We don’t know much about the actual personalities of most Old Testament prophets, but God occasionally parts the curtains, permitting us to go behind the prophecies to meet the men themselves. So we see Moses agonising in prayer; Jeremiah protesting, ‘Lord, I don’t want to speak any more’; and Habakkuk wrestling over what is happening to his nation.
We’d expect the book of Jonah to follow a similar pattern: lots of emphasis on the prophet’s message with a few occasional glimpses of the man behind it. Not so here. The balance between ‘message and man’ is completely reversed. Jonah’s prophecy consists of eight words – half a Bible verse – and the rest of the four chapters unveil God’s work in Jonah’s life. The message, which the Ninevites eventually hear, represents only the tip of the iceberg. Action and attitudes outweigh words in this amazing drama.
Just too fantastic
Some people say that the story of Jonah must be a fable. ‘It can’t possibly be true,’ they declare. ‘The miracles are just too numerous and too incredible: the sudden storm; the fish swallowing Jonah; the prophet’s survival in its stomach; his exit onto dry ground; national repentance; the plant that springs up one day and dies the next. It’s all too much. Who could believe such a fantastic story?’
‘Maybe,’ they suggest, ‘it’s a parable, a learning aid concerning the people of Israel who disobeyed God and didn’t fulfil their calling to be a voice to the nations. God’s judgement came through Babylon, which swallowed Israel and, after seventy years, vomited it up onto dry ground.’ Such interpretations fall apart when you begin to investigate further. Myths don’t have fathers or addresses, and we read that Jonah was the son of Amittai (Jonah 1:1), that he came from Gath-hepher, and that he prophesied about the boundaries of Israel (2 Kings 14:25).
Jesus himself made it perfectly clear that Jonah was a real person by referring to the prophet in the same context as the historical Queen of Sheba, who came ‘to listen to Solomon’s wisdom’ (Luke 11:31). Jesus also endorsed the prophet’s story by reminding his hearers that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah (Luke 11:32).
Gabriel came from heaven to tell us that ‘nothing is impossible with God,’ at whose command a virgin conceives; a blind man receives his sight; a rock produces water; the Red Sea parts; a storm is stilled; people are raised from the dead, and someone who is swallowed by a big fish lives to prophesy to a nation that repents and turns to God. As we follow Jonah’s story we’ll find that his very experiences contain a prophetic word for us today.
Don’t disturb me
Jonah lived at the time of Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25). During that king’s forty-one year reign Israel grew strong and prosperous. Indeed, no king after Solomon established such power as Jeroboam II, though he continued in the sins of Jeroboam I. In fact, Amos, the prophet who followed Jonah, prophesied against that whole generation for its greed and self-indulgence.
So life for Jonah must have been easygoing. A powerful king ruled over national prosperity. The nation’s borders were extending as Jonah had prophesied, but the people, rich and unrepentant, were still living sinfully. It was a dangerous time for a prophet: the temptation to settle down and simply enjoy everything must have been great.
Into this sleepy, complacent atmosphere the word of God suddenly came to Jonah: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh’ (Jonah 1:2). All the other Old Testament prophets were called to remind Israel of its unique relationship with God and his law. Jonah, however, received an alarming and unparalleled command – ‘Go to the heathen.’
‘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.