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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 1

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes



The first half of this prophecy records Jonah’s attempt to flee from the Lord and His commission, when he found it personally distasteful, and the consequences of his rebellion.

Verse 1

The book and verse open with a conjunction (Heb. waw, Eng. "Now"). Several versions leave this word untranslated because it makes no substantial difference in the story. Its presence in the Hebrew Bible may suggest that this book was part of a larger collection of stories. About 14 Old Testament books begin with "And," and they obviously connect with the books that immediately precede them. However what Jonah might have continued is unknown.

"These books remind us of God’s ’continued story’ of grace and mercy." [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, "Jonah," in The Bible Exposition Commentary/Prophets, p. 378.]

The expression "The word of the LORD came to" occurs over 100 times in the Old Testament. [Note: Alexander, p. 97.] The writer did not record how Jonah received the following message from the Lord. That is inconsequential here, though often in other prophetic books the method of revelation that God used appears. Likewise the time of this revelation is a mystery and unessential to the interpretation and application of this story. God’s actions are the most important feature in this prophecy.

We do not have any knowledge of Amittai ("truthful") other than that he was Jonah’s father. The recording of the name of an important person’s father was common in Jewish writings, and the presence of Amittai’s name in the text argues for the historical reality of Jonah.

There are several unbiblical Jewish traditions about Jonah’s origin. [Note: Ellison, "Jonah," p. 368.] One held that he was the widow’s son whom Elijah restored to life (1 Kings 17:17-24). Another held that he had some connection with the Jerusalem temple even though he was from the North. Another credited him with a successful mission to Jerusalem similar to the one to Nineveh. None of these has any biblical support. They were apparently attempts to fit Jonah into other inspired stories and to glorify the prophet.

Verses 1-3

A. Jonah’s attempt to flee from God 1:1-3

The story opens with God commissioning His prophet and Jonah rebelling against His will.

Verse 2

Nineveh was indeed a great city whose history stretched back as far as Nimrod, who built it as well as Babel and several other cities in Mesopotamia (Genesis 10:8-12). [Note: For further description of its greatness, see my comments on 3:3 and 4:11.] The word "great" occurs frequently in this book (Jonah 1:2; Jonah 1:4; Jonah 1:12; Jonah 1:16-17; Jonah 3:2; Jonah 4:1; Jonah 4:6; Jonah 4:11). Nineveh occupied about 1800 acres and stood on the east bank of the Tigris River across from the modern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Jonah was to "cry against it" (NASB) or "preach against it" (NIV) in the sense of informing its inhabitants that God had taken note of their wickedness. He was not to identify their sins as much as announce that judgment was imminent. God apparently intended that Jonah’s condition as an outsider would have made the Ninevites regard him as a divine messenger. The Lord did not send him to be merely a foreign critic of that culture.

Verse 3

Tarshish was the name of a great-grandson of Noah through Noah’s son Japheth and Japheth’s son Javan (Genesis 10:1-4). From then on in the Old Testament the name describes both the descendants of this man and the territory where they settled (cf. 1 Kings 10:22; 1 Kings 22:48; 1 Chronicles 7:10). The territory was evidently a long distance from Israel and on the Atlantic coast of southwest Spain (cf. Jonah 4:2; Isaiah 66:19). [Note: See the map in Alexander, p. 49.] It also contained mineral deposits that its residents mined and exported to Tyre and probably other places (Jeremiah 10:9; Ezekiel 27:12). Since the Hebrew word tarshishu means smelting place or refinery, the Jews referred to several such places on the Mediterranean coast by this name. [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Tarshish," by J. A. Thompson.] Similarly several towns along the coastlands of English-speaking nations today bear the name "Portland." Therefore it is probably impossible to locate the exact spot that Jonah proposed to visit. The identification of Tarshish with Spain is very old going back to Herodotus, the Greek historian, who referred to a Tartessus in Spain. [Note: Ibid.] This site was about 2500 miles west of Joppa. In any case, Jonah sought to flee by ship from Joppa on Israel’s Mediterranean coast and to go to some remote destination that lay in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Joppa stood about 35 miles southwest of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. Nineveh lay about 550 miles northeast of Samaria.

"Jonah the believer is disgruntled with his calling. (Whoever thought a missionary would be disgruntled-except a fellow missionary!)" [Note: Joyce Baldwin, "Jonah," in The Minor Prophets, p. 543.]

Why did Jonah leave Israel? He evidently concluded that if he ran away God would select another prophet rather than track him down and make him go to Nineveh. By going in the opposite direction from Nineveh, as far from Nineveh as was then possible, Jonah seems to have been trying to get as far away from the judgment he thought the Lord would bring on that city as he could. In short, he seems to have been trying to run away from the Lord’s calling and to preserve his own safety at the same time. This is the only instance in Scripture of a prophet disobeying God’s call (cf. Amos 3:8 for the typical response).

However it was "the presence of the Lord" localized in the Promised Land, mentioned twice in this verse for emphasis, that Jonah sought to escape more than anything. Specifically it was God’s influence over him. He probably knew that he could not remove himself from the literal presence of the omnipresent God.

"To be a prophet was not necessarily to be a great theologian. God chooses whom he will, whether trained professional specialist or not (cf. Amos 7:14-15)." [Note: Stuart, p. 466.]

There is a chiasm in this verse. It begins and ends with references to going to Tarshish from the Lord’s presence. In the center is another reference to going to Tarshish. This structure stresses the fact that Jonah defiantly repudiated God’s call.

Perhaps we can appreciate how Jonah felt about his commission if we compare a similar case. Suppose God called some Jew living during the Hitler regime to go to Berlin and prophesy publicly that God was going to destroy Nazi Germany unless the Germans repented. The possibility of the Germans repenting and God withholding judgment on them would have been totally repugnant to such a Jew. His racial patriotism would have conflicted with his fidelity to God just as Jonah’s did. [Note: Gaebelein, p. 72.]

"In this brief introduction to the book the reader learns three central things: (1) who Jonah was; (2) what Yahweh wanted him to do; (3) Jonah’s response. Thus are introduced the main characters of the story, i.e., Jonah and God; and the situation around which the story revolves, i.e., Jonah’s unwillingness to carry out a divine commission which he finds odious." [Note: Stuart, p. 452.]

Many servants of the Lord throughout history have mistakenly thought that they could get away from the Lord and escape the consequences of His actions by changing their location. This book teaches us that that is not possible (cf. Psalms 139:7-10).

"It’s possible to be out of the will of God and still have circumstances appear to be working on your behalf." [Note: Wiersbe, pp. 378-79.]

"An officer in an army may resign the commission of his president or king, but an ambassador of the Lord is on a different basis. His service is for life, and he may not repudiate it without the danger of incurring God’s discipline." [Note: Gaebelein, p. 74.]

Verse 4

Jonah subjected himself to dangers that Israel and the entire ancient Near East viewed as directly under divine control when he launched out on the sea. The sea to them was the embodiment of the chaotic forces that humans could not control or tame (cf. Psalms 24:2; Psalms 33:7; Psalms 65:7; Psalms 74:13; Psalms 77:19; Psalms 89:9; Psalms 114:3; Psalms 114:5; Isaiah 27:1; Isaiah 51:10; Isaiah 63:11; Jeremiah 5:22; Jeremiah 31:35; et al.). Jonah was desperate to get away from where he thought God might come after him (cf. Genesis 3:8). Nevertheless God used the wind to bring the prodigal prophet to the place He wanted him to be (cf. Genesis 1:2).

"It was gracious of God to seek out His disobedient servant and not to allow him to remain long in his sin." [Note: Charles L. Feinberg, Jonah, Micah, and Nahum, p. 15.]

In the Hebrew text the last part of this verse is literally, "the ship thought she would be broken in pieces," a graphic personification.

Verses 4-6

B. Jonah’s lack of compassion 1:4-6

Verse 5

The sailors were of mixed religious convictions. Some of them were probably Phoenicians, since Phoenicians were commonly seafaring traders. Phoenicia was a center of Baal worship then. The sailors’ willingness to throw their cargo into the sea illustrates the extreme danger they faced (cf. Acts 27:18-20).

Jonah’s ability to sleep under such conditions seems very unusual. The same Hebrew word (radam) describes Sisera’s deep sleep that his exhaustion produced (Judges 4:21) and the deep sleep that God put Adam and Abram under (Genesis 2:21; Genesis 15:12). Perhaps Jonah was both exhausted and divinely assisted in sleeping. His condition does not seem to have a major bearing on the story; it is probably a detail. The events that follow could have happened if he had been wide-awake just as well. What does seem unusual is his attitude of "careless self-security." [Note: Keil, 1:393.] He seems to have preferred death to facing God alive. Not only did he flee to Tarshish, but he also fled to the innermost part of the ship (cf. Amos 6:10).

Verse 6

It took a presumably pagan sea captain to remind Jonah of his duty. The words the captain used are the same as the ones God had used (Jonah 1:2, Heb. qum lek). Jonah should have been praying instead of sleeping in view of the imminent danger that he and his companions faced (cf. Luke 22:39-46). The normal reaction to danger, even among pagans, is to seek divine intervention, but this is precisely what Jonah wanted to avoid. Jonah did not care if he died (Jonah 1:12).

"It is well known how often sin brings insensibility with it also. What a shame that the prophet of God had to be called to pray by a heathen." [Note: Feinberg, p. 16.]

What the captain hoped Jonah’s God would do, He did. He is the only true God, and He does show concern for people (cf. Jonah 4:2; Jonah 4:11). This demonstration of Yahweh’s concern for people in danger is one of the great themes of this book. God showed compassion for the Ninevites and later for Jonah, but Jonah showed little compassion for the Ninevites, for these sailors, or even for himself.

Whereas the first pericope of the story (Jonah 1:1-3) illuminates the lack of compassion that characterized the prophet, this second one (Jonah 1:4-6) reinforces it and implies, in contrast, that God is compassionate. Not only was Jonah fleeing from God’s presence, but he was also displaying a character that was antithetical to God’s. Such is often the case when God’s people turn their backs on Him and run from His assignments.

Verse 7

It appears to have been common among the heathen to cast lots to determine who was responsible for some catastrophe (cf. John 19:24). Saul resorted to this when he could not get a direct response from the Lord (cf. 1 Samuel 14:36-42). Casting lots was a divinely prescribed method of learning God’s will in Israel (e.g., Leviticus 16:8-10; Numbers 26:55-56; Numbers 33:54; Numbers 34:13; Numbers 36:2-3; Joshua 14:2; Joshua 15:1; Joshua 16:1; et al.). However as practiced by pagans, it was a superstitious practice. In this case God overruled and gave the sailors the correct answer to their request (cf. Proverbs 16:33).

". . . Jonah won the lottery-or lost it." [Note: Allen, p. 208.]

Verses 7-10

C. Jonah’s failure to fear his sovereign God 1:7-10

The sailors interrogated Jonah about his reasons for travelling on their ship, but it was his failure to live consistently with his convictions that amazed them.

Verse 8

The sailors proceeded to interrogate Jonah when they believed they had identified the culprit responsible for their calamity. Had Jonah been involved in some situation that had brought down a curse from someone else that resulted in the storm? Possibly the reason for their trouble had some connection with Jonah’s occupation or hometown. His national or ethnic origin might also prove to be the key they sought. Finding the reason for their trouble was what they wanted. They did not ignorantly assume that doing away with Jonah would solve their problem.

Verse 9

It should have been no surprise to the sailors that Jonah was a Hebrew since they had taken him on board at Joppa, a major port in Israel. "Hebrew" is the name by which the Israelites’ neighbors knew them (cf. 1 Samuel 4:6; 1 Samuel 4:9; 1 Samuel 14:11). Jonah probably identified himself as a Hebrew as a preamble to explaining that he worshipped Yahweh Elohim, the heavenly God of the Hebrews. The Phoenicians also thought of Baal as a sky god (cf. 1 Kings 18:24). It was the fact that this God made the sea on which they traveled, as well as the dry land, that convinced the sailors that Jonah had done something very serious. It was obvious to them that Jonah’s God was after him and had sent the storm to put him in His hands. Ironically what was so clear to these pagans was obscure to the runaway prophet. When God sovereignly selects someone for special service, that person cannot run and hide from Him. Jonah had not yet learned this lesson.

The title "the God of heaven" is common in the postexilic books (e.g., Ezra 1:2; Ezra 7:12; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 2:18-19; Daniel 2:37; Daniel 2:44; Daniel 5:21; Daniel 5:23). This fact has influenced some scholars to conclude that the Book of Jonah must also date from the same period. However this title was a very old one in Israel’s history (cf. Genesis 24:3; Genesis 24:7). Its use on this occasion was particularly appropriate since it expressed the supremacy of Yahweh to polytheistic pagans.

Jonah’s confession is a central feature in the narrative. It is the center of a literary chiasmus that begins in Jonah 1:4 and extends through Jonah 1:16. [Note: See Ernst R. Wendland, "Text Analysis and the Genre of Jonah (Part 2)," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39:3 (September 1996):374-75, which also points out many other structural features of Jonah.]

Verse 10

The sailors’ exclamation (rather than question, cf. Genesis 4:10) expressed their incredulity at Jonah’s naïveté in trying to run away from the God who created the sea by taking a sea voyage. Surely Jonah must have known, they thought, that Yahweh would make their journey perilous. Evidently Jonah had previously told them that he was fleeing from the Lord (cf. Jonah 1:3, where "from the presence of the LORD" occurs twice), but they did not then understand that the Lord was the creator of the sea. Had they known this they probably would not have sold him passage. In the polytheistic ancient Near East people conceived of a multitude of gods each with authority over a particular area of life. A god of the mountains, for example, would have little power on the plains (cf. 1 Kings 20:23).

Before, the mariners had feared the storm, but now they feared the Lord, recognizing the Creator above the creation. [Note: Gaebelein, p. 79.]

"This is the storyteller’s ironic view of the person who thinks he can escape Yahweh. And yet this irony, with all its exaggeration, is slyly absurd rather than bitter." [Note: Hans W. Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, p. 139.]

This pericope, like the previous two, builds to a climax that stresses Jonah’s failure. He did not fear his God though, again ironically, the pagan sailors did. Jonah professed faith in a sovereign God, yet by trying to escape from the Lord he denied his belief in God’s sovereignty. One cannot flee or hide from a sovereign God.

Verse 11

The sailors might have known what to do with Jonah had he been a criminal guilty of some crime against persons or if he had accidentally transgressed a law of his God. However, he was guilty of being a servant of his God and directly disobeying the Lord’s order to him. They had no idea what would placate the creator of the sea in such a case, so they asked Jonah since he knew his God.

Verses 11-16

D. The sailors’ compassion and fear of God 1:11-16

Rather than becoming God’s instrument of salvation Jonah became an object for destruction because he rebelled against God.

Verse 12

Jonah’s answer reveals the double-mindedness of the prophet. He could have asked the sailors to sail back to Joppa if he really intended to obey the Lord and go to Nineveh. His repentance surely would have resulted in God withholding judgment from the sailors just as the Ninevites’ repentance resulted in His withholding judgment from them. Still Jonah was not ready to obey God yet. Nonetheless his compassion for the sailors led him to give them a plan designed to release them from God’s punishment. It would also result in his death, which he regarded as preferable to obeying God. His heart was still as hard as ever toward the plight of the Ninevites even though he acknowledged that he knew God was disciplining him.

"He pronounces this sentence, not by virtue of any prophetic inspiration, but as a believing Israelite who is well acquainted with the severity of the justice of the holy God, both from the law and from the history of his nation." [Note: Keil, 1:396.]

Why did Jonah not end his own life by jumping overboard? I suspect that he did not have the courage to do so. Obviously it took considerable courage to advise the sailors to throw him into the sea where he must have expected to drown, but suicide takes even more courage.

"The piety of the seamen has evidently banished his nonchalant indifference and touched his conscience. By now he has realized how terrible is the sin that has provoked this terrible storm. The only way to appease the tempest of Yahweh’s wrath is to abandon himself to it as just deserts for his sin. His willingness to die is an indication that he realizes his guilt before God." [Note: Allen, pp. 210-11.]

Verse 13

The sailors initially rejected Jonah’s advice and compassionately chose to drop him off at the nearest landfall. They strained every muscle for Jonah’s sake, literally digging their oars into the water. They demonstrated more concern for one man than Jonah had for the thousands of men, women, and children in Nineveh. When reaching land became impossible due to the raging sea, they prayed to Yahweh, something that we have no record that the prophet had done.

Verse 14

The sailors also voiced their belief in God’s sovereignty, which Jonah had denied by his behavior. They requested physical deliverance and forgiveness from guilt since they anticipated that Jonah would die because of their act. They believed that God’s sovereignty was so strongly obvious that He might forgive them. Jonah’s innocent death seemed inevitable to them try as they did to avoid it. Still they could not be sure that they were doing God’s will and feared that He might punish them for taking the life of His servant. From their viewpoint Jonah was innocent (Heb. naqi) of death because he had not committed any of the crimes for which people suffered death at the hands of their fellowmen. Yet nothing less than death was what he deserved for sinning against God (Ezekiel 18:4; Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 6:23).

Verses 15-16

The immediate cessation of the storm proved to the sailors that Yahweh really did control the sea (cf. Matthew 8:26). Therefore they feared (respected) Him, offered a sacrifice to Him (when they reached shore?), and made vows (perhaps to venerate Him, cf. Psalms 116:17-18).

"The book of Jonah contains within its few pages one of the greatest concentrations of the supernatural in the Bible. Yet it is significant that the majority of them are based upon natural phenomena." [Note: Gaebelein, p. 83.]

These mariners were almost certainly polytheists, so we should not conclude that they abandoned their worship of other gods and "got saved" necessarily. However their spiritual salvation is a possibility. The fact that they made vows to God may point to their conversion.

Note that these pagan sailors feared God more than the prophet did (Jonah 1:9). By their actions they gave Him the respect He deserves, but Jonah did not.

"In this episode the sailors are a foil for Jonah. In contrast to Jonah, who preaches but does not pray, the sailors offer prayers to God. In contrast to Jonah, who says he fears God but acts in a way that is inconsistent with his claim, the sailors, who barely know Jonah’s God, respond to him in genuine fear." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook of . . ., p. 411.]

"Through the defection of Jonah a ship’s crew acknowledges the Creator’s power, comes to the point of worshiping him, and acknowledges him as Lord. If this is the outcome of Jonah’s disobedience, what will God bring to pass as the result of Jonah’s obedience?" [Note: Baldwin, pp. 563-64.]

This story is full of irony. [Note: See Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament.] When someone knows God but chooses to disobey Him, that person begins to demonstrate even less compassion for others, less faith in God’s sovereignty, and less fear of Him than pagans normally do.

"Above all, the story thus far extols the fact that sin does not pay and that, try as the sinner will to escape, he is God’s marked man. The wages of sin are death." [Note: Allen, p. 213.]

E. Jonah’s deliverance by God 1:17-2:1

For the second time in this story God took the initiative to move His prophet to carry out His will (cf. Jonah 1:1). This time Jonah turned to the Lord.

Verse 17

The identity of the great fish remains a mystery since the only record of what it was is in this story, and that description is general. The Hebrew word dag, translated "fish," describes a variety of aquatic creatures. The text does not say that God created this fish out of nothing (ex nihilo) nor does what the fish did require such an explanation. There are many types of fish capable of swallowing a human being whole. [Note: See Wilson, pp. 631-32.] Two examples are the sperm whale and the whale shark. Occasionally today we hear of someone who has lived for several days in a fish or in some other large animal and has emerged alive. [Note: See Harrison, pp. 907-8, or Keil, 1:398, for several such instances.] Notwithstanding Jonah’s experience has been one of the favorite targets of unbelievers in the miraculous, who claim that this story is preposterous (cf. Matthew 12:39-40). Some Bible students have faulted some commentators for documenting instances of large fish swallowing people who have survived, as if such suggestions slight God’s power. They do not necessarily.

"The numerous attempts made in the past to identify the sort of fish that could have kept Jonah alive in it are misguided. How would even Jonah himself have known? Can we assume that he caught a glimpse of it as it turned back to sea after vomiting him out on shore (Jonah 1:1 [10])? How much could he have understood of what had happened to him when he was swallowed? These questions have no answer. To ask them is to ignore the way the story is told. What sorts of fish people can live inside is not an interest of the scripture." [Note: Stuart, p. 474.]

Significantly God saved Jonah’s life by using a fish rather than in a more conventional method such as providing a piece of wood that he could cling to. Thus this method of deliverance must have some special significance. The Jews were familiar with the mythical sea monster (Ugaritic lotan, Heb. leviathan) that symbolized both the uncontrollable chaos of the sea and the chaotic forces that only Yahweh could manage (cf. Psalms 74:13-14; Psalms 104:25-26). The Hebrews did not believe that leviathan really existed any more than we believe in Santa Claus. Yet the figure was familiar to them, and they knew what it represented. For Jonah to relate his experience of deliverance in his ancient Near Eastern cultural context would have impressed his hearers that a great God had sent him to them. It is probably for this reason that God chose to save Jonah by using a great fish.

Here God controlled the traditionally uncontrollable to spare Jonah’s life. The God who is great enough to control it could control anything, and He used His power for a loving purpose. This is more remarkable since Jonah, as God’s servant, had rebelled against his Master. God’s method of deliverance therefore reveals both His great power and His gracious heart.

"Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God." [Note: G. Campbell Morgan, The Minor Prophets, p. 69.]

"It is the greatness of Israel’s God that is the burden of the book." [Note: Allen, p. 192.]

Jonah was able to calculate how long he was in the fish after he came out of it. Obviously he lost all track of time inside the fish.

Ancient Near Easterners viewed the trip to the underworld land of the dead as a three-day journey. [Note: George M. Landes, "The ’Three Days and Three Nights’ Motif in Jonah 2:1," Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967): 246-250.] Original readers of this story would have concluded that the fish gave Jonah a return trip from the land of the dead to which Jonah, by his own admission, had descended (Jonah 2:2; Jonah 2:6).

The three-day time was significant also because Jonah’s deliverance became a precursor of an even greater salvation that took three days and nights to accomplish (Matthew 12:40). God restored Jonah to life so he would be God’s instrument in providing salvation to a large Gentile (and indirectly Jewish) population under God’s judgment for their sins. He raised Jesus to life so He would be God’s instrument in providing salvation for an even larger population of Gentiles and Jews under God’s judgment for their sins.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Jonah 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/jonah-1.html. 2012.
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