Jonah, a book from the Old Testament, is a story steeped in poetry, mystery, metaphor, comedy, and adventure. Jonah, the main character, is a prophet from Israel whom, despite his best efforts, God uses for salvation of many.

There are many angles that one could view the story of Jonah through. The original Hebrew has layers of beautiful literary motifs and imagery; for example, Jonah son of Amittai can mean Dove of Truth. Today, with the help of the Brazos Theological Commentary, we will examine how Israel, Christ, and you can relate to the first chapter of Jonah.

Before reading on, take a look at Jonah 1. Here is an outline of the chapter’s events:

  • (1:1-2) Jonah is called by God to preach wrath in Nineveh.
  • (1:3) Jonah instead flees God and boards a ship going the opposite direction.
  • (1:4-6) God send a great storm against the ship. While the sailors attempted to save the ship (and their lives), Jonah was found sleeping in the bottom.
  • (1:7-10) The sailors cast lots (like rolling dice) to see whose fault the storm was. It fell on Jonah who confessed who his God was, leading the men to be afraid.
  • (1:11-16) Jonah tells the men to throw him overboard to be safe, yet they try rowing back to land. When this doesn’t work due to the ferocity of the storm, they pray to God for mercy and comply, throwing Jonah into the sea. Once the storm immediately stops, the men offer a sacrifice to God.
  • (1:17) God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah, who is in there for three days and nights.
Jonah and Israel commentary

Jonah and Israel

Jonah was a prophet from the northern kingdoms of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). Much like Israel, Jonah was disobedient to God. Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, was a wicked place, and Jonah’s task was to “call against her”. Throughout the OT, Israel was constantly instructed by God to be obedient and serve Him only, which they consistently disobeyed.

Drawing parallels between Jonah and Israel would have been extremely important to the original audience. To them, history was more than a list of facts – it was an opportunity to bring forth a lesson. By finding themselves in the story of Jonah, the Israelites gained a better understanding of their identity and God’s.

While the majority of those reading this article might have little-to-no Jewish blood, these parallels are still important because they bear the common theme of God drawing Israel and subsequently the rest of the world to Himself. Even though we are in the new covenant, we must not forget the intentionality of God in bringing salvation “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).

Verses 9, 16, and 17 are especially indicative of the struggle of Israel:

And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Jonah 1:9

Here, Jonah is not bragging but confessing the name of the God against who he has sinned. With the ferocity of the storm threatening their lives, the sailors had every reason to believe in both the greatness of Jonah’s guilt and the power of his God.

Similarly, the penitent Judeans returned from Babylon to hard times in their own land, confessing that the Lord God of Israel punished his people for their sin against him; because of his great mercies they were not consumed, for he is a gracious and merciful God who keeps covenant and loving-kindness (Nehemiah 9:31-32). To survive such an exile and return home is like being swallowed up by the sea and coming back alive.

16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

Jonah 1:16

The original Judean readers, seeing this picture of Gentiles worshiping the Lord while an Israelite is exiled in the sea, would have been reminded of a striking example they had right in front of them; there was long-lasting Gentile worship in the name of the Lord within the boundaries of Israel. After the destruction of the northern kingdom, the Assyrians resettled an ethnically diverse group of people in their place, who subsequently came to worship the Lord for protection from wild beasts, under the instruction of an Israelite priest who was sent back from the exile for this purpose (2 Kings 17:24-41).

17  And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah 1:17

The original readers of this text would have seen it right away; long ago Israel passed safely through the sea in their exodus from Egypt. Much more recently, Judah was swallowed up by the greatest beast of them all, Babylon the great, under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar who, the prophet says in the name of Israel, “has swallowed me up like a sea monster” (Jeremiah 51:34). To meditate on Jonah swallowed up in the depth is therefore to think of the Jewish people alive in exile.

Jonah and Jesus commentary

Jonah and Christ

It’s possible that you’re thinking, “why would anyone compare Jonah to Jesus?” It’s a fair question. Jonah was an absolute screwup whom God used in spite of himself. Jesus is the sinless Son of God. The important thing to remember with Christ-types like Jonah is that they are a shadow of what was to come.

For starters, Jonah was born in Gath-hepher in Galilee, only a few miles from Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth (2 Kings 14:25). Within Jonah 1, here are some moments where we saw similarities:

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Jonah 1:4-6

Within the Bible, there’s only one other man who was caught sleeping during a mighty storm. That’s right – Jesus. In Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25, Jesus also slept in the boat while everyone else feared for their lives. Obviously, Jonah and Jesus were in very different circumstances. Jonah is unlike Jesus in that he has no power of his own to still the waves. Could it be that Jesus had Jonah in his mind as he calmed the sea with a word?

11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”

Jonah 1:11-12

Even though Jonah’s wish was to stop running from God by ending his life, he is also at his most Christlike. He gives up his life so that others might live. He put himself inside the wrath of God so that the rest of the boat could be freed. Though he gave himself up in despair, he had his priorities straight by placing the lives of these good sailors above his own. I am reminded of the words of Jesus in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.”

15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 

Jonah 1:15

By being thrown into the chaotic waters, Jonah resembles a scapegoat, part of Israelite purification practices. To be a scapegoat is to be part of the garbage, bearing all the moral uncleanliness of God’s people out into the waste places, where it no longer has a place in their lives (Leviticus 16:21-22). Jonah is one of the holy people, yet for the sake of a boatload of unclean Gentiles he is thrown overboard, taking with him every uncleanness that would make them offensive to the Lord his God. What Jonah did for this boat, Jesus did for the whole world (Romans 3:24-26)

Jonah and us commentary

Jonah and Us

Perhaps the easiest parallels to find are the ones between Jonah and us. Like Adam, we all have tried to hide from God (Genesis 3:8). Before immediately jumping to the conclusion of “we should not be like Jonah”, let’s look at some specific actions Jonah took:

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Jonah 1:4-6

In many ways we resemble disobedient Jonah without really noticing, being quite capable of sleeping through disasters and unconscious of the ruin we bring upon our neighbors. Sometimes, it’s easier to close our eyes and stick our heads in the sand instead of addressing the results of our actions.

15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.

Jonah 1:15

Christians are initiated into the same faith when they too are buried in the water and drawn out of it for a new life. Jonah in the depths of the sea is therefore also an image of baptism and especially of that moment when the water has closed over the head of the believer, who is now buried with Christ.

16 Then the men feared the Lordexceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

Jonah 1:16

Because the sailors only appear in this first chapter, it’s easy to think that they are just incidental to the story, acting only as instruments that the Lord uses to deal with Jonah. On the contrary, Jonah is the instrument that the Lord uses to deal with them, bringing them to a knowledge of the living God. The men on the boat probably did not expect to have a transformative spiritual revelation, but by coming in contact with Jonah, they were changed.

Keep Reading

Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible

The above info was synthesized from a commentary of Jonah chapter 1. Continue to grow your knowledge with the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, available in individual editions or as a set covering 38 books of the Bible over 27 in-depth volumes.

If you enjoyed this look into Jonah chapter 1, here’s our post on Jonah 2.

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