Jonah, a reluctant prophet

Jonah 3 forms part of the lectionary readings for the third Sunday after Epiphany, which is January 24th. Unlike the other Minor Prophets, Jonah is not a collection of oracles. Instead, it is an account of a period in the life of a prophet, namely, “Jonah son of Amittai” (1:1).

Virtually nothing is known about Amittai. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah lived in the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah was originally from Gath Hepher, a town in the territory of the tribe of Zebulun, located about three miles northeast of Nazareth (Josh 19:13).

According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah foretold Jeroboam II’s restoration of the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath (a city in central Syria) to the Dead Sea. Since Jeroboam II reigned from 793–753 BC, Jonah’s life and ministry most likely occurred in the early eighth century BC. This made him a contemporary of two other Old Testament prophets, Hosea and Amos.

We don’t know whether Jonah was the author of the book that bears his name or whether someone else wrote the treatise about him. Jonah’s prophecy falls into two distinct parts. The first portion shows us Jonah’s attempt to escape God’s call to preach in the Assyrian city of Nineveh. The second part depicts Jonah’s reluctant obedience to that command.

Although Assyria’s power was temporarily on the wane in Jonah’s day, Assyria had cruelly oppressed Israel and other neighboring states. This helps us understand Jonah’s opposition to go to Nineveh. Jonah’s nationalism and his righteous indignation made it difficult for him to accept God’s desire to show mercy to Assyrians.

God’s command to Jonah is more literally rendered, “Arise! Go!” (v. 2). In other words, the prophet was to immediately depart, for his mission was urgent.

The Lord had commissioned Jonah to journey about 550 miles northeast to “Nineveh, the great city.” In all likelihood, this means Nineveh, as the last capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, was a sprawling urban center.

God wanted Jonah to announce judgment against Assyria’s large capital city for its many crimes. In a sense, Nineveh stood for all the evil deeds committed by its inhabitants, including the rulers of the entire empire.

The Hebrew term rendered “wickedness” is typically used in contexts that deal with abuse, exploitation, and immorality. Therefore, those atrocities were probably occurring in Nineveh (Isa 10:13; Nah 3:1, 10, 19).

Jonah 1:2 graphically portrayed the preceding barbarities as rising heavenward into the sacred presence of God. Expressed differently, the Lord of all creation was fully aware of the abominations taking place in Nineveh and He was prepared to punish the people for their transgressions.

From the latter part of the account, we infer that God conditioned His judgment on the response of the Ninevites. If they reacted favorably to Jonah’s oracle, the Lord would withhold His judgment. Yet, if they reacted unfavorably, He would visit them with calamity.

The possibility of the Ninevites’ repenting and forestalling God’s judgment did not appeal to His prophet (4:2), for the Assyrians were despised enemies of Israel. Although Assyria was currently in a period of decline, it was still a threat. Indeed, Jonah was aware of all the harm that Assyria had done to Israel and Israel’s neighbors in the past.

Jonah would have preferred to see the adversary destroyed rather than delivered. That is why the prophet tried to run away from God’s presence by going to Tarshish.

A literal rendering of 1:2–3 brings out the wordplay in the Hebrew text. In response to the divine command to “Arise! Go!”, Jonah “rose to flee.”

Three times the book tells us that God’s prophet tried to run away from the Lord (twice in verse 3 and once in verse 10). Despite this emphasis, Jonah probably did not really think he could get away from God.

After all, Scriptures existing in Jonah’s time taught that God is present everywhere (Ps 139:7–12). Indeed, Jonah showed himself familiar with this concept (Jonah 1:9).

Most likely, then, the prophet was trying to escape from fulfilling God’s command. We can imagine Jonah thinking, Let somebody else have the dirty job of preaching to the Assyrians!

Since Nineveh lay to the east, Jonah fled to the west. His plan was to go to Tarshish, a Mediterranean seaport that some have identified with ancient Tartessus, a Phoenician colony located in southwest Spain.

Others have identified Tarshish with Tarsus in Cilicia, Carthage in North Africa, and Sardinia (an Italian island south of Corsica). Regardless of which of these locations is correct, Jonah intended to get far away from Israel by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

For the above purpose, Jonah first went to Joppa (today’s Jaffa, Israel), a small port city on the Mediterranean coast about 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem. When the prophet found a vessel that was sailing to Tarshish, he paid the passenger fare and boarded the ship.

The Bible does not tell us what kind of vessel Jonah boarded. It may, however, have been one of the “ships of Tarshish” that are frequently mentioned in the Old Testament (1 Kings 22:48; Ps 48:7).

The name of these ships does not mean that they were all built in Tarshish, any more than all “China clippers” were built in China. Some scholars have suggested that the word Tarshish comes from a term used in the ancient mining industry. If so, the phrase “ships of Tarshish” might originally have meant “ore ships” (used to transport valuable minerals).

Reports indicate that the ships of Tarshish were large merchant vessels capable of transporting heavy cargoes. They were powered by double banks of oars.

From 20 to 30 sailors usually manned the oars of these ancient vessels. During violent storms, the heathen mariners would tie ropes around the hull to prevent the ship from falling apart (a practice called frapping).

In Jonah’s day, there were also warships. These vessels had long streamlined hulls with a ram in front. The ships were highly maneuverable and capable of high nautical speeds.

The Greeks were quite skilled in using this type of ship. Because of their speed, warships were often used to carry urgent messages during times of conflict and peace.

Jonah thought that by being on a cargo vessel, he could evade God’s call. However, the error of the prophet’s thinking is conveyed by the repetition of the Hebrew verb rendered “went down” (Jonah 1:3). If the prophet was in the Jerusalem temple when he first received his commission (2:4, 7), he had to physically travel downhill to get to Joppa (1:3).

Next, the prophet went down into the cargo hold of the ship (v. 5). Eventually, he went down to the bottom of the sea (2:6). It was only after Jonah repented that God brought His bondservant back up from the threshold of death (v. 7).

The account recorded in Jonah indicates that the Lord would not sit idly by and allow His prophet to avoid doing what He had commanded. God hurled a wind of tremendous force on the sea, making the waters hazardous.

The storm became so intense that the waves pounding the ship threatened to break it apart. Regardless of what the heathen mariners did, they could not improve their situation.

The seafarers eventually discovered that Jonah was the cause of their problems. Upon being questioned by the pagan sailors, he disclosed that he was a Hebrew and that he worshiped the Lord. The prophet also told the heathen mariners that he was trying to flee by sea from God’s presence (1:4–10).

Jonah’s statement struck a chord of intense fear in the hearts of the pagan sailors. Perhaps with terrified voices, they asked the prophet why he was trying to flee from the Lord’s presence.

The prophet evidently did not offer a convincing or reassuring explanation for his actions. Even worse, he seemed to be hardened to the fact that his willful defiance of God’s command had endangered the lives of the seafarers.

The situation grew desperate as the waves of the sea became increasingly rough. The pagan sailors, having run out of options of their own, asked Jonah what he thought they should do to him to make the sea calm once again.

The prophet said that if they picked him up and hurled him into the raging sea, it would return to a tranquil state. Though Jonah knew his disobedience was the reason for the fierce storm, he was unrepentant (vv. 11–12).

Initially, the heathen mariners did not like the idea of throwing Jonah into the sea, perhaps because they feared God’s wrath. This is the reason the pagan sailors exhausted all their efforts to row their vessel back to land.

However, despite the seafarers’ noble attempt, their efforts proved futile. They did not have the ability to counter the effects of the sea, which grew increasingly turbulent.

In desperation, the heathen mariners cried out to the Lord. They earnestly begged Him not to end their lives for drowning His prophet.

Though the pagan sailors were about to throw Jonah into the stormy sea, they pleaded with God not to charge them with the guilt for an innocent man. Of course, in this situation, the prophet was anything but innocent (vv. 13–14).

The heathen mariners acknowledged that the Lord, whom Jonah represented, had done as He had pleased in bringing about the catastrophic situation. When the pagan sailors picked up Jonah and threw him overboard into the sea, the waters grew calm.

Upon seeing this, the heathen mariners stood in awe of God. They offered a sacrifice to Him and made vows to worship and serve Him.

At this point, Jonah could have easily drowned. Yet, the Lord did not allow this to happen. Instead, He graciously provided a huge fish to swallow His prophet (vv. 15–17).

From inside the sea creature, Jonah prayed to the Lord. In this petition, the prophet recalled what had gone on in his mind while he was sinking into the depths of the ocean.

In Jonah’s most dangerous predicament, he had cried out to God for help, and He favorably responded to the request by graciously sparing the prophet’s life. This renewed Jonah’s faith and determination to serve the Lord (2:1–9).

In Jonah’s prayer from inside the fish, he said, “From the belly of the grave I cried out” (v. 2). Here “grave” translates the Hebrew noun Sheol.

The above word referred to the realm of the dead. The Israelites (as well as other ancient peoples) believed that the dead occupy a gloomy underworld place. They also believed that in Sheol the dead are mere shadows of themselves, living in darkness, silence, and inactivity.

To Jonah, sinking into the sea felt like descending to Sheol. Indeed, if it were not for God’s mercy in sending a sea creature to save Jonah, he would have gone to the realm of the dead.

Jonah repented of his rebellious attitudes and actions. He also determined in his heart to do what God commanded.

The prophet was now ready to be sent on his way to Nineveh to proclaim a message of judgment. So, the Lord commanded the fish to release Jonah. In turn, the sea creature cast the prophet onto dry land (2:10).

Next, God revealed His will a second time to the prophet (3:1). The Lord directed Jonah to immediately travel to Nineveh, the sprawling metropolis of the great empire of Assyria, and declare to its inhabitants a somber message of judgment (v. 2).

Unlike before, this time Jonah did not hesitate to heed the command of God. Instead of running away, the prophet went at once to Nineveh (Jonah 3:3).

The biblical text says nothing about Jonah’s journey to Nineveh, which probably occupied two months or more. Jonah would have taken ancient trade routes along the Fertile Crescent that arched northward from Israel and then eastward and southward into Mesopotamia, following rivers much of the way. The book focuses not on the journey, but on what happened once Jonah got to Nineveh.

Verse 3 comments on Jonah’s destination this way: “Nineveh was a very large city.” The Hebrew original can also be translated, “Nineveh was a great city to God.” The phrase could indicate the Lord’s concern for its inhabitants, or it may simply point to Nineveh’s size and prominence in the ancient world.

The verse comments that Nineveh “required a three-day walk.” The precise meaning of the phrase remains uncertain. One option is that it took three days for Jonah to walk through the city, though archaeological surveys indicate that in the eighth century BC, Nineveh proper was only three miles across at its widest point.

A second explanation for the biblical comment suggests that the surrounding territory was included as a part of Nineveh. In that case, three days might have been required to walk from the frontier of Nineveh’s territory and its various sections to the center of the city.

A third possibility is that Jonah might have pronounced his somber warning throughout the first day’s journey (v. 4). A fourth option is that protocol, not size, is in view.

According to the preceding view, a foreigner with a message for the city was regulated by city officials. Such a person could speak publicly, but had to leave the city by the end of the third day.

In any case, it’s not hard to imagine Jonah venturing through various small streets and markets as he announced God’s judgment. What a stir the prophet must have caused. The inhabitants learned that in 40 days their great city would be destroyed.

Jonah’s message to the Ninevites may seem ambiguous. Was the overturning inevitable, or did the 40 days comprise a waiting period in which the Ninevites might avert the destruction?

The Hebrew verb translated “overturned” had several meanings. It could refer to an overthrow, a judgment, a turning upside down, a reversal, a change, a deposing of royalty, or a change of heart. No matter what Jonah’s warning specifically meant, his hearers took it quite seriously.

The pagan inhabitants of Nineveh not only believed Jonah’s message of judgment (which he received from God), but also the people proclaimed a city-wide fast. They put on sackcloth to display their grief and anguish over what the prophet of the Lord had announced against them.

Sackcloth was a coarse fabric woven from the hair of goats or camels. All the heathen people of the city wore the rough material, from the most important to the least important residents (v. 5).

The immediate response of the pagan inhabitants to Jonah’s preaching seemed genuine. Even the king got caught up in the wave of repentance sweeping through his city (or at least he found it politically expedient to lead a bandwagon that had already started to roll.)

We don’t know whether this king was only ruler of the city or of the entire Assyrian Empire. The monarch traded his robes of state for an uncomfortable garment of sackcloth and left his impressive throne for a humble seat in the dust. In this way, he set an example for his heathen subjects (v. 6).

Along with his nobles, the king issued a decree for the pagan inhabitants of Nineveh (v. 7). Presumably, this edict was read aloud in public places or was posted where the literate could read it.

The dictum proclaimed a total fast (no food, no water) for heathen people and for domestic animals. Since no person can go more than a few days without water, the king evidently wanted a short but severe fast.

Furthermore, the decree required people and animals alike to wear sackcloth. Perhaps the king wanted the rich ornamentation on harnesses and bridles exchanged for sackcloth coverings (v. 8).

To us, the inclusion of animals in the monarch’s edict might seem bizarre. Yet, such measures, though rare, were not unheard of in the ancient world. The historians Herodotus and Plutarch recorded that, at a later date, Persian mourning rites included animals.

The Ninevite king’s decree called for more than the outward signs of repentance. In addition to fasting and wearing sackcloth, the heathen people of Nineveh were to “call fervently to God.”

The penitents’ prayer was to be both public and earnest. Also, they were to turn from their despicable and vicious conduct.

The Hebrew term rendered “evil way” refers generally to immoral behavior. The word translated “violence” speaks of social injustice. Earlier, God had said that the city’s wickedness had come up before Him (1:2), and now something was being done about that vileness.

The reason the monarch gave for his edict was the possibility that God might yet be willing to change His mind and hold back His intense “anger” (literally, “the burning of His nostrils”; 3:9). In turn, this would forestall the death of Nineveh’s many pagan inhabitants (compare 1:6).

Clearly, the king hoped that the overturning Jonah had proclaimed (3:4) was conditional, not inevitable. The idea is that with repentance and reformation on the part of the Ninevites, God would spare the city and its king. As the following chapter reveals, God’s mercy prevented the metropolis from experiencing complete destruction.

Key ideas to contemplate

Some examples show us what to do, while other examples show us what not to do. The life of Jonah provides for us an example of some things we should avoid doing.

1. Avoid the attitude of reluctance. Jonah hated the Assyrians and did not want them to repent. He wanted God to pour out His wrath upon them, not His mercy. As such, the prophet’s attitude represented that of Israel and the nation’s reluctance to share God’s love and mercy with other peoples.

In God’s call of Abraham and of his descendants, the Lord defined their mission: “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse anyone who dishonors you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Gen. 12:3). Perhaps like Jonah, we may not want those whom we dislike to receive God’s favor and are reluctant to share the gospel with them.

2. Avoid going your own way. Jonah’s instructions were to go to Nineveh. Instead, he took off in the opposite direction. Rather than following God, Jonah followed his own heart.

We, too, sometimes find following our own hearts easier than following God’s directives. Yet, we must learn to go God’s way rather than our own way.

3. Avoid running away from God. Trying to run away from God’s presence only worsened Jonah’s personal circumstance. It didn’t take long for the prophet to understand that he couldn’t flee from the Creator’s presence. Perhaps we, with Jonah, need to learn that we cannot seek the Lord’s love and favor and run away from Him at the same time.

4. Avoid endangering the lives of others. By disobeying God and boarding a ship bound for Tarshish, Jonah endangered the lives of all the ship’s crew. We need to understand that our sin, disobedience, and irresponsibility can hurt and endanger the spiritual lives of those around us.

5. Avoid turning a deaf ear on your conscience. As the storm raged around his ship, Jonah continued to sleep below deck. It seems evident that he had turned a deaf ear on his conscience.

Jonah had willfully disobeyed a direct command from God, but the prophet’s conscience didn’t bother him enough to even disrupt his sleep in the midst of a violent storm. This reminds us that we should listen intently for what our conscience has to say to us, for the Spirit will often point out our guilt through our inner awareness of moral right and wrong.

6. Avoid allowing hatred to affect your perspective. Although Jonah was willing to forfeit his life to save the ship’s crew, he had refused to risk his life for the inhabitants of Nineveh. Why? It’s because of the prophet’s avowed hatred for the Assyrians. His disdain had affected his outlook, and his misdirected perspective caused him to avoid his God-given mission.

7. Avoid hiding mistakes that can help others come to know God. One thing Jonah did right was to avoid hiding his sin from the ship’s crew. Because of his confession and God’s answer to the crew’s prayer, the pagan sailors began to worship the Lord.

God can use our failures to help others come to know Him. Also, admitting our sins can be a powerful example to those who don’t yet know the Lord.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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