The Book of Jonah is a book of prophecy about which most everyone, from the smallest toddler to the eldest in the congregation, knows something. Did you realize that the book is read in synagogues on the afternoon of the Day of Atonement? The origins of this practice are lost in the shadows of antiquity. For the Jews, Nineveh’s fasting and repentance—elements that Judaism rightly associates with Atonement—are given as the reason. But even that limits the understanding of this short book. In this article, we are going to look at Jonah from a different perspective.
The Book of Jonah differs from the rest of the Prophets. It doesn’t follow the same style. The subject of the book is ultimately the prophet himself rather than his prophetic message. Yes, we know what his message was, but that is covered in just a few verses. The rest is about this man of God called Jonah—especially his response to the message the Eternal gave him to convey. As a prophet, a man of God, and a servant of the God of Israel, he can teach some powerful lessons to us—those who have been called to be servants of God today.
As a narrative, like Daniel in the lion’s den, the Book of Jonah is a great story to tell to even the smallest child. Yet because it is so familiar, yet different in style from other books featuring prophets, it is a book that contains lessons for us that can be easy to miss.
Israel is not a feature of the prophecy. Israel is really in the background of the prophecy. At the same time, however, Nineveh’s sin and repentance only “appear” to be the focus. Because of these factors, it’s possible for us to miss out on what the real lesson is all about. The book is really about Jonah, the prophet, and his relationship with his God. It is about being at one with our Creator. That is the key to the book and its real association with the Day of Atonement. In examining the Eternal working with Jonah, we can appreciate lessons appropriate to this Holy Day.
Jonah’s Name, His Family, and His Problem
Let’s start with the very first detail provided in the book. We are introduced to this man Jonah, who we also find referenced in 2 Kings 14:25. What does the name Jonah mean? It means a dove. Jonah was sent to convey a message from the God of Israel to the Ninevites, who were Assyrians. The dove had a particular role in the Assyrian belief system. Ishtar as an Assyrian goddess used the form of the dove. The Eternal chose someone with a name that had a particular resonance with the people. Dagon, the fish god, was also part of the Assyrian pantheon. So, the Eternal speaks to people in ways they understand, and gets their attention so that He can reveal His truth to them.
But Jonah was an Israelite, not an Assyrian. How did his name connect with the God of Israel? We first find reference to a dove in the time of Noah, when the dove released from the Ark returned with an olive twig in its beak (Genesis 8:11–12). That was an indication of the fact that God had confirmed His promise to Noah and that life on earth was to continue. To this day, the dove with an olive branch remains a symbol of peace. The olive twig was a sign of renewed life. The dove is then used in the New Testament as a symbol of God’s Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16–17). So, we have in Jonah’s name a symbol of life and, ultimately, of salvation.
Jonah is presented to us as the son of Amittai. The Hebrew simply means “My Truth.” So here is this servant of God called dove, whose father was named My Truth. Now the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13). The source of truth is God (John 17:17). It’s a quality or a facet of the character of both our Father and His Son. A quick reference to the book of Kings shows us that Jonah’s family lived in a time of apostasy (2 Kings 14:24–25). Their connection to the God of Israel was established.
Jonah, despite the credentials of his name and calling, fell into a human problem. He failed to appreciate the God he served, and ended up being consumed by his feelings against the Ninevites, rather than seeing God’s concern for them. He remains an object lesson for us to avoid falling into the same trap if we desire to be at one with our God.
In summarizing the four short chapters of this book, we are presented with a situation in which the sailors, the seas, the fish, the Ninevites, the plants, the worm—all of these things can do the Eternal’s will, and respond to the Eternal, but Jonah himself finds it very difficult! He simply wants to do the exact opposite. When you read the book, notice how frequently, in the first two chapters, Jonah does the exact opposite of what the Eternal says. The Eternal tells him to get up and go to Nineveh. What does he do? He goes the other way. But what is the preposition that is used to show the other way? “He went down.” He went down to Joppa, he went down into the ship, then where does he go in the ship? He goes down into the hull or the lowest point, and then where? Down to the bottom of the sea. So, here you read when the Eternal says something, Jonah does the polar opposite. And the Eternal rescued him from the depths, as we all are aware, and said again, “Arise, go to Nineveh” (Jonah 3:1–2).
Jonah’s “Justice” Versus God’s Mercy
That brings us to Jonah’s attitude, played out in the last chapter of the book. Having finally preached to Nineveh, and seeing their repentance, Jonah went out and sat on the hill opposite the city to wait and see what would happen. Jonah, in a desperate state, prays to the Eternal, “… for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm [certain calamity]” (Jonah 4:2). That’s drawn from one of my favorite scriptures, Exodus 34:6–7. Jonah is saying, “God, this is what You are like—forgiving, patient and kind.” What’s the problem with what he states? It’s easy to read this as a case of Jonah quoting scripture to his God, but he gets something very wrong. The last part of his quotation is about the calamity. It’s as though he was seeking to correct his Maker and accuse Him of being a “soft touch” when it came to those wicked people, the Ninevites. But Jonah left out a very important aspect. The last part of the self-description of the Eternal in Exodus 34:6 describes Him not in terms of calamity, but as “abounding in goodness and truth”!
Jonah appears to have lost sight of what the Eternal’s character really is like, despite the fact that it was his own human father’s name. So the son of “My Truth,” doesn’t understand God’s Truth! Now there’s a real problem for you. That’s much bigger than what sort of fish could swallow a man, and keep him alive in its belly for three days and three nights, because now we’re dealing with a spiritual issue rather than the power of the Eternal to intervene and prepare a fish to preserve Jonah for His mission. Remember, all other forms of life and action respond perfectly to the will of God. Jonah is the exception.
It’s interesting when we look at the term for calamity that Jonah uses against the Eternal. Calamity is translated from the Hebrew word, harah, or evil. What would you say that Jonah is saying about the Eternal? Perhaps he’s saying, “You didn’t do what You said You were going to do.” Why? Because Nineveh repented. That’s why I suggested the expression, “He’s a soft touch.” It suggests a cynical attitude on Jonah’s part: “People say they are ‘sorry,’ and everything changes.” The question comes back to, what is Jonah’s view of the Eternal? What is he missing?
Now, of course, we find from the apostles that it’s not God’s will that “any should perish, but all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). What did Jonah want? Assyria was an enemy of Israel, and he wanted to see the Ninevites dead or destroyed. He didn’t realize what the Eternal’s plan was for any other people than his nation. He got carried away by his own nationalism. In other words, he saw God’s plan in terms of his own people, rather than all humanity. There is a word that we can use for this; he was a particularist. So, in other words, he thought it was only the descendants of Israel that can have God’s blessing, as opposed to the universalist, who sees all humanity having access ultimately to Him.
Jonah’s attitude highlights another failure on his part to understand the reality of this world. How does the God family see evil? Sin and evil are to be placed on the head of the Azazel goat on the Day of Atonement and then taken away from all contact with humanity (Leviticus 16:20–22). The Eternal is not soft on sin. He understands the real source of sin better than any of us, and has a plan to remove the source from us (Revelation 20:1–2). He, as Jesus Christ our Passover lamb, has paid the penalty for our sins, but He is still going to place those sins on the head of the culprit who has led humanity astray. But real repentance is needed.
The Eternal gave Nineveh forty days to repent. Forty days is a period of judgment, and the number forty is used for judgment. Inherent to the message the Eternal gave to Jonah was a great statement about true repentance. It takes time for you to turn and change and head in the opposite direction. So, it’s not just something that occurs in a moment. You have to follow through and show the fruit of repentance. In other words, this isn’t a tent meeting where you give your heart to the Lord, where the preacher is gone the next day, and you just go back to being what you’ve been previously. Here was forty days of God’s testing. Let’s guess at how the people of Nineveh spent that time as they sought to repent (which they did: Jonah 3:6–10). I guarantee the Ninevites were marking those days off their calendars, one by one—perhaps asking themselves daily, “Have I done what is pleasing to God today?” What happens if you start doing things on a regular basis—over, say, forty days? It becomes habit. So, here is an opportunity where people are given the ability to create Godly habits. What does that say about the Eternal as well? He is full of lovingkindness, and He wants everybody to be saved, not just Israelites. He knows what it takes for us to change. He knows that it requires time to create good habits or good character. It’s not going to be something that happens overnight. Growth is necessary. There is a period of preparation, searching, and growth. That becomes very important.
You might say, Nineveh’s sins or troubles became Jonah’s. That’s all he could see: “These people need destroying. Doesn’t it say that God’s going to destroy sin?” But He wants to save us by separating us from our sins. The last verse of Micah, the next prophet, is probably one of the most incredible verses in the Bible because it talks about how our sins are going to be separated from us. They’re going to be covered with waters, as the seas cover the deep, and totally removed from us (Micah 7:19). Jonah wasn’t able to make that connection. He wasn’t able to separate the evil and realize his God’s desire to save these people from their evil and change them.
A Flaw in Perception: How Do You See God’s Will?
Let’s return to Jonah and his perception of the Eternal. The Eternal is characterized in Exodus 34:6 as being abundant in truth. Truth is an aspect of His character. An understanding of that truth and how it applies is what is going on throughout the Book of Jonah. When we look at some of the other events throughout this book, they are incidental to the very major point. How do you and I see God—both the Father and the Son? Do we see God and Jesus Christ correctly? Do we look from the divine perspective, or from that of our own locally conditioned outlook? That is a very, very powerful lesson. The Apostle Paul addressed this in 2 Corinthians 10:5, where he instructed Christians to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” In other words, any thought I might have about how I view society today is really very secondary. I have to be concerned about how the Father and Jesus Christ look on society today.
So, Jonah was concerned with evil; the Eternal was concerned with truth. He wants to see His character instilled in every human being, so all can have eternal life and be part of the family of God, which Jonah failed at that point to see. Hopefully, his view changed in the end.
Of course, truth is a means of combating evil. This was the other thing to which Jonah was blind. Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Free from bondage to whom or what? Satan and sin. But that freedom is conditional on atonement with Jesus Christ—and, hence, the Father—as the previous verse sets out the requirement for knowing truth. “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed’” (John 8:31). And that freedom is played out in God’s plan, when Satan is bound and put away.
Let Jonah be an example for each of us. Let’s ask ourselves the questions that have to be asked regarding Jonah: “How well do I really understand the character and purposes of the Eternal? How would I have responded? What would I do? What would God really want me to do?” That becomes critical, doesn’t it? Without that, there is no hope of being at One with our Creator.