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Jonah was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BC. The name Jonah means “dove.” His father was Amittai. Jonah is identified as a native of Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25). The period in which he prophesied was one of great national distress (2 Kings 14:26, 27) but he predicted prosperity for the nation of Israel which was realized in the days of Jeroboam II (approximately 793–753 BC).
Jonah is one of the twelve minor prophets and his book is written in a narrative form. God commanded Jonah to go preach to the wicked inhabitants of Nineveh (the capital of Assyria) the message of repentance or they would be destroyed by fire (ch. 1:1-2). But Jonah, instead of obeying God’s command, ran away to Tarshish, a city in southern Spain, which is more than 2,500 miles in the opposite direction from Nineveh.
God sent a great storm that endangered the ship Jonah was in. The people on board felt that God was punishing someone among them. So, they drew lots to find who the offender was. When the lot fell on Jonah, he knew what he had to do to save the others. He asked them to throw him into sea so that the storm would cease. They hesitated to do that and tried to row out of the storm, but they could not, so they eventually did as the prophet told them and threw him into the sea. The Lord, in His mercy, sent a whale to swallow the prophet to save him.
Jonah stayed in the belly of the whale three days and three nights. But when he prayed and confessed his sin, God heard his prayer (ch. 2:2) and ordered the whale to throw him out at the shore. At that point, the prphet obeyed and went to warn the city of Nineveh as God had commanded. As a result of his preaching, the city of Nineveh repented fully and God forgave them and did not destroy them. But instead of being delighted for this great salvation, Jonah was sad and he complained saying: “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (ch. 4:2).
To help Jonah understand God’s infinite mercy on His children, He allowed a heat wave to come upon His prophet which led him to wish he could die. And to protect him from the blazing heat, the Lord caused a leafy plant to grow up and shield him from passing away in the desert. The following day, God caused the plant to wither and die. And Jonah felt sorry for the plant. So, God said to him, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (ch. 4:9-11).
Among the lessons taught in this story is the truth that God’s grace brings salvation to all (Titus 2:11), that it was indeed not confined to the Jews but was to be revealed among the heathen. God has “also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). Like Peter (Acts 10), Jonah came to realize reluctantly that God was willing to receive those of every nation who turned to Him. Another lesson from the story of Jonah is that no one can run away from God (Jeremiah 23:24).
Christ referred to the book of Jonah, thus establishing the veracity of the book. By referring to “the men of Nineveh” who responded to Jonah’s call to repentance, Jesus condemned the Pharisaical and prideful Jews of His day (Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:32). Jesus also used the experience of Jonah in the sea as an illustration of His death and resurrection (Matthew 12:39, 40).
In His service,