As we have seen, the ship’s captain cast lots to see who had caused the great storm that threatened to sink the ship. When the lot revealed that Jonah was the problem, we read in Jonah 1:8,
8 Then they said to him [Jonah], “Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
It appears that many of the sailors were asking questions. Verse 9 gives us only a partial answer from Jonah:
9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord [Yahweh] God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”
Jonah said much more than this, for the next verse tells us that he explained why he was traveling to Tarshish:
10 Then the men became extremely frightened, and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
Jonah confessed that he had fled from the presence of the Lord, and the sailors knew that this was the cause of their calamity on the high seas.
Jonah, the Hebrew
Jonah identified himself, not as a man from a town in Zebulun, nor even as an Israelite, but as a Hebrew. Bullinger attributes this to the language which he spoke, but this explanation seems to fall short of a deeper truth.
A Hebrew is literally an immigrant, one who crosses over from one country to another. The word is Ibriy, from Eber, the patriarch in Gen. 11:15-17, whose name means “the region beyond.” In a biblical sense, the descendants of Eber are Hebrews, and so Abraham himself was called a Hebrew (Gen. 14:13).
Abraham was not an Israelite, for he was not descended from his grandson, Jacob, who was the first to be named Israel. Neither was Abraham a Jew, for he was not descended from Israel’s son, Judah. He was a Hebrew.
In a broader sense, many other immigrants from the Tigris-Euphrates valley to the land of Syria and Canaan were known as Hebrews (Habiru), according to the clay tablets and stone monuments unearthed by archeologists. However, from a biblical perspective, a Hebrew was primarily a descendant of Eber (or Heber) and more particularly, Abraham, the heir of the birthright through that lineage.
Many years later, after Jesus came as the Mediator of the New Covenant, the book of Hebrews was written to show the path to all who might immigrate from the Old Covenant to the New. The term then took on a greater meaning, for the call of Abraham to leave his father’s country and go to a new and unknown place was seen as a model for all Jews being called to leave their Old Covenant religious practice and to immigrate to a new way of spiritual life in Christ.
But what has this to do with Jonah? Why did Jonah call himself a Hebrew?
This identification was partly ironic and partly prophetic. The irony is in the fact that Jonah was immigrating to Tarshish against the will of God. In that way, Jonah was not at all like Abraham, though both traveled west. Abraham obeyed God; Jonah disobeyed.
Yet, even Jonah’s disobedience could not deviate from the divine plan, for this led to his call as a type of Christ in His death, burial (in the heart of the earth), and resurrection. When Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Jonah, He showed the path of life to all of the new Hebrews immigrating to the Kingdom of God.
The God of Heaven
Jonah identified his God as Yahweh, the God of heaven. He did not say “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 3:15), nor even “the God of Israel” (Exodus 5:1), for he was not addressing his own people. There was no reason to emphasize the personal relationship or covenant that God had made with Israel. Instead, Jonah called him the God of Heaven in order to identify Him as the Creator and the true God of all men.
Bullinger makes the point that the specific term, “God of heaven,” was first used in 2 Chron. 36:23, after both Israel and Judah had been taken captive, one to Assyria and the other to Babylon. He says in his notes for this verse,
“It is the title peculiar to the times of the Gentiles, while God acts from heaven, and not from between the Cherubim as Jehovah the God of Israel, or as ‘the Lord of all the earth’ (His millennial title).”
Just as many monarchs have more than one title, each describing a different relationship to people or nations, so also God Himself has different names and titles. He was the God of Israel as long as His presence rested upon the Ark of the Covenant that was in Israel’s midst. But His presence left Jerusalem in Ezekiel 11:23 and rested for six centuries upon the Mount of Olives. Then later His departure was completed when Christ ascended from the same mount forty days after His resurrection (Acts 1:3, 9, 12).
Bullinger says that during the times of the Gentiles, His title is The God of Heaven. Then when Christ returns, He will be known as The Lord [King, Ruler, Owner] of All the Earth. He was the God of Israel even while the Israelites were in rebellion against Him; He has been the God of Heaven while the beast nations, who were given the Dominion Mandate, continued to ignore His laws. But He will bring all things under His feet after Christ returns to overthrow all usurpers and to give the Dominion Mandate to the saints of the Most High (Dan. 7:27).
Meanwhile, Jonah referred to Him as Yahweh, the God of Heaven, to appeal to the sailors’ understanding of the Creator of “the sea and the dry land” (Gen. 1:10). The fact that their ship was being tossed to and fro in the midst of the high seas showed that this was the God that had sent the storm as divine judgment upon Jonah. The God of the Sea was not Neptune, but Yahweh.
Further, Jonah was a prophet representing not only Christ, but also Israel. His rebelliousness reflected the heart of Israel. His nationalism reflected the narrow thinking of the Israelites who saw God as their tribal deity. The judgment (storm) was soon to come upon Israel itself, and then the Israelites would be forced to become Hebrew immigrants into other lands.
But, of course, the ultimate solution was for the Israelites—and all nations with them—to immigrate to the heavenly “country” and spiritual “city” that Abraham foresaw (Heb. 11:16). The map showing the way to that country was to come only through the New Covenant, open to all and attainable by faith in Jesus Christ.
“How Could You Do This?”
In Jonah 1:10, when the sailors heard Jonah’s confession, they were angry and frustrated, asking, “How could you do this?” The KJV reads, “Why hast thou done this?”
Because the conversation is so abbreviated, we do not know if Jonah actually explained it or not. It is not likely that Jonah found time to give them a complete answer, since the storm was keeping them quite busy. From a reader’s perspective, we are not given the answer to this question until Jonah 4:1-3. There we find that Jonah was a good nationalist and disagreed with God’s judgment upon the House of Israel. He did not want to give Nineveh an opportunity to repent. Jonah hoped that Assyria would be destroyed for its sin, for he wanted Israel to avoid judgment and to be God’s people in spite of their rebelliousness and continual violation of His laws.
Jonah did not want God to save Nineveh, because he knew that the Assyrians would soon conquer and deport the House of Israel. Ironically, Jonah then deported himself as a sign of what would happen to Israel. He was then swallowed up by the great fish, picturing the death of the nation, as Hosea 8:8, 9 also prophesied,
8 Israel is swallowed up; they are now among the nations like a vessel in which no one delights. 9 For they have gone up to Assyria…
Hosea 7:11 calls Israel “a silly dove,” that is, a silly Jonah. Thus Hosea’s answer to the sailors’ question, “How could you do this?” was that Jonah was acting silly. The broader answer is that Israel itself was silly for thinking that they could set aside God’s law with impunity.
Such silliness has continued to the present time. And each generation has wondered why God has allowed the beast nations to rule over them with oppressive, man-made laws and traditions.
“What Should We do?”
Jonah 1:11 says,
11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy.
It is interesting that the sailors did not know what to do with Jonah. They did not know what judgment to render that would satisfy the law of Yahweh for Jonah’s disobedience. But Paul tells us the answer in Rom. 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.”
As a prophetic type of Israel, Jonah was guilty of sin and was sentenced to death. In his role as a prophetic type of Christ, Jonah took upon himself the penalty for Israel’s sin and, indeed, the sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
In that Jonah sentenced himself to death, he prophesied that Jesus Christ too would come voluntarily to die for the sin of the world.
There are two ways in which men are called to sentence themselves. The first is through blind judgment, such as we see when Nathan confronted David over his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:5). We see the same in Matt. 21:40, 41, when Jesus asked the Pharisees to judge the husbandmen who had usurped the vineyard.
The second is through open judgment, such as we see in the case of Jonah, as well as with all repentant sinners who agree with the law that the sentence of God is just. Paul says in Rom. 7:12 and 22,
12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good… 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.
We should also hasten to add that it is hardly possible to concur with the judgment upon ourselves unless we also understand that the judgment is not the end of the matter. After death comes resurrection. Submitting to the sentence of the law is followed by full forgiveness. Death is only temporary; that which follows is immortal life.
We are not told if Jonah understood that he would be saved out of the watery grave. He must have had some sense of this, because he was a type of Christ, and Jesus clearly saw past the cross to the glory that awaited Him on the other side of divine judgment.
“Throw Me into the Sea”
In Jonah 1:12 the prophet gives them the answer:
12 And he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.”
There are many spiritual principles to be learned in this instruction. First, as a rebellious prophet, Jonah sentenced himself to death in agreement with the law of God. Second, he prophesied of Christ, who was to die to save the people. (Take note that it was the non-Israelite sailors who were to be saved.) Third, this action would calm the sea.
The sea represents “peoples and multitudes, and nations and tongues” (Rev. 17:15). Their violence and lawlessness is pictured in Isaiah 57:20, 21
20 But the wicked are like the tossing sea, for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up refuse and mud. 21 “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”
The inner peace of God that surpasses understanding and comprehension comes only through the death of Christ. Only by His death can wars cease.
Further, this principle is set forth again when Jesus walked on the water, for though the seas were in turmoil, they remained calm under His feet. When Peter, the son of Jonah (John 21:15), stepped out of the boat to meet Him, he experienced the calm water as well, until he took his eyes off Jesus and began to focus on the raging sea around him.
The message, then, is clear. If you insert Jesus into the stormy sea, the seas will become calm. On a secondary level, when the overcomers (represented by Peter) step out of the boat and go out to meet Him, they too will experience calm waters as long as they keep their focus upon Him.
The Captain Objects
Jonah 1:13 says,
13 However, the men rowed desperately to return to land, but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them.
We can be sure that the sailors themselves did not make this decision. The captain was an honorable man, and since Jonah had paid his fare, expecting the ship to take him to Tarshish, the captain was duty-bound to take him there. His intentions were good, but he could not fight the divine plan, for he was caught up in the prophetic drama, and a higher will than his own was directing the events.
Jonah 1:14, 15 continues,
14 Then they called on the Lord [Yahweh] and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life, and do not put innocent blood on us; for Thou, O Lord, hast done as Thou hast pleased.” 15 So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.
In Jonah’s last moments on the ship, he persuaded the crew to pray to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Reluctantly, they threw the prophet into the sea. In doing this, they were not prophetically acting out the role of the chief priests and Pharisees who sentenced Jesus to death. Nor did they act out the role of the deceived crowd who demanded, “Crucify Him!” (John 19:15).
Instead, the captain and crew of the ship were accepting Jonah’s self-sacrifice, and thereby they played the role of those who would later accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The crew prayed to Yahweh; the chief priests did not. In fact, in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, the husbandmen (chief priests) say in Matt. 21:38, “This is the Heir; come, let us kill Him and seize His inheritance.” Their intention was to usurp the vineyard (Kingdom) for their own profit, whereas the crew of the ship had no such motive.
Jonah 1:16 says,
16 Then the men feared the Lord [Yahweh] greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
To fear the Lord from a carnal sense is to be afraid of Him. But as love begins to cast out all fear, the fear of the Lord means to reverence Him, to be in awe of Him, and most importantly, to recognize His right to be obeyed. Yahweh has the right to rule all nations.
We know nothing about the sailor’s lives after this great conversion. Did they seek to learn the laws of God? Did the memory fade over time? Did they revert back to paganism? We are not told. However, the biblical purpose of this story is to show that when men accept the sacrifice of Christ, they are converted.
Their “vows” to serve Him are essentially the same vow that Israel took at the base of Mount Horeb, when they said in Exodus 19:8, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” While this is merely an Old Covenant vow, which can never be fulfilled in its entirety, it was acceptable in that time and era, for it was the start of a relationship with Yahweh. In time, of course, that relationship would need an upgrade.
Time in the Grave
Jonah 1:17 says,
17 And the Lord appointed a great fish [gadole dag] to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach [meah] of the fish three days and three nights.
The word that is translated “stomach” (NASB) or “belly” (KJV) is meah, from a root word that means “soft.” It refers to the “soft underbelly,” or internal organs. Some say he was sucked into the air intake valve of the whale, where he would have sufficient air to survive. Others say he was swallowed into the whale’s stomach, which better fits the prophetic type of “the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
Ferrar Fenton bypasses the problem altogether, saying that The Great Fish was the name of a passing ship which rescued him, carrying him in its hold for three days and nights before discharging him on the land. If so, then the ship’s name made it represent Nineveh, “Fish City,” as a prophetic type. Of course, the truth of the message does not depend on the type of “fish,” other than its connection to Nineveh.
Three Days and Three Nights
There is probably not a more hotly contested prophecy than the one about Jonah being three days and three nights in the whale’s belly. Its importance has been raised to a fever pitch by those who stake Jesus’ entire ministry on his being 72 hours in the grave, which is their interpretation of Matt. 12:40, 41.
The main problem, of course, is that Matt. 12:40 is the only time that Jesus said that He would be in the grave for “three days and three nights.” Essentially, he was quoting Jonah 1:17. But on every other occasion, He said 21 times that He would rise on the third day. The first time this is mentioned is in Matt. 16:21,
21 From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.
Another example is found in Luke 18:32, 33,
32 For He will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon; 33 and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.
In Luke 13:32 He defined this phrase, saying,
32 And He said to them, “Go and tell that fox [Herod], “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.
In other words, “today” is included in the count of time to the third day. The third day is the day after tomorrow, and this is the usual way in which the Hebrews counted time.
So unless we are willing to ignore it altogether, we must either try to interpret the 21 statements to conform to a 72-hour period, or we can interpret the single statement, “three days and three nights” in conformity to the other 21 statements.
“Day and night” is a Hebrew idiom that means continuous time. In other words, neither Jonah nor Jesus spent three days in the heart of the earth, while being released at night. Their ordeals were without a break, both day and night.
This idea is seen in Esther 4:16, where the queen asked people to fast for her, saying, “do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.” Then in Esther 5:1 we read, “Now it came about on the third day” that Esther came before the king. She did not wait 72 hours.
Neither was Jesus in the grave for 72 hours. The early church was unanimous in understanding that Jesus rose in the early morning of the third day. The idea that this would contradict Jesus’ statement about “three days and three nights” did not even occur to them, for they knew that this was a Hebrew idiom and not a statement about 72 hours.