''On the horizon of the Old Testament, there has always blazed this sign of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus-- the sign of the prophet Jonah.'' Our Lord declared that no sign should be given to the men of His generation, [except] the sign of the prophet Jonas (Mat 12:39). And since then, ''age after age the Jew has been confronted with that sign. He killed the Messiah, and out of the grave of the Crucified has arisen a power which has changed the lives of myriads all down the ages. Our Lord gave a promise, the rising from the dead, and He has kept it. He has proved His claim to be the Son of God and the world's Saviour''[*]. ''Declared to be the Son of God with power, by the resurrection from the dead'' (Rom 1:4).
[* Quotation from The Biblical Guide, Rev. J. Urquhart, vol. viii, p.146.]
His name signifies ''the dove,'' and his first prophetic utterance was one in keeping with his name. It was a message of comfort to Israel, that the Lord had seen the affliction of His people, and that He would save them by the hand of Jeroboam, the son of Joash, and restore to them the border lands which they had lost through the invasion of the Syrians. We are told this in 2Kings 14:25-27, a record which was probably written long before Jonah wrote his book; and it would seem that the writer [of that earlier record] took special care to do honor to God's prophet, who has been so unsparing of his own character [faults] in his faithful record.
The fact, that Jonah was a historic character, tells [ie., argues] against the idea that the book is a mere parable. The writer of a parable would not have been likely to invent an imaginary story about a real man. Jonah's candid record of his own faults is another evidence of the truth of the account, as also the fact that the Jews admitted the book to the Canon of Scripture, though it militated against their national prejudices in exhibiting God's mercy to another nation.
What was the reason of the prophet's deliberate disobedience? It was not cowardice, as we see from his attitude in the storm; nor was it the length of the journey, for a voyage to Tarshish, on the coast of Spain, was a far more hazardous undertaking than even the long overland journey to Nineveh; for the caravans of camels bearing merchandise plied regularly in those days to the great Assyrian capital. His reluctance was, no doubt, partly to be found in the prevalent idea of his country, that all other nations were outside the pale of God's mercy. But beyond this, Assyria was the dreaded foe of Israel, the scourge with which (Jonah perhaps knew that) God was going to punish his country (see Hosea 9:3). For generations, Assyria had been making fierce raids on the lands bordering on the Mediterranean, and the punishments which she inflicted upon her captives were cruel beyond the wonted [ie., well known] cruelties of those times, even to flaying their victims alive. ''Violence'' was specified by the men of that city themselves, in the hour of their repentance, as their peculiar sin (Jonah 3:8).
In the proclamation of God's judgment to Nineveh, Jonah saw the possibility of mercy for that city, and the sparing of his country's foe; for he had a true knowledge of God's character as a merciful and gracious God, of great kindness (Jonah 4:2). He also may have thought that the one hope for the moral restoration of his own country was the object-lesson of God's judgment, on a large scale, upon what was then the leading city of the world.
Jonah was God's prophet to Israel, his whole being was bound up in the salvation of his own people, and it was no doubt his intense patriotism which made him question the wisdom of God's command, and made him ready to incur His displeasure and abandon his prophetic office rather than risk the welfare of his country.
Jonah was a diligent student of the Psalms. He knew perfectly well that even if he ''took the wings of the morning and dwelt in the uttermost parts of the sea,'' he could not really flee from God's presence [Psa 139:7-10]; but, like many a servant of the Lord since, he thought that by a change of circumstances he might get away from the pressure of God's hand upon him or stifle His voice. And so he went down to Joppa. ''And he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.''
The Gentile Pilate was willing to have released Jesus when the Jews cried ''Crucify Him.'' He washed his hands, saying ''I am innocent of the blood of this just Person'' [Mat 27:24].
As Jonah was cast forth into the sea, it ceased its raging, and these heathen men were turned to the Lord, and not only offered sacrifices, but made vows for their future life. In Jonah's willingness to be cast into the deep, we have a picture of Him who said of His own life, ''No man taketh it from Me, I lay it down of Myself'' [John 10:17,18].
Those, who smile over the story of Jonah and the whale, would do well to remember not only that our Lord Himself referred to it, but in what connection. He used it as a most solemn sign regarding the most solemn event of His life on earth. And He has expressly told us that in the great Judgment Day, the men of Nineveh shall rise up and condemn the men of this generation, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold a Greater than Jonah is here [Mat 12:38-41]. We cannot imagine our Lord using these solemn words of a fictitious people and of a fictitious repentance.
To us who believe in the greatest miracle of all-- the incarnation and resurrection of Christ-- it is but a little thing to believe that God saved Jonah in this way to be a type of our Saviour's resurrection. We have no alternative to believing Christ's word that He did do so, but, on the other hand, God had many alternatives at His disposal by which He could make such a thing possible. Let us consider a few of them.
The word translated ''a great fish'' in the Old Testament, and a ''whale'' in the New Testament, is in both cases ''a great sea-monster,'' the term including whales, sharks, and other varieties. Many believe it to have been the Carcharias, or white shark, constantly found in the Mediterranean, often 30 feet long and more; and there are traces of a much larger race, now extinct. The voracity of the shark leads it to swallow whole all it can. Horses, sea calves the size of an ox, a reindeer without horns, have all been found at different times inside sharks. Men have also been found several times-- in one instance, it was a man in a coat of mail [ie., armor].
In 1758, a sailor fell overboard from a frigate in the Mediterranean, and was swallowed by a shark. The captain had a gun fired at it, and the creature cast the man out of his throat, and he was taken up alive and but little injured. The fish was harpooned, dried, and presented to the sailor, who went round Europe exhibiting it. It was 20 feet long.
The Spermaceti whale has a throat capacious enough to swallow substances much larger than a man, and it is its almost invariable habit to eject the contents of its stomach just before death. A case is related in the Expository Times for August 1906, of a sailor being found inside a whale as it was being cut up. This took place off the Falkland Islands in 1891. But the man, though alive, was unconscious. The miracle consisted in Jonah being preserved alive some thirty-two to thirty-four hours**, and, part of the time at least, in a state of consciousness. But the Creator of all is surely as well able so to prepare a fish as to make this possible, as our modern engineers are to prepare a submarine for the same purpose.
[** It is a Jewish saying that ''A day and a night make an Onah, and part of an Onah is as the whole.'' Even in England, a prisoner sentenced to three days' imprisonment is seldom more than forty hours in jail, and sometimes only thirty-three-- part of a day reckoning by law as a day. (Sir R. Anderson).]
The Rev. James Neil believes the ''great fish'' to have been the Arctic Right Whale (Balaena mysticetus). This whale has an enormous head and a mouth 12 feet square. To its upper jaw are attached hundreds of baleen or whalebone blades, some of them from 10 to 15 feet long, and 8 inches wide, highly elastic, with delicately fringed edges. These blades usually lie up against the palate of the mouth. The whale draws into its mouth an immense quantity of water, filled with small jelly-fish, on which it feeds. It then lets down the baleen bars in front of its wide open mouth and strains the water out through the [hairlike baleen] fringes, retaining the tiny food on which it subsists. The smallness of its throat prevents it from swallowing large fish, and would utterly prevent it [from] swallowing Jonah. This species of whale occasionally wanders into southern seas, and in a warm climate, like that of the Mediterranean, where it has been seen in recent times, is apt to turn sick and lie about on the surface of the water, and all the time it remained on the surface, there would be plenty of air in its mouth. In such a prison cell as this, with its ''bars,'' of which Jonah speaks, and ''the weeds wrapped about his head,'' as they would certainly be in the whale's mouth, it may well have been that Jonah was imprisoned. It may be objected to this that our Lord said that Jonah was in the whale's belly. But this is rather a confirmation than otherwise, for it must be remembered that He also said that the Son of Man must be ''in the heart of the earth,'' whereas His place of burial was in a cave on the very surface of the earth's crust, corresponding exactly to the mouth of a whale. In both cases, the figure of synecdoche is used, by which the part of a thing is put for the whole of it; and the same figure is used in the expression ''three days and three nights,'' where, by synecdoche, the whole is put for the part.
Jonah's prayer to God from his prison cell [ch. 2] is the breathing of one to whom the Psalms had long been familiar. He quotes short fragments from various Psalms, and adapts them to meet his own case. There are allusions, in his prayer, to the great Messianic Psalms 22, 69 and 16. Most striking of all is the application of Psalm 16:10: ''Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption.'' Jonah says: ''Out of the belly of hell cried I,'' and ''Yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption.''
''And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.''
Twice the Lord speaks direct to Jonah, ''Arise.'' He did not upbraid him for his disobedience; the sharp lesson he had learned was enough; and in His goodness He is still willing to use His servant, prepared now to do His bidding. ''A 'bent' Jonah was able to bend all [of] heathen Nineveh, so that revival blessing held back impending judgment. Oh that God's people might be 'bent' in like manner now; that revival blessing might be poured out upon London and the whole world!'' [Jonah, Patriot and Revivalist, p.19, Rev. W.F.S. Webster.]
The tidings of Jonah's miraculous escape must have spread far and wide. The sailors would tell the news. All Israel would know it. In the constant interchange of thought between those ancient nations, the news might well have reached Nineveh itself [ahead of the prophet]. Or it may have been left for Jonah to tell the Ninevites of it. Certain it is that they knew it somehow, for Jonah was not only a prophet to them; our Lord tells us that he was a sign, a sign which carried conviction with his preaching. [It is possible that Jonah's appearance-- skin bleached by the whale's digestive juices, flesh bruised by rough confinement-- gave credence to his story.]
Until 1841 [A.D.], all that was known of Nineveh was gathered from the Bible and a few scattered fragments of Assyrian history; [therefore] some looked upon Nineveh as a myth. But since that date, the excavations have continually been proving the truth of the Bible account. The city is great in its antiquity, founded by Nimrod [Gen 10:8-11]. It was great in its size. Three chariots could drive abreast on the top of its walls. ''A city of three days' journey,'' Jonah says; and the excavations prove its walls to have enclosed a circuit of sixty miles, just about three day's journey in its circumference. It evidently enclosed a good deal of pasture land besides the actual buildings, which agrees with Jonah's words ''much cattle.'' As it contained 120,000 little children, too young to know their right hand from their left, the total population would not have been far short of a million. Nineveh was great in its palaces, its fortifications and temples, and in its marvellous works of art-- its great stone lions and bulls, with wings and human faces. It was great in its high civilization, and it was great, above all, in its wickedness.
To this city, Jonah was sent the second time, this time with ''sealed orders.'' ''Preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.'' There was no hesitation this time. Jonah arose and went. The burden of his message was: ''Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.''
The question arises, Is it likely that the state would interfere in such a matter, and that a royal edict would be issued enjoining a long fast? Professor Sayce gives the answer from the monuments of Nineveh, and tells us that in the days of Ezarhaddon II, when the northern foe was gathering against the Assyrian empire, the king issued a proclamation enjoining a solemn service of humiliation for one hundred days.
Again, Is it likely that the beasts should be clothed with sackcloth? Herodotus tells us that when the Persian armies were in Greece, on the occasion of the death of one of their generals, a mourning spread through the camp. They cut off the hair from themselves and their horses and their beasts of burden. Such a custom, [therefore,] was common to a closely neighboring nation.
God's dealings with Nineveh, and His dealings with His repining prophet in the last chapter, alike show us His merciful loving-kindness. Jonah was angry that the great city, the enemy of his country, should be spared. He was angry at the destruction of the gourd [vine] which sheltered him. Concerning both, the Lord asks him with the uttermost tenderness, ''Doest thou well be be angry?'' And Jonah, still not sparing his own character in any detail, hands on the lesson to his countrymen, and hands down the lesson to us, that God's salvation is intended for the whole world. [4:9-11; cp. Isa 49:6]
The book of Jonah is essentially a missionary book, a fore-shadowing of our Lord's great commission to go and preach the Gospel to every creature. [Mat 28:18-20]
When Christ came back from the grave, the message of His Gospel was borne to the Gentiles, and has proved [to be] the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, the world over. [Rom 1:16]