Commentary On The Book Of Jonah
The book of Jonah claims to be a record of events in the life of Jonah, the son of Amittai, who prophesied the expansion of Israel to its former bounds just prior to, or during the early part of, the reign of Jeroboam II, possibly around 790-760 AD (2 Kings 14:25). Had it not been for the miraculous elements that the book contains it would undoubtedly have been accepted by all as intended to describe historical events, for there is no indication anywhere in the book that it is any other than a prophetic history in line with those of Elijah and Elisha. That being so any other view of it is pure speculation. The position held concerning it other than as history is really simply in the end a matter of individual presuppositions, and is not based on strict evidence at all, of which too much is lacking. The one thing, however, that should be taken into account is that Jesus Christ spoke of it as though it were history. He saw the experience of Jonah in the fish's belly as a sign of His own resurrection which could be cited as evidence, and recognised the conversion of the Assyrians as an historical fact. There will be no mythical Ninevites present at the Judgment, only real ones (Matthew 12:40-41). That being so it is in the end our view of Jesus Christ which will help to determine whether we see Jonah as historical or not.
Further evidence that it was not intended simply to be an allegory was Jonah's refusal to go to Nineveh and his flight in the opposite direction, together with the mercy shown to the repentant sailors and passengers. This last had no particular lesson to teach in the line of allegory sensibly speaking, and was simply described because it was considered that it had happened, and in order to bring out the continuing mercy of God towards all who repent and seek His face, regardless of what nationality they are.
The Authorship and Date Of The Prophecy.
As no information is given in the book as to authorship and date (something quite normal in ancient books) it is impossible to speak with certainty about either authorship or date, although it is quite clear that it was written on the basis of information provided in one way or another by Jonah who, as mentioned above, prophesied in the early years of Jeroboam II. It is thus impossible to say whether it was written by Jonah himself, after meditating for some time on what had happened to him, or by one of his later followers or admirers who had access to traditions about his life. There are, however, a number of signs, or we may say hints, which may be seen as pointing to an early rather than a late date for its composition.
· The first sign of an early date is that all the Psalms whose ideas might be seen as called on by Jonah in his own psalm of thanksgiving for rescue from the dark waters of the sea, were apparently earlier Psalms, something which can therefore be seen as indicating an earlier rather than a later period, when other later Psalms could have been called on. Consider the following:
For Jonah 2:2, compare the ideas in Psalms 18:5-6 (Davidic); Psalms 30:3 (Davidic); Psalms 118:5 (anon); Psalms 120:1 (of Ascents). Jonah 2:3 a, compare the ideas in Psalms 88:6-7 (of the sons of Korah). Jonah 2:3 b, compare Psalms 42:7 (of the sons of Korah). Jonah 2:4 a, compare Psalms 31:22 (Davidic). Jonah 2:4 b, compare Psalms 5:7 (Davidic). Jonah 2:5 a, compare Psalms 18:5; Psalms 69:2 (Davidic). Jonah 2:6, compare Psalms 30:3 (Davidic). Jonah 2:7 a, compare Psalms 142:3; Psalms 143:4 (Davidic). Jonah 2:7 b, compare Psalms 18:6 (Davidic). Jonah 2:8 a, compare Psalms 31:6 (Davidic). Jonah 2:9, compare Psalms 26:7; (Davidic); Psalms 50:14; Psalms 50:23 (Asaph); Psalms 116:17 (anon).
However none of the parallels are close enough to indicate citation of the particular Psalms and it is only the general ideas and thought forms that can be compared. We are not claiming the Jonah was familiar with all these Psalms. The similarities do, however, suggest that Jonah was fully alive to the worship of the Temple, as it was conducted at a reasonably early date.
· The second sign of an earlier date rather than a later lies in the fact that it was included among the prophets rather than the other writings, and placed among what were seen as the earliest prophets. It could, of course, be argued that that was because it was about Jonah. But on the whole prophecies do tend to be speaking about their own times, and it suggests that those responsible saw the message of Jonah as being directed at those times.
· The third sign of an early date is that it clearly refers to a time when Assyrian power was seen in Israel to be at a low point, that is, as one that did not affect Israel. We cannot see Jonah behaving in the same way and saying the same things if the great conquering kings had been in action, with Assyria as inveterate enemies of Israel. Both Jonah's attitude towards Assyria, and his arguments concerning Assyria, point to an Assyria which was not seen as a super-power, even if he was in awe at the size of Nineveh, which probably took him by surprise. Furthermore the description of the Assyrian king as ‘the king of Nineveh', and his very reaction, both point to a time when Israel were not in awe of him. Whoever was the author would probably have taken these added factors concerning Assyria into consideration had it been of a late date, for historical perspective tended to be lacking among ancient historians. (How much more effective the story would have been if it had happened to Tiglath Pileser III, Sennacherib or Esarhaddon. The fact that that did not happen confirms that the writer was wanting what he said to be seen as genuine history).
· The fourth sign of an early date lies in the fact that the author does not demur at the thought of Assyrians responding to an Israelite prophet. At a later date this would probably have been seen as so unlikely that it would not have been considered.
There are really no pointers to a late date. The few ‘Aramaisms' could have been used by writers at any time after Ugarit (c. 1200 BC at the latest), for many so-called ‘Aramaisms' are testified to there, and neither its main message (see below) nor the language and grammar demand a late date. The reference to the king as ‘the king of Nineveh' points to a time when he was seen as on a par with other kings rather than to a time when he was past history and only thought of as the great king of Assyria. This description of the king of a nation in terms of a leading city is quite common in Scripture (e.g. 1 Kings 21:1; Deuteronomy 4:2; Deuteronomy 4:23, with Deuteronomy 1:4; Deuteronomy 3:2; Deuteronomy 4:46; Judges 4:17 with Judges 4:2; Judges 4:23; 2Ki 3:9; 2 Kings 3:12; 2 Chronicles 24:23). But what Israelite could have forgotten what Assyria had later done to Israel? And to suggest that, because Jonah speaks of Nineveh in the past as ‘was a great city' (Jonah 3:3), it signifies that it was no longer in existence, indicates desperation indeed. It need only indicate that it was so when Jonah was there. If I said that I had visited London and it was a great city full of bright lights, nobody would assume that I was a visitor from the twenty second century who lived long after London had been destroyed.
It will be readily agreed that the ‘signs' described above can only be seen as indications rather than as strong evidence, and that other explanations can (as always when scholastic minds are at work) be provided for the phenomena, but nevertheless it is our view that they do give a feeling for an earlier date rather than a later one. The authorship and date do not, however, affect the message of the book.
The Message Of The Prophecy.
Taking the prophecy as a whole the main message is clearly the gracious willingness of God to respond to men's repentance no matter from what race they may come. Jonah's story commenced because YHWH wished to show mercy to the people of Nineveh if they repented. It continued in chapter 1 with the fact that He showed mercy to the repentant sailors of many nationalities. In chapter 2 he showed mercy to a repentant Jonah, the strict but disobedient Jewish prophet. In chapter 3 He showed mercy to the king and people of Nineveh when they repented. In chapter 4 He emphasised the fact that His willingness to show mercy to the repentant was basically reasonable and in accord with His character as YHWH Elohim, the God of the covenant and the God of the whole earth, and that Jonah needed to learn the same message. This then is the idea that underlies the whole book, that God will have mercy on all who repent, no matter what their background and antecedents.
This is a principle that in fact underlies the whole Biblical revelation, being revealed clearly in Genesis, confirmed in Exodus 12:38; Exodus 12:48, and in the continual reception of non-Israelites into Israel, in the acceptance of Rahab in Joshua 6:25, in the acceptance into the Davidic line of Ruth the Moabitess, and in the acceptance of Naaman the Syrian general (2 Kings 5), even though living in a foreign country, something which had possibly occurred within Jonah's living memory. It was an underlying principal of the message of Isaiah (e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 2:10-21; Isaiah 11:4; Isaiah 11:9; Isaiah 18:7; Isaiah 19:23-25; Isaiah 42:6; etc. compare Micah 4:2-3). Thus it was not a new message in the 8th century BC, simply one that needed to be underlined.
The second overall message that it emphasises is that YHWH is sovereign over the whole world and controls everything in it. He sent His prophet to Nineveh, He acted against Jonah in foreign seas when he was on his way to Tarshish, and delivered the foreign sailors and passengers who called on Him. He arranged for a large fish to swallow Jonah, saving him from the deep, He kept him alive in the fish and praising God, He arranged for the fish to dump him in the right place, He brought about repentance in Nineveh, and He made His demonstrations to Jonah with the gourd on Assyrian soil. It was an Assyrian gourd, and He even controlled the Assyrian weather.
A third clear message is that God is always open to hear prayers of repentance. He heard the cry of the mariners from their stricken vessel; He heard the cry of Jonah when he was drowning in the deep, and then when he was in the innards of the large fish; and He heard the cry of the people of Nineveh. He even heard the heart cry of a disgruntled Jonah in Nineveh. It demonstrated that ‘His ear is open to our cry'.
All these messages were ones that Israel and Judah needed to learn in the time of Jeroboam II in order to encourage them to trust fully in YHWH, turning from their idols and their own ways (the sailors turned from their idols, Jonah derided idolatry (Jonah 2:8), the Assyrians turned from their idols), and to recognise that they could trust YHWH to deliver them from foreign enemies if only they would put their confidence in Him. After all, if He could influence the Assyrians and their king in such a way as to bring about their repentance, it was quite clear that they were not impervious to Him and that He could therefore certainly act in order to prevent their attacking His people. And such a prophecy would certainly have had a message for the mixture of nations who had come under Jeroboam's control, as a reminder of the power and compassion of YHWH towards all..
Other secondary messages include (1) the fact that Israel had a responsibility to the nations outside their own territory, as Isaiah would emphasise, (2) that we should be ready to show compassion even to our enemies, and (3) that there is no escaping God. But central to the prophecy is the idea of the power and responsiveness of YHWH to those who call on Him in repentance (Chapter s 1-3), while reserving a special place in His heart for His own remnant (chapter 4).
A further central message of the book, that would not have been apparent in Jonah's day, but was certainly emphasised by Jesus as a ‘sign' to Israel, was that when God wanted to offer mercy and forgiveness it would result from ‘death' and ‘resurrection'. The contrast between the disobedient Jonah, who had to ‘die' and rise again before he was willing to follow the pathway of obedience, and even then with a certain amount of disgruntlement, contrasts sharply with the One Who came in the way of obedience praying ‘Your will be done', but was still thrown overboard, and yet through death and resurrection brought about the opportunity of mercy for all. If we want to see the book of Jonah as an analogy, let it be this.
Was Jonah Really Swallowed By A Big Fish?
Unless we deny all Biblical miracles there really is no reason why we should deny the possibility that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. There is no suggestion that this was a commonplace, regular event. It was specifically seen as ‘miraculous'. But there is in fact no reason why, under exceptional circumstances, this could not have occurred.
We do not, of course, know what kind of a fish it was. It may have been a kind of large fish which is now extinct. But even if that is not so there is certainly evidence that sperm whales and certain species of large sharks can swallow objects the size of a man, and indeed have been known to do so. The problem would lie in the person receiving a sufficient supply of air in order to stay alive. It has thus been mooted that it may have been a genuine whale and that because it could not swallow Jonah through its narrow gullet, he was instead ingested into the great laryngeal pouch, which starts from below and in front of the larynx and runs down the front of the neck on to the chest. It has thick, elastic walls, and a cavity quite large enough to receive a human body, and would contain a plentiful supply of air for breathing. It might also explain why the whale's system, sensing interference in its lungs, finally ejected the object which was causing it annoyance.
A case was reported in the year 1758 when a sailor fell overboard from a frigate, in very stormy weather, into the Mediterranean Sea, and was immediately taken into the jaws of a shark, disappearing into its innards. The captain, however, ordered a gun, which was standing on the deck, to be discharged at the shark, and the cannon-ball struck it, with the result that it vomited the sailor whom it had swallowed up again. The sailor was then taken up alive into the boat which had been lowered in order to rescue him, and was very little hurt. Being a naval frigate the details would have been officially recorded in the ship's log. The problem, of course, with all such stories is that they improved in the telling, but the fact that they did keep appearing demonstrates that there is some truth behind them. Even those that were invented, or considerably enhanced, gained credibility from those which had a genuine core of truth within them.
Would The Ninevites Have Repented At The Preaching Of Jonah?
It has often been questioned as to whether the Ninevites would have repented at the preaching of a Jewish prophet. It is very much a theoretical question for it is difficult for us even to begin to appreciate what the effect would be of the appearance of a man proclaiming a new message from a God Who had a certain reputation even abroad, to a nation bowed down with political crises, whose own religious beliefs and activities had been turned upside down by a reforming king. And we must at the same time remember that we are speaking of people rom an excitable part of the world, who lived over two and a half thousand years ago, and who worshipped a number of exotic gods. This would especially have been so if Jonah's visage had taken on an unearthly appearance as a result of his incarceration in the large fish. Furthermore if the Assyrians actually learned that this strange ‘prophet' who had come among them had been regurgitated by a large fish in order to come to them, it may well have caused a popular reaction that resulted in a response to his warnings. It should be noted that nothing is said about their being converted to Yahwism. Rather they are seen to have repented of sin, and to have expressed genuine repentance towards ‘God' (Elohim). Compare Romans 2:14-16.
If this occurred late on in the latter part of the reign of Adad-Nirari III, or in the reign of Assurdan III who followed him and whose reign took place at a time of great weakness and trouble for the Assyrian empire, when plagues swept the empire and Urartu was continually threatening on its northern border, it may make it much more understandable that both king and people might respond to a strange prophet who had come among them out of the sea describing a powerful God Who could save or destroy. Adad-Nirari III had himself instituted religious reform, concentrating worship on the god Nebo, which in itself demonstrated his deep religious feeling, and we can perhaps understand why in such changing religious circumstances, with the old gods sidelined, the people might have seen Jonah as appearing as (from their viewpoint) a messenger from the gods, and as a great prophet sent by the gods, and have responded accordingly. And this would especially be so if God did reveal His presence at the time in an unusually vivid manner as He has sometimes done in the past. For if God could respond to the repentance of an Ahab so as to delay judgment until after he was dead (1 Kings 21:29), why should He not also do a similar thing for a repentant Nineveh who were just as genuine as Ahab, in order to offer them an opportunity to seek Him further should they be willing to do so? To suggest that it could not happen is to ignore how often through the ages, even humanly speaking, large numbers of people have been swayed in the most unlikely way by great orators and great religious movements. Thus it should not seem unlikely that this could happen with a man sent from God in the most unusual circumstances.
The Names Of God.
The use in the prophecy of the names of God is instructive. Mainly when Jonah alone is involved the covenant Name YHWH is used (Jonah 1:1; Jonah 1:3-4; Jonah 1:9-10; Jonah 1:17; Jonah 2:1-2; Jonah 2:6-7; Jonah 2:9-10; Jonah 3:1; Jonah 3:3; Jonah 4:2-4; Jonah 4:6; Jonah 4:10). Otherwise YHWH is only used among the mariners after they have learned that it was YHWH Who was involved in what was happening, thus in Jonah 1:10; Jonah 1:14; Jonah 1:16 they seek to have direct dealings with YHWH, first as the One Who could stop what He had started, and secondly as the One Who had done so.
‘YHWH God' is used when YHWH wanted to comfort His servant by divine provision acting on nature (Jonah 4:6), and possibly as an indication that he was putting Jonah on a par with ‘foreigners' for illustrative purposes (see commentary). ‘YHWH the God of Heaven' is used by Jonah when communicating with foreigners - Jonah 1:9); ‘YHWH his/my God' is used when Jonah was in the large fish, and is emphasising YHWH's special care of him as His God (Jonah 2:1; Jonah 2:6).
At all other times ‘God Elohim)' is used. Thus it is used when dealing with the mariners before they have learned about YHWH's interest in matters (Jonah 1:5-6), and is used by or of the Ninevites (Jonah 3:5; Jonah 3:8-10). It is used on its own in connection with Jonah only in a section when chastening and natural activity is involved, and possibly when Jonah is being treated as ‘a foreigner' for illustrative purposes (Jonah 4:7-9). It is also used by Jonah as a general title for God when defining Him in general terms (Jonah 4:2).
Especially interesting is the usage in Jonah 4:4; Jonah 4:9. In the first YHWH is speaking to Jonah as his covenant God in response to Jonah's grumble, and asks him, ‘Do you well to be angry?' about a matter that concerns God's mercy for the Assyrians. It is speaking within the covenant relationship. In Jonah 4:9 God is speaking to Jonah after chastening him when He is speaking severely as God over all Who has just acted in relation to ‘natural events', or as the God Who is the God of all men, seeing Jonah at that stage as similar to the foreigners previously dealt with. Then He also asks him, ‘Do you well to be angry - for the gourd?' (thus having compassion on it), linking these verses with what He has been saying in verse 4. Here He is speaking either as God over all and responsible for all when dealing with a matter that concerns ‘nature', which is not Jonah's sphere of responsibility, or alternately is comparing Jonah with Assyria, asking Jonah whether he is angry that God's act of mercy towards him has been taken away. Once, however, matters turn back to the question of God's mercy, it is once again as YHWH (Jonah 4:10).
Note that both in dealing with the mariners and dealing with the Assyrians their ‘evil situation' is in mind (Jonah 1:7; Jonah 1:8; Jonah 1:2; Jonah 3:10). And at that stage He is ‘God' to them. But in both cases once He has acted in mercy He becomes YHWH to them. And in the same way Jonah has been in an ‘evil situation' (Jonah 4:6) and also receives mercy, although in his case from ‘YHWH God', because his situation is being compared with that of the others, but as one who is within the covenant. In all cases, however, their judgments, or proposed judgements, are from God, while the final consequence of mercy is depicted as connected with YHWH (Jonah 1:14-16; Jonah 4:6; Jonah 4:10). The message is clear. The strong should have compassion on the weak, and it is God's desire to show mercy and turn all men to YHWH.