You’ve probably heard about Jonah and the whale—but what does that have to do with the sign of Jonah? What can we learn from the life of this prophet of God?
Who is Jonah in the Bible?
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). The name Jonah means “dove.” His commission, as recorded in the book of Jonah (the fifth of the Minor Prophets), 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).
Why is Nineveh important?
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. Jonah likely saw the nation of Assyria as a threat to his own people, fearing what they would eventually do.
That fear would have been a well-founded one. 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).
Around 740 B.C., just a matter of decades after Jonah delivered his warning to Nineveh, God used Assyria to begin the process of punishing Israel for its sins (1 Chronicles 5:26). By 721 B.C. the Assyrian army had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.
Jonah disobeys God and flees
Instead of going northeast toward Nineveh, Jonah boarded a ship and headed in a westerly direction to Tarshish (a city likely located in modern-day Spain), but was overtaken by a severe storm.
Why did Jonah disregard God’s command? God was telling Jonah to take a message of repentance to an empire destined to destroy his own nation and people. Jonah knew what the Assyrians were capable of doing. If they listened to God’s warning—if they repented—then God might spare them, and they would remain a looming threat.
Jonah wanted to see Nineveh destroyed. 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.
Jonah and the “whale”
Most people have heard the story of Jonah and the whale—but did you know that the Bible doesn’t specifically say Jonah was swallowed by a whale? When Jonah fled from God’s assignment, the Bible says that “the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).
This tradition can be found in the King James Version translation of Matthew 12:40, which says Jonah was in “the whale’s belly.” Again, however, the word it is translated from is broader in meaning than whale. The Greek word ketos means “a sea-monster, whale, huge fish” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).
Why does that distinction matter? Some critics have questioned whether a whale’s throat would be large enough for a human being to pass through. Others have countered that it depends on the species of whale, or have argued it could have been a great fish like a whale shark. It’s important to know that the Bible doesn’t claim that the “great fish” was specifically a whale—but even more important to remember that “with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
It’s easy to decide that just because we can’t see a plausible explanation for how God did something, the Bible must be wrong. But another prophet, Jeremiah, knew the truth: “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” (Jeremiah 32:17, emphasis added throughout).
Maybe God sent a whale to swallow Jonah. Maybe it was just some enormous fish God “prepared” with a bigger throat and stomach. We don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t matter. If the God who made the heavens and the earth wants to keep someone safe in the belly of a whale or a giant fish for 72 hours, He’s perfectly able to make that happen, regardless of how we think things should work.
What is the sign of Jonah?
Much later in the Bible, Jesus told His skeptics, “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” (Matthew 12:38-40).
Jesus said that this sign of Jonah would be the proof of His identity as the Messiah. Jonah had spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish; Jesus would spend three days and three nights in the grave (“the heart of the earth”).
Some scholars doubt the authenticity of the biblical narrative of the book of Jonah. By acknowledging the sign of Jonah, Jesus was also acknowledging the authenticity of the book of Jonah. He even referred to Himself as One “greater than Jonah” (verse 41)—an odd comparison to make if Jonah had never existed at all.
(Was Jesus actually in the grave for 72 hours? Find out the Bible’s answer by reading “Sign of Jonah: Did Jesus Die Good Friday, Rise on Easter?”)
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).
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 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.
God commissioned Jonah to take a message of judgment to Nineveh. But Jonah feared that the wicked city of Nineveh might heed the warning and repent. If they did, the cruel and merciless nation of Assyria would remain an existential threat to the people of Israel. Instead of obeying God, Jonah ran away, boarding a vessel headed for Tarshish.
But God had other plans. When a great storm battered the ship, the sailors eventually realized that the storm had been sent because of Jonah. The crew reluctantly threw Jonah overboard, and the sea was calmed. Soon, Jonah found himself in the belly of a “great fish” for three days and three nights.
From 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.
There are similarities between Jonah’s time in the fish and the Christian 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 to Jonah a second time—and this time, Jonah was ready to obey. He entered the city and proclaimed the message to the inhabitants.
Unbelievably, they responded positively and the king proclaimed a fast for both man and beast! In response, “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. In 40 days, the city would have been destroyed (verse 4).
Why did Nineveh believe Jonah and repent? The Bible does not tell us, but it’s possible 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!
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 (4:2). God, who “relents from doing harm,” would then spare the city, and this powerful threat to the people of Israel would survive.
Jonah sat outside the city, waiting to see if God would change His mind and destroy the city anyway. To help teach Jonah a lesson in compassion, God prepared a plant to give him shade from the heat while he waited (verses 5-8).
When God destroyed the plant the next day, Jonah showed resentment and anger. But God used that anger as a teachable moment: “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (verses 10-11).
Jonah was missing the point: God had compassion for all nations, and not only for Israel. He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). When Jesus Christ walked the earth, He came to die for the sins of all of humanity, not just a chosen few (John 3:16-17).
What happened to Nineveh?
The people of the city of Nineveh repented and changed their ways—but the change wasn’t permanent. God did spare the city from destruction, but in time, the Assyrian people returned to ignoring God’s laws.
God used the nation of Assyria as the “rod of [His] anger” (Isaiah 10:5) to take most of the nation of Israel into captivity (as punishment for Israel’s own sins). However, when the Assyrians failed to acknowledge God’s role in their victories, God punished “the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his haughty looks” (Isaiah 10:12). (Sadly, it seems these prophecies will have an end-time fulfillment as well.)
The city of Nineveh eventually fell to the invading armies of the Babylonians and Medes (around 607 B.C.).
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, 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.