Lessons from Jonah

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 'Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.' (Jon 1:1–2)

Sin and judgement

The Book of Jonah in the Old Testament is of interest to us, not only because our Lord referred to it during his own ministry, but also because it reveals God's attitude towards sinners.

God's destruction of the earth by a flood in Gen 6–7, his destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19 and his threat to destroy Nineveh, shows there's a limit to the sin he will allow on earth. The fact that Nineveh's sins had become so severe was acknowledged by its king when he heard Jonah's message. He issued a proclamation, saying:

'By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.' (Jon 3:7–9)

God did relent and turn from his anger. But before that, Jonah disobeyed the Lord.


But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. (Jon 1:3)

Bible scholars are not sure where Tarshish was located, but they think it was on the southern coast of Spain, which was in the opposite direction to Nineveh.

Why was Jonah so opposed to preaching against Nineveh? Because it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which was one of the cruellest in history. They used to impale their enemies on wooden spikes and leave them to die. The prophet Nahum referred to Nineveh as 'the city of blood, full of lies' and spoke of its endless cruelty (Nah 3:1,19).

But Jonah knew that if they repented God would forgive them; and he didn't want them to be forgiven, which is why he fled to Tarshish (Jon 3:10–4:2).

Are we like Jonah? Have people done such wicked things to us, or to others, that we don't want them to be forgiven? We should follow the example of our Lord who, having been flogged and nailed to a cross, said, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know [Greek know, understand, realize] what they are doing. (Luk 23:34).'

The Hebrew name 'Jonah' means dove—a bird that symbolizes the Holy Spirit (Mat 3:16). God wanted Jonah to manifest the attributes of his Spirit, but he didn't. Do we?

The message to us is clear: God's desire for repentance to be preached to sinners is greater than our desire to preach it. And even though Jonah didn't want to preach to Nineveh, God made sure that Nineveh was preached to.

A type of Christ

Christians often wonder whether Jonah was dead or alive inside the fish. Both are true: he was dead initially, but God raised him from the dead. Jonah was an Old Testament type of Christ, which means that certain events in his life foreshadowed our Lord's earthly ministry.

Jonah knew that his disobedience, which is sin (Rom 5:19), was the cause of the storm engulfing the ship, and that only through his death would God's wrath against it be removed (Jon 1:11–2). So why didn't he throw himself overboard? Why did he tell the sailors to do it? He did it because he was a type of Christ.

Jonah, by being put to death by sinful men, became the saviour of the ship and all who were in it, just as Jesus, by being put to death by sinful men, became the Saviour of the world and all who are in it (Joh 4:42). (A saviour is a person who rescues someone or something from danger or harm.)

But before they threw him overboard they said, 'Please, Lord… Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man… (Jon 1:14).' Jonah wasn't innocent, so why did they say that? They said it because he was a type of Christ: one day an innocent man (Jesus Christ) would be put to death to satisfy God's wrath against a sinful world (Rom 5:9; 1Th 5:9).

When the sea became calm the sailors greatly feared the Lord, offered a sacrifice to him and made vows to him (Jon 1:15–6): they turned to God in response to the salvation he'd provided for them through Jonah. In the same way the people of the world need to turn to God in response to the salvation he's provided for them through Jesus Christ.

The sign of Jonah

We are told that God provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and that he prayed while he was inside the fish (Jon 1:17–2:1). This has led some to believe that he didn't die, and that he was alive for the three days and three nights he was there. But that was not so. Jonah had to die to satisfy God's wrath, as Jesus had to die to satisfy God's wrath.

Jonah said that seaweed was wrapped around his head, he sank down to the roots of the mountains (the bottom of the sea), the earth barred him in for ever; but the Lord brought his life up from the pit (Jon 2:5–6). The Hebrew word translated 'pit' can represent the grave (Psa 30:2–3,9), which it does in this case.

Jesus used Jonah's experience to predict his own:

He answered, 'A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.' (Mat 12:39–40)

After Jesus was put to death he was placed in a tomb. Was he alive at that point, or dead? He was dead. Similarly, after Jonah had been thrown overboard and drowned, God placed him in a tomb—the belly of a fish.

And God raised him to life on the third day, as he raised Jesus to life on the third day. And from inside the fish he prayed (Jon 2:1–9), recounting his death and the prayer he had prayed as he was dying (v7).

Jesus told the Jews that God had given them a miraculous sign through the prophet Jonah. What do signs do? They point to things (eg direction signs). They also inform of what is ahead (eg road signs). God raising Jonah from the dead and bringing him out from his tomb (the belly of the fish), pointed to our Lord's future resurrection.

But why should his resurrection be announced in advance by a miracle in the Old Testament? Because it's one of the most important truths in the Bible, the belief of which is essential for salvation (Rom 10:9). It is also proof that he will judge the world (Act 17:31).

The heart of God revealed

God raised Jonah from the dead and this time he did obey the Lord. When the people of Nineveh heard the message he preached, all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth, symbolizing repentance (Jon 3:5).

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. (Jon 3:10–4:1)

It's obvious that God wanted Nineveh to escape his judgement more than Jonah did. That is because he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (Jon 4:2). He is so full of love he will forgive people's sins, even if they are as great as Nineveh's, providing they repent.

Jesus used the repentance of Nineveh as an indictment against the Jews:

'The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.' (Mat 12:41)

The people of Nineveh repented when God sent a man to preach to them, but the Jews refused to repent even when he sent his Son to preach to them.

Getting our priorities right

Jon 4:5–9 tells us that Jonah sat down to the east of Nineveh to see what would happen to the city, and God provided a vine that grew up to give him shade. But the next day God provided a worm which chewed the vine so that it withered, and when the sun rose it blazed on his head and he grew faint. That displeased him, and he became angry again.

God said:

'Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?'

'I do,' he said. 'I am angry enough to die.' (Jon 4:9)

What is being taught here? Two things: firstly that God is in control of our circumstances, as he was of Jonah's; and secondly that when we serve the Lord we should be prepared to endure hardship as good soldiers of Christ Jesus (2Ti 2:3).

But Jonah didn't want to submit to God's will for his life and was more concerned about his own comfort than the fate of Nineveh, which reminds us of the prophecy of Haggai. In Haggai we read that the people of Israel were living in panelled houses while God's house lay in ruins (Hag 1:2–4): they were more concerned about their own homes than the house of God.

There is nothing wrong with living in a nice house if it's God's will for you, but what is more important? God is more concerned that sinners come to repentance and avoid the flames of hell than how beautiful our homes are.

Paul tells us that

…godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1Ti 6:6–8)

God's Word says that Christians should be content with food and clothing: houses and cars are a bonus! What is more important is that the gospel of repentance is preached to sinners.

God's concern for the lost

God said to Jonah:

'You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?' (Jon 4:10–1)

God was so concerned for the one hundred and twenty thousand people of Nineveh, whose wickedness, evil and violence had made them ripe for judgement, that he made sure, by a miracle, that a man who was totally opposed to the idea preached the gospel of repentance to them.

If that doesn't convince us that God wants all people everywhere to repent (Act 17:30), then nothing will. God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh; Jesus has sent his church to preach to all creation (Mar 16:15).

'And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.' (Mat 24:14)

'Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.' (Isa 45:22)

Michael Graham
November 2003
Revised November 2018

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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