Jonah means “dove.” The dove in the Bible can be a symbol of hope as in the story of Noah’s Ark. It can also be a symbol of thoughtlessness.
“Ephraim is like a dove,
easily deceived and senseless—
now calling to Egypt,
now turning to Assyria.” (Hosea 7:11)
The book was probably written in the 8th century BC by the same circle of prophets who wrote down the deeds of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles. This is not fiction, it is an inspired report of the prophet Jonah’s experiences in Nineveh of the Assyrians.
Jonah was a prophet during the 8th century reign of Israel’s King Jeroboam II, who ruled for 41 years. At that time Israel was divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem and the Temple were located in Judah, so the rival kings of Israel tried to institute their own places of worship within their borders.
At the time of Jonah, Jeroboam was a very successful military leader. He had crushed Israel’s conqueror Syria and their capital city of Damascus. The Assyrian Empire and the great royal city of Nineveh was a threat but they had not yet started the series of invasions that would later destroy Israel.
But the northern kingdom, whose capital was Samaria, was proud, rich, oppressive, and apostate because the kings supported cultic worship in conflict with the Temple in Jerusalem. And the prophets Hosea, Joel, Jonah and Amos all rose up during this period to warn the Israelites that God was not pleased! Later the northern kingdom would fall permanently to Assyria.
In fact, listen to this: archeologists recovered inscriptions from the Assyrian king Sargon’s palace about these very events! One inscription reads: “The inhabitants of Samaria, who plotted with another king against me, not to do service and not to bring tribute and who did battle, I fought against them with the power of the great gods, my lords. I counted as spoil 27,280 people, together with their chariots, and gods, in which they trusted. I formed a unit with 200 of [their] chariots for my royal force. I settled the rest of them in the midst of Assyria. I repopulated Samaria more than before. I brought into it people from countries conquered by my hands. I appointed my eunuch as governor over them. And I counted them as Assyrians.”
But here is the thing. While Hosea, Joel and Amos were called to prophesy to Israel and warn it to repent, Jonah was given a different mission. He was supposed to go to Nineveh, Assyria’s royal city, and call them to repent too! And he didn’t want to go! So he thought he would run away from God. This was a big part of his problem, that he identified God completely with Israel. Remember that the ancient world believed in local and regional gods, and the farther you went from their physical locations the less power they had. Of course that is not true of God and Israel knew it.
Psalm 139:7-12 says:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
But we can understand how Jonah felt that way. So when God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach to them, he did what any red-blooded 8th century guy would do – he ran away! He went to the Jewish port of Jaffa and set sail as a passenger for the Asia Minor port city of Tarshish. By the way, we can’t be sure but Tarshish may have been the NT city of Tarsus where the apostle Paul would be born 800 years later.
But God sent a huge storm that nearly broke up the ship. The sailors were shouting and praying to their own gods – the Bible says “each cried out to his own god” (Jonah 1:5). As all this is going on, Jonah ended up confessing to the sailors that he was a prophet of the Lord and that he was running away from his God “who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9) Jonah heroically told them to toss him overboard since the storm was his fault.
By the way, this may not be the great act of courage that it looks like. Jonah apparently made a habit of asking God to just kill him and get it over with, as we will see later in the book. To their credit, the sailors tried not to kill him. “Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.” (Jonah 1:13) They ended up praying to to the Lord as well. Note that the Bible makes it very clear that they stopped praying to their own gods right then, and prayed to the God who had power over the waves, far from his own Temple. And quite unlike their own weak gods! This is the first example in Jonah of God displaying His power and mercy to Gentiles! So they tossed Jonah overboard at his own request. “At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.” (Jonah 1:16)
But Jonah did NOT drown. The Lord sent a giant fish to swallow him up, and Jonah spent 3 days and nights inside the creature. He did not curse God but praised Him with a beautiful prayer found in Jonah chapter 2.
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’” (Jonah 2:8-9)
Now – everybody asks how Jonah could have survived 3 days in the belly of a great fish or whale. It is possible for a large whale like a blue or sperm whale to swallow a human whole, also great white sharks could do it. And they have multi-chambered stomachs where the first stomach does not have digestive juices. Air would be a problem though! Ultimately I believe that God rescued Jonah miraculously from going overboard, and I think He did it with a marine creature that He prepared. Do we honestly believe that the creator of all animals could not create a creature anymore?
After 3 days the creature expelled Jonah onto dry land. We don’t know the location of the land, but God told Jonah again to go to Nineveh and preach that it would be destroyed unless it turned to God.
This was exactly the same message that God gave Jonah’s contemporaries to preach to Jerusalem, but this message was to the Gentiles! This time Jonah did what God said, traveled to the great city of Nineveh, and started to preach in the streets. His message? If they did not repent and turn to the real God, in 40 days Nineveh would be destroyed! Jonah may have expected to be run out of town, even martyred. But what happened? Nineveh listened! The people believed what Jonah was saying! And when the message of the prophet reached the King (or Royal Governor) of Nineveh, he commanded a city-wide fast and repentance! And this was a city that worshipped multiple “gods!” So the Bible says that because they repented, God did not destroy them at that time.
By the way — later on Assyria would fall into evil again and God reinstituted His judgment. In 612 BC, about 150 years after Jonah’s trip, Nineveh would be utterly destroyed by a combined force of Medes and Babylonians. It would never rise again from the ashes. Its ruins were discovered in 1909 located close to the Iraqi city of Mosul. Even the ruins are unprotected from weather, modern building, and looting, and it is a sad and lonely place.
But at Jonah’s time that generation was saved because God loved them, and generations after them would have been saved as well if they had been faithful to God.
Well, you’d think that Jonah would be happy about his successful prophetic mission.
You would be wrong. He was furious! He didn’t WANT the Ninevites to be saved, he hated them! God spoke to Jonah about that. God’s words are among the most moving in the Bible. God said about the violent Ninevites: “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11) God did not WANT to destroy 120,000 ignorant people OR their animals! We concentrate a lot in the OT on the cities and people that God directed the Hebrews to destroy. He is a sovereign God and really doesn’t owe a sinful world a thing. But He is both Justice AND Love, and He wanted to save Nineveh’s people and their animals from destruction. And when they turned to Him in time, He did.
The story ends there. We don’t know Jonah’s response but we can guess. He must have made his way back to Israel because his story was recorded, and God’s words of love and concern were written down. That is why I believe that Jonah repented for good this time.
Finally, Jesus referred to the story as a prophecy of His own coming to Jew and Gentile.
38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38-41)
Jonah was a prophecy not only to the Gentile city of Nineveh, but it was also a Messianic prophecy to the Jews – and to us. Amen.