The story of Jonah is undoubtedly one of the best known in the Old Testament. At the same time it is also one of the most controversial. This is due to the seemingly fantastic and impossible nature of the story. Skeptics point to this story and assert that it is a Hebrew mythological fable, and cannot be considered a historical event. Nevertheless, Jesus not only contended it was a historical fact, He saw it as analogous to His death and resurrection (Matt. 12:39-41). Based upon Jesus’ affirmation of the story, I believe that we as Christians must accept its historicity.
But there is much more to this story than Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. It is the story of God’s mercy being shown to a wicked nation that humbled itself in repentance. This story reveals God as both a God of justice and mercy. Therefore, this book speaks to all nations and all generations. Unquestionably, it speaks loudly to the time in which we live.
I believe the greatest miracle in the book of Jonah is not the prophet’s deliverance from the belly of the fish. Though to many that seems to be the greatest. I would suggest that the miracle of Nineveh’s “mass repentance” was superior. (Not that one was more difficult for God to bring about than the other.)
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. It is representative of the nation in the same way that Rome represented the Roman Empire or Washington D.C. represents the United States. Nineveh was the residence of the king of Assyria. Who ruled Assyria during the time of Jonah’s prophetic warning is debated among scholars. We do know that Jonah’s ministry was during the time of Jeroboam II (II Kings 14:25), who reigned in Israel, from 792 to 753 B.C., which provides us with a general time frame. Hobart Freeman in his book, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets, suggests the possibility that it occurred during the reign of the Assyrian king Ashur-dan III (772-755 B.C.) – “The plagues recorded in Assyrian history in 765 and 759, and the total eclipse of 763, possibly could have been portents of divine wrath which prepared the city for Jonah’s message.”
The Assyrians were exceedingly wicked and barbarous. They boasted in their atrocities. When captured a hostile city in conquest, they not only burnt it to the ground, they cut off the hands and ears of the male citizens, and gouged out their eyes. Then they were then put to death. The children would all be burned alive at the stake, the women raped and often mutilated, and the city’s governor flayed alive before the Assyrian king. Their military strategy was one of terrorism.
It was with good cause that the Israelites hated the Assyrians. Their destruction by God would have been viewed as justice. Jonah had cause to fear the Assyrians, considering their violent ways, but Jonah fled to Tarshish not out of fear, but because he wanted the Assyrians to be destroyed. Look at what Jonah says to God upon seeing the repentance of Nineveh and God showing them mercy: “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).
We are told that “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days journey in breadth” (Jonah 3:3). This probably included all the communities surrounding the city itself. The population was at the very least more than 120,000 people (Jonah 4:11) and some scholars believe much higher. The phrase “who do not know their right hand from their left” has been taken by many scholars to refer to the number of children, specifically those under the age of seven. As a result, there are those that believe the population to be in the neighborhood of 600, 000.
Upon hearing the proclamation of destruction delivered by Jonah, we are told that “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5). This faith was evidenced by their fasting (vs. 6). These wicked, violent, people turned from their evil ways (Jonah 3:8, 10) and God withdrew His hand of judgment.
Does this story from Biblical history have any message or application for us today?
The Message of Triumph
The repentance of the Assyrian nation demonstrates the power of God to turn the hearts of His enemies toward Himself. It is a story that gives us hope for the nations of the earth, including our own, that are presently in rebellion to God. What God did then, He can still do today. “The nations are like a drop from the bucket” (Isa. 40:15), as far as the Lord is concerned. The turning of a nation is not difficult to God. He has promised to give His Son the nations as His inheritance (Ps. 2:7-8).
I see the book of Jonah as “prophetic” in its message to the Church. Prophetic in the sense that it is a revelation of God’s ultimate intention with the nations of the earth through the death and resurrection of Christ. Jonah’s “resurrection” and his proclamation brought about the conversion of this heathen people. Likewise, Christ’s resurrection and His proclamation will bring about the conversion of the nations. The Gospel of the Kingdom will triumph over Christ’s enemies and the nations will be broken in repentance. Mercy will triumph over judgment (James 2:13) and Christ’s victory over the nations will be a result of the power of His cross and resurrection proclaimed by His Church.
To many evangelical Christians that seems harder to believe than the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. We have over the past 150 years been taught a “gospel of defeat.” We have been told that the victory of Christ will only come after the Second Coming, and in the Millennium. That our hope is not in Christ and His “kerygma” (Greek word meaning “proclamation”), but in the “rapture” of the Church.
But allow me to challenge us in this regard with the words of Charles Spurgeon from the 19th century:
“It would be easy to show that at our present rate of progress the kingdoms of this world never could become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. Indeed, many in the Church are giving up the idea of it except on the occasion of the advent of Christ, which, as it chimes in with our idleness, is likely to be a popular doctrine. I myself believe that King Jesus will reign, and the idols utterly abolished; but I expect the same power which turned the world upside down once will still continue to do it. The Holy Ghost would never suffer the imputation to rest upon His holy name that He was not able to convert the world.”
Jonah – A Foreshadowing of Christ
“Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet with whom Jesus directly compared himself. Jesus obviously regarded Jonah’s experience and mission as of great significance. It is the more interesting, therefore, to recall that both Jesus and Jonah were “prophets of Galilee”. Jonah’s town, Gath-hepher, was only a few miles to the north of Nazareth, Jesus’ town. It was less than an hour’s walk away. Jesus must often have gone there. Perhaps even in his day the tomb of Jonah was pointed out there… Was it here that, in the days of his obscurity, Jesus began to meditate on the significance of Jonah and of his own mission?” [The New Bible Commentary Revised, IVP, Edited by D Guthrie, J A Motyer, A M Stibbs & D J Wiseman, 1975 pp. 747-748.]
In reading and understanding the Old Testament we must see it in light of the hermeneutic shown to us by Christ on the road to Emmaus. “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). Christ Himself is the “centering point” of all Scripture. He is the character that all the stories revolve around. The Old Testament points toward Him and the ultimate purposes of God.
Jesus tells us that Jonah is a type, or foreshadowing, of Himself. In Matthew 12:39-41 it is recorded: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given it, except for the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
Jonah doesn’t seem to be much of a compelling candidate as an Old Testament type of Christ. But obviously he is, Jesus says so. How does he do this? Allow me to suggest some ways:
1. The whale and the descent to hell. In Scripture, the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale is seen as foreshadowing Christ’s descent to hell. In the Old Testament, the prophet himself uses the language of hell to describe his misery in his plea to God: From the womb of Sheol I cried for help, and you heard my voice. (Sheol, is the Hebrew term for the “place of the dead”.) Jesus uses this story in Matthew 12:40 to prophesy His own descent to hell: Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
2. Jonah sacrifices himself. The parallel is even closer than we might at first realize. Both Jonah and Jesus ended up in their respective Sheols by choice. We know that Jesus sacrificed Himself for our sakes, but we may forget that Jonah did the same for his shipmates—perhaps the only truly selfless act he committed. It was Jonah, not the shipmates, who suggested that tossing him overboard would be their salvation (Jonah 1:12).
3. The cross and the ship. If Jonah sacrificed himself, in a small way foreshadowing Christ’s one-time perfect sacrifice, then it only makes sense to see the ship in the Jonah story as parallel with the cross. Jonah fell asleep in the ship just as Christ fell into the ‘sleep’ of death on the cross.
4. The vomiting whale and the resurrection. Scripture carries through the parallel of Jonah’s and Christ’s sacrifice to completion: just as Christ rose on the third day, so also Jonah was expelled from the belly of the whale three days later. The whale vomiting may be a rather unpleasant analogy of the resurrection, but that didn’t stop some Church fathers from making a connection between the two.
5. Forty days in Nineveh. Jonah, we are told in the Old Testament, spent 40 days around Nineveh, both warning of judgment and then awaiting its destruction. Augustine sees significance in that number. In “The City of God” (Chapter 44), he suggests that the 40 days Jonah spent after his rescue from the belly of the whale correspond to the 40 days Jesus spent preaching after His resurrection from the dead.
6. Preaching to the Gentiles. Most of the prophets we encounter in the Old Testament are sent to convert Israel back to God. Jonah is one of the few sent to Gentiles (the Assyrians of Nineveh). In this, he foreshadows Christ’s own mission to Gentiles. Also, as with Christ, the preaching to the Gentiles happened after Jonah’s own “resurrection”. In this context, it’s important to note that Nineveh was not some random city to which Jonah had been sent. It was also the capital of the Assyrian empire, then the world’s largest and most powerful. Just like Athens and Rome centuries later, Nineveh would have embodied the Gentile world to Jews like Jonah.
7. Calming of the storm. The circumstances surrounding the storm that hit the ship bound for Tarshish bears striking similarities to the account of the calming of the storm in the gospels (Matthew 8, Luke 8, and Mark 4). In both cases, the protagonist is sleeping during the storm (Jonah in the Old Testament, Jesus in the New). Both protagonists have to be woken as their shipmates plead them to take action to calm the storm. And both end up doing just that, albeit in different ways: Jonah is thrown overboard while Christ rebukes the winds.
 David Chilton, Paradise Restored (Dominion Press: Tyler, TX, 1985), p. 129.