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Bible Commentaries

The Church Pulpit Commentary

Jonah 1

Verse 1

THE PROPHET JONAH

‘Jonah the son of Amittai.’

Jonah 1:1

I. The prophecy of Jonah is confessedly one of the most remarkable and interesting in the Old Testament.—Deserting the ordinary cycle of Jewish thought, it carries us to a great heathen city, Israel’s bitter enemy; but the prophet’s errand thither is to show that God’s mercies are not limited to His covenant people, but embrace the whole heathen world. And the prophet carries his message unwillingly. Trained in the narrow belief that salvation was for the Jews only, he endeavours to escape altogether from being made the mouthpiece of the Divine love to men so barbarous and cruel as the people of Nineveh; and when, against his will, he has summoned them to repentance, and they obey his call, and the sentence of destruction is changed to one of acceptance, his stubborn prejudices break out into open murmurs, from which he is cured by a lesson so apt and forcible, and yet involving so playful an exhibition of the Divine power, that many scholars have been led by it to treat the whole narrative as a pleasing fiction, or at best as an allegory full of symbolic teaching.

II. But ‘wisdom is justified of her children,’ and there is a fullness of instruction in this prophecy which justifies the miraculous element contained in it, however different the form of the miracles may be from that found in the rest of Holy Scripture.—For, in the first place, it is a great and cardinal truth that there is mercy for those not in covenant with God. Even now we Christians are only slowly learning the lesson that God’s love is broader than human prejudice, and that He will judge men, not by the privileges which they possess, but by the use which they make of them. Just as in old time apostate Samaria, which had utterly deserted the worship of Jehovah, was declared more just than Judah, because the latter, while priding herself upon her covenant relations to God, was false to their principles ( Jeremiah 3:11), so may it be now. Men who have not the law may, as St. Paul declares, attain to such a state as to be even judges of those who, while they have the letter of inspiration and the outward seal of the covenant, yet transgress the law ( Romans 2:14; Romans 2:27).

Now, however much we may neglect it in practice, yet all this is, at least, acknowledged by us in words. But it was very different in the days of Jonah. Though directly contained in the whole teaching of the Book of Genesis, and implicitly in much of such scriptures besides as the Jews then possessed, yet the effect of the Mosaic law, especially of the necessary care taken therein to guard the Chosen People from contact with the heathen, had made them look upon the whole Gentile world as out of the pale of the Divine mercies. After Jonah, the whole body of prophets took up his parable, and taught in the very plainest way that Jehovah was the God of the Gentiles also. To us this truth seems taught everywhere in the Old Testament, but Jonah was the first to teach it plainly and directly to the Jews; and he taught it unwillingly. And yet he acknowledges that it was no new truth; for the reason which he gives for his refusal to bear God’s message was that he understood in its fullness that proclamation of the Divine attributes made in Exodus 34:6-7, and knew, therefore, that there was pardon even for Nineveh, if it repented ( Jonah 4:2).

III. The teaching, then, of the Book of Jonah is very marvellous.—Even more so is its typical nature. In the midst of a storm so terrible that the ship was in danger of being dashed to pieces by the violence of the waves, Jonah lies fast asleep. They awake him, and he is made the propitiation by which the storm is appeased and the ship saved. But after a three days’ death in the belly of that which seemed to him a living grave (chap. Jonah 2:2), he is restored to life, and upon his resurrection follows the conversion of the Gentiles. We have thus a sealed-up prophecy, not opened until our Lord came, and claimed to be Himself the reality of that which Jonah had been only in type ( Matthew 12:39-40).

—Dean Payne Smith.

Illustration

‘It is exceedingly probable that the Book of Jonah is the oldest written prophecy. Its place in the Canon testifies generally to the belief of the Jews that it belongs to the earliest or Assyrian period, but its position after Obadiah is probably owing to its seeming to the arranger that Jonah was that “ambassador to the heathen” of whom Obadiah speaks. But we find that Jonah prophesied at a time anterior to the military successes of Jeroboam II., though probably during that monarch’s reign. We have, then, firm ground beneath us, so far only as the facts reach, that Jonah was a prophet of established repute early in the reign of Israel’s warrior-king, and that Nineveh was at the height of its power when he went thither. But whether Jonah’s mission took place early or late in his life is altogether uncertain. Nothing in Assyrian history helps us to fix the date, nor do we even know whether Jonah was young or old when he foretold the conquest by Israel of the whole country from Hammath to the Dead Sea.’

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Jonah 1". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cpc/jonah-1.html. 1876.