Read the Passage: Jonah 2-3
Jonah 1:17 records that when Jonah was cast into the sea, he was swallowed by a great fish that the Lord had prepared for this very purpose. While we later learn that the three days and three nights Jonah spent in the belly of the fish were a sign of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Matt. 12:39–40), it seems unlikely that Jonah was aware of this fact. Further, note that it seems Jonah was not immediately swallowed when cast into the sea, for in his prayer of repentance he mentions being surrounded by water, being wrapped in seaweed, and sinking to the earth’s foundations (cf. Jonah 2:3, 5–6). When in the fish’s belly, Jonah began to pray. The fact that we have this prayer recorded supports the claim that Jonah is the author of this book, even though the book is written in the third-person from the perspective of a narrator. In his short prayer Jonah describes God’s sovereignty (2:1–3), as well as his own repentance (2:4–9).
The fact that Jonah prayed after being swallowed by the fish is quite natural. Note the following observations about Jonah’s prayer. First, despite his sin, Jonah was confident that God would hear and answer his prayers (cf. Jon. 2:2, 6–7). Second, Jonah willfully submitted to God’s sovereignty (cf. Jon. 2:3–6, 9). Third, Jonah recognized the idea of concurrence, as he said that God had cast him into the ocean, even referring to the waves of the sea being under God’s control (cf. Jon. 2:3). Fourth, Jonah’s prayer contains elements of repentance, including: accepting God’s judgment (cf. Jon. 2:3), looking toward God (cf. Jon. 2:4), remembering God (cf. Jon. 2:7), as well as sacrifice, thanksgiving, and making vows to God (cf. Jon. 2:9). Jonah 2:10 reports that “the Lord spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry ground.” We are not told where Jonah finally made landfall, but perhaps it was near his departure point of Joppa.
After he was vomited on to dry land by the big fish, chapter 3 begins by reporting that the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, instructing him to go to Nineveh (cf. Jon. 3:1). God’s command to Jonah on the beach is the same exact command He gave to Jonah when the prophet was in Israel (cf. Jon. 1:1). Given the events that had transpired since God’s initial command, this time, Jonah obeyed God. Note that Nineveh would have been at least a two-week journey, covering hundreds of miles, from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Nineveh had twice been called a “great city” (Jon. 1:2; 3:2), and here it’s called “an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent” (Jon. 3:3). Historical records, as well as archaeological evidence, have confirmed that Nineveh and its surrounding boroughs were roughly 60 miles in circumference. Jonah’s reluctant, brief message to the Assyrians was that Nineveh was to be destroyed within forty days.
In Jon. 1:2 God had told Jonah to go to Nineveh and to “cry out against it,” while at Jon. 3:2 God told Jonah to “preach to Nineveh the message that I tell you.” Jonah’s sermon consisted of only 5 words in Hebrew and, as could be expected, focused on the coming destruction of the city. Implicitly, however, Jonah’s message was a call to repent (cf. Jer. 18:7–10). Perhaps surprisingly, God’s Word was effective, prompting repentance within the city. This repentance was marked by the people believing God, proclaiming a fast, and putting on sackcloth. From Jesus’ later teaching at Matt. 12:41 it is clear that the repentance of the citizens of Nineveh was genuine. After the inhabitants of the city repented, “Word came to the king” (Jon. 3:6). Here we read that the Word of God spoken by Jonah even provoked the king to repent. Further, the king issued a degree proclaiming a fast among the people and, somewhat incredibly, among the animals.
Some commentators have proposed that news of Jonah’s fish odyssey had preceded him to Nineveh, thus preparing the people for his message. Others have suggested that parts of Jonah’s body may have been bleached white by acid from the fish’s stomach, also validating his story and message. While these ideas may be true, ultimately, we must conclude that it is the power of God, communicated through the conduit of His Word, that produces repentance. As Paul would later write, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Similarly, the writer of Hebrews wrote, “For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword . . . and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Jonah 3:10 reports that given the people’s repentance, God relented of the disaster He had planned against Nineveh.
- In what ways is Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the great fish an example for us to follow in our own prayers, especially after we sin?
- After reading over Jonah’s prayer in Jon. 2:2–9, do you think that Jonah was truly repentant over his sin of disobeying God’s command to preach in Nineveh?
- Like Jonah, have you ever initially rejected God’s will—because of selfish ambition or stubbornness—only to be graciously given a second chance to obey?
- Are you encouraged or discouraged by the effect of God’s proclaimed Word among the people of Nineveh? Is there hope for repentance in modern society?
- What are the signs or marks of true repentance? What is the difference between the feelings of sorrow, guilt, and regret and the act of true repentance?