The time was approaching when the heathen world was to pour out its floods upon the people of God. It was obvious that the position of Israel towards it became one altogether repulsive, that the susceptibility of the heathen for salvation was denied, and God's mercy was limited to Israel. Narrow-minded exclusiveness received a powerful support from the oppression and haughtiness of the heathen. Whilst other prophets opposed such exclusiveness by their words, by announcing the extension of salvation to the Gentiles, Jonah received the mission to illustrate, by a symbolical action, the capacity of the heathen for salvation, and their future participation in it. The effect of this must necessarily have been so much the greater, as the whole of the little book is exclusively devoted to this subject, as it appeared at the first beginning of the conflict, and as Nineveh is mentioned here, for the first time, in so peaceable and conciliatory a relation, and in close harmony and connection with the announcement of the willing submission of the heathen world to the dominion of Shiloh, spoken of in Gen. xlix.10. It is remarkably impressive to see how spirit here triumphs over nature -- a triumph which appears so much the brighter because the prophet himself pays his tribute to nature; for it was because he listened to the voice of nature, that, at first, he intended to flee to Tarshish. The reason why the commission of the Lord was so disagreeable to him, we learn from chap. iv.2. He was afraid lest the preaching of repentance, which was committed to him, might turn away the judgments of the Lord from Nineveh, the metropolis of that country which threatened destruction to Israel. He knew the deep corruption of his own people, and foreboded the issue which the extension of the means of grace to the Gentiles might very easily bring about in the end. But yet, he felt almost irresistibly impelled to carry out the commission of God, and in order to cut himself off from the possibility of following the voice which called him to the east, he resolved to go to the far distant west. The voice, however, followed him even there; but the farther he advanced on his journey, the more difficult it became for him to follow it. At a later period, when the Lord granted mercy to Nineveh, he was angry and wished to die, not by any means because he [Pg 409] felt himself injured in his honour as a prophet (as was erroneously supposed, even by Calvin), but because he grudged to the Gentiles the mercy which he considered as a prerogative of Israel only, and because he was anxious for the destruction of Nineveh as the metropolis of that kingdom which was destined to be the rod of chastisement for his own people. He was thus actuated by the same ardent love for his people which called forth the wish of St Paul, that he might become an anathema for his brethren, -- by the same disposition of mind which prevailed in the elder brother at the return of the prodigal son (Luke xv.25 ff.), and which at first would manifest itself even in Peter, Acts x.14 ff. The Jewish sentence (Carpzov. Introd. 3, p.149), "Jonah was anxious for the glory of the Son, but he did not seek the glory of the Father," is very significant. Jonah exhibits, in a very striking way, the thoughts of his old man, in order that Israel might recognise themselves in his image. But we are not at liberty to say that the prophet represented the people only. It is true that, as one of the people, he also entertained those thoughts; but, besides these, he entertained other thoughts also. The voices of the Lord which he heard were spiritual; and such voices can be heard only when there is something akin in the heart. Not even with one step did Jonah touch the territory of the false prophets, who prophesied out of their own hearts. He retained all his human weakness to himself, and the Word of God stood by the side of it in unclouded brightness, and obtained absolute victory.
There can be no doubt that we have before us in the Book of Jonah the description of a symbolical action, -- that his mission to Nineveh has an object distinct from the mission itself, -- that it is not the result attained by it in the first instance which is the essential point, but that it is its aim to bring to light certain truths, and in the form of fact, to prophesy future things. The truths are these: -- First, that the Gentiles are by no means so unsusceptible of the higher truth as vulgar prejudice imagined them to be. This was manifested by the conduct of the sailors, who, at last, offer sacrifices and even vows to Jehovah; but, in a more striking manner, by the deep impression which the discourse of Jonah produced upon the Ninevites. In this we have the actual proof of Ezek. iii.5, 6, where the prophet represents his mission as one of peculiar difficulty -- more [Pg 410] difficult, even, than it would have been if addressed to the Gentiles: "Had I sent thee to them, surely they would have hearkened to thee." Further, -- that it is not in His relation to Israel only, but in His relation to the Gentiles also, that the Lord is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness," chap. iv.2. The view which these words, at once, open up into the future, is, that at some future period the Lord will grant to the Gentiles the preaching of His word, and admission into His kingdom. The glory of His mercy and grace would have been darkened, if the revelation of them had been for ever limited to a particular, small portion of the human race. Nineveh, the representative of the heathen multitude, is very significantly called the "great city" at the very outset, in i.2, and "a great city for God," in iii.3, for which, as Michaelis remarks, God specially cared, on account of the great number of souls; compare iv.11.
If the symbolical and prophetical character of the book be denied, the fact of its having its place among the prophetical, and not among the historical, books, admits of no explanation at all. For so much is evident, that this fact cannot be satisfactorily accounted for by the circumstance that the book reports the events which happened to a prophet. The sound explanation has been already given by Marckius: "The book is, in a great measure, historical, but in such a manner, that in the history itself there is hidden the mystery of the greatest prophecy, and that Jonah proves himself to be a true prophet, by the events which happened to him, not less than by his utterances." A similar explanation is given by Carpzovius: "By his own example, as well as by the event itself, he bore witness that it was the will of God that all men should be saved, and should come to the knowledge of the truth," 1 Tim. ii.4.
We are led to the same conclusion by the representation itself. This differs very widely from that given in the historical books. The objection raised by Hitzig against the historical truth, -- viz., that the narrative is fragmentary, -- that it wants completeness, -- that a number of events are communicated only in so far as is required by the object of gaining a foundation for the graphic representation of the doctrinal contents, -- cannot be set aside so easily as is done by Haevernich when he says: [Pg 411] "By arguments of a nature so flimsy, suspicions may be raised against the truth of every historical report." We cannot but confess that, to the writer, history is indeed a means only of representing a thought to which he is anxious to give currency in the Church of God. It is just for this reason that he abstains from graphically enlarging, because that would have been an obstacle to his purpose. The narrative of a symbolical action which took place outwardly, comes, in this respect, under the same law as the narrative of a symbolical action belonging to the internal territory, and to that of the parable. The narrative would lose the character of perspicuity which is so necessary for the whole matter, if it were complete in the subordinate circumstances.
It also tells in favour of the symbolical character of the history of Jonah, that the missionary activity on behalf of the Gentiles does not properly belong to the vocation of the prophets, their mission being to the two houses of Israel only. In the entire history, not even a single example is to be found of a prophet who, for the good of the heathen world itself, went out among them. The history of Elisha, in 2 Kings viii.7 ff., has, without sufficient reason, been adduced by Haevernick. According to the visions of the prophets themselves, the conversion of the heathen is not to be accomplished at present, but in the Messianic time, and by the Messiah Himself. If, then, the book itself is not to stand altogether isolated, the symbolical character of Jonah's mission must be acknowledged. But then it is only in the form that it differs from the announcements of the extension of salvation to the heathen also, -- announcements which occur in the other prophets also. That which these exhibited in words merely, is here made conspicuous by deeds. The influence thereby produced upon the heathen appears then only as the means, while the real purpose is to make an important truth familiar to the Congregation of God, and, by a striking fact, to remove the prejudices which prevailed in it.
Finally, -- If the symbolical character of the facts be denied, the mission of Jonah appears to be almost divested of every aim; for the good emotions of the crew, and the repentance of the Ninevites, evidently did not lead to any lasting result. If anything else were aimed at than the prefiguring of future events, the prophet might better have stayed at home; an unassuming [Pg 412] ministry in some corner among the Covenant-people would have carried along with it a greater reward.
If, on the other hand, the symbolical character of the history of Jonah be admitted, remarkable parallels in the history of Jesus present themselves. The Saviour, in the days of His flesh, was satisfied with the prophetic intimation of the future farther extension of His salvation. That which He Himself did for this extension, in those particular cases where the faith of non-Israelites obtruded itself upon Him, must, in its isolation, be viewed as an embodiment of that intimation, -- as a prophecy by deeds. He says in Matt. xv.24: "I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel;" but if, nevertheless. He purposely makes His abode in the territory of Tyre and Sidon; if there He hears the prayer of the Canaanitish woman to heal her daughter, after having first tried her faith, then His purpose evidently is: That His prophecy in words concerning the extension of salvation to the Gentiles, might find a support in His prophecy in deeds. Jesus, prefiguring the future doings of His servants, passed over the boundaries of the Gentiles. Whilst the Jews had rejected the salvation offered to them, and forced Jesus to retire into concealment, the heathen woman comes full of faith, and seeks Him in His concealment. The Canaanitish woman is a representative of the heathen world, the future faith of which she was called to prefigure by sustaining the trial. From her example, the Apostles were to learn what might be expected from the Gentiles when the time should arrive for proclaiming the Gospel to them also. In Matt. x.5, 6, the Lord speaks to the Apostles: "Go not in the way of the Gentiles, and into any of the cities of the Samaritans enter ye not; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." His own conduct, however, as it is reported in John iv., stands in contradiction to this command to His Apostles, so long as its prophetical significance is not acknowledged. That which was, on a large scale, to be done by Christ in the state of glorification, was prefigured by Him, on a smaller scale, in the state of humiliation. The ministry of Christ in Samaria bears the same relation to the later mission among this people, that the single instances of Christ's raising the dead do to the general resurrection. The Lord afterwards did not foster the germs which had come forth among the Samaritans; He, in the meantime, left them altogether [Pg 413] to their fate. That prelude was quite sufficient for the object which He then had in view, and nothing further could be done without violating the rights of the Covenant-people, to which, in the conversation as recorded by John, the Lord as expressly pays attention, as He does in Matt. x.