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Bible Commentaries

Ironside's Notes on Selected Books

Jonah 1

Verses 1-17

Notes on the History of Jonah


Among these so-called Minor Prophets, Jonah is the only one which, in the ordinary sense of the word, does not contain any prophecy at all, except his announcement of the threatened destruction of Nineveh within forty days, which was not fulfilled. Yet the book is distinctly prophetic, and as such is twice referred to by our Lord Jesus Christ. No spiritually-minded person can read it without discerning the fact that Jonah’s whole history, or at least that part of it here recorded for our instruction, is in itself a prophecy, setting forth, as it does, the course of Israel, of whom Jonah was a type, or picture, and likewise exhibiting beforehand the wondrous mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection.

Yet this truly sublime and heart-searching book has often been the butt of the ridicule of the worldly-wise rationalist and the puzzle of the un-spiritual religionist, who have never learned the importance of bowing to the authority of the Word of God. Time was when it was fashionable for men of science, themselves unconverted, to sneer at “Jonah’s whale” that could devour a man, on the ground that the anatomical “structure of the creature forbade such a supposition. But added light has revealed the fact that even if the Bible had declared the “prepared” fish to be a whale- which rightly read, it does not-still, the sperm whale, which in early ages frequented the Mediterranean, could have fully met the requirements of the case. Thus once more it transpires that rationalism is Irrational, and the Scriptures in every way worthy of credence.

No thoughtful and conscientious child of God could think of questioning the inspiration of a book upon which the Lord Jesus has set His seal in the particular way that He has on this one. Indeed, it is a significant fact that Deuteronomy, the last part of Isaiah, Daniel and Jonah have been preeminently the books that the critics have sought to dispute the genuineness of; and these four portions of the Word of God have been authenticated in a most remarkable way by Him who could not lie. He who knew all things quotes Deuteronomy as the very word of God when meeting Satan in the wilderness; and when He reads from “the great unknown” in the synagogue of Nazareth, He finds in the words of “Isaiah” the message of the Holy Ghost. In like manner He warns of the “abomination of desolation” spoken of “by Daniel the prophet,” and declares unhesitatingly that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites after having been in the belly of the great fish. How great is the blasphemy of those who, in the face of all this, sit in judgment on these solemn portions of the God-breathed Scriptures, and profess to be wiser than the Omniscient Himself!

Just when Jonah flourished we have no means of positively deciding. We learn that in the reign of Jeroboam the Second over Israel, a prophecy of Jonah’s was fulfilled; but whether it was made during Jeroboam’s lifetime or not, we are not informed. We are simply told 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 of Israel, which He spake by the hand of His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher” (2 Kings 14:25). But this, though it would seem to indicate that Jonah lived and prophesied at that time, does not necessarily prove it, as he might have uttered his prophecy at an earlier date, only to be then fulfilled. Either way, as God has not been pleased to state definitely the time of his birth and death, we can leave it as, for us, a matter of small moment. But the fact that he was born in Gath-hepher is of moment, refuting, as it does, the self-confident words of the Jewish doctors, “Search and look, for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.” Gath-hepher was in Galilee, and this is but an instance of how easy it is to carry the day by mere assumption, when disputing with those ignorant of Scripture, without proving one’s position by the Word of God. Needful it is to “prove all things,” holding fast only to that which is good.

Unquestionably the great theme of this book is the divine sovereignty. The expressions “The Lord prepared” and “God prepared,” frequently repeated, would manifest this. Throughout, however man may plan, and whatever he may attempt, it is God who is over all, and working all things in such a way as to bring glory to His own name.

With these few introductory thoughts, we turn directly to the record itself.

Chapter 1

The Unwelcome Message

Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me” (vers. 1, 2). This was a most unexpected and uncongenial mission for an Israelite to be sent upon. Like the nation for whom he stands, Jonah was called to be the bearer of a message from God to the Gentiles. Israel had been separated from the nations, not to dwell in a cold, formal exclusiveness, in utter indifference to the fate of the peoples about them, but to be a light in a dark world, making known the mind of God and manifesting the character of Jehovah to those who were sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. In Jonah’s subsequent history we see pictured their failure in this respect, and the disasters that came upon them because of that failure, as also the foreshadowing of the day when, restored and brought again into blessing, they will once more be entrusted with a commission from the Most High. For that Jonah was really restored in soul at the end, whatever the unhappy state portrayed here to the last, we can have no manner of doubt; as, evidently, he himself it is who narrates, for our learning, the experiences he had undergone; but the very manner of the relation of them manifests the fact that it is as a recovered and chastened man he does so. It would not be God’s way that he should dwell upon this side of things himself. He simply lets us know something of his own pride and self-will, and the manner taken by the Lord to humble and bring him into touch with Him once more.

For that it was pride and bigotry that was at the bottom of all his wilfulness and waywardness is clear enough. He knew that God was long-suffering, and that He delighted in mercy. He tells us that in the end. He therefore feared for his prophetic reputation; and his thoughts were so far from those of the Lord that he could not endure that grace should be shown to a Gentile power. He knew that of old Jehovah would have spared the cities of the plain had there been found but ten righteous. If Jehovah had so acted then, how could he depend upon His now pouring out His wrath upon Nineveh if its wicked inhabitants should bow to the word and fall before Him in repentance?

In all this, what a picture we have of the deceitfulness of the human heart, even in a saint of God! And how often have we had to reproach ourselves for the same evil propensities being allowed to act! How much easier is it to insist upon judgment of a brother, for instance, if he have in any way hurt or injured me, than if it be against others, or against God only, that he has sinned I My own reputation must be maintained at all cost, and I must be cleared of all imputation of blame, whatever it may mean to others! Have we not seen whole companies of the people of God thrown into sorrow and confusion in order that one self-willed man might have his way and be justified in his course?-let others suffer as they might. It is just the working of that same miserable pride of heart that is so strikingly portrayed for our admonition in the book before us.

Rather than go to these Gentiles, and risk his reputation, “Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (ver. 3). To get away from the pathway of obedience is invariably to go out from the presence of the Lord; that is, so far as the reality of it is concerned in one’s own soul. Actually, it would be impossible to get where the eye of God was not upon him; but in his own consciousness of communion and enjoyment, the moment that Jonah made up his mind to act in disobedience, he lost the sense of the Lord’s presence in his soul.

As he flees, what a lot of going down there is! He went down to Joppa; he went down into the ship; he went down into the sides of the ship: and in the next chapter he has to confess, “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains”- down till he could go no deeper, unless he had sunk into the pit of woe: but that could not be; for, whatever his failure, he was a child of God still and the Lord was about to restore him in a marvelous manner.

Oh, that we all might lay this to heart! The path of the one who acts in self-will is always a downward one, let the profession be what it may. One may boast of acting for God, and talk of having His approval; but if self is served instead of Christ, the feet will soon slide, and the steps will be down, down, down-till humbled and repentant, the soul turns back to God, and is ready to own the wrong of its behavior.

From the next few verses we learn that God loved His poor, failing servant too well to permit him to prosper as he took his foolish and sinful course. “The Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken” (ver. 4). God has begun to act. Now, let man try as he will, he will have to learn that all his power is as nothing when it is with the Almighty One that he has to contend.

All on the ship are at once aroused-at least all save the miserable man for whose sin the storm has come. He is sound asleep, having gone down into the sides of the ship-insensible to the anxiety and distress he has been the means of bringing upon so many others who had no share in his evil way. What a picture of one who has taken the first wrong step, and, though discipline has begun, is sleeping on in self-complacency, utterly unconscious of the fact that the hand of the Lord has been stretched out against him! This is the hardening through the deceitfulness of sin, concerning which the apostle warns us.

Awakened at last by the ignorant heathen shipmaster, who has exhausted every device known to him to appease the fancied wrath of his gods, Jonah is put to shame before them all. The earnest question, “What meanest thou, O sleeper?” followed by the rousing command, “Arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us that we perish not,” brings him to a realization of the terrible circumstances in which all are placed, but does not suffice to open his lips in confession. Accordingly, the sailors cast lots, and God deigns to use this means to” point out the guilty man. “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). “The lot fell upon Jonah.” But even then it is only in reply to the queries of the affrighted men that “he said unto them, I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.” On his part, the confession seems to have been coolly enough made. He knows that his case is desperate. His feelings are no doubt aroused; but there is no evidence as yet that conscience is really in exercise. He is like one who has hazarded all on a false expectation, and now finds that he must lose, and so determines to lose like a man, as people say, philosophically reminding himself that it cannot be helped.

The terrors of the heathen, when they realize the true state of affairs, might well have gone home to his conscience. “Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.” Even natural consciences will view with alarm what a backslidden child of God can survey with a measure of equanimity. This is the awful effect of trifling with God and grieving His Holy Spirit.

In desperation, seeing that all their efforts are unavailing, the mariners inquire of Jonah as to what they shall do, in order that the storm may cease. He accordingly directs them to throw him into the sea, owning that he knows the tempest was sent for his sake. Conscience is evidently rousing now, but to what extent it is hard to say. The men hesitate to carry out his word; but when at last all their efforts to bring the ship to land proved unavailing, they prepare to do as he has directed them. Crying to the Lord not to lay it to their charge, and owning that sovereignty which Jonah had virtually denied (“Thou, O Lord, hast done as it hath pleased Thee”), they took up Jonah and cast him into the sea. Immediately the waters became calm, and “the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows.” Dark and ignorant though they were, their hearts responded to the mercy of God who had thus granted them so signal a deliverance.

As for His unworthy servant, for him too there was mercy; but nevertheless government must have its way, though the final result shall be that God will magnify Himself in the deliverance and restoration of the wanderer. “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (ver. 17). Dispensationally, it is Israel who, because of their failure as God’s witnesses in the earth, have been cast into the sea of the Gentiles, but who, despite all their vicissitudes, have been marvelously preserved by the Lord, and are yet to become His testimony-bearers to the whole world.

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Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Jonah 1". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. 1914.