Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

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the author

1. There is no reason to doubt that Jonah was himself the author of the book which bears his name. There is nothing inconsistent with that view in the contents of the book. No other satisfactory theory of authorship has been suggested. The candour of the writer, supposing him to be relating his own history, finds a parallel in the case of other inspired writers both in the Old and New Testaments. The graphic style of the book harmonises with the vigorous and resolute character of Jonah as portrayed in its pages.

2. Of Jonah himself very little is known beyond what we gather from this book. There is however one other mention of him in the Old Testament, which furnishes us with some particulars concerning him. In 2 Kings 14:25, we read of Jeroboam II, king of Israel, that “he restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He spake by the hand of His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher.” It can hardly be doubted that the Jonah thus spoken of is the same person as the Jonah of this book. Both are prophets. Both are sons of Amittai. And when it is remembered that neither the name Jonah, nor the name Amittai, occurs anywhere else in the Old Testament, it appears most improbable that there should have been two distinct persons, both prophets, both bearing the same uncommon name, and both sons of a father with the same uncommon name[8].

[8] Jonah means a dove, Amittai, true. The latter name, which is thought by some to be identical with Matthew, has given rise to the tradition that Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarephath, whom Elijah raised to life, and on receiving whom at his hands she said, “Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth,” 1 Kings 17:24. An equally uncertain tradition makes him also “the boy who attended Elijah to the wilderness,” and “the youth who anointed Jehu.”

3. Assuming then, as we may reasonably do, their identity, we learn from the passage in Kings,

(a) That Jonah was a prophet of the Northern kingdom (Israel);

(b) That his birthplace was Gath-hepher[9], a town of Lower Galilee, not far from Nazareth, in the tribe of Zabulon;

[9] Called Gittah-hepher, Joshua 19:13. It is in all probability the same as the modern village of el-Meshhad, where by a constant tradition from the time of Jerome to the present day, the tomb of Jonah is pointed out. See Smith’s Bib. Dict. Art. Gath-hepher, and Pusey Commentary on Jonah, Introd. p. 1.

(c) And that he exercised the prophetical office, either before the reign of Jeroboam II. or very early in that reign[10].

[10] Ewald writes: “It follows clearly from the words in 2 Kings 14:25-27 that this Jonah uttered the prediction neither long before nor long after the accession of Jeroboam II., especially as the king, according to all appearance, won his great victories very early. Jonah’s prediction therefore must fall in with the childhood of Jeroboam or in the first commencement of his reign.” Hist. of Israel, vol. iv. p. 124, note 1. Carpenter’s Translation. According to the ordinary chronology Jeroboam’s reign was from b. c. 823 to b. c. 782.

He would thus be a contemporary of Hosea[11] and Amos[12], if indeed he was not earlier than they, and therefore one of the most ancient, if not the most ancient, of the prophets whose writings we possess.

[11] Hosea 1:1.

[12] Amos 1:1.


historical character of the book

1. The thoughtful student of the book of Jonah cannot fail to observe that it differs in some important particulars from the other prophetical writings of the Old Testament.

(a) In form it is a story and not a prophecy. It is an account of what befell a prophet, and not a record of his predictions.

(b) In style it is almost dramatic. Its teaching, whatever it may be, is rather acted before our eyes than uttered for our ears.

(c) Moreover, the miraculous or supernatural element enters in an unusual degree into the contents of this book. Seldom, if ever, do we find so many and so great wonders accumulated in the compass of so brief a narrative.

The question has accordingly been raised, whether this book is not rather to be regarded as an allegory or parable or romance, either founded on fact, or altogether independent of any real basis, than as a history of what actually happened.

2. It can hardly be doubted that this question really owes its origin to the miraculous character of the book of Jonah. Amongst the principal advocates of the non-historical theory of the book are those who deny the possibility of miracles. With a marvellous amount of ingenuity, but with an entire want of agreement among themselves, these writers have proposed a great variety of interpretations of the book of Jonah, including even the suggestion, of which it would be difficult to say whether it be more improbable or more irreverent, that it is to be regarded as a Jewish adaptation of a heathen mythical legend[13].

[13] The story of Perseus and Andromeda, in one or other of its forms or modifications. The whole theory is fully stated and as fully refuted by Dr Pusey, Introduction to Commentary on Jonah, pp. 261–263.

3. Without going however to any such lengths as these, without doubting the possibility of miracles, or denying the canonicity and inspiration of the book of Jonah, it may still be open to us to consider the question of its historical character. May it not be, we may ask, all that the most devout Christian holds it to be, and yet be not a history, but a divinely originated parable or allegory?

4. To the question thus modified it may be objected in reply, that even in this form it is really suggested by the miracles with which this book abounds. But for them, it may well be doubted whether anyone would ever have taken the book of Jonah to be anything but history. Are then the miracles, for into this the enquiry resolves itself, really such as to warrant the question? We think not. When fairly examined they lose much of that character of the merely marvellous, which to a cursory and mistaken view they have some of them appeared to wear. By such probable explanations as will be given of each of them in its place below, they may be brought properly within the sphere of the Gospel miracles themselves, as being for the most part accelerations and adaptations of the known powers and processes of nature, the normal, if extraordinary working, as Holy Scripture reveals it to us, of a living and ever-present God. And if this be so, then the question falls to the ground together with the supposed necessity for asking it.

5. But even were it otherwise, were there anything in these pages which when rightly explained lay beyond the sphere of humble and intelligent faith, are we really gainers by transferring them from the region of history to that of parable or allegory? It is not the wont of the sacred writers to make use of portents or prodigies in their allegorical or parabolic teaching. It is one of the recognised distinctions between canonical and apocryphal writings, that whilst the latter often abound in legends and marvels, the former never transgress the limits of the possible, even in their figurative teaching. Even from a literary point of view, higher considerations apart, the allegorical character of the book of Jonah cannot be satisfactorily maintained. On that hypothesis it is out of harmony as a whole. What may be called the setting of the allegory is too exact, too detailed, too closely in accordance with facts, to be in keeping with the allegory itself. The book is composed of two elements which will not properly fuse together. One whole section of it at least, Jonah’s psalm of thanksgiving in the second chapter, is quite out of place. Most pertinent in a true history, it becomes in an allegory a discord and an intrusion.

6. Nor is it easy to understand why the writer of an allegory, free to choose his characters at will, should have selected a known prophet of God as the subject of so great misconduct and reprobation. If the introduction of a prophet were necessary, to heighten the contrast and to enforce the moral of his teaching, would not that end have equally been answered by a fictitious name, or by the omission of the name altogether? If Jonah did not act as this book represents him to have done, it is incredible that a Jewish writer should have ascribed conduct such as this to him, and that the fiction in which he ascribed it should have found a place in the Jewish Canon. This consideration is fatal to such a theory of the origin of the book of Jonah, as that which has been proposed by a recent commentator[14]. He supposes the book to be in form a kind of historical romance, written long after the time of Jonah, and founded either upon a tradition which credited Jonah “with a missionary journey to distant and powerful Nineveh,” or upon a “real fact,” a political “legation from the king of Israel to the king of Assyria,” which however this later writer was unable to conceive of, except under a religious aspect, the moral reformation of the Assyrians to whom Jonah was sent. But when, in pursuit of this arbitrary theory, he comes to deal with the “ill-feeling” exhibited by Jonah, and asks, “Was the author justified in imputing to an old and honoured prophet such bitterness, nay, such meanness?” he has no better answer than this to give, “we must, therefore, ascribe that feature to the author himself, who thus wronged both his hero and his composition.”

[14] Kalisch, Bible Studies, Part ii, pp. 122, 123, 133, 134. JONAH

7. There remains however another argument for the historical character of the book of Jonah, which is the weightiest of all, and which would to a Christian mind appear to be of itself conclusive. In a well-known passage in the Gospels our Lord makes a double reference to the book of Jonah.

(a) To the request for a sign, addressed to Him by the Scribes and Pharisees, He replies, “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: 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[15].” It is difficult to see how, if Jonah’s incarceration in the fish were merely an allegory, it could have been referred to by our Lord in language such as this. The whole Old Testament history not excluding even its minor incidents was, as St Paul teaches us, allegorical[16]; allegorically intended by its divine Author, and to be interpreted allegorically by His Church. But to recognise this is not to invalidate the historical truth of the narrative. It is true history, but representative history; history which foretells throughout Christ and the good things to come. With this view the parallel which our Lord draws between what befell Jonah and what should befall Himself exactly coincides. There is no departure from the firm basis of historical fact on which our holy religion rests; no endangering the literal truth of the second member of the comparison by admitting the unreality of the first.

[15] Matthew 12:39-40.

[16] Galatians 4:24.

(b) But even if it were conceded that our Lord’s words so far are compatible with the non-historic view, there follow in the same place other words of His, which are plainly repugnant to any such interpretation, “The men of Nineveh,” He goes on to say, “shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here[17].” Is it possible to understand a reference like this on the non-historic theory of the book of Jonah? The future Judge is speaking words of solemn warning to those who shall hereafter stand convicted at His bar. Intensely real He would make the scene in anticipation to them, as it was real, as if then present, to Himself. And yet we are to suppose Him to say that imaginary persons who at the imaginary preaching of an imaginary prophet repented in imagination, shall rise up in that day and condemn the actual impenitence of those His actual hearers, that the fictitious characters of a parable shall be arraigned at the same bar with the living men of that generation.

[17] Matthew 12:41.

On all these grounds then it would seem that the book of Jonah can only be regarded as actual history.


object of the book

1. It has been held by some, that the chief object of this book is to teach the nature and efficacy of true repentance. “So obvious,” says a recent writer, “is the main idea which pervades the book and stamps it with the character of perfect unity—the idea of the wonderful power of true repentance—that it seems surprising that this point should ever have been mistaken, and should have called forth the most varied and most fanciful views[18].” That we have in the book of Jonah two striking examples of repentance and its happy results, one of individual repentance in the case of Jonah himself and of his deliverance and restoration to his office and mission; the other of national repentance in the case of the Ninevites, and that they hold an important place in the moral teaching of the book, is undoubtedly true. The latter of them is thought worthy by our Lord Himself to be singled out from the history of the Old Testament as a typical example of repentance[19]. But to teach repentance is not the main object of this book. To regard it as such is to miss altogether the proper aim and design of the author. It is to leave unexplained the flight of Jonah and his reluctance to be the messenger of mercy to Nineveh. It is practically to expunge the last chapter of the book, and to make its teaching culminate in the words, “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 it not[20].” The lesson of repentance is only a part, however important, of the higher and wider lesson which this book is designed to teach us.

[18] Kalisch, Bible Studies, Part ii., The Book of Jonah, p. 265.

[19] Matthew 12:41.

[20] Ch. Jonah 3:10. One of these writers at least is candid enough to confess this consequence of his view. “It may be admitted,” says Kalisch, “that if this chapter (4.) were wanting, it would hardly have been missed, and that, without it, the story would have concluded almost as satisfactorily as it does in its present form.”

2. Still more prominent when we study the book as a whole is the object of the writer to shew in its true colours the unloving exclusiveness which too often characterised the Jew, and to rebuke the grudging narrow-mindedness that would deny all favour from the God of Israel to the Gentile world. It is the spirit of the elder brother in the parable that the author is commissioned to reprove. By that spirit Jonah was actuated, as he himself confesses (c. Jonah 4:2). It was the source of all that was unworthy in his conduct, as here described. It was at the root of his disobedience at the first, and of his subsequent displeasure. It prompted him to throw up his office as a prophet, and abandon his privileges as an Israelite, to relinquish alike the service and the favour of his God, rather than be His instrument of blessing to a heathen nation. It found vent in the ungenerous anger and petulant complaints, with which the unwelcome reprieve of the sentence on Nineveh was received by him. Taught by the discipline of God to see this spirit in its true light, he exhibits it (if as is most probable he was himself the author of this book) in his own personal history, in all its deformity and injustice, as a lesson to others. He exalts the Gentile in comparison of the Jew. He places the heathen sailors in the storm in favourable contrast with himself, the prophet of God, and by implication at least, the penitent Ninevites in like favourable contrast with impenitent Israel. With noble disregard of self he is content to pass out of view at the close of the book silenced and disgraced, that so he may the better point the moral with which he is charged. Yet not even this, taken alone and simply in itself considered, is the proper aim and object of the book of Jonah. Like the teaching of repentance, it is an integral part of a larger aim.

3. Three Acts, as it were, in a drama, three movements, so to speak, in an oratorio, this book contains. Each of them is full of interest, replete with instruction, the work of a master’s hand. In the first, Jonah himself is the central figure. His conversion is its subject. At its commencement he is self-willed and refractory. At its close he is submissive and obedient. The Flight, the Storm, the Imprisonment in the fish, the Prayer, the Deliverance, are the several scenes in this Act. Its beginning and end are marked by the words, “Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh … but Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (c. Jonah 1:1-3); “And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh … So Jonah arose and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord” (c. Jonah 3:1-3). The second Act as we have called it concentrates our attention on “that great city” Nineveh. Its repentance and salvation are now the engrossing theme. In the simple grandeur of its vast size, imagination being left to complete the picture, to fill in that great area with royal palaces and crowded marts and gardens and vineyards and parks and pleasances, the city stands before us. Scene follows upon scene in quick and lifelike succession. The solitary stranger enters Nineveh as “a voice crying,” not in the wilderness but in the city, no word or deed of his within its precincts recorded but this, that as he went he said “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be over-thrown.” The scene changes. “Lamentation and mourning and woe” are heard in every quarter of that vast city, “All joy is darkened, the mirth of the land is gone.” Costly apparel is exchanged for sackcloth. Sumptuous fare gives place to fasting. Even the lower animals are included in the universal sorrow and humiliation. Business and pleasure alike cease. Nineveh is one vast temple of penitence and prayer. Yet another and no less striking scene brings this act to a conclusion. Their prayer is heard, their repentance is accepted, their city is spared, the stream of their life purified and renewed returns to its accustomed course. The cloud that hung threateningly over their city is dispersed, and the sun shines forth upon it again. “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 it not” (c. Jonah 3:10). But this, however morally grand and impressive, is not the climax of the history. The teaching of the book of Jonah does not end here. There remains another Act in which the prophet himself is again the chief character. Jonah displeased at the result of his mission, irritated and complaining, weary of life, and praying that he may die; Jonah sojourning in the hut which he has built him on the hill-side without the walls of the city, watching thence with evil eye the fortunes of Nineveh; Jonah exceeding glad of the shady plant which God had mercifully prepared to overshadow his booth and screen him from the heat, vexed and angry even unto death again when that welcome alleviation is withdrawn; Jonah convinced and silenced by the divinely-drawn contrast between his own selfish sorrow for a plant, and God’s large and liberal pity for the populous city of Nineveh—these are the scenes portrayed with the same brevity and vigour as before in this final Act or chapter of the work.

4. But the book of Jonah is complete as a whole as well as thus complete in its several parts. The three Acts make one drama, the three movements form one composition. For the true harmonising “idea,” which while it gives unity to the whole adds force and lustre to the several parts, we are indebted to the teaching of the New Testament. It is by the light of the later revelation that we discern the meaning and unity of this portion of the earlier. Our Lord, as we have seen already, regards Jonah as a type of Himself. He teaches us to see in this book an historical parable, a prophecy in act. As Jonah was swallowed by the fish, so Christ was laid in the heart of the earth. As Jonah after three days was cast up alive and unharmed on dry ground, so Christ rose again the third day from the dead. As Jonah went forth from his living prison to preach to the Ninevites (the only instance of a Jewish Prophet sent to the heathen), so Christ after His resurrection went forth, not in His own person, but by the agency of His Church, to preach the Gospel in all the world. The typical teaching of the book may be summed up, as has been said, in the words of St Paul, “That Christ should suffer, and that He should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people (of Israel), and to the Gentiles[21].” Thus the lesson of repentance and the rebuke of exclusiveness take a higher, because in fact a Christian form, while the claim of this book to a place in the canon of Old Testament prophecy is amply justified. The history of Jonah is a part of that great onward movement, which was before the Law and under the Law, which gained strength and volume as the fulness of the times drew near, but which could only find its consummation in the Incarnation and work of Him in whom all distinctions of country and race were to be for ever broken down, in Whose name repentance and remission of sins were to be preached among all nations[22], in Whom all nations of the earth were to be blessed, Who was to be at once a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of His people Israel.

[21] Matthew 12:40-41; Acts 26:23.

[22] Luke 24:47.


analysis of contents

The book of Jonah may conveniently be divided into four sections, corresponding almost exactly with the four chapters in our English Bibles.

I. Jonah’s disobedience and punishment, ch. Jonah 1:1-17.

Jonah, sent on a divine mission to Nineveh, refuses to go, and takes ship to flee to Tarshish, Jonah 1:1-3.

Overtaken by a storm sent by God to arrest him in his flight, he is, at his own request, cast into the sea by the sailors, after all their efforts to save the ship have proved unavailing. The sea then becomes calm, Jonah 1:4-16.

II. Jonah’s prayer and deliverance, ch. Jonah 1:17 to Jonah 2:10Swallowed alive by a great fish, prepared by God for the purpose, Jonah remains in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, Jonah 1:17.

He offers a prayer of thanksgiving for the deliverance from death by drowning already accorded him, mingled with confident expectation of yet further rescue, Jonah 2:1-9.

At the command of God the fish casts him up on dry land, Jonah 2:10.

III. Jonah’s preaching and its result, ch. 3.

Profiting by the chastisement he has undergone, Jonah promptly obeys a second command to go to Nineveh, Jonah 3:1-3.

He delivers there his startling message, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” Jonah 3:4.

The Ninevites believe God and repent, and the threatened judgment is averted, Jonah 3:5-10.

IV. Jonah’s displeasure and its rebuke, ch. 4.

This result of his mission displeases Jonah exceedingly, and he complains to God against it, Jonah 4:1-4.

Still hoping, as it would seem, that Nineveh may be overthrown, he constructs for himself a booth without the walls, and sits beneath its shade to watch the fate of the city, Jonah 4:5.

God causes a shady plant to spring up quickly and cover his booth, so as to shelter him from the burning heat of the sun; but the comfort thus afforded him is speedily withdrawn by the sudden withering of the plant, Jonah 4:6-7.

His grief for the loss of the plant is made the occasion by God of rebuking his want of pity for Nineveh, and of justifying His own merciful compassion in sparing that great city with its teeming population and exceeding much cattle, Jonah 4:8-11.

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