Imitate Their Faith
He Learned From His Mistakes
JONAH wished he could shut out the terrible sounds. It was not just the fierce wind, which was shrieking through the ship’s rigging; nor was it just the mountainous waves, which were thundering against the sides of the vessel, making her every timber creak and groan. No, far worse to Jonah were the shouts of those mariners, the captain and his crew, as they struggled to keep the ship afloat. Jonah felt sure that those men were about to die—all because of him!
What had put Jonah in such dire straits? He had made a serious mistake in his dealings with his God, Jehovah. What had he done? Were matters beyond repair? The answers can teach us much. For example, Jonah’s story helps us to see how even those with genuine faith can go astray—and how they can make amends.
A Prophet From Galilee
When people think of the man Jonah, they often seem to focus on negative traits, such as his lapses into disobedience or even his hardheadedness. But there was far more to the man than that. Remember, Jonah was selected to serve as a prophet of Jehovah God. Jehovah would not have picked him for such a weighty responsibility had he been unfaithful or unrighteous.
At 2 Kings 14:25, we learn a little about Jonah’s background. He was from Gath-hepher, just two and a half miles [4 km] from Nazareth, the town where Jesus Christ would grow up some eight centuries later.* Jonah served as a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam II of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel. The time of Elijah was long past; his successor, Elisha, had died during the reign of Jeroboam’s father. Although Jehovah had used those men to wipe out Baal worship, Israel was willfully going astray again. The land was now under the influence of a king who “continued to do what was bad in Jehovah’s eyes.” (2 Kings 14:24) So Jonah’s service could not have been easy or pleasant. Yet, he carried it out faithfully.
One day, though, Jonah’s life took a dramatic turn. He received an assignment from Jehovah that he found to be extremely difficult. What was Jehovah asking him to do?
“Get Up, Go to Nineveh”
Jehovah told Jonah: “Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and proclaim against her that their badness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) It is not hard to see why this assignment might have appeared daunting. Nineveh lay some 500 miles [800 km] to the east, an overland journey that would likely take about a month on foot. However, the hardships of such a trek might have seemed the easy part of the job. At Nineveh, Jonah was to deliver Jehovah’s judgment message to the Assyrians, who were notoriously violent, even savage. If Jonah had seen little response among God’s own people, what could he hope to see among those pagans? How would a lone servant of Jehovah fare in vast Nineveh, which would come to be called “the city of bloodshed”?—Nahum 3:1, 7.
Such thoughts may well have occurred to Jonah. We do not know. What we do know is that he ran. Jehovah had directed him to go east; Jonah headed west, and as far west as he could go. He went down to the coast, to a port city named Joppa, where he found a ship headed to Tarshish. Some scholars say that Tarshish was in Spain. If so, Jonah was heading some 2,200 miles [3,500 km] away from Nineveh. Such a voyage to the far end of the Great Sea—as the Mediterranean Sea was called in those days—might have taken as long as a year! Jonah was that determined to get away from the assignment Jehovah had given him!
Does this mean that we can dismiss Jonah as a coward? We should not be too quick to judge him. As we shall see, he was capable of remarkable personal courage. Like all of us, though, Jonah was an imperfect human struggling with a great many faults. (Psalm 51:5) Who of us has never struggled with fear?
It may occasionally seem that God asks us to do what strikes us as difficult, even impossible. We may even find it daunting to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom, as Christians are required to do. (Matthew 24:14) It is only too easy for us to forget the profound truth that Jesus uttered: “All things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) If we lose sight of that truth at times, perhaps we can understand Jonah’s difficulty. What, though, were the consequences of Jonah’s flight?
Jehovah Disciplines His Wayward Prophet
We can just imagine Jonah getting himself situated on that vessel, likely a Phoenician cargo ship. He watched as the captain and his crew bustled about to get their craft under way and out of port. As the shoreline slowly receded and disappeared, Jonah may have hoped he was escaping the danger he so dreaded. But suddenly, the weather changed.
Strong winds churned up the sea into a nightmarish rage, with waves that might dwarf even modern-day vessels. How long did it take for that wooden craft to seem terribly small and frail, lost in a watery wilderness of towering waves and plunging canyons? Did Jonah know, at that point, what he later wrote—that “Jehovah himself hurled forth a great wind at the sea”? It is hard to say. He saw, though, that the mariners began crying out to their various gods, and he knew that no help would come from that direction. His account says: “As for the ship, it was about to be wrecked.” (Jonah 1:4; Leviticus 19:4) And how could Jonah pray to the God he was running from?
Feeling powerless to help, Jonah went below the deck of the ship and found a place to lie down. There, he went fast asleep.* The captain found Jonah, woke him up, and urged him to pray to his god, as everyone else was doing. Convinced that there was something supernatural about this storm, the seamen cast lots to see which of the people on board might be the cause of their trouble. No doubt Jonah’s heart sank as the lots eliminated one man after another. Soon the truth was plain. Jehovah was directing the storm, as well as the lots, toward one man—Jonah!—Jonah 1:5-7.
Jonah told the sailors everything. He was a servant of the almighty God, Jehovah. This was the God he was running from and had offended, putting them all in this terrible danger. The men were aghast; Jonah could see the terror in their eyes. They asked him what they should do to him in order to save the ship and their lives. What did he say? Jonah may have shuddered to think of himself drowning in that cold, wild sea. But how could he send all these men to such a death when he knew he could save them? So he said: “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.
Hardly the words of a coward, are they? It must have warmed Jehovah’s heart to see Jonah’s brave, self-sacrificing spirit in that dire moment. Here we see Jonah’s faith at its best. We can imitate it today by putting the welfare of others ahead of our own. (John 13:34, 35) When we see someone in need, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually, do we give of ourselves in order to help out? How we please Jehovah when we do so!
Perhaps the sailors were moved too, for at first they refused to comply! Instead, they did everything they could to work their way through the storm—but to no avail. The tempest only grew worse. Finally, they saw that they had no choice. Calling out to Jonah’s God, Jehovah, to show them mercy, they lifted the man up and hurled him over the side, into the sea.—Jonah 1:13-15.
Jonah Finds Mercy and Deliverance
Jonah plummeted into the raging waves. Perhaps he struggled, floundering a bit, and saw amid a chaos of foam and spray that the ship was swiftly moving away. But the mighty breakers crashed over him and forced him under. He sank down and down, sensing that all hope was gone.
Jonah later described how he felt at this time. Fleeting images crossed his mind. He thought with sadness that he would never again see the beautiful temple of Jehovah in Jerusalem. He had the sensation of descending to the very depths of the sea, near the roots of the mountains, where seaweed entangled him. This, it seemed, was to be his pit, his grave.—Jonah 2:2-6.
But wait! There was something moving nearby—an immense, dark shape, a living thing. Looming close, it darted at him. A great maw opened over him, engulfed him, swallowed him down!
This must be the end. Yet, Jonah sensed something astounding. He was still alive! He was neither crushed, nor digested, nor even suffocated. No, the breath of life was still in him, though he was in what should rightly be his grave. Slowly, Jonah became filled with awe. Without a doubt, it was his God, Jehovah, who had “appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah.”*—Jonah 1:17.
Minutes passed, stretching into hours. There, in the deepest darkness he had ever known, Jonah composed his thoughts and prayed to Jehovah God. His prayer, recorded fully in the second chapter of Jonah, is revealing. It shows that Jonah had extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, for it often refers to the Psalms. It also shows a heartwarming quality: gratitude. Jonah concluded: “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 2:9.
Jonah learned that salvation is something that Jehovah can bring to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Even there, “in the inward parts of the fish,” Jehovah found and saved his troubled servant. (Jonah 1:17) Only Jehovah could keep a man alive and well for three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish. It is good for us to remember today that Jehovah is “the God in whose hand your breath is.” (Daniel 5:23) We owe our every breath, our very existence, to him. Are we grateful? Do we not, then, owe Jehovah our obedience?
What about Jonah? Did he learn to show his gratitude to Jehovah through obedience? He did. After three days and three nights, the fish brought Jonah right to the shore and “vomited out Jonah onto the dry land.” (Jonah 2:10) Imagine—after all that, Jonah did not even have to swim ashore! Of course, he did have to find his way from that beach, wherever it was. Before long, though, his spirit of gratitude was put to the test. Jonah 3:1, 2, says: “Then the word of Jehovah occurred to Jonah the second time, saying: ‘Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and proclaim to her the proclamation that I am speaking to you.’” What would Jonah do?
Jonah did not hesitate. We read: “At that, Jonah got up and went to Nineveh in accord with the word of Jehovah.” (Jonah 3:3) Yes, he obeyed. Clearly, he learned from his mistakes. In this too we need to imitate Jonah’s faith. We all sin; we all make mistakes. (Romans 3:23) But do we give up, or do we learn from our mistakes and turn to a course of obedient service to God?
Did Jehovah reward Jonah for his obedience? Indeed he did. For one thing, it seems that Jonah eventually learned that those sailors had survived. The storm abated immediately after Jonah’s self-sacrificing act, and those mariners “began to fear Jehovah greatly” and made a sacrifice to him instead of to their false gods.—Jonah 1:15, 16.
An even greater reward came much later. Jesus used Jonah’s time in the huge fish as a prophetic picture of his own time in the grave, or Sheol. (Matthew 12:38-40) How thrilled Jonah will be to learn of that blessing when he is resurrected to life on the earth! (John 5:28, 29) Jehovah wants to bless you too. Like Jonah, will you learn from your mistakes and display an obedient, selfless spirit?
Jonah’s origin in a Galilean town is noteworthy because the Pharisees arrogantly said about Jesus: “Search and see that no prophet is to be raised up out of Galilee.” (John 7:52) Many translators and researchers suggest that the Pharisees were making a sweeping generalization that no prophet ever has arisen or ever does arise out of lowly Galilee. If so, those men were ignoring history as well as prophecy.—Isaiah 9:1, 2.
The Septuagint stresses the depth of Jonah’s slumber by adding that he snored. However, lest we judge Jonah’s sleep as a sign of indifference on his part, we might recall that sometimes an urge to sleep overcomes those who are very low in spirits. During Jesus’ agonizing hours in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter, James, and John were “slumbering from grief.”—Luke 22:45.
When translated into Greek, the Hebrew word for “fish” was rendered “sea monster,” or “huge fish.” Although there is no way to determine exactly what kind of sea creature was involved, it has been observed that there are sharks in the Mediterranean large enough to swallow a man whole. There are far larger sharks elsewhere; the whale shark can reach up to 45 feet [15 m] in length—possibly even more!
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Jonah Faces the Critics
▪ Did the events recorded in the Bible book of Jonah really happen? Since ancient times, the book has had its critics. In the modern era of higher criticism, the book is often dismissed—whether as fable, legend, myth, or fiction. One 19th-century author reported how a clergyman explained the account of Jonah and the huge fish as a strange sort of allegory: Jonah stayed at a hotel in Joppa called The Sign of the Whale. When he did not have enough money to pay his bill, the landlord ejected him. Thus was Jonah “taken in” by and later “vomited” from a whale! Really, Bible critics seem more determined to devour Jonah than that huge fish was!
Why does this Bible book elicit so much skepticism? It describes miracles. Many critics, it seems, approach miracles with this rigid preconception: Such things are impossible. But is that approach truly reasonable? Ask yourself this, ‘Do I believe the first sentence of the Bible?’ It says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) Many millions of reasonable people around the world wisely accept that simple truth. In a way, though, that statement alone encompasses far more than any of the miracles described later in the Bible.
Consider: For the One who created the vast starry heavens and all the complex wonders of life on the earth, what elements in the book of Jonah would be impossible? Creating a storm? Impelling a huge fish to swallow a man? Or causing that same fish to vomit the man out again? For One with unlimited power, such things would not be difficult at all.—Isaiah 40:26.
Even without intervention by divine power, amazing things sometimes happen. For example, it is said that in 1758, a sailor tumbled from his ship into the Mediterranean Sea and was consumed by a shark. However, a cannon was fired at the shark. Struck, the fish disgorged the sailor, who was pulled to safety alive and barely injured. If it is true, we might deem the story remarkable, even amazing—but not a miracle. Could God not use his power to do far more?
Skeptics also insist that no man could stay alive within a fish for three days without suffocating. However, humans have been clever enough to figure out how to fill tanks with compressed air and use them in order to breathe underwater for extended periods. Could God not use his infinitely greater power and wisdom to keep Jonah alive and breathing for three days? As one of Jehovah’s angels once said to Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with God no declaration will be an impossibility.”—Luke 1:37.
What else marks the book of Jonah as accurate history? Jonah’s description of the ship and its crew is detailed and realistic. At Jonah 1:5, we see the sailors hurling articles from the ship to lighten it. Ancient historians and even rabbinic law show that this was a common practice in the face of bad weather. Jonah’s later description of Nineveh also fits in with historical and archaeological evidence. Above all, though, Jesus Christ referred to Jonah’s three-day sojourn in the huge fish as prophetic of his own stay in the grave. (Matthew 12:38-40) The testimony of Jesus confirms that Jonah’s story is true.
“With God no declaration will be an impossibility.”—LUKE 1:37
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At Jonah’s urging, the sailors lifted him up and hurled him into the sea