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Different from the other Prophets…..


The main character of the Old Testament prophecy of Jonah gives the book its name. Jonah, whose name means “dove” probably ministered about 780-750 B.C. He is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 where his prophecy that Israel’s territory would be restored is recorded.


Jonah came from Gath-hepher in the territory of Zebulun, near to Galilee. In the previous century Assyria had oppressed Israel and controlled the eastern Mediterranean coast, but Jeroboam II had re-established Israel’s power. Although the influence of Assyria had subsided, the nation still remained a threat to Israel. Assyria experienced two plagues (765 and 759 B.C.) as well as a total eclipse in 763 B.C. These may have been regarded as tokens of coming judgment and could have enabled the people of Nineveh to more readily accept Jonah’s preaching.


As much of the prophecy of Jonah is written in the third person it cannot be proved that Jonah actually wrote it, but it does seem likely that he was the author. Compared with other Old Testament prophecies Jonah is unusual as it consists almost entirely of narrative. Jonah, as a Hebrew, would have known that God could use the Assyrians as an instrument of His judgment against Israel, so we can appreciate how glad he must have felt to contemplate the overthrow of Assyria.




The man in the street approaches the book of Jonah flippantly and dismisses its miraculous element, while the scholar in his study attacks it critically as the product of a later period. The main character is regarded as a legendary figure in a parable illustrating the justice and mercy of God, Nineveh typifying the non-Jewish world which must be awakened. (It must be pointed out, however, that generally parables are not as long as this book.)  Other critics see Jonah as a myth, rather like the ancient Greek fable about the king of Troy who chained his daughter to a rock on the seashore. He was intending to sacrifice her to Neptune who would appear as a shark, but Hercules destroyed the monster and saved the girl. Still others view Jonah as an allegory with Jonah representing Israel. Like the nation which was to declare God’s truth to the world, Jonah failed. Babylon is seen in the great fish which “swallowed” Israel and took the nation into captivity before disgorging the Israelites after the Exile. Jonah’s attitude at the end, they say, resembles the spirit of the Jews after their return.


Leaving such unsatisfactory interpretations of Jonah, we can interpret the book both literally and historically. Commissioned by God to go to Nineveh, Jonah fled to Tarshish so that the 40 days would pass and Nineveh would be overthrown. Like the Jews, the Lord Jesus accepted Jonah historically and considered him to be as real as the Queen of Sheba (Lk.11:31). He revealed a “typical” meaning in the prophet’s experience. Jonah’s “burial” was a picture of His own approaching death and burial (Mt.12:40), while Jonah himself was a sign to the Ninevites in the same way that the Lord Jesus was to the people of His day (Lk.11:30).




The opening chapter describes how Jonah was sent by God to Nineveh but escaped, instead, to Tarshish. While on the ship a storm arose, for which Jonah was deemed to be responsible. Hearing of his guilt, the sailors reluctantly threw him overboard where he was swallowed by the great fish which God had specially prepared. Chapter 2 records Jonah’s earnest prayer from inside the fish and his subsequent return to dry ground. Commissioned again by God, Jonah went to Nineveh to preach the same message. This, as well as the success of his mission, is recorded in the third chapter. The people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of the man who had emerged as it were from death. But Jonah saw their repentance as a negation of his prophecy and felt discredited. Sitting opposite the city in the oppressive heat he watched and waited in the hope that God might change His mind and destroy them after all, feeling he had every reason to be angry. Nineveh was spared for some 150 years until the city relapsed and was judged by God during the time of Nahum.


There are a number of practical lessons to be found in Jonah. Although all-powerful, God is also merciful. He is concerned for sinful men and women and seeks to warn them. He wants to use us in delivering His message of repentance, but we often like to avoid responsibility. Perhaps at times we can see ourselves in Jonah who was anything but dove-like! Sometimes mission fields can be far more promising than we expect, as Jonah discovered.


If the Lord Jesus set His seal of approval upon this book, then it is worth our careful attention.