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More Than A Fish Story

The Book of Jonah is more than a fish story. It is a beautiful account of God's love and grace to all mankind, both Jews and non-Jews - God's chosen people as well as the pagan Gentiles.

Too much attention has been focused on the great fish that swallowed Jonah. There is a constant debate about the existence of the fish, the truth of the story whether a fish could swallow a man or whether a man could remain alive for three days in the stomach of such a fish. Some say that it is just a legend while others dismiss it as a myth. And some Bible scholars insisted on interpreting this book as an allegory or a parable. But their approaches ignore what Jesus said about Jonah's encounter. What Jesus said is the important thing and the truth. In speaking of His own death and resurrection, Jesus declared:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)

Jesus stated the story of Jonah as a fact. It was a historical event, and not just a mere story or legend or myth!

The name of Jonah means a dove. Jonah was not always an unwilling and petty prophet, struggling with God's call to service. In fact, he was recorded as being the servant of the LORD, who prophesied the remarkable expansion of Israel's territory during the reign of Jeroboam II (about 793-753 BC).

He restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher. (2 Kings 14:25)

To understand the heart of Jonah, we must understand what was in his mind, and also consider the historical setting of his days. From about 885 to 625 BC, the Assyrians dominated the ancient world. Their Assyrian military forces advanced and attacked their neighboring kingdoms including Judah and Israel.

As early as 841 BC, Jehu, king of Israel, was forced to pay tribute to the dominating Assyrian ruler, Shalmaneser III. Their harassment and control continued for over a century until Israel finally fell to the Assyrian forces about 722 BC. No wonder Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh, the glorious capital city of the ancient Assyrian empire. God was calling him to visit the very heartland of his enemy territory. Not only that, he was also given the task to proclaim a warning so that these pagan Assyrians would have a chance to repent!

This divine order was radical. This is about loving our enemies even though we know that they would be the ones who would drive the nails through our hands and feet. Any prophet of God will resist this high calling! Jonah's initial reluctance should not conceal the fact that he did carry out God's command and did His will!

Jonah was more than just a reluctant Jewish evangelist. He loved his people, and he was considering the consequences of his actions. Imagine a Jewish missionary going to the Palestinian jihad terrorists' camp, and ask them to repent, knowing fully well that God would forgive them if they do, and also knowing fully well that they would still attack Israel thereafter. Jesus was the willing Jewish Evangelist! He went to preach to His own people, knowing fully well that they would also be the ones who would shout, "Crucify Him!" Jesus went willingly to die upon the cross. He did it in love, without any grudging.

The book of Jonah began with God's call to Jonah to preach to the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh about 760 BC. The Assyrians were pagans and outcasts, and also the political enemies of the Israelites at this time in history! They worshipped false gods. God's call to Jonah showed clearly that He had not given up on Assyria. In fact, God called Assyria the work of His hands:

In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria-- a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, "Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance." (Isaiah 19:24-25)

Jonah was called to go to Nineveh to warn the people of their approaching doom unless they turned to God. Instead of obeying God's command and heading towards Nineveh, Jonah caught a ship, which was travelling in the opposite direction.

At sea, a great storm arose. As a result, Jonah was tossed overboard by the sailors in their attempt to calm the sea. Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, and was miraculously preserved alive. After three days, the fish had enough of Jonah, and vomited him onto the shore! This time, Jonah obeyed God's command, and traveled to Nineveh to carry out his awesome assignment.

His preaching was a great success! The entire city of Nineveh repented because of his message. After three days and three nights in the stomach of the fish, Jonah must have looked like a corpse. He was almost a living dead! No wonder he brought such fear of God upon the people when he preached. A living sacrifice is fearsome! Jonah should be very happy about the success of his mission. But he was not because Nineveh escaped God's punishment.

To teach His prophet a lesson, God raised up a plant to shade Jonah from the blazing sun. He then allowed a worm to damage the plant that it withered. A hot vehement wind from the east blew and beat at Jonah's tired body. That added to his misery. Jonah began to moan and complain about the perished plant.

God then reminded Jonah that He was a God of compassion. He had all the rights to love and forgive the pagan Assyrians or any other people, who turned to Him in repentance, obedience and faith. Jonah had been fretting about a plant that had perished, but God turned his attention to a much more important matter in life - the worth and salvation of lost mankind.

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

One of the great truths in this book is that God can use people who do not want to be used by Him. Jonah was forced and driven to Nineveh against his will, but his unwilling message still struck a responsive chord in the Assyrians. Jonah did not desire to start a revival in Nineveh. It was the desire of the Holy Spirit. Revival is the work of the Spirit of God, not man. Our job is to proclaim His message faithfully.

God's love will never let us go. From the highest mountain to the deepest sea, where could we hide from His Spirit? Even when we wander away from Him, God will lead us back onto the right path! Jonah was reluctant, and God caused a fish to swallow him up. That brought a revival in Nineveh! Imagine that Jonah was not swallowed up by the fish and did not go through the 3 days and 3 nights in its stomach, would his message still bring forth the repentance of all the people of Nineveh? God made all things beautiful in His time. All we need to do is to follow His leading! He is our Shepherd. He will lead us! Even through the valley of the shadow of death.

The greatest insight in this book is that God desires to show His mercy and grace to all the peoples of the world. No one nation or group can claim exclusive rights to His love. The task of the nation of Israel was to preach this message about God's universal love to all the world. That is in the Abrahamic Covenant - blessed to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). But these people of God soon forgot their missionary purpose. They eventually claimed God and His blessings to be theirs alone. This mindset could happen to any single person or church group. The Book of Jonah cries out against this narrow-minded interpretation of God and His purpose.

We too are commissioned to preach the gospel to all the nations! Remember the Great Commission given by our LORD Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:18-20. In the last verse of the book, God revealed to Jonah His mercy and compassion for all the peoples of the earth:

And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left--and much livestock? (Jonah 4:11)

This gives us the insight to the greatest love of all:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)

Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary

Written On:
21 July 2005