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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers


- Jonah

by Charles John Ellicott








THE Book of Jonah occupies a position unique in the Bible. Classed among the prophetical books, it has no single point in common with them. Its one prediction of the overthrow of Nineveh differs entirely from the judgments announced by Nahum against the same power, by Isaiah and others against Moab, or Philistia, or Babylon. In these, according to the true prophetic spirit, ruin is connected immediately with sin as an inevitable consequence. We have pictures of moral corruption, and of the social and political convulsions that must necessarily, in the course of God’s providence, follow. In Jonah’s one utterance we have simply a prediction of a coming overthrow, with a date precisely stated in a manner quite foreign to the ordinary prophetic style. In the body of prophecy, therefore, the book has no proper standing. As a narrative in one of the historical books, the story of Jonah’s mission would have been in place. Indeed, it appears as if it were a fragment from a series of narratives of prophetic acts, similar to those incorporated in the Books of Kings about Elijah and Elisha.

This displacement from its true position is no doubt due to the opinion of the collectors of the canon as to the authorship of the book. They assumed that Jonah himself wrote it. This assumption is nowhere made in the narrative itself, though the use of the third person must not be taken as conclusive against it.

That the prophet is identical with the Jonah of 2 Kings 14:25, the statement of his parentage, “son of Amittai,” leaves no doubt. A native of Gath-hepher, of the tribe of Zebulun, Jonah the son of Amittai prophesied at the commencement of the reign of Jeroboam II., i.e., in the latter part of the ninth century B.C. His prophecies, we gather from the same passage, had reference to the victories of Jeroboam. Beyond this we know nothing of him till he abruptly bursts on us as the prophet commissioned to announce the destruction of Nineveh. A passing allusion in the Book of Tobit (Tobit 14:4), which refers to the prediction as still waiting fulfilment, and evidently knows nothing of its sequel; and the well-known references in the New Testament (Matthew 12:40; Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:30), exhaust all that Scripture has to tell us about Jonah and his mission. Tradition, fastening on the meaning of the name Amittai (’çmet, “truth”) identified him with the son of the widow of Sarepta, because, on receiving him back alive, she knew that the prophet’s word was “truth.” A tomb at Gath-hepher, mentioned by Jerome, was also assigned to Jonah by tradition.

The various theories and counter theories that have been built upon this slender evidence, leave the book with the description that has happily been given of it, “this book of unknown authorship, of unknown date, of disputed meaning, but of surpassing interest.”

The division into chapters, in the Authorised Version, gives the best arrangement of the contents of the book. Its language is prose, but with sparks of poetic feeling showing in words and expressions, as well as in the hymn (Jonah 2), which, though modelled on, and in a great degree dependent, both in thought and style, on the Psalter, is yet evidently the work of an original mind.