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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

- Jonah

by Thomas Constable



Jonah is the fifth of the Minor Prophets in our English Bibles. The Minor Prophets are called the Book of the Twelve in the Hebrew Bible. Jonah is unique among the Latter Prophets (in Hebrew: Isaiah through Malachi) in that it is almost completely narrative, similar to the histories of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-19; 2Ki_2:1 to 2Ki_13:21). As these two predecessors, Elijah and Elisha, Jonah also ministered in and to Israel as well as in Phoenicia and Aram. The exceptional section of this book, of course, is Jonah’s psalm in Jon_2:2-9 (cf. Habakkuk 3). Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet on record whom God sent to a heathen nation with a message of repentance. Nahum’s later ministry to Nineveh consisted of announcing certain overthrow, though, had the Ninevites repented again, God might have relented. Jonah was Israel’s foreign missionary whereas Hosea was Israel’s home missionary. Both of these prophets revealed important characteristics about God: Hosea, God’s loyal love to Israel, and Jonah, His compassion for all people, specifically Gentiles.

Jonah’s hometown was Gath-hepher in Galilee (2Ki_14:25; cf. Jos_19:13). It stood north of Nazareth in the tribal territory of Zebulun. Jonah prophesied in the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Israel’s Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.; 2Ki_14:23-25). 2Ki_14:25 records that Jonah prophesied that Jeroboam II would restore Israel to her former boundaries, which the king did.

It is very probable that God sent Jonah to Nineveh, at this time a very significant city of the great Assyrian Empire, during the years when that nation was relatively weak. Following the death of King Adad-nirari III in 783 B.C., the nation was not strong again until Tiglath-pileser III seized the throne in 745 B.C. During this 37-year period Assyria had difficulty resisting its neighbors to the North, the Urartu mountain tribes who allied with their neighbors, the people of Mannai and Madai. These invaders pushed the northern border of Assyria south to within less than 100 miles of Nineveh. This vulnerable condition evidently made the king and residents of Nineveh receptive to Jonah’s prophetic message to them. Wiseman argued for a more specific time within this period, namely, during the reign of Assur-dan III (772-755 B.C.) when he thought Jonah visited Nineveh. [Note: Donald J. Wiseman, "Jonah’s Nineveh," Tyndale Bulletin 30 (1979):29-51.] Dyer wrote that Nineveh became one of the capitals of Assyria during the reign of Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), and it became Assyria’s sole capital during the reign of his son, Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.). [Note: Charles H. Dyer, in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 772.]

Nineveh stood on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. It had walls 100 feet high and 50 feet thick, and the main one, punctuated by 15 gates, was over seven and one-half miles long. [Note: See International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, 1957 ed., s.v. "Nineveh," by A. H. Sayce; Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, 1975 ed., s.v. "Nineveh," by Elmer B. Smick; and The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Nineveh," by D. J. Wiseman.] The total population was probably about 600,000 including the people who lived in the suburbs outside the city walls (cf. Jon_4:11). The residents were idolaters and worshipped Asur and Ishtar, the chief male and female deities, as did almost all the Assyrians. Assyria was a threat to Israel’s security (cf. Hos_11:5; Amo_5:27). This is one reason Jonah refused to go to Nineveh. He feared the people might repent and that God would refrain from punishing Israel’s enemy (Jon_4:2).


Many critical scholars date this prophecy in the postexilic period during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. They base their opinion on linguistic features of the book and legendary descriptions, specifically, the size, population, importance, and king of Nineveh, plus late customs and audience. [Note: For refutation of these objections, see T. Desmond Alexander, "Jonah," in Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, pp. 52-63.] Critics also point to the differences in style between Jonah and Hosea, another northern prophet. Many conservative scholars believe that these arguments do not outweigh the evidence for a pre-exilic date that many features of the book and the traditional Jewish commentaries present.

If the book records events that really happened, the record of them must have come from Jonah himself. However the book nowhere claims that Jonah was its writer. It seems to argue against this possibility by relating the story in the third person rather than in the first. Therefore some unidentified writer appears to have put the book in its final form. However, Jonah could have described himself in the third person. Daniel did this in the Book of Daniel, which most conservatives believe Daniel wrote. The compilers of the Old Testament canon probably placed this book among the Minor Prophets because they believed that Jonah wrote it. [Note: See C. F. Keil, The Twelve Minor Prophets, 1:380.] The title, however, honors the chief character in the narrative as much as its traditional writer.

One conservative scholar suggested that what we have is a version of the story that someone wrote for the nation of Judah. The writer supposedly did this to teach Judah’s people the lessons that God earlier taught His prophet, the Ninevites, and the residents of Israel. [Note: H. L. Ellison, "Jonah," in Daniel-Minor Prophets, vol. 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 362.] Such a message would have been appropriate when the weakened Southern Kingdom faced a threat from another formidable power to its north, namely, Babylonia. However the arguments for the writer being Jonah are quite convincing. [Note: See especially Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, pp. 308-9.] Douglas Stuart argued that the writer was not Jonah because the story is so consistently critical of Jonah, more so than any other Bible book is critical of its writer. [Note: Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, p. 432.] This argument seems weak to me.

The events recorded in the book probably covered only a few months or years at the most. Jonah lived during Jeroboam II’s reign over the Northern Kingdom of Israel (793-753 B.C.). Probably a date of composition somewhere in the neighborhood of 780 B.C. would not be far from the exact date.

"From the death of Elisha to the prophesying of Amos nearly forty years must have elapsed, during which the only recorded prophetic voice is Jonah’s." [Note: H. L. Ellison, The Prophets of Israel, p. 55.]


Since the rise of critical scholarship in the nineteenth century, many writers and teachers now believe that the events recorded in this book were not historical. [Note: For discussion and refutation see Archer, pp. 309-15; Stuart, pp. 440-42; and Alexander, pp. 69-77.] They interpret this book as an allegory or as a parable.

The allegorical interpretation views the book as "a complete allegory in which each feature represents an element in the historical and religious experience of the Israelites." [Note: R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 911.] This interpretation may have arisen because "Jonah" means "dove," and the Jews had long regarded the dove as a symbol of their nation (cf. Psa_74:19; Hos_11:11). Jonah indisputably brought peace to violent Nineveh as a dove. Those who adopt this interpretation see the book as teaching Israel’s mission and failure in being God’s missionary agent to the Gentiles. Jonah’s flight to Tarshish represents Israel’s failure before the Exile, and the great fish symbolizes Babylon. The disgorging of Jonah stands for Israel’s second chance following her restoration to the land.

The parabolic interpretation also regards the book as not historical. [Note: See the discussion in Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 444-45.] However, its advocates view it as simply a moral story designed to teach a spiritual lesson. Essentially the lesson is that God’s people should not be narrow and introverted but outreaching and missionary in their love and concern for those outside their number who are facing God’s judgment. The difference in these two interpretations is the amount of detail that its advocates press. The parabolic interpretation usually argues for one primary lesson in the story whereas the allegorical interpretation finds meaning in its many details too.

Jewish and Christian interpreters believed that the Book of Jonah was historical until the rise of critical scholarship. Jesus Christ referred to Jonah as a historical person and to his experience as real (Mat_12:38-42; Mat_16:4; Luk_11:29-32). Jonah is the only Old Testament character with whom Jesus Christ compared Himself directly. [Note: For several comparisons and contrasts see Frank E. Gaebelein, Four Minor Prophets, pp. 122-24.] Jesus did refer to other prophets, however, namely, Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah, beside quoting and alluding to many others.

"If the three days’ confinement of Jonah in the belly of the fish really had the typical significance which Christ attributes to it . . . it can neither be a myth or dream, nor a parable, nor merely a visionary occurrence experienced by the prophet; but must have had as much objective reality as the facts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ." [Note: Keil, 1:388.]

J. Vernon McGee argued that Jonah died and God raised him back to life on the basis of Jesus’ words about him (Mat_12:39-40). [Note: J. Vernon McGee, Jonah: Dead or Alive? pp. 21-27.] Most conservative expositors believe that Jesus’ prediction does not require that interpretation.

It is unlikely that the writer would have given us the name of Jonah’s father if he was not a real person. Furthermore the narrator presented Jonah as a real person, not a mythical or fictitious figure. [Note: For additional evidence see Frank S. Page, "Jonah," in Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, pp. 217-19.]

The main argument against the book being historical is Jonah’s surviving three days and nights in the fish’s belly (Jon_1:17). However various writers have documented many similar miraculous deliverances. [Note: See Harrison, pp. 907-8; A. J. Wilson, "Sign of the Prophet Jonah and Its Modern Confirmations," Princeton Theological Review 25 (October 1927):630-42; and George F. Howe, "Jonah and the Great Fish," Biblical Research Monthly, January 1973, pp. 6-8.] Since such a survival is physically possible, we should not dismiss the historical view, especially since Jesus endorsed Jonah’s "resurrection."

Some interpreters, including myself, who hold to the historicity of the events also believe that the book contains symbolic and typical teaching.

"Whereas other prophets proclaimed in words the position of the Gentiles with regard to Israel in the nearer and more remote future, and predicted not only the surrender of Israel to the power of the Gentiles, but also the future conversion of the heathen to the living God, and their reception into the kingdom of God, the prophet Jonah was entrusted with the commission to proclaim the position of Israel in relation to the Gentile world in a symbolico-typical manner, and to exhibit both figuratively and typically not only the susceptibility of the heathen for divine grace, but also the conduct of Israel with regard to the design of God to show favour to the Gentiles, and the consequences of their conduct." [Note: Keil, 1:384.]

"Jonah’s character and God’s dealing with him foreshadow the subsequent history of the nation of Israel: outside the land, a trouble to the Gentiles, yet witnessing to them; cast out, but miraculously preserved; in future deepest distress calling upon the LORD as Savior, finding deliverance and then becoming missionaries to the Gentiles (Zec_8:7-23). But chiefly Jonah typifies Christ as the Sent-One, raised from the dead, and carrying salvation to the Gentiles." [Note: The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 941.]

What difference does it make if Jonah was not historical but fictional? The main effect is that if Jonah was not a real person the force of Jesus’ appeal to his experience would have been considerably weakened. If Jonah had not spent three days and three nights in a fish’s belly, would Jesus’ death have had to be literal? Perhaps Jesus was only talking about a spiritual or legendary experience similar to dying. Jesus based His sign of the prophet Jonah on the historicity of Jonah and his experience in the fish, which Jesus’ contemporaries took literally.


The book is probably a sensational didactic prophetic historical narrative in its literary genre. [Note: Stuart, pp. 435-38; Alexander, pp. 69-77. For further discussion of genre, see Ernst R. Wendland, "Text Analysis and the Genre of Jonah (Part 1)," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39:2 (June 1996):191-206.]

"The concern of a number of OT prophetic narratives is to trace the process whereby a divine oracle was fulfilled. This book, on the contrary, breaks the pattern surprisingly by showing how and why a divine oracle, concerning the destruction of Nineveh, was not fulfilled." [Note: Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, p. 175.]

Many commentators who deny the historicity of the book regard it as a parable or allegory and its literary tone as parody or satire. [Note: See ibid., pp. 177-81; and Alexander, pp. 69-77, for further discussion.]


The book is a revelation to God’s people of His sovereign power and loving concern for all His creatures, even cattle (Jon_4:11). This revelation came first to Jonah personally and then through him to the Jews. It was not primarily a revelation to the Ninevites. Their responsibility was simply to repent and humble themselves. This revelation should have moved the Israelites to respond as the Assyrians did, namely, with repentance and humility. They faced similar threats, first from the Assyrians and then from the Babylonians. Jonah’s lack of concern for the Ninevites contrasts with God’s concern for them that was to be the pattern for His people.

"The main purpose of the book is to teach Israelites that God loves other nations than their own; or, in fact, to teach us that he loves other nations than our own. In service of this purpose, Jonah stands for most Israelites-or most of us-as he represents the typical attitude people tend to have toward nations they have no reason to love themselves." [Note: Stuart, p. 479. Cf. Dyer, p. 773.]

"Jonah hopes all along that somehow God won’t turn out to be consistent with his own well-known character (Jon_4:2). But God is consistent throughout, in contrast to Jonah’s hypocritical inconsistency. What happens to Nineveh and to Jonah happens precisely because of what God is like. The audience of the book is thus invited implicitly to revise their understanding of what God is like, if they have indeed shared Jonah’s selfish views." [Note: Stuart, p. 434.]

"The overriding theme of the book is the sovereign God’s grace toward sinners, illustrated in His decision to withhold His judgment from the guilty but repentant Ninevites." [Note: Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "A Theology of the Minor Prophets," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 432. See also Alexander, pp. 81-91.]

"God’s grace was extended to the most hostile and aggressive of Israel’s Gentile neighbors-the Assyrians. Surprisingly, they were even more responsive to God’s messenger than was Israel, all to the chagrin of Jonah." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology, p. 200.]

"The Book of Jonah is one of the most relevant books for the present time." [Note: R. T. Kendall, Jonah: An Exposition, p. 11.]


The earliest extra-biblical reference to this book is in Sir_49:10. There, Ben Sira, who lived no later than 190 B.C., referred to "the twelve prophets," namely, the writers of the Minor Prophets books, which includes Jonah. The Jewish rabbis never challenged the canonicity of this book.


I.    The disobedience of the prophet chs. 1-2

A.    Jonah’s attempt to flee from God Jon_1:1-3

B.    Jonah’s lack of compassion Jon_1:4-6

C.    Jonah’s failure to fear his sovereign God Jon_1:7-10

D.    The sailors’ compassion and fear of God Jon_1:11-16

E.    Jonah’s deliverance by God Jon_1:17 to Jon_2:1

F.    Jonah’s psalm of thanksgiving Jon_2:2-9

G.    Jonah’s deliverance from the fish Jon_2:10

II.    The obedience of the prophet chs. 3-4

A.    Jonah’s proclamation to the Ninevites Jon_3:1-4

B.    The Ninevites’ repentance Jon_3:5-10

C.    Jonah’s displeasure at God’s mercy Jon_4:1-4

D.    God’s rebuke of Jonah for his attitude Jon_4:5-9

E.    God’s compassion for those under His judgment Jon_4:10-11

The following outline points out some of the parallels in the story nicely. [Note: Allen, p. 200. The verse numbers in brackets are those in the Hebrew text. See also Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Handbook of the Prophets, pp. 408-9, for a similar outline.]

I.    A Hebrew sinner saved (Jon_1:1 to Jon_2:10 [11])

A.    Jonah’s disobedience (Jon_1:1-3)

B.    Jonah’s punishment; heathen homage (Jon_1:4-16)

C.    Jonah’s rescue (Jon_1:17 to Jon_2:10 [Jon_2:1-10])

1.    God’s grace (Jon_1:17 [Jon_2:1])

2.    Jonah’s praise (Jon_2:1-9 [2-10])

3.    God’s last word (Jon_2:10 [11])

II.    Heathen Sinners Saved (Jon_3:1 to Jon_4:11)

A.    Jonah’s obedience (Jon_3:1-4)

B.    Nineveh’s repentance (Jon_3:5-9)

C.    Jonah’s rebuke (Jon_3:10 to Jon_4:11)

1.    God’s grace (Jon_3:10)

2.    Jonah’s plaint (Jon_4:1-3)

3.    God’s last word (Jon_4:4-11)



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_____. "Text Analysis and the Genre of Jonah (Part 2)." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39:3 (September 1996):373-95.

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