Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which dominated the Ancient Near East for about 300 years (900 -605 B.C.). It began its rise to world power about the time of the division of the Hebrew kingdom, at the close of Solomon’s reign. It gradually absorbed and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.
Thus Jonah, whose name means “dove,” was called by God to be a messenger. His message would prolong the life of the enemy nation that was already in the process of exterminating the northern kingdom of Israel, his own nation. No wonder he fled in the opposite direction – he was in patriotic dread of the brutal and relentless military machine that was closing in on God’s people.
Jonah was a native of Gath Hepher. He lived in the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.) and helped recover some of Israel’s lost territory (2 Kings 14:25). Thus, Jonah was a statement as well as a prophet. His mission to Nineveh might even have considered treasonous by some.
IS THE BOOK HISTORICAL?
Because of the fish story, unbelieving minds rebel at accepting the book as factual. They call it fiction, or an allegory, or a parable, or a prose poem. Jesus unmistakably regarded it as historical fact (Matt 12:39-41). It takes considerable straining to make anything else out of Jesus’ language. He called it a “sign” of His own resurrection. He put the fish, the repentance of the Ninevites, His resurrection, and the Judgment Day in the same category. He surely was talking of reality when He spoke of His resurrection and the Judgement Day. Thus Jesus accepted the Jonah story, and for us that settles it. We believe that it actually occurred just as recorded; with Jonah himself, under the direction of God’s Spirit, wrote the book, with no attempt to excuse his own unworthy behavior; and that the book, under the direction of God’s Spirit, was placed among the scared writings in the temple as a part of God’s unfolding revelation of Himself.
THE FISH. The word means “great fish” or “sea monster,” rather than “whale.” Many “sea Monters” have been found large enough to swallow a man. However, the point of the story is that it was a miracle, a divine attestation of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh. Except for some such astounding miracle, the Ninevites would have paid little attention to Jonah (Luke 11;30).
GOD’S PURPOSE IN SENDING JONAH TO NINEVEH
- Mainly, it seems to have been intended by God as a hint to His own nation that He was also interested in other gentile nations, Israel was jealous of its favored relationship with God and was unwilling to share the Lord’s compassion with the Gentiles.
- It may have postponed the destruction of Israel, for “violence” was one of the things the Ninevites repented of (3:8).
- Jonah’s home was Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14:25), near Nazareth, the home of Jesus, of whom Jonah was a “sign.”
- Jesus quoted Jonah’s recuse as a prophetic picture of His own resurrection on the “third” day (Matthew 12:40).
- Joppa, where Jonah embarked to avoid preaching to another nation, was the very place God chose, 800 years later, to tell Peter to receive people from other nations (Acts 10).
So, all in all. the story of Jonah is a grand historical picture of the Messiah’s resurrection and mission to all nations. (The other prophet who spoke against Nineveh was Nahum;)