Profile Of The Prophets - Jonah

by Joseph Hunting

No other book of the Bible has been more maligned and disbelieved than that of Jonah, due no doubt to the series of miracles upon which the story is based.

Jonah, whose home town was Gath-hepher in Zebulun, has been immortalized not because of any act of greatness or merit on his part but because of his blatant disobedience to God. Nor does this alone necessarily single Jonah out to be remembered, for many others in the Bible were guilty of the same thing. What does make Jonah a by-word is the series of astonishing events associated with his act of disobedience.

At the time, Assyria, of which Nineveh was the capital, was Israel's traditional enemy and this may explain Jonah's reluctance to obey God's command to warn Nineveh of its impending judgement. Whatever the thoughts were which passed through the prophet's mind are not recorded, only his actions. He fled from the presence of the Lord to modern-day Jaffa and there paid his fare and embarked for Tarshish (possibly Spain).

So far so good. Jonah made himself comfortable on board and fell into a deep sleep. The sailors cast off and the long sea voyage began.

No sooner had they put to sea than God intervened in Jonah's plans. He caused a mighty tempest to arise that threatened to swamp the ship. No doubt storms at sea were nothing new to the mariners. They called upon their gods and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship, but to no avail.

Sailors even in those far-off days were superstitious. They suspected that someone on board was responsible for their dire predicament. Jonah was rudely awakened by the captain and told to pray to his God. When this proved fruitless they drew lots to discover the culprit responsible and the lot fell to Jonah.

It is interesting to note that in the Bible narrative Jonah had confided with members of the crew the reason for his being on board. When he told them that he was a Hebrew and that he feared God, the maker of heaven and earth, they instinctively knew that their present perilous position was due to the prophet's presence in their midst.

They then made desperate efforts to return to port. "Wherefore they cried unto the Lord and said, We beseech 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. So they took up Jonah and cast him forth unto the sea." (1:14-15)

Contrary to the generally accepted story, it was probably not a whale that swallowed Jonah -- whales are not known to frequent Mediterranean waters. The Bible states that "the Lord prepared a great fish (or sea monster) to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." (1:17)

What follows is an account of one of the great miracles of the Bible. In his dire extremity and in the horror of his predicament Jonah prayed to God as he had never prayed before. One doesn't need a vivid imagination to conjure up the abject terror he must have experienced in the foul surroundings of the sea monster's intestines. Indeed, it is most probable that Jonah actually died, for he prayed to the Lord "from the belly of sheol". Whilst his body was in the fish's belly, his soul was in sheol, the spirit-abode of the dead (never the grave or tomb wherein the body is laid to rest). Then after three days and nights his life "was brought up from corruption" (2:6) and the Lord commanded the fish to vomit him up on the sea-shore.

God repeated his command to warn Nineveh of impending doom and this time Jonah didn't demur. He immediately set off for Nineveh, a vast city-state about eighteen miles long by fourteen miles wide with walls one hundred feet high and wide enough for three chariots to race abreast.

Jonah entered the city and immediately pronounced that judgement would befall the city in forty days. What is truly remarkable is that the people listened to Jonah and repented in sackcloth and ashes. "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil ways, and God repented of the evil that he said that he would do unto them." (3:10)

There can be no doubt as to the effectiveness of Jonah's preaching. In all history it is the only recorded account of an entire city with 125,000 inhabitants turning to God en masse in true repentance. And it resulted in the ultimate judgement upon Nineveh and Assyria being delayed for almost a century.

The remaining scenes surrounding Jonah's sojourn in Nineveh reveal God's gracious and miraculous provision for the prophet. When he saw the result of his preaching, instead of giving God the glory for His love and mercy upon the inhabitants of Nineveh, Jonah was angry and prayed that he might die. Despondently he made a shelter for himself and brooded over past events.

Then, a further series of miracles occurred. God caused a vine, or gourd, to grow up to shelter Jonah in his grief. How infinite and unsearchable are the kindness and mercy of God!

God also revealed to Jonah His compassion for all mankind whether Jew or Gentile. After causing the gourd to wither the Lord told the prophet, "You have had pity on the gourd for which you have not laboured, neither made to grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than six score thousand persons ..."

If the book of Jonah were the only reference to the amazing miracles associated with the life of this prophet it would still be one of the strangest accounts recorded in the Bible. However, there is another reference to Jonah in the New Testament that focuses on an even greater miracle. Indeed, Jonah's experience was but a type foreshadowing the greatest miracle of all time, the resurrection of Messiah.

Certain leaders of the scribes and Pharisees asked Him for a sign. "He answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

"The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgement with this generation, and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah and, behold, a greater that Jonah is here." (Matthew 12:39-41)