Jonah (means “dove”) lived in Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25), a town about 3 miles from Nazareth (the town in which Jesus grew up). Jewish legend tells us (though we don’t know for sure) that he was the son of the widow of Sarepta that Elijah brought to life (1 Kings 17:9-24). He was probably a disciple of the prophet Elisha and succeeded him as a prophet.
The Pharisees were actually mistaken when they responded concerning Jesus that no prophet had come out of Galilee (John 7:52). Gath-hepher of Zebulun (Joshua 19:13) was located north of Nazareth in Galilee.
Time written & time covered in history:
Jonah lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (794-753) and helped him to make Israel a powerful and prosperous nation. He was a well-known statesman.
God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria (located in the modern nation of Iraq), a gentile nation. The Assyrian Empire was a world power for about 300 years (900-607 B.C.). It began its rise to power at about the same time that Israel divided into two separate kingdoms…Israel (north), Judah (south)…at the close of the reign of King Solomon. It gradually overthrew and absorbed the northern Kingdom of Israel. The Assyrian Kings that Israel and Judah had to deal with were:
Shalmaneser II (860-825 B.C.). He began to “cut off Israel”.
Adad-Nirari (808-783). Took tribute from Israel. Jonah’s visit?
Tiglath-pileser III (747-727). Deported most of Israel.
Shalmaneser IV (727-722). Besieged Samaria.
Sargon II (722-705). Carried rest of Israel captive. Isaiah.
Sennacherib (705-681). Invaded Judah. Isaiah.
Esar-haddon (681-668). Very powerful.
Assur-banipal (668-626). Most powerful and brutal. Nahum?
Two weak kings (626-607). The giant empire fell (607 B.C.).
Halley’s Bible Handbook, Henry H. Halley, p. 363
Jonah didn’t want to go to Assyria and preach a message of repentance. It was a vicious nation that had captured Israel and he didn’t want them to repent. The Assyrians were an extremely brutal people.
“…history tells us that the Assyrians were a cruel and heartless people who thought nothing of burying their enemies alive, skinning them alive, or impaling them on sharp poles under the hot sun.”
Wiersbe, p. 311
Jonah wanted them to be judged. But God was calling Jonah to prolong the life of the very nation and enemy that was already in the process of exterminating his own nation.
Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of the world, situated on the east bank of the Tigris, 400 miles from the Mediterranean. It was the capital of Assyria (Genesis 10:11-12). The stronghold of the city was about thirty miles long and ten miles wide. It was marvelous in appearance. There were five walls and three moats (canals) surrounding it. The walls were 100 feet high and allowed four chariots to be driven abreast. There were palaces great and beautiful with the finest of gardens. Fifteen gates guarded by colossal lions and bulls opened into the city. There were seventy halls decorated magnificently in alabaster and sculpture. The temple in the city was in the form of a great pyramid which glittered in the sun. The city was as great in wickedness as it was in wealth and power. Intellectual attainments were almost incredible.
What the Bible is All About, Henrietta C. Mears, p. 297
Nineveh proper was 3 miles long and 1½ miles wide. It took three days to walk across the city (3;3). Greater Nineveh included Calah 20 miles to south, and Khorsabad 10 miles to north. Nearly 1 million people lived in the vicinity of Nineveh. The triangle formed by the Tigris and the Zab was included in the fortifications of Nineveh…
The “Jonah” Mound. The second largest mound in the ruins of Nineveh is called “Yunas.” “Yunas” is the native word for “Jonah.” The mound covers 40 acres, and is 100 feet high. It contains the reputed tomb of Jonah. This was one of the indications to Rich that these were the ruins of Nineveh, and led to their identification… This tomb is so sacred to the natives that no large scale excavation has been permitted in the mound.
Halley’s Bible Handbook, Henry H. Halley, 365
We will discover the doom of Nineveh in the book of Nahum.
Interpretation of Jonah:
Liberal commentators call into question the authenticity and reliability of the story of the great fish swallowing Jonah, the tape/fish line, and the plumb line. They refer to Jonah as fiction, or allegory, or parable, or prose poem, etc.
To question the integrity of the book of Jonah is to question the integrity of Jesus, Himself. Because Jesus spoke of Jonah as a historical person and of the occurrence of his being swallowed by a “great fish” as an actual historical event (Matthew 12:38-41). He spoke of His own resurrection in the same context as the story of Jonah. Surely He wasn’t speaking of His resurrection as being merely allegory…but as a reality. Jesus accepted the story of Jonah…and that should settle it for us.
- There are three basic interpretations of the book of Jonah.
- The mythological approach. This is the liberal view, which would look upon Jonah as it would Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver (of Gulliver’s Travels), or Hercules.
- The allegorical (or parabolic) approach. In this view the book is merely an extended parable. Thus:
- Jonah is really Israel
- The sea is Gentile nations in general.
- The regurgitation is the return during Ezra’s time.
“Surely this is not the record of actual historical events nor was it ever intended as such. It is a sin against the author to treat as literal prose what he intended as poetry…His story is thus a story with a moral, a parable, a prose poem like the story of the Good Samaritan.” (Julius Bewer, International Critical Commentary)
- The literal-historical approach. This, alone, is the correct view.
- The account presents itself as actual history.
- The Jews and early church believed it to be literal.
- The author of 2 Kings (14:25) refers to Jonah as a historical person. His hometown is given, along with the name of his father, and the king he served under.
- Jesus testified to the literal account of Jonah (Mt. 12:38-41; 16:4; Lk. 11:29-32).
Willmington’s Guide to the Bible, H.L. Willmington, p. 172
This commentary will interpret the book of Jonah from a literal-historical approach.
The primary themes of Jonah are:
- God’s sovereign care of His people.
God is active in this book taking care of His prophet. In the book of Jonah, God is said to have “appointed”:
- a great fish (1:17)
- a gourd, plant (4:6)
- a worm (4:7)
- a strong, blistering hot east wind (4:8)
The word “appointed” means that God caused it to happen. God is in control. For instance, Jonah was cast into the sea…but He was firmly in the grasp of the hand of a sovereign God.
- Jonah was a type of Christ…death, burial, resurrection (Matthew 12:38-41).
- Jonah was a type of Israel…disobedient to God, devoured by the nations, delivered back to life.
For one thing, it may have postponed the captivity of Israel, for lust of conquest was one the things repented of (3:8).
Mainly, it seems to have been intended of God as a hint to His Own Nation that He was also interested in Other Nations.
Further, Jonah’s home was Gath-hepher (II Kings 14:25), near Nazareth the home of Jesus, of whom Jonah was a “sign.”
Further, Joppa, where Jonah embarked, to avoid preaching to Another Nation, was the very place which God chose, 800 years later, to tell Peter to receive me of Other Nations (Acts 10).
Further, Jesus quoted it as a prophetic picture of His own resurrection on the “third” day (Matthew 12:40).
So, all in all, the Story of Jonah is a grand historical picture of the Messiah’s Resurrection and Mission to All Nations.
Halley’s Bible Handbook, Henry H. Halley, p. 364
Jonah was a lot like us…he wanted his own way, was disappointed with God’s intent, and he pouted when he didn’t get his way. God brought about a storm in order to get Jonah to where He wanted him to be. Does God ever have to bring a storm into our lives to get us where He wants us to be?
A summary of Jonah:
Jonah has four chapters. They are easily divided into chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4 by a simple phrase.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah…Arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and cry against it…
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time…Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it…
This two-part division of the book clearly follows a simple outline in which Jonah is called by God to speak to the people in Nineveh and he refuses…chapters 1-2. And, God’s second call to Jonah to speak to the people of Nineveh and he responds…chapters 3-4.
Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah ran in the opposite direction. He “fled from the presence of the Lord,” which means he resigned his prophetic office. Jonah knew that he could not run away from God’s presence (Ps. 139:7ff), but he could resign his calling and stop preaching. He became a backslidden prophet!
Jonah The Causes of His Disobedience
- He had the wrong attitude towards: God’s will. He thought it was something difficult and dangerous (4:1-2)…and that could be avoided without peril or consequences.
- He had the wrong attitude towards: witnessing. He thought he could just turn it on and turn it off as he pleased.
- He had the wrong attitude towards: prayer. He thought he should get whatever he wanted.
- He had the wrong attitude towards: people. God does not give us a choice of who to love and who not to love.
The Course of His Disobedience
Joppa was a city on the Mediterranean coastline of Israel…east and slightly north of Jerusalem…down in elevation.
He went down to Joppa, down into the ship, down into the sea, and down into the great fish. Disobedience always leads us downward. “But note that often things seem to ‘work out’ even for a backslidden believer, for the ship was waiting for him and he had the money to pay the fare. He was so at peace that he was even able to go to sleep in the storm.”
The Consequences of His Disobedience
- He lost the ability to hear God’s voice. Now God had to speak through lightning and thunder.
- He lost his spiritual energy. Now he had to sleep in the hold of the ship.
- He lost his power in prayer…and even his desire to pray.
- He lost his testimony with the men on the ship. They were pagan gentiles who worshipped other gods. He had an opportunity to witness to them of God’s power (1:14) when they prayed to him about killing Jonah.
- He lost his influence for good…because he was the cause of the storm
- He lost his life.
- Wiersbe, p. 311 (this includes a partial summary of his thoughts)
A Disobedient Prophet Jonah 1-2
Jonah 1 Jonah Runs from God
Jonah 1:1-2-God Calls Jonah
He is to go to Nineveh and tell them that God is going to judge them for their sin.
Jonah 1:3-4-God Chases Jonah
Jonah was not obedient to God. Instead, he boarded a ship headed in the opposite direction to Tarshish…that is generally thought to have been Tartessus, in Spain (located in the S. of Spain near Gibraltar, 2000 miles W. of Palestine). He was literally trying to escape from “the presence of the LORD.”
Jonah 1:4-11-A Captain Cross-examines Jonah
As the ship traveled the sea, a huge storm hit and the boat began to break apart. The pagan crew members all began to call out to their gods. In the meantime, Jonah had gone below deck and fallen asleep. The captain chastised him for not praying to his God. Then he called everyone together to cast lots to determine if there was anyone on board whose god was punishing him…and in doing so was about to sink the ship and kill the whole crew.
1:7 Casting lots by mixing small stones in a container, then taking one out, was a popular form of divination used both by pagans and the Hebrews (Lev. 16:8; Josh. 18:6; 1 Sam. 14:42; Neh. 10:34; Acts 1:23-26).
The Ryrie Study Bible, footnote on Jonah 1:7, p. 1377
The lots determined that the guilty party was Jonah. The captain questioned him and Jonah revealed that he was a Hebrew and worshipped the LORD. He then told them that he was running from God. They asked him what they should do.
Jonah 1:12-17-A Fish Consumes Jonah
Jonah told them to throw him into the sea and the storm will stop. But they were unwilling…perhaps not wanting to incur the wrath on themselves of a God whose power they were witnessing. They tried to fight the storm…but it was too strong. Finally, they threw Jonah into the sea and immediately to storm stopped. This moved them to worship Him (:16). In the meantime, God sent a “great fish” to swallow Jonah. He was in the stomach of the fish for “three days and three nights”. The word translated “fish” in virtually every translation is actually a Hebrew word that can speak of any great aquatic animal.
The Fish. The word, wrongly translated “whale,” means “great fish,” or “sea-monster.” Many sea-monsters have been found large enough to swallow a man. However, the point of the story is that it was a MIRACLE, a divine attestation of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh. Except for some such astounding miracle the Ninevites would have given little heed to Jonah (Luke 11:30).
Halley’s Bible Handbook, Henry H. Halley, p. 364
There are several large aquatic animals and fish that could swallow a man whole.
The question is often asked as to whether a whale could actually swallow a man. In the first place, it should be pointed out that nowhere in the original Old Testament or New Testament language does it say a whale swallowed Jonah. The word "whale" does not even appear in the King James Version in the book of Jonah. The Hebrew word for fish is dag, and refers to a great sea monster. In Matthew 12:40, the word translated whale by the King James Version is the Greek word, ketos, which again refers to a sea monster. In the second place, God could have used a whale, had he chosen to. Dr. Gleason Archer writes the following paragraph:
"Numerous cases have been reported in more recent times of men who have survived the ordeal of being swallowed by a whale. The Princeton Theological Review (Oct., 1927) tells of two incidents, one in 1758 and the other in 1771, in which a man was swallowed by a whale and vomited up shortly thereafter with only minor injuries. One of the most striking instances comes from Francis Fox, Sixty Three Years of Engineering (pp. 298-300), who reports that this incident was carefully investigated by two scientists (one or whom was M. DeParville, the scientific editor of the Journal Des Debats in Paris). In February, 1891, the whaling ship, Star of the East, was in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands, and the lookout sighted a large sperm whale three miles away. Two boats were lowered and in a short time, one of the harpooners was enabled to spear the creature. The second boat also attacked the whale, but was then upset by a lash of its tail, so that its crew fell into the sea. One of them was drowned, but the other, James Bartley, simply disappeared without a trace. After the whale was killed, the crew set to work with axes and spades removing the blubber. They worked all day and part of the night. The next day they attached some tackle to the stomach, which was hoisted on deck. The sailors were startled by something in it which gave spasmodic signs of life, and inside was found the missing sailor, doubled up and unconscious. He was laid on the deck and treated to a bath of sea water, which soon revived him. At the end of the third week, he had entirely recovered from the shock and resumed his duties ... His face, and neck and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness and took on the appearance of parchment. Bartley affirms that he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, for he lost his senses through fright and not through lack of air." (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction), p. 302
Willmington’s Guide to the Bible, H.L. Willmington, p. 173
As to whether a man could survive "three days and three nights" under such conditions, there are three possible answers that could be suggested in defense of the Biblical narrative.
- NATURAL. In the first place, it has been well established that the phrase "three days and three nights" in ancient Hebrew usage was an idiomatic expression meaning simply “three days,” and was applicable even if the beginning and ending days of the period were only partial days. Thus it could refer to a period as short as about 38 hours. There is always some air in the whale's stomach, and, as long as the animal it has swallowed is still alive, digestive activity will not begin. Thus, Jonah's experience could possibly have happened entirely with the framework of natural law.
- MIRACLE. It is much more likely, however, that the event involved a divine miracle, as the Scripture strongly implies. The “great fish” was prepared and sent by God, as was the intense storm that threatened the ship on which Jonah was traveling. The storm ceased as soon as Jonah was cast overboard (Jonah 1:4, 15). In like manner, it was quite probable that God preserved Jonah's life miraculously all through the horrifying experience.
- RESURRECTION. A third possibility is that Jonah actually suffocated and died in the great fish and then God later brought him back from the dead. There are at least eight other such “resurrections” recorded in the Bible, as well as the glorious bodily resurrection of Christ—of which Jonah's experience in particular was said by Christ to be a prophetic sign.
This is also implied by Jonah's prayer, when he said: "…out of the belly of hell (i.e. “sheol,” the place of departed spirits) cried I, and thou heardest my voice" (Jonah 2:2). In any case, it was a mighty experience, evidently well known and certified in his day, probably contributing in significant degree to the fact that all people of Ninevah repented and turned to God (Jonah 3:5) when Jonah returned “from the dead,” as it were, to preach to them.
For additional information about Jonah being swallowed by a large fish see:
For stories of other men who have been swallowed by a large fish and survived:
Jonah 2 Jonah Prays to God
Jonah 2:1-2-His Condition
Before God could help Jonah, Jonah first had to admit that he needed help. We might think it strange that Jonah would be in the stomach of a fish and not know that he needed help. However, many people have been in situations just as desperate and not recognized that they needed help. It can be hard to admit our own inadequacy.
Jonah was in a “prepared fish” as an act of preservation, not punishment. There is not one word of petition in Jonah’s prayer. It is a prayer of thanksgiving and praise and rededication. Jonah had a change of heart in V-9 – “I will pay that that I have vowed.” Jonah was then vomited out on dry land – safe and sound.
Through the Bible in a Year, A.B. Stringfellow, p. 96
Jonah 2:3-6a-His Conclusion
He admitted that it was God who threw him into the sea…not the sailors (:3). The sailors were the hands that had thrown him…but God was the cause of his being thrown. When difficult times come because we have sinned we must be willing to acknowledge God’s work (Psalm 119:67; Hebrews 12:5-11).
Jonah 2:6b-8-His Confession
Jonah now confesses what had happened due to his disobedience and asks God to forgive him:
- he lost the presence of God (2:4, cf. Psalm 51:11)
- he admitted he had believed the devil’s lies (2:8)
- he showed true sorrow for his sins (2:9)
- he asked God for His forgiveness, looking toward the temple (2:4) as the OT Jew was taught to do (cf. 2 Chronicles 6:36-39). This is equivalent to our 1 John 1:9.
Jonah 2:9-His Commitment
Jonah submits his life to God and prays what is actually a summary of the entire Bible: Salvation is of the Lord. (v. 9)
According to Hebrews 12:5-11 there are several ways that we can respond to God’s chastening: despise it (as Jonah did for three days) and refuse to confess; faint and give up; endure it, confess our sins, and trust God to work everything out for our good and His glory.
Warren Wiersbe, p. 311 (…a summary of his thoughts)
Jonah 2:10-God’s Command
Once again, the sovereignty of God is displayed as He commands the fish and it vomits Jonah up on the seashore. Not only did the fish vomit him up…but, it did so at a place where he would not drown (not in the middle of the ocean) and evidently a place where he could return to civilization (not a desert island). This did not happen by mere coincidence. God was in control.
A Desperate People Jonah 3-4
Jonah 3 Jonah Preaches about God
Jonah 3:1-4-Jonah Responds
God tells Jonah for a second time to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. Wouldn’t it have been easier if Jonah had been obedient to God the first time? But Jonah’s heart was hard…it wasn’t what God wanted it to be. So, God chose Jonah (out of all the people in the world) to take His message of repentance to the people of Nineveh. Jonah knew that they were sinners and needed to repent. But he failed to recognize the sin in his own heart. So, God put him into a position where he would recognize his own sin. God loves us too much to allow us to remain in our sin…so, He allows us to go through situations so that we will recognize our sin and repent of it…so that He can shape our lives to be what He desires.
The Lord Jesus gives us a clue to Jonah’s power in preaching. Luke 11:29-30 – “…for as Jonah was a sign unto the Ninevites.” Jonah was a sign by his miraculous experience in the great fish. How did they know about the “fish” story? Remember the sailors of Chapter 1? At any rate, Jesus said he was a sign just as “the Son of Man be to this generation.”
Through the Bible in One Year, A.B. Stringfellow, p. 96
Jonah 3:5-9-Nineveh Repents
The people, all the way up to the king, believed in God. The king proclaimed a time of fasting and prayer…to lead them to repent from their sin (:8) and to find God’s favor (:9).
Jonah 3:10-God Relents
God responds with mercy…instead of judgment.
The text says, “God relented”. Some have suggested that in order for God to “relent”, to change His mind, such a change would require a change in God’s character. If that is true, then it would draw into question God’s immutability (He is forever the same), His omniscience (He knows everything ahead of time), and His righteousness (if God changes His mind then it must go from either bad to good, or good to bad). This is not true. While God can change His mind…there is no change in God’s character, or nature. For a more thorough explanation of this question see the websites listed below.
Can God change His mind?
Jonah 4 Jonah Learns about God
This chapter contains a dialogue between Jonah and the Lord. Jonah is angry because he thinks that with Assyria being spared judgment…that means that the future for Israel is very dark. He is so despondent that he prays that his life would be taken (v. 8). He begins to pout and goes outside the city, “until he could see what would happen in the city.” In other words, maybe God would change His mind when He sees how upset Jonah is over the matter and go ahead and judge them.
Jonah 4:1-3-About God’s Patience
Jonah was unhappy with the response of the people of Nineveh and God's compassion towards them. He complains to God and tells Him that this is what he had been afraid would happen all along and was the very reason why he had tried to run away. He knew that God was a “gracious and compassionate God…abundant in lovingkindness”.
Jonah asked God two times to take his life (4:3,8). He had already tried to take his own life when he told the sailors to throw him into the sea (1:12). And yet, despite Jonah’s disobedience to God and disrespect for his own life…God was patient and did what was necessary to bring him back to Him.
It is amazing to realize that God would even have this conversation with Jonah. Here is Jonah, telling God that he is angry with His decision. In other words, telling God that he thinks that He is wrong! And yet, God is patient with him. He took Jonah where he was…and through compassion and grace…led him to where he should be.
Jonah 4:4-8-About God’s Sovereignty
God could control the wind and waves in ch. 1, the fish in ch. 2, and the gourd, worm, and wind in ch. 4, but He could not control Jonah without the prophet’s surrender. Everything in nature obeys the Word of God except man, and man has the greatest reason to obey.
Warren Wiersbe, p. 312
Jonah 4:9-11-About God’s Love
Jonah went outside the city to sit and watch what was going to happen to it. God made a plant to grow to give him shade...and Jonah was very happy for it. But, God then sent a worm to eat the plant, and it withered. He then sent a hot east wind and the sun was intense...and Jonah was very unhappy about it. God asked Jonah if he was upset that the plant had died, and he said, "Yes". Then the LORD said that if he felt he had the right to be upset that the plant had died, and he had nothing to do with its existence, didn't he think that God had reason to be concerned over the people of Nineveh (if there were 120,000 children, the it is estimated that the total population would have been around 600,000) whom He had created...and who up till then did not know right, from wrong?
This is the key lesson of the book: God’s love and pity for lost souls. Jonah felt sorry for himself, and even felt sorry for the plant that sheltered him and then died; but he had no heartfelt love or pity for the multitudes in the city of Nineveh. It is possible to serve the Lord and yet not love the people.
Warren Wiersbe, p. 312)
This statement is the revelation of the heart of God. Jonah is not the important factor here – it is God. We should see God’s tender patience with a resentful prophet – also, that the election of one nation did not mean the rejection of others.
Through the Bible in One Year, A.B. Stringfellow, p. 97)
Prayer: Lord, don’t let me go through the motions of following You…and not love Your people. I ask that You give me Your love. Let the Holy Spirit produce His fruit in me…love. And then, let Your love flow through me unhindered to other people.