The book of Jonah was probably written by Jonah though scholars seem to be divided on this. This book is read at the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. On this day Jews fast and say prayers of penitence.
Yes, this is the book with the story about Jonah and the whale. God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh, a great but wicked city. Nineveh stood on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. It had walls that were a hundred feet high and fifty feet thick. STOP. WHAT? 50 FEET THICK! WOW! The main wall had fifteen gates. That sounds like a lot, but that wall was over seven and a half miles long. The population of Nineveh was about 600,000 people including those who lived in the “suburb” outside the city walls. That population estimate is based on a curious verse we’ll look at last.
These residents were wicked idolaters who worshiped Asur and Ishtar, chief male and female deities. Most of the Assyrians worshiped them and since Assyria was a threat to Israel’s security (see Hosea 11:5 and Amos 5:27) this was one reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He was afraid that if the people did repent then God would not punish them and this did not sit well with his self-righteousness.
This is a short book, just four chapters and you can read it pretty quickly. Many people think this is a big mythical story and that no one could survive in the stomach of a “great fish” for three days. Stop right here and go read the story for yourself; it is just three and a half pages.
Here are some things I noticed as I studied this book: God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and Jonah ran away to Tarshish. Tarshish was about 2500 miles away. In fact, it was about as far away as you could go at that time. Of course, Jonah didn’t get there. As soon as he was on the ship the Lord sent a violent storm and the sailors, a superstitious lot, decided that it was Jonah’s fault. Jonah answered them saying that he feared the God of heaven; it was indeed his fault and they should throw him over to calm the seas. At first they didn’t want to, but as the storm grew worse they tossed Jonah over and instantly the raging sea quieted. What a witness to these pagans! And then they feared the Lord, offered a sacrifice and made vows to Him.
That’s when the great fish swallowed Jonah. We have an account of Jonah’s prayer from inside the whale. It’s in chapter two and if you skipped out on reading the book here are a few verses that are incredibly convicting:
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’”
Many say that Jonah’s three days in the whale are like Jesus’ three days in the tomb. Definitely, even Jesus says that as we’ll see in a minute. Jonah typifies Christ (the Sent One), raised from the dead, carrying salvation to the Gentiles.
And what happened next? God commanded the fish to vomit up Jonah onto dry land and he did. Jonah then received the same instructions to go preach to Nineveh and this time he went. The Ninevites believed, turned from their evil ways and God had compassion on them and did not destroy them. Jonah was angry. He had one more little altercation with God in chapter 4 from which we should get a pretty good picture of God’s love and kindness for us sinners. As I mentioned earlier, the population was over half a million. Based on chapter 4, verse 11, we make that assumption:
11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
The 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left are children, very little children. What a clever way to state something.
Jewish and Christian interpreters believed that the book of Jonah was historical fact and they continued to believe that until the rise of critical scholarship in modern times. Now for anyone who thinks that Jonah was a mythical character I’d like to point out that Jesus Christ Himself referred to Jonah as a historical person and to his experience as real. Matthew 12:38-41, 16:4; and Luke 11:29-32:
38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.
Jonah is the only Old Testament character with whom Jesus compared Himself directly, therefore I believe in the Jonah and the whale story.