In this issue we commence a new study on the prophet Jonah. The numerous New Testament allusions to the prophet from the mouth of our Lord shows how important the message of this small but powerful prophet is. We would encourage readers to reduce the script and mark up their Bibles accordingly. In this article there is a break-up of the prophecy. The sub-headings provide a good overview of Jonah’s ministry. An appreciation of the historical setting of the prophecy also helps us appreciate the motivation and actions of this prophet from Gath-Hepher, even Jonah.

Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.” Thus the Pharisees contemptuously responded to Nicodemus (John 7:52). Yet surely our Lord as a boy had taken the short path up to the brow of the hill above Nazareth to look down just a few kilometres to the north east upon the village of Gath-Hepher, home town of the prophet Jonah. So there was at least one prophet from the region of Galilee. But, of course, the story of Jonah held little comfort for the Pharisees.

The Prophet Jonah

We know virtually nothing from the scriptural record of Jonah’s life and personal circumstances. His book expounds no prophetic themes, yet his life and story themselves are prophetic, Jesus himself being witness.

Jonah has been much criticised. Yes, he fled from the Divine commission; he remonstrated with his God; he displayed anger and petulance and self pity—all this is true. But look beyond the “outward appearance” of this moody, emotional man and we surely will find much more. Here was a man of God who loved his people and his nation with a passion, despite their waywardness. Here was a preacher, who boldly marched alone, into the midst of Nineveh to proclaim its imminent destruction, and was responsible for the most successful preaching effort of all time!

Above all, Jonah loved his God, and the word of his God. In Jonah chapter two he quotes from or alludes to nigh on thirty passages from the Psalms. He has with him no manuscript, no concordance— all is from memory. Later in Jonah 4:2 he brings together, again from memory, a composite of at least three quotations from Scripture to define the character of his God. And his use of Scripture in this way is memorialised, being quoted verbatim by another prophet 150 years later! Jonah surely was among that company of whom Isaiah spoke: those “whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isa 26:3).

Meaning of His Name

Jonah, or Yonah means “the dove”. And as we review the significance of the dove in scripture it will become evident that the principles seen in the dove are there in the record of Jonah.

Consider the dove in sacrifice:

  • It was the offering of the poor for burnt or sin offering (Lev 1:14)
  • Offering of a mother for purification after childbirth (Lev 12:6, 8 cp Mary Luke 2:22–24)
  • Cleansing of the leper (Lev 14:21,22)
  • Cleansing in relation to bodily issues, male (Lev 15:13,14) and female (Lev 15:28,29)
  • Cleansing of the Nazarite after defilement with a dead body.

Thus the dove is used especially for ritual cleansing in matters relating to generation, birth and death. It speaks of a new life, It emerged from the ark, alive, white and pure, a symbol of freshness, of innocence, of a new beginning after a fearful cleansing of the earth.

Our Lord referred to the dove, using it as a symbol of harmlessness, purity, innocence from sin: “be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt 10:16). Paul doubtless has these words of Jesus in mind when he exhorts the Romans: “I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil” (Rom 16:19).

The dove then, speaks of the saints, striving to live a life of purity, in prospect of that ultimate cleansing from sin and death promised to the faithful in Christ. The record of Jonah, the dove, highlights these great issues of life and death as we shall see.

Jonah was the son of Amittai or “Truth”. He was his father’s son indeed, for surely Jonah emphasised the principles of “truth” in the sense of justice and judgment more than goodness and mercy.

Time of Writing

Though grouped in the canon of scripture in the midst of the “minor prophets”, in fact Jonah was the first, chronologically, of all the prophets who have a book bearing their name. We find the reference which gives us the timing, not in the book of Jonah, but in 2 Kings 14:23–29, the account of the forty one year reign of Jeroboam the second over Israel. At the time of the second Jeroboam’s accession to the throne, the northern kingdom was clearly in a parlous state in every way. Years of Syrian dominance had brought Israel to the condition described in 2 Kings 14:26,27: “For Yahweh saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter: for there was not any shut up, nor any left, nor any helper for Israel. And Yahweh said not that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven”.

So in a like spirit to the sentiments of 2 Kings 13:23, God extended His mercy to an undeserving king and an undeserving nation. And it was the prophet Jonah who brought the promise of restoration (for a time at least) to Israel: “He [Jeroboam] restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of Yahweh God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher” (2 Kings 14:25).

This message from Jonah must have come in the earlier years of the reign of Jeroboam, perhaps around 790–780 bc, with the circumstances outlined in the book of Jonah occurring some years later. Jonah’s work took place about 60–70 years before the overthrow of the northern kingdom and the reign of Hezekiah in the south.

Jonah must have been at once gladdened by the relative peace and prosperity of Jeroboam’s reign, but saddened by the continuing apostasy. A rigorous Bible student, he would also have been aware that such wickedness in the face of the Divine blessing could not go for long unpunished. And he would have noted with deep concern the growing power of Assyria in the north, seeing them as a dire threat to complacent Israel. Let us have these facts well in mind before we join cause with the critics of Jonah.

Outline of the Book of Jonah

Chapter One

1:1–3 Jonah receives his commission, but flees from the presence of Yahweh to avoid the possibility of success.

1:4–10 Yahweh sends a great storm so that all fear for their lives. Jonah’s deception is exposed.

1:11–16 Jonah sacrifices his life to effect the salvation of others. The mariners, converted and repentant, sacrifice to Yahweh, God of Israel.

1:17 Yahweh prepares a great fish that Jonah’s life might be preserved.

Chapter Two

2:1–9 Jonah’s prayer or psalm of thanksgiving. From the belly of the fish he recalls his plea for salvation as he sank beneath the waves.  He acknowledges the response of his God and re-dedicates himself to his service.

2:10 Resurrection! Another miracle as God directs the fish and Jonah again is safe on dry land.

Chapter Three

3:1–4 Jonah’s commission is repeated. Though still reluctant, he obeys, enters the city of  Nineveh and boldly sets forth his message of impending judgment.

3:5–9 The wonderful response of the Ninevites, conversion and repentance. The most successful preaching effort in scripture.

3:10 The merciful Divine response to their actions as the Ninevites “turned from their evil way.”

Chapter Four

4:1–4 Jonah’s rage at the repentance of Nineveh and God’s merciful response.

4:5–11 The lesson of the gourd—Divine reproof  for Jonah’s petulant attitude and forceful instruction in the universality of the  gospel.