Key Text: Chapter 2:9
“But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.”
Jonah is without a doubt the most famous of the Minor Prophets on account of his adventure in the belly of the great fish which subsequently spat him out upon dry ground. This has been a favourite bible story which has been retold time and again to children throughout the history of Christendom. On the other hand Jonah’s unlikely adventures has brought about the scorn of the liberal and the unbeliever in their quest to dispel all that smells of the miraculous as belonging to the realm of legend and fable. While we of course will argue for the historicity of Jonah we do not wish to associate this man only with his sojourn in the belly of the fish. Rather than simply being the reluctant prophet, his common persona, Jonah was given one of the most amazing missions in all of Old Testament history, a mission which foreshadowed the enlargement of God’s Kingdom in New Testament times. There is certainly more to this ancient prophet than meets the eye.
Jonah’s Association with the Longsuffering God
Jonah receives one mention in the Scriptures apart from the little book that bears his name, 2Ki 14:25-27:
“He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher. For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter: for there was not any shut up, nor any left, nor any helper for Israel. And the LORD said not that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven: but he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.”
This passage informs us that Jonah ministered in the northern kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam 2nd, making him a contemporary most notably of Hosea. These were dark days of apostasy with the monarch pursuing the policies of Jeroboam 1st “who made Israel to sin.” In these days, however, when it seemed that Israel was ripe for judgement God looked down with mercy and he gave a promise through Jonah that Israel’s borders would be protected This promise arose because God was unwilling to blot out Israel from under heaven. God honoured the promise he gave through Jonah and so Israel was saved. Therefore Jonah was a man associated with a God who was merciful and patient towards a backsliding and rebellious people. His ministry in this respect is an encouraging reminder that God can enable ungodly rulers to do good things for their nations, in response to the prayers of Christians. This incident in the ministry of Jonah throws an important searchlight onto our understanding of the book.
The call by God to Jonah that he preach to Nineveh was not random. Here was a man prepared for such a mission because God had given him, more than any other prophet of his era, an understanding of the divine longsuffering, where evil and wickedness abound. To reach a wicked society we must appreciate the depth and extent of a forgiving and gracious God. Jonah had such a preparation.
Jonah as a Type of Jesus Christ
“The fundamental purpose of the book of Jonah is to show that Jonah being cast into the depths of Sheol and yet brought up alive is an illustration of the death of the Messiah for sins not his own and of the Messiah’s resurrection” (Edward J. Young)
A casual reading of the Old Testament would render it highly improbable this man who attempted to flee from God could ever be warranted the title, a type of Christ. Yet this noble position is granted to Jonah by none other than Christ himself who compares his own death and resurrection to Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the great fish (Matthew 12:40).
Jonah is an ancient witness to Christ because he was an anointed servant of Jehovah just as our Lord himself was. Jonah found himself in the belly of the great fish because of the sins of Nineveh which were hastening the wrath of God. This was the essence of God’s call to him, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Likewise Christ himself was sent to this world where he died because of the sins of the nations, not just because of Israel. Jonah was brought out of the belly of the fish in order that he might visit Nineveh and save the Assyrians from destruction. Christ was delivered from the state of death in order that the Gospel might go forth into all the world.
On this account it was certainly in the plan of God that Jonah should flee and be consigned for three days to the belly of the great fish. This is so encouraging. Our failures are permitted by God and used by God as he manifests his wonderful works of grace.
Lessons for Ancient Israel from Jonah
Jonah was called for a great work, yet he disobeyed and had to pass through a fearful affliction in order that he might obey. Likewise Israel as Jehovah’s covenant people were living in a state of rebellion. They would suffer terribly in order that God might raise up a remnant who would return and be faithful to himself.
Jonah was despatched to Nineveh and under his ministry there was a remarkable turning to God. Yet the Jewish people who had many prophets were turning away from the Word with which they were familiar. How sad it is even today; those who are most familiar with the Gospel have the greatest tendency to despise its precious truth.
Jonah and the Universal Nature of God’s Kingdom
“He was sent to a Gentile city. He was sent to the most renowned city of heathendom then on the face of the earth. He alone of all God’s prophets had such a commission assigned him. His was a most extraordinary call” (Hugh Martin).
We can only understand Jonah’s reluctance to visit Nineveh in the light of the Old Testament revelation which was almost exclusively directed towards the Jews. There was no history of any prophet declaring a message from Jehovah to the Gentiles. It was a mission more daring or more adventurous than an evangelistic campaign in an Islamic nation today.
This poses the question, ‘Why did God send Jonah?‘ Throughout the Old Testament there was a growing sense that God had a purpose not just for the Jew but for the Gentile also. This commenced in Genesis 9:27 where the children of Japheth were singled out a particular blessing. When the law was given the Hebrews were instructed to be gracious towards the Gentile (Leviticus 19:34). Ruth’s conversion and place within the royal family cemented this view that there was a future plan for the Gentiles. This concept found its fullest expression in the Psalms (principally Psalm 2) where it is prophesied that God’s Kingdom would be extended beyond Israel into all parts of the world. Therefore Jonah’s call and the subsequent conversion of the people of Nineveh was a foretaste of a future day when the Apostles would be commanded to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every person.
Ironically God used Jonah in spite of himself. Not only did Jonah initially attempt to run away from God but when the people were converted Jonah was angry because he refused to accept God’s plan. He was a cog in the wheel of Jehovah’s mighty scheme of redemption but ultimately the work was not Jonah’s because salvation is of the Lord.
Jonah’s Prayer in the Belly of the Great Fish
The content of Jonah’s prayer in Chapter Two is as remarkable as the place where he supplicated. Not only do we hear the confessions of a saint of God but we are given an insight into the deeply spiritual and devotional nature of these Old Testament saints. Constantly throughout the Psalm he quotes from the Psalms, relying upon the word of God for his encouragement; Psalm 42:7 (v3), 18:6 (v4, 7), 69:2 (v5), 50:14, 116:17 (v9). For this reason the prayer of Jonah is frequently called a Psalm. On a practical note this prayer teaches us that we come to God in deep trouble we ought to practice the art of articulating the words of scripture. If we cannot frame our own words there is a prayer in scripture, inspired by the Holy Ghost which will be of help.