah into the stormy sea; God did. "You hurled me into the deep... all your waves and breakers swept over me" (v.3, niv, italics mine). When Jonah said those words, he was acknowledging that God was disciplining him and that he deserved it.
How we respond to discipline determines how much benefit we receive from it. According to Hebrews 12:5-11, we have several options: we can despise God's discipline and fight (v. 5); we can be discouraged and faint (v. 5); we can resist discipline and invite stronger discipline, possibly even death (v. 9) "There is a sin unto death" (1 John 5:17, kjv). "The Lord shall judge His people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:30-31). Professed believers who play with sin and trifle with God's loving discipline are asking for trouble. Better that we should die than that we should resist His will and bring disgrace to the name of Christ.; or we can submit to the Father and mature in faith and love (v. 7). Discipline is to the believer what exercise and training are to the athlete (v. 11); it enables us to run the race with endurance and reach the assigned goal (vv. 1-2).
The fact that God chastened His servant is proof that Jonah was truly a child of God, for God disciplines only His own children. "But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons" (v. 8). And the father chastens us in love so that "afterward" we might enjoy "the peaceable fruit of righteousness" (v.11).
He trusted God's promises (Jonah 2:4-7). Jonah was going in one direction only—down. In fact, he had been going in that direction since the hour he rebelled against God's plan for his life. He went "down to Joppa" and "down into the sides of the ship" (1:3, 5). Now he was going "down to the bottoms of the mountains" (2:6); and at some point, the great fish met him, and he went down into the fish's belly (1:17). When you turn your back on God, the only direction you can go is down.
What saved Jonah? His faith in God's promise. Which promise? The promise that involves 'looking toward God's holy temple" (2:4, 7). When King Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he asked God for this special favor (1 Kings 8:38-40, nkjv):
Whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people Israel, when each one knows the plague of his own heart, and spreads out his hands toward this temple: then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and act, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know... that they may fear You all the days that they live in the land which You gave to our fathers.
Jonah claimed that promise. By faith, he looked toward God's temple (the only way to look was up!) and asked God to deliver him; and God kept His promise and answered his call. "I remembered [the] Lord" (Jonah 2:7) means, "I acted on the basis of His commitment to me." Jonah knew God's covenant promises and he claimed them.
He yielded to God's will (Jonah 2:8-9). Now Jonah admits that there were idols in his life that robbed him of the blessing of God. An idol is anything that takes away from God the affection and obedience that rightfully belongs only to Him. One such idol was Jonah's intense patriotism. He was so concerned for the safety and prosperity of his own nation that he refused to be God's messenger to their enemies the Assyrians. We shall learn from chapter 4 that Jonah was also protecting his own reputation (4:2), for if God spared Nineveh, then Jonah would be branded a false prophet whose words of warning weren't fulfilled. For somebody who was famous for his prophecies (2 Kings 14:25), this would be devastating.
Jonah closes his prayer by uttering some solemn vows to the Lord, vows that he really intended to keep. Like the psalmist, he said: "I will go into Your house with burnt offerings; I will pay You my vows, which my lips have uttered and my mouth has spoken when I was in trouble" (Ps. 66:13-14, nkjv). Jonah promised to worship God in the temple with sacrifices and songs of thanksgiving. He doesn't tell us what other promises he made to the Lord, but one of them surely was, "I will go to Nineveh and declare Your message if You give me another chance."
Jonah couldn't save himself, and nobody on earth could save him, but the Lord could do it, for "salvation is of the Lord!" (Jonah 2:9b, nkjv) This is a quotation from Psalms 3:8 and 37:39 and it is the central declaration in the book. It is also the central theme of the Bible. How wise of Jonah to memorize the Word of God; because being able to quote the Scriptures, especially the Book of Psalms, gave him light in the darkness and hope in his seemingly hopeless situation.
"And [the fish] vomited out Jonah upon the dry land." What an ignominious way for a distinguished prophet to arrive on shore! In chapter 1, the sailors treated Jonah like dangerous cargo to be thrown overboard, and now he's treated like a foreign substance to be disgorged from the fish's body. But when Jonah ceased to be an obedient prophet, he cheapened himself, so he's the one to blame. We can be sure that he was duly humbled as he once again stood on dry land.
The miracle. Few miracles in Scripture have been attacked as much as this one, and Christian scholars have gathered various kinds of evidence to prove that it could happen. Since the Bible doesn't tell us what kind of fish swallowed Jonah, we don't have to measure sharks and whales or comb history for similar incidents. It was a "prepared" fish (1:17), designed by God for the occasion, and therefore it was adequate for the task. Jesus didn't question the historicity of the miracle, so why should we?
The sign (Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Luke 11:29). The "sign of Jonah" is seen in his experience of "death," burial, and resurrection on the third day, and it was the only sign Jesus gave to the nation of Israel. At Pentecost, Peter preached the Resurrection (Acts 2:22-26) and so did Paul when he preached to the Jews in other nations (13:26-37). In fact, the emphasis in the Book of Acts is on the resurrection of Jesus Christ; for the apostles were "witnesses of the Resurrection" (2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39).
Some students are troubled by the phrase "three days and three nights," especially since both Scripture and tradition indicate that Jesus was crucified on Friday. In order to protect the integrity of the Scripture, some have suggested that the Crucifixion be moved back to Thursday or even Wednesday. But to the Jews, a part of a day was treated as a whole day, and we need not interpret "three days and three nights" to mean seventy-two hours to the very second. For that matter, we can't prove that Jonah was in the fish exactly seventy-two hours. The important thing is that centuries after the event, Jonah became a "sign" to the Jewish people and pointed them to Jesus Christ.
Jonah was now free to obey the Lord and take God's message to Nineveh, but he still had lessons to learn.