Profiting from Jonah’s Experience
WHAT IS JONAH’S EXPERIENCE?
The Israelite prophet Jonah is commanded by Jehovah God to go to the city of Nineveh and warn its people about their doom because of their wickedness. But instead of obeying, Jonah goes in the opposite direction, taking a boat sailing to Spain. Jehovah causes a great storm to come up, and the mariners cast lots to find out who could be responsible for the storm. The lot falls on Jonah. He confesses his guilt and asks them to hurl him overboard, assuring them that the storm will then abate. Reluctantly they comply and, sure enough, the storm subsides.
But Jonah does not drown. Jehovah has work for him to do and so has prepared a huge fish, which swallows him. After three days it vomits him up on dry land. Again Jonah receives the commission to warn the Ninevites. This time he obeys, goes to Nineveh and warns its inhabitants that in forty days they will be destroyed because of their wickedness. But, wonder of wonders, they all repent, from high ones to low ones! So God relents. Jonah is highly displeased at this turn of events and goes outside the city to sulk and wait. When he realizes that God has indeed relented, he becomes disgruntled, for which attitude Jehovah rebukes him.
In considering the value for us of Jonah’s experience, we are first of all confronted with the question: Did Jonah actually live and go through the experiences mentioned in the Bible book bearing his name? If not, the message of the book of Jonah would lose much of its value and force for us.
Many modern religious scholars question the factualness of Jonah’s experience. Thus one Protestant theologian asks: “Do such things happen in a world such as ours?” And a group of Roman Catholic scholars say that the book of Jonah is “a droll adventure” about “a succession of practical jokes by God on his prophet” and that the book “is intended to amuse” as well as instruct. Suffice two such opinions, which are typical of many others.
But to hold that the book of Jonah is not historical because such things do not happen in our day accords neither with the facts nor with the rest of the Bible. The Bible begins by telling of creation. Do we see creation taking place today? The Bible also tells of miracles, from Genesis through to Revelation. Does the fact that we do not see such miracles taking place today mean that these miracles never happened? The books of the Bible were written under divine inspiration, but do we see a like divine inspiration at work in our day? Surely, it is up to Jehovah God to choose the time and manner of exercising his divine power.
As for the reasons for considering the book of Jonah as historical, note the following: The book of Jonah begins according to the same pattern as that of five other books of the “minor” prophets: “The word of Jehovah began to occur to Jonah.” (Jonah 1:1) The ancient Hebrew scholars accepted the book of Jonah as genuine, as historical. This they certainly would not have done in view of its many strange events unless they were convinced as to its authenticity. The book’s candor and frankness stamp it as truth. Jonah did not cover up his weaknesses either before or after he preached to the Ninevites. It is also noteworthy that during the reign of Jeroboam II (9th century B.C.E.) Jonah, the son of Amittai, uttered a prophecy that was fulfilled. (2 Ki. 14:23-25) In the Hebrew Scriptures the names of Jonah and his father occur only there and at Jonah 1:1. It appears, then, that the Jonah mentioned at Jonah 1:1 is the same person that is mentioned at 2 Kings 14:25, and this adds weight to his having actually lived.
Most important of all is the fact that Jesus Christ referred to the account of Jonah and repeatedly linked it with events regarding which there is no question of historicity. Thus he said on one occasion: “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” (Matt. 12:39, 40) What an argument or comparison to make if Jonah never lived, or if he never spent three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish!
Again, Jesus Christ said that the men of Nineveh would rise in judgment against the Jews of his day because the Ninevites listened to Jonah and repented, whereas the Jews now had a much greater prophet in their midst and yet they were not listening to him. (Matt. 12:41) How could the course of the Jews of Jesus’ day be compared unfavorably to that of men who never lived? It does not make sense. But that is not all! In the same connection Jesus condemned the Jews of his day for not listening to him whereas the queen of Sheba traveled a great distance to listen to King Solomon, one who was not nearly as great as Jesus. There is no question that Jesus, the wisest and best-informed man that ever lived, considered the record of the book of Jonah to be just as historical as the record concerning King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. These records describe people who actually lived and events that actually happened.—Matt. 12:42.
JONAH’S CHARACTERISTICS, QUALITIES
What kind of man was Jonah? Quite likely he was diffident and lacked self-confidence. Some have termed him timid and shy. True, that does seem to be the case, since he ran away from “before Jehovah,” instead of carrying out his commission. But let us first note the nature of his commission from Jehovah. He was commanded to go to Nineveh. How far away was that? Well over six hundred miles as the crow flies. Since in those days there were no direct highways from Israel to Assyria, it may well have involved his traveling some seven to eight hundred miles. And how? On foot! At twenty-five miles a day, more or less, it might well have taken him a month to get to Nineveh. What kind of city was Nineveh? It was the capital of the world empire of Assyria, and was filled with 120,000 pagans, reputedly wicked ones at that. No wonder that the thought of going there and preaching Jehovah’s warning message seemed such a stupendous commission!
The way Jonah responded to Jehovah God’s relenting because the Ninevites repented seemingly puts Jonah in a rather poor light. But was he really that bad, thinking of just himself? Not really. Jonah appears to have been honest, through and through. In his whole account, which, without a doubt, he himself recorded, he does not spare himself, but tells of his weaknesses and shortcomings. However, that is only part of it. He was also a faithful witness to Jehovah God, for when the unbelieving mariners asked him who he was, he boldly replied: “I am a Hebrew, and Jehovah the God of the heavens I am fearing, the One who made the sea and the dry land.” In time of trial it took courage to say that, and also to tell them frankly that he had been running away from a commission given to him by Jehovah.—Jonah 1:9.
Nor is that all. When the lot fell on him, he took it as from Jehovah, for evidently he was familiar with what God’s Word had to say about lots. (Prov. 16:33; 18:18) So, not wanting to see the innocent mariners shipwrecked on account of him, Jonah told them: “Lift me up and hurl me into the sea, and the sea will become still for you; because I am aware that it is on my account that this great tempest is upon you.” (Jonah 1:12) Had he been selfish he would no doubt have kept silent, hoping that somehow he and the rest of the men on the boat would manage to outride the tempest. In passing, let it be noted that his witnessing to the true God Jehovah bore fruit, for after the storm subsided the mariners offered a sacrifice to Jehovah and made vows to Him.
We also have reason to believe that Jonah was meek and teachable. Meek persons have a mild temper and are willing to be taught, even as we read: “He [Jehovah] will teach the meek ones his way.” (Ps. 25:9) Jonah did not get bitter but repented. He showed he could take such strong discipline as God gave him. This is clear from the prayer he offered while in the fish’s belly, which prayer also indicates that Jonah was familiar with the book of Psalms. Among other things he prayed: “When my soul fainted away within me, Jehovah was the One whom I remembered. Then my prayer came in to you, into your holy temple. . . . As for me, with the voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed, I will pay. Salvation belongs to Jehovah.”—Jonah 2:7, 9; Ps. 50:14; 3:8.
LEARNING FROM JONAH’S EXPERIENCE
What can we learn from Jonah’s experience? A great deal! The record magnifies Jehovah’s awesome power, showing, for example, how he can cause a great storm to come up to serve his purpose and then have it subside according to his will. It also magnifies Jehovah’s interest even in a city filled with pagans and the great mercy he can choose to show toward such people. We also see how long-suffering Jehovah was with His prophet Jonah, teaching him much-needed lessons.—Job 37:23; Acts 10:34, 35; Ex. 34:6, 7; Rom. 2:4.
From Jonah’s experience we learn that it is the course of wisdom for us to obey Jehovah’s commands. Also, we are helped to appreciate more fully that it is Jehovah’s will for us to extend mercy to others. This we can do by acquainting them with Jehovah’s purpose regarding the earth and man, having confidence that some will respond even as the ancient Ninevites responded to Jonah’s preaching. And if, at times, insurmountable obstacles seem to stand in the way, we want to exercise faith, as did Jonah in the fish’s belly, that with Jehovah’s help we can overcome these and go on to fulfill our commission.—Jas. 3:17; Matt. 5:7; Luke 6:35, 36; 17:5, 6.
We can also learn much from Jonah’s course, as to both how we should act and how we should not act. For one thing, we should not beg off when given a difficult assignment or privilege of service. Like Jonah, we may find later that it really is not too difficult to carry out after all. Some have suggested that it may have been a business trip that Jonah decided to take to Tarshish. So we might ask ourselves, Do we at times pursue secular business interests when we could be abounding “in the work of the Lord”? Also, are we choosy as to the kind of people that we preach to or as to the territory that we preach in, as Jonah apparently was? If Jehovah had commanded Jonah to preach a warning message to the inhabitants of one of the cities of Judah, no doubt he would not have demurred. Then again, are we, like Jonah, letting the fear of man deter us from doing what we should be doing?—Heb. 12:25; Jas. 4:13-15; 1 Cor. 15:58; Ps. 118:6.
Let us not overlook the fact that Jonah had some admirable qualities that we would do well to imitate. Are we as straightforward, as honest in our everyday lives as Jonah was, both as to his speech with the mariners and as to his writing down all that took place? Are we ever ready to identify ourselves as Jehovah’s witnesses, as was Jonah? Are we as willing to put the welfare of others ahead of our own as was Jonah when he acted for the salvation of those mariners by asking them to hurl him overboard, which, as far as Jonah could see, would mean only his sudden death in the watery deep?—Ps. 11:7; 1 Pet. 3:15; Phil. 2:3, 4.
Truly, Jonah’s experience is filled with lessons for us, and we can profit by them. Thereby we learn what we should and what we should not do. We learn to imitate the good qualities shown by Jonah, and to avoid his mistakes. We are encouraged to imitate the admirable qualities of Jehovah God, and particularly his mercy, his long-suffering and his love. The dramatic story of Jonah has compelling meaning for us because Jonah actually experienced those things!—Rom. 15:4.