Jonah Learns About Jehovah’s Mercy
JEHOVAH has an assignment for his prophet Jonah. The time is the ninth century B.C.E., and Jeroboam II rules in Israel. Jonah is from Gath-hepher, a Zebulunite city. (Joshua 19:10, 13; 2 Kings 14:25) God is sending Jonah to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, over 500 miles [800 km] northeast of his hometown. He is to warn the Ninevites that they face destruction by God.
Jonah may have thought: ‘Go to that city and nation? They aren’t even devoted to God. Those bloodthirsty Assyrians never entered into a covenant with Jehovah as the Israelites did. Why, people of that wicked nation may consider my warning a threat and conquer Israel! Not me! I won’t go. I’ll run to Joppa and sail off in the opposite direction—all the way to Tarshish, clear at the other end of the Great Sea. That’s what I’ll do!’—Jonah 1:1-3.
Peril at Sea!
Soon Jonah is in Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. He pays his fare and boards a ship bound for Tarshish, generally associated with Spain, over 2,200 miles [3,500 km] west of Nineveh. Once at sea, the weary prophet goes below deck and falls asleep. Before long, Jehovah hurls a great wind at the sea, and each frightened mariner calls to his own god for aid. The ship is rolling and pitching so much that cargo is thrown overboard to lighten the vessel. Yet, shipwreck seems certain, and Jonah hears the excited captain exclaim: “What is the matter with you, sleeper? Get up, call out to your god! Perhaps the true God will show himself caring about us, and we shall not perish.” Jonah gets up and goes up onto the deck.—Jonah 1:4-6.
“Come, and let us cast lots,” say the mariners, “that we may know on whose account we have this calamity.” The lot falls on Jonah. Imagine his anxiety as the sailors say: “Do tell us, please, on whose account it is that we are having this calamity? What is your work, and from where do you come? What is your country, and from which people are you?” Jonah says that he is a Hebrew who worships “Jehovah the God of the heavens” and that he has reverential fear of “the One who made the sea and the dry land.” The storm has come upon them because he is fleeing from the presence of Jehovah instead of obediently taking God’s message to Nineveh.—Jonah 1:7-10.
The sailors ask: “What should we do to you, in order that the sea may become still for us?” As the sea grows more tempestuous, Jonah says: “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.” Unwilling to hurl Jehovah’s servant into the sea and certain death, the men try to make it to dry land. Unsuccessful, the sailors call out: “Ah, now, O Jehovah, may we, please, not perish because of the soul of this man! And do not put upon us innocent blood, since you yourself, O Jehovah, have done according to what you have delighted in!”—Jonah 1:11-14.
Into the Sea!
At that the sailors throw Jonah overboard. As he sinks into the churning sea, its raging begins to cease. Seeing this, ‘the men begin to fear Jehovah greatly, and so they offer a sacrifice to him and make vows.’—Jonah 1:15, 16.
As the water closes over Jonah, he is doubtless praying. Then he feels himself slipping along a soft channel as he slides into a larger cavity. Surprisingly, he can still breathe! Unwrapping seaweed from around his head, Jonah finds himself in a truly unique place. This is because “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.”—Jonah 1:17.
Jonah’s Fervent Prayer
In the belly of the giant fish, Jonah has time to pray. Some of his words bear a similarity to certain psalms. Jonah later recorded his prayers expressing both despair and contrition. For example, to him it seemed that the fish’s belly would become Sheol, his grave. So he prayed: “Out of my distress I called out to Jehovah, and he proceeded to answer me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help. You heard my voice.” (Jonah 2:1, 2) Two Songs of the Ascents—likely sung by Israelites going up to Jerusalem for annual festivals—express similar thoughts.—Psalm 120:1; 130:1, 2.
Reflecting on his descent into the sea, Jonah prays: “When you [Jehovah] threw me to the depths, into the heart [the midst] of the open sea, then a very river encircled me. All your breakers and your waves—over me they passed on.”—Jonah 2:3; compare Psalm 42:7; 69:2.
Jonah fears that his disobedience will cost him divine favor and that he will never again see God’s temple. He prays: “And as for me, I said, ‘I have been driven away from in front of your eyes! How shall I gaze again upon your holy temple?’” (Jonah 2:4; compare Psalm 31:22.) Jonah’s situation seems so bad that he says: “Waters encircled me clear to the soul [jeopardizing his life]; the watery deep itself kept enclosing me. Weeds [in the sea] were wound around my head.” (Jonah 2:5; compare Psalm 69:1.) Imagine Jonah’s plight, for he adds: “To the bottoms of the mountains I went down [inside the fish]. As for the earth, its bars [like those of a grave] were upon me for time indefinite. But out of the pit you proceeded to bring up my life [on the third day], O Jehovah my God.”—Jonah 2:6; compare Psalm 30:3.
Though he is in the fish’s belly, Jonah does not think: ‘I am so depressed that I cannot pray.’ Instead, he prays: “When my soul fainted away within me [in near death], Jehovah was the One whom I remembered [in faith, as the One of incomparable power and mercy]. Then my prayer came in to you, into your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:7) From the heavenly temple, God heard Jonah and saved him.
In conclusion Jonah prays: “As for those who are observing the idols of untruth [by trusting in lifeless images of false gods], they leave their own loving-kindness [in forsaking the One who displays this quality]. But as for me, with the voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you [Jehovah God]. What I have vowed [during this experience or on other occasions], I will pay. Salvation belongs to Jehovah.” (Jonah 2:8, 9; compare Psalm 31:6; 50:14.) Aware that only God can deliver him from death, the repentant prophet (like Kings David and Solomon before him) ascribes salvation to Jehovah.—Psalm 3:8; Proverbs 21:31.
After much thought and earnest prayer, Jonah feels himself being forced out the channel through which he came in. Finally, he is thrown out on dry land. (Jonah 2:10) Grateful for deliverance, Jonah obeys God’s word: “Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and proclaim to her the proclamation that I am speaking to you.” (Jonah 3:1, 2) Jonah starts out for the Assyrian capital. When he learns what day it is, he realizes that he was in the fish’s belly for three days. The prophet crosses the Euphrates River at its great western bend, travels east across northern Mesopotamia, comes to the Tigris River, and finally reaches the great city.—Jonah 3:3.
Jonah enters Nineveh, a large city. He walks on for one day and then declares: “Only forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Has Jonah been miraculously endowed with knowledge of the Assyrian language? We are not told. But even if he is speaking in Hebrew and someone is interpreting, his proclamation produces results. The men of Nineveh begin to put faith in God. They proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reaches the king of Nineveh, he rises from his throne, removes his official garment, covers himself with sackcloth, and sits down in the ashes.—Jonah 3:4-6.
How surprised Jonah is! The Assyrian king sends out heralds with the cry: “No man and no domestic animal, no herd and no flock, should taste anything at all. None should take food. Even water they should not drink. And let them cover themselves with sackcloth, man and domestic animal; and let them call out to God with strength and come back, each one from his bad way and from the violence that was in their hands. Who is there knowing whether the true God may turn back and actually feel regret and turn back from his burning anger, so that we may not perish?”—Jonah 3:7-9.
The Ninevites comply with their king’s decree. When God sees that they have turned back from their bad way, he feels regret over the calamity he has spoken of causing to them, so he does not cause it. (Jonah 3:10) Because of their repentance, humility, and faith, Jehovah decides not to inflict upon them the intended judgment.
The Pouting Prophet
Forty days pass and nothing happens to Nineveh. (Jonah 3:4) Realizing that the Ninevites will not be destroyed, Jonah is highly displeased and becomes hot with anger and prays: “Ah, now, O Jehovah, was not this an affair of mine, while I happened to be on my own ground? That is why I went ahead and ran away to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, and feeling regret over the calamity. And now, O Jehovah, take away, please, my soul from me, for my dying is better than my being alive.” God responds with this question: “Have you rightly become hot with anger?”—Jonah 4:1-4.
With that, Jonah stalks out of town. Going to the east, he erects a booth so that he may sit in its shade until he sees what will become of the city. In turn, Jehovah compassionately ‘appoints a bottle-gourd plant, that it should come up over Jonah, in order to become a shade over his head and deliver him from his calamitous state.’ How Jonah rejoices over the bottle-gourd plant! But God arranges for a worm to strike the plant at dawn, and it starts to wilt. Soon it has completely dried up. God also sends a parching east wind. The sun is now striking the prophet upon the head, so that he is swooning away. He keeps on asking to die. Yes, Jonah repeatedly says: “My dying off is better than my being alive.”—Jonah 4:5-8.
Jehovah now speaks. He asks Jonah: “Have you rightly become hot with anger over the bottle-gourd plant?” Jonah answers: “I have rightly become hot with anger, to the point of death.” In essence, Jehovah now tells the prophet: ‘You felt sorry for the bottle-gourd plant. But you did not toil upon it or make it grow big. It came and perished as a mere growth of a night.’ God further reasoned: ‘For my part, should I not feel sorry for the great city of Nineveh, inhabited by 120,000 men who do not know the difference between their right hand and their left, besides many domestic animals?’ (Jonah 4:9-11) The right answer is obvious.
Jonah is repentant and lives to write the Bible book bearing his name. How did he learn that the sailors feared Jehovah, offered Him a sacrifice, and made vows? By divine inspiration or perhaps at the temple from one of the sailors or passengers.—Jonah 1:16; 2:4.
“The Sign of Jonah”
When scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus Christ for a sign, he said: “A wicked and adulterous generation keeps on seeking for a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.” Jesus added: “For 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.” (Matthew 12:38-40) Jewish days began at sundown. Christ died on Friday afternoon, Nisan 14, 33 C.E. His body was placed in a tomb before sunset of that day. Nisan 15 began that evening and ran until sundown of Saturday, the seventh and last day of the week. At that time Nisan 16 began and ran its course until sunset of what we call Sunday. Consequently, Jesus was dead and in the tomb for at least a period of time on Nisan 14, was entombed throughout the entire day of Nisan 15, and spent the nighttime hours of Nisan 16 in the tomb. When certain women came to the tomb on Sunday morning, he had already been resurrected.—Matthew 27:57-61; 28:1-7.
Jesus was in the tomb for parts of three days. His foes thus got “the sign of Jonah,” but Christ said: “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.” (Matthew 12:41) How true! The Jews had among them Jesus Christ—a prophet much greater than Jonah. Though Jonah was an adequate sign to the Ninevites, Jesus preached with far more authority and supporting proof than that prophet did. Yet, the Jews in general did not believe.—John 4:48.
As a nation the Jews did not humbly accept the Prophet greater than Jonah, and they did not exercise faith in Him. But what about their ancestors? They too lacked faith and a humble spirit. In fact, Jonah’s preaching activity in Nineveh showed up the contrast between the repentant Ninevites and the stiff-necked Israelites, who were sorely lacking in faith and humility.—Compare Deuteronomy 9:6, 13.
What about Jonah himself? He learned how great God’s mercy is. Moreover, Jehovah’s reaction to Jonah’s murmuring about the pity shown the repentant Ninevites should keep us from complaining when our heavenly Father extends mercy to people in our day. Indeed, let us rejoice that each year thousands turn to Jehovah in faith and with humble hearts.