Jonah - Fish Tales and Good Friday

Jonah is one of the most familiar Old Testament prophets. Although his book is not large in scale like Isaiah or Jeremiah, the story of Jonah is so engaging and even entertaining that it is told and retold. Most young children learn the story of Jonah early on in their religious education. Even within the life of the church, Jonah plays a significant role. His prayer in the belly of the great fish is Ode Six of the canonical odes that make up the matins canon. Also, the book as a whole is read on Holy Saturday. Unfortunately, the story of Jonah can become too familiar and therefore the Christian can lose sight of its meaning. The purpose of this essay is to explore the meaning of the book of Jonah. A brief summary of the book will be given, then the multiples themes that occur in the book will be discussed, and finally the overarching message will be examined.

Jonah a prophet of the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II, was called by God to go to Nineveh and preach. Jonah runs from God by boat to the farthest reaches of the known world in Tarshish. Once on the boat a storm arises; the men determine it is supernatural and they look for a cause by drawing lots. The lot falls to Jonah and he explains his desertion of God’s call. He asks to be thrown over board. A great fish swallows Jonah where he stays for three days and nights. Within the belly of the fish, he cries out to God in prayer and repents. The fish spits Jonah on land where he immediately goes to Nineveh, and he cries to the people, “Forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” This is enough for the people to repent and God does not destroy the city. Jonah becomes angry because of their repentance and the reader learns the reason for Jonah’s original desertion of God’s call. He dislikes Nineveh and was hoping that God would destroy them, but he knew that God would show mercy if they repented. Jonah did not want mercy because of Nineveh's reputation and their constant threat to the people of the Northern Kingdom. God rebukes Jonah and causes a plant to grow up and shade Jonah from the scorching sun. However, God also provides a worm to kill the plant. Jonah then gets extremely angry over the destruction of the plant. God uses this object lesson to show Jonah that he more concerned over the life of a plant than that of another person.

Within the book of Jonah multiple themes of God’s providence, the consequences of sin, and the forshadowing of Christ are apparent. Along with several themes, a brief summary of the Fathers approach and use of Jonah will be included. Several of these sub-messages seem unrelated, but when taken in light of the ultimate theme of God’s great mercy the book’s connections are clearer.

Jonah is one of the few books of the Old Testament where the reader sees someone from the covenant nation of Israel go on a missionary journey to a pagan country. Early in the life of Israel, during the Mosaic period, it is evident that God’s design for Israel is to be a separate people through which He will have a special relationship that ultimately blesses all nations. Israel’s uniqueness in calling and lifestyle was to draw other nations to the one true God. In many ways, Israel forsook this calling, but thankfully for humanity it was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. However, there are times in the nation’s history where some within the pagan nations come into the fold of Israel by the example of their worship. Ruth the Moabite is a good example of one who converts to the people of God due to the witness of her mother in law. Within the pages of the historical books, one will occasionally see groups of people or individuals come into the commonwealth of Israel. Sadly, the people of God were more often chasing after pagan gods rather than drawing pagans to the worship of the one true God. The book of Jonah is a great exception. It is a missionary book, albeit Jonah was begrudging about his task. He barely preached a message to the people of Nineveh, but God used him to save a pagan nation from destruction. The image of the Jewish Jonah reaching out to bring in a Gentile people is a type of what happened in the life of the early church. The early church was Jewish but through missionary efforts the Gentiles were grafted into the people of God.

God’s sovereignty is also evident within the pages of Jonah. Jonah runs from God’s purposes, yet he finally repents and God’s plan of salvation is accomplished. Even through the weaknesses of man, God is able to work and even accomplish miraculous deeds in impossible situations. This is a great lesson that should bring comfort to each Christian; God will accomplish His work even if circumstances point toward a different outcome. He is in control and truly sovereign over His creation.

Jesus uses the image of Jonah as an image of Himself. In Matthew 12:39-40: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” This image of Jonah becomes a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and eventually resurrection. This is the image that the Fathers of the Church continually turn to when they speak of Jonah. Jonah is a type of Christ’s death and resurrection. The matins canon at the Exaltation of the cross pictures Jonah’s arms outstretched in prayer forming a cross that gives power over death. Jonah’s prayerful image of the crucifixion was the power that burst Jonah forth from the belly of the fish.

Another Father of the church should be mentioned because of his allegorical approach to Jonah. It is related to the typological interpretations, but takes the images a step further in order to display salvation history. Methodius of Olympus (d. 311) in his treatise on the resurrection uses Jonah as an image of the first man Adam fleeing from God because he is found naked of the life of God. The ship is an image of earthly life, and Jonah’s casting from the ship represents the fall of man from life to death. The sea and the fish represent time and the carnal life swallowing man and holding him hostage from life eternal. However, Jonah’s expulsion from the fish represents God’s act of salvation and raising man from death to life through the power of the resurrection.

Each of the themes above point to the ultimate message of Jonah. Jonah message is a message of God’s mercy. God does not merely show mercy on a select group of people, but on all. Jonah knew this and in chapter 4 it becomes clear that Jonah’s motive for running is that he did not want God’s mercy poured out upon his enemy Nineveh. After Nineveh repents Jonah in anger says to God, “Therefore I fled previous to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm”

Jonah had proclaimed this in his famous prayer from the belly of the fish when he concluded:

“Those who regard worthless idols, forsakes their own Mercy, but I will sacrifice to You with voice of thanksgiving. I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.”

Idolatry is a rejection of God, and therefore His mercy. The image is of God pouring out His mercy but mankind turning a blind eye toward God to follow after something that has no mercy. Man can not run from God without consequences, because in doing so man cuts himself off from the very life of God. Jonah becomes an image of this in his book. Jonah runs from God, in a sense forsaking his own mercy offered by God not only for himself but also for the people of Nineveh. Jonah soon discovers that rejecting God has consequences, and he soon lands in the belly of a great fish. After three days, he realizes this and prays his famous prayer accepting God’s mercy once again . He then obeys God and God’s mercy is poured out upon the people of Nineveh. However, Jonah must be instructed again with a lesson with the gourd plant. Jonah shows pity to a plant over people. Yet God desires to always show mercy to mankind. God is a God of mercy and it is by His mercy that mankind is saved. One of the most common prayers of the Church is “Lord, have mercy!” The Church knows that God is merciful and He liberally pours His mercy upon mankind. That prayer is an acknowledgement and acceptance of man’s need for mercy.

As stated earlier Jonah is read on Holy Saturday, and his prayer is used as Ode Six and this message of mercy comes through clear in the hymns of the Ode on Holy Friday. The Church on Holy Friday is experiencing the burial of Christ. Jesus has died as the ultimate expression of God’s mercy to mankind. The refrain of Ode Six in the canon is as if Jonah is preaching the lesson he learned so long ago. Jonah speaks to the soldiers who guard the tomb of Christ:

“Falsely, and in vain do you guard, O watchmen, for you have neglected your own mercy.”

Unbeknownst to the soldiers, the body they are guarding is the body of the Son of God who died to bring God’s mercy to all mankind. Their guarding is in vain because Jesus will rise again in victory pouring out mercy to the whole human race. Trying to keep Christ in the tomb is a rejection of the mercy He brings to the world. Once again Jonah’s life typifies this message. Jonah’s descent into the fish while being an image of Christ also illustrates how far and deep God’s will reach to save. He will even raise Jonah from certain death to save Nineveh, and the Son of God went to the depths of Hades and back again to save mankind from the clutches of death.

Jonah is a short book, yet contains a powerful message. It is one that has been appropriated by Church and used in her hymns and writings to convey God’s love for man in that He would send His own to Son to die and raise again to bring mercy to the world.

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