Most people who are somewhat familiar with the Bible, if asked, “What is the most significant thing about the book of Jonah?” would probably respond that a man was swallowed by a whale and miraculously survived in the whale’s stomach for three days! But there is a lot more to the story. First of all, it may not have been a whale at all, since the Hebrew says it was a “dag gadol” – a big fish! However, there are more important lessons to be learned from this book than a man surviving for three days in the belly of a fish. Jonah was a prophet, someone who hears clearly and directly from the Creator of the universe. God is able to speak very clearly to human beings when He wants to. Most of the prophets of Israel, when they heard God speaking to them, obeyed God and did and said exactly what God wanted. But not the prophet Jonah! When Jonah learned that God was sending him on a mission to Nineveh, the wicked capital of the Assyrians, Israel’s bitter enemies, Jonah went in the other direction! Instead of heading east by land, Jonah went west by sea! But Jonah discovered a very important truth, a lesson that all of us should learn before it is too late: you can’t run away from God! He is everywhere and ultimately He is unavoidable!
How did Jonah learn that lesson? God sent a huge storm that endangered the ship on which Jonah was escaping. The Gentile pagan sailors on the ship sensed that this was no ordinary storm – that there were supernatural purposes at work – that someone on board was disobedient to a god. So they cast lots to see who it was. Well, the lot that was cast fell on the Jewish prophet. Was it a coincidence? No, God is behind all circumstances, even in what seems to us to be insignificant. So, reluctantly, the men threw Jonah off the ship, and miraculously the storm immediately stopped. Jonah had indeed been the source of the problem! And these Gentile pagans began to revere the Lord God of Israel, because it was obvious to them that He was real, and had power over the winds, waves, storms and seas. You see, God was using His disobedient Jewish prophet to teach the Gentiles His truth, just as for the past 2,000 years He has used the Jewish people among the nations, though we too have been disobedient.
But God didn’t want His disobedient prophet to die. He wanted him to amend his ways and begin obeying the commands of God. So the Lord had prepared a big fish – which was right there and ready to swallow Jonah, who spent his next three days and nights inside the fish. It must have been wet, dark, smelly and terrifying. During those awful three days, Jonah learned a very important lesson – that it was wrong to disobey God, whether or not he liked what the Lord was asking him to do. From the belly of the fish, he determined to obey the King of Heaven, and prayed. The result? Once he was spit out on shore, he did what God asked. He went to Nineveh.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah “shayneet” – a second time. That tells us that God is a God of “shayneets” – renewed opportunities! When we admit our mistakes, often He will forgive us and allow us to try again. That’s very good news, isn’t it? I’ve needed more than a few “shayneets,” and even some “sh’leesheets” – third times, and on occasion some additional times beyond that! So, just maybe, sometimes we ought to be willing to give others a second chance, too?
Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, the great capital city of the Assyrian empire. His message to Israel’s cruel pagan enemies was, “You have forty days (forty being the Biblical number for testing and judgment) before Nineveh will be judged and destroyed!” Did the evil polytheistic Assyrians, who were the enemies of the Jewish people, reject this message and kill the prophet? No! Another, even greater, miracle occurred! All the people changed their ways. Everyone, from the king and his nobles all the way down to the common people and servants (even all the animals!) listened to the prophet of Israel, humbled themselves by fasting, putting on sackcloth, turning toward the God of Israel and changing their ways! Throughout the rest of human history, nothing else quite like this has ever happened. None of the great revivals ever witnessed an entire city, let alone a nation, turn to God with such repentance. This may be the greatest miracle in human history, because it is easier for the Creator to manipulate the elements of nature than redirect a human heart to Himself.
And that’s really what God wanted to see happen all along. And so the Merciful One decided to avert His threatened judgment, and spared them. Why? Because, in spite of our wickedness, God is not the kind of God who wants to destroy human beings made in His image. Instead, He desires all of us, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, powerful and weak, to humble ourselves, turn to Him, and begin doing things His way. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He wants the wicked to repent and live. He only brings judgment as a last resort.
Was God’s prophet happy with this miraculous turn of events, all these people turning to the God of Israel? No! Jonah was not only greatly displeased, but he was so angry that he wanted to die! Why? He may have felt like a traitor because the Assyrians, Israel’s enemies, repented and were spared. He may have felt like a false prophet because the prophecy he declared didn’t come to pass.
Jonah found a place where he could rest, perhaps waiting around to see if God would change His mind and destroy Nineveh. Then another miracle occurred. The Lord created a special vine to grow near him to give him shade. Jonah was delighted with the vine. But on the next day God sent a worm which killed the vine. Jonah, sitting under the blistering Middle Eastern sun, became hot, faint, angry, upset and wanted more than ever to die. It’s a good thing Jonah knew that suicide was wrong. But God didn’t allow Jonah to die. Instead He corrected his values by speaking to him for the final time. The Lord told him that he was wrong to be more upset over the death of a plant than he was over the prospect of the demise of an entire nation. God’s desire was to spare hundreds of thousands of human beings created in His image, who had the potential to be reconciled to Him and live with Him forever.
The greatest lesson of the book of Jonah is not that a man survived three days and three nights in the belly of a fish. It is rather that God is concerned that all human beings be reconciled to Him, not just the Jewish people. You see, Nineveh is a symbol for the whole world: godless, pagan, warlike, aggressive, cruel and the enemy of God and His people. Like Nineveh, the world is alienated from God and headed for destruction. But the God of Israel wants us all to turn to Him, whether we are Jews or Gentiles, weak or powerful, rich or poor, so that we may be spared from destruction.
The only way the Holy One is able to spare Jew or Gentile is through Israel’s greatest prophet, Messiah Yeshua, who said, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the Earth.” Just as Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish was a miraculous sign to the Ninevites, so Messiah’s death, burial and resurrection is a sign to all of mankind that the God of Israel indeed sent Yeshua to be the Savior of the world.
If we don’t believe in the Messiah and obey Him, Yeshua went on to warn, “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, Something Greater than Jonah is here.” God would have destroyed the wicked people of Nineveh, had they not listened to Jonah, turned to God and amended their ways. An even greater judgment is in store for everyone who spurns the Prophet who is greater than Jonah, the Son of God, Yeshua of Nazareth. The God of Israel has made Him a sign to the whole world by His resurrection from the dead! So, whoever you are, Jew or Gentile, pay attention, for Something Greater than Jonah is here!