Bible Book Number 32—Jonah
Writing Completed: c. 844 B.C.E.
1. What questions are answered in the book of Jonah, and what does it show as to Jehovah’s mercy?
JONAH—foreign missionary of the ninth century B.C.E.! How did he view his assignment from Jehovah? What new experiences did this open up for him? Did he find the people in his assignment receptive? How successful was his preaching? The dramatic record of the book of Jonah answers these questions. Written at a time when Jehovah’s chosen nation had broken covenant with him and fallen into pagan idolatry, the prophetic record shows that God’s mercy is not limited to any one nation, not even to Israel. Moreover, it exalts Jehovah’s great mercy and loving-kindness, in contrast with the lack of mercy, patience, and faith so often observed in imperfect man.
2. What is known concerning Jonah, and about what year did he prophesy?
2 The name Jonah (Hebrew, Yoh·nahʹ) means “Dove.” He was the son of the prophet Amittai of Gath-hepher in Galilee in the territory of Zebulun. At 2 Kings 14:23-25 we read that Jeroboam the king of Israel extended the boundary of the nation according to the word that Jehovah spoke through Jonah. This would place the time of Jonah’s prophesying at about 844 B.C.E., the year of the accession of Jeroboam II of Israel and many years before Assyria, with its capital at Nineveh, began to dominate Israel.
3. What proves the account of Jonah to be authentic?
3 There is no question that the entire account of Jonah is authentic. The “Perfecter of our faith, Jesus,” referred to Jonah as an actual person and gave the inspired interpretation of two of the prophetic happenings in Jonah, thus showing the book to contain true prophecy. (Heb. 12:2; Matt. 12:39-41; 16:4; Luke 11:29-32) Jonah has always been placed by the Jews among their canonical books and is regarded by them as historical. Jonah’s own candor in describing his mistakes and weaknesses, without any attempt to gloss over them, also marks the record as genuine.
4. What kind of fish may have swallowed Jonah? Yet, what is sufficient for our information?
4 What about the “great fish” that swallowed Jonah? There has been considerable speculation as to what kind of fish this may have been. The sperm whale is fully capable of swallowing a man whole. So is the great white shark. The Bible, though, simply states: “Jehovah appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah.” (Jonah 1:17) The kind of fish is not specified. It cannot be determined with certainty whether it was a sperm whale, a great white shark, or some other unidentified sea creature.* The Bible record that it was “a great fish” is sufficient for our information.
CONTENTS OF JONAH
5. How does Jonah react to his assignment, and with what result?
5 Jonah assigned to Nineveh but runs away (1:1-16). “And the word of Jehovah began to occur to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying: ‘Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and proclaim against her that their badness has come up before me.’” (1:1, 2) Does Jonah relish this assignment? Not one bit! He runs away in the opposite direction, taking a ship for Tarshish, possibly identified with Spain. Jonah’s ship meets up with a great storm. In fear the mariners call for aid, “each one to his god,” while Jonah sleeps in the ship’s hold. (1:5) After arousing Jonah, they cast lots in an attempt to discover who is responsible for their plight. The lot falls upon Jonah. It is now that he makes known to them that he is a Hebrew, a worshiper of Jehovah, and that he is running away from his God-given task. He invites them to hurl him into the sea. After making further efforts to bring the ship through, they at last pitch Jonah overboard. The sea stops its raging.
6. What is Jonah’s experience with the “great fish”?
6 Swallowed by “a great fish” (1:17–2:10). “Now Jehovah appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, so that Jonah came to be in the inward parts of the fish three days and three nights.” (1:17) He prays fervently to Jehovah from inside the fish. “Out of the belly of Sheol” he cries for help and declares that he will pay what he has vowed, for “salvation belongs to Jehovah.” (2:2, 9) At Jehovah’s command, the fish vomits Jonah onto the dry land.
7. How effective is Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh?
7 Preaching in Nineveh (3:1–4:11). Jehovah renews his command to Jonah. No longer does Jonah evade his assignment, but he goes to Nineveh. There he marches through the city streets and cries: “Only forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (3:4) His preaching is effective. A wave of repentance sweeps through Nineveh, and its people begin to put faith in God. The king proclaims that man and beast must fast and be clothed in sackcloth. Jehovah mercifully spares the city.
8. How does Jonah react to Jehovah’s expressing mercy on the city, and how does Jehovah expose the prophet’s inconsistency?
8 This is more than Jonah can bear. He tells Jehovah he knew all along that He would show mercy and that is why he ran away to Tarshish. He wishes he could die. Thoroughly disgruntled, Jonah encamps to the east of the city and waits to see what will happen. Jehovah appoints a bottle-gourd plant to come up as shade over his moody prophet. Jonah’s rejoicing at this is short-lived. Next morning Jehovah appoints a worm to smite the plant, so that its comforting protection is replaced by exposure to a parching east wind and the broiling sun. Again Jonah wishes he could die. Self-righteously he justifies his anger. Jehovah points out his inconsistency: Jonah felt sorry for one bottle-gourd plant but is angry because Jehovah now feels sorry for the great city of Nineveh.
9. What attitude and course of Jonah should stand as a warning to us?
9 Jonah’s course of action and its outcome should stand as a warning to us. He ran away from God-given work; he should have put his hand to the task and trusted in God to uphold him. (Jonah 1:3; Luke 9:62; Prov. 14:26; Isa. 6:8) When he got going in the wrong direction, he showed a negative attitude in failing to identify himself freely to the mariners as a worshiper of “Jehovah the God of the heavens.” He had lost his boldness. (Jonah 1:7-9; Eph. 6:19, 20) Jonah’s self-centeredness led him to regard Jehovah’s mercy toward Nineveh as a personal affront; he tried to save face by telling Jehovah that he had known all along that this would be the outcome—so why send him as prophet? He was reproved for this disrespectful, complaining attitude, so we should benefit from his experience and refrain from finding fault with Jehovah’s showing mercy or with his way of doing things.—Jonah 4:1-4, 7-9; Phil. 2:13, 14; 1 Cor. 10:10.
10. How are Jehovah’s loving-kindness and mercy illustrated in the book of Jonah?
10 Overshadowing everything else in the book of Jonah is its portrayal of the magnificent qualities of Jehovah’s loving-kindness and mercy. Jehovah showed loving-kindness toward Nineveh in sending his prophet to warn of impending destruction, and he was ready to show mercy when the city repented—a mercy that permitted Nineveh to survive more than 200 years until its destruction by the Medes and Babylonians about 632 B.C.E. He showed mercy toward Jonah in delivering him from the storm-tossed sea and in providing the gourd to “deliver him from his calamitous state.” By providing the protecting gourd and then taking it away, Jehovah made known to Jonah that He will show mercy and loving-kindness according to His own good pleasure.—Jonah 1:2; 3:2-4, 10; 2:10; 4:6, 10, 11.
11. What is “the sign of Jonah”?
11 At Matthew 12:38-41, Jesus told the religious leaders that the only sign that would be given them was “the sign of Jonah.” After three days and three nights in “the belly of Sheol,” Jonah went and preached to Nineveh, thereby becoming a “sign” to the Ninevites. (Jonah 1:17; 2:2; 3:1-4) Similarly, Jesus spent parts of three days in the grave and was resurrected. When his disciples proclaimed the evidence of that event, Jesus became a sign to that generation. According to the Jewish method of measuring time and the facts in fulfillment of Jesus’ case, this period of “three days and three nights” allows for less than three full days.*
12. (a) What else does Jesus say concerning the Ninevites and the Jews of his generation? (b) How did “something more than Jonah” appear, having what connection with Jehovah’s Kingdom and salvation?
12 In this same discussion, Jesus contrasts the repentance of the Ninevites with the hardness of heart and outright rejection he experienced from the Jews during his own ministry, saying: “Men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; because they repented at what Jonah preached, but, look! something more than Jonah is here.” (See also Matthew 16:4 and Luke 11:30, 32.) “Something more than Jonah”—what did Jesus mean by these words? He was referring to himself as the greatest prophet of all, the One sent by Jehovah to preach: “Repent, you people, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” (Matt. 4:17) Nevertheless, most of the Jews of that generation rejected “the sign of Jonah.” What about today? Although most are not heeding Jehovah’s message of warning, many thousands worldwide are having the glorious opportunity of hearing the good news of God’s Kingdom that was first preached by Jesus, “the Son of man.” Like the repentant Ninevites, who were blessed through the preaching of Jonah, these also may share in Jehovah’s abundant and merciful provision for extended life, for truly “salvation belongs to Jehovah.”—Jonah 2:9.