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The prophet Jonah is perhaps the most complex of all the biblical prophets. His prophecies—and he himself—can be viewed on multiple levels. He is a prophetic type of Israel, of the church, and of Christ in both of His comings on earth.
As a type of Israel, he was disobedient to God and found himself in a downward slide toward death when he was swallowed up by the great fish. Israel, too, was soon to be swallowed up by the great fish, that is, Nineveh, “Fish City.”
Eventually, Jonah was raised from the dead, as it were, and so also the lost tribes of Israel are to be raised from the dead in the latter days.
The church, too, has been as disobedient as Israel was in the time of Jonah. It is interesting that the early church often identified itself by the sign of the fish (Greek: Ichthys), which is an acronym formed by the Greek words, Iesus Christou Theou (h)yios Soter. It means Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.
Jesus called His disciples and trained them to be fishers of men. They were then given the Great Commission, which they related to Jonah’s preaching mission to Nineveh. Though the early church was quite successful in the first few centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, in later years they failed in their mission. Instead of fishing, they went hunting for souls, often using violence and political force to convert the world. This was not the method Jesus had in mind. So in that way, the church ultimately ran from God as much as Jonah did.
Yet the promise of resurrection is given to the church even as it was given to Jonah himself. The Great Commission will see a greater fulfillment in the church after the first resurrection at the start of the Kingdom Age.
Finally, Jonah was also a type of Christ, as we learn from Jesus’ own words in Matt. 12:40. So Jesus had to die and be buried and be raised from the dead in order to fulfill the same pattern, though He was without sin. Whereas Jonah, Israel, and the church die on account of their own sin, Jesus died in order to pay for the sins of others.
Jonah might be compared to Isaiah, in that his revelation of Christ’s death is set forth as clearly as in Isaiah 53. The difference is that Jonah’s name means dove, and so he fulfills the prophecy in the law of cleansing lepers in Lev. 14, whereas Isaiah, whose name is from the same root (yasha) as Yeshua-Jesus, reveals the Messiah in His role as the Sacrifice for sin.
Both Jonah and Isaiah are universalists in the sense that both look beyond the borders of Israel, seeing the salvation of the world as the ultimate goal. Jonah reluctantly preaches to Nineveh, while Isaiah speaks with enthusiasm of “the Holy One of Israel, who is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5). Whereas we might expect Jonah to be reluctant in offering the temple to foreigners coming to worship, Isaiah affirms that God’s temple was as much for foreigners as for Israelites, “a house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Isaiah and Jonah address the problem of nationalistic religion that was prevalent at the time. Like Jesus Christ, Isaiah preaches this with no objection. Jonah, however, as a type of Israel and the church, resists the plan, but is overcome in the end by the will of God. This concept of universal salvation was not fully developed until the New Testament era, yet it was based upon the law of equal weights and measures in the law of Moses (Lev. 19:33-36).
Jonah 1:1 begins, saying,
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying…
The name of Jonah’s father, Amittai, “My truth,” was derived from the Hebrew word emeth, “reliable truth, faithfulness, sureness.” His name was a testimony of God’s Truth, suggesting that his son Jonah was a manifestation of divine truth in some way. The name foreshadows a great truth that Jonah’s life and ministry was to bring forth. Another reference to Amittai is found in 2 Kings 14:25,
25 He [Jeroboam II of Israel] restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.
Jonah was from Gath-hepher, or Gath ha Chepher, “winepress of digging,” a town of Zebulun (Joshua 19:13). It appears that King Jeroboam II restored Israel’s borders as Jonah had said in an unknown prophecy. This implies that Jonah lived prior to the time of Jeroboam II, making him a contemporary of Hosea, who too prophesied in the decades leading up to the reign of Jeroboam (Hosea 1:1).
Jonah 1:2 tells us the word of the Lord to the prophet:
2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that was soon to conquer and deport the House of Israel (745-721 B.C.). The city had been built by Nimrod, who had first built Babel, or Babylon, for we read in Gen. 10:8-11,
8 Now Cush became the father of Nimrod; he became a mighty one on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went forth into Assyria, and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah.
Nineveh was known to Greek and Roman historians as Ninus, the founder of Nineveh and the husband of Semiramis. Hence, Ninus is Nimrod in the book of Genesis. However, dictionaries fail to tell us the meaning of the name itself. They say only that it was his proper name. But the Hebrew letter nun means “fish,” and the story of Jonah identifies the great fish with Nineveh, or Ninus. Thus, Nineveh means “City of Fish,” or “Fish City.” When Jonah was called to go to Nineveh, he tried to run the other direction, but he ended up in the great fish anyway, representing Nineveh.
Jonah was told to proclaim a word of judgment upon Nineveh. But apparently, there was more to the calling than what is recorded in Jonah 1:2. The nationalistic prophet would have had no problem condemning the city. Yet he ran the other direction, as he said later, “for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God” (Jonah 4:2). This is not stated in Jonah 1:2, and the text does not tell us if God told Jonah directly or if the prophet merely discerned that God intended to save the city through his preaching.
The divine reason for sending the prophet was because “their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). This suggests a legal case presented to the divine court, but we do not know who appealed this case against Nineveh. It may have been an Israelite—perhaps even Jonah himself—or someone in the city of Nineveh itself.
In a previous precedent, it was the righteous people living in Sodom and Gomorrah who had appealed for divine justice against their own cities. Gen. 18:20, 21 says,
20 And the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. 21 I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”
Because the people of Sodom and Gomorrah cried out to God for justice, God took the case and investigated these cities. The legal term for such an investigation is visitation, which is a divine investigation to gather evidence before the divine court. When the gathered evidence proves guilt, then the court must determine the level of mercy that might be granted.
So God came to Abraham, for he was the “chosen” intercessor (Gen. 18:17-19). The intercession, in this case, failed to prevent the destruction of the cities, for there were not even ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:32).
In the New Testament, John the Baptist was sent to give the people of Judea and Jerusalem opportunity to repent and thereby secure mercy during that time of visitation. He was sent “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
This too failed to bring mercy, so John said, “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees” (Luke 3:9). John even told them that they could not appeal to Abraham as their biological father (Luke 3:8). The fruitless tree was to be cut down. After John was beheaded, Jesus continued to head up the investigative team for three years (Luke 13:7) before issuing the command to chop down the fruitless fig tree of Judah.
Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry of visitation, He wept over the city of Jerusalem, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:44).
The term is used correctly in the KJV many times. See Jer. 8:12; 10:15; 11:23; 23:12; 48:44; 51:18, where the NASB incorrectly renders it “punishment.” While it is true that the guilty parties are punished, the punishment only comes after the conclusion of the visitation. Hence, judgment (or “punishment”) is not the same as a visitation.
The examples of Sodom and Jerusalem give us some understanding of the legal investigative process before divine judgment is executed. Apparently, the suffering people of Nineveh appealed to God to judge their city for the injustices being perpetrated upon the them. This began an investigation from the divine court, and Jonah was sent to warn them of impending judgment.
But Nineveh repented and was spared. This is a unique example in history, so we must ask ourselves what the factor was that made it different. In fact, since Jerusalem itself was found guilty in its time of divine visitation, it can be compared with the example of Nineveh.
Jesus said to the people of Jerusalem in Matt. 12:41,
41 The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold something greater than Jonah is here.
The fact that the men of Nineveh repented somehow gave them the right to condemn Jerusalem. Why? Jesus had just equated himself to Jonah in the previous verses, implying that the Spirit of Christ was in Jonah preaching the word to Nineveh. Jonah represented Christ to Nineveh. The city then repented. But One greater than Jonah had come to Jerusalem, preaching repentance—with opposite results. Hence, Jerusalem could not plead ignorance after being sent One who was so much greater than Jonah. Christ came with many miraculous signs, whereas there was only one sign of Jonah—his ride in the fish.
Jonah’s experience proved that men with very little knowledge of God could repent, if only they could hear the word from the Son of Truth. Jerusalem was given an opportunity far greater, and yet they rejected this greater Witness. Hence, the people of Nineveh would be called upon to give testimony in God’s case against Jerusalem.
The point Jesus was making was to show that God was not a narrow nationalist who was interested in saving only Israelites or Judeans. For this reason, He often compared the great faith of Samaritans, Greeks, Canaanites, or Romans to the lesser faith of the Judeans (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9). This prepared the way for the Great Commission and for Paul’s ministry to the nations.