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Jonah is the book of the Bible which perhaps has been criticized more than any other. Unfortunately, many Christians thoughtlessly cast aspersions upon this important book in the canon of Scripture without realizing that they are playing into the hands of the critics and innocently becoming the dupes of the skeptics. You hear even Christians say, when they hear a tall story, “My, that’s a Jonah!” What they really mean is that it is something that is hard, or maybe even impossible, to believe.
In warfare the tactic of the enemy is always to feel out the weak spot in the line of the opposition and to center his attack at that vantage point. Judging by this criterion, many critics have evidently come to the conclusion that the Book of Jonah is the vulnerable part of the divine record. This book is the spot where the enemy has leveled his heaviest artillery. As a result, the average Christian today feels that this is the weakest of the sixty–six links in the chain of the Scriptures. If this link gives away, then the chain is broken.
Is the Book of Jonah “the Achilles’ heel” of the Bible? It is if we are to accept the ridiculous explanations of the critics. The translators of the Septuagint were the first to question the reasonableness of this book. They set the pattern for the avalanche of criticism which has come down to the present day. The ancient method of modernism is to allegorize the book and to classify it with Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. Today liberalism uses the same tactics. They make of it an allegory, saying that actually it never took place at all.
Some of the extravagant theories of the critics are so farfetched and fantastic that they are almost ridiculous. It is much easier to believe the Book of Jonah as given than to believe their explanations of it. I would like to pass on to you some of these outlandish explanations of the Book of Jonah:
1. Some critics, without a scrap of evidence to support their claim, say that Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarephath.
2. There are some who have put forth the theory that Jonah had a dream in the ship while he was asleep during the storm and that the Book of Jonah is the account of his dream.
3. Some relate the Book of Jonah to the Phoenician myth of Hercules and the sea monster. There is no similarity at all and, again, they are reaching for an explanation.
4. Another group holds that, although Jonah was a real character and did take a ship to Tarshish, a storm wrecked the ship. Then after the storm and shipwreck, Jonah was picked up by another ship on which there was a fish for its figurehead, and that gives support for the record in the Book of Jonah. I can well understand that if Jonah had been picked up after the storm, he might have been unconscious for awhile. I can also imagine that he might have felt like he was in a fish at that time. But I’m of the opinion that after recovering, on about the second day, Jonah would have come to the conclusion that he was on a ship and not inside a fish!
5. Still others resort to the wild claim that there was a dead fish floating around and that Jonah took refuge in it during the storm. This group has a dead fish and a live Jonah. Before we are through with this book, I am going to turn it around and say that what we have is a live fish and a dead Jonah.
Therefore, liberalism largely takes the position that the Book of Jonah is nothing in the world but an allegory, that it is merely a fairy story to be put in the same category as Aesop’s Fables. The producers of these speculations claim that the Book of Jonah is unreasonable, and they bring forth these theories to give credence to their story. It would be very interesting indeed to get Jonah’s reactions to their “very reasonable” explanations.
We must dismiss all of these speculations as having no basis in fact, no vestige of proof from a historical standpoint, and as having existence only in the imaginations of the critics. It can be established that Jonah was an historical person, not a character from mythology. It can be ascertained on good authority that the account is accurate. And it can be shown that the message of the book is of utmost significance even for this crucial time in which we live.
Jonah is an historical character and the author of this book. I want to turn to an historical book, 2 Kings, where we read: “In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel began to reign in Samaria, and reigned forty and one years” (2 Kings 14:23). As far as I know, no one has ever questioned that Jeroboam II lived, that he was a king in the northern kingdom of Israel, and that he reigned forty–one years. This is an historical record. We read further: “And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD: he departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant, Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath–hepher” (2 Kings 14:24–25, italics mine). Jeroboam was a real person, Israel was a real nation, Hamath was a real place, and it is quite unlikely that this man Jonah is a figment of the imagination. This is an historical record, and it is reasonable to conclude that Jonah is an historical character.
It is begging the point to say that this is another Jonah. It is not reasonable to believe that there were two Jonahs whose fathers were named Amittai and who were both prophets. This is especially evident when it is observed that the name of Jonah was not a common name; after all, Jonah is not like our American surname of Jones! The only times that the name occurs in the Bible are in this reference in 2 Kings, in the Book of Jonah itself, and in the New Testament references to that book. There is only one Jonah in the Bible, and he is an historical person.
It is quite interesting in this regard to compare the case of Jonah with another of the prophets, Obadiah. As far as I know, no critic has ever questioned the existence of a man by the name of Obadiah who wrote the Book of Obadiah; yet there is not one historical record in either the Old or New Testament concerning Obadiah. The liberals accept Obadiah, but they reject Jonah. Why? Because they want to deny the miracle that is recorded here.
We have an historical record of Jonah in the Old Testament, and we also have one in the New Testament given by the greatest authority who has ever lived on this earth, the Lord Jesus Christ. He personally gave authenticity to the historical character of Jonah and to his experience in the fish. We read in Luke 11:30, “For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.” Then in Matthew 12:39–41 we read: “But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.”
The moment you question the historical record of the Book of Jonah, you question the credibility of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is very strange to hear the liberal say, “Jesus was the greatest teacher that ever lived,” since one of the marks of a great teacher is that what he teaches is accurate and truthful. If Jesus is a great teacher, my friend, then His authentication of the Book of Jonah has to stand.
I want to conclude this section in which I have attempted to meet the objections of the critics by quoting the late Sir Winston Churchill on the subject of the inspiration of the Scriptures:
"We reject with scorn all those learned and laboured myths that Moses was but a legendary figure upon whom the priesthood and the people hung their essential social, moral and religious ordinances. We believe that the most scientific view, the most up–to–date and rationalistic conception, will find its fullest satisfaction in taking the Bible story literally, and in identifying one of the greatest human beings with the most decisive leap forward ever discernible in the human story. We remain unmoved by the tomes of Professor Gradgrind and Dr. Dryasdust. We may be sure that all these things happened just as they are set out according to Holy Writ."
Jonah was a prophet, but his little book is not a prophecy—that is, there is no prophecy of the future recorded in it. It is, instead, a personal account of a major event in the life of Jonah; as the narrator, he tells us his experience.
This narrative carries two great messages. We have here in miniature a picture of the nation Israel in the Great Tribulation period, a picture of how God will preserve His people, the 144,000 who are sealed in the Book of Revelation. We also have here a marvelous teaching concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This book is actually prophetic of the Resurrection. The Lord Jesus Himself said that just as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, He also would be a sign to His generation in His resurrection from the dead.
The Book of Jonah is not a fish story, and that is something which really disturbs the gainsaying world which makes a great deal of how impossible it is to believe it. This book is a picture of a man who was raised from the dead, and of a throne in the midst of which “stood a Lamb as it had been slain.” This Lamb is a resurrected Lamb, and a Christ–rejecting world will some day cry out, “… hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16).
Sometimes the literary excellence of this brief brochure is lost in the din made by the carping critics. It is well to recall the tribute paid by Charles Reade, the English literary critic and author, who wrote, “Jonah is the most beautiful story ever written in so small a compass.” It is well to keep in mind that we have before us a literary gem, not a fish story.
Another salient point that I want to make is that the fish is neither the hero of the story nor the villain of the story. This book is not even about a fish, although the fish does become very important. The chief difficulty is in keeping a correct perspective. The fish is merely window dressing and cake trimming. In every play there are certain props and settings. It does not really matter whether Hamlet is played against a black, red, blue or white backdrop—that is not the important thing. In the story of Jonah, the fish is among the props and does not occupy the star’s dressing room.
In dealing with any book of the Bible, we need to distinguish between what Dr. G. Campbell Morgan calls the essentials and the incidentals. The incidentals in the Book of Jonah are the fish, the gourd, the east wind, the boat, and even the city of Nineveh. The essentials here are Jehovah and Jonah—God and man—that is what the book is all about.
Conservative scholars place the writing of the Book of Jonah before 745 B.C. The incidents took place about that time. Some even place it as early as 860 B.C. In my judgment, it seems best to place it between 800 and 750 B.C. Students of history will recognize this as the period when Nineveh, founded by Nimrod, was in its heyday, when the Assyrian nation was the great world power of the day. That nation was destroyed about 606 B.C. By the time of Herodotus, the Greek historian, the city of Nimrod had ceased to exist. When Xenophon passed the city, it was deserted, but he testified that the walls still stood and were 150 feet high. Historians now estimate they were 100 feet high and 40 feet thick. Nineveh, as we are going to see, was a great city, and we are told as much here in the record.
The brevity of the Book of Jonah is apt to lead the casual reader to the conclusion that there is nothing of particular significance here except the diatribe about the whale that swallowed Jonah. (The Greek word for whale is kêtos, meaning “a great sea monster.” Although it could have been a whale, I do not think it was—for the Scripture tells us that a special fish was prepared.) But the Book of Jonah has four very brief chapters, and it is only a little more than twice as long as the Book of Obadiah, which is the shortest book in the Old Testament. Because it is very brief, we are apt to pass over it. However, we should not call any of these books “minor” prophets, for each is like a little atom bomb, just loaded with power and with a program of God.
There are six significant subjects which are suggested and developed in the Book of Jonah which make it very relevant for us today:
1. This is the one book of the Old Testament which sets forth the resurrection of Jesus Christ. All of the great doctrines of the Christian faith are set forth in certain books of the Old Testament. For instance, the Book of Exodus sets forth redemption. The deliverance from sin for the sinner who comes to Christ is illustrated in that book. In the Book of Ruth you have the romance of redemption, the love side of redemption. In the Book of Esther, you have the romance of providence. The book of Job, I believe, teaches repentance. You can go through the Scriptures and find that the great doctrines of our faith are illustrated in various books of the Old Testament. The little Book of Jonah illustrates and teaches the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. If this book does not teach the great doctrine of resurrection, then this most important doctrine of the Christian faith is not illustrated by a book in the Old Testament. For this reason alone, I would say this is a significant book.
2. The Book of Jonah teaches that salvation is not by works, but by faith which leads to repentance. This little book is read by orthodox Jews on the great Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. The way to God is not by works of righteousness which we have done, but by the blood of a substitutionary sacrifice provided by the Lord. The most significant statement in the Book of Jonah is in the second chapter. “Salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). He is the author of salvation; He erected the great building of our salvation; He is the architect.
3. The third great purpose of this book is to show that God’s purpose of grace cannot be frustrated. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, but God was still going to get the message to Nineveh. The interesting thing in this particular case is that Jonah was going to be the witness for God in Nineveh—he didn’t know he was going there, but he did go.
4. The fourth great truth in this book is that God will not cast us aside for faithlessness. He may not use you, but He will not cast you aside. There are a lot of football players sitting on the bench; in fact, more sit on the bench than play in the game. A player is called out to play only when it is believed that he can make a contribution to the game. If you and I are faithless, God may bench us; but we are still wearing our uniform, and He will not cast us aside. Anytime we want to get back in the game of life and do His will, He will permit us to do it.
5. The fifth great truth is that God is good and gracious. Read Jonah 4:2 for the most penetrating picture of God in the entire Bible. It is wrong to say that the Old Testament reveals a God of wrath and the New Testament reveals a God of love. He is no vengeful deity in the Book of Jonah.
6. The sixth and last great teaching is that God is the God of Gentiles. When God chose Abraham, in effect He said to the Gentiles, “I’m going to have to leave you for awhile because of the sin that has come into the human family. I’m going to prepare salvation for you through a man and a nation, and I’ll bring the Redeemer, the Savior, into the world through them.” Now God has a salvation for all mankind. I have written Romans 3:29 over the Book of Jonah in my Bible. Paul writes, “Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also.” The Book of Jonah reveals that even in the Old Testament God did not forget the Gentiles. If He was willing to save a woman like Rahab the harlot, and a brutal, cruel nation like the Assyrians, including inhabitants of Nineveh, its capital, then I want to say to you that God is in the business of saving sinners.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 29: Jonah & Micah. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)