“In my distress, I called to the Lord, and He answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and You listened to my cry.”
When many people think of the biblical story of Jonah, they may remember a man named Jonah who got swallowed by a huge fish for disobeying God and then spit back onto shore 3 days later, where he finally learned his lesson and obeyed God’s command. Well, if that’s all you got out of it, then you’re missing a “whale” of a story and a lot of life-changing lessons! You see, Jonah wasn’t just an ordinary man, he was one of God’s prophets (2 Kings 14:25 ). And when you get a grasp on the complete story of Jonah, you’ll understand why we call him…
Although the book of Jonah was written primarily in the third person and does not specifically state the author’s name, there’s no reason to doubt its inspiration or accuracy. The traditional view is that Jonah himself was the author. The book of Jonah was written during the reign of King Jeroboam II, most likely sometime between 793-753 BC. Jonah is unique among the prophets of the Old Testament because they are typically a collection of God’s words spoken through the prophet (“Thus say’s the Lord”), while Jonah, is an account of a period in the life of the prophet himself. Below is a basic timeline to give you a good sense of when the book of Jonah occurred.
Who Was Jonah and Why Was He so Important?
Identified in verse 1 as the son of Amittai (who we know virtually nothing about), Jonah came from a Galilean village in the territory of the tribe of Zebulun named Gath-Hepher, just slightly north of Nazareth which later became known as Galilee. The name Jonah or Jonas means “dove.” According to Jewish tradition, he was the son of the widow of Zarephath, whom Elijah restored back to life (1 Kings 17:8-24), although there is no sufficient evidence for this. Jonah was the successor of Elijah and Elisha. He was the link between them and Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah. He had most likely been trained in the schools of the prophets and exercised his ministry during the reign of King Jeroboam II, and maybe even prior to that. Jonah was one of only four writing prophets that Jesus Christ mentioned by name in the New Testament (He also mentioned Isaiah, Daniel, and Zachariah). But going even further, Jesus even identifies Himself with Jonah’s three-day stay in the belly of the great fish (Matthew 12:38-41), noting it as a foreshadowing of His own death and resurrection.
What is the story of Jonah all about, and Where Did It Take Place?
The book of Jonah is a subversive story about a rebellious prophet who’s angry with God for loving his enemies. It has a very unique design, with chapters 1 and 3 telling the story of Jonah’s encounter with non-Israelites. First with some pagan sailors in chapter 1, and then with his hated enemies the Ninevites in chapter 3. Chapters 2 and 4 contain the prayers of Jonah. The first one in chapter 2 is Jonah’s prayer of repentance (sort of), and then, in chapter 4, a prayer in which Jonah criticizes God for having mercy on his enemies.
The story has a list of stereotyped characters who ironically do the exact opposite of what they would normally do. First, you have Jonah. A prophet who’s angry and rebels against his own God. You have the pagan sailors who are supposed to be immoral but end up having soft repentant hearts and turn to God in humility. Also, you have the King of the most powerful murderous empire on the planet, who humbles himself before God in repentance because of Jonah’s 8-word sermon (only 5 words in Hebrew). And finally, we see that even the king’s cows repent.
So let’s “throw ourselves” into the story of Jonah, as we break it down piece by piece!
This sarcophagus of Jonah, kept in the Vatican Museum, depicts the story of Jonah in detail.
Jonah’s Commission and Flight
Jonah 1:1-2: The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before Me.”
The Lord had commissioned Jonah to travel approximately 550 miles northeast to Assyria’s great capital city of Nineveh, to announce judgment against its many appalling crimes. According to Genesis 10:9-12, Noah’s great-grandson Nimrod built the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen. Nineveh was known for its great power, wealth, and prestige. They were notorious for their cruelty and idolatry. The city of Nineveh had many temples including one to “Ishtar” the Assyrian goddess. God was fully aware of their abominations and was willing to punish them if they did not repent.
Jonah 1:3: But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Why Did Jonah Run from God?
Some of us have a tendency to read stories from the Bible and assume that “we” would have done the right thing if we were in that same situation.
“Stupid Israelites, how can they worship a golden calf after witnessing all the miracles from God? I never would’ve done that.”
“How foolish could Peter be, denying the Lord three times? I never would’ve done that.”
The truth is, we have a hard time relating to those passages due to our own self-inflated ego. We tend to think that we are “holier than thou.” So when we read the story of Jonah, we tell ourselves, “Well, if the Lord told me to go to Nineveh, I would go no matter what.” But realistically, we might not have. Assyria was notoriously hateful and cruel towards their enemies. They were a ruthless nation that was bent on world conquest and had been a long-time threat to Israel. Not only did Assyria master the art of war and torture techniques, but they bragged about it and made it well-known to the rest of the world. They ransacked cities, raped women, and kidnapped their children to use as slaves. They gouged out people’s eyes, cut off their limbs, and then let those poor victims roam around helplessly, serving as a living reminder to everyone else.
They castrated people and burned them alive. They performed mass executions, impaling their victims on wooden stakes that were driven into the body under the ribs. The victim’s weight caused the spikes to sink deeper and deeper into the body causing a slow and excruciating death. They were even fond of flaying their rebel leaders alive. The flaying process would start at the buttocks, thighs, or lower legs. They would cut the skin in strips and then peel it off the victim while they were still alive. They would gouge out the victim’s tongue beforehand, to muffle the screaming. The victim’s skin was hung in a visible place along the palace walls as a reminder for the rest of the citizens.
So when the Lord commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach repentance, it would be the same as if God commanded one of us today to go to Iraq and preach the good news of Jesus Christ to the members of ISIS.”
Knowing all that, we can’t exactly harp on Jonah, and say that we would’ve made the right choice. Since Nineveh lay in the east, Jonah went as far west as he could toward Tarshish, which stood more than 2500 miles from Israel in the opposite direction. Tarshish was the most remote place available for Jonah.
Below, I’ve included some pictures of some of the stone carvings found, depicting Assyria’s horrible atrocities.
Disobedience Affects Everyone
Jonah 1:4: Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.
In Jonah 1:4-9, Jonah was asleep at the bottom of the ship, so God sent out a storm that was so great that the pagan sailors knew there was divine power at work. They all cried out to their pagan gods to no avail, so they cast lots to see who the source of the problem was, and the lot fell on Jonah. The captain woke Jonah up, asked him what was going on? and commanded him to call out to his God. He said, “Maybe He will take notice of us so that we will not perish ” (vs. 6b). Jonah told them that he was a Hebrew who feared the Lord, “The God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (vs. 9).
How Stubborn We Can Be
In Jonah 1:10-16, The terrified sailors knew what Jonah had done, and fearing for their lives, they cried out to Jonah asking, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us? (vs. 11). At this time, you would think that Jonah would realize that his disobedience was jeopardizing the lives of other people and cause him to repent on the spot to the Lord for the sake of everyone else. But although he admits he’s at fault, selfish Jonah tells the pagan sailors to throw him overboard and everything will be fine. Perfectly willing to die by drowning at sea, rather than to face the Ninevites. Personally, if I was one of the pagan sailors, I would have told him to “walk the plank,” but the pagan sailors pleaded with the Lord not to hold them accountable as they tossed Jonah overboard. When the pagan sailors saw that the seas immediately became calm, they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him.
It’s Never Too Late to Pray!
Jonah 1:17: Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Like the old saying goes, “you can run, but you can’t hide.” Especially from God. Jeremiah 23:24 says, “Can anyone hide himself in secret places, So I shall not see him?” says the Lord; “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord. We are not supposed to run from the Lord, we are supposed to run to the Lord. Proverbs 18:10 tells us, The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe. Jonah’s running lands him on the menu at the “Deep Seas Cafe’.” The Lord will always get His way, but God’s “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), so instead of letting Jonah drown, God gave him something to think about in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights. Jonah obviously had enough air to breathe (although pretty foul I’m sure) and realizing that God was with him no matter where he was, there was only one thing left to do. Pray!
In Jonah chapter 2, Jonah prays to the Lord from inside the great fish. During his prayer, he never actually tells God he’s sorry, but recites what was going through his mind while he was sinking in the depths of the ocean, and gives God thanks for not abandoning him. He also promises to obey God from that point on. This is the part of the Jonah story where the majority of non-believers probably have a hard time with. They probably tell themselves, “A man gets swallowed by a big fish and survives inside of it for three days? Yeah right.” Well, just to make it a little easier for people to believe that this could happen, I’ve added a couple of pictures below of some very careless divers who came close to being a whale’s lunch. I’m also including a link below of a story of a man who got swallowed by a whale and survived after being inside of it for 36 hours.
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah Stops Running
In Jonah Chapter 3, for a second time, the Lord gave Jonah the same command as before to go to Nineveh. This time without hesitation, soaked in whale barf, and probably extremely embarrassed, Jonah obeys God’s command and began his journey. Since Jonah did not really want the Ninevites to be spared, he gave a very short sermon which only consisted of these words; “40 more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” He never mentions their sin, how they should respond, or who might overthrow them. He never even mentions God. But nevertheless, no sooner does he finish uttering the words, the king, the entire inhabitants of the city, and even the cows all repent in sackcloth and ashes. Since the Ninevites were more responsive than God’s own profit, the Lord forgave them and did not bring destruction to their city. The word “overthrown” actually has two different meanings. It could mean destroyed, as in “Sodom and Gomorrah,” or it could mean “transformed” or “changed.” So technically Jonah’s words actually came true, but not exactly how Jonah expected.
In the final chapter (Ch. 4), Jonah prays to the Lord again, but this time he is angry. He explains to the Lord that he ran because he knew God would be gracious and passionate toward his enemies. He then ask’s God to take his life, stating, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God asked Jonah if his anger was justified but Jonah did not answer Him. Instead, he walked outside the city to camp on a nearby hill and waited to see what would happen. He was probably hoping the Lord would still smoke the Ninevites. While Jonah was waiting, God provided a leafy plant that gave Jonah shade. This made Jonah very happy. But by dawn the next day, God sent a worm to kill the plant and a scorching sun to burn jonah’s head. Once again, Jonah says, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” The Lord then asks Jonah if it’s right to be concerned about the plant, but have no care for the Ninevites, including over 120,000 people who couldn’t tell their right hand from their left. This is a huge message for all of us. We all need to ask ourselves, “are we OK with God loving our enemies?” Remember, 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that the Lord is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
Approximately 200 years later the city of Nineveh fell back into their wicked ways and God had the city destroyed by the Babylonians and the Medes in 612 BC.
This is an artist’s rendering of what the city of Nineveh would have looked like back in the days of Jonah.
This is the archaeological site of Nineveh in 2019, located in modern day Mosul, currently occupied by squatters.
“I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty. “I will burn up your chariots in smoke, and the sword will devour your young lions. I will leave you no prey on the earth. The voices of your messengers will no longer be heard”
The Lord had finally had enough of the Ninevites falling back into their evil wicked ways, and they could no longer escape God’s judgment. No one can!