By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
“Jonah and the whale” is often the final Old Testament story told in children’s storybooks. Beyond its use as a “Bible story,” the book of Jonah is rarely given much serious consideration. Though the book is short, its message is weighty: God is a radically, amazingly, unfathomably good Being. The book of Jonah is a revelation of a God who loves even His enemies. It is a revelation of a God who is not willing that any should perish. It is a revelation of the fact that it is the goodness of God which leads men to repentance. The revelation of these facts – both to a bad prophet and a wicked city – is the theme and story of this book.
The Religious and Political Situation
Jonah was a prophet in the land of Israel after the division between Israel (the ten northern tribes) and Judah (Judah and Benjamin). Since the reign of Jeroboam, Israel’s first king, the ten northern tribes had been in serious apostasy from God and the truth. This was because Jeroboam I had set up two golden calves, claimed that they were images of Jehovah, and that the Israelites should worship at the shrines he had set up for these calves rather than at Jerusalem, where the Judeans worshipped. Eighteen times it is stated in the books of Kings that Jeroboam “made Israel to sin.”
All of this had been hundreds of years before, and now Jeroboam II was king. He was not a descendant of the original Jeroboam, as Israel had known much political instability, and dynasties had changed several times since the reign of Jeroboam. Immense idolatry had entered, particularly during the Omri dynasty. Omri’s son Ahab, stirred up by his wife Jezebel, introduced the worship of Baal and other heathen gods, in addition to the pagan gods already worshipped by the Israelites and the two golden calves which Jeroboam had set up. Israel had become a corrupt nation of idolatrous, adulterous people.
Following the reign of Ahab and two of his sons, God raised up Jehu with the mission of destroying the Omri dynasty and cleansing the land of idolatry. Jehu eradicated the worship of Baal and other heathen gods, but failed to return completely to following the commands of GOD contained in the Law of Moses. He allowed the two golden calves erected by Jeroboam I to remain and the worship of them to continue uninterrupted. This pagan behavior continued under the reign of Jehu’s descendants and finally ended with the destruction of Jehu’s dynasty.
It was during the reign of Jehu’s great-grandson, Jeroboam II, that Jonah was prophet in Israel. Israel had known little peace since its division from Judah, and Jeroboam II took the throne at a time when Israel was under the oppression of the Syrians – a cruel and ruthless people with no love for the Israelites. Because of the sins of Jehu, GOD “began to cut Israel short” (II Kings 10:32), using the Syrians. Israel lost a significant amount of land to these foes, and all the days of Jehoahaz (Jeroboam II’s grandfather and Jehu’s son), Israel was oppressed by the Syrians (II Kings 13:22). GOD had mercy on the Israelites, however, for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. HE allowed Jehoash, Jehoahaz’s son and successor, to have three victories over the Syrians and reclaim some of the cities which the Syrians had taken.
A breakthrough was to occur in the reign of Jeroboam II, and it was there and then that Jonah’s ministry began.
The Early Ministry of Jonah
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 reigned forty and one years. And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD: he departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher. For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter: for there was not any shut up, nor any left, nor any helper for Israel. And the LORD said not that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven: but 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 warred, and how he recovered Damascus, and Hamath, which belonged to Judah, for Israel, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel? (II Kings 14:23-28)
Jonah was the son of a man by the name of Amittai, and was a native of the city of Gath-hepher, a town on the border of the land of Zebulun. Amittai was a prophet as well, and named his son Jonah, meaning “dove.” He probably trained his son to value the ways of the Lord and to pursue the honor of Jehovah and proclaim His truth to His wayward people, Israel.
Jonah followed his father’s footsteps as a prophet of the Lord. His career as prophet appears to have begun during the reign of Jeroboam II. The people were bitterly afflicted by the Syrians, and although Jeroboam II was a wicked man, God was ready to deliver the Israelites from their affliction. Jonah prophesied and proclaimed that Jeroboam II would restore the borders of Israel, all the way from Hamath, reclaiming the land which the Syrians had taken. He proclaimed that the Lord had declared that He would not blot out Israel’s name, but would save them through Jeroboam II (II Kings 14:23-29).
Jonah’s preaching was probably quite popular in Israel. While the people probably had little interest in returning to obedience to this God Jonah served, they were interested in the patriotic vision of restoring the borders of Israel, and bringing Israel back to international prominence and victory over their hated enemies, the Syrians. While we do not know what Jeroboam II’s attitude towards Jonah was, it seems probable that he liked what Jonah was doing, as it certainly had a positive effect on military morale.
As God had promised through Jonah, Jeroboam II was able to bring deliverance from Israel’s enemies. Not only did he reclaim the land which Syria had taken from Israel, he went on the offensive as far as Damascus, where he apparently occupied the very capital of Syria itself.
A New Mission
Jonah’s early mission, to the people of Israel, appears to have been a fairly easy one. His message was probably fairly popular, and as a result, the people probably liked him as well. He appears to have been somewhat of a patriot himself, and the homeland-exalting mission he was given seems to have suited him just fine. But at heart, he was a bad prophet. God had more in mind for Jonah than Jonah was expecting. A good God was about to reveal Himself to a bad prophet.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, at that time a loose confederation of city-states. Although not mentioned in the Bible up to this point, the Assyrians were enemies of the Israelites. Ahab had led a large confederation of Middle Eastern kings to fight against the Assyrians at the Battle of Qarqar, and was defeated. Jehu was forced to pay tribute to the same Assyrian monarch.,  Joash, the father of Jeroboam II, also paid tribute to Assyria. The Assyrians would eventually take the ten northern tribes into captivity. Nineveh would eventually become the capital city of the Assyrians, but it was not the capital of the empire at that time.
While not the capital, Nineveh was an ancient and important city in the Assyrian Empire. The city had been founded very soon after the worldwide Flood. Nimrod appears to have begun to build an empire beginning at Babel (Genesis 10:8-10). Another man by the name of Asshur left Nimrod’s land and founded Nineveh as well as three other cities (Genesis 10:11-12). This important city in the Assyrian Empire was violent and licentious; its people were idolatrous and superstitious. It was this wicked city which God had in mind when He came to give Jonah a new prophetic mission.
The Book of Jonah
1:1Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
The Lord had a radically new mission for Jonah – and one rather unheard of for Hebrew prophets. While it was not unusual for God to give a special message of warning and judgment to one of His prophets against a pagan nation, it was unusual for Him to command the prophet to deliver the message in person at the very city which had merited judgment.
At the very beginning of the book of Jonah, we see God’s intolerance of sin, and yet His willingness to send a message of warning and judgment to those who had provoked His wrath.
3But 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 was obviously displeased with the new mission he had been given, and he attempted to flee – not only from the mission, but from the presence of the Lord Himself. Why did Jonah dislike this new mission? Why did he want to flee from doing this service for the Lord? The text itself does not yet reveal it. Like the dramatic piece of literature it is, the book conceals the reason for Jonah’s reluctance until the shocking climax.
4But 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. 5Then 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.
Jonah slept soundly through the storm, probably imagining that – as God’s favored prophet – he would be protected through the storm. Too many people today still imagine that God will protect and bless them in the midst of their own disobedience and rebellion against His commands.
6So 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. 7And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. 8Then 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? 9And 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.
Jonah knew who God was. He feared the Lord, but yet was apparently unafraid to disobey Him. (Or perhaps Jonah had just come to “fear” the Lord!) Notice that although the shipmaster asked Jonah to pray, we have no record that he actually did so.
10Then 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.
The sailors seemed to be more afraid at Jonah’s disobedience – and the potential consequences – than he was. They knew that Jonah was there in disobedience to his God because he had been brazenly rebellious enough to report his grievances and disobedience to these pagans, to whom he – as a member of God’s priestly nation, and a prophet besides – should have been a witness to.
11Then 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. 12And 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. 13Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them. 14Wherefore 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.
The sailors were showing more mercy to Jonah than Jonah was showing to the Ninevites! They were acting more in accord with God’s heart of love and mercy than Jonah was.
However, Jonah did not ask for God’s guidance for what should be done. He also did not repent. Repentance probably would have been telling the sailors to turn the ship around and head back, that he needed to go to Nineveh – he would pay them what they required. Even in this situation, Jonah was still not headed for Nineveh, and was still being stubborn. He would rather drown than go to Nineveh.
15So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging. 16Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.
God, the Benevolent and All-Wise Deity, used Jonah’s disobedience to reach yet more pagans – the sailors, who in spite of the poor witness left by Jonah’s rebellion, feared and sacrificed to the Good God Who had revealed Himself to them.
17Now 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.
God was going to teach Jonah a lesson. Jonah first sank into the sea and became entangled in a mass of seaweed (2:5). He was probably near death, if not already dead, when the fish swallowed him. When he finally came to, he found himself in the belly of a fish.
2:1Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, 2And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. 3For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. 4Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. 5The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. 6I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.
These phrases (“out of the belly of hell,” “compassed me…to the soul,” “earth with her bars…about me for ever,” “brought up my life from corruption”) indicate that Jonah probably died after being cast out of the ship, and his soul descended to the abode of the dead. He despaired of being in God’s presence ever again, yet hope entered his soul – “yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.” The Lord, true to His merciful character, then “brought up [Jonah’s] life from corruption,” reviving him in the fish’s belly.
7When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.
Jonah knew where to turn in his hour of trouble – the very Person Whom he had sinned against. Jonah’s prayer holds regret for his punishment, and perhaps just an ounce of actual repentance for his sin. At the end, Jonah’s tone becomes triumphant, as he is confident that God has heard his prayer, and that he would actually be allowed once more to enter the Temple.
8They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
The word “observe” can have the sense of “protect.” It is possible that the sense of this verse is, “They who seek to protect themselves with idols, forsake the opportunity to experience God’s mercy.”
9But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.
With full confidence now in his deliverance, Jonah plans a sacrifice with thanksgiving, and declares that salvation – deliverance from his present disaster – would come from the Lord.
Despite his promise for worship, Jonah does not in this prayer include any confession of guilt or a plea for forgiveness.
10And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
But Jonah received what he prayed for! This action of God’s – delivering this bad prophet from “the belly of hell,” and then from the belly of the fish – reveals God’s loving and merciful character, loving even to His enemies. God very well could have left Jonah to be the fish’s lunch, and picked another prophet to go to Nineveh. He could just as well have told the Angel Gabriel to go warn Nineveh of impending judgment. Gabriel would not have disobeyed. Yet God was good even to the bad prophet Jonah, and He delivered Jonah in mercy, and gave him another opportunity.
3:1And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying, 2Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.
God had delivered Jonah from his disaster, but not from his despised mission. A boat had taken Jonah away from where God wanted him, but a fish carried him right back. Jonah was given the opportunity to demonstrate repentance by preaching in love to those who were headed where he had just been – the “belly of hell.”
3So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.
Jonah obeys – at least outwardly – and this time heads for Nineveh. As we will see, it was not out of love for the people that he went!
Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey. 4And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
Unfortunately, we have no record if Jonah preached anything more than this short, terse message. It was a foreboding, threatening message – and one perfectly suited for the Ninevites’ ears.
Archaeological discoveries have shed light on the history of Assyria at about the time of Jonah’s mission. King Jeroboam II, king of Israel in Jonah’s day, reigned from 793-753 B.C. On June 15, 763 B.C., there was a solar eclipse in Assyria. There had been revolts and plagues before then; there was revolt in Assyria in that year, and a plague two years later. The Assyrians, like so many other pagans, were a very superstitious people, and a solar eclipse was seen as a terrible omen of bad luck. One archaeological discovery is an astrological report to the king claiming that a solar eclipse indicated that the following disasters may occur: “Rise of a rebel king; the throne will change…that king will die…a devastating flood will occur.” One professor of the Old Testament wrote:
If Jonah had arrived in Nineveh around the time of this eclipse, when Assyria was about to fold up and collapse, it would not have taken much of a catalyst to start the kind of mass repentance described in Jonah 3. The behavior of the Assyrian king described in the royal letters took place on certain days specified by experts during time when life was progressing as usual. How much more intense would it be in the New Year following this ominous event? One might even wonder if the book of Jonah understated the situation.
5So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.
The people of Nineveh did not just believe Jonah; they believed his God.
6For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: 8But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
This incredible repentance came about because the Ninevites and their king saw in the terse, threatening message of Jonah the truth which he wanted to hide from them – that God was gracious and merciful, willing to forgive upon repentance. Indeed – why would God send a prophet to warn them of judgment if there was no hope of mercy?
The Ninevites “believed God” enough that they were willing to turn from their sins in repentance, begging for His mercy. What was God’s response?
10And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
What a good God! In response to their repentance, God also “repented” or turned from the pronouncement of judgment. The Judge of all the Earth does right; He does not punish the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18:23, 25). These men, although formerly wicked, had turned now to righteousness. God responds to repentance by giving mercy.
But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezekiel 18:21-23).
4:1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
As we enter the fourth chapter, we get to the real reason why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh in the first place. God saw the repentance of Nineveh, and responded with mercy and forgiveness. Jonah, however – God’s chosen prophet, who should have been close to God and had thoughts like God regarding this situation – is angry with God for showing mercy on Nineveh! Sometimes we, too, are angry when our neighbor receives a blessing.
2And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
The climax of the story has come, with the most shocking element in the entire book – the prophet Jonah reproaches God for being good!
This is the real reason why Jonah wanted to flee to Tarshish and avoid the mission to Nineveh. It was because he knew that God was good, and that if the city of Nineveh would repent in response to his message, the city would be spared! When Jonah finally did arrive in Nineveh, he appears to have given only a short, threatening message of doom. Yet even his unkind preaching was met with the unexpected result that the Ninevites guessed how good God was – the very fact Jonah wished to hide from them! Now, as he had expected, the city had repented, and God had spared the city. Now Jonah is reproaching God for being good. (He was perfectly pleased with God’s goodness and mercy when he was the one in need of it.)
3Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. 4Then said the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry?
Jonah was so angry with his Good God that he would rather die than see God have mercy on his enemies. At this point, the Lord has taken a lot of rebellion from Jonah, and it would seem perfectly natural in the story to see the Lord strike him dead at this point. However, the Lord asked Jonah a gentle question – “Doest thou well to be angry?”
5So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
Jonah seems to have taken God’s question wrong. God’s question was certainly intended to gently nudge him to repentance from his bad attitudes. Jonah seems to have misunderstood, and went out to watch what would happen to the city – as if God had meant, “What are you so upset about? Just watch and I will destroy the city! Just be patient and wait!” So Jonah took his seat on the east side of the city – the side opposite from his own home – and waited.
6And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
Even in the face of this new development, God is still good to His bad prophet. He did not let Jonah sit out in the desert in the hot sun, but gave Him a large plant to shade him. Was Jonah grateful to God for the gourd? Although we are told that he “was exceeding glad of the gourd,” we have no record that he thanked God for it.
7But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. 8And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
God’s purpose in giving Jonah a gourd was more than just to give him something to sit under – although that was part of it. Rather, God was going to give Jonah a lesson. The very next day, the gourd died, and a strong wind blew over Jonah, and the sun beat down on him.
Jonah was a man of emotional extremes. He was very angry when God had mercy on the city in verse 1; then he was exceeding glad of the gourd; now he is “angry, even unto death” (verse 9).
9And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. 10Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: 11And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
In this passage, we get a final glimpse into the heart of God and see yet again His goodness. Who was God trying to reach with Jonah’s mission to Nineveh? Obviously the Ninevites, but also Jonah. Jonah hated his enemies, and was unwilling to go to Nineveh because he knew that God was good. Jonah was a man of emotional extremes, and was a man more interested in his own comfort and self-interest than the welfare of others – the creation and image of God Himself. He may have been a patriot, more concerned with nationalistic affairs and hatred for Israel’s enemies than in seeing God’s rule and influence expand to another nation.
Jonah, preaching in Israel the destruction of her enemies, seems to have embraced the idea that although God was the Maker of all men, He was yet bound to a tribal entity and was only loyal to the Jews.
God’s benevolent response to this bad prophet was to send him – and resend him – on a mission which would bring him face-to-face with himself and his badness and God and His goodness. God, in love and mercy, did not bring a railing accusation against Jonah, but gently confronted him with his own selfishness and hate and prompted him to embrace the benevolence, magnanimity, and goodness of God for all people.
Why does the book of Jonah end so abruptly – with no record of Jonah’s response? Perhaps it is because we are supposed to end the story for ourselves by responding to the lesson of the book – realizing the immense goodness of God, His love and care for all and desire for their salvation, and our need to act in accordance with our King’s benevolent vision.
Behold, a greater than Jonas is here.–Jesus
 Shalmaneser III, “The Monolith Inscription,” in Daniel David Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, Volume I, 1926, University of Chicago Press, p. 223.
 Shalmaneser III, “The Black Obelisk Inscription,” in Ibid., p. 211.
 Shalmaneser III, “Another Fragment from Calah(?),” in Ibid., p. 243.
 Adad-nirari III, “Tell al Rimah Stele,” in Stephanie Page, “A Stela of Adad-nirari III and Nergal-ereš from Tell al Rimah,” Iraq 30(2) (Autumn 1968):139-153, p. 143.
 As cited by Paul Ferguson, “Nineveh’s ‘Impossible’ Repentance,” Bible and Spade 27(2) (Spring 2014):32-35, p. 34.
Originally published in The Witness 13(11) November 2015.