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The sign of Jonah

by Piet Beker

Bible critics often have raised objections to the book of Jonah. Jonah in the belly of the fish, yet that is incompatible with any human logic.
But, he who trusts God in His Word is not only convinced of the historic reliability, but can also discover the beautiful prophetic truths in this valuable book. In these pages I would like to study in depth some of them.

The background of Jonah
Jonah, whose name means “dove, is the son of Amittai. He was a prophet of Gath- hepher (2 Kings 14,25) a village in the neighbourhood of Tiberias and Nazareth in Galilee. He lived before or during the reign of king Jerobeam II (783-744 b. Chr.)
So Jonah was a contemporary of the prophets Amos and Hosea.

The vocation and disobedience of Jonah
“Now the Word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord”. (verse 1-3)

Tarshish was a Phoenician colony in Southwest Spain. Jonah had to go to the East (Nineveh), while Tharshish was in the West. So he wanted to go as far as possible from the face of the Lord. But what Jonah was in his weakness and disobedience, so is the Lord Jesus in His power and in His faithfulness. In Him this world can find redemption and salvation.

Jonah as a type of Christ and Israel

Jonah himself is a clear type of the Lord Jesus Christ. So the Lord testifies to Himself: “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 ... and behold, a greater than Jonas is here” (Matt. 12:40,41a).
We can also consider Jonah as a type of Israel, which was charged to preach God’s salvation to the nations, but fails in the first instance.
Concerning the inhabitants of Nineveh, they are a type of the people, who will be reached by the preaching of the Jewish people - at first by the 144.000 sealed of all the tribes of Israel (Rev. 7) and later on by Israel in the Messianic millennium. (Zach. 8,23)
And finally the tempestuous sea, into which Jonah was cast forth, can be regarded as a type of the tumultuous sea of the nations ( Ezek. 26,3).

God’s sovereignty
Besides the symbolic lessons, we recognize in the history of Jonah many aspects of God’s supreme action, as the following verses show:
1,4: “But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea”;
1,17: “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish”;
4,6: “And the Lord God prepared a gourd”;
4,7: “But God prepared a worm”;
4,8: “that God prepared a vehement east wind”.

The sign of Jonah
What did the Lord mean with “the sign of Jonah” when He says to the Scribes and the Pharisees: “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” (Matt.12,39)?

1. The Lord had called Jonah to go to the gentile city Nineveh. So at the same time Israel was called to make known all the nations with the Lord God: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen.12,2,3b).

2. Jonah was disobedient to his vocation and wanted to flee to Tarshish.
So Israel was disobedient to its vocation, has broken the covenant and went after other gods. “Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations” (Neh. 9,26).
Just as with Jonah, so the Lord will always reprove His people.
“But to Israel He saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people” (Rom. 10,21).

3. Jonah was cast forth into the sea. The sea is in the Bible the symbol of the sea of the nations, which is swept by a “tempest” and which became more and more “tempestuous” till it reaches its climax in the coming of the beast rising up out of the sea: “And I saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy” (Rev.13,1).

Israel is still ‘at sea’ in the midst of the nations and is attacked by the ‘tempest’ on all sides. By the conversion to the ‘Greater than Jonah’ the rest of them will return and the tempest will cease from raging. The promise reads in Jeremiah 30, verse 10:
“Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, saith the Lord; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him afraid”.

4. Jonah could not be saved by sacrificing a human being, or by the toiling of the mariners, who tried to put the ship in safety with all their might.
Israel and the nations cannot effect their redemption and salvation by their own effort.
The apostle Paul says: “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10,2,4,13. See also Eph. 2,8,9).

5. Jonah was cast forth into the sea. “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (1,17).
Here we see Jonah as a symbol of the Lord Jesus in His burying, His stay in the grave and in His resurrection on the third day. “For as Jonah 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” (Matt.12,40).

The prayer of Jonah describes the suffering, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus
“Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever; yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God” (2,1-6).
In the first place we find in this prayer the terrifying suffering of the Lord, as described for instance in Psalm 69,1 and 2: “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me”.
But apart from His suffering and dying, we also find His resurrection in the words:
“Yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God”.
Compare this with Psalm 16 verse 10: “For Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption”, a text which was quoted by Peter to prove the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2,27-30).

Furthermore Jonah prayed: “I will pay that that I have vowed”. In the same way the Lord Jesus has fulfilled all that was written about Him. So His first words were: “Did ye not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” And His last words on the cross were: “It is finished”.

The prayer of Jonah ends with the words: “Salvation is of the Lord”. With the word ‘salvation’ (in Hebrew Yeshua) Jonah expresses in fact the Name of His Redeemer!
Particularly when we consider that the book Jonah is read by the Jewish communities on the Day of Atonement!

The prayer of Jonah describes Israel’s suffering, dispersion and restoration
The prayer of Jonah is also characteristic of the history of the dispersion of Israel.
Over the ages the nation has come as it were into the depth of the “sea of the nations” and into the “belly of the grave”.
Just think of the terrible inquisition in the late middle Ages, of the innumerable pogroms and of the so-called ‘Final Solution of the Jewish problem’ in the Holocaust.
Over the ages the Jewish people were practically dead in the grave of the nations.
Notwithstanding all this The Lord God has saved His people in a wonderful way.

After all we see in the prayer of Jonah also the appeal of Israel that in the great oppression will come to a climax (compare Matt. 24 verse 21 and 22).
In that distress the believing remnant of Israel will pray the prayer of Jonah: “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice”. Then the Messiah shall appear as their Redeemer and their confession will be: “Yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord, my God” (2,6).

In the chapters 3 and 4 the Lord shows us prophetically what will happen with (and also by means of) Israel, after the believing remnant will be restored in their land.
We find the introduction to this prophecy in chapter 2, verse 10: “And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited Jonah upon the dry land”.
So presently the Lord will bring back His people out of ‘the belly’ of the ‘sea of the nations’ to the Promised Land.
Although Jonah has broken the contact with God, the Lord gives recovery. “Yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord, my God” (2,6).
So in the future the Lord will bring back many Jews out of “the graves (bring their lives from corruption) “of the nations to the land of their fathers (comp. the prophecy of the valley which was full of bones in Ezekiel 37). A restoration, which will take place on the third day, for Jonah as well as for Israel (comp. Jonah 1,17 and Hosea 6,2).

The message of Jonah to Nineveh
After all these radical events, in the end Jonah preaches the message of God in Nineveh. A message, which - strictly speaking – the people of Nineveh should have received much earlier. By means of this postponed message, the mariners came to faith. In this we see prophetically an image of the church, which as it were has been inserted, when Israel, as a nation, rejected the salvation. Romans 11 verse 11 teaches us: “through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles...”.
But in verse 15 of the same chapter the apostle Paul says: “What shall be the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?”
Their receiving (their faith in Messiah) shall be “a life from the dead”, of which the whole world shall receive the full blessing.
So we see, that by the preaching of Jonah, as the only prophet sent to the Gentiles, as it were a new era has come. Israel will be appointed to a missionary nation in the Messianic millennium (Zechariah 8,23).

Obedience to the Great King
Then all nations shall subject to the Great King and so they avoid His divine wrath.
“So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did not” (3,5-10).

The Feast of Tabernacles
“So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city” (Jonah 4,5).
Literally we read that Jonah made a “sukkah”, or made a “tabernacle”.
Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, was celebrated seven days, and it was to remind the people that they had lived in the wilderness in tabernacles (or tents).
Through the roofs of these tabernacles the Israelites could always see the pillar of a cloud and the pillar of fire of the Lord.
As it were they lived “under the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91,1).
Therefore the Feast of Tabernacles is a feast of joy (Lev. 23,40).
The Feast of Tabernacles is also a prophetical feast that indicates the Messianic kingdom, when the Divine Glory of the Messiah lives again in the temple in Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah tells about this: “And the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence. And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain” (Is .4,5-6).
In that era of the future the Gentiles shall partake of the blessings of Israel: “After this I will return, and I will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up. That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things” (Acts 15,16 and 17, quoted from Amos 9,11 and 12).

The tabernacle (sukkah) of David, which is fallen down will be built again (this is the restoration of Israel) and in connection with it the nations will receive the blessings.
Peace and justice shall rule on the earth and anyone shall know that the Lord reigns. In the history of Jonah we recover this prophetically. He brings blessings to the Gentiles in Nineveh and builds a “sukkah”. It is remarkable that the Israelites during the Feast of Tabernacles had to slaughter 70 bulls in seven days (Num. 29,12-34).
In Genesis 10 we find the earth populated with 70 nations. You can say that during the Feast of Tabernacles one bull was slaughtered for each nation.
In other words: all nations will participate in the salvation of Israel. And so the sign of Jonah is the hope of Israel and of the nations.

The love of God
God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did not. The Lord said: “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (verse 11).
But Jonah was very angry. He reproached the Lord God for His mercy because He spared the city, after the inhabitants had repented.
He says: “For I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (4,2b)
Did not Jonah himself discover the mercy of God when in his disobedience he ignored the mission of God? Yet he was saved in a miraculous way?
Jonah had to learn so much! The gourd which God had given him as a shadow, had been withered. God prepared a vehement east wind and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah. Then Jonah cried out: “It is better for me to die than to live” (verse 8b).
(It is sad to say, but he who rejects the secret place of the most High and the shadow of the Almighty, one day shall experience the vehement heat of the ‘Sun of righteousness’.)
Jonah was angry with God and he said:” I do well to be angry” (verse 9). Many people hold God responsible for all the evil that ruins their personal lives and/or the world. In the Book of Proverbs we already read: “The foolishness of man perverteth his way: and his heart fretteth against the Lord” (19,3).
In The Lamentations of Jeremiah we read: “Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord” (3,39-40).
The way of salvation goes by way of repentance and conversion. And then we know that the Lord is greater than the greatest storm in our life. Commit your life to Him and give to Him the complete rule over your life. To know Him is Life eternal.

1 In the Hebrew language the word yeshua is in the status constructus form, to reproduce as ‘Yeshua of’ (the Lord).
2. After the exodus from Egypt Sukkoth was the first place they reached (Ex. 12,37).