Jonah Series: Introduction to Jonah
Introduction to Jonah
Author and Background
The book of Jonah is anonymous in that the authorship is never explicitly stated. The majority of the book is written in third-person (he, him, his); however, in Chapter 2, Jonah’s personal Psalm, first-person pronouns are used (I, me, my). Because of the personal pronouns and all the intimate autobiographical information about Jonah within the book, traditionally he is believed to be the author. Even though the book is primarily written in third-person, this is not uncommon with biblical writers. For instance, Moses wrote the Pentateuch in third-person, though he was the author.
Jonah was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-758 BC) , who was historically that nation’s mightiest monarch. According to 2 Kings, Jonah was from Gath-Hepher, a city in Galilee , and he prophesied that God would expand the Northern Kingdom during Jeroboam’s reign. Second Kings 14:23-26 describes this:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Judah’s King Amaziah son of Joash, Jeroboam son of Joash became king over Israel. He reigned for forty-one years in Samaria. He did evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not repudiate the sinful ways of Jeroboam son of Nebat who encouraged Israel to sin. He restored the border of Israel from Lebo Hamath in the north to the sea of the rift valley in the south, just as in the message from the Lord God of Israel that he had announced through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.
During Jonah’s ministry, Assyria was Israel’s chief enemy. The Israelites feared them and paid tribute to their kings (2 Kgs 17:3, cf. 1 Kgs 18:14-16). The Assyrians were known for their brutality and violence, including “cutting off their enemies’ ears and other body parts, skinning people alive, and impaling them outside the gates of their own cities as a sign of Assyrian might and power.” They were also known for their witchcraft, sorcery, alcoholism, and illicit sexuality, including prostitution. Therefore, it must have shocked Jonah when God called for him to leave Israel and call Nineveh, the capital city, of Assyria to repentance. Consequently, Jonah ran from God’s call. Instead of going east towards Nineveh, he went to Joppa and got on a ship towards Tarshish (in Spain) which was the furthest point west of Israel in the known world at that time. He went in the opposite direction of God’s call. In response, God brought a storm on the sea which threatened to destroy the boat and the lives on board. After figuring out that Jonah was the cause of the storm and because of Jonah’s advice, the sailors threw him into the sea. While sinking, Jonah cried out to God, and God saved him by allowing him to be swallowed by a large fish. After being in the fish for three days, Jonah repented of his rebellion, and God had the fish spit Jonah onto dry land. Soon after, God again called Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn them of God’s coming judgment. Shockingly, in response to the preaching, from the least to the greatest, everyone in Nineveh repented, and God chose not to send judgment. In response to God’s mercy, Jonah became angry and accused God of, essentially, being too gracious. Jonah even declared that he wanted to die because of it. After this, Jonah left the city and created a fort to sit at and watch to see if God would change his mind and bring judgment on the Ninevites. However, God instead began to work on Jonah’s rebellious heart. God allowed a plant to grow which provided shade for Jonah’s head against the harsh sun. But, then God appointed a worm to eat the plant which allowed the hot wind and sun to beat against Jonah’s head. Again, Jonah became angry and declared that he wanted to die because of his misery. In response, God challenged him. If Jonah was concerned about a plant that he did not cultivate or develop, how much more should God be concerned about all the people and animals in the city whom he created, loved, and sustained? The story ends on a cliff-hanger, in that it never reveals if Jonah himself repented of his wrong attitude. With that said, since Jonah is the most likely author of the book, it’s implied that he did at some point.
Swallowed by a Large Fish
Though the book of Jonah tells us a great deal about God and how he specifically deals with sinful people like Jonah and the Ninevites, many readers have focused exclusively on the most surprising event in the story—Jonah being swallowed by a large fish and surviving three days inside it. In fact, because of that event, some believe that the story of Jonah is a fictional parable—meant to teach us spiritual truths—instead of a historical account. However, Jesus spoke about Jonah as a historical person in Matthew 12:39-41 and that his being swallowed by a large fish reflected Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. He said:
… An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them—and now, something greater than Jonah is here!
If this account was not real, it couldn’t have truly reflected Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection which historically happened. Therefore, Jonah being swallowed by a large fish and surviving was either a miracle—which is when God suspends his natural laws to do something supernatural—or the event is naturally possible.
In considering the credibility of a man being swallowed by a large fish and surviving, some research and historical events support this as naturally possible. For example, some studies of sperm whales demonstrate that a man can be swallowed alive, live for a few days in the whale, and subsequently, be vomited up. A sperm whale’s mouth is typically 20 feet long, 15 feet high, and 9 feet wide, which is larger than most rooms in an average house. Furthermore, sperm whales feed on squid which is often much larger than a human. Whalers have found a whole-sized squid in a dead whale’s stomach, which supports the fact that one could swallow a human whole. There is also the biography of a man named James Bartley who claimed to be swallowed by a whale in 1891 and survived for at least a day. James Boice shared this story in his Jonah commentary. He said:
One case concerns a voyage of the whaling ship Star of the East, which in February 1891, spotted a large sperm whale in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands. Two boats were launched, and in a short while one of the harpooners was able to spear the whale. Those in the second boat attempted to attach a second harpoon, but the boat capsized in the process and one man was drowned. A second sailor, James Bartley, disappeared and could not be found. In time the whale was killed and drawn to the side of the ship where it was made fast and the blubber removed. The next day the stomach was hoisted on deck. When it was opened, the missing sailor was found inside. He was unconscious but alive. Eventually he was revived by sea water and after a time resumed his duties on board the whaling vessel.
Furthermore, there have also been rare modern incidents of people being swallowed at least briefly by whales and then spit out. For instance, a lobster diver in Cape Cod, Massachusetts was swallowed by a humpback whale for a brief period and then spit out in June 2021.
The Ninevites Repenting
In addition to people struggling with the spectacular event of Jonah being swallowed and regurgitated by a large fish, others have struggled with the plausibility of the Ninevites repenting at the preaching of a Jewish prophet. The Assyrians worshipped different gods from the Jews, and they were the Jews’ enemies. Why would they repent at a Jewish prophet’s preaching? Of course, all repentance is a supernatural work of God (cf. Phil 1:29, Eph 2:8-9), but God also apparently used natural events to prepare their hearts. Jonah Mackay said this:
If Jonah’s mission is dated between 780 and 755 bc, then few records have survived from that troubled period of Assyrian history. Those that have reveal many internal problems. For instance, each year from 765–759 bc has a note of an outbreak of plague, or of a revolt in some city of the land, or—and this would probably have seemed worst to the superstitious Assyrian mind—an eclipse of the sun. Throughout the first half of the eighth century bc Assyria was threatened by powerful tribes from the north, particularly by the kingdom of Urartu, near the Caspian Sea, and her zone of influence contracted considerably… It may be that the upheavals and sense of impending catastrophe were influential in predisposing the Ninevites to accept Jonah’s message when it was brought to them.
Tim Keller said something similar:
Historians have pointed out that about the time of Jonah’s mission, Assyria had experienced a series of famines, plagues, revolts, and eclipses, all of which were seen as omens of far worse things to come. Some have argued that this was God’s way of preparing the ground for Jonah. “This state of affairs would have made both rulers and subjects unusually attuned to the message of a visiting prophet.” So there was some sociological explanation for this response.
As mentioned, every year there was some major revolt, outbreak, or catastrophe. Through trials and the consequences of their sin, God prepared the Ninevites to receive him. He shook their financial security, sense of safety, family and civic life, and their false religion to prepare them to receive the true God.
Furthermore, Jonah being swallowed and regurgitated by a large fish may have contributed to their repentance as well. The Assyrians worshipped the fish-god, Dagon. If witnesses saw Jonah vomited from a large fish, which represented the Ninevites’ deity, and shared it, his preaching would indeed be a “sign” to them (Matt 12:39-41). The bleaching of Jonah’s skin from the fish’s stomach acid would have only confirmed any potential witness reports. Therefore, God may have used sociological events, Jonah’s surviving in the belly of a large fish, and the simple hearing of God’s Word to supernaturally change their hearts.
Though the Ninevites repented in 760 BC, it only lasted for a generation. Eventually, the Assyrians conquered and exiled the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC (2 Kgs 17). Therefore, Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh not only resulted in their repentance (temporary as it was), but it also resulted in the destruction of his own country, which was probably one of his fears which led him to rebel against God. He wanted to protect Israel by having Nineveh judged. Eventually, Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes in 612 BC, almost 150 years after the events in the book of Jonah.
What are the major themes of Jonah? There are several that all focus on elements of God’s character and plan: (1) Jonah’s story teaches God’s gracious and merciful character in dealing with sinners. It is reflected in Jonah’s quote about God’s character in Jonah 4:2. He said, “you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment” (cf. Ex 34:6). Though Jonah meant it as a slight to God, since he had forgiven the Ninevites, its truths are reflected throughout Jonah’s story. God was gracious to Jonah when he rebelled against his prophetic call by fleeing to Tarshish. However, instead of allowing Jonah to stay in rebellion, God went after him, using a storm, a raging sea, and a great fish to secure Jonah’s initial repentance. Then, though Jonah preached to the Ninevites, he did it with a wrong heart—desiring that God would destroy them instead. Even then, God used a plant, the heat, and wind to teach Jonah about his wrong attitude towards those God loved. In fact, God’s merciful and gracious character is vividly seen in contrast with Jonah’s character. While Jonah was mean-spirited and unforgiving, God was slow to anger and forgiving. Twice God asked Jonah if it was right for him to be so angry (4:4, 9). God’s gracious and merciful character is the major theme of the book. (2) Secondly, Jonah’s story strongly teaches God’s sovereignty over the events of life. When Jonah tried to flee on the sea, “the Lord hurled a powerful wind on the sea” (1:4). When Jonah was thrown into the sea, “the Lord sent a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17). After Jonah prayed and repented while in the large fish, “the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto dry land” (2:10). When Jonah was hot while sitting under the sun, “the Lord God appointed a little plant and caused it to grow up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to rescue him from his misery” (4:6). Then, to teach Jonah a lesson, God sent a worm to destroy the plant and a hot wind to beat down on Jonah’s head (4:7-8). God was in control of a powerful wind on the sea, the large fish, a plant, a worm, and a hot east wind on dry land. The author essentially teaches throughout the narrative that God is in control of everything and that he uses his power for good, which the rest of Scripture teaches as well. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Ephesian 1:11 says, God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.” He hardens hearts and softens them (cf. Rom 9:18, Ex 9:12, Acts 11:18, Phil 1:29). He holds the king’s heart in his hand like a watercourse, guiding it as he desires (Prov 21:1). Even chance events like the rolling of dice are under his control, and significant events like calamities are as well (Prov 16:33 NLT, Amos 3:6). God is sovereign, and Jonah’s story demonstrates this throughout the narrative. (3) Finally, the story of Jonah also teaches God’s universal, evangelistic plan to save all people and not just the Israelites. For this reason, the story would have been a rebuke to the Israelites reading it because most had hearts like Jonah. They had started to hate their enemies instead of loving them (cf. Matt 5:43-44), and they believed that God planned to save the Jew and not the Gentile. When in fact, God’s original plan was for Jews to be lights to the world—spreading the fame of God’s name to every person, tribe, and nation (cf. Gen 12:3, 22:18, Isaiah 42:6, 60:1-3). May God use the lessons in Jonah’s story to convict and change our hearts to make us more gracious, merciful, and evangelistic like Yahweh himself (cf. Matt 5:45)!