Jonah - The Misunderstood Prophet

Steven Collins

If I were to ask you what Old Testament prophet is known as the “disobedient prophet” or the “prophet with a bad attitude,” many would instantly reply that the prophet was Jonah. Jonah was unquestionably disobedient to God’s initial command to go to Nineveh, and the book of Jonah does end with Jonah in a deep funk regarding the outcome of his prophetic mission.

What would you answer if I asked you this question: What Old Testament prophet did Jesus Christ personally choose to equate himself to in his role as the Messiah? The answer to this question is also the prophet Jonah. In Matthew 12:38-41, 16:4 and Luke 11:29-32, Jesus Christ personally likened himself to the prophet Jonah. Jesus specifically said that even as Jonah was “three days and three nights in the whale’s belly,” so would he be in “the heart of the earth” for that same period of time.

Why did Jesus Christ compare himself so closely to a “disobedient” prophet? This article will make the case that there is a lot more to the story of Jonah than Christians have generally realized. Here is, as Paul Harvey would have said, “the rest of the story.”

Many do not realize that Jonah is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament besides the book that bears his name. The information that is in the other discussion of Jonah’s life helps put the book of Jonah in its proper perspective. II Kings 14:23-29 relates the fact that Jonah was a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam II of the northern kingdom of Israel. This passage includes some surprising information. Verses 23-24 record that Jeroboam II reigned for 41 years and that he was an “evil” king like most of the kings of Israel. Jeroboam II no doubt did not see himself in that light, but the Bible makes this observation because Jeroboam II did not return his kingdom to the worship of the God of the Bible. In spite of Jeroboam II’s sinfulness, Verse 25-28 relates that God had mercy upon the kingdom of Israel and strengthened the kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam II’s reign. The kingdom of Israel regained lost territory and even conquered the Syrian cities of Hamath and Damascus. Besides giving us a historical account, this part of the Bible also gives us encouragement that God can choose to have mercy on nations in spite of their sins.

The northern kingdom of Israel was victorious in its wars under Jeroboam II and was regaining power and territory. In the middle of this Israelite resurgence was the prophet Jonah. Verse 25 states that the prophet Jonah had been used by God to give prophecies that Israel would be victorious in its wars and would regain territory and strength. This gave Jonah a central role in the reign of Jeroboam II. Being a prophet with a good message about the kingdom would have made Jonah popular at the king’s court and Jonah would surely have felt he had a role in Israel’s resurgence. Jonah would have had every right to feel a patriotic pride in Israel’s restoration and he likely looked forward to Israel become steadily stronger. II Kings 14:25 reveals that Jonah was from the city of Gath-Hepher, which Joshua 19:13 records was in the territory of the tribe of Zebulon.

While Jonah was in the midst of this patriotic fervor in the ancient kingdom of Israel, he received an unexpected message and mission from God. Jonah 1:1-2 records that God told Jonah to go and preach against Nineveh, whose sins were so great that God had Himself taken notice of it. Jonah knew Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire which was an enemy and existential threat to the kingdom of Israel. Jonah, close to the inner politics of the Israelite kingdom, knew very well that if God destroyed Nineveh, it would be a tremendous boon to the kingdom of Israel and it would prolong the power and strength of the kingdom of Israel. Indeed, it could even restore more of the lost greatness Israel had enjoyed in previous times! However, Jonah already knew that God had been merciful to the kingdom of Israel in spite of its sins under Jeroboam II, so he also knew that God could conceivably be merciful to Nineveh as well. Jonah 4:2 reveals that Jonah had this thought “when [he] was still in his own country before he fled to Tarshish.” This verse gives a key insight into Jonah’s intentions, and why God spared him in his disobedience and why Jesus Christ himself compared himself to Jonah.

Jonah realized that if God could be so merciful to sinning Israel, he might be just as merciful with sinning Assyria. If Assyria survived, Jonah also realized its power would likely overwhelm Israel in the future. Jonah loved his nation and people, and he made a plan. He thought that if he was the person who was assigned by God to bring this warning to the Assyrians, the Assyrians could not repent if they never got the warning from him. Jonah reasoned his own refusal to go would result in God’s destruction upon Nineveh and Jonah’s nation, Israel, would be spared for a long time into the future. So Jonah decided to make sure Nineveh could not repent or be spared…by refusing to go to Nineveh to deliver the message that they needed to repent.

Jonah was a true prophet of God who surely knew that a previous prophet who had disobeyed God’s instructions had died without mercy. I Kings 13:1-32 records that account. An unnamed prophet was sent by God from Judah to Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel, with a strong warning message. That prophet faithfully gave the warning to Jeroboam I, but he disobeyed God’s command to fast until he returned to the border of Judah. Due to the prophet’s disobedience, God sent a lion to kill him. Jonah was a prophet serving Jeroboam II, so Jonah expected that he too would be killed by God if he refused to go to Nineveh. Jonah was reconciled to that fate, and he accepted it. However, he felt that if he sacrificed his life, Assyria would be destroyed and his nation, Israel, would be spared. Jonah’s motive in disobeying God was not rebellion. Jonah disobeyed God in order to offer himself as a sacrifice for his entire nation. Jonah’s attitude was one of willing self-sacrifice for the good of others. In this he presaged the attitude of Jesus Christ himself, who was willing to offer himself as a sacrifice for all mankind.

Jonah took a ship which was traveling to ancient Tarshish (Jonah 1:3). At some point in the voyage, God sent a fierce storm with winds so fierce that the sailors despaired of saving the ship. They threw their important cargoes overboard in order to lighten the ship and help it survive the storm. While the crew was desperately trying to save the ship, Jonah was peacefully sleeping on a lower deck (Jonah 1:4-5). This forms another parallel to Christ’s life as Jesus also slept through a fierce storm that his disciples thought would sink their boat (Luke 8:22-25).

This storm was apparently entirely unexpected and the sailors (living in an age not sufficiently gullible to believe in evolution) assumed correctly that the storm was a Divine judgment upon someone on their ship. The ship’s crew cast lots and Jonah was designated as the man who had offended the Divine power. This was apparently not an Israelite ship as Jonah had to explain to the crew that he was an Israelite, and he freely acknowledged that he was fleeing from God’s assigned mission. Jonah was quite honest about this fact, and hid it not. Indeed, he suggested the solution to the crew. He urged them to throw him overboard and the storm would cease. The crew had human compassion and tried to save the ship without throwing Jonah into the sea, but finally they had to do so to avoid a shipwreck. The storm quickly ceased as a testament to the fact that this had been a storm sent by Divine action (Jonah 1:4-15). The crew thought Jonah was dead.

God had other plans for Jonah. God made some kind of huge aquatic creature which swallowed Jonah (Jonah 1:16). We do not know what kind of sea-creature it was. It may have been a species now extinct or it may have been a creature made by God for that moment only. Jonah had expected to die and was fully reconciled to it. However, he was still alive and now in the stinking belly of a giant creature which was, no doubt, dripping with stomach acids and other dead fish eaten by the sea-creature. The darkness must have been stygian. Those circumstances would focus anyone’s mind.

Jonah prayed to God from the belly of that sea-creature, and one sees the stirrings of a willingness in Jonah to fulfill his mission after all in saying he would “pay his vows” to God (Jonah 2:2-9). God heard his prayer and after 72 hours (three days and three nights), the sea-creature rose out of the sea and vomited Jonah onto the beach (Jonah 2:10). God gave Jonah the same message he had given to him originally: Go to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-2). This time Jonah went.

As an aside, the geography of this voyage/journey needs to be examined. Since Job departed on a ship to Tarshish from Joppa (Jonah 1:3), many assume that Jonah was sailing westward into the Mediterranean Sea. If so there is a major geographical problem. The longer that voyage would have gone on, the further Jonah and his ship would have journeyed from the Mideast. If Jonah was swallowed by a sea-creature somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, how did the sea-creature get Jonah to the Mesopotamian Coast where Assyria was located in three days? This would seem impossible without God’s Divine intervention. However, there are some possibilities which make this account geographically quite realistic. The account doesn’t say how long it took for Jonah to travel from the point where he was vomited up onto the sea to Nineveh. Did it take days? Months? We aren’t told. So a Mediterranean Sea location for these events is possible. On the other hand, I would like to suggest an alternative explanation which I think makes sense.

Those who have read the articles at my website, www.stevenmcollins.com, know that I identify modern Tarshish as the nation of Japan (a nation of Japheth which was prophesied to have a mercantile, export-driven economy in the latter-days- Ezekiel 38:13). Let’s assume that Tarshish was in the Orient in ancient times as well (even though Spain is usually assumed to be Tarshish). In a time when the kingdom of Judah enjoyed no access on the Mediterranean Sea, King Jehoshaphat of Judah was making “ships of Tharshish” to embark from the Red Sea port of Ezion-Geber (I Kings 22:48). If “Tharshish” is “Tarshish” in this usage, then it would argue that Tarshish was a destination accessible via the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. This makes Japan a more logical destination than Spain. About two centuries previous to the time of Jonah, King Solomon had also built a huge sea-port at Ezion-Geber on the Red Sea, and Solomon had sent the Israelite/Phoenician fleets on voyages that lasted three years and returned with animal species from other continents (I Kings 9:26-27, 10:22). Solomon’s ships were called a navy of “Tharshish” as well. There is enough in this account to argue that Solomon’s ships embarked from Ezion-Geber and traveled to Tarshish from a Red Sea (not a Mediterranean) port. This would indicate that Tarshish was located in Asia to the east of the Israelite kingdoms, not to a location west of the Promised Land.

I have also noted in my other writings that “ships of Tarshish” may have been a classification of large, ancient sailing ships or that it may have been a fleet staffed with people from the Benjaminite clan of Tharshish (I Chronicles 7:10), so other explanations are also possible.

If Jonah did depart from Joppa “to Tarshish,” he may still have ended up in the belly of a sea-creature somewhere in the Arabian Sea. Secular historians know the Phoenicians (who included the Israelite sailors, Kings 9:27, 10:22) sailed around the African continent so the ship that carried Jonah could have done so as well. The Bible does not specifically state how long Jonah was on that ship or how much time had passed during that voyage when the fierce storm hit. If the ship circumnavigated Africa and was heading into the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean region, it would have made ports-of-call along the way. If the storm hit when the ship was in the Arabian Sea region or Persian Gulf for a commercial port-of-call, the sea-creature that swallowed Jonah could easily have deposited him on the coast of Assyrian Mesopotamia three days after it swallowed him. Mesopotamia was where the Assyrian Empire was located with its capital city of Nineveh, to which Jonah was sent a second time.

There is another possibility. As is documented in my book, Origins and Empire of Ancient Israel, there have been several times in the ancient world when there were forerunners of the modern Suez Canal which links the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea so trips to the Orient did not need to circumnavigate Africa. Ancient “Suez Canals” were known to have existed in the time of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs and the Persian Emperor, Darius, was known to have used a similar canal circa 521-486 BC. Given that King Solomon was allied to the Phoenicians and the pharaoh of Egypt was Solomon’s father-in-law, these nations may have united to re-open this canal route in the time of Solomon. The commercial Phoenicians would surely have seen the tremendous advantage of doing so as it would cut months off the sailing times between Mediterranean ports and locations in Asia. Jonah lived in the 8th century BC, so there may yet have been an ancient forerunner of the “Suez Canal” in existence at that time. This would make it possible for Jonah’s ship which left from Joppa to sail into the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

While the above may seem a lengthy digression from the story of Jonah, establishing a realistic geographical/historical basis for the events of the book of Jonah is important because skeptics will argue that the account cannot be true due to its geographical statements. The skeptics simply don’t look carefully at either the Bible’s lack of specific time-intervals in the account in the book of Jonah or the fact that ancient cultures had aquatic short-cuts between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

It is my view that Jonah was vomited up by the sea-creature somewhere on the seacoast of Mesopotamia as Jonah was apparently in Nineveh soon after he got back on dry land. The extremely dramatic reactions of the Ninevites and Assyrians to Jonah and his message argue that this was the case.

If Jonah was vomited out of the sea-creature’s mouth on the Mesopotamian coast of the Assyrian Empire, there would likely have been witnesses to this event. In fact, God may have made sure that there were plenty of credible witnesses that this had happened. After three days in the belly of a sea-creature’s stomach, the stomach acids likely bleached Jonah’s skin white, digested off all his body hair and who knows what else. Can you imagine what Jonah smelled like? The ancient cultures believed in “gods” who ruled the oceans (Dagon and Poseidon are two that come to mind) so when Jonah was hurled out of the mouth of a huge sea-creature, any witnesses would have been stunned and assumed that Jonah was unquestionably a specially–sent “messenger of the gods.” Jonah’s bizarre entry into Mesopotamia gave him far greater credibility as a Divine messenger than if he had simply obeyed God in the first place and traveled obediently to Nineveh when he was first told to do so.

Jonah 3:4 states Jonah entered into Nineveh about a day’s journey and began his warning message that the city would be divinely overthrown in 40 days. Jonah 3:5-10 records the reaction of the Ninevites and Assyrians was, apparently, immediate. They “believed God.” They humbled themselves and the king of Assyria decreed that every person (and even the beasts) would fast and humble themselves before God. The king also proclaimed that the city had to cease from its evil ways and violence and commanded his people to “cry mightily to God” in the hopes that God would void the curse upon their city. What caused such a shockingly swift reaction? I’ll offer my viewpoint.

When Jonah was vomited alive out of the sea-creature, it marked him as “sent by the gods” in the eyes of all who saw it or heard of it. Those who saw the event must have surely followed him wherever he went to see what he would do or say. There may have been a large retinue of followers following in his wake as he walked toward and into Nineveh. There is no evidence in the book of Jonah that Jonah said anything on his journey toward or into Nineveh. The crowd would have been waiting with bated breath to see what this “messenger of the gods” had to say. When Jonah finally cried out his warning message that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days, he may only have said it once and then left the city. After all, Jonah deeply wanted the Ninevites to not repent so that God would destroy the Assyrian capital and prolong the life of the kingdom of Israel. Jonah likely did a very “minimalist” job of warning Assyria because of his desire that they not heed his warning message. However, the people who heard what Jonah had to say immediately brought word to the king (verse 6) who instantly believed Jonah’s message and acted on it. The king was no doubt told the story of Jonah’s delivery onto the shore by credible eye-witnesses. How else would the king have so swiftly taken dramatic action unless he had powerful evidence that Jonah’s warning was a true one.

If Jonah had simply gone to Nineveh in the first place and entered the city as a traveling Israelite, his message would very likely have been mocked and ignored and Jonah could easily have been executed because the Assyrians were the enemies of Israel. If this had occurred, Jonah may have died, but Nineveh would have remained unrepentant and that vast city would have been destroyed by God even as God had destroyed the city of Sodom centuries previous to Jonah’s time.

Jonah’s fears came to pass. When the Assyrians fasted, changed their behaviors and prayed for mercy, God gave them mercy and cancelled their punishment (Jonah 3:10). It should be noted that the “repentance” of the Ninevites was not repentance in the sense of any “conversion” experience. There is no indication in the Bible hat they tore down their Assyrian idols and adopted the laws of the Torah that Moses had received from God on Mt. Sinai. They simply “humbled themselves” before God. The Ninevites had the same kind of reaction that King Ahab of ancient Israel did when he heard of God’s severe judgment upon him in I Kings 21:1-26. King Ahab did not get “converted” by any means, but he did “humble himself’ by rending his clothes, fasting, wearing sackcloth and “going softly.” Even as God deferred the judgment he had pronounced upon Ahab due to his “humbling himself,” God also canceled his judgment upon Nineveh when they also “humbled themselves.”

Jonah was in anguish when God cancelled his sentence for two reasons. He knew that the survival of Nineveh meant that his own kingdom of Israel would not receive the extension of resurgence and life that it would have gained if Nineveh had been annihilated. Jonah also surely realized that he had “outsmarted himself.” In his eagerness to guarantee the destruction of Nineveh by choosing to not go there as God had initially commanded him, Jonah had inadvertently caused the very repentance of Nineveh which he had hoped to prevent by dying instead of fulfilling his divinely-appointed mission. Jonah’s appearance out of the mouth of a sea-creature and his altered appearance gave his message a credibility that it would never have had if he had obediently gone to Nineveh as he was first told. Jonah had only himself to “blame” for Nineveh’s repentance and survival. Knowing his decision had hastened the doom of the kingdom of Israel, Jonah was suicidal (Jonah 4:8-9) and wanted to die. Jonah was inconsolable. Even God’s comforting and a miracle by God to give him shade could not change Jonah’s anguish.

At this juncture, the book of Jonah ends suddenly. We do not know Jonah’s end. Minimalists and biblical critics do not believe the book of Jonah literally happened as recorded. I believe it literally happened. What are the lessons that we can learn from this book.

One lesson is that no one can outwit or manipulate God to one’s own human purposes. Jonah’s attempt to guarantee his own desired end for Nineveh by disobeying God resulted in the exact opposite outcome which Jonah anticipated. Indeed, it was the circumstances of how his own disobedience unfolded that resulted in Nineveh’s repentance. God’s purposes will always prevail.

A second lesson is that Jonah’s disobedience was not at all an act of rebellion versus God. Jonah fully expected to die because of that disobedience and he was reconciled to his fate. In essence, Jonah did a wrong thing for a noble reason. He was offering to give up his own life as a sacrifice to ensure the survival of his entire nation of Israel. God saw Jonah’s self-sacrificial attitude and did a profound miracle to keep Jonah alive, and give him a second chance to complete his assigned mission.

Finally, we now know why Jesus Christ compared himself to Jonah instead other Old Testament prophets. There were three parallels between Jonah and the Savior’s life which came centuries later. Both could sleep in a boat in the middle of a raging storm. Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a beast even as Jesus Christ was three days and three nights in the belly of the earth (the grave). However, the parallel that this article wishes to focus on is that Jonah’s willingness to offer himself as a personal sacrifice for his entire nation exhibited the same attitude of self-sacrifice that the Savior would exhibit in offering himself for the salvation of all nations.

Perhaps after reading this article, you may have a more compassionate evaluation of Jonah, the disobedient prophet who was anguished when his mission ultimately resulted in the repentance of his target audience. Jonah was not thinking of himself in this episode. He tried to save his nation by dying, and failed. Jonah tried to engineer his own death so the Ninevites would all die at the hands of God. In the end, both he and the Ninevites lived. The book of Jonah illustrates that no one can impose a desired outcome upon the Almighty.

I wonder how long Jonah lived out the remainder of his life, grieved by the realization that his desired outcome (the destruction of Nineveh) would likely have actually happened if had simply obeyed God in the first place?

Copyright © 2009 by Steven M. Collins