Originally published in Disciple Magazine, December 2013. Part 1 of 5
Perhaps no section of Scripture is as familiar to today’s Christians and yet poorly understood and overlooked as the story of Jonah. If you grew up in American evangelicalism, you may have heard one sermon on Jonah for every 15 Sunday school lessons (who can deny that the whole bit about the great fish rivets children’s attention?). Even then, most of those lessons focused on Jonah as an example, exhorting us to learn from his mistakes by listening to God and obeying His will. This is in no way incorrect exposition, but it is incomplete. As a result, one of the clearest pictures of God’s redemptive plan for mankind (Jew and Gentile alike) in the Old Testament goes unnoticed by many. In the scope of Christian history, this hasn’t usually been the case, as many great theologians have written extensively on the book.
The Sign of Jonah
Of course, Jesus knew Jonah and his story, and pointed out to the Jewish leaders its significance and its prophecy. While they were in the physical presence of the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, they kept demanding signs and wonders from Him to “prove” His identity. They had already seen many signs, but each time they had witnessed a miracle from Jesus, they accused Him of blasphemy or called Him a devil—e.g., when he healed the paralytic (Matt 9:1-8), when He healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8-21), and when He cast out a demon (Matt. 12:22-29), to name a few instances.
When they came again to ask for another demonstration, the Lord knew their hearts, and answered them with a condemning exposition of Jonah: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as “Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster,” so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here’” (Matt. 12:38-42).
Jesus calls Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the fish a picture of His own death, burial, and resurrection, but the prophetic parallels go much further. The most significant is also shown by Jesus in this passage. Like Jonah, He was a Jew who was sent to proclaim repentance far beyond Israel. Like the Ninevites, Gentiles who repented and believed Him would be saved from God’s wrath, and with their repentance would stand in condemnation of the heard-hearted religious smugness of the Jews. There are plenty of differences, too. Whereas Jonah rejected his mission and resented God’s lovingkindness, Christ willingly set aside His glory to fulfill the Father’s plan to have compassion on all who would trust in Him. While Jonah reluctantly obeyed and then whined about His discomfort, Christ tearfully but obediently took the cup of God’s wrath and drank it down to the dregs. Because of Jesus’ claims here, it is prudent (and hopefully edifying) to frame our look at Jonah through this Christological lens.
The Son of Amittai
The deeper one digs, the more connections between Jonah and Jesus come to light. Some, as we’ve already seen, are intensely theological. Others are smaller and less obvious, orchestrated by God perhaps just to prove His sovereignty over every last detail of history and prophecy. These symbolic tidbits show up here and there in the Old Testament, and are often elucidated in the New Testament with phrases like, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (Matt. 1:22). You might call such connections the “Easter eggs” (after the ironies hidden in websites, video games, and software by programmers) of Bible study. They can be tenuous, and we shouldn’t overemphasize them, but they can also encourage our faith in the authority and continuity of Scripture as ultimately proceeding from one Author.
The only Old Testament mention of Jonah outside of the book that bears his name is a passing comment in 2 Kings 14:25 about how Jeroboam’s action to close Israel’s borders was in response to the Lord’s message delivered by Jonah: “He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.” From this we learn that Jonah’s “career” as a prophet predates his adventure in Nineveh, and that he had at some point been called by God to speak to Israel (the northern kingdom) and her rulers.
In the little details, even Jonah’s name and origins seem to be hand-picked by God to point to Christ. His given name (Yonah in Hebrew) is also a noun meaning “dove”, a symbol of God’s peace and His Holy Spirit (as at Jesus’ baptism). His father’s name (Amittai) comes from a root word (emeth) meaning “truth” or “faithfulness”. We see also that he is from Gath-hepher (only mentioned here and in Joshua 19:13), a village which most scholars locate in Galilee, just three miles from Nazareth. A prophet named “dove, the son of truth” from the area around Nazareth, who prophesied to Israel before being sent to Gentiles—see the correlation? Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” When we see this in Scripture, it should focus our attention back to God, the Poet who couples such things.
God’s Call, Jonah’s Response
The book of Jonah starts abruptly, with no introduction beyond Jonah’s commission: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before me’” (Jon. 1:1-2). Since Jonah was a prophet, receiving instruction from the Lord to give a message to some constituency or other was a part of his life—not that hearing directly from the God of the Universe could ever be “routine”, but it was something Jonah would have been familiar with. We can infer from the 2 Kings passage that he had in the past discharged his duty faithfully.
In this instance, however, his response is literally 180 degrees from obedience: “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jon. 1:3). The Lord had told Jonah to go east-northeast from his home to Nineveh (across the Tigris River from the present city of Mosul, Iraq), but he runs to the coast to board a ship bound due west for Tarshish (a place frequently mentioned in the Bible as being across the Mediterranean Sea, which may refer to Carthage or even Spain).
Why did Jonah run? Fear would seem an understandable explanation. Nineveh was indeed “the great city” of the world at that time, the capital of the Assyrian Empire that ruled much of the Middle East and would later conquer the northern tribes of Israel and even Egypt. Already by Jonah’s time, they were a constant threat to Israel. What would the people of this pagan city and their king do to a Jew proclaiming judgment and repentance from his God? We could sympathize with Jonah if his flight was from fear, but he tells us himself that his motives were even less honorable.
He says that, after Nineveh repented, he prayed “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jon. 4:2). In short, Jonah ran from God because he knew that He had compassion on Nineveh (and would accept their repentance once they learned about Him and His authority). Jonah did not. He hated the city and its people, and wanted God to destroy them. In God’s larger plan, these same Assyrians He preserved by Jonah’s testimony would be used by Him to bring judgment to Israel within a few generations, but that’s a discussion for later.
Before we pounce on Jonah and wag our fingers at him for not trusting in God’s plan, we should remember how we know his story in the first place—he wrote it down for us. I’m inclined to believe that he did this because he learned the lesson God taught him in chapter four, and repented himself. Because of that, his story is available to us as a warning against disobedience, yes, but also as a shining testimony of God’s great and mysterious mercy that would later be revealed another man from Nazareth, the “one greater than Jonah,” Jesus Christ.