“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’” (Jonah 1:1–2)
One of Israel’s most famous prophets is perhaps Jonah—the Hebrew prophet that was swallowed by a whale or a large fish after he drastically went off course from God’s will for his life.
God had commanded Jonah, son of Amittai, who prophesied during the time of Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25), to travel to Nineveh and warn the city of its impending destruction. Its evil had reached God’s limit, so He sent the Prophet Jonah to bring about their repentance.
The problem for Jonah was that Nineveh was Israel’s bitter enemy, and he was hoping to see this vast city’s complete destruction. He did not want to see them come to repentance and be forgiven.
The story of Jonah demonstrates the inevitability of God fulfilling His plans for mankind and of His forgiveness to those who repent of their sins.
Jonah lived in the Galilee or the northwest of Lake Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee).
Not much is known of his background other than he lived about 800 BC.
The Mishnah (book of rabbinic interpretations of the Bible) teaches that his mother was of the tribe of Asher and his father of the tribe of Zebulun.
There is also a tradition mentioned in rabbinic writings (Pirke R. El. 33) that he is the son of the “woman of Zarephath.”
If Jonah is her son, then he may be the one whom Elijah revived from the dead, which would foreshadow a future resurrection from the dead (1 Kings 17:21–23; Acts 2:32).
Jonah Actively Defies His Call
“Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)
Jonah is traditionally identified as the prophet commissioned by Elisha to anoint Jehu (2 Kings 9:1–10). Scripture identifies him as bringing God’s Word to Jeroboam II, king of Israel (2 Kings 14:25).
During the reign of Jeroboam, Moab was subdued, part of Syria was conquered, and Israel experienced prosperity. This prosperity, however, was coupled with great moral decay, and Adonai sent many prophets to Israel to bring about repentance. Despite the prophets’ admonishments, idolatry spread.
Their prophetic books record their oracles to Israel.
The Book of Jonah is unlike the other prophetic books in that it reads like a narrative. Jonah also stands apart from other prophets in that he took premeditated steps to prevent the will of God from happening. He is the only prophet to actively defy God—although Moses, Jeremiah and others often resisted.
When God told him to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which was 500 miles away, to preach repentance and to warn the great city of its coming destruction, Jonah took off in the opposite direction.
At Joppa, he boarded a ship heading for Tarshish.
The rabbis teach, that Jonah ran from God’s presence because he (Jonah) had previously prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem. When the people repented, the destruction did not come to pass. Jonah then understood that the same thing would happen in the case of Nineveh. He did not want to see the people repent. (Pirḳe R. El. x.; but comp. Ibn Ezra’s commentary)
If this is true, then it is possible that he was being called a false prophet because Jerusalem avoided destruction.
Nonetheless, Jonah may have also avoided Ninevah for fear of preaching to Israel’s enemy, who could have killed him.
He would be looked at as a hostile foreigner in a land that the Book of Jonah describes as being an “exceedingly great city of three days journey in breadth,” whose population at that time is given as being “more than 120,000.” (Jonah 3:3; 4:11)
Because the Ninevites were a brutal people, Jonah may have also reasoned that if he preached to them they would actually repent, turn from their wicked ways and be saved, only to remain a threat to Israel.
Despite Jonah buying a ticket on a ship going the opposite direction, God’s call remained on him.
God whose name is YHVH and controls all things, including the weather, brought a storm against the ship. The ship’s crew was reluctant to murder a Hebrew prophet of the Creator of Sea and Land, but to save the lives of everyone onboard, they cast him into the sea.
Jonah approved their decision, perhaps seeing his death as a way out of fulfilling his mission.
Even in these desperate circumstances, God’s plan for Jonah and Nineveh could not be thwarted.
God arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. He remained in its belly for three days and three nights. Yeshua (Jesus) would recall this event as a foreshadowing of His own approaching resurrection from the dead. (Matthew 12:40)
Just as it was unlikely that a man could emerge from a fish alive, so it was unlikely that one would rise from the dead, especially after being dead for three days and three nights.
In this, Jonah foreshadowed the Messiah. We also see the extent that we can trust God with our lives. Even when circumstances suggest that events have gone past the point of no return, God is still able to turn things around.
Jonah also foreshadowed the salvation that would be extended to all mankind from Messiah’s ministry—that is, Jonah was sent from Zion to the Gentiles of Assyria to warn them and bring them to redemption.
He is an example of a Jew fulfilling his purpose to be a light to the Gentiles.
God Grants Mercy to Jonah and to Nineveh
Jonah was well versed in the Psalms. While in the belly of the fish, he composed a prayer on their basis. He repented of his rebellion, and the fish spat him out on dry land.
God called Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh to convey His Divine message.
This time Jonah obeyed. He traveled a day’s journey into the city and simply proclaimed, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4)
While the language is reminiscent of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah, unlike Abraham, made no attempt to negotiate a merciful response to sin.
Jonah’s appearance may have been greatly altered by the gastric juices in the stomach of the whale, thereby giving him a perhaps frightful appearance.
Incredibly, the Ninevites did not kill the messenger but believed him. It is possible that they were aware of the miraculous rescue of Jonah from the belly of the whale, or they were fearful of him due to his appearance.
At any rate, the Ninevites chose the path of repentance, proclaimed a fast, and everyone in the city humbled themselves and mourned. Even the king took off his royal robes and everyone “from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” (Jonah 3:5)
Jonah fulfilled God’s will, but he was not happy when the people turned from their evil ways. Jonah had hoped to see God’s judgment poured out on His enemies. In his anger, Jonah essentially told God that He was being too nice!
“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)
Jonah was so angry with the result of God’s mercy that he wanted to die. Once again, God in His mercy decided to give Jonah a lesson—this time about love.
God caused a leafy plant to grow up and shade him from the hot sun while he sat waiting to see what happened to the city. This brought Jonah much joy. Then God prepared a worm that ate the plant and killed it.
Once again, as the hot sun beat down on the prophet, he prayed that God would take him, saying, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:8)
God responded saying: “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
Yes, said Jonah adding, “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” (4:9)
To this God responded, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 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?” (4:10–11)
While people often discount the Tanakh as being about bloodshed, vengeance and law, the Book of Jonah clearly demonstrates God’s love for mankind and His mercy for those who repent of their sins.
He truly does not want anyone to perish, but gives them ample opportunity to call out to Him and change their ways.
“The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Remembering Jonah on the Day of Atonement
Between the Torah (instruction) and Ketuvim (writings) in the Tanakh (Old Testament) are the Nevi’im (Prophets). Of the 19 prophets in the Nevi’im, Jonah is one of The Twelve (Trei Asar) “minor” prophets.
Although placed as a minor prophet because of its size, the Book of Jonah provides a major lesson on the mercy of God for those who repent. It, therefore, is the Haftarah (the reading from the books of the prophets) for the afternoon service of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
It is read in its entirety and being selected as the reader is considered a great honor.
As the Jewish People listen, they are to identify with the Ninevites and their need for repentance (not with Jonah who stands in contrast to them).
The Chabad rabbi or Rebbe of Lubavitch, the MaHaritz, taught that the last reading of the service, Maftir Yonah, “gives the power of Teshuva [repentance] and also is a segulah [remedy] for wealth.” (HaMelech Bimsibo, Vol. I, p. 73).
Because this important prophetic book reminds us of how God makes His mercy available for those who are not His chosen people, it also reminds us how much more His mercy is available for Israel, His People.
Jonah’s Journey Is Our Journey
Jewish mystics teach that Jonah is a metaphor for the soul and that the story of Jonah is the story of our spiritual journey here on earth.
We are called down to earth to inhabit a finite vessel and go on a journey. On that path, we often go “away from the presence of God.” (Chabad)
Too often we go down to the depths of despair, discouragement and hopelessness before we relent, revere the God of Israel, rise up, and meet our spirit with God’s Spirit.
In fact, the Hebrew language is rich in helping us see that Jonah’s attempts to flee God actually took him down, down, down, down (יָרַד / yarad) into the depths of rebellion.
- First, Jonah went down (יָרַד / yarad) to Joppa (Jonah 1:3).
- After obtaining passage away from Nineveh, he went down (יָרַד/ yarad) to the ship (1:3).
- Once onboard, he went down (יָרַד / yarad) into the hold of the ship, falling into a deep sleep (יָרַד / yarad) (1:5).
- Lastly, he went down (יָרַד/ yarad) to the bottom of the mountains of a violent sea (2:7 ).
There, at the bottom of the earth, Jonah gave up resisting the Lord, sincerely repented and found the mercy of God.
This current month of Elul is an excellent time to think about Jonah because it is a month of preparation for beginning a new year on Rosh Hashanah and for Yom Kippur, when we examine our lives and deeds.
Elul also comprises much of the 40 days of favor that ends on Yom Kippur, a period where we can find the same mercy and grace extended to us as the Ninevites found in their 40-day period of repentance.
Because Jonah’s narrative often symbolizes our own spiritual journey here on earth, we have confidence that God will grant us His mercy.
And if like Jonah, we have gone drastically off course, He may re-issue a commission if we will only turn and repent.
Remembering Jonah During Sukkot
We also remember Jonah during the holiday of Sukkot (Booths) because it is traditionally believed that Jonah received his prophetic gifting during the water-drawing ceremony that was performed each morning of the seven-day feast. (Chabad)
Sukkot is meant to be a feast of great joy, as we read in Isaiah: “You shall draw water with joy from the wellsprings of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3)
According to Jewish tradition, the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) only rests on one who has a joyful heart.
Jonah, however, did not have a joyful heart when the Ninevites repented. We read in the last chapter of the Book of Jonah that he went outside of the city and built for himself a sukkah or booth as a shelter from which he could watch what he hoped would be the demise of the Ninevites.
Even after he repented and fulfilled God’s calling on his life, he continued to hold onto his own desire to see Nineveh perish—not the desires of God to see them repent and saved, as another great Prophet proclaimed:
“Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.” (Joel 2:32)
As a matter of divine law, God does not honor our desires when they conflict with His.
“Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
Nevertheless, God in His mercy and love responded to Jonah’s distressed heart and entered into dialogue with him.
Carrying the Light to the Nations
Although Israel is still called to be a light to the nations in the tradition of the Prophets and of Jonah, it is too often reluctant to embrace and fulfill the desires of God.
Like much of the world, here in Israel the media often blasphemes God, carrying the torch of freedom of expression—freedom to express even vile acts condemned by the Word of God, such as homosexuality, destruction of the marriage bond, and murder of unborn children.
Although not every Jewish Israeli is following this path, it is time for the Jewish People to discover Yeshua as their Messiah who is the true Light of the World, so we can carry His light to the nations.
Then God will “hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal [our] land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Yes, one day all of Israel will see our Messiah return and they will say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 118:26; Mark 11:9; Matthew 23:39)
Until then, you can be the light of God to the Jewish People, one person at a time, by bringing them the prophetic Scriptures that reveal who their Messiah is.