Of all the supernatural occurrences in the Bible, few have received as much ridicule and derision as the story of Jonah. To liberal scholars and skeptics, the account of a man swallowed by a great fish is suitable only for children, not for serious thinkers.
Yet, apart from the events recorded in the book of Jonah, documentation exists of men being swallowed by whales and living to tell of it. And there are certainly records of large populations repenting and turning to God.
These facts, coupled with the witness of Jesus Himself (Mt. 12:39–41), make the historicity and chronicle of Jonah moot points.
Besides, “Jonah and the whale” is not the book’s primary thrust. Rather, the central theme is God’s gracious and compassionate heart for lost souls.
When compared with his hawkish attitude, Jonah’s name—meaning “dove”—is a misnomer. Nevertheless, God chose this man from the small town of Gath-hepher in Zebulon, three miles northeast of Nazareth, to be His prophet of grace and mercy. Earlier God had sent Jonah to announce the restoration of lost territory to King Jeroboam II of Israel (793–753 B.C., 2 Ki. 14:25). Wicked Jeroboam certainly did not deserve such a gift, but the Lord had compassion on Israel (2 Ki. 14:26–27), just as He has compassion on us today.
In Jonah 1:1, God had another mission of mercy for Jonah. He told him to go to one of the great cities of Assyria, Nineveh. Nineveh was not yet the capital of the powerful Assyrian empire, although it housed one of the royal residences.2 With its surrounding suburbs, Nineveh’s population was upwards of 600,000.
In Jonah’s day, Assyria was a formidable military machine. It was the force that took Israel captive some fifty years after Jonah’s ministry. The Assyrians were idol worshipers known for their brutality. About seventy-five years before Jonah, an Assyrian king boasted of his cruelty:
I carried off their spoil and their possessions. The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city, their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire. I built a pillar over against the city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar; many within the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls; and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled.
Sending Jonah to such despicable people was surely an act of God’s grace; for by sending a prophet to forewarn them of impending doom, the Ninevites received an opportunity to repent.
However, instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah went to the city of Tarshish, famous for its gold, silver, iron, tin, lead, ivory, apes, and peacocks (2 Chr. 9:21; Ezek. 27:12). Some archaeologists believe Tarshish was located in southern Spain. If so, instead of going eight hundred miles northeast of Israel, Jonah sailed almost two thousand miles west, in the opposite direction.
So God threw a great wind onto the Mediterranean Sea, causing such a storm that the ship was in danger of breaking into pieces. The crew had seen storms before, but this one was so violent the frightened sailors cried out to their heathen gods to save them. Hoping to lighten the ship, they even jettisoned cargo.
Where was Jonah during this crisis? Was he leading the sailors to the one true God? Was he demonstrating God’s love by helping them lighten the ship? No, Jonah had gone to the innermost part of the vessel, as far from people as he could get. And as the sailors’ screams filled the air around him, he slept. (The Septuagint says he was even snoring!)
It was in that ignominious condition that the captain of the ship found the disgruntled prophet. Although their roles should have been reversed, the captain roused Jonah and admonished him to call on his god. Perhaps Jonah’s god would notice their plight and save them.
Sensing the offended gods needed to be appeased, the sailors cast lots to determine who was to blame for the insult. The final lot indicted Jonah. As at other times in Israel’s history, God providentially directed the lot (Lev. 16:8; Josh. 18:10; cf. Prov. 16:33). And His finger pointed squarely at Jonah.
Immediately the sailors peppered Jonah with questions, grilling him as to his identity and occupation. When he told them the truth, they became terrified. They asked Jonah the same question that has been asked for centuries of godly men who have fallen in disgrace: “How could you do this?”
The solution to their problem, offered by Jonah himself, indicated how far the prophet’s heart had strayed from God. Instead of communicating the truth about a forgiving God, Jonah implied that the God of the Hebrews was no different than pagan gods, demanding a human sacrifice to propitiate His anger. Jonah wanted to take the easy way out through assisted suicide, whereas he should have confronted his pride, humbled himself, and repented of his sin.
The sailors wanted no part of Jonah’s death wish. They rowed harder, trying in vain to reach dry land. Faced with no alternative, the sailors reluctantly accepted Jonah’s offer. But before doing so, they prayed earnestly to the Lord, asking God not to hold them guilty for what they were about to do. Then they lifted Jonah and, like so much jetsam, tossed him overboard.
Immediately the sea became calm. Extremely frightened, the sailors sacrificed to God and made vows. As far as they knew, Jonah was dead. Instead of leaving them with an understanding of God’s grace and compassion, Jonah left them with an image of a wrathful God who punishes disobedience—an incomplete and inadequate testimony at best.
But God was not finished with His wayward prophet. Shortly after Jonah hit the water, a great fish (possibly a whale, but the Greek in Matthew 12:40 merely indicates a large sea creature) providentially supplied by God, took the bait and swallowed Jonah whole. Now, instead of sleeping comfortably in the belly of a ship, Jonah was uncomfortably awake in the belly of a fish. For three days and three nights God had his undivided attention.
Jonah is a picture of Israel. Like Jonah, God called the nation of Israel to be a witness for Him among the nations of the earth (Isa. 43:10). Yet Israel fell away from God, ultimately even rejecting His Son, the Messiah. As God forewarned through Moses (Dt. 28), He disciplined Israel, even as He disciplined Jonah. Nevertheless, God did not reject either. As with Jonah, God will bring Israel to repentance. As with Jonah, God will one day fulfill His plan to use Israel as a witness to the nations.
Jonah is a picture of Jesus the Messiah. Jonah’s disobedience, of course, is in no way analogous to Jesus Christ. However, his experience in the belly of the fish pictures Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (Mt. 12:40).
Jonah is a picture of a disobedient Christian. Jonah wanted to run from God’s presence, so much so that he was deliberate in his plans and willing to pay whatever the cost. Perhaps Jonah would have seen the foolishness of his actions if he had considered David’s words in Psalm 139:
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in sheol [hell], behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (vv. 7–10).
No one can hide from God. But disobedience to Him produces an aversion to His presence. The same was true for Adam and Eve at the beginning of time. They hid themselves among the trees of the Garden (Gen. 3:8). And the same will be true at the end of time when, during the Tribulation, the wicked will hide in caves, trying to escape God’s presence (Rev. 6:15–16). When Jonah said no to God, the subsequent break in fellowship drove him to run and hide.
Like Jonah, Christians who disobey God often avoid fellowship with other Christians or exposure to God’s Word. We recoil from repentance, seeking to rationalize and justify our errant behavior. Like Jonah, we, too, are a poor testimony of God’s love and grace. We become insensitive to the spiritual needs of lost people around us and are as the shameful son in Proverbs 10:5 who sleeps during harvest.
Jesus said the harvest is plentiful (Mt. 9:37). So where are the workers? Perhaps too many of us are like Jonah, fast asleep, oblivious to the cries of those perishing around us. Often the unsaved, like the sailors on Jonah’s ship, are more concerned about perishing than many Christians realize. Unless disobedient Christians get right with God, people who have never received Jesus as their personal Savior will continue to suffer from the neglect of Christians who can introduce them to Him. Perhaps someday someone will ask us the same question the sailors asked Jonah: “How could you do this?”
Disobedience to God carries consequences and repercussions that affect not only us, but also the people around us. Truly, the most dangerous place on Earth to be is outside God’s will.
Like Jonah, do you feel someone nudging you, perhaps a neighbor, a coworker, a relative, a friend? Like the captain of Jonah’s ship, perhaps that person is saying to you, “What meanest thou, O sleeper? Arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not” (Jon. 1:6).
People who have no personal relationship with God lack genuine peace and live in a storm of turmoil— whether they show it or not. Many are drowning in defeat, depression, and despair and are anxious to find a lifeline, a way out, anything that will calm their fears and give them hope.
Are you prepared to show them the way, to tell them of God’s grace and compassion, so they might not perish (Jn. 3:16)? Scripture says, “Let the redeemed of the LORD say so” (Ps. 107:2). Perhaps the time to begin is today.