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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 1

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) Now . . .—More strictly, And; but the English quite adequately represents the Hebrew style of beginning a narrative, whether it formed a book by itself, or merely continued an historical account. (See the opening of Exodus, Leviticus, and other historical books; Ezekiel 1:1; and comp. 1 Kings 17:1, &c.)

Jonah the son of Amittai.—See Introduction.

Verse 2

(2) Nineveh, that great city.—The size of Nineveh is throughout the book brought into prominent notice. (See Jonah 3:2-3; Jonah 4:11.) The traditions preserved in Greek and Roman writers dwell on the same feature; and modern researches among the huge mounds scattered along the left bank of the Tigris more than confirm the impression produced on the ancient world by the city, or rather group of cities, buried beneath them. (Comp. Genesis 10:11.)

Cry.—A common word for a proclamation by a herald or a prophet. (Comp. Isaiah 40:6, &c.) The English word, in the sense of “proclaim,” lingers in the term “public crier.”

For their wickedness is come up before me.—“Every iniquity has its own voice at the hidden judgment seat of God” (S. Gregory, Mor. v. 20; quoted by Pusey). But, as Pusey remarks, the Hebrew implies especially evil-doing against others, that violence which in Jonah 3:8 is recognised by the Ninevites themselves as their characteristic sin.

Verse 3

(3) But Jonah rose up to flee.—The motive of the prophet’s flight is given by himself (Jonah 4:2). He foresaw the repentance of the city, and the mercy which would be displayed towards it, and was either jealous of his prophetic reputation, or had a patriotic dislike of becoming a messenger of good to a heathen foe so formidable to his own country.

Tarshish.—This can hardly be any other than Tartessus, an ancient Phœnician colony on the river Guadalquivir, in the south-west of Spain. (See Genesis 10:4; 1 Chronicles 1:7.)

A profound moral lesson lies in the choice of this refuge by Jonah. A man who tries to escape from a clearly-recognised duty—especially if he can at the time supply conscience with a plausible excuse—is in danger of falling all the lower, in proportion as his position was high. Jonah, commanded to go to Nineveh, in the far north-east, instantly tries to flee to the then farthermost west. Often between the saintly height and an abyss of sin there is no middle resting-point. The man with the highest ideal, when unfaithful to it, is apt to sink lower than the ordinary mortal.

From the presence of the Lord.—Rather, from before the face of Jehovah. The words may imply (1) the belief in a possibility of hiding from the sight of God (as in Genesis 3:8), a belief which, as we gather from the insistence on its opposite in Psalms 139:0, lingered late in the popular conception; (2) a renunciation of the prophetic office. (Comp. Deuteronomy 10:8; 1 Kings 17:1); (3) Flight from the Holy Land, where the Divine presence was understood to be especially manifested. Commentators have generally rejected the first of these as implying ignorance unworthy of a prophet; but, on embarking, Jonah went below, as if still more securely to hide, and used the same expression to the mariners, who would certainly take it in its literal and popular sense.

Joppa.—Heb., Yâpho; now Jaffa, the port of Jerusalem. (See Joshua 19:46; 2 Chronicles 2:16.)

He found a ship.—Probably a Phœnician vessel trading between Egypt and Spain, and accustomed to touch at Joppa.

Verse 4

(4) Sent out.—The Hebrew word (see margin, and comp. Jonah 1:5; Jonah 1:12; Jonah 1:15, where the same word is rendered “cast forth”) expresses the sudden burst of the storm. A squall struck the ship. The coast was well known to sailors as dangerous. (See Josephus, Ant. xv. 9, § 6, B. J. iii. 9. § 3.)

So that the ship was like to be broken.—See margin for the literal expression, which is that of a sailor to whom the ship is a living thing, with feelings, hopes, and fears. For the word break, of shipwreck (comp. naufragium), see 1 Kings 22:48.

Verse 5

(5) And cried every man unto his god.—If Phœnicians, the sailors would have their favourite deities in the national Pantheon; but they may have been a motley crew composed of various nationalities. For the panic comp. Psalms 107:23-30, and Shakespeare’s Tempest,

“All lost! to prayers! to prayers, all lost!”

Wares.—The Hebrew word is of general import for furniture of any kind, and so including all the movables in the ship. The cargo would probably, as in the case of St. Paul’s shipwreck, be reserved till the last extremity.

To lighten it of them.—This gives the sense, though the Hebrew idiom appears to mean, to give themselves relief. (Comp. Exodus 18:22, “So shall it be easier for thyself;” 1 Kings 12:10, “Make thou it lighter unto us.”)

Sides.—Rather, recesses. The word is used of the inner part of the Temple (1 Kings 6:16), of a cave (1 Samuel 24:3), of a dwelling-house (Psalms 128:3).

Ship.—The Hebrew is different from the word used earlier in the verse, and is peculiar to this passage. Its derivation from a root meaning “to cover with boards,” indicates a decked vessel. Jonah had gone below into the cabin, the natural course for a man flying from a disagreeable duty. To stand on deck and watch the slow receding shore would have been mental torture.

And was fast asleep.—The fatigue of the hasty flight to the sea-shore accounts for this deep slumber. The same expression is used of Sisera (Judges 4:21). Besides, when a resolution is once irrevocably (as we think) taken, conscience ceases to disturb with its wakeful warning, and the restlessness of remorse has not yet arrived. There is a brief time during which “the exile from himself can flee.”

Verse 6

(6) The shipmaster . . .—Literally, the chief of those who work at the rope. Jewish nautical terms are infrequent and therefore obscure. The word mariners, in Jonah 1:5, correctly renders a term which seems, from its use in Ezekiel 27:8; Ezekiel 27:27; Ezekiel 27:29, as well as from its derivation (from salt; comp. the term “old salts”), to denote seafaring men generally. “Those who work the ropes” may be either “steersmen” or “topmen” as contrasted with rowers.

What meanest . . .—Literally, What to thee sleeping? i.e., How canst thou sleep so soundly? The motive of the question was no doubt partly the need of sympathy, as in the case of the disciples (Mark 4:38), partly a belief in the efficacy of the prophet’s prayer. This belief seems to have sprung not solely from superstitious fear lest any deity should be overlooked, but from a vague sense that the God of Israel was pre-eminently great and good. The term used is ha Elohîm, “the God.”

Verse 7

(7) Come, and let us cast lots.—We are to suppose that Jonah, coming on deck in compliance with the captain’s request, adds his prayers to those of the crew. Finding all unavailing, the sailors propose recourse to the ancient custom of casting lots to discover the guilty person against whom the deities are so enraged. Classical authors as well as the Bible (comp. Joshua 7:14, seq.; 1 Samuel 14:36-46) afford many illustrations of the belief that the presence of an impious man would involve all who shared his company in indiscriminate ruin. Naturally the feeling expressed itself most strongly at sea.

“Who drags Eleusis’ rite to day,
That man shall never share my home

Or join my voyage; roofs give way,

And boats are wrecked; true men and thieves

Neglected Justice oft confounds.”

HOR.: Od. iii. 2, 26-30. (Conington’s trans.)

Comp. the story told by Cicero of Diagoras (de Nat. Deor. 3:3). Æsch. Sept. cont. Theb. 601-604. Soph. Ant. 372.

Verse 8

(8) For whose cause . . .—The Hebrew idiom is peculiar, on account of which to whom; but in this verse, when addressed by the sailors to the prophet, it is expressed in a more elegant form than when used to each other in the preceding verse, one among many touches marking the artistic perfection of this narrative. It is true some MSS. omit this repetition of the question, and it is therefore by some commentators treated as a gloss. But the repetition is quite natural. The sailors seeing the lot fall on one whose appearance was so little suspicious, are anxious to have it confirmed by his confession. Not less natural is the rapid and excited leap from question to question. (Comp. Virg. Æn. 8:112, 113.)

Verse 9

(9) And he said . . .—“The emergency recalls Jonah to his true self. All the better part of his character now comes out. His conduct throughout the remainder of the chapter is dignified and manly, worthy of a servant and prophet of Jehovah” (Perowne).

I am a Hebrew.—The original order is more striking, A Hebrew I. The LXX. read, “a servant of the Lord.”

Which hath made . . .—These words mark the great change that has already come upon the prophet. He feels now how futile it was to try to hide or fly from the Creator of all the universe. But he speaks also for the sake of the crew, who, though recognising the existence of Jehovah as the tribal God of Israel, had never realised His relation to themselves as Creator of the world in which they lived, and of the sea on which they sailed. The storm preached the omnipotence of God.

Verse 10

(10) Why hast.—Rather, What is this that thou hast done? The question expresses horror, not curiosity.

For the men knew that.—Jonah’s answer in Jonah 1:9 is evidently intended only as an abbreviation of what he actually replied.

Verse 11

(11) What shall we.—The prophet would of course know how to appease the God he had displeased.

May be calm unto us.—See margin. The word rendered calm occurs (Psalms 107:30) of a lull after a storm, and in Proverbs 26:20 metaphorically, of peace after strife.

Wrought, and was tempestuous.—Literally, was going, and being agitated; an idiom rightly explained in the margin. (Comp. a similar idiom Genesis 8:3.)

Verse 12

(12) Cast me forth into the sea.—There was no need of prophetic inspiration to enable Jonah to pass this sentence upon himself. He is too manly not to prefer to perish without involving others in his ruin.

Verse 13

(13) Rowed hard.—This is a sufficient rendering of the Hebrew verb, though it misses the metaphor. In every other instance of its use the word refers to the violence employed in breaking through a wall or enclosure. (See Ezekiel 8:8; Ezekiel 12:5; Ezekiel 12:7; Job 24:16; Amos 9:2; and compare the use of the derivative noun in Exodus 22:2; Jeremiah 2:34.) The figure of forcing the ship through the great wave wall is very striking. The Latin infindere sulcos and our ploughing the main are kindred metaphors.

It is a fine trait in these sailors that they will not obey the prophet’s request to throw him overboard till all efforts to save the ship have been tried.

Verse 14

(14) Wherefore they cried unto the Lord.—There is presented here, as throughout the book, a strong contrast between the readiness of the heathen to receive religious impressions, and the stubbornness and obstinacy of Israel.

For this man’s life . . .—i.e., for taking it. The law of retaliation was as familiar to them as to the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 19:21). (Comp. 2 Samuel 14:7.)

For thou.—The original is more impressive: For Thou, Jehovah, as it hath phased Thee, Thou hast done. The storm, the lot, the request of the prophet himself, all showed that the sailors were but instruments in carrying out the Divine purpose.

Verse 15

(15) Raging.—Comp. maris ira, Ovid. Met. i. 330; iratum mare, Hor. Epod. ii.57.

“At whose burden

The angered ocean foams.”

SHAKESPEARE: Ant. and Cleop.

Verse 16

(16) Offered.—There may have been some live-stock on board suitable for sacrifice; but the offering could only be completed on landing, wherefore they made vows.

Verse 17

(17) Now the Lord.—In the Hebrew, Jonah 2:0 commences with this verse.

Had prepared.—The pluperfect is misleading. Render appointed, and comp. Jonah 4:6-8, where the same word is used of the gourd, the worm, and the east wind. The Authorised version renders the word accurately in Job 7:3; Daniel 1:5-10. Previous special preparation is not implied, still less creation for the particular purpose. God employs existing agents to do His bidding.

A great fish.—The Hebrew dag is derived from the prolific character of fish, and a great fish might stand for any one of the sea monsters. The notion that it was a whale rests on the LXX. and Matthew 12:40. But κῆτος was a term for any large fish, such as dolphins, sharks, &c. (See Hom. Od. xii. 97.) And unless we have previously determined the question, whether the Book of Jonah is intended by the sacred writer to be a literal history, or an apologue founded on a history or a parable pure and simple, tota hœc de pisce Jonœ disquisitio, as an old commentator observes, vana videtur atque inutilis. The explanations given by commentators divide themselves into those of a strictly præternatural kind, as that a fish was created for the occasion; or into the natural or semi-natural, as that it was a ship, or an inn bearing the sign of the whale; or that it was a white shark. (For the last hypothesis see all that can be collected in Dr. Pusey’s commentary on Jonah.) In early Christian paintings the monster appears as a huge dragon.

Three days and three nights.—See Matthew 12:40, New Testament Commentary.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Jonah 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/jonah-1.html. 1905.
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