Exposition of the Book of Jonah: Chapter 1

Jonah 1  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The book of the prophet Jonah stands alone. Its peculiarity is that it does not contain a single prophecy. There is the message to Nineveh—if that can be termed a prophecy—but beyond this there is no record of what Jonah was used to communicate. That he did fulfill his office is plain from a solitary statement in 2 Kings. There we read that Jeroboam, the son of Joash, king of Israel, “restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He spake by the hand of His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher.” 2 Kings 14:2525He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher. (2 Kings 14:25).
Nothing else has been preserved; when we examine the book we discover that its instruction lies in Jonah’s personal history, or rather in his conduct, when commissioned by Jehovah to go and cry against Nineveh, because its wickedness had come up before Him. The book therefore has, we might say, a parabolical character—Jonah, both in his unfaithfulness and when under judgment because of it, being taken up and used for typical instruction. It is this feature which has made the book in all ages so full of interest in its various applications.
The facts are very simple and familiar. Sent of the Lord to preach against Nineveh, Jonah fled, and going down to Joppa, and finding a ship about to sail for Tarshish, he paid his fare, and embarked “to go with them unto Tarshish, from the presence of the Lord.” Such was the vain thought of the prophet, as it is often the foolish thought still even of many of the children of God. The Lord sent out a storm upon the sea so that the ship was nearly wrecked. Brought face to face with death, the sailors in their terror cried every man to his god, and attempted by throwing overboard their cargo to lighten the ship. All this time Jonah, on whose account this “mighty tempest” had arisen, with strange insensibility, was lying fast asleep. The captain aroused him to a sense of their danger by the solemn words, “What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.”
The crew then proceeded to cast lots, having a kind of instinct—awakened no doubt by divine power—that the storm was occasioned by some sinner among their number. God was behind the scene, and, directing the lot, it fell upon Jonah. They then demanded of him the cause of the evil that had fallen upon them, his occupation, whence he came, his country and his people. Jonah told them all the truth, and even that he had fled from the presence of the Lord. They were smitten with fear when they heard that God was dealing with them on account of the prophet, and they asked what was to be done. Jonah at once replied that the only way of safety for them was to cast him overboard. With real kindliness of heart they were unwilling to do this, and labored hard to bring the vessel to land. But it could not be; and thus, after they had prayed that they might not incur the guilt of innocent blood, they took Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea. The effect was instantaneous; the sea ceased from her raging, and they, impressed by what they had seen, feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows. More than this, the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Such is the outline of the first chapter, and we have now to inquire as to its meaning.
1. In the first place, Jonah is a type of the Jewish nation in one particular character. Nineveh, there is little doubt, is a symbol of the world, or, as another has said, the haughty glory of the world, which recognizes nothing but its own importance—the world, the open enemy of God’s people simply by its pride. As such it was subject to the just judgment of a holy God. Israel, on the other hand, was God’s candlestick on the earth, responsible therefore to bear witness to and for Him, who by His grace had called them, and, separating them from the other nations of the earth, made them His people, and dwelt in their midst between the cherubim. We read thus in Isaiah:
“Bring forth the blind people that have eyes, and the deaf that have ears. Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled: who among them can declare this?  ... let them bring forth their witnesses, that they may be justified: or let them hear, and say, It is truth. Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, and My servant whom I have chosen; that ye may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He: before Me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after Me. I, even I, am the Lord; and beside Me there is no saviour.” Isaiah 43:8-118Bring forth the blind people that have eyes, and the deaf that have ears. 9Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled: who among them can declare this, and show us former things? let them bring forth their witnesses, that they may be justified: or let them hear, and say, It is truth. 10Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. 11I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour. (Isaiah 43:8‑11).
Such was the divinely-given position of Israel in the midst of the world; and inasmuch as the God they knew, and with whom as Jehovah they were brought into relationship, was a righteous God, “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look upon iniquity,” their mission was to cry against Nineveh (the world), because its wickedness had come up before the Lord.
How then was their mission fulfilled? The conduct of Jonah supplies the answer. He rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. This is, in one word, the history of Israel as God’s messenger. They were quite willing to be exalted by their privileges above the surrounding nations. In this way, indeed, their pride was fostered; but it was quite another thing to accept the responsibility of their position. Nothing is more sad than to trace their history in this respect, from the time they were redeemed out of Egypt to the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. The light which they possessed was used only for self-exaltation and self-righteousness, until at length they compelled God—if we may so speak—to depart from them. Not only did they flee from the presence of the Lord rather than fulfill their mission toward the world, but they also sunk down lower morally than the nations against whom they were called to testify (See for example, Jer. 32:28-3528Therefore thus saith the Lord; Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the Chaldeans, and into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, and he shall take it: 29And the Chaldeans, that fight against this city, shall come and set fire on this city, and burn it with the houses, upon whose roofs they have offered incense unto Baal, and poured out drink offerings unto other gods, to provoke me to anger. 30For the children of Israel and the children of Judah have only done evil before me from their youth: for the children of Israel have only provoked me to anger with the work of their hands, saith the Lord. 31For this city hath been to me as a provocation of mine anger and of my fury from the day that they built it even unto this day; that I should remove it from before my face, 32Because of all the evil of the children of Israel and of the children of Judah, which they have done to provoke me to anger, they, their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets, and the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 33And they have turned unto me the back, and not the face: though I taught them, rising up early and teaching them, yet they have not hearkened to receive instruction. 34But they set their abominations in the house, which is called by my name, to defile it. 35And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jeremiah 32:28‑35); Ezek. 8, 9; 16:44-49). The Lord said, indeed, through Jeremiah,
“Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; and I will pardon it. And though they say, The Lord liveth; surely they swear falsely.” Jeremiah 5:1-21Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; and I will pardon it. 2And though they say, The Lord liveth; surely they swear falsely. (Jeremiah 5:1‑2).
Jonah therefore in escaping to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, is but a true picture of Israel fleeing from God rather than to proclaim His message to the world. And we may see, perhaps, in the ship sailing from Joppa, offering the prophet a ready method of flight, the way of Israel’s moral degradation. The ship was the means of trade with the Gentiles, and hence it was through commerce that they acquired familiarity, became conformed in their habits and ways, with the nations of the world, and so lost their power of testimony. Israel thus, like the prophet, with their back toward the Lord instead of the face, and refusing the admonitions of His grace and longsuffering, fell under the chastenings and judgments of His hand. This is represented in our chapter by the statement that the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. But the guilty nation was so insensible that, though the onlookers, the mariners, were afraid, and cried every man to his god in awe before the terrible nature of the storm, they lay, as it were, fast asleep, undisturbed by the roar of the tempest which threatened their destruction.
We need not, however, enter into the details of this strikingly typical narrative, so plainly does it set forth God’s dealings with His ancient people on the ground of their responsibility as His light-bearers in the world. Two other points, however, should be mentioned. The unfaithfulness of Israel involves the Gentiles also in the judgments of God. Instead of being the means of light and blessing, they become the occasion of judgment. But, secondly, after the wrath of a holy God has been visited upon His people, the cause of it learned, and the tempest stilled, the Gentiles turn to the Lord, and acknowledge His power and glory. “The men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows.” So will it be after the Lord’s appearing.
“Therefore, wait ye upon Me, saith the Lord, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for My determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them Mine indignation, even all My fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of My jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent.” Zephaniah 3:8-98Therefore wait ye upon me, saith the Lord, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. 9For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent. (Zephaniah 3:8‑9).
2. The second application of this history is to the servant. Jonah as a prophet was a servant of the Lord, and one, as pointed out, charged with a special mission to the world. His message befitting the dispensation was one of judgment, not of grace or mercy. But he fled, not from the opposition of those to whom he was sent, but from Him from whom he had received his mission. Many a servant, forgetting the source of his strength, as well as the secret of his safety, has been unable to face the power of the enemy in his own stronghold; but Jonah sought to hide himself in the world from the One who had called him to be His servant. Elijah fled from Jezebel, but Jonah, let it be repeated, fled from the Lord. In this he is surely a perfect contrast with our blessed Lord as the faithful witness. He was able to say,
“I delight to do Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart. I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained My lips, O Lord, thou knowest. I have not hid Thy righteousness within My heart; I have declared Thy faithfulness and Thy salvation: I have not concealed Thy loving-kindness and Thy truth from the great congregation.” Psalm 40:8-108I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart. 9I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained my lips, O Lord, thou knowest. 10I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation: I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation. (Psalm 40:8‑10).
Jonah, on the other hand, fled rather than tell forth the message of his God, and indeed the responsibility of testimony is always the greatest test. In the case of the blessed Lord Himself, it was His testimony that evoked the bitter hatred of the world. (John 7:77The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil. (John 7:7).) It was under this test that Jonah failed, and perhaps on another ground. The possession of truth, if not communicated, always produces self-exaltation and Pharisaic pride, and where these things are nourished in the heart, there will always be indifference concerning, if not contempt for, the welfare of others. Jonah was a Jew, and God Himself had fenced him off from the world, but that was no reason why Jonah’s heart should be without pity for the world. But so it was, and now his real state appears in open disobedience to his Lord.
It is important to note also the amount of self-deception which a soul in an unhappy condition can practice on itself. Jonah confessed to the mariners that he feared the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, who had made the sea and the dry land, and yet he thought to hide himself from His eyes. But if the servant under temptation tries to forget God, God does not forget His servant, nor can He indeed permit him to disregard His authority. Hence He pursues him with His storm; He commandeth and raiseth the stormy wind, surely not for the destruction of His servant, but to awaken him to a sense of his position and peril. Yea, the Lord loved His servants too well to suffer them to continue in rebellion. But while He is active in pursuit of Jonah, Jonah is asleep in the midst of the signs of His presence and power.
Who will not recall, by way of contrast, the storm on another sea, during which He who had made the sea lay asleep on a pillow! In the former case the storm is only appeased by the casting forth of Jonah in the sea; in the latter the Lord, awakened by the importunities of His disciples, manifested His glory and demonstrated His power by rebuking the wind, and commanding the sea to be still.
God’s way with Jonah in this chapter illustrates a very important principle. When Israel failed to sanctify His name, God declared that He would sanctify His own name. (See Ezek. 36:16-2316Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, 17Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their own way and by their doings: their way was before me as the uncleanness of a removed woman. 18Wherefore I poured my fury upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for their idols wherewith they had polluted it: 19And I scattered them among the heathen, and they were dispersed through the countries: according to their way and according to their doings I judged them. 20And when they entered unto the heathen, whither they went, they profaned my holy name, when they said to them, These are the people of the Lord, and are gone forth out of his land. 21But I had pity for mine holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the heathen, whither they went. 22Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord God; I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name's sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went. 23And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the heathen, which ye have profaned in the midst of them; and the heathen shall know that I am the Lord, saith the Lord God, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:16‑23).) So also with His servants. If they do not glorify Him in the testimony committed to them, He will glorify Himself in them through the chastenings of His hand. Thus in this chapter Jonah proved himself to be an unfaithful servant, one that could not vindicate the name of his Lord before a haughty, wicked world. God then came in and made bare His arm in dealing with Jonah, and by the very judgment which He executed He got Himself praise from the hearts of the heathen. This is a very important principle, and should teach us that, if we are honored to be servants, we are in no wise necessary for the accomplishment of the purposes of God. Understanding this will keep us very humble, while it will call forth praise from our hearts for the precious privilege of being in any way associated with His divine counsels.
In conclusion it might be profitable to make a twofold inquiry. First, in how far the history of Israel, as shown in this narrative, shadows forth that of the church in her candlestick position. Alas! the full answer to this question is recorded in the message to the seven churches. (Rev. 2 and 3.) Secondly, we might ask whether we, as the Lord’s servants, are found more faithful than Jonah, whether many of us are not buried, like him, in profound slumber, while even the sounds of coming judgment are already to be heard. May the Lord Himself awaken us to the truth of our condition, that we may no longer remain insensible to the imminent peril of a godless world.
E. D.