By: A.G. Martin
The book of Jonah is not about a big fish. Sadly, that is the only part of this great story that people remember. This book is not even about Jonah himself. This book of God’s breathed out word (2 Timothy 3:16-17) is about God, and His sovereignty in every situation. In this story we see what it looks like when mans will collides with God’s sovereignty. While you can attempt to ignore God’s commands, you can get angry at Him; God will always win. Throughout this book you will see how God used Jonah against his [Jonah] will, to fulfill His [God] purpose. I believe this book to be written by Jonah in the third person. The book lists no mention of an author’s name, only Jonah would have known the full details and facts as to what took place.
We have little details regarding Jonah’s personal life within scripture. In verse one, we do get an indication that will help us to track him down. Jonah is the son of Amittai. In 2 Kings 14:25 we see “Jonah the son of Amattai” living and serving during the time of Jeroboam II. Sinclair Ferguson notes that from the verses of 2 Kings 14:23-27, “we are able to put together some parts of the jigsaw puzzle of Jonah’s life.” This counts Jonah as a historical figure. Christ Himself affirmed the existence of Jonah in Matthew 12:39-41.
Jonah On the Run
In verse two of chapter one, we have the commission of Jonah. He is commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh to speak against the sinfulness committed by the city. To clarify, Jonah is to take a message of warning and judgement to Nineveh in order that the inhabitants of the city will repent. Nineveh was a pagan nation. They were not Jews. Instead, they were gentiles. God was taking a message of repentance to a gentile nation. John Calvin says, “Jonah was taken away from his own nation, and was given as a teacher to foreign and heathen nations.” This is a foreshadowing of events that would take place in the New Testament when the Gospel of Christ would be proclaimed to all nations, and Gentiles would be grafted in as God’s people. Calvin continues, “we are to understand this as a prophecy respecting the future call of the Gentiles.” However, Jonah had different plans. Rather than rising to obedience to the Lord, he instead rose to flee. Not only was Jonah fleeing to Tarshish, but he was fleeing from the word of God, and ultimately as we see in verse three, from the presence of the Lord.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah as it did with the other prophets in scripture. He was given clear and precise instructions. When God spoke, he knew what was demanded of him. Why did Jonah flee? The answer is given in 4:2:
And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
Jonah did not want Nineveh to be forgiven of their sin. He knew that if he obeyed the Lord, and brought a message of warning, judgement, and repentance to Nineveh, God would be gracious and grant repentance. This moment when Jonah attempts to flee from the presence of the Lord is the moment where God’s will and Jonah’s collide.
While we may think that we can run and hide from God, it is impossible to do so. In Jonah’s disobedience and lack of love for Nineveh, he boards a ship to flee to Tarshish. “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea. (vv.4).” This was not a natural storm. This was a violent storm that God created supernaturally. This was to get the attention of Jonah. The sailors in verse five were afraid. They knew that this was not a normal storm. Being pagans, they believed that this was the work of a god that was offended. The sailors began throwing cargo off the ship in order to lighten it. If they could lighten the ship enough, it would cause the ship to rise and was less likely the ship would fill with water and sink. Yet, Jonah was asleep. Since the sailors realized that someone had offended a god, they needed to find out who it was. By the purpose of God, the one and only God (Isaiah 44:6-8), the sailors cast lots and God used this to call out Jonah. The sailors asked who he was and what he did to offend God. Jonah told them that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. In verse twelve, Jonah knows that he is the reason for the storm and he tells the sailors to pick him up and throw him into the sea, and the seas will quiet down. The sailors relented to do this. Instead they rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not (vv.13). In the next verse we see something remarkable. They. [the sailors] called out to the Lord. They did not call out to a pagan god; no, they called out to the Lord of Lords. We know this by the writers use of the tetragrammaton “LORD,” referring to the holy name of God, “Yahweh” or “YHWH.” These sailors have now come to understand exactly who Jonah’s God is. I believe that when Jonah explained who God was in verse nine, these men listened and understood. They then picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the violent storm ceased (vv.15). Then the men offered sacrifices to God and they made vows. This was a heart change in understanding who God is. God used Jonah’s disobedience to bring salvation to the pagan men of that ship.
God’s unlikely Mercy
Next, we come to the most famous part of this story. The Lord appointed, or he prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah (vv.17). This was not a whale as some would have you believe, but a fish. A specific fish that was prepared specifically for Jonah. This is to be considered an act of discipline. The Lord does discipline those whom He loves. This would be an uncomfortable place to be given the tight confines of a fish’s belly. The various temperatures of the water. As well as the varying in pressure due to the depths the fish may swim. Ultimately, this was done to save Jonah, and as we will see in chapter two, bring him to a place of repentance and worship. When you flee from God the only place you have to go is down. It is down and in distress that Jonah calls out to the Lord.
When we begin chapter two of the book of Jonah, he is in the belly of the great fish that God appointed to swallow him in 1:17. This is some speculation as to whether Jonah might have been dead whilst in the belly. Reasons being, is to make the type and shadow comparison to Christ being in the grave for three days. However, I believe that Jonah was not dead. Instead, he was alive. In verse one of chapter two, Jonah prays to the Lord from the belly of the fish. This would be hard if you were dead. This prayer of Jonah is the first time we see Jonah pray in the book, and in this prayer, we see parallels. Verse two parallels verse six. Verse three parallels verse five, and verse four would be the pinnacle of this first part of Jonah’s prayer.
At the beginning of Jonah’s prayer, he is recalling a moment that he was unable to save himself. He “called out to the Lord” and with his life on the line, Jonah cried out the Word of God. In this prayer we see a heavy presence of various Psalms coming forth. This is a heavy reliance upon the Word of God. Verse three shows us that Jonah recognizes the sovereignty of the Lord. “For you cast me into the deep,” (cf 1:15). Jonah does not see the men that threw him overboard. Instead, he sees the sovereign hand of God redirecting his path. Jonah is in full understanding that God is coming after him. In verses two and six we see the cry to the Lord and the provision of the Lord to save Jonah from distress. In verses three and five we see Jonah’s conditions within the belly of the fish. Yet, in the pinnacle at verse four, we see the faith of Jonah. “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple” (vv.4). “Jonah fully understands that he is in very serious distress, but he also knows that he has a faithful, covenant-keeping God.” We can also see this in verse seven, “when my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord.” Jonah going back to the promises of the Lord. In retreating back to the promises of the Lord Jonah discerns the emptiness of idols. Those who partake in idol worship, forsake the hope of the consistent love of God. One could say that in verse eight, Jonah is bringing recognition to his own sin in attempting to flee from the presence of God and become a god unto himself making himself an idol. Nevertheless, Jonah lifts of thanksgiving to the Lord (vv.9). In turning from being his own god, in this prayer of worship and repentance to the sovereign God, Jonah declares, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
We cannot save ourselves. No idol or false God can ever save us. In the pit of the belly of the fish, the only hope Jonah has is to deny himself and call upon the Lord. When we call upon Him, He is faithful and just to deliver us as He did Jonah. Verse ten, “and the Lord spoke to the fish, and if vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. The Lord spoke to the fish and the fish obeyed. It is fascinating that everything created by God obeys His every word. Yet, it is man that constantly seeks to flee from the Word of God.
Jonah has had a near death experience. Jonah was submerged at the deep depth of the ocean. He comes to God with a worshipping heart and promises to be faithful. This is Jonah’s repentance. Although Jonah was disobedient to God, He [God] yet again speaks to Jonah saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you” (vv.2). Even in our disobedience and sin, God is sovereign and will use you for His glory. God’s grace is the first thing that is revealed in this chapter by the second chance He provides to Jonah. Jonah then obeyed. He arose and went to Nineveh. It is only because of God’s persistent grace that we are serving Him today.
Jonah walked up and down the city saying, “yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (vv.4). This is all that is recorded that Jonah said to the Ninevites. This was the great message that the Lord wanted to deliver. A short and simple message, but a message that brought about drastic action. The people of the city believed God (vv.5). the declaration that the great city of Nineveh would be overthrown in forty days cause the people to respond to God’s word in faith.
The response of faith spread so rapidly through the city that it made its way to the king. God’s word went straight to the top of the city. The king in turn is so cut to the heart that he removes his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (vv.6). The actions of the people of the city is that of “Spiritual Mourning.” That is to say, they have come to a recognition of their sin, and mourning over their sin. This is a Gentile city; how would the king know to worship God in this way? The law of God is written on our hearts. It is never a question of “will you serve God?” the question is “which God will you serve?”
The city of Nineveh is repenting. From the least in the city, all the way to the king. The people are turning from their evil ways to worship and believe in the one true God. The king called for a fast saying, “let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water” (vv.7). In the repentance of their evil ways, and turning to worship the Lord, God relented. “And if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (Jeremiah 18:8). When we repent, God shows His grace and mercy by not giving us what we deserve which is judgement. Often times, we desire what we believe to be “fair.” However, fair in our eyes is not fair in God’s eyes. If we received from God what is truly “fair” then we would receive His wrath and judgement. We do not want “fairness” from God; we want His mercy.
So far, we have a remarkable story of God using a rebellious prophet in order to save a rebellious people. It is at this point that Jonah leave boasting in the Lords ferocious grace. At leave you would think that the case. You would think that he may go back boasting at how God used him to save the great city of Nineveh. No, that is not how this story ends. The work of the astounding grace of God displeased Jonah (vv.2). It made him angry. Jonah’s hatred for the people of the city is still heavy on his heart. Jonah knew that the Lord would show His mercy and steadfast love in forgiving Nineveh. Jonah is so displeased that he prays for the Lord to take his life (vv.3). These words are only spoken from a place of self-righteousness. He cannot tolerate the magnitude of God’s grace to a Gentile nation. Bryan Estelle notes, “Jonah’s quintessential problem is that he has forgotten God’s mercy towards him.” “The God of Israel, owns foreign cities and nations as well as Israel. It seems to be a lesson that needs repeating.”
God responds in verse four, “Do you do well to be angry?” Basically, God is asking “is there a reason for you to be angry? What happens next is Jonah will get a rude awakening. He [Jonah] went out form the city and to make a place for himself to watch what would happen for the city (vv.5.) Jonah has created his own comfort, and he sits, waits, and watches to see if God will change His mind about the city. Next, God appoints a plant to give Jonah more shade to bring him comfort (vv.6). Then, God appointed a worm to attack the plant so that it withered (vv.7). Not stopping there, God created a wind, and heat causing Jonah to faint. Jonah at this point becomes angry. What we are seeing is that Jonah is too worried about how everything affects him. Yet, God shows Jonah that it is not about him. Jonah had compassion for the plant that withered (vv.10), but he had no compassion for eternal souls. It had never come to Jonah’s mind that it brought God more glory to provide repentance and faith to Nineveh.
Application to Believers
As believers today, we talk highly of God’s grace and mercy being displayed. Yet, many times when we see this grace on display in the lives of those whom we are not fond of, we act more like that elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). We cannot celebrate when repentance and faith is brought to someone we feel does not deserve it. We harden our hearts like Jonah and prop ourselves up in a comfortable spot and wait for judgement to rain down. If we say we are in Christ, how can we have this attitude? Why do we think that our ways are better than God’s? When we become bitter and harden our hearts, we miss out on partaking in the joy of Christ through the expansion of His kingdom.
In this story of Jonah, we are reminded of who God is and what He does. It was God who called Jonah. It was God who caused the storm. It was God who brought the sailors to faith. It was God who caused a fish to swallow Jonah. It was God who made the fish vomit Jonah out. It was God who called Jonah a second time. It was God who brought the city to repentance and faith. It was God who caused a plant to rise up. It was God who created the worm. It was God who caused the scorching wind to blow. This story is fully about God and his sovereignty to accomplish His will for His purpose. We should be humbled and thankful that He uses self-righteous, disobedient wretches to fulfill His will.
Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentary Volume XIV. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.
Eric C. Redmond, Bill Curtis, Ken Fentress. Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Jonah. Nashville: Holmon Reference, 2016.
Estelle, Bryan D. Salvation Through Judgement and Mercy: The Gospel according to Jonah. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2005.
Ferguson, Sinclair B. Man Overboard! The story of Jonah. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016.
Phillips, Richard D. Jonah & Micah: Reformed
Expository Commentary. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010.
 Sinclair B. Ferguson. Man Overboard! The story of Jonah. (The Banner of Truth Trust. Edinburgh, 2016.) P.2
 John Calvin. Calvin’s Commentary. Volume XIV. (Baker Books. Grand Rapids, 2009.) P.20
 Eric C. Redmond, Bill Curtis, Ken Fentress. Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Jonah. (Holman Reference. Nashville, 2016.) P.29.
 Richard D. Phillips. Jonah & Micah: Reformed Expository Commentary. (P&R Publishing. Phillipsburg, 2010.) P.93
 Ferguson. P.50
 Bryan D. Estelle. Salvation through Judgement and Mercy: The Gospel according to Jonah. (P&R Publishing. Phillipsburg, 2005.) P.126
 Ibid. P.108
 Phillips. P.116