There are two Old Testament prophetical books whose message is specifically about one ancient city. They are Jonah and Nahum. Their words were directed against Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. We could say that the story of Jonah is about the goodness of God, while the message of Nahum is about His severity. Together, they encapsulate Paul’s words who, when summarizing two aspects of God’s dealings with men, said: “Behold therefore, the goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:26)
But this is going to be about Jonah the prophet.
To some Bible lovers, the book of Jonah is a great embarrassment. It has long been the favorite butt of skeptics who have so mocked at the story of the sea monster swallowing Jonah and later spueing him up on the coast of Syria, that they wish it did not appear in the canon of Scripture. To them, there is nothing more in the book than the rather incredible record of the LORD punishing a querulous Jew who in his bigoted Judaism refused to perform the Divine bidding to preach to Gentiles, and was, in consequence, disciplined and taught a salutary lesson.
But there is much more in the book than that. In fact, when properly considered, the record of Jonah is a glorious gem that sparkles among the string of pearls that make up the Inspired Library we call the Bible, because of the amazing prophecy and sign it portrays concerning the work of the Lord Jesus.
When the true key to the understanding of this book is discovered, it is appreciated why the Lord made constant reference to it, and challenged his adversaries to consider the significant sign revealed in it. If they had heeded his words, they would have been able to assess his true mission, and may not have crucified their Messiah.
So what does the real evidence for Jonah the prophet say? Jonah was not a bigoted, petulant Jew, dominated by a narrow, unscriptural Judaism, but a high-minded prophet in the true sense of the word. Like the Lord Jesus whom he typed, he was prepared to sacrifice himself for his people, and in doing so, brought salvation to both those Jews and Gentiles who heed his message.
Jonah’s Significant Name.
Jonah, or Yonah, is the Hebrew word for “dove” or “pigeon.” The dove, or pigeon, was the only bird offered in sacrifice under the law (Lev. 1:14). It was the offering of poverty for a sin-offering, or a burnt-offering, and also was offered with a lamb at childbirth (Lev. 12:6 — in case of poverty, two birds were offered instead of a lamb, as was done in the case of the birth of Jesus — Lev. 12:8; Luke 2:24). The dove was also used in the ritual for cleansing a leper (Lev. 14:3, 22).
Though the dove was classified under the Law of Moses as a “clean” bird, it is said that Jews never ate it because of its unique character in sacrificial offering. The dove was used by the Lord as a symbol of harmlessness (Matt. 10:16), and when offered in sacrifice, it emphasised the principle of innocence, or perfection of character. Thus it was a fitting representation of the Lord Jesus. Like the sheep, or lamb (of which it was the equivalent among bird life) it not only represented innocence and harmlessness, but was also noted for foolishness when acting in moments of panic (Hos. 7:11; Isa. 53:6). In the symbolic language of the Song of Solomon, the multitudinous Bride of Christ is likened to a Dove (Song 1:15; 2:14; 4:1, etc.).
The name Jonah (Dove) was therefore a significant one to Jews, as is also to Gentiles, for it is the common symbol for peace to both these great families of the human race.
Jonah was a Symbol of Israel.
In the same way that among animals, the lamb or sheep was used to represent Israel, so also, among birds, the dove (yonah) was used for the same purpose (Isa. 60:8; Hos. 7:11; 11:11). The Psalmist, pleading for Israel, declared:
“Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.” (Ps. 74:19).
Using the same symbol, but speaking of the future glory pf the nation, he said:
“Even while you sleep among the sheep pens, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold.” (Ps. 68:13).
In these terms he portrayed Israel, as the LORD’s dove, elevated from the degradation of the sheep pens, and made resplendent with silver and gold: the silver of redemption (Exod. 30:13), and the gold of a tried faith (1 Pet. 1:7).
The dove was a significant symbol to apply to Israel. It should have directed the minds of true Israelites back to the dramatic salvation of Noah in the time of the Flood. After an appropriate interval, he sent forth a dove from the Ark of salvation, but, as Genesis 8:9 reports:
“The dove (yonah) found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him (Noah) into the ark.”
The dove was helpless outside the ark. It fluttered panic stricken and frantic over the waste of stormy waters, finding “no rest for the sole of her foot”. Only in the shelter of the ark did it feel safe. How true this is of Israel, of whom the dove is a symbol! During the centuries of her dispersion, Israel, having left the Ark of Refuge, has been like the dove, fluttering fearfully and afraid, over the stormy waters of the Gentile sea of nations (Isa. 57:20). There has been no true rest for her, and never will be, until she returns to the man called Rest (Noah), and shelters in the Ark that he can provide.
As the dove was used as a symbol of Israel, so the mission upon which Jonah (the Dove) was sent, illustrated the purpose that the LORD had with His people.
- God designed that Israel should become the medium of His glory and grace unto all nations (Deut. 28:9-10; Jer. 13:11). He required the same of Jonah, instructing him to preach repentance to the Ninevites.
- When Israel failed to accomplish God’s purpose, He permitted the nation to be “swallowed up” by the Gentiles (Jer. 51:34; Hos. 8:8) — as Jonah was swallowed by the fish.
- To accomplish His purpose, however, God has preserved Israel, and will yet bring her forth by a political resurrection from her national grave. She will be spued up out of the stormy waters of Gentile politics — as Jonah was from the belly of the fish.
- After this political resurrection, Israel will prove a blessing to the Gentiles (Zech. 8:13) — as Jonah proved to the Ninevites.
Israel failed to develop the trusting, innocent virtue of its symbol, the Dove. The prophet Hosea likened Ephraim to a “silly dove without heart,” fluttering panic-stricken from one nation to another for help, and ignoring the Divine Power that could save it. But from the beginning God had determined to reveal to men His ideal Israel, His true dove, in a Man who would perfectly exhibit those divine attributes that Israel failed to reveal. That Man is the Lord Jesus Christ, who is called “Israel” by the prophet Isaiah:
“Before I was born the LORD called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name … and said to me, you are my servant, Ο Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isa. 49:1-6).
The Lord Jesus is called “Israel” because he is the ideal Israelite, the true “Prince with El” as the word signifies. He revealed all the Divine virtues of his Father which had been set before Israel as their ideal. He is the true Lamb of God, the innocent and trusting Dove. And this was brought home clearly to the people of Israel when he presented himself before John to be baptized.
John proclaimed that his mission was to prepare the way for the Messiah. He told his Jewish contemporaries that among them, at that very time, was one mightier than he, the sandal strap of whose shoes he was not worthy to unloose (Luke 3:16). In Jesus that one was revealed. He presented himself to John for baptism, having no sins to confess, and when the rite had been completed, his real identity was revealed by a Voice from heaven. Luke records:
“When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21).
The Holy Spirit “descended in the form of a dove.” Why a dove? Because this was the symbol of Israel, and in the Lord Jesus there a public witness that he was the true Israel. But the word “dove” is yonah in Hebrew, so that the startled onlookers saw the Holy Spirit descend and settle on the Lord Jesus in the “form of a Yonah.”
Thus, in the same way that the spirit of Elijah had descended on Elisha, so the spirit of Jonah the prophet descended on the Lord Jesus. If the people of Judea had been spiritually alive to the significance of the sign of the prophet Jonah, they would have realized that the Jesus was the substance that the prophet Jonah had foreshadowed, about to fulfill his mission.
What did Jonah do that prefigured the mission of the Lord Jesus? He gave himself in sacrificial death; he was figuratively raised from the grave; he preached repentance unto Gentiles. The Lord Jesus, either personally, or through his disciples, fulfilled all that Jonah foreshadowed.
Biography Of Jonah The Prophet.
Jonah lived, according to Bible chronology, in the early half of the eighth century before Christ, and prophesied in the time of Jeroboam II of Israel. His home town was Gath-hepher, an obscure village about 3 miles north-east of Nazareth, where Jesus was brought up. The brief account of his ministry (see 2 Kings 14:25-27) implies that when Israel was in dire extremity, Jonah arose with a message of encouragement, stimulating the people with the promise of help from God. The record states:
“He (Jeroboam II) restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher. For the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter; and whether bond or free, there was no helper for Israel”
But the LORD did not say that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam” (2 Kings 14:25-27). This biographical sketch, scanty though it is, is sufficient to create some picture of the times, and of the work of Jonah. It also provides a key for the better understanding of the book that bears his name.
The northern kingdom of Israel had been brought low because of idolatry and corruption, but due to the earnest pleading of the prophet Jonah, a respite was granted by God, and he was sent back to the people with a promise of Divine help.
As a result, a period of greater prosperity was enjoyed by Israel. Under Jeroboam, the borders of the nation were extended in all directions, and the kingdom rose to a peak of glory and power exceeding anything before or since. For a time, the northern kingdom of Israel, became an object of fear and envy on the part of its neighbors. But Jonah, being a divinely appointed prophet, was not blind to the real spiritual state of the people. He knew, as all men of God know, that God will not forever bear with continued wickedness, but that He will vindicate His holy Name by punishing those who are guilty of it.
The prophets, Isaiah, Hosea and Amos, who also prophesied about this time, spoke in scathing language of the wickedness of the northern kingdom, and foretold impending disaster when Assyria would arise, as the rod of the LORD, to smite the people. These prophets of God knew that the seeming prosperity and strength of Israel was but an illusion, and that the nation existed on sufferance.
Unless true reformation was effected in Israel, Divine retribution would come swiftly and decisively through the medium of the brutal Assyrian power in the north. Jonah, the prophet who had helped elevate Israel so much was not ignorant of this threat. The question was, did sufficient time remain to bring about a complete reformation in Israel, and to ensure her continuance as a nation?
Jonah’s Reluctance To Preach
About this time, the message came to Jonah from heaven that Nineveh would be destroyed within forty days if the Ninevites did not repent. The prophet was commissioned to go to this city, and warn the people of this Divine decree.
Jonah realized that a repentant, strengthened Nineveh was the greatest danger to Israel, and the reform he hoped to implement. He knew that the currently extended borders of Israel, and the apparent military strength and skill of Jeroboam in war, did not reflect the true state of the nation, but had developed out of the current political and military decline of Assyria, which had been brought low because of the gross wickedness of its people. If Nineveh repented, however, it would recover from the temporary recession, with dire consequences to Israel.
Jonah knowing this, understood from the message he had received from God, that forty days constituted the time limit either way. If Nineveh did not repent within that time, it would be completely overthrown, and Israel would be saved from an enemy that would overwhelm it, as his fellow-prophets in the southern kingdom had predicted. If Nineveh were destroyed, however, further time would be gained for the prophet to more thoroughly implement the reformation he had commenced in the nation.
It appears that Jonah’s action in avoiding the Divine commission was dictated by these considerations. He decided to go to Tarshish rather than to Nineveh, believing that by so doing he would help to save his people from the destruction that would come from a revived Nineveh. Jonah was prepared to sacrifice himself to save his people. He knew that in avoiding the mission he had been set, he would cut himself off from the Most High, and jeopardize his own eternal future. He was prepared to become a curse for his people, if it would help to redeem them from the curse that would inevitably come upon them if they did not reform, and in this he became a pattern of Jesus Christ who “has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
Even on the storm-tossed ship, when he realized that the hand of God was in the fury of wind and wave that engulfed the ship, he still sought death rather than help an enemy who would ultimately destroy his people. Thus he pleaded with the mariners to throw him overboard. Then followed the dramatic intervention by the Creator, out of which, a real life parable about the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus was born; and afterwards the preaching of repentance to the Gentiles, which, in the outworking of the parable, was carried out by the Lord’s servants, the Apostles.
In all his actions, Jonah was moved by the highest motives of good. The future of the people he loved became his main concern. He was like Paul who declared: “I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3). Or like Moses who also had the spirit of Christ, and who, at the risk of his own life, stood between God and the people, saying: “Yet now, if You will forgive their sin — but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written” (Exod. 32:32). Jonah’s motives are summarized in his statement contained in Chapter 4:2:
“Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, One who relents from doing harm.”
To preach to Nineveh might lead to the preservation of a city that in Jonah’s eyes was better destroyed, for one day soon, it would destroy his people. In this, Jonah may have been shortsighted, but he was not faithless, nor was he out of sympathy with preaching to Gentiles. His great motive, was to preserve his own people, whom he loved so dearly that he was prepared to give his own life, that they might have time to repent and be saved.