Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Sign of Jonah
by James T. Dennison, Jr.
However bold the following statement may seem, I believe it is an accurate reflection of the history of interpretation. The book of Jonah continues to perplex and bewilder the church, much as the prophet himself who seems so unnerved by his commission. Interpreters of this little jewel have often left their hearers (and readers) with questions rather than with answers. Why did Jonah flee to Tarshish (1:3)? Why was he angry at God's relenting (3:10-4:1)? Why did he wish for death (4:8)? I am not suggesting that answers to these questions have not been advanced by preachers and commentators; nor am I suggesting that the answers tendered do not contain elements of truth. Yet, it seems to me that those wrestling with the dilemmas of the book of Jonah have not fully appreciated two essential considerations. First, what significance does the inclusion of Jonah in the sacred canon of Israelite Scripture have in interpreting the events of the book? Second, what significance does our Lord's remark about the sign of Jonah have as a clue to the meaning of the book?
Rationalistic and liberal commentators have no ultimate resolutions for the difficulties of this book for they reduce the work to a parable or semi-mythological construct. Hence, the historicity of this canonical work as endorsed by our Lord Himself remains problematic. Orthodox commentators have not adduced this difficulty, but still they leave us where the book ends—with questions (cf. 4: 11). Let us take a fresh look at the book of Jonah in the light of the two considerations above.
When the worm gnaws its way into Jonah's gourd so that it withers (4:7), Jonah responds with anger and bitterness. His fury at the loss of his gourd is a parable of his anger with God who failed to destroy the Ninevites. The poet has represented the hillside scene as follows.
Oh greenly and fair in the lands of the sun
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
Like that which o'er Nineveh's prophet once grew
While he waited to know that his warning was true;
And longed for the storm cloud and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and the red fire-rain.
Jonah is not usually remembered as an angry prophet. Generally, we associate him with the great fish as we emphasize the stupendous miracle of his preservation and deliverance. The truth is, Jonah is the most furious of the prophets and insofar as we fail to understand the context of his anger, we fail to understand the meaning of his book. And if we fail to understand this angry prophet, we fail to understand: (1) why a book which apparently has nothing to do with Israel is included in the canon; and (2) the remark of our Lord (Mt. 12:39-41; cf. Lk. 11:29-30, 32).
This angry prophet manifests his displeasure on three occasions. When he is first commissioned to go to Nineveh (1:1, 2), he flees from his duty in angry rebellion. When the great fish spits him back upon the right path, he goes to Nineveh and preaches the sermon God directed, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown" (3:4). That sermon—surely one of the shortest in the history of the church—is the instrument of a marvellous work of conviction and humiliation. The Ninevites give themselves up to the mercy of God while acknowledging the just deserts of their sins (3:5ff.). Shortly after this, Jonah becomes angry with God for the second time as he watches in vain "for the rush of the whirlwind and the red fire-rain". While he awaits the fireworks from his hillside campsite, God provides relief from the burning sun by means of a shade gourd. But when the worm kills the gourd, Jonah is angry with the Lord for the third time (4:9).
Superficially considered, the prophet's anger appears easily explainable. He did not want to go to Nineveh—hence becomes angry when commissioned to that task. He did not enjoy preaching one thing (destruction) and finding God doing the opposite (sparing the city). He did not like the sun beating upon his head and the death of his shade inflames his fury. Yet if we look below the surface of Jonah's anger and probe more deeply the fury of this prophet, we discover a common thread woven through each of the three incidents. Something is gnawing at Jonah! Something continues to chew away at his soul whether he is on his way down to Joppa, preaching his way through Nineveh or sitting under his shade gourd. Even before "the word of the Lord came to Jonah" (1:1), he was angry. What was the source of Jonah's anger in every instance of its manifestation? I would suggest that it was related to the fact that Jonah was a prophet of, to and for Israel! Jonah was a home-born Jewish prophet—son of Amittai of Gath-hepher (2 Kgs. 14:25). He was commissioned to preach to the Israel of Jeroboam II (ca. 793-753 B.C.); hence was a contemporary of Hosea and Amos (cf. Hosea 1:1, Amos 1:1 and 2 Kgs. 14:23, 24). Jonah was a prophet for Israel. While he prophesied prosperity for Israel (cf. 2 Kgs. 14:25, 26), it was a prosperity derived from the grace of God. Israel in the days of Jeroboam II was not godly (cf. 2 Kgs. 14:24; Hosea 4 and Amos 5, 6). Thus we may imagine Jonah pleading with an affluent society to remember her covenant Lord. For all her prosperity, Israel was decadent, perverse and idolatrous. Jonah undoubtedly raised his voice with others urging Israel to return to the Lord, forsake her idols, humble herself in sackcloth and ashes casting herself upon the mercy of her Sovereign. But she would not!
Therefore when God commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh, his response was maddening disbelief. He had preached to hardhearted Israel without success. The chosen people would not listen. What then was the likelihood of the heathen hearing? Jonah's words had fallen on deaf ears in his homeland; he was angry at the thought of yet more failure in a pagan land. After all, the Assyrians had not been Israel's benefactors! Although he acknowledged the mercy of God (4:2), he balked at the thought of a covenant prophet prostituting his gifts before the Gentiles.
The sovereign Lord has determined the opposite. Jonah is to preach the Word of the Lord to the Gentiles even if God must pursue him with wind and wave to the ends of the earth. Even if God must send a great fish to suck him up off the bottom of the ocean; even if God must give him up to death for three days and three nights in order that he may be vomited out to life anew. God's ways are not Jonah's ways and Jonah must learn the redemptive purposes of God. Jonah is rapidly convinced that this Pursuer is relentless. By the time he has nearly drowned in the Mediterranean Sea; nearly gone stir-crazy from the darkness of a living tomb; nearly strangled on the seaweed floating about his head (2:5)—he has become very cooperative.
In Nineveh, Jonah preaches his sermon, leaves the city, puts up his little booth and camps out to wait for the fire and brimstone. In the spirit of the annual holiday shopping countdown, one imagines Jonah counting 40, 39, 38, 37 . . . As he nears the zero hour, his expectations are more and more aroused—5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . Day 40 dawns, but there is no fiery spectacular. No great balls of fire—no thunder claps of destruction—no smoke and sulphur. Nothing!
The pent up anger of failing again is released. He has preached repentance to Israel without result. He says, "Yet forty days . . ." and there is no destruction. His words have failed to produce the effect he expects. In despair he cries, "I wish I were dead" (4:8). God responds with a parable in horticulture. Indeed, the lesson of Jonah's gourd is an audio-visual entitled—"My Ways Are Not Your Ways."
God asks Jonah to discern his sovereign redemptive purpose in the display of mercy to the Gentiles. And the purpose of showing mercy is reflexive—to provoke Israel to conviction, humiliation and repentance. God gives repentance unto life to the Ninevites so that a sign will be recorded in the canon of the Scriptures of Israel. God gives repentance to the Gentiles through Jonah in order to anticipate the mission of one greater than Jonah.
The key which unlocks the meaning of the mission of Jonah is the comment which Jesus made to another generation of the chosen people—"no sign . . . but the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Mt. 12:39; Lk.11:29). A sign is given to the Israel of Christ's day—it is the sign of Jonah. How is Jonah a sign to the Israel of our Lord's era? Consider the following parallels. Jonah was a preacher of repentance, vindicated (as a messenger of God) by "death" and "resurrection" who brought good tidings to the heathen in order that Israel herself might be stirred to heed the prophet's voice. So it was with the eschatological prophet. Jesus preached to Israel, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 4:17). But she would not (cf. Mt. 23:37). Jesus was delivered up to death—three days and three nights in the belly of the earth. He was vindicated or justified as the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4; I Tim. 3:16) by resurrection from the grave. He commissioned his representatives to go to the Gentiles and command men everywhere to repent and believe. And lo, the Gentiles do repent and believe. All of this serves God's sovereign purpose to provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom. 10: 19; 11: 13, 14) that she may heed the voice of one greater than Jonah—one in whom the Gentiles come to the light and mercy of the Lord.
The sign of Jonah is a sign to unbelieving Israel. This is the reason for the prophet's inclusion in the canon of Old Testament Scripture. The chosen people in a state of rebellion and rejection are given a sign. A sign now heightened and magnified by the fulness of time. Behold, O Israel, the supreme sign—an empty tomb and the streaming of the Gentiles to the city of great David's greater Son. Behold, O people not a people, the Son of God offers you repentance unto life through his own life, death and resurrection. The harvest begun in the days of Jonah proceeds in these last days. The risen Lord commissions his messengers to go make disciples of the nations. Let Jew and Gentile embrace the Son. For he has given us a sign—from death to life. The death-life of this present evil age passes away; the resurrection-life of the age to come dawns for all nations. Truly a greater than Jonah is here!
James T. Dennison, Jr. is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Academic Dean of Northwest Theological Seminary in Lynnwood, Washington, where he also serves as Professor of Church History and Biblical Theology. He has been the editor of "Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching" since 1986. He has also edited variou books including Francis Turretin's "Institutes of Elenctic Theology," Geerhardus Vos' "Old Testament Eschatology," and, "The Letters of Geerhardus Vos." This article is reprinted from the July 1982 issue of The Outlook, published by the Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2475 85th St., S.W., Byron Center, MI 49315. It is used here with their kind permission.