Jonah 1 - Outline of Jonah (Book Notes menu page)
The book of Jonah is commonly discounted, even by professed believers, as a fictitious "fish story." Liberal scholars regard it as an allegory, which presents certain moral lessons, but has no actual basis in fact. In either case, disbelief, in the form of a rejection of miracles, underlies these attitudes toward the book. Yet, the book is written as an unadorned account of the prophet's personal experience, which is most simply explained by the supernatural intervention of God.
The Lord Jesus Christ attested to the factualness of Jonah's account, in Mat 12:39-41. The miraculous nature, of Jonah's deliverance from the fish's belly, parallels that of Jesus' resurrection. Belief in Christ's death and resurrection is prerequisite for salvation (Rom 10:9,10). Therefore, we ought to understand this book, as Jesus did, in its plain and literal meaning, as the Word of God. Taking that approach, we will soon discover that the account is far more reasonable than many people imagine.
The Author: Jonah the son of Amittai (v.1), is an historic person, not a mythological character. He was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel, during the reign of King Jehoash (Joash king of Israel). 2Kin 14:23-25 tells us that he lived in Gath-Hepher, in the northern portion of the northern kingdom. The same passage records the fulfillment of one of his prophecies, regarding the recapture of territory, which had previously been taken by Hazael, king of Syria (2Kin 10:32,33). This fulfillment occurred during the reign of King Jeroboam II (c. 782-753 BC). [See the Chart of Israel's Kings and Prophets (opens in separate tab).]
The Book: Although written by the prophet Jonah, the book contains no direct prophecy. It is the personal account of important events in the life of Jonah. The book's essential focus is on the relationship of God and man, specifically of God and His servant, Jonah. This relationship is seen against a backdrop which includes a boat, a storm, a great fish, the city of Nineveh, a gourd, an east wind. We must be careful not to allow these things, which are incidental to the account, to distract us from the essential message.
Although Jonah presents no direct prophecy, his book does have prophetic significance.
The following themes can also be traced in this book [condensed from JVMcGee]...
  1. The Resurrection of Christ (as noted above).
  2. Salvation is not by works.
    The orthodox Jews read Jonah on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), to emphasize that "Salvation is of the LORD." (Jonah 2:9).
  3. The Grace of God cannot be frustrated.
    Although Jonah refused to carry God's message to Nineveh, the LORD ensured that His message got to them.
  4. God does not cast away His servants when they are unfaithful.
    Jonah deserved to perish for his disobedience, but the LORD preserved, restored and re-commissioned him for His work. Likewise, today, God may put an erring servant on the sidelines, until he is ready to play by His rules.
  5. God is good and gracious.
    The people of Nineveh were deserving of severe judgment, but the LORD does not desire that any should perish. In the light of Jonah 4:2, it is wrong to think that the God of the OT is wrathful and vindictive. The holy God must judge sin. But that is His 'strange work.' He would much prefer to save sinners, if only they will repent and turn to Him (2Pet 3:9,10).
  6. The God of Israel is the God of the Gentiles, also.
    He called Abraham, from among the Gentiles. From Abraham's descendants, He chose the children of Israel, in order to prepare salvation for all peoples, in the promised Seed. Rom 3:29; Gal 3:13-16
There are also many practical parallels, by which we, who say we fear the LORD, may learn from Jonah's waywardness.
1. Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it;
for their wickedness is come up before me.
Nineveh, that great city...-
Nineveh was great because:
  • it was the capital of the Assyrian nation.
    At the time that Joel and Jonah wrote, Israel was being troubled by the Syrians. The Assyrians, who were north and east of Syria, had risen to power, but had not yet become a major threat to Israel. Yet, the prophets foresaw what was coming. Israel would be taken captive by Assyria, about a hundred years after Jonah's ministry.
  • it was very large and populous...-
    The size of the city is mentioned in Jonah 3:3 (further discussion there).
for their wickedness is come up before me...
The Assyrians were notorious for the cruelty of their conquests, which were characterized by the torture and rape of their captives, without respect for little children or for the elderly. Cruelty permeated their society. Their kings maintained their power through murder, even of their own sons. Their people sacrificed their children in the worship of their god, Molech. God saw that this nation deserved harsh judgment.
3 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD,
and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish:
so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it,
to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
Jonah rose up to flee...-
God called Jonah to go northeast to Nineveh (about 500 miles from his home in Gath-Hepher). But Jonah chose to go as far west as possible. Tarshish was on the southwest coast of Spain (more than 2500 miles distant). Note that the prophet took definite willful steps in disobedience to God's call:
  • He traveled overland to Joppa, which was a seaport.
    (Several centuries later, this would be the place of Peter's vision, in Acts 10, which marked the starting point of reaching the Gentiles with the Gospel.)
  • He searched for and found a ship...
  • He paid the fare...
  • He boarded the ship...
  • He sailed en-route to Tarshish.
    (Tarshish was at the limits of the known world. He probably could not have booked passage to a more distant place.)
...from the presence of the LORD... (This phrase occurs twice, in v.3)
Of course, his purpose was impossible (eg., Psa 139:7-12)... a fact, for which he would later be grateful.
     Yet, Jonah's act was blatant rebellion. He fled from the LORD's presence, in vain pursuit of his own way, and in foolish refusal to submit to God's will. The person, who purposely departs from the presence of the LORD, is not in good company (eg., Gen 4:16; Job 1:12; 2:7).
Why was the prophet so intent on disobedience?
  1. He did not want Nineveh to repent. He wanted God to destroy them. (Jon 4:2)
    He was well aware of the cruelty of the Assyrians. He foresaw the suffering that they would inflict upon his people, Israel. It is possible that some of his family members had already suffered at their hands, in some early Assyrian incursions into the land. His town, Gath-Hepher, was in the far north of Israel, and would be among the first affected.
  2. He may have feared for his personal safety.
    How would such a cruel nation receive the harsh message of pending judgment, from an unarmed and unaccompanied representative of a God, whom they did not know or serve? (About a hundred years later, an Assyrian king would express his disdain for the God of Israel in a letter to King Hezekiah of Jerusalem. Isa 37:8-20)
  3. He may have felt uncomfortable with the approach.
    Had not God placed Israel at the crossroads of the world? Was it not His purpose that the nations should learn about Him (if they would), by observing the chosen people, their customs, and especially, their Temple worship? Were the scriptures not available to them also, including the books of Moses, David and Solomon? Why shouldn't these people come, as the Queen of Sheba had in Solomon's day, to see if the things she had heard were so? Jonah did not ask these questions aloud. But if he had, would he have been reminded of Israel's poor testimony, due to her apostasy from the LORD, and her spiritual adultery with the world?
       Jonah expected the nations to 'come up to Jerusalem.' But God was sending him out, much as our Lord commissioned us, in Acts 1:8. In effect, when faced with the command to reach out to the Gentiles, Jonah replied, 'Not so Lord' (as Peter did, in Acts 10:14).
Notice, how Jonah's plans moved along smoothly, without delay or difficulty.
Often, that is the criteria by which we judge whether we are in the will of the Lord. Yet, it is obvious that Jonah was out of God's will. Jonah, diligently sought 'which boat is the right one'? But none were right, because they were all headed the wrong way.
     How, then, should I choose a house or job? By the ease of getting a bank loan? By rapid acceptance of my resume? Of course, circumstances must be taken into consideration, but often circumstances may be contrary to the way of God's calling. Likewise, it is wise to seek counsel from godly Christians, but sometimes they may not correctly discern God's will for you.
     Numbers 9:15-23 illustrates that the leading of the LORD is not based on peripheral things (my feelings, circumstances, the opinions of friends, or even the placement of fleeces). It is based on the certainty of the presence of the LORD. When the LORD's presence rose up to go, the people followed, even when it was inconvenient. Where the LORD's presence settled, the people camped, even in the barren desert.
     The same guide, the Spirit of His Presence, dwells within the Christian, today (Joh 14:16-18; 15:15). Those who are in fellowship with Him can ask for wisdom, listen to His Word as the Spirit opens it, and know His mind (1Cor 2:14-16).
     Jonah fled "from the presence of the LORD." He had been in fellowship with God. He had known His mind. God had spoken to him through His Word (v.1,2). Yet, he chose to disobey the will of God, which he understood very clearly. He knowingly quenched the Holy Spirit's voice (cp. 1The 5:18,19).
     Is it truly my desire to have His will for my life? Then, I must determine to obey what He tells me. As I walk in obedience to Him, He will enable me to see each new step more clearly. (cp. Joh 7:17; Jam 1:5-8) Those who 'waver' and are 'double minded' are not asking with the intent to follow through, but rather for the purpose of evaluating His will against their own.
     Consider also the example of the Lord Jesus, as foretold in Isa 50:4-10. He took time to hear the Father's voice and to know His will. He gave Himself to do God's will, knowing that it would cost Him dearly. Those who follow in His way will have no regrets, in contrast to those who walk in the 'light' of their own thinking.
4. But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea,
and there was a mighty tempest in the sea,
so that the ship was like to be broken.
5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god,
and cast forth the wares that [were] in the ship into the sea, to lighten [it] of them.
But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
6 So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper?
arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
Here is Jonah, the double-minded man, driven by the waves and tossed (Jam 1:5-8).
Yet, he was blissfully unaware. He thought he was free, having left his troubles behind him. But his sleep was the temporary peace of the self-deceived.
The mariners were afraid...
These experienced sailors had weathered many storms before. But not like this one. By their estimation, this storm was not survivable... though they were doing everything in their power to save themselves. This storm, sent by God, was supernatural, like the one that terrified experienced fishermen, Jesus' disciples, as He slept in the stern of the boat (Mark 4:37-41). Jesus' sleep was a test for his disciples. Jonah's sleep was a dereliction of duty.
...every man [cried] unto his god...- except for Jonah.
They recognized their perilous situation and cried out to their false gods, which could neither hear nor respond, for they knew no better. Meanwhile, the only man on board, who knew the true and living God, was asleep, while others were perishing. Being out of the will of God, Jonah had convinced himself that everything was alright. His spiritual ears had become dull to the voice of God, and he had no desire to speak to the One from whom he was fleeing. Yet, God's will for him remained unchanged, though Jonah refused to hear it. So, the LORD turned up the volume.
     Can you see yourself here, Christian? Asleep, not praying, dull to the need of the world... but troubled by a storm brewing in your life. "Whom the Lord loves, He chastens..." (Heb 12:6). Like Jonah, do we need unbelievers to shake us awake, in a time of great crisis, that has come upon them, because we failed to obey the Lord?
The shipmaster did not know who Jonah's God was. (The upper case 'G' was supplied by the translators.)
He asked Jonah to pray because they needed all the help they could get, from whatever gods might be listening.
7 And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots,
that we may know for whose cause this evil
{HB=ra, distress, adversity} [is] upon us.
So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
8 Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee,
for whose cause this evil [is] upon us;
What [is] thine occupation? and whence comest thou?
what [is] thy country? and of what people [art] thou?
9 And he said unto them, I [am] an Hebrew;
and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven,
which hath made the sea and the dry [land].
10 Then were the men exceedingly afraid,
and said unto him, Why hast thou done this?
For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD,
because he had told them.
...let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us...-
The sailors recognizing this storm as supernatural, knew it must have been sent for a reason.
The lot fell upon Jonah...
Although the sailors were following their superstitions, the LORD intervened to provide the answer they sought.
...Tell us...-
Jonah, being out of the will of God, was not an effective witness. He had kept his identity and faith hidden. The things they ask reveal what Jonah had not told them:
  • his occupation: a prophet of the LORD.
  • his city and country: Gath-Hepher, in Israel
  • his ethnicity...
I am an Hebrew...- The Jewish people were known, by all nations, as worshippers of one God.
I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which made the sea and the dry land...
Imagine the effect on the sailors... already convinced that the storm was supernatural... they hear Jonah shouting his confession over the raging wind, as the ship reels beneath them.
...the men were exceedingly afraid...-
The word used for 'afraid' (in v.5 and 10) is the same word which Jonah used of his fear of the LORD (v.9). It is frequently used of a person's astonished awe and dread upon recognizing the hand, or the presence, of God (eg., Gen 28:17, where this word occurs twice, rendered as 'afraid' and 'dreadful').
      Their fear of the great storm, beyond distress due to harsh weather, was an awe-filled terror of the unknown supernatural Power, whom they imagined had sent it for a purpose. Their fear intensified, as Jonah's words confirmed their suspicions. According to their mythology, the realms of nature were divided between various gods. But according to Jonah, the God of Israel, who created and controlled everything, was fully capable of sending the storm... and if what Jonah said was true, His God had reason to be angry with him.
Why hast thou done this?...
Jonah had told them that he had "fled from the presence of the LORD." There is no hint that he revealed the details of his commission to go to Nineveh. But he had revealed his rebellious disobedience to His God.
     Sadly, unbelievers still ask similar questions of Christians. 'If your God is as great and wonderful as you say He is, why are you living in disobedience to Him...' (eg., using foul language, cheating in school or business, engaging in sexual promiscuity, etc.). If an unbeliever identifies something in my life that is not appropriate for a believer, there is reason to wake up and take inventory.
11. Then said they unto him,
What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us?
for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.
12 And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea;
so shall the sea be calm unto you:
for I know that for my sake this great tempest [is] upon you.
...what shall we do unto thee...? ...cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you...
Jonah recognized...
  • that his disobedience had imperiled others, who were about to die because of his sin.
  • that God would not allow him to persist in his disobedience, or to continue on to Tarshish.
    God's anger was directed at him. It was he who deserved to die, not these others.
Jonah offered himself as a sacrifice...-
   (To be cast overboard in that storm, would be certain death.)
  • In this, Jonah is a type of Christ, whose death saved others from the wrath of God.
  • Unlike Jesus, Jonah was a sinner, who deserved the wrath of God.
    But Jesus took our sin upon Himself, in order to suffer the wrath that you and I deserved (Rom 5:6-10; 2Cor 5:21; 1Pet 3:18).
13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring [it] to the land;
but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.
14 Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said,
We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee,
let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood:
for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.
Nevertheless the men rowed hard...-
The mariners heard Jonah's words, but they were not quick to believe them. His story was as strange to them as the God he professed to know. What if Jonah was mentally unstable and self-deluded? By throwing an innocent man overboard, they would only increase the wrath of God, against them. They did all that they could to save themselves and Jonah (v.5 and v.13). But no man can escape the wrath of God, by any effort or resource of his own (Psa 49:6-9).
They cried unto the LORD...-
They prayed...
  • for forgiveness for causing Jonah's death. They had no alternative remaining, except to believe what Jonah had said.
  • to the LORD...- The false gods had been deaf to their cries. Their only hope was to appeal for mercy, to the God under whose wrath they were about to perish.
15 So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea:
and the sea ceased from her raging.
16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly,
and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.
...the sea ceased from her raging.
The sudden calm, was more dreadful than the tempestuous sea... for now they knew the God, whose power had both troubled and saved them.
Then the men...
  • feared the LORD exceedingly.-
    They now knew that the LORD God of Israel is the true and living God.
    (compare the responses at 1Kin 18:38,39; Mark 4:39-41)
  • offered a sacrifice - They worshipped Him.
    This sacrifice, acknowledging the LORD and His power, and expressing thanksgiving for His merciful deliverance, looks forward (as the Temple sacrifices did) to Christ's sacrifice, by which salvation is made available to Jew and Gentile alike (Heb 9:11,12; Rom 1:16).
  • made vows - They cast off the vain traditions which they had received from their fathers, and committed themselves to serve the one true God. (cp. 1The 1:9; 1Pet 1:18,19)
...Jonah... cast... into the sea...-
Something good resulted: These pagan sailors found salvation in the God of Israel, because Jonah confessed the truth, and died to himself.
17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.
And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
...the LORD had prepared a 'great fish'... -
Many doubt that Jonah could have been swallowed by a whale, or that he could have survived the experience.
  • But the text does not speak of a whale. This was a 'great' {HB=gadowl, exceedingly large} 'fish' {HB=dag, fish. The root meaning of the word is 'numerous' (perhaps because fish often swim in groups or schools)}. The Greek word 'ketos' translated 'whale,' in Mat 12:40, refers to a large fish or sea monster, not necessarily a whale. Furthermore, the creature that swallowed Jonah had been specially 'prepared' {HB=manah, appointed, numbered}, by God, for the purpose.
  • Also, the account does not require that Jonah was alive during the whole time that he was in the fish's belly. Certain elements in the text (of Jonah ch.2) suggest that he may have died and was subsequently resurrected. However, nothing is impossible with God. So, it is very possible that God kept him alive within a specially prepared fish, for three days.
During the extensive whaling industry of the 1800's, there were a few well documented accounts, of men who were swallowed by certain types of whales and survived, for a short period. Excerpts of one such account are copied below (as recorded in an article by Ambrose J. Wilson of Queen's College, Oxford, and later condensed from the Princeton Theological Review and printed in the Philadelphia Bulletin).

"In February, 1891, the whaling ship "Star of the East" was in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands, and the lookout spotted a sperm whale. Two boats were launched and in a short time one of the harpooners was enabled to spear the whale.

"The second boat attacked the whale but was upset by a lash of its tail and the men were thrown into the sea. One man was drowned, and another, James Bartley, having disappeared, could not be found.

"The whale was killed and in a few hours was lying by the ship's side, and the crew was busy with axes and spades removing the blubber. They worked all day and part of the night. Next morning, they attached some tackle to the stomach, which was hoisted onto the deck.

"The sailors were startled by something in it which gave spasmodic signs of life, and inside was found the missing sailor, doubled up and unconscious. He was laid on the deck and treated to a bath of salt water which soon revived him... He remained two weeks a raving maniac... At the end of the third week he had entirely recovered from the shock and resumed his duties.

"Bartley remembers the sensation of being thrown out of the boat into the sea... He was then encompassed by a great darkness and he felt he was slipping along a smooth passage of some sort which seemed to move and carry him forward. The sensation lasted but a short time and then he realized he had more room. He felt about him and his hands came in contact with a yielding, slimy substance that seemed to shrink from his touch.

"It finally dawned upon him that he had been swallowed by the whale... He could easily breathe, but the heat was terrible. It was not of a scorching stifling nature, but it seemed to open the pores of his skin and draw out the vitality...

"His skin, where it was exposed to the action of the gastric juice... face, neck, and hands... was bleached to a deadly whiteness and never recovered its natural appearance, though otherwise his health was not affected by this terrible experience."

The above account is included, here, to help skeptics consider the possibility of Jonah's experience in the great fish. However, it should be obvious that when Jonah went overboard, he was as good as dead. Several miraculous events were necessary before Jonah would walk on dry land, including:
  1. The prior preparation of the great fish.
  2. The coordination of timing, such that when Jonah was thrown overboard, the fish was there to receive him.
  3. Jonah's preservation through a deadly situation, or resurrection out of actual death.
  4. Jonah's transportation in the fish, and delivery from the fish, to the nearest possible location to his destination city (Jonah 2:10).

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