Jonah and the Great Fish: A Bible Study and Commentary

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email


Why did Jonah run away from God’s desire to save the huge city of Nineveh?  Why would Jonah not want to save so many thousands living there?  Why was Jonah angry when the city did repent?

Why Did Jonah Run Away From God’s Purpose for Him?

I can answer part of this from my own personal, selfish perspective.  I too ran away from God’s will for my life.  The Great Commission was an imperative command given no less than five times by Jesus Christ.  This was a direct command from Jesus Who is God.  Yet for many years I ran away from God  like  Jonah.  I did not want to go to try and save others because I feared rejection, ridicule, and scorn from my friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers.  This is not to even mention going door-to-door to share the gospel in Outreach to perfect strangers.  I have always hated the idea of being a salesman and to go door-to-door in cold-calling to people who didn’t know me and to those who I didn’t know was inconceivable to me.  I couldn’t face all the rejection, day after day, and try to make a living at it. 

But how can a person really run away from God or God’s will for their lives?  It is impossible because if you go to the deepest part of the ocean, He is there.  If you ascend to the highest mountain tops He is there.  In the sheer blackness of the deep inner recesses of the earth, there He is.  No one can escape from the eye of God.  He is omniscient; knowing everything about everyone wherever they are.  He can look into the heart and discern thoughts and intents.  There really is no escaping God.  It is completely futile.  Yet there is comfort in this too.

When we are in the deepest of depressions, going through the severest trials, through life’s deepest valleys, He is there with us.  He never leaves those or forsakes those who are His.  We are said to be the apple of His eye and if this is so, which it is, how can He ever abandon us or give up on us? 

Why Would He Not Want to Save so Many Thousands Living There? 

Imagine that you have been a people at war with a nation for hundreds of years.  In the past they have destroyed, burned, and pillaged your cities.  They have torn down your worship centers, stolen and profaned your sacred relics, and killed your citizens.  They are your worst enemy; your arch-rivals for centuries.  Now God wants you to go and save them and bring them to repentance before God.  How hard would it have been for Great Britain to befriend and try and evangelize Nazi Germany right after the Holocaust or the bombing of England? 

This is what must have been going through Jonah’s mind when God asked him to go to Nineveh to save this city from God’s wrath. At the time this city was full of idolatry, full of wickedness, and hated the Jews.  They had literally hundreds of gods that they worshipped.  They had false religions that were steeped in paganism and in some cases involved human sacrifice; some of which were children!  Now God wants Jonah to extend God’s mercy on them and ask them to repent from their great wickedness and allow God’s mercy to rest upon them.  To be honest, this must have been difficult for Jonah and we could easily understand why he ran away from such a calling.  To pray for repentance for you enemies is about the most unnatural thing a human being could do.  Particularly for those who have been your number one enemy in your nation’s history.

Of course, Jonah could not escape.  Even though he tried to leave the nation, he ended up in the belly of a great fish.  It was not a whale that some translations say but a great fish. What type of fish it was is unknown.  It could have been a Great White shark, or a now extinct sea monster.  Marine biologists have found nearly complete body parts and other fish inside the belly of the Great White’s still left undigested.  No one really knows since the Bible doesn’t specify what type of great fish it was.  The point is that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and survived.  Jonah, like Christ’s analogy of being in the earth for three days, remained in this fish’s belly and lives through it.  The fish literally threw up Jonah on a beach and allowed him to go on his mission

Why was Jonah Angry When Nineveh Did Repent?

Jonah finally delivered the message to Nineveh to repent and the whole city did.  You would think that Jonah would be relieved since he accomplished God’s mission for him but Jonah became very angry about it.  Jonah tries an “I told you so” on God in Jonah 4:2-3, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”   Amazingly Jonah was now ready to end his life over this. He had reached his limit.  His arch enemy had repented before God and the city was saved.  This was not a small city either. Nineveh was actually a city-state with over one hundred and twenty thousand people living there. 

Jonah then goes outside of the city and stews in anger.  God causes a leafy plant to grow over Jonah’s head to provide shade from the harsh sun.  Jonah was very pleased with this natural shelter but the next morning, God sent a worm which devoured the plant and it withered and died.  Jonah was even angrier since God removed his shade with the plant dying.  The blazing sun scorched Jonah’s head and he thought, it would have been better just to die right there (Jonah 4:8). 

Here now we find out why Jonah was so angry with Nineveh’s repentance.  God speaks to Jonah (4:9-11) ““Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he (Jonah) said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”  Here we read that God’s mercy and compassion even extends into the animal kingdom (v 11) but above all, His concern is over those who do not know Him.  This is a picture of the Great Commission.  God wants us to go to those who might have treated us with disdain, whom we consider our enemies, with those who have ridiculed us, and even done us harm.  But just like with Nineveh, God gave us what we don’t deserve (called grace) and withheld from us what we did deserve (called mercy).  Therefore we must also be about our Father’s business of going out into the entire world, even if it’s next door, to try and save those who are perishing with Christ.  Sadly, only 4% of churches and Christians take this to heart and “GO!” 

The gospel is more than a message or ticket to heaven that changes a person’s eternal destination.  It changes the heart for the here and now.  It transforms and brings us into an eternal relationship and fellowship of the God of the universe.  One of the most important evidences that a person had been converted is not that they stop smoking, or drinking, or swearing; it is that they utilize their times, talents, and treasure in service to spreading the gospel.  It testifies to the value the person places on the gospel and the fact that he treasures God and the gospel above all; even personal rejection and humiliation.  That is what drove Paul to say “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor 12:15).  It is one of the surest signs of conversion. 

Jonah’s name means “dove” or “peace”.  Like Jonah, we can give this peace to others.  Like Jonah, we might run but we can not hide form this responsibility.  We will have to give an account some day to the Lord for our sins of commission and omission.   Don’t you know that you possess something that is so valuable that you can not keep it to yourself?  It is the only thing that you can never run out of by giving it away.  It is the most valuable thing in the entire universe that you can give to someone yet it is absolutely free because you received it freely; but at a supreme cost to Christ Jesus.  If you don’t have it yet, here’s how to receive it and also how you can impart it to others:

Admit – that you a sinner and in need of a Savior (Rom 6:23)

Abandon – self-effort and realize that you can not be saved by your works or efforts (Acts 16:31)

Accept freely Christ’s payment for your sins, required of the Father (John 3:16)

I Acknowledge Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior (Acts 4:12)

If you have just received Jesus, you have now received God’s inheritance rights since you are now a son or daughter of His and can never be lost again and live forever (John 10:28-29).  Now, join a Bible believing church, or call 1-888-NeedHim (633-3446) for follow up questions about salvation that is only available through Jesus Christ or contact us at What Christians Want to Know.

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