Who was Jonah in the Bible?

Jonah is perhaps best known for being the prophet who refused God's command to go to Nineveh and subsequently spent three days in the belly of a fish. Is that his entire story? What else does the Bible tell us about Jonah?

The details of Jonah's life are mostly in the Old Testament book bearing his name. In the Gospels, Jesus refers to the "sign of Jonah" in speaking to the scribes, Pharisees, and crowds about His own death and resurrection (Matthew 12:38–42; Luke 11:29–32). We also see Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25. There we learn that the restoration of Israel's borders that occurred during the reign of Jeroboam the son of Joash was "according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher."

Jonah 1:1–3 tells us, "Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.' But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD." Not only was Jonah unwilling to obey God's command, he was eager to try to flee from God's presence. Jonah wanted nothing to do with this assignment from God.

But it is impossible to escape God's presence (Psalm 139). God pursued Jonah. He sent a storm so strong "the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god" and threw their cargo overboard (Jonah 1:5). Meanwhile, Jonah "was fast asleep" (Jonah 1:5). The captain woke Jonah and implored him to call on his God. The sailors then decided to cast lots to try to determine why a storm had come—it fell on Jonah. Jonah told the sailors, "'I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.' Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, 'What is this that you have done!' For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them" (Jonah 1:9–10). Though Jonah knew God and knew His sovereignty over all creation, it was the pagan mariners who better demonstrated the fear of God in this situation.

The sailors asked Jonah what they should do. He told them to toss him overboard, but the men continued to fight the waters, unwilling to be responsible for Jonah's death. When their rowing proved fruitless, the mariners cried out to God, "O LORD, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you" (Jonah 1:14). They threw Jonah overboard and the storm stopped. The sailors, it seems, truly believed in God. After this rescue, "the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows" (Jonah 1:16).

Meanwhile, God sent a fish to swallow Jonah. "Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17). While in the fish, Jonah prayed. He spoke of God's rescue and praised Him for it (Jonah 2). God then instructed the fish to vomit Jonah onto the land. Then God, again, told Jonah to go to Nineveh "and call out against it the message that I tell you" (Jonah 3:2). This time, Jonah obeyed.

Incredibly, seemingly after just one day of Jonah's travel into the city, "the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them" (Jonah 3:5). The king himself put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. He commanded a fast, declaring that even the animals should not eat or drink. He called on the people to "call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish" (Jonah 3:8–9). God did relent from the disaster He had threatened. The people turned to God, and He responded with mercy and grace.

"But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry" (Jonah 4:1). Jonah prayed again, this time saying, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:2–3). Jonah knew God's character of grace and mercy. He had benefited from those attributes of God himself. But Jonah was so angry at God extending grace and mercy to the Ninevites that Jonah wanted to die.

God invited Jonah to reflect on his attitude. And then He, again, demonstrated His patience and grace. While Jonah sat outside the city, seemingly waiting for God to rain down destruction despite the fact that he knew God had relented, God provided shade for the prophet. Jonah 4:6 describes it this way, "Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant." As God had appointed the fish, so He appointed the plant. As Jonah had been exceedingly displeased over God's mercy toward the Ninevites, he was exceedingly glad for the shade.

Next, God appointed a worm to eat the plant, as well as a scorching wind. Hot and angry, Jonah again prayed to die. "But God said to Jonah, 'Do you do well to be angry for the plant?'" (Jonah 4:9). When God had asked Jonah about his anger over the Ninevites not being destroyed, Jonah did not respond. Here, Jonah defends his anger: "Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die" (Jonah 4:9). God gives Jonah some perspective: "And the LORD said, 'You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?'" (Jonah 4:10–11).

The book ends there. It seems a fitting end in that it leaves us to ponder our own heart attitudes. Do we value people the same way God does? Do we want God to extend the same mercy and grace He extends to us to our enemies as well? Are we eager for all to know God, or only those we like or those we think are worthy of His forgiveness? The pagans in the book of Jonah—the sailors and the Ninevites—feared and honored God more than the prophet of God did. Do we who claim to know and fear God act in self-righteousness, or in humility? Are we grateful not only for God's rescue of us, but for His rescue of others? God loves people and His invitation for salvation is extended to all. Do we have that same love?

Though we never hear the rest of Jonah's story, it seems he came to repentance. Since we have this account, we assume he shared it with others. Having learned about Jonah's life, we can pray for God to open our eyes and to bring us to repentance for any of our dishonoring attitudes. We can also praise Him for the astounding grace, mercy, and patience He demonstrates to all people, including us.

Too, in the story of Jonah, we see a striking contrast to Jesus. Jesus came willingly to earth and endured much suffering, including death on the cross, so that we might have life (Philippians 2:1–11). He was eager to secure our salvation through His life, death, and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3–7; Ephesians 2:1–10). God's gift of salvation is meant for all types of people (Romans 10:12–13; Ephesians 2:11–22; 4:1–7; Galatians 3:26–29; 2 Peter 3:9). Those of us who know Jesus have the privilege of sharing with others the truth about who Jesus is and the gift of salvation He offers (Matthew 28:18–20; Acts 1:8; Romans 10:14–17; 2 Corinthians 5:18–21).

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