Bible Commentary: Jonah 2-4

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Jonah 2-4

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Jonah Saved 

As chapter 2 begins, we read of Jonah's prayer from the belly of the sea creature. The prayer of chapter 2 tells us a great deal about Jonah—about his attitude toward God and especially his knowledge of God's Word. The prayer is reminiscent of many passages from the Psalms:

Jonah 2 Psalms
verse 2 3:4; 120:1; 18:4-5; 30:3
verse 3 88:6-7; 42:7
verse 4 31:22; 5:7
verse 5 69:1-2
verse 6 49:15; 56:13; 103:4
verse 7 107:5; 142:3
verse 8 31:6
verse 9 50:14; 69:30; 107:22; 3:8; 37:39

It appears that Jonah was able to recall much Scripture and use it as the basis for his prayer and thanksgiving to God. This should be an example for all of God's people today. We can never tell when we may find ourselves alone, with no Bible, and only our remembered knowledge of God's Word to encourage us. Even though Jonah was still in the belly of this creature from the deep, he was thankful that he was still alive. The apostle Paul had a similar approach to life (Philippians 4:11).

In verse 2, Jonah prays, "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help." The King James Version translates Sheol as "hell." This is a confusing verse for many given the common misconception that Sheol is a place of the dead in the spirit realm. However, the Hebrew word literally means "grave" or "pit." People become confused because they attach to death the pagan concept of going to heaven or hell, a teaching that the Bible never supports. Hence, the idea that Sheol can mean the netherworld. It must be noted that "nowhere in the O[ld] T[estament] is Sheol described as a place of torment or punishment for the wicked. At most it is a place of confinement away from the land of the living.... Not until the Hellenistic era (after 333 B.C.) was Sheol (Hades) conceived of as compartmentalized, with places of torment and comfort" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Sheol"). Thus, the creature in which Jonah lay was, in essence, a tomb—a watery grave. Yet even though he was "as good as dead," Jonah understood the power of God. Notice his reference to the "belly" of Sheol. Here "Jonah uses the Hebrews beten (=womb)... (2.2)" (Companion Bible, App. 144)—that is, something to be "born" from. Finally, then, God intervened. He spoke to the fish and it immediately responded, demonstrating His sovereign power over His creation. Recall that the entire universe came into being when God spoke (Psalm 33:6-9).

There are some important points to consider here. The disobedient Jonah being as good as dead in a watery grave was a type of Christ, bearing our sins (though without sin Himself), being put to death and buried in the earth. The miraculous vomiting up of Jonah to new life was a type of Jesus' resurrection from the grave, having paid our sins. Moreover, Christ was "born" from the "womb" of the grave, being described as the "firstborn from the dead" (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5). And this was accomplished by the same power that created the universe and preserved Jonah.

Consider further: Christian baptism in a "watery grave" is a figurative burial of the old, sinful self with Christ (Romans 6:4, Romans 6:6). And our emergence from the waters of baptism represents resurrection with Christ into newness of life—looking forward to our actual future resurrection (verses 4-5). In this way, our very own baptism is in a sense tied to what Jonah experienced!

God spoke to Jonah again and this time he obeyed, now walking in "newness of life." In Jonah's case it meant a full realization that he had to serve God just as all creation ultimately serves God. As forces of the natural world that brought him to this point had operated at the command of God, so he had to obey. Of course, God could have used someone else to go to Nineveh, but He was showing Jonah that he couldn't shirk his responsibilities. No doubt, Jonah was also grateful for his miraculous deliverance—motivating him to be more devoted in his service to God. However, as we later see, he does not maintain a right attitude. It is the same with all Christians. God often humbles us and brings us to repentance—but we do not continue in that frame of mind indefinitely as we should (1 John 1:8). Still, God is patient with us—as He was with Jonah—as long as we continue to repent and overcome.

Nineveh Repents

Arisen from the depths, Jonah takes God's message to Nineveh. The reference to "a three-day journey in extent" is probably not the distance Jonah had to travel to get there, but rather the time it took to walk around Nineveh, demonstrating its vastness: "The city wall of Nineveh had a circumference of about eight miles, indicating that Nineveh was an exceedingly large city for the times. But the reference to 'three days' likely refers to the larger administrative district of Nineveh [i.e., the suburbs], made up of several cities, with a circumference of about 55 miles" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 3:3). The Expositor's Bible Commentary expresses a similar view, stating that "Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.) gave the circumference of the city as approximately sixty miles" (note on verse 3).

There is an important change in the name of God at this point. When the story talks about Jonah and his relationship with God, the writer uses the Hebrew name YHWH (Yahweh, "the Eternal", usually substituted with "the LORD" in English Bible translations). In fact, it was distinctly Yahweh whom the sailors had come to fear (Jonah 1:16). But to the people of Nineveh, Jonah uses the name Elohim ("God," the All-Powerful, i.e., the Creator). "The obvious purpose is to bring home that Jonah had not been proclaiming Yahweh to those that did not know him but that the supreme God, whatever his name, was about to show his power in judgment. Behind all polytheism with its many gods and many lords, there was always the concept of one god who could enforce his will on the others, if he chose. There is not the slightest indication that Jonah had mentioned the God of Israel or had said that he came in his name. The Ninevites, however, recognized the voice of the supreme God, whatever name they may have given him, and repented" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Jonah 3:5-10). And God did not bring upon them the announced destruction.

Was Jonah, then, a false prophet? "If the test of a true prophet is that his words come true (Deuteronomy 18:22), how do we explain the failure of Jonah's message of judgment? The answer is that nearly every message of judgment is conditional, a truth that Jonah clearly understood (Jonah 4:2). The principle is illustrated in 2 Sam[uel] 12:14-23; 1 Kings 21:27-29; and 2 Kings 20:1-6" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Jonah 3:1). Indeed, God says in Jeremiah 18:7-8, "The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it." We see in the example of the Assyrians a primary reason why God reveals the future through His prophets—that human beings may see what is coming and repent. Prophecy isn't simply a futile exercise, revealing the future as an end in itself. God reveals what is coming so we can understand and be motivated to change—to repent—so as to avoid His pronounced punishment! The example of the Assyrians should be an example for all humankind.

We might wonder why the inhabitants of the capital of the powerful Assyrian Empire, of all people, would respond to God's call to repentance at this time. "Events had prepared the people of Nineveh for the prophet's message. Assyria was led by weak rulers between 782 b.c. and 745 b.c., and was threatened by mountain tribes from the north who had driven their frontiers within a hundred miles of the capital. The danger of destruction was very real in Nineveh in this period" (note on 3:3).

Indeed, "Assyria, following the reign of Adad-nirari III (810-873), was in a dismal state of affairs. Internal upheavals and pressure from powerful enemies such as Urartu [Armenia] and the Aramaean states kept her in a defensive holding position until mighty Tiglath-pileser III came to power in 745. This is precisely the period in which Israel under Jeroboam II and Judah under Uzziah regained territories which had been forfeited earlier and a great measure of their international prestige. It is also the period in which Jonah was occupied in his prophetic ministry. Given these chronological limits, the most likely time for the mission of Jonah to Nineveh was in the reign of Assur-dan III (772-755). Though no royal inscriptions whatsoever have survived from his years in power, the Assyrian eponym list and other indirect witnesses attest to his tenure as a period of unparalleled turmoil. Assur, Arrapha, Gozan, and many other rival states and dependencies revolted. In addition, plague and famine struck repeatedly until the empire was left impoverished and in total disorder. This would have been an ideal time for Jonah to deliver his message of judgment and of the universal redemptive program of the God of Israel. Assyria's own pantheon and cult had failed miserably. Surely now, if ever, the king and people were prepared to hear a word from the only living God" (Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 388).

Jesus attested to the amazing repentance of the Ninevites—and sadly, to the fact that they set a better example than did the religious leaders of His day (Luke 11:32).

Jonah's Reaction—and God's Compassion 

Chapter 4 tells us that Jonah did not want the Ninevites to repent. Assyria had dominated the Israelites not long before in the days of Jehu, even collecting tribute from them. He wanted Assyria to be punished, not sustained and given further chance of destroying Israel. Incredibly, Jonah stated that he wanted to die rather than see God's mercy on Nineveh! And yet, only a few days before, he had pleaded with God to keep him alive. Such thinking is clearly irrational. Sadly, though, the desire for retribution and revenge is commonplace. Even Christians are not immune. Yet all of us need to learn to be as gracious and compassionate as God is. Our desire should be for those who have done wrong to change, not for them to be punished. Again, we must remember that "mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13).

Ironically, Jonah's message would postpone the fall of Israel. Yet Jonah's mission wasn't obvious even to the prophet himself. As Halley's Bible Handbook states in its introduction to the book, Jonah's message "would prolong the life of the enemy nation that was already in the process of exterminating...his own nation. No wonder he fled in the opposite direction—he was in patriotic dread of the brutal and relentless military machine that was closing in on God's people" (2000, p. 459). Possibly Jonah thought that if he didn't go to Nineveh, God would simply destroy Assyria, thus freeing Israel of her enemy. Of course, this was faulty reasoning. Obviously God could still have used Assyria as a means of punishment for Israel anyway. And in actuality, rather than further threatening Israel, Assyria's repentance spared Israel from conquest for a time, as the lust for violence and conquest was one thing of which Assyria repented (Jonah 3:8). So while God strengthened Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:26-27), He also prevented Assyria from conquering Israel until a later time—and this He accomplished through Jonah's preaching.

After finally delivering his message, Jonah went away and waited for God to do something. It's obvious from the context that this was the hot season and the temperature may well have been as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the day. But God was to teach Jonah (and us) a further lesson about priorities. Jonah was concerned about the plant dying. God showed him that if the plant was important, how much more the people of Nineveh? The reference to 120,000 people "who cannot discern between their right hand and their left" has been the subject of debate. The Bible Reader's Companion states: "The number either refers to the entire population, or to young children. Since the maximum estimated population at that era was about 175,000, the former is the better interpretation. The saying 'not tell their right hand from their left' refers to a lack of moral knowledge, stemming from the fact that Assyria had not been granted special revelation from God" (note on Jonah 4:11). In that sense, it would also seem that God here views all such human beings as little children in need of being taught.

Expositor's makes a fitting concluding statement: "The declaration of God's loving care was made, not to Nineveh, but to Jonah (Jonah 4:11), and so to Israel. Taking the book as a whole, it is a revelation to God's people of God's all-sovereign power and care. It had a special relevance to Israel over which the shadow of Assyria was falling, and later to Judah, as it faced destruction at the hands of Babylon" (introductory notes on Jonah).