Editor’s note: This commentary on the story of Jonah originally appeared at BibleStudiesForAdventists.com as commentary in response to the Sabbath School lesson for the week July 14–24, 2015. The website exists to offer biblical commentary on the Sabbath School lessons week by week.
OVERVIEW OF THE QUARTERLEY’S LESSON
This lesson presents Jonah as the only Old Testament prophet sent as a missionary to a gentile nation. He is also, according to the lesson’s author, a “forerunner of the disciples in the New Testament.” Jonah’s Jewish pride and prejudice against the unclean gentiles leads him to resist God’s call as a missionary, prompting his flight to Tarshish by ship. God sends a powerful storm to thwart Jonah’s escape, and the gentile sailors at last are forced to dump him into the sea. After Jonah is swallowed by the great fish, he desperately prays for deliverance, promising to fulfill his vows to God if he is delivered. God answers his prayer by commanding the fish to release him.
God gives Jonah a second chance to obey him, the lesson says, and this time, Jonah delivers the message exactly as it was given by God. However, the author states, “God’s message is generally threat and promise, judgment and gospel.” The lesson reasons that Jonah’s message must have contained not only judgment, but also promises of hope and salvation, as evidenced by the Ninevites repenting and being saved.
Jonah is angered by their repentance, the lesson tells us, because of his contempt for the Ninevites, and as Ellen White states, because they will consider him a false prophet. His attitude was selfish and narrow, more concerned with his comforts and reputation than the people of the city. The lesson summarizes the message of the book: “God instructed Jonah to recognize human brotherhood based on the fatherhood of God. The prophet should accept his common humanity with these ‘foreigners’ although they were wayward.”
For many people, “Jonah and the Whale” is more a myth than a real historical person. We can understand his book better by searching other Scripture references to him. Jonah grew up in Gath-hepher, a town in northern Israel just west of the Sea of Galilee, near Jesus’ boyhood home of Nazareth. The lesson names his hometown but does not acknowledge the trauma that Jonah likely faced there, shaping the behavior and attitudes we find in his book. Life was not peaceful in Jonah’s time, since Galilee was subjected to murderous attacks from their powerful enemy to the north, Assyria. Jonah was a child of war and likely had many painful memories and emotions dealing with Israel’s enemy. Jonah saw his defenseless little town repeatedly overrun by Assyria’s armies, making life difficult and uncertain. In 2 Kings 14:25 we find that under God’s command, Jonah prophesied that Israel’s borders would be restored, a promise which came to pass by the divinely empowered armies and leadership of King Jeroboam II.
When God called Jonah to prophesy at the enemy’s capital city Nineveh, Jonah reacted emotionally and tried to flee “away from the presence of the Lord.” This attempt was foolish, for Jonah probably had read David’s Psalm 139:
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Ps. 139:7-8).
Jonah knew Scripture and was called “God’s servant,” yet he tried to run from God. Perhaps he thought that if he were disobedient, God would change his mind and assign the job to someone else. Reassignment, however, wasn’t God’s plan. When the storm broke on the ship Jonah had boarded, he was rudely awakened down in the cargo by fearful sailors urging him to pray to his god. In fact, the courage and kindness of these sailors (“salts”) is admirable in contrast to Jonah’s sullen rebellion. Taking matters into their own hands, the sailors cast lots, and God directed the lot to fall on Jonah. Nevertheless, the crew still tried everything they could to save the ship to avoid throwing Jonah overboard. Finally, when the ship was about to sink, they tossed Jonah into the raging sea.
What happens to Jonah next is sadly missed in the Sabbath School lesson. We find clues of the missed reality in Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2. The lesson compares this prayer with psalms of thanksgiving, including a cry for help and a promise to keep his vows if rescued. However, Jonah’s prayer is not actually a “cry for help.” Rather, he spoke this prayer after being swallowed by the fish, and inside the fish’s belly, he thanked God for a rescue that had already occurred:
“Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice…’ Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head, Yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple… Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jon. 2:1-9).
Jonah’s prayer tells us the chronology of his near-death and rescue. After Jonah was thrown overboard, the waves began to cover him, seaweed wrapped around him, and he began to sink. As he was drowning, he cried out to God, and God rescued him. Rescue came in the form of a giant mouth “appointed” to swallow him, keeping him from drowning. Even though he had been “eaten,” he realized that, while in the belly of the sea monster, he was safely in God’s care. He had “called out to the Lord,” and his prayer was already answered. He was now ready to obey.
Sometime later, God’s word came again to Jonah, commanding him again to call out against the great and wicked city, Nineveh. This time he went and entered into the city, calling out his message in the streets. Jonah’s unexpected appearance must have been a disturbing sight for the locals; a strange foreign man in simple clothes delivering a message of doom. The message was clear and brief: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
We don’t know what else Jonah might have said to the locals when questioned. That Jonah’s rescue by the great fish became known to them is suggested by Jesus’ words:
“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40).
“For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Lk. 11:30).
According to Jesus, Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish was a sign to the people of Nineveh and gave power to his message. However, the Scripture does not say that Jonah’s message also included a message of hope and salvation, as the lesson states. Nowhere in Scripture is Jonah’s message or mission made equivalent to Christians proclaiming the message of salvation through faith in Jesus. However, Jesus does contrast the unbelieving Jews of His time with the men of Nineveh who, when warned by Jonah, repented. Jesus is telling us that we have much greater reason to repent and believe, because “something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41).
The lesson is eager to extract a lesson about Christian missions from Jonah and asserts what the author believes was God’s primary lesson for Jonah:
“God instructed Jonah to recognize human brotherhood based on the fatherhood of God. The prophet should accept his common humanity with these ‘foreigners,’ although they were wayward.”
However, this statement misunderstands Jonah’s Old Testament thinking. First of all, the fatherhood of God is rarely stated in the Old Testament (i.e. Is. 63:16; 64:8), and could not be fully taught until Jesus came and completed His work. Thus, devout Jews were not able to pray to God as their “Father,” for this title would have been considered irreverent. Jonah did know that he and his people were set apart from the nations and were related to God through the seed of Abraham. The other nations, he knew, did not have Abraham as their physical father, nor did they have the same advantages when relating to God. Paul later explained:
“Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Gentiles were not sons of Abraham and were not part of the commonwealth of Israel. The “mystery” of the gospel that included the nations was not revealed to gentiles until Christ and the apostles came to proclaim the message of the cross. Paul tells the Ephesians:
“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 4:4-6).
The Ninevites were given a message of judgment and fear of destruction. They “believed God” (Jon. 3:5), and repented. God then showed them mercy by not destroying their city. The book of Jonah is not about missions or even about how to reach different cultures. It is a book about how a servant of God named Jonah sinned repeatedly, yet received mercy—over and over.
Jonah resented God’s mercy to Nineveh because it was underserved. Yes, we can surmise with Ellen White that he was jealous of his prophetic reputation, but Scripture simply states that he was angry that God did not destroy the wicked city. Jonah had good reasons to hate his enemies and resent any mercy shown to them. It is too easy to look down on stubborn, self-righteous Jonah and miss the lessons here. Jonah’s story is precious because he is so much like we who are never far from being drowned in well-deserved calamities. God teaches all of us unforgiving servants with hard hearts how to repent and show mercy to others, including our enemies. Living the gospel means living in continual repentance and mercy. It is the broken, forgiven messenger who will show mercy to others.
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk. 7:47). †
Copyright 2015 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Camp Verde, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised November 10, 2015. Contact email: email@example.com
Martin Carey grew up as a “nomadic” Adventist in many places. He works as a school psychologist in San Bernardino, California. Married to Sharon, he has two sons, Matthew, 14, and Nick, 27. Astronomy, research, and too many pets keep him in joyful disarray. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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VOLUME 16, ISSUE 3