The history of Jonah is very interesting. He was the son of Amittai from Gath-hepher in Galilee of the tribe of Zebulon. He prophesied in or before the reign of Jeroboam II, king of Israel, which began in 843 B.C. He correctly predicted the successful conquests, enlarged territory and brief prosperity of Jeroboam II’s reign (2 Kings 14: 23-25).
God sent Jonah to speak out against the great city of Ninevah because of its wickedness (1: 2). Ninevah, situated on the Tigris River (nearly opposite modern Mosul, in Iraq), north of Babylon, had been the capital of the great Assyrian empire for many years. But probably because of Jewish prejudice against the Ninevites, Jonah, instead of going northeastward to Ninevah, fled westward. He bought passage on a ship from Joppa to Tarshish (v. 3), and for this reason he is often called the runaway prophet.
The History of Ninevah
Ninevah was founded by Nimrod (Genesis 10: 11, 12, margin). Centuries later Sargon II (722-705 B.C.; Isaiah 20: 1) made it his capital city. Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.; 2 Kings 19: 36) greatly adored it and built a wall 40-50 feet high eight miles around the inner city, broad enough at the top for three chariots to ride abreast. Hezekiah paid much tribute to him, but later God smote his great army (2 Kings 18: 13-17; 19: 35, 36). Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.) united Babylonia and many other countries to Ninevah and Assyria. Its next ruler, Ashurbanipal (669-626 B.C.; also usually identified with Asnappar – Ezra 4: 10), is famous for his library of more than 30,000 inscribed clay tablets, including the Creation Epic and the Gilgamesh Epic (corroborating the Flood). In 612 B.C., long after Jonah’s day, Ninevah finally fell to the Babylonians, Medes and Scythians. This overthrow had been foretold by Nahum (1: 1, 2; 2: 8-10; 3: 7) and Zephaniah (2: 13-15). So complete was its destruction that for many centuries its location was forgotten. But it was discovered again and excavations began in the 1840’s.
There was long-standing strife between Ninevah and Assyria, the more warlike, on the one hand, and Babylon and Babylonia, the more cultured, on the other hand. Babylon was more important from Abraham’s time to David’s; but from David’s time to that of Hezekiah and Manasseh, Ninevah and its kings were in the ascendancy; then from the time of king Josiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk and Daniel, Babylon was again in power.
Jonah’s Unusual Experiences
Coming back to Jonah, the Lord sent a mighty storm to assail Jonah’s ship to the point where it was about to break up (v. 4). The mariners eventually cast Jonah into the sea and the storm subsided (v. 15). But the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, who was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights (v. 17). Jonah repented, and the Lord delivered him from the belly of the fish (Jonah 2). The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time to go and preach to Ninevah. This time he was obedient. The Ninevites repented, and the Lord forgave and spared them (Jonah 3). But their repentance displeased Jonah. He went out of the city and sat in a booth. The Lord prepared a gourd to give Jonah shade, but He then prepared a worm that smote the gourd, which withered the next day. This angered Jonah, but the Lord said to him that if he had pity on the gourd, should not the Lord spare Ninevah with its over 120,000 inhabitants (4: 11).
The Antitype of Jonah
The book of Jonah is not an ordinary prophecy. Rather, it is a history and prophecy in the nature of a type. The book itself has been especially assailed by higher critics, who have ridiculed the story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish, as a fable. But our Lord Himself showed clearly that Jonah is a type of Himself, at least in some of Jonah’s experiences (Matthew 12: 38-41) (Luke 11: 29-32). Jonah did some wrong things and had a wrong attitude (1: 3; 4: 1-11); therefore he obviously could not in these respects be typical of Jesus. The book also has valuable practical lessons such as God’s love to the repentant Ninevites; His kindness in reproving the murmuring prophet, and as showing how God sometimes uses very imperfect instruments in carrying out His designs, etc.