Jonah has sometimes been called a reluctant missionary because he disobeyed God’s directive to warn Nineveh of impending disaster. However, given Nineveh’s reputation, one can hardly blame Jonah for fleeing. Nineveh (near modern Mosul) was a fortified Assyrian city on the Tigris River’s east bank in northern Iraq.
The Ninevites’ wartime cruelty was well known. As Nahum asks, “Who has not experienced your constant cruelty?” (Nah. 3:19). It is no wonder, then, that when God sent Jonah east, he boarded a ship going as far west as possible; but as he discovers, there is no escape from God’s will.
Jonah moves consistently downward in chapters 1 and 2. He goes down to Joppa, boards a ship, descends into its deepest part and falls into a deep sleep. This foreshadows his further descent into the sea to the base of mountains on the seafloor, into the fish and even deeper into the realm of death (Sheol). Yet he is never out of God’s sight.
God Calms (1:15–17)
God demonstrates His sovereignty over the heavens, sea and dry land. He “throws” a great wind to make the sea rage, increases the storm’s fury to prevent the ship’s return to shore, calms the storm once Jonah is expelled from the ship into the sea and “appoints” a fish as a vehicle of deliverance for the disobedient prophet.
The sailors, likely Phoenicians, recognize God’s hand in the unusual events and are moved by fear and awe to worship Yahweh.
By contrast Jonah expresses gratitude, but no repentance.
God Hears (2:1–4)
Jonah’s prayer is a lyrical psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. He parallels the “belly of the fish” with the “belly of Sheol,” considering the fish a vehicle of both deliverance and destruction. Jonah finally gives God his undivided attention, expressing his desire to worship God again in the temple.
God Saves (2:5–10)
This passage offers interesting insights into the Hebrew concept of Sheol, the place of the dead. It is conceived as below the oceans at the base of deep water mountains, a holding place under the sea floor with gates that open and close, permanently enclosing the dead away from God’s sight and presence. But even from that place, God hears Jonah’s prayer as it rises up out of the depths. In His compassion, God spares the undeserving prophet’s life.
In saving Jonah and the sailors, God does as He pleases. His purposes will not be thwarted. God cares about unbelievers and sinners, even sending them a prophet to call them to repentance. He counteracts Jonah’s disobedience, using nature to fulfill His plans. Jonah is subsequently grateful to have been spared, as the special object of God’s compassionate love. However, these chapters prepare the reader for the stark contrast in Jonah’s attitude toward Nineveh. Frequently we are like Jonah, desiring a second chance from God, knowing His forgiving and compassionate nature, but resenting a second chance for others, especially those we fear.
By Stefana Dan Laing
Associate professor at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama