Bible Commentary: Jonah 1

You are here

Bible Commentary

Jonah 1

Login or Create an Account

With a account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


Introduction to Jonah 

As we saw in our previous reading, 2 Kings 14:25 shows that Jonah preached during the reign of Jeroboam II (ca. 792-753 B.C.). He "was from Gath Hepher, a town in the territory of Zebulun (see Joshua 19:10; Joshua 19:13; 2 Kings 14:25), several miles northeast of Nazareth. Nothing is known of his father Amittai. The name Jonah means 'Dove.' We associate the dove with peace and purity; however, this positive meaning is not the only possible association. A 'dove' could also be a symbol of silliness (see Hosea 7:11), a description that sadly applies to this tragicomical prophet" (Nelson Study Bible, introduction to Jonah).

The story of Jonah and the big fish (or whale) is one of the best known from the Old Testament. Many skeptics have regarded the story's miracles as folklore or allegory. Yet the validity and importance of the story are made plain by Jesus' own reference to it and the use of it as proof that He was the Messiah (Matthew 12:38-41; Luke 11:29-32).

The book is unusual in that it only contains one prophecy (Jonah 3:4) and is actually a story about the prophet rather than details of his messages.

The book of Jonah reveals a great deal about God's mercy. With regard to Nineveh, the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible makes this comment: "Is God's salvation available even to such people? For God to be so concerned about the positive future of nations such as Assyria was intolerable to some: How could God think of saving a nation that had so devastated God's own people? Jonah himself is a type representing certain pious Israelites who posed such a question regarding the extension of God's mercy to the wicked.... God's way with the world, not simply with Israel, is the way of mercy in the face of deserved judgment" ("Jonah," 2000, emphasis added). As God states through the apostle James, "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13).

You Can't Run From God 

The story begins with Jonah's call by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, founded by Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:8-12). Like so many others, Jonah didn't want to go—but unlike any other recorded scriptural examples of God's true servants, Jonah not only refused to go, but he actually tried to run from God. Jonah later gives his reason as objection to God's inclination to show mercy (Jonah 4:2)—as this could result in Nineveh, Israel's enemy, being shown mercy if they repented at his preaching. But Jonah was to learn that when God gives His servants a job to do, He expects them to carry it out.

And, of course, you can't run from God. As King David wrote, "Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell [i.e., sheol, ‘the grave'], You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me" (Psalm 139:7-10). Jonah surely knew these verses, as he was familiar with the Psalms (demonstrated in the next reading). And yet he tried to defy them by fleeing across the sea to Tarshish; “The name means 'to smelt,' and thus the city was associated with the metal trade. The furthest known metal producing port in the 8th century b.c. was Tartessus, in Spain. Most believe this port was Jonah's destination. The identification is not vital, however. What is key is that metal producing areas along the Mediterranean were in the opposite direction from Nineveh" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on 1:3). "In any case, it represents the farthest place known to the people of ancient Israel. It is similar to going 'to the ends of the earth'" ("INDepth: Jonah: A Reluctant Missionary," Nelson Study Bible, sidebar on Jonah 1). Obviously, it was not far enough—indeed, there's no place so far as to place us out of the reach of God. Ironically, it is this fact that will also save Jonah from death in the sea.

God can use all sorts of means to get His servants to do His will. In this case, He brought the real problem of Jonah's attitude and disobedience into the open. Not only did it force Jonah to carry out his task, but it had a profound impact on the sailors he sailed with (Jonah 1:16). The Bible Reader's Companion notes: "Even out of fellowship with God, Jonah had an evangelistic impact on the sailors. His admission that he was the reason why God brought the great storm; his demand the sailors throw him overboard; the sudden stilling of the storm as soon as Jonah left the ship; all these witnessed to God's greatness and led the crew to greatly fear 'the Lord' and to make 'vows' to Him.' It's a mistake to assume just because God is using someone in others' lives that that person must be godly. The Lord uses imperfect agents and even some who are actively disobeying Him at the very time they serve as channels of grace! So give God the glory. And do not hold His servants in awe, as though what God does is a testimony to some human being's holiness" (note on Jonah 1:6-16). Of course, recognizing a pattern of unrighteous conduct would be a reason to question or even reject someone as a spiritual leader. The point is that God can use anyone—righteous or not—to direct others to His truth. (This in no way removes the responsibility all of us have to make sure that the spiritual leaders we follow are godly and doctrinally on track.)

Returning to the account, we next come to the saga of the "great fish," as translated from the Hebrew. When Christ refers to this incident in the New Testament, it is interesting to note the Greek translation of what He said. Rather than the common Greek word for "fish," ichthus,another word, ketos, is used. This is the same word the Greek Septuagint uses in its translation of Jonah. The King James Version renders this word in the New Testament as "whale," but it literally denotes "a huge fish, a sea monster" (Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, New Testament Section, "Whale").

This does not necessarily rule out a whale, as the word may allow for that. Many people have said that a whale could not have swallowed a man and, even if it had, he wouldn't have survived. Yet the evidence against the whale story is far from conclusive. Note this section from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “While the throats of most whales are too narrow to swallow a man, the cachalot or sperm whale can.... Even other species of whales could preserve a man alive, were the man able to reach the great laryngeal pouch. This structure, with its thick, elastic walls, is large enough to contain a man and to supply him with air for breathing. A.J. Wilson (Princeton Theological Review, 25 {1941}, 636) records the case of a man swept overboard by a harpooned sperm whale in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands. The whale was eventually killed and cut apart. After three days, the missing sailor was found in the animal's stomach, unconscious. He was successfully revived, although the skin of his face, neck, and hands was bleached by the whale's gastric juices" ("Jonah, Book of," 1982).

Still, another source argues: "Until the Bible was translated into English, no one had ever heard the story of Jonah and the whale. For the great fish that's mentioned in Jonah 1:17 was considered by ancient and medieval scholars to be a sea monster and was designated accordingly in Greek and Latin Bibles.... [This] interpretation is faithful to Greek ketos, which designates a sea dragon or monster. Just what creature was in the mind of the original writer of Jonah's saga remains a matter of conjecture. Probability points to some semi-mythical sea serpent rather than to the shark or humpback whale.... Many twentieth-century versions and translations reject 'whale' and use 'sea monster' or 'dragon' in rendering the ancient account" (Webb Garrison, Strange Facts About the Bible, 1968, 2000, pp. 103-104). This is not out of the question. It may even be that God specially created this creature, as we are explicitly told that He "had prepared a great fish" (verse 17). Indeed, with other biblical references to Leviathan, a sea serpent and clear type of Satan, the great dragon (Revelation 12:9)—and considering the idea of being in his clutches as a type of death for sin—this seems a very strong parallel with Christ's death.

In any event, The Expositor's Bible Commentary adds this important comment: "As the type of fish is not identified and the story is told in the most general terms, we should avoid making the incident, which in itself is physically possible, more difficult by our interpretations. Jesus placed it alongside the even greater miracle of his own resurrection. What we must do, however, is find an adequate spiritual reason for so great a miracle" (introductory notes on Jonah).

This is a reference to Matthew 12:39-40. The scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign to verify His claims. He responded: "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

Many theologians, believing that Christ died Friday afternoon and rose Sunday morning, interpret the period to mean parts of three days and just two nights—a little bit of Friday afternoon, Friday night, all day Saturday, Saturday night and a little bit of Sunday morning. However, it is illogical to interpret the Hebrew of Jonah in the light of an unproven theory from New Testament times. Typical of mainstream Christian thinking is this statement from Adam Clarke's Commentary: “That days and nights do not, among the Hebrews, signify complete days and nights of twenty-four hours, see Esth. iv.16, compared with chap. v.1; Judg. xiv.17, 18. Our Lord lay in the grave one natural day, and part of two others; and it is most likely that this was the precise time that Jonah was in the fish's belly" (1967, note on Jonah 1:17). Actually, the references he quotes do not prove his point.

Note this accurate explanation from The Companion Bible: “The fact that 'three days' is used by Hebrew idiom for any part of three days and three nights is not disputed; because that was the common way of reckoning, just as it was when used of years. Three or any number of years was used inclusively of any part of those years, as may be seen in the reckoning of the reigns of any of the kings of Israel and Judah. But when the number of 'nights' is stated as well as the number of 'days,' then the expression ceases to be an idiom, and becomes a literal statement of fact.

"Moreover, as the Hebrew day began at sunset the day was reckoned from one sunset to another, the 'twelve hours in the day' (John 11:9) being reckoned from sunrise, and the twelve hours of the night from sunset. An evening-morning was thus used for a whole day of twenty-four hours, as in the first chapter of Genesis. Hence the expression 'a night and a day' in 2 Cor[inthians] 11.25 denotes a complete day (Gr. nuchthemeron). When Esther says (Esther 4:16) 'fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days,' she defines her meaning as being three complete days, because she adds (being a Jewess) 'night or day.' And when it is written that the fast ended on 'the third day' (5:1), 'the third day' must have succeeded and included the third night.... Hence, when it says that 'Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights' (Jonah 1:17) it means exactly what it says, and that this can be the only meaning of the expression in Matt[hew] 12.40; 16.4" (App. 144).