Even many nonreligious people have heard of “Jonah and the whale.” But has this fame distracted people from understanding the purpose of the book of Jonah?
Many readers of the Bible are intrigued by the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. But does this fascination distract people from the main purpose of the book? Arguments over this incident should not blind us to the main reason the book of Jonah is in the Bible.
Background to Jonah
Jonah is identified as a prophet and servant of God during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel (2 Kings 14:24-25)—between 792 and 753 B.C. (Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible). Jonah’s name means “dove”; and his commission, as recorded in the book of Jonah, was to convey a message from God to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.
The book of Jonah gives no indication of his prophetic activity in the land of Israel. It merely begins with an instruction from God to go to Nineveh and prophesy to its inhabitants. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (1:2).
Nineveh was founded by Nimrod shortly after the Flood (Genesis 10:11-12); and as capital of the Assyrian empire, it rose to power about 900 B.C. Years later, Assyria began the process of conquering Israel, and Jonah clearly saw this nation as an enemy and feared what it would eventually do. By 721 B.C. the Assyrian army had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.
The Assyrians were extremely brutal and cruel, even skinning their captives alive. The prophet Nahum describes them as lions, tearing and feeding on the nations (Nahum 2:11-13).
The city of Nineveh eventually fell to the invading armies of the Babylonians and Medes (about 607 B.C.).
Why Jonah fled
Instead of going northeast toward Nineveh, Jonah boarded a ship and headed in a westerly direction to Tarshish (likely in Spain), but was overtaken by a severe storm.
Why did Jonah disregard God’s command? Jonah found it difficult and agonizing to take a message of repentance to an empire destined to destroy his own nation and people. Out of patriotic zeal for his nation Israel, he fled in the opposite direction. He shuddered to consider the implications if Nineveh actually responded to his message: prolonging the life of a brutal, ruthless and bloodthirsty nation threatening the existence of God’s people.
Some scholars doubt the authenticity of the biblical narrative and the person of Jonah. However, there is biblical evidence that he lived. Jesus referred to the incident of Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights as a “sign” of His death and resurrection. “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” (Matthew 12:38-40).
In reference to Nineveh and the preaching of Jonah, Christ spoke of Himself as “a greater than Jonah is here” (verse 41). It is taken for granted that He would not make this statement based on a fictitious and imaginary character.
Those who question the accuracy of the book of Jonah focus at length on Jonah surviving in the stomach of a fish for three days and nights. Notice the Bible says it was “a great fish” that God had “prepared … to swallow Jonah” (Jonah 1:17), and not necessarily a whale.
What some fail to recognize is the greatness and miraculous power of the Creator of the entire universe. Is it beyond His power to preserve a person in the belly of a fish?
The prophet Jeremiah understood God’s power when he lauded His supremacy and greatness in Jeremiah 32:16-22: “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for You” (verse 17, emphasis added throughout).
It is an error to bring God down to our human way of thinking and doing. God was more than capable of safeguarding Jonah in the belly of the fish for as long as was necessary.
Outline of the book of Jonah
This quote from authors William LaSor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush is important in our understanding of the book of Jonah: “A firm principle in biblical study is that, even in a clearly historical passage, the theological message is more important than historical details. The Bible … was inspired by God’s Spirit, with doctrinal, spiritual and moral intent. As part of the biblical canon, Jonah must be studied with primary attention to the theological message” (Old Testament Survey, p. 386).
Jonah is not just a prophetic book, as there is only one prophecy recorded (3:4). One of the major themes is the relationship between God and Jonah. God’s extraordinary capacity to forgive upon true repentance is also fundamental to our understanding.
Jonah’s commission from God is given.
Out of love for his nation Israel, Jonah fled in order to avoid going to Nineveh. He boarded a vessel headed for Tarshish. Perhaps he believed that if he did not take God’s message to Assyria, they would have no chance to repent and, as a result, this cruel and merciless nation would have been destroyed and one of Israel’s greatest enemies would have been eliminated.
But God had other plans. The crew reluctantly threw Jonah overboard when a great storm battered the ship. The sea was calmed, and Jonah found himself in the belly of a “great fish” for three days and three nights.
Out of the belly of the fish Jonah cried out to God for deliverance. He realized that, unless God intervened, he would certainly die. God arranged for Jonah to be “vomited … onto dry land” closer to Nineveh.
By analogy, this can symbolize the burial of the “old man” through baptism, followed by the command to “walk in newness of life,” described by the apostle Paul in Romans 6:1-6.
Jonah’s prayer is a masterpiece of heartfelt emotion and reaching out to God for mercy and forgiveness. It is a prayer well worth careful study.
God gave His commission a second time, and now Jonah was ready to do His bidding. He entered the city and proclaimed the message to the inhabitants.
Unbelievably, they respond positively and the king proclaims a fast for both man and beast! The result is that “God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (3:10).
The prophecy was no idle threat. The city would have been destroyed in 40 days (verse 4).
Why such an astonishing reaction? The Bible does not tell us, but it could be that people from the city witnessed the fish spewing Jonah onto dry land. Such an incident would certainly grab their attention and may explain their willingness to listen to Jonah’s warning message!
This was a temporary repentance by the people of that generation, but sufficient for God to spare the city at that time. Jonah needed to learn the biblical principle that God grants repentance to whom He will.
The change of heart on the part of the people of Nineveh displeased Jonah. All along, he feared that Nineveh would heed the warning and repent (verse 2). God, who “relents from doing harm,” would then spare the city; and this powerful and dangerous enemy of Israel would survive, thus sealing the fate of his beloved people in the future.
The incident of the plant (“gourd,” King James Version) and the lessons for Jonah are recorded in verses 5-11. When the plant withered, Jonah showed resentment and anger. But the withering of the plant taught him the lesson of God’s compassion for all nations, and not only for Israel.
The message Christ brought when He walked the earth was that He came to die for the sins of all of humanity (John 3:16-17).
Lessons from the book of Jonah
Here are some lessons from the book of Jonah:
1. The book exemplifies the miraculous power and supremacy of God over His entire creation.
The amazing power of God was illustrated by these miracles:
- The severe winds and boisterous sea that God sent, then miraculously calmed (Jonah 1:4, 15).
- The sailors cast lots and by a miracle the lot identified Jonah (1:7).
- The “great fish” was “prepared” to swallow Jonah (1:17).
- Jonah was alive after three days and nights in the fish (1:17).
- The fish was guided (“so the LORD spoke to the fish”) to a place where Jonah was spewed out on dry land (2:10).
- The people of Nineveh astonishingly “believe” (Hebrew aman, to trust, to support, to turn to the right; Strong’s number 539; Jonah 3:5).
- A miraculously fast-growing plant was “prepared” as a shade for Jonah (4:6).
- A worm was “prepared” to wither the plant (4:7).
- A “vehement east wind” was “prepared” by God (4:8).
These events are manifestations of the mighty power of the Creator of the entire universe.
2. God’s servants must obey Him even when the circumstances are contrary to their expectations and hopes.
3. Despite human weaknesses in those God selects, He is still able to use them in His service. The narrative presents a noticeable contrast between God’s mercy and forgiveness and the shortcomings of His servant. The Bible mentions imperfections in other renowned individuals, such as Noah, Abraham, Jacob, David, the apostle Peter and so on.
4. God’s willingness to forgive upon heartfelt repentance is striking and an encouragement to those who seek to please their Creator but at times succumb to human weaknesses. Upon genuine repentance God is willing to forgive, and will continue to work with us.
5. God’s plan of salvation extends to all people on the earth. As the apostle Paul states, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
The young evangelist Timothy was admonished by the apostle Paul: “And that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Today we also are blessed to have the Holy Scriptures, including the book of Jonah, which God has faithfully preserved for our instruction and learning. As we study and put into practice the teachings in God’s Word, we, too, like Timothy, will be placed on the road to salvation.
May you be richly blessed as you determine to study and apply the teachings found in the pages of your Bible.
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.