I want to make a few brief comments on the book of Jonah. These will lead up to another translation of Jonah 1:2 which I feel could be very important. But as we all know the story I am going to dive right in and give six brief observations. I should mention, as I am going to be brief, that George Abbott, who was one of the translators of the King James Bible, and also an Archbishop of Canterbury, preached 260 sermons on the book of Jonah, one every week. That would take him about five years. So, this is a very profound book and it is a shame in many ways that we consign it to the Sunday school class rather than seeing some of the depths that the Lord has for us here.
So just six points I want to make.
1. Nineveh, (of course Jonah is sent by the Lord to Nineveh) is a representative city; much like Babylon is a representative city, negatively and Jerusalem is a representative city, positively. And in fact Nineveh is called in the book four times, “that great city” and this is the phrase used of Babylon in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 18 Babylon is called “that great city” five times just in that one chapter. So the book of Jonah foreshadows not only the possible repentance of Nineveh but all of the great Gentile cities, as Nineveh is a representative city in this book. We are meant to read into the book that if God can have mercy on a city like Nineveh, he can have mercy on any city.
Nineveh was one of the most barbaric cities in human history. It was kind of Saddam Hussein times ten. It had a culture of torture that it was actually proud of and the kings would inscribe in stone their practices of torture and barbarity of which they boasted. So, number one, it is a representative city. And we should read the book to see that if it is possible for this city to repent, it’s possible for any city to repent.
2. Jonah is a representative Israelite. Jonah is obviously a type of Christ as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in
the heart of the earth. But in addition to being a type of Christ, he is also a type of Israel and that is very important. “Jonah” in Hebrew means “dove”. And in the Old Testament the dove is a symbol of Israel. You can see this in Psalm 74:19; Song of Solomon 5:2; Isaiah 59:11; Ezekiel 7:16; Hosea 11:11; and indeed, many other scriptures. The dove is the symbol of Israel. And just as the Holy Spirit brings God’s presence and power to the church (the Holy Spirit is also the dove), so Israel was to bring God’s presence and power to the nations. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove because Jesus is the new Israel. That is why he descends in the form of a dove. So because Jonah is a representative Israelite what was said was his prophecy, “yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed”, just an eight word prophecy. What was said was a message to Nineveh, the eight words, but what was written was clearly a message to Israel who had forgotten the reason for their existence. And that is the burden of the four chapters. So eight words in a prophecy to Nineveh but four chapters in a message to Israel because Jonah is a representative Israelite.
3. Jonah is unique because the book is an account of what happened to him. The major content of all the other prophetic books is their message. In this sense, he is like Abraham. Abraham is called a prophet, although he doesn’t prophesy. Abraham’s life is prophetic. (Although he does give the word on Mount Moriah that God himself will provide a lamb.) Jonah’s life like Abraham’s, is the prophetic word, and his life is a message of death and resurrection.
4. Through Jonah God was able to spare a civilization for another 150 years. He is used by God to transform the leading global city of his age. And it is worth reading a couple of verses from 3:5, “then the people of Nineveh, [after Jonah’s eight words of prophecy] believed in God and they called a fast and put on sack cloth, from the greatest to the least of them and when word of this reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sack cloth and sat on the ashes.” This is the leading ruler of the largest empire in history to this point. He is covered with sack cloth and sitting on ashes and he issues a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles, do not let man or beast, herd or flock, taste a thing.” So men and women, boys and girls were to fast and animals were to fast as well. “And do not let them eat or drink water.” So it was a total fast, not even the drinking of any water. You will remember from chapter 4 when Jonah is so hot under the
blistering sun, it was the summer time, so this was a very severe fast. Verse 8, the king goes on, “but let both man and beast be covered with sack cloth.” It is rather amusing that you had to go out and cover your cows or your sheep with sackcloth because both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth. “And let them call on God earnestly, that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands.” Now as we will see in a moment, the violence in Nineveh were in the corridors of power not among the common people. But having said that, probably, as far as I am aware, no other city in scripture repented so passionately and it is indeed a testimony of the stature of Jonah that God was able through him spare this civilization for another 150 years.
5. This really brings us into the heart of what I want to say. Jonah is mentioned in only one other place in the Old Testament and that is in 2 Kings 14:25, 26 where it says, “The Lord had seen how bitterly everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, were suffering and there was no one to help them. Israel was suffering because of their evil rulers and so God had allowed foreigners to oppress them. And Jonah prophesies that God will break the oppression and bring relief and extend the border of Israel. And that indeed is what happens.
Now Hebrew scholars say that there is an alternative translation to Jonah 1:2 and this is very important. “ The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.’” Douglas Stewart would be one such scholar. He is a professor of the Old Testament at Gordan Conwell and he goes for this translation and it is correct. It is very important so, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim concerning it that their trouble has come to my attention.’” Now that changes everything. I’ll repeat it again, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim concerning it that their trouble has come to my attention.’” Now it would seem from this that the wickedness of Nineveh was practiced primarily by those in power, the regime, the palace, the party in power. The majority were poor and oppressed by the regime and it was their cry that God heard. A little bit like Iraq, it is not the average Iraqi is so wicked, the average man or woman living in Baghdad who is so wicked, it is the regime. Now this translation perhaps is strengthened because you will remember at the end of the book the Lord
said, “Should I not have mercy on 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left?” That is a description of children, just innocent children. They don’t know their right hand from their left. It is not a description of the wicked and the violent. And if so that Douglas Stewart and others are right, Jonah’s mission was one of judgment on the regime in response to the cry of the poor in Nineveh. The regime weren’t just exploiting, oppressing, and torturing other nations, they were doing it to their own people and that is in the historical record.
God was only asking Jonah to do in Nineveh what he had already done in Israel. His prophecy in 2 Kings, the Lord had seen how bitterly how everyone in Israel, whether slave or free were suffering and there was no one to help them and he raises up Jonah. It is the same with Nineveh he was seeing how bitterly everyone in Nineveh, whether slave or free, were suffering and there was no one there to help them. And the Lord simply tells Jonah to prophesy in Nineveh what he has already prophesied in Israel. Now you might say, “but didn’t the ordinary person repent in chapter three?” Yes, because God commands all men everywhere to repent. But they were more the victims than the perpetrators of the evil being practiced in that city. And then you might say, “But didn’t he say ‘forty days and the city will be destroyed’?” Yes, in cutting out the cancer the innocent suffer. God sends Jonah in an effort to avert this. So in Jonah 1:2 if Douglas Stewart and others are right it puts a new and important twist on the message of the book.
6. Jonah went to change Nineveh but Nineveh ended up changing him. Now “Nineveh” is possibly related to the word for “fish”. So “Nineveh” means “fish”. And of course it was a fish that had saved him. We often think of the whale as endangering Jonah but of course it was the whale that saved him from drowning. It says in verse two, “I went down to the roots of the mountains to the floor of the ocean,” and he says that “the seaweed wrapped itself around my neck” and it was the fish that saved him. And now we see, as we read the book, Jonah as saving Nineveh. But in one sense, Nineveh, “fish” saved him and that is why he wrote the book. His sermon was only eight words long but the book, the four chapters, was a message for Israel.
Now we go to the poor for what we think we can give them and we forget that they have something to give us. When I have been in India, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and etc., it is not so much that I minister to them, it more that they minister to me. With Jonah’s interaction with the
people of Nineveh it enabled him to grasp again Israel’s prophetic role and purpose for the nations. So, yes, in one sense, Jonah saves Nineveh but in another sense, Nineveh, meaning “fish”, saves Jonah. And that is what happened in chapter two, the fish saved him. Nineveh saves by reorienting Jonah to discover his prophetic purpose and the prophetic purpose for Israel to be a light to the nations. And of course they had lost their way, they now despise the Gentiles which is why Jonah didn’t want to go, but now he is finding his way back as a prophet and indeed his word is a prophetic word to the nation that they might realize that God has raised them up to bless all the families of the earth. That the earth might be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.
Now in concluding Jonah 4:8, we have the last recorded words of Jonah. It says he begged with all his soul to die because, you remember, that after he lost the shade of the gourd that had grown up over night, he was simply baking in the sun. He begged with all his soul to die saying, “death is better to me than life.” So you might say, how do we know that Jonah rediscovered his prophetic role and Israel’s prophetic mantle for the nations? And of course the answer is that he wrote the book. There was nobody else there to tell the story and he told it at his own expense. It would take about two months to walk back from Nineveh to Israel and of course we are supposed to read between the lines that as Jonah walks back meditating on these strange and bizarre events that had happened to him that he begins to weave a tapestry the Spirit gives him understanding and his life in a sense been a parable of a disobedient people. He is very willing to prophesy into Israel. And when the Lord sees how everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, were suffering and there was no one to help them as 2 Kings he raises up Jonah, who gladly speaks a word. But when the Lord sees that the poor are being oppressed in Nineveh and in Assyria and there is no one to help them, he taps Jonah on the shoulder and gives him the same commission. Which he refuses, he runs, he moves in the other direction. But eventually, of course, he is swallowed by the fish and the fish spews him up and then he goes to a city that is called “fish”, the fish saves him and now Nineveh (of course Jonah saves Nineveh) saves him in the sense of giving him a reorientation as a prophet representing a prophetic people
So these are just a few short observations on the book but I do believe that the contribution by Douglas Stewart and others may not be correct but they are working on good solid exegetical grounds it is worth looking at the book again with that perspective in mind.