Jonah 4


  • Jonah observed the Ninevites repentance and was P.O.’d.
  • Joey prayed to God, “What the heck, man? Didn’t I say this would happen, back in my hometown when you first told me to come here? This is why I fled to the other end of the world. You’re a nice, and good, and kind, and forgving God, and… well now my enemies are prospering!”
  • Jonah was so mad he told God, “Take my life. Better to be dead than alive to see this!”
  • God’s all, “Jonah, I can see you’re angry. So, how’s that working for you? You feel like you’re on the right side of the debate on this?”
  • Jo-Jo stomped out of the city and sat on the east side of town where he could watch the Assyrian’s repentance fall apart and see God destroy them yet. Jones even set up a little tent of sticks, because he knew it would take some time.
  • God had a plant grow up and give Jonah shade. The prophet was stoked. Then God had a worm come and attack the plant. Jonah was bummed.
  • Then a scorching wind blew, and the sun beat down on Jonah and he was all sweaty and angry and said, “I want to die. I liked the plant. It was nice to have shade, but now I want to die so badly I want my very soul extinguished!”
  • Then God said, “Now you’re mad about the plant? Really?”
  • Jonah’s all, “Yep. 100% unhappy. I want to die.”
  • “The plant?” God says. “It sprang up without you doing anything to help it grow, and it died in a day’s time. That temporary shrub is what you want me to show mercy on? The plant is the thing I should spare. The plant?!!”
  • God goes on, “It’s a plant, Jonah! Look over there, at Ninevah, a giant city that’s been around for a thousand years, filled with thousands of innocent children, not to mention thousands of innocent animals. You would rather me spare the plant than all those people?”

Historical Context

13 Attributes of God’s Mercy

Jonah alludes to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy taken from the Book of Exodus (Exodus 34:6-7) and, according to Judaism, how God governs the world.  These attributes are considered the method of God’s activity by which the divine governance appears to the human observer.9

  1. Compassion before a person sins
  2. Compassion after a person has sinned
  3. Mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need
  4. Merciful, that humankind may not be distressed
  5. Gracious if humankind is already in distress
  6. Slow to anger
  7. Plenteous in kindness
  8. Plenteous in truth
  9. Keeping kindness unto thousands
  10. Forgiving iniquity
  11. Forgiving transgression
  12. Forgiving sin
  13. Pardoning

The Names of God

In Jonah 4:4-9  there are several variations on the name of God used by the author.3

In Jonah 4:4 God is called “Jehovah” as he questions Jonah’s anger.

In Jonah 4:6, the creation of the miraculous tree to give shade to Jonah is ascribed to “Jehovah-Elohim.” This composite name occurs very rarely ( only elsewhere in Genesis 2 and 3), is chosen here to help the transition from the use of the name Jehovah to Elohim.3

In Jonah 4:7,8, “Elohim” is used to describe God as the divine creative power. He prepares the worm and brings the east wind. This is the designation of a deity ruling over nature.3


  • Before Jonah arrived in Nineveh, two plagues had erupted there (in 765 and 759 B.C.) and a total eclipse of the sun occurred on June 15, 763. These were considered signs of divine anger and may help explain why the Ninevites responded so readily to Jonah’s message.7
  • Jonah’s departure from the city and settlement to the east of it is him awaiting God’s final decision as to its fate. He is mistrustful of their repentance. He hopes that God sees that it is shallow and proceeds with his plan of destruction of the Jews’ enemies.3
  • Israel’s prosperity and salvation was the prominent aim of Jonah, as a prophet of God’s elect people. He would’ve regarded the destruction of Nineveh as a fitting example of God’s judgment against the Jews’ national enemies.4
  • All of Jonah’s hope of bringing his own nation to do the will of God perished, in the event of Nineveh’s conversion, which as it seemed to Jonah, would eclipse the honor of God, destroy the credit of his ministry, and harden the hearts of his countrymen.8
  • Much to Jonah’s displeasure, repenting Nineveh had proved herself more worthy of God’s favor than apostate Israel. The children of the covenant have not only fallen below the level of a heathen people.4
  • The prayer, “Take my life from me,” calls to mind the similar prayer of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4; but the motive assigned is a different one.Whilst Elijah adds, “for I am not better than my fathers,” Jonah adds, “for death is better to me than life.”3
  • “It greatly displeased Jonah,” in the original Hebrew reads, “it was evil” to Jonah. The repentance of Nineveh was not only offensive, but contrary to what was right and just.6
  • “He was angry,” is literally translated “it burnt” to him.6
  • Jonah holds God’s mercy against God as a fault. Though he would’ve known the 13 attributes of God (see above), he did not believe them.8
  • The book of Psalms praises God for his lovingkindness, his grace, and his mercy (cf. Ps. 86:5, 15), but for Jonah this is grounds for protest rather than praise.7
  • The conversion of Nineveh was the doom of Jonah himself.8
  • “Do you have a good reason to be angry?” could also be rendered, “is doing good you any good to be displeased by this?” God asks Jonah a very practical question in the midst of the prophet’s theoretical hatred.1
  • The east side of the city was the opposite side to that by which he had entered, and where the high ground enabled him to overlook the town, without necessarily sharing in its destruction.4
  • Jonah prepared a structure to sit in, evidently expecting to stay a considerable time. He hoped for the eventual overthrow of Nineveh. Although Jonah had already decided that God would spare the city, he was not yet certain of it; and as long as there was hope of its destruction, he would wait.8
  • A booth, or a shelter, was a structure constructed of branches interlaced.4
  • Jonah still expected that some calamity would befall the Ninevites, perhaps with the idea that their repentance would prove so imperfect and temporary that God would punish them after all.4
  • The gourd, in Hebrew, is called “kikaion” after the Egyptian “kiki,” or the “ricinus,” a castor-oil plant, commonly called “palm-christ” (palma-christi). It grows from eight to ten feet high. Only one leaf grows on a branch, but that leaf being often more than a foot large, the collective leaves give good shelter from the heat. It grows rapidly, and fades as suddenly when injured.4
  • Jonah must have looked upon the plant’s sudden growth as a sign of God’s goodness toward him. Perhaps he saw this as an indication that God would grant his wish for the Assyrians to meet their doom.2
  • Jonah literally asked for his soul to die.5
  • Having prayed in chapter two that he might live, Jonah prays now that he might die.7
  • Children are the ones who cannot distinguish between right and left, or good from evil, and therefore are not yet accountable for the actions of their countrymen. A hundred and twenty thousand children under seven years of age would give a population of six hundred thousand, since it is commonly accepted that children account for one-fifth the whole population.3
  • Jonah in many ways is like the worm–one who finds fulfillment in the destruction of God’s creation.7
  • The prophetic record in Jonah comes to a dramatic, sudden, and startling conclusion with the issue still undecided, as to whether or not, Jonah will accept God’s will. The history concludes with Jonah still protesting that he would rather die than see the will of God accomplished for the Gentiles.8


  • What do you think Jonah was hoping to see as he sat outside Nineveh? Do you think he failed to believed their repentance was genuine? The Assyrians had oppressed the Jews for a long time, why do you think such a quick repentance for such a long list of sins, was acceptable to God? Why was it unacceptable to Jonah? Why do we believe punitive justice is better than grace?
  • What are you angry at God about? What injustice do you think has been done to you? What grace do you think was unfairly given to another? Is life fair or unfair in your opinion? Should life be fair? Will God ultimately bring fairness or mercy to the world? Can he bring both to the world? Does Jesus represent fairness/justice or mercy to you?
  • When God asks Jonah if he’s justified in his anger, he’s saying, “If I’m not angry, then do you have any right to be?” By implication, God is really asking Jonah to get in alignment with him. He wants the prophet to care about what he cares about, to love what he loves, to be angry when he is angry. How in alignment with God are you? Are you angry justly? Do you love whom he loves? Are you merciful to those he shows mercy to?
  • Jonah sat outside the city and pouted, and as a result was depressed, hot and irritated. All of this was his own doing. What instances have we made ourselves miserable because we were mad? Why do you think we punish ourselves like this? What do we hope to accomplish?
  • A lot of Jonah’s anger is based on a scarcity mindset–that is, not believing there are enough resources to go around. If God loves them, perhaps the Israelites will not be so special. If the Assyrian prosper, then that means attitude be if you saw only God’s abundance?


  1. Gil’s commentary
  2. Barnes’ commentary
  3. Kiel’s commentary
  4. Jamieson’s commentary
  5. Pulpit commentary
  6. Ellicott’s commentary
  7. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  8. Coffman’s commentary
  9. Thirteen attributes of God

Jonah 3


  • God calls Jonah a second time. “Yo, Joe, get up (again) and go to your worst enemy’s capital city (for reals this time) and tell them my message.”
  • This time, Jo-Jo listens and heads towards Nineveh.
  • Back then, Nineveh was a great, big ol’ metropolis. It was so big it took three days to walk to the other side (though only one day by tour bus), so Jonah walks about a third of way in to town, takes a deep breath and says, “Um… in, like, 40 days, this city is going to be… um, overthrown. So, um, you know, like that’s it. Close chat window.”
  • Instantly the Assyrian people believed in Jonah’s God, called for a fast to begin, and switched their comfy, normal clothes for uncomfortable, itchy clothes. Everyone in the family had to comply, parents, kids, master, slaves, young and old. It was the top trending hashtag by noon (#myrepentencematters).
  • In no time the Assyrian king gets word of the people’s reaction to Jonah and is all, “What? I’m repenting too!” Then he whips off his super fancy, super comfy clothes and puts on old, itchy sweatpants and sits on a pile ashes instead of his throne to show his solidarity and morning.
  • “Send out this decree,” the king declares. “No man or animal in my kingdom is to eat or drink until this thing is resolved! I want everyone to call on Jonah’s God, and stop doing bad stuff and quit being so dang violent all the time. Maybe if we change our ways God will divert this impending catastrophe.”
  • And when God saw that they repented and had changed their wicked ways, he changed his mind. He didn’t let destruction come on them.

Historical Context

Sackcloth and Ashes

Sackcloth and ashes were used in Old Testament times as a symbol of debasement, mourning, and/or repentance. Someone wanting to show his repentant heart would often wear sackcloth, sit in ashes, and put ashes on top of his head. Sackcloth was a coarse material usually made of black goat’s hair, making it quite uncomfortable to wear. The ashes signified desolation and ruin.7

They were used as an outward sign of one’s inward condition. Such a symbol made one’s change of heart visible and demonstrated the sincerity of one’s grief and/or repentance.7

God Changing His Mind

There are several views on passages that relate God changing his mind.

The first is that since God has an unchangeable in nature, he must also have an unchangeable in will, and therefore he does not really change his mind. This view would lend itself to implying that either 1) God “pretended” to change his mind to better help mankind relate to him, 2) God threatened destruction not because he meant it, but because that’s what he knew it would take for man to change, or 3) that the author merely perceived God as changing his mind.

The second is that God actually does change his mind. This view espouses the idea that God limits his power to give mankind freewill so that his relationship with us can be built on of genuine devotion to him, not forced or coerced faithfulness. As a result, God will alter his actions in order to work cooperatively with mankind to achieve his will.

Below is a list of scriptures in which God is said to change his mind:9

  • 1 Chron 21:15—God said that he would destroy Jerusalem, but then he relented.
  • 2 Kings 10:1-6—King Hezekiah was told through an inspired prophet that he would not recover from sickness. But after Hezekiah pleaded with God, the Lord told him “I will add fifteen years to your life.”
  • Ex 32:14—Because of Moses’ intercessory prayer, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on this people.”
  • Ex 33:1-3, 14—In the light of Moses’ pleading, the Lord reversed his plan not to go with the Israelites into the promised land.
  • Deut 9:13-29—The Lord “intended to destroy” the Israelites, and was even ready to destroy Aaron. Moses’ 40-day intercession altered God’s intention.
  • 1 Kings 21:21-29—The Lord says that he will bring disaster because of Ahab’s sins. But when Ahab repents, he says that he will not bring disaster.
  • 2 Chron 12:5-8—The Lord was going to allow the Israelites to be conquered because of King Reheboam’s rebellion. The king and his officers repent, so the Lord changes his plan.
  • Jer 26:2-3—The Lord tells Jeremiah to prophesy to Israel that they should repent, saying, “I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on [Israel] because of their evil doings.”
  • Ez 4:9-15—God tells Ezekiel to act out a prophesy with human dung, but Ezekiel objects. God then allows Ezekiel to act it out with cow dung.
  • Amos 7:1-6—The Lord revealed two judgments and two times Amos intercedes. Twice the Scriptures say, “The Lord relented concerning this …”

In addition to God changing his mind, scripture also tells us that sometimes God expresses regret and disappointment over how things turned out—sometimes even including the results of his own will (Gen. 6:5–6; 1 Sam. 15:10, 35; Ezek. 22:29–31), and that sometimes God is surprised at how things turned out because he expected a different outcome (Isa. 5:3–7; Jer. 3:67; 19–20).9


  • The text does not give any information concerning where Jonah was deposited by the fish, what Jonah did next, or where he was when this second commission came from the Lord or how long the interval was. Jonah may have had enough time to go up to Jerusalem and worship at the temple as he had indicated he would do in his prayer.3
  • God says to Jonah virtually the same words which He had said before; only perhaps now he gives him an intimation of his purpose of mercy, in that instead or saying, “cry against her,” (Chapter 1) he says, “cry unto her.” He might “cry against” one doomed to destruction; to “cry unto her,” seems to imply that she had some interest in, and so some hope from, this cry.1
  • The speed at which the Ninevites accepted Jonah’s message has led some commentators to speculate on the popularity of Jonah’s exploits with the great fish prior to his arrival in Nineveh. Many writers have wondered if he carried in his body any evidence of the terrible ordeal through which he had passed. Was his skin forever altered in color by the digestive juices in the fish? Were there scars that he would carry to the grave?3
  • The fact that a lone Jewish prophet, a member of a hated and despised race, who reciprocated in every way the hostility and hatred in which their respective nations held each other, could simply walk into the city, declare its immediately forthcoming destruction, and be greeted by the enthusiastic and wholesale repentance is truly an extraordinary occurrence.3
  • The circumference of the great city Nineveh, or the length of the boundaries of the city of Nineveh in the broadest sense, was nearly ninety miles, not reckoning the smaller windings of the boundary.2
  • Jewish writers  reckoned that an easy day’s journey is ten “parsas” or about four miles. A hard day’s journey may be three to four times this amount.2
  • The number forty is often associated in the scripture with humiliation. It was forty days that Moses and Elijah fasted. Furthermore, Israel’s probation in the wilderness lasted forty years. When the flood came in the time of Noah, it rained, as a sign of judgment upon the earth, for a total of forty days and forty nights. The number forty is considered the number of probation, testing, punishment, chastisement and humiliation. In the First Century, those who were punished with whips usually were given forty lashes, save one.3
  • Jonah’s message was exceptionally simple, to the point, and frightening, especially compared to the elaborate, poetic and lengthy proclamations of later prophets.4
  • It is interesting to note that the people repented with no invitation to repent. There was nothing in Jonah’s message that implied any other outcome than destruction. Also, the Ninevites repented without promise that it would do any good.3
  • It is particularly interesting to note that there was apparently no need for the people to be told what their wicked ways were. The issue, then, was not one of having inadequate knowledge of what God considered sin, but lacking the desire to abstain from it. The issue was not that of information, but that of motivation.4
  • In ancient times people would’ve been slow to carry matters of distress to their king. Particularly matters in which they could not help.1
  • At this time, the king of Nineveh would’ve been one of the most powerful people in the world. His name was dreaded far and wide, his will was imposed as he delighted.
  • The kings of Assyria were generally very religious. They typically ascribed all their victories to their god, Asshur.1
  • The king’s robe would’ve been a large costly upper garment, so called from its amplitude It was the most magnificent part of their dress, and a special part of their state. Kings were buried as they lived, in splendid apparel; and rich adornments were buried with them.1
  • The phrase, “By the decree of the king and his nobles,” gives us a hint of the political state of Nineveh. It may not have been an absolute monarchy.1
  • Before the final fall of Nineveh nearly 100 years after Noah, the last Assyrian king ordered a fast of one hundred days and nights to the gods in order to avert the threatened danger.5
  • Having the animals mourn alongside the people was not uncommon in ancient times. The ancient historian, Herodotus, relates that the Persians, when mourning for their general, Masistios, who had fallen in the battle at Platea, shaved off the hair from their horses.2
  • Scripture often alludes to the fact that all of creation has been drawn into man’s sinful state.  In this way, the suffering of animals is often perceived as helping to appease the wrath of God.2
  • The speed of the acceptance and subsequent repentance of the pagan Assyrians implies a contrast to the dulness of the Jews, who were “slow to believe” the prophetic warnings addressed to themselves.8


  • Does God change his mind based on our actions? Why? Why not? Why do we pray? What do we think the outcome is reliant on? Why does God seem to respond in some circumstances and not others? How does your understanding of this issue refrain from making God appear cruel, weak, ignorant or controlling?
  • Why do you think the Ninevites believed Jonah? Why do you think they repented without being told to do so?
  • Jesus uses the Ninevites’ quick acceptance and subsequent repentance in response to Jonah’s rescue from the great fish and simple message as a way to imply that his death and resurrection would be a much more compelling story, yet people would be less apt to accept it. Why do you think this is so? Why are we so slow to accept the simple call to repentance?
  • What do you make of the fact that the Assyrians had their animals fast and wear sackcloth and ashes? What does this say about the extent of their repentance? What does this say about the connection between people’s sin and the world around us?
  • Are we lacking information about our sinfulness or the motivation to change? The church often tries hard to make people aware of their sinfulness by emphasizing their sant’s goodness, and often uses the motivation to change the threat of an eternity of torture in Hell. Is this the best message? What was Jesus’ message? Is the good news of the gospel that you are a dirty sinner who can avoid torture, or is there more to it? What information and motivation makes us want to turn towards Jesus and start following him?


  1. Barnes’ commentary
  2. Kiel’s commentary
  3. Coffman’s commentary
  4. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  5. Pulpit commentary
  6. Gil’s commentary
  7. Sackcloth and Ashes
  8. Ellicot’s commentary
  9. God Changing His Mind – ReKnew


Jonah 2


  • While inside the great fish, Jonah finds some time come up with a little Psalm.
  • Jonah says, “I was totally screwed, and when I called out to God, he picked up and answered!”
  • “I was literally in the grave, in the dark place, when God heard me,” J.J. goes on.
  • Then Joe gets real when he says, “I felt like God had thrown me out. Into the deep, out where I was overrun with waves, sucked down into the sea.”
  • “But,” Joner goes on, “Even though I’m pretty sure God had turned his back on me, I kept looking up to heaven.”
  • “The water was sucking me in. I was drowning!” Jonah declares. “Seaweed. Was. Wrapped. Around. My. Head. I sank down to the bottom of the ocean, and the land of the living was permanently out of reach. That’s when God came to my rescue.”
  • Joe Joe goes on, “In the midst of dying, I remembered God. I prayed and my prayer made it to heaven and God heard me.”
  • “There’s those idol worshipping people out there (I won’t name names, but they drive boats and live in Nineveh), and they give up on their gods,” Jonah says.
  • “But I will offer sacrifices to God. I’ll stay faithful. I’ll be thankful.” And to wrap it up, Jonah declares, “Salvation really is from God.”

Historical Context


Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 has a lot of parallels with the Old Testament Psalms. For example: Jonah 2:9 says, “Salvation is from the Lord,” whereas Psalms. 2:9 reads, “Salvation is from the Lord,” and Psalm 3:8 says, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”1

Below is a list of more parallels:2

Jonah 2 Psalms
Jonah 2:3b Psalms 18:7; 120:1
Jonah 2:4b Psalms 18:6; 30:4
Jonah 2:5 Psalms 42:8
Jonah 2:6 Psalms 31:23; 5:8
Jonah 2:7 Psalms 18:8; 69:2f
Jonah 2:8 Psalms 18:17; 30:4; 103:4
Jonah 2:9 Psalms 142:4; 143:4; 18:7; 5:8
Jonah 2:10 Psalms 88:3; 31:7; 26:7; 50:14,23; 42:5; 116:7


In ancient Jewish belief, Sheol is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous. It is a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God.4

In Sheol people are “shades” (rephaim), entities without personality or strength.4

Early descriptions of Sheol see it as the permanent place of the dead. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek (~200 BC), the word “Hades” (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol, reflecting a change in attitude about the underworld as a place of punishment, meant for the wicked dead alone.. This tradition seems to be carried over into the New Testament depictions of the afterlife.4


  • The prayer Jonah offers up in chapter 2 is very brief. It can easily be read in less than sixty seconds.2
  • Jonah’s psalm seems more self-centered than those in the Book of Psalms.1
  • One key difference between Jonah’s prayer and the Psalms is that God’s character is scarcely mentioned. Not until chapter 4 does Jonah get around to addressing the character of God, in particular his grace, compassion, long suffering, and lovingkindness.1
  • The grammatical arrangement of the prayer seems to speak of a deliverance already experienced rather than of one expected. It is a prayer of thanksgiving than a prayer. When Jonah realizes that he was saved from drowning, he uttered his gratitude, and saw that he might hope for further rescue.6
  • Jonah’s prayer is not about the deliverance from a great fish. Rather it is a psalm of deliverance from drowning.2
  • The thought is that as Jonah sinks he goes far from the earth, the home of the living, and its doors are closed and barred against him forever. No return to the light and sunshine seems possible. 2
  • “Cast out from your sight,” means less out of God’s purview, and more out of his favor. Now that Jonah has achieved running away from “the presence of God,” he feels it to be a poor idea.5
  • Jonah saying he would look towards God’s “holy temple,” most likely did not mean the temple in Jerusalem, rather that he was looking up to God in his holy temple in heaven.5
  • It is interesting the Jonah would criticize those who worship idols (v. 8) considering the idol-worshipping sailors who worked so hard to save his life, and who, themselves, ended up offering sacrifices to God.
  • To Jonah, the great fish, no doubt looked initially like yet another form of death coming his way as he drowned. Yet,  what looked like death became safe-keeping.7
  • The First Century Jewish historian, Josephus, says Jonah was spit up on the shore of the Euxine sea; but the nearest part of it to Nineveh was one thousand six hundred miles from Tarsus, which the whale, very slow in swimming, cannot be thought to go in three days; besides, no very large fish swim in the Euxine sea, because of the straits of the Propontis, through which they cannot pass, as Bochart from various writers has proved. It is more likely, as others, that it was on the Syrian shore, or in the bay of Issus, now called the gulf of Lajazzo; or near Alexandria, or Alexandretta, now Scanderoon. But why not on the shore of Palestine? and, indeed, why not near the place from whence they sailed? Huetius and others think it probable that this case of Jonah gave rise to the story of Arion, who was cast into the sea by the mariners, took up by a dolphin, and carried to Corinth.3


  • Jonah refers to the gates of the earth as barring him from returning to the land of the living. Seeing how, in Jonah’s case, God reaches down from the highest heavens into the midst of death itself, and breaks through the gates to save him, wheat does this do to your understanding of Jesus telling his disciples that the gates of Hell will not prevail (Mt. 16:18)? How does this enlighten our view of Jesus rescuing people, even from death? Is there anywhere God won’t go to save someone? What does this say about our duty as Christians to pursue people? What barriers stand in our way? Why do we think this?
  • The great fish would’ve been an intimidating sight. What Jonah thought was just another form of death was actually God’s saving hand. What experiences have you had where salvation looked like death at first, then life afterward?
  • Jonah had sought to flee God’s sight, but once he found himself truly out of God’s sight he wanted back in. What does this tell us about ourselves? Do we want God just to look away while we do what we want, or do we truly want him gone? When do we feel abandoned? Did we ask for it?
  • In the midst of Jonah’s prayer of thanks to God for saving him, he insults the “idol worshippers” (i.e. the sailors and Ninevites) – people who tried hard to save him, and people to whom he was supposed to preach a message of salvation. Why do you think he did this? What does this say about Jonah? Do we offer God thanks by contrasting ourselves with people we don’t like? Why do we do this?


  1. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  2. Coffman’s commentary
  3. Gill’s commentary
  4. Sheol
  5. Jamieson’s commentary
  6. Pulpit commentary
  7. Barnes’ commentary

Jonah 1


  • God tells Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh, the capital city of your dreaded national enemies the Assyrians, and tell them to repent because their evil badness is getting really bad in my opinion.”
  • Jonah is all, “Nineveh? I think you mean Ninev-nuh-uh,” and gets up and decides to head out of town.
  • At Joppa, the nearest seaport, Joe Joe hires a boat to take him to Tarshish, a city on the total opposite end of the world from Nineveh. Jonah is hoping to get away from God and all his silly requests.
  • Once on the boat, God hucks a massive sea storm Jonah’s way. It’s so bad that the ship starts breaking apart.
  • The sailors are all, “Whaaa?” and they pray to their gods and throw cargo overboard in hopes of surviving.
  • Meanwhile Jones is sleeping away below deck. The captain is like, “What are you doing, man? We’re working our fore and aft off up there! Get up! You obviously don’t care if we die, but at least pray to your god. Maybe he will give a hoot and save our lives.”
  • Then the sailors decide to pull straws to see who’s guilt is making the gods mad. Jonah draws the short stick.
  • Immediately the sailors ask, “What’s up with you? Where are your from? What did you do? Why is your god so huffed?”
  • Jonah’s all, “Okay. Alright. (Sigh) I’m a Hebrew. I believe in God (with a capital “G”), the one who created everything–land, sea, the whole deal.”
  • “And you’re trying to run away from this God (with a capital “G”)? Even though he made everything and is everywhere?” the sailors exclaim. ” What! Are! You! Thinking! We’re so screwed!”
  • “What now?” they ask Joe. “What can we do to pacify your capital “G” God?”
  • “Get rid of me,” Jonah says. “Throw me out. If I’m dead God will leave us all alone.”
  • The sailors think that’s a bad idea and decide to try to row to shore first. That doesn’t work.
  • “Alright,” the crew concedes after making a valiant effort. “Um, Jonah’s God?” they pray, “Please don’t kill us for tossing your boy overboard.”
  • Kersplash! Joe Joe goes into the water.
  • The storm subsides. The sailors are grateful and offer sacrifces of thanks to God.
  • Then God summons a great fish to the scene and it swallows Jonah.
  • For the next three days and three nights, Jones is inside the belly of the fish.

Historical Context

Assyrian Military Might

To intimidate their enemies, the Assyrians practiced a policy of calculated terror. For example, the Assyrian king Ashur-Nasir-Pal II (883-859 B.C.) inscribed his tactics on a stone monument: “I stormed the mountain peaks and took them … with their blood I dyed the mountains red like wool.… The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city, their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire” (Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past).2


The city of Tarshish is generally considered to be a variation on the name Tartessus a seaport just west of Gibralter on the southern coast of Spain, which was at the opposite extremity of the Mediterranean and exactly opposite from the direction of Nineveh.2

Israeli Exclusivity

The ancient Hebrews saw themselves as God’s favorite people. They had been told that they were “a special treasure above all nations” (Exodus 19:5). Many of them believed that God didn’t love Israel’s enemies as much as he loved Israel.2

God’s Inclusivity

God had called Israel to be “above all nations” to be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) so that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).The prophet Isaiah would remind them many years later that they were to be “a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

The Great Fish

There has been much debate as to wether or not any existing “great fish” can swallow a man whole. Killer whales can swallow large seals whole.  Sperm whales can swallow giant squid whole, so chances are, they could also swallow a human whole.5  Whale sharks are also thought to be able to swallow large creatures whole.

Jonah is often associated with a whale due to the use of the Latin word “cetus” in an early translation. Over time the word “cetus” came to be primarily associated with the word “whale” and thus the mistranslation. However, there is no indication that the original story implies a whale more than any other large fish.

James Bartley, a 20th Century Jonah

James Bartley (1870–1909) is the central figure in a late nineteenth-century story according to which he was swallowed whole by a sperm whale, then found days later still alive in the stomach of the dead whale.

During a whaling expedition off the Falkland Islands, Bartley’s boat was attacked by a whale and he landed inside the whale’s mouth. He survived the ordeal and was carved out of the stomach by his peers when they, not knowing he was inside, caught and began skinning the whale. It was said that he was in the whale for 18 hours and that as a result his skin had been bleached by the gastric juices, and that he was blind the rest of his life. His tombstone in Gloucester, England says “James Bartley – a modern day Jonah.”4

Research into this story has been done recently by Edward B. Davis, a professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. The result of Davis’s research was that he could not find any credible evidence to support the James Bartley story. There were no records of his treatment at a London hospital, there was no James Bartley listed among the crew of the ship he was said to be aboard, and the wife of the ship’s captain published a letter in 1907 saying there was no truth to Bartley’s claims.6

The Great Fish Constellation 

It has also been proposed that Jonah was not literally swallowed by a fish, but instead was adrift at sea for several days during the time of a constellation known as “Cetus” or “the big fish.” Thus, Jonah’s big fish is not a real animal, but rather a manifestation of Jonah’s fear and sense of alienation while afloat during a long winter’s night, with the Cetus constellation showing prominently in the skies.8

In Greek mythology, Cetus is a sea monster. It may have originally been associated with a whale, which would have had mythic status amongst Mesopotamian cultures. The creature is most strongly associated with Cetus, the sea-monster who was slain by Perseus as he saved the princessAndromeda from Poseidon’s wrath.9

The constellation Cetus is located in a region of the sky called “The Sea” because many water-associated constellations are placed there, including Eridanus, Pisces, Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, and Aquarius.9

Jonah In The Fish: Dead or Alive?

The text is unclear as to whether Jonah remained alive for three days and three nights within the belly of the great fish, or if God raised him from the dead upon the occasion of the great fish’s vomiting him out upon the dry land. The record of the prayer which Jonah prayed after being swallowed seems to argue that he was alive; but, since the prayer was only a matter of a very few minutes duration, it falls short of proving Jonah’s continued life within the fish’s belly for a whole three days and three nights.3


  • Why did Jonah refuse to go to Nineveh? Perhaps because he feared for his life. Perhaps because he thought the task would be fruitless. However, the text indicates that Jonah most feared success. He did not want the Assyrians to repent. If he had been sent to destroy Nineveh, he would probably have gone gladly. He grudged that heathen should share Israel’s privileges, and probably thought that gain to Nineveh would be loss to Israel.11
  • Jonah fled, literally, from the “face of Jehovah.” This may mean, from God’s special presence in Jerusalem or the Holy Land, as banishment from Canaan is called “casting out of his sight” (ex. 2 Kings 17:20); or, from serving the Lord as his minister (Deuteronomy 10:8), Jonah preferring to renounce his office as prophet rather than execute his mission. The former seems the most natural explanation of the phrase. Jonah may have supposed that the spirit of prophecy would not extend beyond the land of Israel. He could never have thought to escape from God’s all-seeing presence.11
  • When the text says Jonah “paid the fare” it may mean that he paid for the whole freight of the ship so that it would leave quicker. The sooner the boat set sail the sooner Jonah would be out of Israel.11
  • Ironically, Jonah escapes his duty to witness to the Gentiles from Joppa, the exact same seaport where God will send the apostle Peter to start the Gentiles on the road to salvation (Acts 10:5-6).2
  • Joppa was the only seaport that Israel had until Herod built Caesarea Philippi several hundred years later.3
  • The Hebrew word for ship in this text is shephinah, and is found nowhere else in the Old Testament. It derived from saphan which means “to cover” thus implying that the vessel was decked. Jonah was resting below decks in the hold of the ship when the storm came.3
  • The word for “sailors” here literally means “salts,” that is sailors of the salt seas; they are usually thought to have been Phoenicians engaged in the corn trade with western Mediterranean ports, or the iron trade with Sardinia.  The variety of “gods” mentioned indicates that they were, not all of a single nationality, but of mixed origin, some worshipping one god, some another.3
  • The sailors would’ve been used to storms; the danger therefore must have been extreme for them to be afraid.11
  • The text presupposes that Jonah, like the sailors, prayed unto “his God,” but that his prayer had not been answered any more than their prayers. This is why the sailors cast lots to expose the guilty party.3
  • The author draws many sharp contrasts between Jonah, a supposedly devout Jew, and the sailors, who were pagan. 1) Jonah sleeps during the storm while the sailors work; 2) Jonah did not ask God for mercy whereas the sailors petitioned their own gods; 3) the sailors end up worshiping/sacrificing to God and Jonah does not.10
  • When the text says God “prepared” a great fish, it means he “commissioned” or “appointed,” or “ordered.”3
  • This first chapter reminds us that God is not concerned about our race, our origins, or our occupation, but with what we are doing with what He has commanded us to do.10
  • Note the similarities between Jonah and Jesus (Mk. 4:135-41) sleep through storms. Both are awakened by concerned sailors who wonder why they are not doing anything to help the situation. Note the contrast between Jonah’s reluctance to help with Jesus’ willingness to oblige. In both instances it is shown that only God can stop the storm, causing the sailors to be awed.


  • Jonah was asked to do something by God, and he did the exact opposite. We often think that, “If God would only make it clear what I was supposed to do, then I would do it,” yet this text shows that in the face of overt instruction we still have the opportunity to disobey. What does this say about our freewill? What are you being called to do? Are you doing the opposite?
  • Jonah avoided God’s call because he didn’t like the possibility of God showing mercy to his enemies. In what ways are we possessive of God’s mercy (i.e. thinking it’s only for us)? Who do we begrudge God being kind to? What does this say about our sense of justice? What does this say about God’s mercy? How do justice and mercy relate or contrast? Are we willing to help someone who may harm us, our family, our reputation? Who do we secretly not want God to help? Why? What parallels are there between the story of Jonah and the parable of the prodigal son?
  • God pursued Jonah though he tried to flee from him. What does this say about God? Do you think God was angry, sad, hopeful or loving? Why? What parallels are there between Jonah’s story and the parable of the lost sheep? Why does God pursue us? Is God purusing you? For what purpose?


  1. Asbury Commentary
  2. GCI Commentary
  3. Coffman’s Commentary
  4. James Bartley
  5. The Naked Scientist
  6. Truth or Fiction
  7. Edward Davis’ Research Article
  8. Beasts of the Bible
  9. Cetus
  10. Deffinbaugh’s Commentary
  11. Various Commentaries

Jonah Overview

Author and Date

Jonah was the son of Amittai, and came from the town Gath-hepher, located three miles northeast of Nazareth in the tribal area of Zebulon He lived during the reign of the Northern Israelite king, Jeroboam II (820-753 BC), and would’ve been a contemporary of the prophets Hosea and Amos. His immediate prophetic predecessors would’ve been Elijah and Elisha.

Jewish legend holds that Jonah was the son of the widow of Sarephta whose resuscitation by the prophet Elijah is narrated in 1 Kings 17, but this legend seems to have no other foundation than the phonetic resemblance between the proper name Amatti, father of the prophet, and the Hebrew word emeth, “truth”, applied to the word of God through Elijah by the widow of Sarephta (1 Kings 17:24).8

Jonah means “dove” and Amittai, his father, means “true one”1 Both were rare Hebrew names.It is often noted that a dove was used as representative of Israel (ex. Hosea 7:11 – “a silly dove”).11

Jonah is mentioned only once in the Old Testament outside of the Book of Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25. There Jonah is said to have prophesied that the kingdom of Israel would expand its borders during the reign of Jeroboam, a wicked king. It does seem safe to conclude that this “Jonah” is the same person as the “Jonah” who is the subject of the Book of Jonah, especially since both are identified as “the son of Amittai”1

The Book of Jonah is an anonymous work, with no author named or implied. Traditionally the authorship has been ascribed to the prophet himself. However, many think that it may have been written by  disciples of Jonah, or perhaps a group of scribes, at a later date. It is also possible that it is the work of a member of Israel’s royal court who took the life of a historical person and expanded it to present a theological truth.3

If the author is Jonah, then the book should be dated to the reign of king Jeroboam II  in Israel (783-743 BC), and to either king Asurdanil or Asurnirar (770-745 BC) in Assyria.3,8

Many modern scholars agree that the editing process which produced the book containing the twelve minor prophets (including Jonah) reached its final form in Jerusalem during the Achaemenid period (538–332 BC), though some contend that the Book of Jonah, in particular, was composed even later, in the Hellenistic period (332–167 BC).7

Historical Context


Nineveh was the capital city of the notoriously cruel and powerful empire of the Assyrians. They were known for their brutal treatment of those whom they defeated including cutting off the heads and hands of warriors, flaying the skin of their victims and spreading it upon the wall of the city (Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia),2 as well as the deportation of entire populations to distant lands. The leaders of conquered cities were said to be tortured and horribly mutilated before being executed.1,11

According to the Old Testament, Nineveh’s wickedness was comprised of her idolatry, her inordinate pride (Is. 10:5-19), and her cruel oppression of the conquered nations (Is. 36:16, 17).1

Nineveh was located on the Tigris River, over 500 miles to the northeast of Israel, and was the largest city in the world for some fifty years. The enclosed area of the city had 100,000  to 150,000 inhabitants, about twice as many as Babylon at the time.6

The original meaning of the name of the city is unclear, but may have referred to a patron goddess. The cuneiform for Ninâ is a fish within a house. This may have simply intended “Place of Fish” or may have indicated a goddess associated with fish or the river itself. The city was later said to be devoted to “the Ishtar of Nineveh” and Nina was one of the Sumerian and Assyrian names of that goddess.6

The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, was the one who made Nineveh a truly magnificent city (c. 700 BC). He laid out new streets and squares and built a magnificent palace comprised at least 80 rooms. Some of the principal doorways were flanked by colossal stone door figures, resembling winged lions or man-headed bulls, weighing up to 30 tons. The stone carvings in the walls include many battle scenes, impalings and scenes showing Sennacherib’s men parading the spoils of war before him. On them he also bragged about his conquests: he wrote of Babylon: “Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare, and with their corpses I filled the streets of the city.” About a battle in Lachish he wrote: “And Hezekiah of Judah who had not submitted to my yoke…him I shut up in Jerusalem his royal city like a caged bird. Earthworks I threw up against him, and anyone coming out of his city gate I made pay for his crime. His cities which I had plundered I had cut off from his land.” 6

Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BC when, after a bitter period of civil war in Assyria itself, it was sacked by an unusual coalition of former enemies, the Babylonians and the Chaldeans. Before its end, however, it would become the strongest military force in the world, and eventually overtake the Northern Kingdom of Israel and deport all its inhabitants (701 BC).6,2

The book of the prophet Nahum is almost exclusively taken up with prophetic denunciations against Nineveh. Its ruin and utter desolation are foretold. Its end was strange, sudden, and tragic. The prophet Zephaniah also (2:13–15) predicts its destruction along with the fall of the Assyrian empire of which it was the capital.6

In the half-century during which the prophet Jonah ministered (800–750 BC), the Assyrian ruler, Adad Nirari III, came west and defeated the Syrians. This took pressure off Israel and Judah and allowed them to rise from their previous century of decline. King Jeroboam II took this opportunity to restore Israel’s traditional borders. Nevertheless, Assyria remained the real threat from the north.11

Literary Style

The Book of Jonah is unlike most other prophetic parts of the Old Testament in that it is a narrative account of a single prophetic mission. Its treatment of that mission is more similar to the accounts of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha found in 1 & 2 Kings, and to certain narrative sections of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, than most of the other prophets.11

The Book of Jonah is usually considered one of three types of literature: 1) historical, 2) allegorical, or 3) fictional.

Those who say the book is a historical narrative generally cite that it was considered to be a factual account by the ancient Israelites, as well as that it was referenced as a fact by Jesus, himself in the New Testament as a foreshadowing of the resurrection he would experience.  Also, the story anchors on a particular person at a particular time in history, which is an unusual technique for parables.

Arguments for the allegorical and fictional views are generally centered around the credulity of the miracles in the book, namely the deliverance of Jonah by a fish. This portion of the story has been questioned since antiquity, with the early church facing ridicule through pagan philosopher’s writings.5  Porphyry, a 2nd century Roman philosopher, wrote, “…what are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale’s belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it.” The early church father, Augustine said the miracles in Jonah were discussed by pagans amidst loud laughter and with great scorn.7

In addition, many scholars think that if the book were a historical narrative, then certain key details would not be omitted; for instance, the place where the Jonah was vomited forth by the sea-monster, the particular sins of which the Ninivites were guilty, the particular kind of calamity by which the city was to be destroyed, and the name of theAssyrian king under whom these events took place.8

Major Themes

In many ways the Book of Jonah is a book of contrasts. Prophets normally obey their calling, here Jonah disobeys. When Jonah is told to go west, he goes east. When a storm strikes the boat, the sailors work feverishly while Jonah sleeps. Prophets normally have lengthy oracles concerning God’s mercy/judgment, but Jonah only preaches a single sentence. The Jews are normally the faithful people, favored by God, but here Gentiles are the ones who repent and worship God.

God’s Mercy

The Book of Jonah emphasizes that it is not the godliness on the part of any nation, or its leadership, or its priests, which result in God giving out his blessings. God shows grace to those who turn to him, as in the case of Nineveh, and he continues to show grace to those who still refuse to turn, as is the case of Jonah (as a representative of Israel). In this sense God’s grace was shown to be even greater to the Israelites than it was to the Ninevites, for God had promised to forgive those who repent, and Israel continued to pursued its wicked ways.1

God’s Sovereignty

Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 exalts God as the God of the universe. Pagan religion held to local gods. When one left the territory of one god, he sought out the god of the next territory. The idea of only one God, who controlled the elements because he had created them was foreign to the pagan world.4

This book showcases God’s power and sovereignty over nature, nations, and revelation. God has a freedom to act even beyond his covenant with Israel. His love for all mankind is seen clearly in the forgiveness of the Assyrians. And God is shown not only to love humans, but also the animals (4:1).3

Gentile Devotion vs. Jewish Devotion

Over and over again, the Book of Jonah highlights Israel’s unfaithfulness to God in contrast to the ease by which Gentiles repent and praise him. The sailors dedicated themselves to God, Nineveh repented, whereas Jonah was skeptical, reluctant and embittered. One would have expected Jonah to be the hero of the story, and the heathens to be the villains. This was certainly the perspective of Jonah, and of the Israelites, whom he typifies.1

The narrative highlights how heathen people were ready to repent at the first preaching of the prophet, a stranger to them; but Israel, who boasted of being God’s elect, repented not, though warned by their own prophets at all seasons. The patience and pity of God stand in striking contrast with the selfishness and hard-heartedness of man.10


  • What category of literature do you think the Book of Jonah fits best into: Historical narrative? Allegory? Fiction? Why do you think this? Is the way you think about the story of Jonah indicative of how you interpret the Bible as a whole? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your perspective on Biblical literary types? What does this say about your theology? What does this say about your understanding of Biblical inspiration?
  • Jonah gives us a glimpse of God’s concern for all people, even our worst enemies, and the ease by which he is willing to forgive them. Do you think this is fair? What does this say about your sense of justice? How do justice and mercy relate to each other? Do you see God more through the lens of justice or mercy? What does this book teach us about both?
  • One of the themes of the Book of Jonah is that God is a universal God. Every nation is under his care (even Israel’s worst enemy, Assyria), there is no place he won’t go (even the sea – which the Jews associated with chaos), and he cares for all things (even the animals). Jonah took issue with this view of God. He thought he could get away from God by going to the end of the earth. He thought God should confine his love to only his people, Jonah’s people. In what ways have we limited God by maintaining an ethnocentric, self-centered perspective on his love? In what ways have we tried to put God in a box? Where have you tried to hide thinking God can’t see you, won’t find you? How has God shown you he cannot be contained?


  1. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  2. Malick’s commentary
  3. Utley’s commentary
  4. Heater’s commentary
  5. Jamieson’s commentary
  6. Nineveh and Assyria – Wikipedia
  7. Jonah Overview
  8. Jonah – Catholic Encyclopedia 
  9. Jonah – Jewish Encyclopedia 
  10. Various Jonah Commentaries
  11. IBS Commentary

Reconciling the Old Testament and New Testament

Struggling with how the depiction of God in the Old Testament jives with Jesus in the New Testament?

Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church, has some awesome sermons on this topic.

In the first sermon, God’s Shadow Activity, he shows how the Law was simply a shadowy depiction of God’s ultimate aim–the cross.

In the second sermon, Shadow of the Cross, he talks about how the barbaric, violent, nationalistic passages in the Old Testament are examples of God taking accountability for our sinful actions, just as he ultimately did through Jesus on the cross.

Give ’em a listen. Good stuff.