Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentJONAH 1
This chapter recounts the divine commission which came to Jonah, instructing him to prophesy against the city of Nineveh because of their great wickedness, the prophet's rebellious disobedience in trying to avoid the assignment by fleeing in the opposite direction, the judgment of God against him in the great storm that threatened the wreck of his ship, the prophet's guilt exposed, his being cast overboard by the mariners, the great calm that ensued immediately, the worship of the true God on the part of the sailors, and the swallowing of the prophet by a great sea monster, in the belly of which Jonah remained for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:1-17).
As noted in the introduction, the denials of the historical and factual nature of this narrative raise far more questions than are answered; and absolutely nothing is gained by the attempts to make Jonah any kind of fictional character. We agree with Banks, then, "To approach the study of this book, believing it as an historical account."F1
Now the word of Jehovah came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
Enemies of this book do not hesitate to take the ax to the very first word in it, affirming that, Jonah is a fragment, the continuation of a larger work;F2 but, of course, such criticisms are apparently founded in ignorance of the truth that, This is a common formulary linking together revelations and histories, and is continually used in the Old Testament at the beginning of independent works.F3 Josh. 1:1; Judg. 1:1; 1 Sam. 1:1; Est. 1:1; and Ezek. 1:1 all have this same beginning. This by no means warrants the assumption that Jonah is the fragment of a larger work.F4
Barnes pointed out that the sacred writers used this word to join their writings to other portions of the Word of God, thus affirming their reliability and inspiration.F5
The word of Jehovah came unto Jonah the son of Amittai…
There is no sacred record of just how God spoke to Jonah, the great fact revealed being that God indeed spoke to him and that Jonah recognized the validity of God's message. God having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, etc. (Hebrews 1:1) gives the only clue we have as to how God spoke to the prophets. Nevertheless, The basis of the prophet's life is the confidence that God is able to communicate with man, making known to him his will. Without a revelation of God there can be no prophet.F6 Strangely enough, this is the primary evidence of the supernatural in the whole book, but it seems to be curiously inoffensive even to some who vehemently reject the miracles of the same book. Granted that the infinite God is the one who spoke to Jonah and dealt with him as revealed in this history, there can actually be no problem whatever with the miraculous element in the record.
This passage unquestionably identifies Jonah with the prophet mentioned in this Old Testament passage:
"Jeroboam the son of Joash (Jeroboam II) restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath unto the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of Jehovah the God of Israel, which he spake by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was of Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25).
Such a prophecy was doubtless made before the beginning of Jeroboam's reign, or at least very early in it; and one sure result of such a favorable prophecy's being remarkably fulfilled would have been the establishment of Jonah as a national hero among the Israelites of the northern kingdom. It cannot be imagined that any Israelite at some later time would have forged or invented a story such as this which portrays the prophet in such an unfavorable light.
The word Jonah means "dove," the same "being a symbol of Israel,"F7 and thus a most appropriate name for one whose life in this record must be seen as a typical prophecy of the future fate of Israel. The word "Amittai" means truth. This word comes from the root of the Hebrew term which gives us "Amen"; thus, "Jonah son of Amittai means `mourning dove, son of truth.'"F8
All that is definitely known concerning the prophet Jonah is found in the little book that bears his name and in the single reference cited here from 2 Kings 14:25.
Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
As Myers noted, "This command points to the prophetic conception of the Lord as the Ruler and Controller of all history, who had power over Nineveh just as he had over Jerusalem."F9
This verse also shows that God is angry with wickedness. The present day conception of God as a mild, indulgent father-image of one who loves everybody no matter what they do, and as one who will never actually punish anyone, is a gross perversion of the truth. Every sin is an affront to God, who is "angry with the wicked every day" and who will by no means accommodate himself finally to human sin and unrighteousness. Abel's blood still cries to God from the ground (Genesis 4:10); Sodom and Gomorrah; Tyre and Sidon; the whole antediluvian world; and many other wicked civilizations were wiped off the face of the earth by divine judgments against their wickedness; and it is no contradiction of the love and justice of God who will surely spare the penitent, that he will also ultimately overthrow and destroy the wicked.
Nineveh that great city…
Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian kingdom, and the residence of the great kings of Assyria, was founded by Nimrod (Genesis 10:11), and by Ninos, the mythical founder of the Assyrian empire, according to Greek and Roman writers who repeatedly referred to it as "that great city." The size of it is given as "three day's journey" (Jonah 3:3); and this agrees with the writings of the classical Greek and Roman writers who called it the "greatest city in the world at that time."F10
Butler gives the following description of Nineveh from an ancient writer, Diodorus:
"It was the greatest city of antiquity with a population of 600,000, some 80 miles in circumference. Upon its walls 100 feet high, flanked with 1,500 towers, each 200 feet high, four chariots could drive abreast. It filled, together with the adjoining suburbs, the whole space between the rivers Tigris, Khosr, the Upper, or Great Zab, the Gasr Su, and the mountainous boundary of the Tigris Valley on the east."F11
We need not be concerned with the speculations of writers who are intent upon discrediting the Biblical record, affirming that, "Its area was at most not more than three square miles!"F12 The ancient writings are much more dependable in matters of this kind than the speculative guesses of those who have already compromised their objectivity by denying Jonah as historical truth. The smaller dimensions of the city are actually founded upon excavations dating back to Sennacherib who fortified the city more than a hundred years after the times of Jonah; and the lesser dimensions of those fortifications should be applied to the inner citadel alone, and not to the whole city. As Livingston noted:
"Nineveh comprised its occupied area and the surrounding territory, including the neighboring villages under its control. In Gen. 10:11,12, Rehoboth, Calab, and Resen are mentioned with Nineveh as `that great city.'"F13
The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives the reason why so many cities were grouped together, "The country is fertile and prosperous wheat land, which no doubt accounts for so many ancient cities so close to one another."F14
The wickedness of Nineveh was a scandal in the whole ancient world. "The city was widely known as a center of fertility cult worship, and for its cruelty to the victims of warfare."F15 For twenty years, New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited friezes from the palaces of Ashurnasapal and Ashur-banipal, (later than Jonah) in which the numerous human figures were depicted with all of the muscles and tendons of the body articulating separately and exposed with almost surgical accuracy, indicating that the Assyrian artists were more familiar with the human body without its skin than they were with its normal appearance. The Assyrians normally flayed all their victims, and frequently while they were still alive.
Nineveh did not survive after Jonah long, only about 200 years passing till it was utterly and completely destroyed, showing that their repentance was partial and incomplete. Yet, significantly, God's purpose in using Nineveh as his razor to punish Israel was made possible by the greater power and glory that came to the great Assyrian city after their brief period of repentance and seeking the blessing of God. The city fell in 612 B.C.
"About 612 B.C., the city was destroyed by a coalition of armies from Babylon and Medo-Persia. It happened exactly as the prophet Nahum predicted it. Its destruction was so complete that its size was forgotten. When Xenophon and his 10,000 passed by 200 years later, he thought the mounds were the ruins of some Parthian city; and when Alexander the Great fought the famous battle of Arbela near the site of Nineveh in 331 B.C., he did not know there had ever been a city there."F16
Thus it was no empty warning that the prophet uttered against this great center famed for its terrible sins. Sure, God spared them for awhile when they repented; but when they turned again to their evil ways, the judgment fell upon them forever.
But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of Jehovah; and he went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of Jehovah.
But Jonah rose up to flee…
It is a mistake to suppose that Jonah did not know that God was in Tarshish as well as in Jerusalem; for it is impossible to associate such an ignorance as that with a true prophet of God. His conduct in this was exactly the same as that of Adam and Eve who, after their sin, hid themselves from the presence of God. Today, it is the same. When men renounce their sacred duty to the church, they flee as far away from it as possible, knowing full well that they cannot escape God's presence no matter what they do. Fleeing from the scene of one's duty is the reflexive action of a soul in a state of rebellion and disobedience to the Lord. And it is called in this passage, fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Banks gave as plausible an explanation of this as any we have observed:
"Jonah knew that the Lord was unlike pagan deities whose power was believed not to extend beyond the boundaries of a given area; but he thought running away to a distant place would make it physically impossible for him to discharge his commission."F17
Many have inquired as to why Jonah did not wish to obey the word of Jehovah regarding the commission to cry against Nineveh. Certainly, some of the reasons which might have influenced him may be surmised.
To flee unto Tarshish…
- Jonah doubtless knew of the sadistic cruelty of the hated Assyrians, and he could not have failed to confront an element of physical fear of what might befall him in a place like Nineveh, especially in the act of delivering a message which he supposed would be most unwelcome to all of them. Yet, the great physical courage exhibited by the prophet in this very chapter is an effective refutation of the notion that this was what caused him to run away.
- National prejudice certainly entered into it, because no true Israelite could imagine such a thing as preaching to Gentiles, notwithstanding the fact that God, from the beginning, had intended for Israel to be a light to all nations, a function which they had signally failed to honor.
- The reason given by Jonah himself (Jonah 4:3) was that he feared that Nineveh might repent and that God, after his usual gracious manner, would spare them and refrain from destroying their city. As to why such an eventuality was so distasteful to Jonah, there are two conjectures: (a) The prophet was mightily concerned with his own loss of face, including the prospect of his becoming widely known as a prophet whose words did not come to pass. (b) Keil thought that Jonah's real objection to Nineveh's conversion sprang out of the deep love he had for his own nation, "fearing lest the conversion of the Gentiles should infringe upon the privileges of Israel, and put an end to its election as the nation of God."F18 This latter observation strikes us as a genuine discernment of the truth. As a matter of fact, the conversion of Gentiles did typify the ultimate rejection of Israel as "the chosen people" and the receiving of Gentiles all over the earth in a "new Israel" which would include both Jews and Gentiles. Jonah seems to have sensed this; and out of the fierce love of his own country, he was loath to see Nineveh converted. Whatever the reasons that motivated him, he was wrong; and God would overrule his disobedience to accomplish his will despite the prophet's unwillingness to obey.
Present day commentators usually identify this place with a seaport just west of Gibralter on the southern coast of Spain, which was at the opposite extremity of the Mediterranean and exactly opposite from the direction of Nineveh. It is far from certain, however, that this is the place referred to. Josephus stated that it was Tarsus in Cilicia;F19 Tarshish apparently refers to more than one place in the Old Testament (1 Kings 22:48).F20 Myers thought it was, more probably a place in Sardinia where there was a great iron smelter.F21 Many questions which excite human curiosity are left unanswered in Jonah, as is true throughout all the Bible.
And he went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish…
Joppa was about the only seaport that Israel ever had until Herod built Caesarea Philippi hundreds of years after Jonah. Jonah might have been surprised to find ready transportation available for the very place to which he had decided to flee. Satan always provides transportation for the soul running away from the Lord. And, as Spurgeon once said, Evil also has its mysterious providences, and it is not always right to do what seems to be convenient.
So he paid the fare thereof…
What an exciting text for a sermon is this! Whatever soul turns from the Lord finds always that a price is exacted. The prodigal son paid for his excursion into the far country with a sojourn in the swine pen; Judas paid for his thirty pieces of silver with a hangman's rope in the field of blood (Acts 1:19):
"Attempting to run away from God is like fleeing light and falling into darkness, relinguishing wealth and welcoming poverty, abandoning joy and receiving sorrow, or giving up peace in order to have chaos and confusion!"F22
Every sinner on earth today is paying the fare!
And went down into it to go with them unto Tarshish…
There is a glimpse in this verse, and in Jonah 1:5, of the kind of ship Jonah boarded. The Hebrew word for ship (Jonah 1: 5) is [~shephinah], and is found nowhere else; and from its derivation (from [~saphan] = to cover) implies that the vessel was decked.F23 Thus, Jonah's going down into it indicates that he went below decks into the hold of the ship.
But Jehovah sent out a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.
Jehovah sent out a great wind…
The Scriptures abundantly teach that all of the forces of nature are under the direct command of the God of heaven; and there are many instances in which these have been specifically deployed in the accomplishment of God's will. The miracle (yes, this is undoubtedly a miracle) here is not capricious. There is a moral and ethical reason behind it. It was not a purposeless demonstration of the Lord's power over the elements, nor even just to smash inflexible Jonah, but to give him a sense of concern for the sailors, and thus for the Ninevites.F24
So that the ship was like to be broken…
Some of the old versions translate this, So that the ship thought to be dashed to pieces.F25 Such expressions were sometimes used of inanimate things; and this one has the exact meaning of that given in our text. The ship was in dire straits, and was threatened every moment by complete destruction. It was not evidently the time of the year when such storms were expected, else the ship would not have been bound for Tarshish at all; and the sailors immediately attributed the violent and unusual storm to the wrath of some god, as they supposed, having no knowledge whatever of the one true God.
Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god; and they cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it unto them. But Jonah was gone down into the innermost parts of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
(See under Jonah 1:3, above, for comments concerning the word for ship as used in this verse.)
The word for "mariners" here means "salts," that is sailors of the salt seas; they are usually thought to have been Phoenicians engaged in the corn trade with western Mediterranean ports, or the iron trade with Sardinia. The variety of "gods" mentioned indicates that they were, not all of a single nationality, but of mixed heathen origin, some worshipping one god, some another. Their concern for the safety of the vessel, their diligent efforts to lighten its burden, and their frantic prayers "every man unto his god" contrasts vividly with the amazing indifference of the prophet Jonah fast asleep in the hold of the vessel.
We think Butler is right in rejecting the usual comments about Jonah's conscience being seared, blaming his deep sleep upon his spiritual condition.
"It is hardly justifiable to attribute his deep sleep through the storm to a perverse, stupefied, seared conscience. He was probably so exhausted from the long trip from Gath-hepher to Joppa (60-70 miles) and from the psychological wrestling with his soul (which causes physical exhaustion) that he fell into a deep sleep."F26
One should contrast this account of Jonah's being asleep on a ship at sea in a storm with the New Testament account of Jesus in a similar situation, as recorded in Mark 4:38.
So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
This officer was actually the captain, or as the literal import of the word implies, the chief of the rope-men. The nautical terms used in this book were doubtless well known to the inhabitants of Galilee who lived in close proximity to the Phoenicians, who were a sea-faring people, and from whom the inhabitants of the northern kingdom would have adopted many words, due to their contact with the Phoenicians who carried the burden of Israel's foreign trade. Criticism of Jonah based upon the appearance of a few such nautical terms is petty and irresponsible quibbling.
How sin degrades and reduces God's servant. Behold Jonah, who, had he been doing his duty, might have been reproving the king of Nineveh, is instead himself here upbraided by a heathen shipmaster!
Call upon thy God…
Jonah had evidently mentioned the God of Israel at the time he boarded the ship; and, as many ancient nations had heard of Jehovah's power, there seems here to be some hope on the part of the shipmaster that the feared God of the Israelites might be enlisted to aid them in their extremity.
If so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not…
These words vividly recall Ps. 40:17, The Lord thinketh upon me, which has the meaning that God succours and defends those who call upon him.
And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
A few commentators wish to make a miracle of this; but since it has to be true that the lot had to fall upon someone, and since it certainly could have fallen upon Jonah "by chance," we shall not construe this as any kind of miracle comparable to the others in this book. Besides that, the sailors themselves did not rely entirely upon the lot, even though it fell upon Jonah, basing their subsequent actions upon Jonah's confession, rather than upon the uncertainty of the lot. Yes, the Scriptures reveal that even the apostles f relied upon the casting of lots in their selection of Matthias to succeed Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:26); but in that case, the lots were cast after the apostles had earnestly prayed unto God to show by that manner who was chosen. No such prayer to the true God occurred in this instance. Of course, today, there is no need for the casting of lots on the part of them who have the Word of God, after "that which is perfect has come."
This verse apparently presupposes that Jonah had indeed prayed unto "his God," but that his prayer had not been answered any more than the prayers of the heathen, hence their concern with casting lots to expose the guilty party.
There is in the verse a strong example of the almost universal conviction that sin is connected with all human disasters. The citizens of Malta thought that Paul must have been a murderer because he was bitten by a poisonous serpent (Acts 28:4); and even the apostles supposed that the man born blind had experienced such a tragedy due either to his own sin, or that of his parents (John 9:2). Although in specific instances, such conclusions may be absolutely inaccurate, the principle, nevertheless is profoundly true; and that terrible storm which threatened the destruction of Jonah's vessel is a prime example of such a thing.
The lot fell upon Jonah…
Whether by providence or by chance, the lot left Jonah defenseless before his accusers; and he at once accepted the blame as indeed pertaining to himself alone.
Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; what is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?
There would have been no need whatever to elicit any confession of guilt from Jonah, if the sailors had had any faith, absolutely, in their casting of lots. But with that, as a starting point, they plied the suspected prophet with a series of urgent questions; and Jonah did not disappoint them.
And he said unto them, I am a Hebrew; and I fear Jehovah, the God of heaven, who hath made the sea and the dry land.
I am a Hebrew…
Jonah answered their last question first. Hebrew is the name by which the Israelites designated themselves in contradistinction to other nations, and by which other nations designated them (Genesis 14:13).F27
I fear Jehovah the God of heaven…
The Interpreter's Bible calls this, A common post-exilic title for [~Yahweh], and in wide use in the Book of Ezra, and in the Elephantine papyri of the fifth century B.C.!F28 Such irresponsible comments as this are designed to support a postexilic dating of Jonah, long after the times when Jonah lived; but such allegations are completely refuted and contradicted by the fact that Abraham himself, the ancestor of all the Hebrews, refers to God in exactly these same words (Genesis 24:7). It is more charitable to charge Smart (in Interpreter's Bible) with ignorance than it is to charge him with a lack of integrity.
Who hath made the sea and the dry land…
Such a confession on Jonah's part was calculated, whether by design or not, to arouse the most anxious fear on the part of the sailors. It was precisely the sea which was the source of all their troubles at the moment; and the knowledge that Jonah had offended the God who created the sea would have been the cause of the most urgent alarm.
I fear Jehovah…
This should not be taken to mean that Jonah, at the moment, was in mortal fear that God would destroy him, or that he was here professing innocence and righteousness in his behavior toward God; but it is a simple statement of his relationship to the God of Israel, having this meaning:
"...Namely, that he adored the living God who created the whole earth, and, as Creator, governed the world. He admits directly afterward that he has sinned against this God."F29
Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, What is this that thou hast done? For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of Jehovah, because he had told them.
See the above verse and comment for the reason of this increased and intensified fear.
What is this that thou hast done…
This is not a question, but an exclamation of horror.F30
For the men knew that he was fleeing from Jehovah…
This passage reveals that Jonah had explained to the sailors at the time of his boarding the ship that he was fleeing from God. We shall meet later examples of the writer's economy of words in supplying necessary information omitted earlier.F31
Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea grew more and more tempestuous.
The concern and reserve of these pagan sailors in this instance is most commendable. Instead of moving at once to rid their ship of its offending passenger, which they might have done upon the basis of the lot's having fallen upon Jonah, they nevertheless sought Jonah's own advice and consent of what they should do.
And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.
A number of the most important considerations appear in this verse. Jonah here designated the terrible tempest as an act of God directed against himself on account of his disobedience. He unselfishly offers up his own life to save the lives of the mariners, an action of such nobility as to enroll his name forever among the children of God. In this sacrificial act, he stands as one of the noblest types of our Lord Jesus Christ, this being only one of a great number of particulars in which that relationship appears. Moreover, Jonah here discharges his prophetic office effectually by his promise that as soon as he is cast overboard the sea will be calm to the distressed sailors. Such nobility was not lost upon the anxious sailors, for they tried with all their strength to avoid executing the sentence which Jonah, through inspiration, had passed upon himself.
This is the very heart of one of the most wonderful events that ever took place. Until that hour, Jonah had hated "foreigners"; but in the agony of that great storm, they found their common humanity, and Jonah's heart went out to them; and his soul was touched because of their unfortunate plight, a situation to which he himself had so effectively contributed. Indeed, he had brought it all upon them. "All that he had fled to avoid happens before his eyes; and through his own mediation, he sees the heathen turn to the fear of the Lord."F32 Nothing any more wonderful than this ever happened to one of God's servants!
Nevertheless the men rowed hard to get them back to the land; but they could not: for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.
"Ships of ancient times hugged the coastline, keeping in sight of the shore."F33 The sails were not being used, for the wind was off shore; and the sails would have been no value at all; but they tried to beach their ship by the use of oars, struggling with all their might, due to their reluctance to execute Jonah. It was all to no avail, and their only source of hope lay in obeying the words of the prophet of God.
Wherefore they cried unto Jehovah, and said, We beseech thee, O Jehovah, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood; for thou, O Jehovah, hast done as it pleased thee.
This very remarkable prayer on the part of the sailors attributes to Jonah an innocence which, at first, surprises us; but this, no doubt, was due to the divine plan. Jonah is a type both of Israel and of the Lord Jesus Christ; and when the Jews insisted upon the crucifixion of our Lord, the Gentiles in the person of Pontius Pilate proclaimed his innocence, even washing his hands and saying, "I am free from the blood of this innocent man." Jonah's experience in being cast overboard is a type of Israel's casting the Saviour "overboard" by crucifying him on Calvary; and the proclamation on the part of the sailors that Jonah was innocent and that they did not wish God to lay his blood upon them, prefigures the protest of the Gentiles in the person of Pilate when Christ suffered on Calvary. Jonah enacted the part of both types here, insisting upon his being cast overboard, just as Israel insisted upon the death of Christ, but standing also innocent in the eyes of the Gentiles. Of course, Jonah was actually guilty; and Christ was "made sin" upon our behalf.
So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.
Jonah was here the cause of a great calm, even as Christ stilled the stormy sea (Matthew 8:26). (See the introduction for a list of a number of correspondences between the type Jonah and the antitype Jesus Christ.)
They took up Jonah…
It does not say, laid hold on him, or came upon him, but lifted him; bearing him, as it were, with respect and honor, they cast him into the sea, not resisting, but yielding himself to their will.F34
Then the men feared Jehovah exceedingly; and they offered a sacrifice unto Jehovah, and made vows.
The men feared Jehovah exceedingly…
The old versions have, They feared the Lord with a great fear. Why?
They had seen things contrary to nature; they had confronted the knowledge of the true God; they had seen his just judgment upon one of his disobedient servants; and they were aware of their own sins and accountability before the God of heaven and earth. "Events full of wonder had thronged upon them, things beyond nature and contrary to nature, things which betokened HIS PRESENCE, who holds all things in his hands!"F35
A sacrifice unto Jehovah…
This shows that not everything on the ship had been cast overboard, some of the animals, no doubt, which were used for food, were still available for the sacrifice mentioned.
And made vows…
indicates that whatever sacrifice they made was deemed by them to be insufficient, hence their intention of doing a more thorough and acceptable service of worshipping and sacrificing to the true God, as soon as circumstances would permit it.
And Jehovah prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
The word "prepared" as used here actually means "commissioned" or appointed, or "ordered."F36 It may be assumed that the great fish was ready at the instant God needed it, just as the tree had been growing by the bitter waters of Marah for a long time prior to the moment when Moses was commanded to cast it into the waters for the purpose of making the bitter waters sweet (Exo. 15:23f). The miraculous nature of the event narrated here is seen in the timing of the fish's appearance and swallowing Jonah and in the fact of the experience not being fatal to Jonah.
Three days and three nights…
Most commentators move quickly to protect the popular superstition regarding this being a reference to the so-called Hebrew idiom, in which any part of three days and three nights, as for example two partial days, one whole day, and two nights may properly be called three days and three nights! However, we reject this, not only as it is alleged to apply here to the experience of Jonah, but in the fact of its application to the experience of Christ as well, who was in the grave three days and three nights, rising the third day. Sunday was described in the Book of Luke as The third day since the crucifixion (Luke 24:21); and there is no honest way to make that mean that Sunday is the third day since Friday! (See my dissertation on this entire subject in my commentary on Mark, pp. 343-351.)
THE GREAT FISH
The King James translators made an unfortunate mistranslation of Matt. 12:38-40, in which this great fish was called "a whale"; but that word is nowhere found in the Scriptures in connection with the events recorded here.
As to what kind of fish this was, there is utterly no way of knowing. Many scholars have needlessly exercised themselves in trying to help God out (!) by finding a record of some great fish that could actually swallow a man; but such "findings" have no value at all. The event here described is clearly beyond nature and above it. The supernatural is written on every word of this narrative. In nature, there is no such thing as a fish that could swallow a man without killing him; and it is a futile kind of vanity that looks for such a thing. As a type of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, this event was designed to be altogether above and beyond the ordinary occurrences in the realm of nature.
A more pertinent question, it seems to this writer, is that of whether Jonah remained alive for that three days and three nights within the belly of the great fish, or if God raised him from the dead upon the occasion of the great fish's vomiting him out upon the dry land. The record of the prayer which Jonah prayed after being swallowed seems to argue that he was alive; but, since the prayer was only a matter of a very few minutes duration, it falls short of proving Jonah's continued life within the fish's belly for a whole three days and three nights. Basing argument upon the fact that Jesus Christ certainly was not alive for three days and nights in the tomb, DeHaan did not hesitate to affirm that, "Jonah was dead for three days and three nights, and then was resurrected and sent forth to preach."F37 The event must be accepted as "a sign from heaven," no matter how it is understood, that is, whether Jonah was maintained alive inside the fish for that extended period, or if he was resurrected after the fish vomited him up.
It really serves no purpose to find examples of extraordinarily large specimens of ocean life such as the Mediterranean white shark, and others, which are alleged to have swallowed men, or even horses; what of it? No such event ever heard of even approaches what is said here of Jonah. This is intended as a sign from God, the particular sign to which Jesus appealed in his struggle against the Pharisees, and the one which he made, preeminently above all others, the sign of his own death, burial and resurrection (Matthew 12:38-40).
"Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, Teacher, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, an evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of the prophet Jonah: for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:38-40).
It is poor exegesis that attempts to explain Jesus' words here as anything other than an acceptance of the events in Jonah as factual. He even went on to declare in that same passage:
"The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and, behold, a greater than Jonah is here" (Matthew 12:41).
And in the very next line, Jesus went on to mention the queen of the south who would rise up in judgment and condemn the generation of the Pharisees, "For she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here" (Matthew 12:42). The only logical deduction that may be made from this statement is that Christ considered Jonah just as historical as the queen of the south.
THREE MIRACLES IN THIS CHAPTER
There are no less than three miracles in this first chapter:
DeHaan explained the complacency with which the lesser wonders are received as follows:
- the great tempest which God sent out into the sea,
- the immediate calm which ensued when Jonah was cast overboard, and
- the great fish appointed at the right instant to appear and swallow up Jonah. Strangely enough, one finds little objection to the first two of these wonders. Why is that? The same applies to the other miracles that appear subsequently in the narrative, such as
- the worm,
- the gourd vine, and
- the scorching east wind.
"The one incident in the Book of Jonah upon which almost all the attacks are leveled is the story of Jonah's sojourn in the belly of the fish. We hear little objection to the worm, or the supernatural gourd, or the stilling of the storm. The reason for this becomes immediately evident in the fact that Jonah's experience was a picture of the gospel of the death and the resurrection of Christ! That is why the enemies of Christ can swallow the storm, and the calm, and even the worm and the gourd vine, etc; but the fish, the fish (!) -- that is just too big a mouthful for them."F38
We conclude the study of this chapter with Deane's comment regarding the wonders related in it:
"The historical nature of these occurrences is substantiated by Christ's reference to them as a type of his own burial and resurrection. The antitype confirms the truth of the type. It is not credible that Christ would use a mere legendary tale, with no historical basis, to confirm his most solemn statement concerning the momentous fact of his resurrection."F39
Before leaving this chapter, it should be noted that Jonah here appeared as a remarkable type of Israel. Christ of course is the "new Israel," Jonah being also a vivid and instructive type of the Lord Jesus Christ; but it also follows that his life in certain particulars is also typical of the old Israel.
JONAH, A TYPE OF SECULAR ISRAEL
Both Jonah and Israel were satisfied in Jerusalem, or Samaria.
Both Jonah and Israel despised the Gentiles.
Both Jonah and Israel were unwilling to preach to Gentiles.
For Jonah's failure, he was "cast overboard"; and for Israel's failure, they were rejected as "the chosen people."
Jonah was overruled by God who required him to preach the word to Gentiles; and Israel too in the person of the apostles was required to preach the truth to the Gentiles.
Jonah's preaching converted many Gentiles; and Israel's witness to the Gentiles (by the Jewish apostles and Paul) also converted a host of Gentiles.
Jonah was sorely displeased by the Gentiles' conversion; and secular Israel also stubbornly rejected all allegations that Gentiles should be saved by the gospel.
Footnotes for Jonah 1
1: William L. Banks, Jonah the Reluctant Prophet (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), p. 8.
2: W. J. Deane, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 14, Jonah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 1.
4: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. X (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), p. 889.
5: Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old Testament, Minor Prophets, Vol. I. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953), p. 395.
6: James D. Smart, Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VI (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), p. 875.
7: Ibid., p. 876.
8: William L. Banks, op. cit., p. 14.
9: Jacob M. Myers, The Layman's Bible Commentary (Atlanta: The John Knox Press, 1979), p. 164.
10: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 390.
11: Paul T. Butler, Minor Prophets (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1968), p. 218.
12: William C. Graham, Abingdon Bible Commentary (New York: Abingdon Press, 1929), p. 787.
13: G. Herbert Livingston, Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 845.
15: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 16 (Chicago: William Benton, Publisher, 1961).
16: Paul T. Butler, op. cit., p. 219.
17: William L. Banks, op. cit., p. 18.
18: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 392.
19: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, translated by William Whiston (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston), p. 292.
20: W. B. Robinson, New Bible Commentary, Revised (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 748.
21: Jacob M. Myers, op. cit., p. 164.
22: William J. Banks, op. cit., p. 19.
23: W. J. Deane, op. cit., p. 3.
24: Michael C. Griffiths, New Layman's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 981.
25: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 392.
26: Paul T. Butler, op. cit., p. 225.
27: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 395.
28: James D. Smart, op. cit., p. 882.
29: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 395.
30: Michael C. Griffiths, op. cit., p. 982.
34: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 406.
36: Harold E. Monser, Cross-Reference Bible (New York: The Cross-Reference Bible Company, 1910), p. 1683.
37: Dr. M. R. DeHaan, M.D., Jonah, Fact or Fiction? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), p. 7.
38: Dr. M. R. DeHaan, M.D., op. cit., p. 19.
39: W. J. Deane, op. cit., p. 6.