The Biblical Illustrator
Book Overview - Jonah
by Joseph Exell
IT is very interesting and very instructive to scrutinise the faces in a great gallery of portraits. The man who does so has before him materials which should help him to gain a wide knowledge of human character. Here is a countenance noble and winsome. The spectator is certain that it was a tender and brave and faithful heart which beat beneath an exterior so fair. Features like these could not cover any littleness of soul. Perhaps it is a soldier in his coat of mail, whose likeness the artist has drawn, or it may be a woman’s face that looks out from the canvas; but whoever it be, the onlooker is glad that he has seen the picture. But a painting of a different kind attracts him next--that of one who has evidently had many fierce battles with temptation, and who has not come out of them all scathless. This much the spectator learns from the sad expression which rests on the features; and yet, as he examines them more carefully, he sees that dissatisfaction and sorrow are not their most prominent characteristics. There is peace stamped on the face as well as trouble--peace which seems in the end to have gained the mastery over the trouble. There are no portraits like those which have been painted for us in the pages of the Bible. They have been drawn by the hand of a Master, and they are very varied in the types of character which they represent. In the goodly fellowship of the prophets--to think meanwhile of no others--what differences of natural disposition, and of spiritual attainments, there are I Some, like Joel, and Amos, and Hosea, are without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. Beside them we see our own shortcomings, and know what manner of men our Lord would have us to be. And others, like Jonah, are far from faultless. They are genuine servants of God, but servants who sin and fall, whose loyalty is not steadfast and immovable, who carry to this day dark blots on their fair name. We are encouraged ourselves to make trial of His compassion and His grace. That Jonah, after his wilful disobedience and foolish querulousness, was healed of all the diseases of his spirit--that, like many a wayward child, he learned to sorrow over his self-will, and came home with a penitent and reproachful heart to his Father’s house--who of us can doubt? I take it that he was himself the author of the book which bears his name, though some have thought of it as the embalming by a subsequent writer of an ancient and venerable tradition. £ I can see no reason for doubting that the prophet penned with his own hand these four short chapters. Before his life closed he sat down to recount for the generations that should follow the story of his memorable journey to Nineveh. And how does he tell the story? Very humbly, we shall admit, and very impartially. They are bitter things which he writes in it against himself. He extenuates nothing. He unveils all his hardness of heart, all his Jewish exclusiveness, all his murmuring against the Lord. He is relentless in his self-condemnation, whilst over against the confession of his lack of obedience and of charity he places the record of God’s loving-kindness and tender mercy. The book exalts God, indeed, and rebukes and punishes Jonah. It is a book of Confessions which Jonah has written, not an Apologia pro vim sua. He acknowledges publicly the wrongness of his thinking and acting. When we read his chapters we are reminded of Peter going out to weep bitterly, and afterwards inspiring the Gospel of Mark, which tells more fully than any of the other evangelical records how he sinned and fell; of Augustine, composing the narrative of his foolish youth; of John Bunyan, declaring how grace had abounded in his experience to the chief of sinners. Jonah must have been a new man, with a heart within him from which the old pride and unkindness and disobedience had been driven quite away, before he could pen the book which bears his name. The Book of Jonah is not like other prophetic writings. It is not a recital of discourses, but a vivid narrative of a strange episode in its author’s life. It has been described as a drama in three acts, each of which is full of interest and replete with instruction.
I. First of all, the prophecy deals with Jonah himself. Very little is known regarding him beyond what we learn from these chapters. There is, however, one other mention of him in the Old Testament. We read, in the Second Book of Kings, about Jeroboam II., the powerful and able and sinful ruler of the Northern tribes under whom Amos and Hosea lived and preached, that “he restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God which He spake by the hand of His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.” Jonah was a native, then, of Lower Galilee, a child of the tribe of Zabulon, born in a little village among the hills not far from Nazareth. And his first message as a prophet was a message of gladness, in which he took delight, and which brought him honour and esteem. He had foretold the success of the king of Israel, how he should regain provinces that had been lost, how he should win back for a short space the glory of his empire. It is strange that one whose ministry began under such bright auspices should end it under a cloud, and should be presented to us not as a model but as a beacon. It is a warning to take heed lest we fall--an illustration of the truth that even the saints of God are weak and brittle in themselves, in constant danger of losing the crown, and needing always the support of a higher hand. We can scarcely be surprised that legend should have busied itself about Jonah, and should have tried to augment our scanty knowledge of his earlier years. There is the old tradition, for example, that he was the son of the widow of Zarephath, the boy whom Elijah brought back from death to life. And indeed it would be pleasant to think that the first apostle of the Gentiles, sent on a mission of mercy to a heathen people, was himself a Gentile on the mother’s side; £ and that he stood in so interesting a relation to the great prophet who fought single-handed the battle of God against Baal. But the very pleasantness of the fancy is its condemnation. It fits in too neatly with our preconceptions and desires. Whether, during the years when he lived at home in the Northern Kingdom, Jonah had other announcements given him to publish to his countrymen beside that happy announcement of victory and national enlargement, we cannot say. The time was very evil, and the land was sick unto death. What we do know is, that to the prophet, dwelling among his own people, there came one day a message from God which startled him, and for which he had no liking. He was commanded to leave his kindred, and journey to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. There he was to proclaim the Lord’s judgments. When God pointed in one way, he moved in exactly the opposite direction. What made him so rebellious? Partly it may have been fear. He was appalled at the greatness and the hazardous nature of the task allotted him. He forgot that God’s servants, who do His will, are kept by Him safe in the hollow of His hand. But there was another reason for his disobedience, as he tells us himself. He could not help feeling that though he was sent to Nineveh with a fearful woe on his lips, his mission was in reality one of love. He understood well that often his God threatened in order that He might afterwards spare, and that His terrors were meant to drive to Himself, for forgiveness and healing, those who would not be won by gentler methods. And Jonah had no desire to go on an errand of compassion to Nineveh. A mistaken patriotism prompted him to recoil from seeking the good of the metropolis of Assyria. He would rather a thousand times that it should be left to its fate--that it should sink beneath God’s hand to rise no more for ever. We can sympathise in some measure with him. We know how the hearts of our own fathers were filled with a stern joy when the tremendous power of the first Napoleon, which hung like a thundercloud over Europe, was dispelled and dissipated. They thought it no shame to triumph in his downfall. The instinct of self-preservation and the love of country kindled these emotions within them. So it was with Jonah; and indeed he had even better ground for the feelings he cherished. For Assyria was a heathen empire, while Israel was the land which God had blessed, the home of His chosen people. Why should an effort be made to save the foes of the true faith? Therefore he disobeyed. He thought himself wiser than God. He imagined that he had the interests of God’s peculiar people more truly at heart. But whither shall a man go from the Spirit of the Lord? or whither shall he flee from His presence? If he dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall God’s right hand hold him. The traveller who climbs a high mountain in the tropics passes through many zones of temperature, leaving the luxuriant vegetation of the plain to enter a land of pine forests and of colder skies, and finding himself at length in a region where God giveth snow like wool and casteth forth His ice like morsels. If we imagine the order reversed, we shall understand the progress of Jonah’s prayer. It starts from the cold and gloomy wilderness, and it ends in the bright and warm sunshine. “Salvation is of the Lord,” salvation even for souls so unworthy as mine--that is the last triumphant note. “The Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” Thus the first section of the book closes. And this is the truth which it teaches us, the comfortable message which it brings, that the goodness of our God passeth knowledge. There can be no sin so grieving to Him as the sin of His chosen servants--those whom He has brought into His kingdom and entrusted with its high and honourable work. He expects much from them because they have received much from Him; and, when they disappoint Him, He must be wounded to the very heart. He must feel their disloyalty, as David felt the treachery of Ahithophel, his own familiar friend, and the rebellion of Absalom, the son whom he loved most fondly; as Christ felt the cruelty and faithlessness of Peter, the foremost of His disciples. Yet He forgives these worst offenders; He restoreth their souls. Is not this the very acme and climax of His mercy? Is not this what distinguishes Him from the best of men? They are unwilling to permit a servant who has failed them once to have an opportunity of retrieving himself; they will hardly allow him a second chance. Even Paul, the very noblest and tenderest of the apostles, refused to trust John Mark when he turned away from the work, and looked askance on him for many a day.
II. So we come to the second division of the narrative, that which concerns itself with Nineveh. It is a brief and yet most graphic account which is given us of the grandeur of the city. Its vast size is described; and the imagination is left to complete the scene, to fill in the wide area with royal palaces and crowded markets and vineyards and gardens, to summon up to view the most magnificent of all the capitals of the ancient world. The city was great, great not only to man’s thinking but to God’s, for that is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase. Looking down from heaven upon it, the Lord of all things admired its extent and stateliness and strength. But He sorrowed over its sin; and He bade His prophet travel all the way from Israel to warn it of its danger. His injunction, deliberately slighted at first, was graciously renewed; and, when it came the second time, Jonah made haste and delayed not to keep God’s commandment. It is like what Josephus tells us of Jesus, the son of Anan, the unlettered rustic from the wilderness, who shortly before Jerusalem was destroyed burst in upon the people at the feast of tabernacles with the piercing and oft-repeated cry, “A voice from the East, a voice from the West, a voice from the four winds, a voice on the bridegroom and the bride, a voice on the whole people.” The magistrates and the cold and cynical historian himself thought that there was something preternatural here. But Jerusalem’s day of grace was past; happily Nineveh’s was not altogether gone; it was the eleventh hour indeed, yet there was time still for repentance. And the city knew the things which belonged to its peace. Critics have sought to throw discredit on the Book of Jonah, because of the physical miracle of the prophet’s preservation within the great fish which the book narrates. But it recounts a more wonderful miracle still--the moral miracle of the sudden and complete repentance of all Nineveh. In part, no doubt, the reason may be found in the superstitious bent and tendency of their minds. Like the ancient Athenians, they were very religious. They would listen eagerly to any word which purported to come from the unseen world. Then, too, they had heard of the God of Israel. They knew something of the marvellous deeds He had wrought on behalf of His people. They may have felt that, although He ruled over an alien race, it would be dangerous to disregard a message which reached them from Him. But Christ hints at a deeper cause for their penitence. They had learned in one way or in another the miraculous history of Jonah’s mission. He was “a sign” to them, our Lord affirms. They were aware that he had passed through death to a new life, in order that he might publish God’s word in their city; and his deliverance seemed to hold out a prospect of their deliverance, too, if like him they sought pardon and salvation ere it was too late. In this second part of the tale we read of two repentances--that of Nineveh and that of God; and the one is consequent on the other. God turns from the infliction of threatened punishment, because Nineveh turns from its sin. It is always so. Shallow minds have misunderstood these passages which tell us of God’s repenting. They have said, “Then He cannot be immutable; He must be fickle and unstedfast, of one mind to-day, of another mind to-morrow.” Why should there be such a discrepancy, they have asked, between His words and His deeds--between His announcement of a purpose of evil and His abstention from the execution of that purpose? The matter is mysterious; but of this we may be certain, that there is no caprice in our God. Nay, it is because He is unalterably the same, because His government is so uniformly righteous and just and true, that He must change His procedure toward men when their relation toward Him is changed. Righteousness and judgment are the foundation of His throne. If we abhor ourselves and repent in dust and ashes--if we sorrow over our disobedience with a godly sorrow--He will lose none of His consistency when He forgives us. He will remain a just God while He is a Saviour; rather, He will prove Himself a just God simply because He shows Himself a Saviour.
III. The third section of the history takes us back to Jonah. We should have supposed that, after the experience through which he had gone, he would never again murmur against God; but the old nature dies hard in all of us, even in the prophets and ministers of the Lord. Jonah, with that proud Hebrew heart within him, was utterly displeased at the result of his mission. He grew weary of life itself. He prayed Chat he might die. He built a little booth on the hills to the east of Nineveh, and sat under its shadow for forty days, still hoping for the worst--sat there, pitiless and revengeful, “till he might see what would become of the city.” And God was grieved that His child should be of such a mind, and should foster so carefully a spirit the very opposite of His own. He would cure him of this bitterness of soul. So He caused a wide-spreading plant--the Palma Christi, botanists call it--to spring up and cover with its refreshing shade the prophet’s booth, out there on the hot and parched hillside. But Jonah had scarcely commenced to rejoice in the welcome shelter when God sent some destructive insects against the tall and graceful Palmchrist, to strip it of its leaves and to make it pine away. Now was God’s opportunity. He spoke to His prophet, not angrily but yet most effectually. He asked him a significant question. “Thou couldst have pity on a short-lived plant,” He said, which cost thee nothing, which thou hadst not trained or watered; thou art displeased on account of its loss; and shall not I, who am Maker and King of all, have compassion on a great city full of souls that are ready to perish? “Are not these much better than the gourd?” And Jonah adds not a word more. He drops his pen when he has recorded God’s tender and pregnant reproof. It is a most impressive contrast which this Divine question draws between man’s pity and God’s. We think with kindliness of the objects of the natural world--of the flowers so blue and golden which are the stars in the firmament of the lower earth, of the trees which shelter us from the heat of the noonday sun. It is true that these flowers and trees have but a short life at the longest. It is true also that we did not call them into being of ourselves. We have not laboured for them, neither made them to grow. Yet we are interested in them. We love them after a true fashion. But God, while He forgets none of His works, is most deeply concerned about His human creatures. Jonah might sorrow over the gourd; Jonah’s Lord sorrowed over the souls of the Ninevites. It was but one; and they were many, “a whole cityful” of men and women and children. It had been sent to him without any thought or toil of his; but God had given them their being; they were His sons and daughters. He was their Father. Still, it is chiefly for souls like yours and mine, gifted with many great powers and with an undying life, that God yearns. Their redemption He accounts precious. To bring about their salvation He plans and pleads and strives. He has His richest joy when His children who were dead live again, and when the lost are found. And shall we not give Him this joy? Shall we not look unto Him and be saved? These, then, are the three parts of the Book of Jonah, The great difficulty in reference to the book is this: Is it historical? Is it a narrative of what actually happened? Or is it an allegory, a fable fraught with important meaning? The strange events which it describes--did they really occur, or had they an existence only in the mind of him who wrote them down? To me there is one reason which is sufficient to prove that these chapters are a true history. Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke of them as such. He declared that the imprisonment of the ancient prophet in the depths of the sea typified His own death and burial and resurrection. “As Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly,” He said, “so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The one event was symbolic of the other. And once again, He affirmed that the men of Nineveh condemned by their repentance the men of His own generation. But how could He have instituted such a comparison if Jonah had never passed through the streets and squares of the Assyrian city, startling its inhabitants from their lethargy by his terrible cry? Christ must have reckoned this Old Testament prophecy a reliable narrative of actual occurrences. The great lesson of the book is the lesson that God loves all men--Greek and Jew, Barbarian and Scythian, bond and free. The prophet did not think that it was so. With the spiritual pride--the grudging narrow-mindedness--of his people strong in his breast, he imagined that only the chosen race was dear to God. He did not dream that Nineveh could be great in His sight. “He sought the honour of Israel, the son,” an old rabbi said, “rather than the honour of Jehovah, the Father.” But he was taught the truth by little and little through the vicissitudes of his history. Let us believe it and rejoice in it. God would have all men to be saved. His love is infinite, like Himself. “In every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is accepted with Him.” Yes, and oar hearts will show likest His when they despair of none, and hold aloof from none, and seek and save all. That is the spirit inculcated upon us by the Gospel of the New Testament; but the Old Testament, too, is full of the rich, free, evangelical Gospel. It rings with the same music. (Original Secession Magazine.)
The Book of Jonah
One thing that strikes the careful reader of the Book of Jonah is its difference from the other books in the canon of Scripture among which it is classed, and in the midst of which it is placed. It does not consist of any connected series of prophetic discourses bearing upon the future of God’s kingdom and the nations of the earth, such as are found in the Books of Hosea and Amos; neither does it consist of one distinct prophecy, such as that contained in the Book of Obadiah, by which it is immediately preceded. It rather bears the character of a history of a special mission to a heathen city, which was laid upon one of the prophets. The biographical element in it is stronger than in other prophetic books, and surrounds it with a peculiar interest and attraction. This position in the canon of Scripture indicates the view taken of it by those who arranged it; and this view has, with very few exceptions, been adopted by both the Jewish and Christian Church. In discussing the book we may first state this view, and then deal with the objections which have been urged against it. In this old view there is embraced these four points--
1. That the facts it narrates possess a symbolico-typical meaning. If it had been only the record of events that happened to the prophet in the fulfilment of a divinely intrusted mission there could be no valid reason for its being placed among the prophetic books. It would have found a more fitting place in the historical books, where we have mention of one prophecy that was given through Jonah. It is in this connection that we have the record of remarkable incidents in the lives of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha. From its being found where it is, the Book of Jonah must have been regarded as a practical prophecy, and the facts which it narrates must have been viewed as invested with a symbolical and typical meaning. This is the character it has sustained in the opinion of the great majority of both Jewish and Christian interpreters. “The book is,” in the language of one who has well expressed this view,” in a great measure historical, but in such a manner that, in the history itself, there is hidden the mystery of the greatest prophecy, and that Jonah proves himself to be a true prophet by the events that happened to him not less than by his utterances.” It is easy to understand how those facts connected with Jonah’s mission to Nineveh bore against the exclusiveness and bigoted isolation in which the Jews shut themselves up. That there was mercy for the Gentile world was taught from the very first, for the promise to Abraham ran in these terms: “In thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” But Jonah was the first to teach it plainly and directly to the Jews, and it was taught himself by the wonderful incidents connected with his mission to Nineveh. But this is not all the teaching of the book according to common Christian interpretation. There was in this mission not only a prefiguring or foreshadowing of the time when mercy would be extended to the Gentile world, but also a prefiguring of the way in which this was to be brought about. When Jonah rebels against the communal to go to Nineveh, and seeks by flight to escape from the duties of his prophetic office, he is overtaken by a terrific storm. It is only allayed by his being thrown into the angry waves, and he remained entombed within a living grave beneath the waters for three days. After his resurrection from this living grave he goes to Nineveh, the inhabitants of which repent at his preaching and escape the threatened and impending judgment of God. In this there was a type of Christ’s burial and resurrection, the subsequent preaching of the Gospel among the nations, and the conversion of the Gentiles. According to this view, then, there is embodied in the facts narrated in the book a hidden prophecy of Christ’s work, the meaning of which was not made plain until He came.
2. Regarded in this light, the book has been received as historically true. It is in marvellous events which actually took place in the prophet’s own experience--and not in vision only--that the prophecy lies. Just as in the birth of Isaac, Samson and Samuel we have a foreshadowing of the miraculous birth of Christ: in the death of Abel, and the substitute for Isaac, there was prefigured Christ’s death. These typical events are all regarded as historical--as having transpired in the region of actual life, and not in the region of vision.
3. The position of this book in the canon indicates that it belongs to the earliest or Assyrian period of Scripture prophecy. In the collection of the minor prophets it is placed among those who prophesied during this period. Some have even thought that it was placed immediately after Obadiah, because Jonah was regarded as “the ambassador to the heathen” mentioned in his prophecy.
4. This assignation of the book to an early period was connected with the belief that Jonah himself was its author. Objection has been taken to its historical truthfulness, first, on the ground of the miraculous element contained in it. As might have been anticipated, it became a special object of attack on the part of those who sought to explain Scripture narratives on rationalistic principles and to eliminate from them the element of the supernatural Some at first were disposed to regard it as a Jewish adaptation of heathen legends about the deliverance of heroes from sea monsters. But it was soon perceived that this account of the story was an absurd one, and that there was not the slightest probability of its being derived either mediately or immediately from heathen fables. The likelihood is all the other way, if there is any connection at all between them. The fact that Jerome states that near Joppa lay rocks which were pointed out to him as those to which Andromache was bound when exposed to the sea monster gives some maintenance to the thought that the story of Jonah may have passed through Phoenicia in corrupted form to Greece. Modern rationalists incline to the view that it is simply a parable or tale designed to teach an important lesson. It is not regarded by them as a record of actual events, but simply as a parable or myth attached to a historical name by which are inculcated truths important for the age in which it was written. All miracles, either in actual event or in prophetical intimation, are taken out of it. The design of the book, which on this view must have been written long after the time of Jonah, was simply to teach Israel lessons that were being too much forgotten, and not to foreshadow or foretell any coming event. Ewald thinks that it was designed to show how the true fear of God and repentance bring salvation, first in the case of the heathen sailors, then in the case of Jonah, and lastly in the case of the Ninevites. Block conceives it to have been written by an intelligent liberal-minded Jew for the purpose of exposing the narrow religious particularism which prevailed among his countrymen. It was, as we have mentioned, the miraculous element in the book that, in the first instance, led to the adoption of this theory Not only does it record miracles, but, without an understanding of the prophet’s design, miracles of the most strange and startling description. It is a true principle that God never wastes His power--never works any miracles except for purposes worthy of Himself. But in this circumscribed view of the book there appears to be a useless expenditure of miraculous power. These lessons could surely have been taught without the prophet’s being required to pass through such wonderful experiences. Even to those who have no philosophical objections to miracles in themselves, the working of such miracles for this end can hardly but appear uncalled for and unnecessary. But when we view the book as essentially a practical prophecy designed to prefigure by typical events the burial and resurrection of Christ, and through this the opening of the gates of mercy to the Gentile world, there can be no difficulty on the part of any who believe miracles possible to accept those recorded here as true. No one will venture to say that Jonah’s preservation in the belly of the great fish, and his remarkable deliverance, viewed as charged with typical and prophetical meaning, was an unnecessary exhibition of Divine power. No one will venture to say either that the miraculous growth and miraculous destruction of the gourd was needless--if by it God’s mercy to the heathen world was vindicated, and its truth placed in the very forefront of the prophetic writings. Many have thought, not without reason, that in this book we have the oldest written prophecy, and that it is because this truth is so prominent here that it is so conspicuously exhibited in all subsequent prophetic writings. It gives the keynote to them all, and, as serving this purpose, the miracles recorded in it cannot be regarded as useless manifestations of supernatural power. The miracles themselves too have oftentimes been so presented as to make faith as difficult as possible. It is not everyone that can say that though it had been recorded that Jonah had swallowed the whale it would not have affected or shaken their faith in the story. Faith, though it may soar high above reason, cannot accept what plainly contradicts its teachings and exceeds the utmost bounds of possibility. Attempts have been made to show that it is altogether impossible for the whale--which is the fish spoken of by our Lord when referring to the sign of Jonas--to have accomplished the feat here ascribed to it unless some remarkable change had been affected upon its structure. Some have allowed these attempts to weigh so much with them that they have intensified the miracle by insisting either that this change was affected or that a special fish was created by God for the emergency. The miracle proper seems to have consisted in the preservation of Jonah in his living grave for three days, and then being vomited unhurt upon the land. The sudden growth and destruction of the gourd becomes, on closer examination, merely a supernatural quickening of the power of nature. But objections have been taken to the old view of the book, not only on the ground of its miraculous element, but also on the ground of its literary construction and features. It bears a resemblance to the myths or parables that spring up in the course of a nation’s literature and become attached to historical names. An example of this may be found in the tales which have gathered around our Saxon King Arthur, in the last development of which by Tennyson there is believed to be embodied moral and spiritual truth. Because of this resemblance this book is assigned to this class of literary production. On this view it must have been written as a parable with the design of rebuking the narrowness and exclusiveness of the Jewish people. The cause of its being connected with Jonah may have been some tradition of his having beau sent to Nineveh on an errand of mercy. In regard to this view of the book we may note, that were it thoroughly established it would not destroy its prophetic value. The parable, instead of the actual miraculous events, as in the old view, would become prophetic. It would teach the boundless mercy of God, by prefiguring the burial and resurrection of Christ, the subsequent calling of the Gentiles, and their reception into the kingdom of God. “It would be,” as has been said, “an epitome of prophecy, of the mediatorial work of Christ.” The difficulties in the way of accepting this new critical view seem to us many and insurmountable.
I. We cannot regard the argument from the literary construction of the books of the Bible and their resemblance to the literary works of other nations as very safe or conclusive. It may be quite valid and conclusive for those who accept the Bible simply as the growth of Hebrew literature--simply as the product of the national mind and consciousness in the various stages of its growth and decay; but not for those who accept it as a supernatural revelation of the God of the Hebrews. The supernatural element not only in narrative, experience, and prophecy, but also in the very composition itself, must be taken into account. This puts a vast difference between the literature of the nation of Israel, along the whole line of its history, and the literature of any other nation. It is a growth, but it is not the product of genius or mere piety. It is the result of a continued revelation and inspiration. To refer again to King Arthur, the growth of legends around his name has led many to question if he was a historical person at all, and we cannot believe that God would give countenance to anything that would tend to lead to this confusion. The employment of parables in itself is not wrong, for Christ Himself frequently took advantage of this mode of instruction. But it was always done by Him openly, and so that His hearers understood that His statements were parabolical. There was no difficulty in distinguishing between the parts of His teaching that were parabolical and those parts which were historical. He never attached any of His parables to historical names.
II. We may say that this new view of the book tends to shake our faith in other historical parts of Scripture. It bears a resemblance, both in its form and contents, to the narratives of remarkable incidents in the lives of Elijah and Elisha. If this be a parable, why may we not regard the others as possessing the same mythical character?
III. This book bears many marks of being authentic history. It is, indeed, fragmentary, and does not furnish us with full information on all points about which our curiosity is aroused. It does not tell us anything about Jonah’s life and labours previous to his call to go to Nineveh. It does not tell us anything about the spot where he was vomited by the fish upon the dry land, nor describe his journey to Nineveh; and some have seen in this evidence that it is not true history, but fable. “But,” as Keil has remarked, “the assertion that completeness in all external circumstances which would serve to gratify curiosity rather than help to an understanding of the true facts of the case, is indispensable to the truth of any historical narrative, is one which might expose the whole of the historical writings of antiquity to criticism, but can never shake their truths. There is not a single one of the ancient historians in whose works such completeness as this can be found; and still less do the Biblical historians aim at communicating such things as have no close connection with the main object of the narrative, or with the religious significance of the facts themselves.” This lack of detail in the narrative may also be accounted for by its prophetic character. It is not the design of the writer simply to give a historical account of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, but to present those incidents in connection with it which have a typical and prophetical signification. But while the narrative is by no means complete, there seems to us to be an unmistakable touch of reality in the experience of Jonah as here described. In the description of his feelings and conduct, when the call came to him to go to Nineveh; in his prayer in his wonderful grave; and in the record of his feelings and conduct under the unwished for and disappointing success of his mission, there is something so strange and yet so natural as to place them outside the domain of fiction. And when the narrative touches upon points on which any light can be thrown by the researches into antiquity, these researches have confirmed its truthfulness. The attempt to show from the statement in the third verse of the third chapter, “and Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey,” that the greatness of Nineveh was a thing of the past when the book was written, has been perfectly futile. The plain meaning of the words is, as granted even by the rationalistic critics themselves, that Nineveh was a city of vast dimensions when Jonah reached it, in the prosecution of his heaven-given mission. Its dimensions as thus indicated have been found to correspond with the description of ancient profane historians, and with recent examination of the ruins of this city. The command too, issued by the King of Assyria, in proclaiming a national fast to put sackcloth on the beasts and flocks and make them fast, is quite in accordance with the customs which are known to have prevailed in the ancient Persian Empire. The book thus bears traces of having been written by one who had seen Nineveh in its greatness and glory, and who had gained some acquaintance with its customs.
IV. We would simply mention that the book was received as historical by the Jews. The fact is indisputable, whatever weight may be attached to it in determining its literary character.
V. The book was regarded as historical by our Lord Himself. In this reference there is also established the reality of the marvellous circumstances attending the mission. He Speaks to us of Jonah’s being in the belly of the great fish as a sign, σημεῖον, a term which is often applied to His own miraculous deeds, in which, through deliverance from bodily diseases, was typified His great work of spiritual salvation. It was thus spoken of by Him as a real miracle, and designed by God to be a type of the still greater miracle of His own resurrection. And receiving the book as historical, the most likely author is Jonah himself. The objection against assigning it to so early a period because of the Aramaic colouring of its language has been so admirably dealt with by Dr. Payne Smith that we will conclude by quoting his answer to it. “This argument proves nothing; for scholars are not by any means agreed whether these Aramaisms belong or not to the declining age of Jewish literature, or whether they may not have been the patois or vernacular dialect of the country people. There is very much to make it probable that pure Hebrew was the language only of people of the highest caste, the kings and princes, the priests and prophets of Jerusalem, or at most of Judah; and that the mass of the people spoke Aramaic, or a debased Hebrew full of Aramaic words. Even with us many phrases which strike us as Americanisms are thoroughly good English forms, which, however, have not been used in literature, but belong to certain country districts where, if some poet had arisen, or writer of repute, they would, from his pages, have won their way into the language of scholars. Now, Jonah was of Gath-hepher, a village far away to the North in the tribe of Zabulon. If he had used no words except such as were employed by Isaiah, critics might with good reason have disputed the authenticity of the book. They might fairly have said, ‘This book was not written by a man brought up in the provinces, but by one of the literati of Jerusalem; some practised hand there has employed the legend of Jonah as a vehicle for much pleasing instruction, and has constructed out of it a very admirable allegory.’“ (R. Morton.)
Is the Book of Jonah true history?
Let us examine the question critically, but fairly: Was there ever such a man as Jonah? I answer, there is just as good evidence of his being a real personality as is found in the case of any other of the prophets; and if we assume him to be a mythical character we may as well make a like assumption respecting almost any other personality brought before us in the Old Testament. He is distinctly mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. Here he is mentioned in an incidental way (which is the most convincing); his father’s name is also given, and he is designated as “the prophet.” The identification is complete. He is also spoken of in Tobit, one of the apocryphal books, dating about 200 b.c. But far overtopping all other evidence, and in itself of sufficient force to settle any question whatever with those who accept the New Testament history and Christ’s commission as the Son of God, is what is recorded in Matthew 12:38-41, and also in Luke 11:29-32. Let the reader please notice that Christ does not say, “as Jonah was represented as,” etc., as if this book were a fictitious story. Neither does He refer to any moral lesson that this book might be intended to teach; but He simply refers to the facts recorded in the book. That Christ believed and accepted the genuineness and truthfulness of this history is too plain for argument. And was He mistaken in regard to it? If He did not know, what becomes of His Messiahship? Did Christ refer to some Munchausen fiction when He gave Jonah’s history to the generation in which He lived as an infallible sign of His Messiahship; and that He should rise from the dead on the third day? Are we to compare the whole teaching of the Gospel respecting Christ’s resurrection to Gulliver’s travels? That is just what Christ Himself did if there be only a wild piece of fiction in the Book of Jonah. As it was with Jonah, so shall it be with the Son of Man, says Christ. Whoever makes Jonah to be a dream makes the resurrection of Christ to be also a dream. I call attention to the form of introducing the book as being the same which is found in other books of the prophecies. For example, “the word of the Lord that came unto Hosea, the son of Beeri”; “the word of the Lord that came unto Joel, the son of Pethuel”; “the word of the Lord which came unto Zephaniah, the son of Cushi”; “the word of the Lord unto Zechariah, the son of Berechiah”; and so “the word of the Lord that came unto Jonah, the son of Amittai.” The writer of this book evidently intended that the reader should accept it as genuine history; and he is justly chargeable with intentional deception if it is not so. I may state further that the Jews always regarded this book as true history (Josephus, 9:11. sec. 2). And so the Christian Church has esteemed it such with great unanimity. One who spends hours and days in the catacombs of Rome sees the representation of this history on the walls many times repeated. I come in the next place to argue for the truth of this history from what it says about Nineveh. And this Book of Jonah has been illuminated and illustrated and substantiated by the discoveries of the nineteenth century, so that what sceptics used to say about it no one would think of saying now. They argued up to 1841 that there could not possibly have been such a city as is described in this book, because the historians and geographers (Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Ptolemy) made no mention of it, and certainly they would have spoken of it if there had been a city of three days’ journey around it; and one containing one hundred and twenty thousand infants who did not know their right hand from their left. So they said, Alexander would have found it and fought it. But what now? This city, after having been buried up for more than twenty-five hundred years, was discovered in 1841; and every competent judge knows now that it was as large as this book represents it. It might easily have contained more than one hundred and twenty thousand infants. Marvellous are the testimonies of these uncovered monuments at Nineveh; and only a small part, probably, of the whole is yet in our hands. But already Hiram, king of Tyre, 1000 b.c., is recognised in these records at Nineveh. Benhadad and Jehu, 900 b.c., Hezekiah, king of Judah, Sennacherib and Lachish reappear. Demonstrations of high civilisation but monumental wickedness abound. We understand now why the Greek historians and the Roman say nothing about great Nineveh. Simply because they knew nothing about it. For although it was spared more than one hundred and fifty years after Jonah’s day, it had been blotted out more than three hundred years before Alexander was born; more than two hundred years before Herodotus was born; nearly three hundred years before Xenophon was born; more than five hundred years before Ptolemy, Diodorus Siculus, or Strabo had learned their alphabet. It had been founded more than 2000 b.c. In Genesis 10:11 we read, “Out of that land went forth Asshur and builded Nineveh.” It was standing in the day of its greatest glory in Jonah’s time. It was finally destroyed about 713 b.c., in accordance with the terrible words of prophecy uttered by Nahum. For two years it was besieged by the Medes and Babylonians, and at that time was completely devastated. Herodotus passed over the site two hundred and fifty years later, but makes no mention of even any visible ruins. Neither does Xenophon. Is it incredible that Jonah should have been sent to such a city on such an errand of mercy? Is it incredible that he should have hesitated to undertake the mission? Is it incredible that he should have taken a ship for Joppa? He was born only sixty miles from that city, at Gath-hepher. Is it incredible that a storm should have overtaken him? It was in those same waters that Paul went through the trying experiences narrated in the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth chapters of Acts. Is there anything incredible in the account of the sailors praying to their respective gods? Is there anything incredible in a sea monster following a ship, ready to swallow a man if he should be thrown overboard? This story is often spoken of as the story of “Jonah and the whale,” but the Hebrew word “dagh” is one of wide import. Our translation in the Old Testament calls it “a great fish”; in the New Testament it is called a “whale.” Just five years ago in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, vouched for by the editors, was a communication from a sea captain, saying that it was a mistake to maintain that the “great fish” could not have been a whale; and he went on to say that he had no interest in defending Jonah, or in defending our New Testament translation; but in the interest of natural science and of simple truth he stated that, having been for some years the captain of a whaling vessel, he knew that the sperm-whale could easily swallow a man whole; that one member of his crew, weighing one hundred and seventy pounds, had repeatedly crawled through a whale’s throat (different whales at different times) as the throat lay on the deck of the ship. And then he proceeded to narrate a particular case of personal experience in which a man weighing one hundred and sixty-five pounds was one of his helpers; and one day they were in an exciting chase after some whales, when one of the boats was struck by one of the whales and the men were thrown out. All of them were successful in getting back into the boat save one, whom they missed on calling the roll after they had captured the monster they were pursuing. They gave him up for lost; but on cutting up the whale the next day they found him inside--unconscious, but alive. He was restored, and was still living, and was following his vocation at the time the captain wrote. Courbet, in Cosmos, of March 7, 1895, writes (and let the reader observe that this is not “a fish story” by a romancer, nor “a sailor’s yarn,” but the report of a scientific expedition; and such substantially are all the testimonies which I quote): “The discoveries of the Prince of Monaco were such as to relieve me of all difficulty in believing the Bible story that a whale swallowed Jonah.” A writer in the Academy of Sciences--M. Joubin--says: “A sperm whale can easily swallow an animal taller and heavier than a man.” And he adds: “The animals when swallowed can keep alive some time in the whale’s stomach.” Lyman Abbott is reported as stirring up the mirth of his congregation a while ago by alluding to the “half-digested man Jonah.” But if Lyman Abbott will study physiology a little he will learn that, although the gastric fluid is a remarkably powerful solvent, capable of dissolving many solid substances, yet it has no power whatever over living substances. And if he used a very little logic, superadded to his physiology, he would see that unless this were true the gastric fluid would at once assail the coats of the stomach itself, and render all animal life impossible. This is one of those wonderful proofs of the Divine wisdom in the working of living organisms. Jonah must first die before digestion could even begin. If we deny all miracles, then we must away with all revelation and all the supernatural. “But,” says one, “I am prepared to admit miracles wherever there is a justifying reason; but what reason is there here?” Think a moment; think a moment. Here was a wicked city going to destruction. God so loved them that He bade His servant give them warning; and when he obeyed the Divine voice the whole city was moved to turn away from their sins, and as a matter of history, prolonged their existence for the space of more than a hundred years. And no doubt Jonah’s wonderful experience proved to be as the mighty power of God in bringing about the result. What a preacher Jonah must have been after that living burial! The Lord knows when it is worth while to work a miracle; and a more satisfactory mason for one than is found in this history no man ought to ask. Jonah was worth saving; the Ninevites were worth saving; the one hundred and twenty thousand infants especially were worth saving. (E. B. Fairfield, D.D.)
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18