What did Jesus mean by his reference to the "sign of Jonah"?
Volunteers are always preferred to conscripts – people who have to be forced to do something. But Jonah was no volunteer. Asked to go east, he ran away to the west, and had to be brought back in a way that was very traumatic for him. Eventually he did what was asked of him and ended up saving a lot of lives. But even then, he wasn’t happy about that either!
Jonah the Prophet
Jonah was the son of Amittai and lived in a hilly region in the north of the land of Israel, about 15 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. He lived about 800 B.C., but we do not know much about his background except that his first mission as a prophet was to take God’s Word to Jeroboam II, King of Israel (see 2 Kings 14:25). He was happy enough to be a prophet with good news for his own people.
This was a time when Assyria was a powerful state out to the north east of Israel, busy establishing itself as an Empire. One hundred years later it was the Assyrians who ended the northern kingdom of Israel, taking all the people into captivity. But at the time Jonah prophesied he announced Israel’s expansion and enlargement, which duly happened.
A Different Story
Jonah was both unhappy and troubled when God asked him to go and warn Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, and to urge them to repent of their sins. Nineveh was 500 miles away from Israel; the nation was much stronger and more self-important than Israel. You could understand it if Jonah thought they would not even listen to him. Did they know anything about Israel, or anything at all about the God of Israel? He doubted it.
The more Jonah thought about this, the more impossible it seemed. In the end his fears overcame him, and he decided to run. Where could he go to get away from God, from Assyria, and from Nineveh? In a panic he left his home, crossed the mountains, and arrived in the sea port of Joppa, almost 50 miles to the southwest. He found a ship sailing to the West, paid the fare, and settled down to escape from God. Two hundred years earlier David had written this:
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:7–10).
Jonah knew the Psalms. Later he was to quote many of them from memory. So surely his conscience troubled him – but still he persisted. I must get away from God! I must get away! There’s a huge lesson for us, here. You cannot run away from God. God is present everywhere.
The Big Fish
God intended Jonah to go and preach in Nineveh, and so prevented him going too far in the opposite direction. A huge storm rose up in the sea, and everyone on board prayed to their gods to save them from disaster. Everyone, that is, apart from Jonah, who was fast asleep down below deck. The captain was so alarmed at the storm that he went and woke Jonah up, to get him to pray as well. At last Jonah confessed that he was Jewish, and was running away from the Lord God of Israel.
The sailors worked as hard as they could to save the ship, but in the end they took Jonah at his word and threw him over¬board. Immediately the storm abated. It’s then that another wonderful miracle happened. Jonah was swallowed by a huge fish, which three days later swam back to shore and vomited Jonah out onto dry land.
This is one of the major incidents Jesus quoted when he was teaching people about God.
“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).
This was such an important Old Testament story that Jesus quoted it again four chapters later, in Matthew 16:4. The point is this – just as Jonah was “buried” for three days and nights, so Jesus would be buried. Despite the most unlikely event that a man could come out of the fish and live, Jonah did. And so did Jesus rise from the grave. Jonah was a “type” of Jesus.
In case you doubt the story, it wasn’t an ordinary fish! We are told, “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). It was a very special miracle. But you can be sure that the gastric juices in the fish’s stomach would do horrible things to Jonah’s skin, and probably bleach him white. That would have made him look quite extraordinary.
The second chapter of the book of Jonah gives a fascinating insight into the mind of a God-fearing Jewish man. While he was inside the fish, Jonah prayed to God. And, from memory, he quoted from over 15 different Psalms. In better days he had memorized this wonderful book of hymns and spiritual songs, and was able to put many phrases together to plead with God to bring him out alive. How useful these passages of Scripture can be!
Of course when Jesus was dead and buried he could not pray to God. When we die our brain ceases to function, and our thoughts are stilled. When King Hezekiah was told that he would recover from his life-threatening illness he wrote these words:
"For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your truth. The living, the living man, he shall praise you, as I do this day; the father shall make known your truth to the children” (Isaiah 38:18–19).
Here’s another lesson for us! We must make the most of every living moment we have, before death robs us of our con-sciousness. But, like Jesus, if we read the Bible and try to put ourselves right with God by being baptized, then even if we die we shall be raised again when Jesus comes back (see 1 Corinthians 15:51-58).
Expelled by the whale, Jonah found himself on dry land and heard God’s voice again, telling him to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent from their evil ways. This time he went. He arrived in the city and started his preaching.
His message reached the king of Nineveh who took Jonah very seriously, and ordered everyone, “Let every one of you turn from his evil way, and from the violence that is in his hands.” And it worked! They repented, and started
to lead better lives. So God saved them from the punishment that He had threatened them with. Jonah’s preaching hadworked!
Jonah went out of the city and sat under a booth to see what would happen to Nineveh. While he was watching and waiting a very special plant grew up quickly, and provided Jonah with some very welcome shade. Then, a sad thing happened. A worm appeared which attacked the plant, and it withered and died. This really upset Jonah, and he even prayed that he might die.
Jonah –— get your priorities right, man! You were sorrier about your day-old plant than you were about the whole of the city of Nineveh! And this was indeed the lesson God intended to draw from the whole incident. God had made, or prepared: the great storm, the special fish, the plant, and the worm. He had also kept Jonah alive inside the fish.
That’s five miracles in all! But all Jonah was really concerned about was that his plant had withered, and that he was now facing the hot Middle East sun.
The evil city of Nineveh did repent, and listened to the God of Heaven. The lesson is obvious. God can save both Jews and Gentiles. Surely this wonderful story teaches us that everything is possible with God. If we turn to Him, He will also save us.
-- David Simpson