The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Jonah 1

Jon 1:1

See Lesson, Prophet, the.

See Lesson, Minor prophets, and their messages.

Jonah was a native of Gath-hepher, in region of Galilee, near Nazareth (2Ki 14:25; Jos 19:13; cp Joh 1:46; 7:52) -- the boyhood home of Jesus!

JONAH: The name Jonah ( = Dove) suggests the Holy Spirit, and the beginning of a New Creation (Gen 8: 8).

Jonah: a type of nation of Israel: First given task by God: take gospel to Gentiles. Ran away from task. Then thrown into "sea" (Isa 57:20, and submerged. Raised up third day (Hos 6:2). 2nd chance to witness to Gentiles (Tes 50:321).

In Jonah, four things were prepared by the Lord: a great fish (Jon 1:17); a gourd (Jon 4:6); a worm (Jon 4:7); and an east wind (Jon 4:8). (From sea, plant life, dry land, and the unseen elements: God may use all things in His plan.)

AMITTAI: Sig "truth"; cp Heb emeth.

Jon 1:2

GO TO THE GREAT CITY OF NINEVEH AND PREACH AGAINST IT: In sending Jonah to Nineveh, God is turning to the Gentiles and offering them the way of salvation through repentance. Maybe this was part of the reason for Jonah's reticence, given that even many years later, Peter, who had been with the Lord, had to be persuaded by a vision (Acts 10). Jonah also knew just how embarrassing it would be for his own people if a Gentile city repented. This, presumably, is what God intended, that they might be shamed into repentance themselves.

NINEVEH: Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, stood on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. It had walls 100 feet high and 50 feet thick, and the main one, punctuated by 15 gates, was over seven and one half miles long. The total population was probably about 600,000 including the people who lived in the suburbs outside the city walls (cf Jon 4:11). The residents were idolaters and worshipped Ashur and Ishtar, the chief male and female deities, as did almost all the Assyrians. Assyria was a threat to Israel's security (cf Hos 11:5; Amos 5:27). This is one reason Jonah refused to go to Nineveh. He feared the people might repent and that God would refrain from punishing Israel's enemy.

Jon 1:3

BUT JONAH RAN AWAY FROM THE LORD: At one time or another, all of us seek to avoid unpleasant duties, even to the point of running away from God! Examples of prophetic reluctance: Exo 4:10; Jer 1:6; Eze 3:14; Jon 1:3; 1Ki 19:10; Luk 5:8,10; 9:59; 18:23; Act 13:13; 18:9. Ct Isa 6:8. An officer in an army may resign the commission of his president or king, but an ambassador of the LORD is on a different basis. His service is for life, and he may not repudiate it without the danger of incurring God's discipline.


Jonah "ran the wrong way"! Georgia Tech played the University of California in the 1929 Rose Bowl. In the game a player recovered a fumble, but became confused and ran the wrong way. A teammate tackled him just before he would have scored a touchdown against his own team. At halftime all of the players went into the dressing room and sat down, wondering what the coach would say. This young man sat by himself; put a towel over his head, and cried.

When the team was ready to go back onto the field for the second half, the coach stunned the team when he announced that the same players who had started the first half would start the second. All of the players left the dressing room except this young man. He would not budge. The coach looked back as he called him again, and saw that his cheeks were wet with tears. The player said, "Coach, I can't do it. I've ruined you. I've disgraced the University of California. I can't face that crowd in the stadium again."

Then the coach put his hand on the player's shoulder and said, "Get up and go back in. The game is only half over."


TARSHISH (Psa 48:7) was a son of Javan (Gen 10:4); it is a name which came to ref to the Phoenicians, a sea-faring and trading people (hence such refs as Jon 1:3; Eze 27:12; 1Ki 9:26; 10:22; 2Ch 9:21). That Tarshish repr a latter-day power is evident both here and in Eze 38:13 (where it appears as an ally of Sheba and Dedan). In Isa 23 -- a prophecy concerning Tyre, there is plainly a strong link with "the daughter of Tarshish" and "the ships of Tarshish" (vv 1,6,10,14) -- this leads to the reasonable conclusion that Tarshish is another name for Tyre. (The proposed identification of Tarshish with England merely on the basis that the latter is -- or rather was -- a significant sea power is extremely tenuous at best.) See Lesson, Tarshish.

HE WENT DOWN TO JOPPA: "But why did Jonah not go to Tyre or Zidon, the two great sea-ports of that era and country? Both were nearer to Zebulun [Jonah's home] than Joppa was. The explanation must be that Jonah 'went down' from the temple at Jerusalem, where the LORD appeared unto him, to the nearest seaport" (WJon).

PAYING THE FARE: "Jonah's case is unique in the Scriptures; he is the only one of whom it is recorded that he paid his fare. God commanded Jonah to go eastward to Nineveh, but thinking that he could evade his responsibilities, he boarded a ship going in the opposite direction -- westward to Tarshish. He was disobedient and went in the reverse direction, backwards not forwards. By so doing he got himself into dire trouble and moreover he paid for it. He would have lost his life if God had not intervened and saved him. When we go in the opposite direction to that which God has commanded us -- that is, when we go in the way of sin -- then we pay the fare. God has paid our fare unto His Kingdom and glory; the price of redemption has been paid, even with the 'precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot' (1Pe 1:19). He has called us to travel in the way of righteousness unto His Kingdom; how unwise then to spurn His offer and go in the opposite direction, in the way of sin unto death. We cannot presume that, like Jonah, we shall be saved from our folly; if we persist in the way of sin we shall surely 'pay the fare' (S Thomas, Xd 113:258).

Jonah subjected himself to dangers that Israel and the entire ANE viewed as directly under divine control when he launched out on the sea. The sea to them was the embodiment of the chaotic forces that humans could not control or tame (cf Psa 24:2; 33:7; 65:7; 74:13; 77:19; 89:9; 114:3,5; Isa 27:1; 51:10; 63:11; Jer 5:22; 31:35; etc).

Jon 1:4

THE SHIP THREATENED TO BREAK UP: The LXX has sw as in Luke 8: 23: the storm on the sea of Galilee.

Jon 1:5

ALL THE SAILORS WERE AFRAID AND EACH CRIED OUT TO HIS OWN GOD: "They were a mixed lot, these seafaring men, as ships' crews usually are. So there was hardly a deity known to the superstitions of the Middle East who was not assailed with desperate prayers and promises, interspersed with all the purple oaths that belonged to their trade" (WJon).

AND THEY THREW THE CARGO INTO THE SEA TO LIGHTEN THE SHIP: Their willingness to throw their cargo into the sea illustrates the extreme danger they faced (cf Acts 27:18-20).

JONAH HAD GONE BELOW DECK, WHERE HE LAY DOWN AND FELL INTO A DEEP SLEEP: Jonah's ability to sleep under such conditions seems very unusual. The same Heb word ("radam") describes Sisera's deep sleep that his exhaustion produced (Jdg 4:21) and the deep sleep that God put Adam and Abram under (Gen 2:21; 15:12).

"Jonah didn't like what God told him to do. As there was no use complaining or saying 'NO!', Jonah decided to run away and hide from the LORD instead. He caught a ship going in the opposite direction from where God wanted him to go and went into the bottom of the ship and fell asleep. If anywhere was going to be safe from the eyes of God, this was going to be it. Jonah was far from the place he should have been, in the middle of the sea, in the bottom of a boat and asleep. It had about the same amount of impact on God as a child standing in the middle of a room with his eyes shut, shouting, 'You can't see me!' But God knew exactly where Jonah was, and He sent a storm to prove it.

"Jonah was about to learn a lesson. He thought God couldn't see him in the middle of the sea, in the bottom of the boat with his eyes shut. But then he was thrown overboard and swallowed by the fish.

"Now he was hidden by God, and he knew that God knew where he was. God had hidden Jonah better than he could hide himself. He was in the middle of the ocean, at the bottom of the sea, inside a fish and in total darkness. From there Jonah learned that God can see everything, everywhere and that He hears prayer from even the remotest and most well hidden of places.

"The lesson is that no matter how well hidden we are, no matter how many curtains we pull and how many doors we shut and lock, God sees us, and He knows everything we do. But if we repent and turn back to God He will hear our prayer from where ever we happen to be" (RP).

Jon 1:6

GET UP AND CALL ON YOUR GOD! MAYBE HE WILL TAKE NOTICE OF US, AND WE WILL NOT PERISH: Jonah should have been praying instead of sleeping in view of the imminent danger that he and his companions faced (cf Luke 22:39-46). The normal reaction to danger, even among pagans, is to seek divine intervention, but this is precisely what Jonah wanted to avoid.

Jon 1:7

THEY CAST LOTS AND THE LOT FELL ON JONAH: It appears to have been common among the heathen to cast lots to determine who was responsible for some catastrophe (cf John 19:24). Saul resorted to this when he could not get a direct response from the Lord (cf 1Sa 14:36-42). Casting lots was a divinely prescribed method of learning God's will in Israel (eg, Lev 16:8-10; Num 26:55,56; 33:54; 34:13; 36:2,3; Josh 14:2; 15:1; 16:1; etc). However, as practiced by pagans, it was a superstitious practice. In this case God overruled and gave the sailors the correct answer to their request (cp Prov 16:33).

Jon 1:8

Vv 8-10: "So, now, without hesitation, he told his story, not at first in a succinct tidy fashion, for he found himself bombarded by a torrent of questions. There was no hint of bullying in these, but only a tone of respect. His story about being a prophet of Jehovah, worshipped at the world-famous temple in Jerusalem, was accepted at its face value. And when he told of his refusal of the Lord's commission to proclaim impending doom against Nineveh they were aghast. No wonder they were involved now in such a storm at sea as beggared all past experience. 'Why, why hast thou done this?' They couldn't understand such an attitude as his. These simple-minded pagans, hearing the truth of Jehovah for the first time, judged Jonah's behaviour to be that of a lunatic. They now saw everything clearly. With a disobedient prophet on board, no wonder the God who made the earth AND THE SEA was angry. The shrieking of the wind and the violence of the waves, as high as their mast, were now explained" (WJon).

Jon 1:12

"PICK ME UP AND THROW ME INTO THE SEA," HE REPLIED: Then he came to a heroic decision. If there must be a price paid for his willfulness, let it not be paid by these good fellows who shared none of his blame.

One man offers his life, so that other men (even Gentiles!) may be saved!

Jon 1:14

DO NOT HOLD US ACCOUNTABLE FOR KILLING AN INNOCENT MAN: This has the same phrase as was used about Jesus (Mat 27:4). Those men, like Pilate, were reluctant to send an "innocent" man to his death.

Jon 1:15

Vv 15,16: "The effect of this propitiatory sacrifice had those hard-bitten seamen speechless with awe. The wind suddenly dropped. One moment there was a venomous howling and shrieking of the wind through the rigging. The next, complete stillness and the silence of a sea at rest. Never had they known the like of it. All at once, the sea and the waves were no longer roaring (sw Luk 21: 25).

"Their reaction to this deafening silence of God was instinctive. The captain spoke for them all: 'Boys, let's hold a prayer meeting, to thank Jehovah that He has brought us through, and to pray for Jonah, that headstrong, yet selfless, Hebrew.' So, again fearing a great fear, with bowed heads they gave thanks for their survival and made solemn declaration that, once on land again, they would find their way to Jerusalem and there offer to Jehovah a sacrifice of thanksgiving" (WJon).

Jon 1:16

THEY OFFERED A SACRIFICE TO THE LORD AND MADE VOWS TO HIM: Quite an incidental to this story, it seems, is that the people on the boat turned from their own gods (v 5) to worship the true God (vv 15,16), having seen the way he had dealt with Jonah, and His power over the elements.

Jon 1:17

THE LORD PROVIDED A GREAT FISH TO SWALLOW JONAH: "The identity of the great fish remains a mystery since the only record of what it was is in this story, and that description is general. The text does not say that God created this fish out of nothing (ex nihilo) nor does what the fish did require such an explanation. We know of many types of fish capable of swallowing a human being whole. (Two examples are the sperm whale and the whale shark.) Occasionally today we hear of someone who has lived for several days in a fish or in some other large animal and has emerged alive (See Harrison 907,908, or KD 1:398 for several such instances). Some Bible students have faulted some commentators for documenting instances of large fish swallowing people who have survived, as if such suggestions slight God's power. They do not necessarily. Some interpreters believe that Jonah's repentance is a type of the repentance of the Jewish remnant that will occur prior to the beginning of the Millennium (eg, Pentecost 328; Feinberg 28,29). Notwithstanding, Jonah's experience has been one of the favorite targets of unbelievers in the miraculous who claim that this story is preposterous (cf Mat 12:39,40).

"Significantly God saved Jonah's life by using a fish rather than in a more conventional method such as providing a piece of wood that he could cling to. Thus this method of deliverance must have some special significance. The Jews were familiar with the mythical sea monster (Ugaritic 'lotan', Heb "Leviathan") that symbolized both the uncontrollable chaos of the sea and the chaotic forces that only Yahweh could manage (cf Psa 74:13,14; 104:26). The Hebrews did not believe that 'Leviathan' really existed any more than we believe in Santa Claus. Yet the figure was familiar to them, and they knew what it represented. For Jonah to relate his experience of deliverance in his cultural ancient Near Eastern context would have impressed his hearers that a great God had sent him to them. It is probably for this reason that God chose to save Jonah by using a great fish.

"Here God controlled the traditionally uncontrollable to spare Jonah's life. The God who is great enough to control it could control anything, and He used His power for a loving purpose. This is more remarkable since Jonah as God's servant had rebelled against his Master. God's method of deliverance therefore reveals both His great power and His gracious heart.

" 'Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God' (GCM). 'It is the greatness of Israel's God that is the burden of the book' (Allen)" (Const).
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