A Commentary in Simple English on Jonah

(Revised August 2005)

Introduction

We do not know who wrote down the Book of Jonah. Probably Jonah had told someone else his story, and then they wrote it down. [5.2] The name 'Jonah' meant 'a dove'.

You will find Jonah's name in one other place in the Old Testament. This is 2 Kings 14:25. There we learn these things about Jonah:-

  1. He came from Gath-Hepher. This was in the northern part of the kingdom of Israel. Later people call it Meshad.
  2. Jonah had said that the kingdom of Israel would gain much land that it had lost. This was a prophecy. It was a message that God gave to Jonah. This happened in the reign of King Jeroboam II. He was the king in Samaria from 782-753BC. [0.1] This means that Jonah made his prophecy some time before 753BC, but we do not know just how long before. Now we know something about the history of these countries at this time. About 800BC the great empire of Assyria was strong. Each year, the armies of Assyria came into Syria. They would destroy cities and take the people away. For about the next fifty years, Assyria grew weaker. So the power of the King of Israel spread north through Syria. After Rehoboam II died, there was trouble in Israel. About 748BC, Israel lost the city of Damascus in Syria again. Assyria was much stronger now. By the year 738BC, the Assyrian army reached Israel. (See 2 Kings 15:19.) So things were much worse for Israel than they had been before the reign of King Jeroboam II.

Jonah and Jesus

Jesus speaks about Jonah in Matthew 12:39-41. There He says that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the stomach of a great fish. Jesus will be in the grave for three days and three nights.

Jesus might have said more than this. The fish was sick and threw Jonah out from the sea on to dry land. Jesus would rise from the dead. Jonah went to preach to the nations, and the Good News about Jesus has to be preached to all nations. Jonah preached to the men of the city of Nineveh, and they 'repented'. They had been cruel and violent, but they changed their way of life. So the nations will repent and leave their sins when they hear the Good News. Jesus gives the same teaching in Matthew 16:4 and in Luke 11:29-32.

Jonah and Elijah

The Jews in Bible times had many strange stories that they told. One of these has to do with 1 Kings 17:8-24. There, God sent Elijah to Zarepath. This was between Sidon and Tyre. He lives with a widow. The widow's son dies and Elijah brings him back to life. This would have been about 850BC. Now some of the Jews said that the widow's son was Jonah. [5.1] This seems to be wrong because we know that Jonah came from Gath - Hepher and not from Zarepath. It is probably the way that the Jews said:- 'Jonah is like Elijah in some ways'. If you look at Jonah 4:3, you will see that it is quite like what Elijah says in 1 Kings 19:4. Both Elijah and Jonah had had a great success in the service of God. Both of them were very sad afterwards.

Jonah and Peter

John 21:15 tells us that the name of Peter's father was John or Jonah. So Peter is 'the son of Jonah'. In Acts 9:36 - 10:23 Peter is in Joppa, just as Jonah had been (1:3). God had called Jonah to preach to people who were not Jews. This is just what Peter has to do in Acts 10.

Nineveh and Assyria

Assyria is in the north of what we now call Iraq. Nineveh was a city on the great river Tigris. It was really made up of three cities joined together by walls. You will find that Genesis 10:10-12 speaks about Nineveh. 'Akkad' is in those verses too. Before 2200 BC, a king called Sargon ruled Akkad. We do not know just where the city was. But Sargon built up the first great empire about which we know anything. He ruled what is now Iraq and much of Syria. It seems that after he died Tudiya became the first king of Assyria, about 2100BC. He was the first of seventeen kings of Assyria who 'lived in tents'. An agreement, which he made with the great city of Ebla in Syria, has been found.

Later, the Assyrians built great cities like Nineveh. Their armies marched far into Egypt by 663BC and also all through what is now Iraq and into Iran. In the next fifty years after that, the Assyrian Empire grew weaker. The end came soon after 612BC, when the Medes and the army of Babylon destroyed Nineveh. (See the Book of Nahum).

The Assyrians seem to have been even more cruel than the other peoples of their day were. This may help to explain why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. [0.2]

Ships

The men of Tyre and Sidon (the Phoenicians) and the Greeks were great sailors in ancient times. The Greeks mostly sailed along the north coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They had many ports where they could call in. The Phoenicians made much longer journeys. The distance from Tyre and Sidon to their 'new city' of Carthage was about 2400km. Carthage was near modern Tunis in north Africa. They could probably call at ports in Cyprus and Sicily and perhaps in Crete.

Some of their ships may even have sailed south from Egypt down the east coast of Africa. They went round the Cape of Good Hope and north up the west coast of Africa. Then they sailed through the Mediterranean back to Egypt. [0.3] This must have been about 610BC. The journey took more than two years. This is because the ships had to stop more than once so that the sailors could grow a fresh supply of food.

We can see from the Book of Jonah that men rowed these ships with oars. They were probably free men, not slaves. The ships would have one large square sail. This hung from a great piece of wood called a 'yard'. This yard was fixed high up on the 'mast'. This was another great pole of wood. The sailors could not use the ropes and the yard in bad weather. The ship was 'top heavy' and it might turn over and sink in rough weather.

Now if you read Ezekiel 27 you will find that it is all about one of these great ships. The soldiers (verses.10 and 11) may have been on land at Tyre. But they may have been on the ship to fight off any 'pirates' or sea-robbers. Verses 12-25 tell us what the ships carried.

It is likely that the ship in which Jonah sailed was not quite such a big one.

Joppa

Joppa is a rather small port on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. It is the sea port that is closest to Jerusalem. It was not a Jewish town (Joshua 19:46) The Phoenicians sent wood for the Temple in Jerusalem by sea from Tyre and Sidon to Joppa (2 Ch 2:16 and Ezra 3:7). Ships would sail along the coast and stop at Joppa. It was not a great sea port like Tyre and Sidon. Enemy armies destroyed Ebla , a city in Syria before 2000 BC. But the people of Ebla traded with Joppa and wrote the name down on clay tablets. So Joppa has now been there for four thousand years or more.

Tarshish

We do not know where Tarshish was. It is usually said that it was the Kingdom of Tartessus in south west Spain, but this idea is not a very old one. [0.4] It is much more likely to be Carthage, near the modern city of Tunis. The Phoenicians built the new city of Carthage about 805BC. [0.5]

A 'ship of Tarshish' in the Bible often means a big ship; it is for trade and for long journeys. (See also 1 Kings 9:26-28 and 22:48.) Perhaps 'Tarshish' is only a word which was used for a place far away.

The Names of God

There is only one God, but He has many names. The Bible uses these names with great care. Now in an English Bible, you will find that the Book of Jonah uses three names or titles for God.

a) In 3:5-10 our English Bible has 'God'. This is used again in 4:7-9. We use 'God' for the Hebrew name 'Elohim'. That name means that He is the great God who made all things. He is the God of all men, everywhere.

b) In most other places in Jonah our Bible has 'the LORD' for the name of God. We use this for the Hebrew 'Jehovah' or Jahweh'. This name means that God is always the same. He does not change. He is the God of His people.

c) Just once in Jonah, these two names come together. This is in 4:6. We ought to ask why this is.

The reason for the Book of Jonah

We have seen that the power of the King of Israel, Jeroboam II spread north through Syria. Now in those days, most kings made their people worship their 'gods'. They had to set up idols and build altars to the 'gods' of their king. I do not think that this was what happened with the people in Syria. Perhaps Jonah's story was written down to help people to read Hebrew, the Jewish language. Then it would also teach them a lot about Jewish religion and Israel's God.