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.
Jonah might be compared to Isaiah in that his revelation of the death of Christ is clearly set forth, even as seen 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 reveals the Messiah as fulfilling the sacrifices of the lamb.
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 of “the Holy One of Israel, who is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5). Isaiah says further 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, extending the covenants to the whole earth. This concept was not fully developed until the New Testament era, but it was based upon the law of equal weights and measures in the law of Moses (Lev. 19:33-36) and prophets like Isaiah and Jonah.
The Son of Divine Truth
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 amet, “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. 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 (Josh. 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 to the reign of Jeroboam (Hosea 1:1).
Nineveh and Ninus
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 discerned that God intended to save the city.
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.”
For this reason, God investigated the cities in a legal sense. The legal term for this is visitation. A visitation is a divine investigation to gather evidence before the divine court. When the evidence gathering 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, was insufficient to prevent the destruction of the cities.
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 2:3).
This too failed to bring mercy, so John said “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees” (Luke 2:9). John even told them that they could not appeal to Abraham as their biological father (Luke 2:8). 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 actually comes at the conclusion of the visitation.
Nineveh Condemns Jerusalem
The examples of Sodom and Jerusalem give us some understanding of the legal investigative process before divine judgment is executed. It is likely, then, that the righteous people of Nineveh appealed to God to judge their city for the injustices that it was perpetrating upon the people. However, 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.
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.
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 a better opportunity than Nineveh was given, and yet they rejected this Greater Jonah. Hence, the people of Nineveh would be called upon to give testimony in the 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.
The Downward Slide
Jonah 1:3 says,
3 But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
From his home town in Zebulun in the north part of Israel, Jonah went “down” (south) to Joppa, a city along the coast. Notice first how many times Jonah went “down.” After going “down” to Joppa, he “went down” into the boat. When the storm arose, “Jonah had gone below into the hold of ship, lain down, and fallen sound asleep” (Jonah 1:5).
From there, he was cast overboard, where he went down, first into the water, and then into the belly of the fish, at which time he “descended to the roots of the mountains” (Jonah 2:6). Fleeing from the presence of the Lord carries people in just one direction—down.
Jonah 1:4 says,
4 And the Lord hurled a great wind [ruach, “spirit, breath, or wind”] on the sea, and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up.
The Hebrew word ruach carries a double meaning of wind and spirit. For this reason, the great wind, or tempest, is seen to be the breath of God blowing across the waters. It is a statement of the sovereignty of God, so that we know that such tribulation is directly or indirectly all of God. Here there is no doubt that God Himself brought about this storm in order to fulfill His purposes.
We see a similar story in the New Testament, when the wind of God blew upon the Sea of Galilee. In fact, the story in Matt. 14:22-34 is meant to be connected to the story of Jonah. Peter left the boat to walk on the water toward Jesus. Simon—soon to be called “Peter”—was the “son of Jonah,” for we read two chapters later in Matt. 16:17, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona,” or Son of Jonah.
The main difference between the two stories is that when Jonah was cast overboard, he was a type of Christ in His first coming, wherein He had to enter the heart of the earth. However, Peter’s experience was in a story representing the second coming of Christ. The second coming of Christ is a living work, not a death work. So Peter goes out to meet Jesus as He comes to the ship full of disciples (church). In this story, Peter played the role of the overcomers, who alone have the faith to meet Christ at His coming.
The similarity of the stories is in the fact that in both cases the wind was the breath of God. This is easy to see in the story of Jonah, but perhaps more difficult to see it in the story of the disciples. But when we look at the prophetic context, it is clear that God intended for the church to go into the “tribulation” of the storm.
The story is told in John 6 as well, where we learn that Jesus multiplied the bread to feed 5,000 men, plus women and children. This occurred at Passover—technically, at the wave-sheaf offering shortly after Passover, since it was barley bread that was multiplied. The incident was to illustrate the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross, where His body was “broken” to feed the world.
The people then wanted to crown Him king (John 6:15), so He withdrew Himself to a high mountain to pray (Matt. 14:23). This followed the prophetic pattern of Christ’s ascension to heaven, where “He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).
Before leaving, however, Jesus compelled them to get into the boat and sail to the other side of the lake (Matt. 14:22). This prophesies of the church that was sent into the nations (stormy seas) to preach the word, while He was in heaven making intercession for them.
Then Jesus came to them, walking on the water, and Peter went out to meet Him. This is the second coming of Christ.
The Connection with Nineveh
Jonah’s experience on the high seas prophesied of the first coming of Christ. The disciples’ experience, however, was given to prophesy of the second coming of Christ. Hence, there is an inherent distinction in the two stories, even though both have to do with Christ.
The connecting link between them, as I said earlier, was the fact that Peter was the Son of Jonah. But there is yet another link, given in Mark’s account of the story. We read in Mark 6:45,
45 And immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side to Bethsaida, while He Himself was sending the multitude away.
Neither Matthew nor John mention that Jesus had sent them to Bethsaida. Only Mark tells us this detail. Matt. 14:32 says that after Jesus was escorted by Peter back to the boat, “the wind stopped.” John 6:17 says, “after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum.” The crowd then found Jesus and the disciples in Capernaum (John 6:24). So even though they were sent to Bethsaida, they ended up at Capernaum. Why?
Well, they had to be sent to Bethsaida, “house of fish,” in order to fulfill the type of Jonah being sent to Nineveh, the “City of Fish.” But they landed in Capernaum, because the name of that town in Hebrew is Kaphar Nahum, or “Covering of the Comforter.” John’s message was to connect that city with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the “Comforter” and with Nineveh upon which the Holy Spirit came when the entire city was converted.
Hence, whether it was Bethsaida or Capernaum, both represented different aspect of the story of Jonah. Bethsaida is Nineveh, and Capernaum is the Spirit-filled City. Together, the story shows that the second work of Christ is designed, not to destroy the world, but to save it by the preaching of the word and the power of the Spirit.
Whereas the wind of God brought death to Jonah, the same wind also brought Jonah back to life and then brought the Holy Spirit to Nineveh—the world of God’s enemies.
The Captain’s Orders
Jonah 1:6 says,
6 So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.”
The Hebrew word for “captain” is rav khoval, “great (or chief) rope handler.” He “knew the ropes,” as they say. This was their term for a ship’s captain.
The gospel of Mark records two occasions where Jesus’ disciples were caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. We have already noted the incident in Mark 6, but two chapters earlier, in Mark 4:35-41 we read of a second incident. In this other story, Mark 4:37, 38 says,
37 And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. 38 And He Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they awoke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”
Is this not also connected to Jonah, who was sleeping in the bottom of the ship during the storm? Just as the captain questioned whether or not his God was “concerned about us so that we will not perish,” so also the disciples asked Jesus, “Do You not care that we are perishing?”
The fact is, He does care. But at the same time, it is in His purpose to try the hearts of believers in order to increase their faith in divine protection. So after calming the sea, we read in Mark 4:40,
40 And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Faith and fear are incompatible. Those with faith are those who “fear not.” Those with fear “have no faith.” If we live by fear, we cannot walk by faith. Faith is not about which religion one accepts—as in “what faith are you?” Faith is believing (knowing) that God is always with you, that you do not go through any circumstance without His knowledge and without Him caring about you.
We all go through times where it seems like He has gone away or that He has forgotten us. Israel thought the same in Exodus 17:7, asking, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” Such experiences are tests of faith, not that God needs to be informed of our level of faith, but that we need to see our own hearts. We all think we have faith, but are ignorant until tested.
The ship’s captain was an unbeliever, a pagan. We do not know which god he worshiped, but being a man of the high seas, it is likely that he worshiped Neptune, the god of the sea who had a fish tail. Though he worshiped his god, he did not have faith in that god’s power of deliverance. If he had had faith, he would not have been so fearful.
Furthermore, his lack of faith is shown in the fact that he told everyone to pray to their own gods, hoping that at least one of them might come to their aid. How pathetic is it to worship a god in whom you have so little faith? But such is the case when we believe in God (or any god) without having any real-life experience with Him that proves His reality. Many believe in God, but they have no experience that proves His care for them. They may believe that He cares for others—for “saints”—but not for an average person like “me.”
For some, the problem is that they are unwilling to get out of the boat. For others, they just think that Jesus is asleep or that He is too busy to care or too holy to be bothered by average sinners. Whatever the problem may be, real faith comes by revelation, grows through experience, and is known by testing.
Hence, we see that the story of Jonah is the foundation for at least two “storm” stories in the gospels. The story in Mark 4 is designed to teach us about faith; the story in Mark 6 teaches us about the work of faith that we are called to do as the resurrected sons of God, both now and in the time to come.