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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Jonah 1

Verses 1-3

Jonah’s commission and disobedience, Jonah 1:1-3.

Unlike the majority of the other Minor Prophets, the Book of Jonah has no formal title, Jonah 1:1 being an integral part of the narrative (compare Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 1:1).

Now Literally, And. The prophecy of Ezekiel and several of the historical books begin in the same manner. The occurrence of this “and” is one reason why the Book of Jonah has been considered an extract from a larger book (see p. 331), the beginning of which is omitted. The exact force of “and” is not clear, but the above conclusion is warranted no more in this case than it would be in the case of Ezekiel.

Word of Jehovah See on Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1.

Came How, is not stated.

Jonah the son of Amittai See p. 311. 2. The commission.

Nineveh One of the chief cities of the Assyrian empire. It is mentioned as early as 2700 B.C. in the inscriptions of Gudea of Lagas. So far as we know, it became a royal residence about 1100 B.C., and it continued to be such until the reign of Ashur-nasir-pal (about 880 B.C.), when Calah was rebuilt. It resumed its chief place under Sennacherib (705-681), and for nearly a century its glory and magnificence continued, until it was destroyed in 607-606 (compare the prophecy of Nahum). Its ruins consist chiefly of two great mounds, Kouyunjik and Nebi Yunus, on the eastern shore of the Tigris, north of the greater Zab, opposite the modern town of Mosul.

Great In size and power (see on Jonah 3:3; compare Jonah 3:2; Jonah 4:11).

Cry against Implies that his message is to be one of judgment (chapters 3, 4).

Their wickedness is come up before me Their iniquity is so great that tidings of it have reached even to heaven, the dwelling place of Jehovah (Genesis 18:21; 1 Samuel 5:12). He can endure it no longer.

Verses 1-6


Jonah, the son of Amittai, is commissioned by Jehovah to preach to the Ninevites (Jonah 1:1-2); he disobeys and embarks on a vessel sailing in the opposite direction (Jonah 1:3). A severe tempest arises which threatens to destroy the vessel; to save it the sailors cast the cargo overboard (Jonah 1:4-5).

The captain appeals to Jonah to pray to his God for help (Jonah 1:6). When the tempest continues the sailors decide to find out by lot on whose account the calamity has befallen them. The lot falls on Jonah (Jonah 1:7). On inquiry he tells that he is a servant of Jehovah (Jonah 1:8-9). The information fills them with fear, but when no relief comes they finally cast him overboard (Jonah 1:10-15). The sea becomes calm, and the sailors worship Jehovah (Jonah 1:16).

Verse 3

3. Jonah proceeds on his journey, but in the opposite direction.

Tarshish This city has been identified with Tarsus in Cilicia, the home of the apostle Paul; but it should be identified with Tartessus, a Phoenician colony in southwest Spain, not far from Gibraltar. Nineveh was in the far east, Tarshish appears to have been the most distant city toward the west then known. The author evidently desires to represent Jonah as attempting to get away from his mission as far as possible.

From the presence of Jehovah The prophet is anxious to get out of God’s sight, lest God, seeing him, might be reminded of the commission imposed. The motive leading to the flight is indicated in Jonah 4:2. The expression goes back to a time when it was actually thought that removal from the land of the Hebrews was removal from the presence of Jehovah (1 Samuel 26:19; compare Daniel 6:10). At the time when the Book of Jonah was written the phrase had lost its older, primitive significance, for the omnipresence of Jehovah had long been recognized (see Amos, p. 207). Nevertheless, it continued to be used in a figurative sense.

Joppa One of the harbors on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, which from ancient times has served as a seaport of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 2:16; Ezra 3:7). It is still a flourishing town; Cheyne says ( Encyclopaedia Biblica) that its population was estimated in 1897 at over thirty-five thousand; but Mackie (Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible) estimates its population at “about eight thousand.” The present name of the city is Yafa, Eng. Jaffa. The city is the western terminus of the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway. There Jonah found a ship which was ready to sail; he paid the fare and set out for Tarshish; but Jehovah overtook him.

Verses 4-5

Jonah’s punishment, Jonah 1:4-16.

4, 5. Great wind… mighty tempest Two synonymous expressions. The statement is repeated to indicate the fierceness of the tempest.

Jehovah sent out Literally, hurled (Jonah 1:5; Jonah 1:12; Jonah 1:15). The verb is used of the casting of the spear (1 Samuel 18:11; 1 Samuel 20:33). The tempest was the weapon of the divine wrath (see on Amos 3:6; also concluding remarks on Amos 4:6-11).

Was like to be broken Literally, was thought to be broken. Its destruction was almost in sight. G.A. Smith, “threatened to break up.” A storm of this character would strike terror everywhere. The sailors sought relief (1) by appealing to their gods, and (2) by casting overboard everything that could be spared.

Every man unto his god There were probably few Jewish sailors or passengers. The crew was made up, undoubtedly, very largely of Phoenicians, and may have included representatives of other nations, who were worshipers of different deities; besides, the ship may have carried passengers from various cities and peoples. However reckless at other times, the danger drove them to their knees. Compare Shakespeare ( The Tempest, 1: 1), “All lost! to prayers, to prayers! all lost!’

Wares Whether this means the furniture (Acts 27:19), or the cargo (Acts 27:38), or both, is not known; nor is the nature of the cargo indicated. Some have supposed that it was a corn ship, as in the case of Paul.

To lighten it of them Better, R.V., “to lighten it unto them”; literally, from upon them. Not, to lighten the ship, but their distress; to remove it as if it were a burden (Exodus 18:22).

Meanwhile Jonah seems to be unaware of the danger.

Was gone down Perhaps before the storm broke out, so that he was unconscious of it.

Into the sides R.V., “innermost parts” (as in Amos 6:10); here perhaps the lowest part of the ship.

Fast asleep Some have explained this as a sign of a troubled conscience that Jonah had thrown himself down to forget, and thus to escape the danger and the hand of God; or, that, utterly exhausted by the mental struggle and the realization of the danger, he had fallen asleep: “Troubled with the gnawings of conscience and overpowered with mourning, he had sought comfort in sleep and fallen into a deep sleep.” On the other hand, Jerome regards it as an indication of a calm mind; the others, who know not Jehovah, are seriously troubled, but the prophet feels so secure even in the midst of the storm that he calmly sleeps on. That the sleep is an indication of calmness of mind is probably true; but the feeling of security was due not to confidence in Jehovah, but rather to the belief that he had succeeded in escaping “the presence of Jehovah.” The sleep of Jonah has been frequently compared with that of Jesus in a severe storm (Mark 4:35-41); but what a difference in the frame of mind that made possible the sleep! Jesus was calm in the assurance that God’s protecting care was over him; Jonah, because he thought he was outside the reach of Jehovah.

Verse 6

6. The very fact that Jonah remained sound asleep and did not join the others in their frantic efforts to relieve the situation would direct attention to him and arouse suspicion.

Shipmaster Literally, the chief of the handlers of the ropes (Ezekiel 27:8; Ezekiel 27:27-29); the captain.

What meanest thou, O sleeper? How can any man sleep, with doom so imminent?

Call upon thy God The gods implored by the others had failed to still the tempest; perhaps the God of Jonah can bring relief.

If so be Perhaps.

God Literally, the God. “It is not clear that the speaker identified Jonah’s God with the God… Perhaps all that the shipmaster meant was, that, if they all called, each man upon his god, the fruit of their piety might perhaps be that God, whatever god was the God, would spare their lives.” Only later events led the men to identify Jonah’s God, Jehovah, with the God.

Will think upon us Literally, will bethink himself for us that is, for our benefit. An anthropomorphism (see on repent, Joel 2:13). The above is a possible translation of the verb, but Cheyne proposes to substitute a slightly different verb, used, in the same sense, in Psalms 40:17. Some translate the present verb “will brighten,” or “shine upon us” that is, will show himself favorable to us. The thought remains the same.

Whether Jonah arose and followed the advice of the captain is not stated; probably he did, but in vain, for the storm continued. 7. There could no longer be any doubt that a desperate sinner was on board, on whose account the calamity had fallen (see concluding remarks on Amos 4:6-11; compare Joshua 7:1 ff.; 1 Samuel 14:36-46). If he could be discovered and removed from their midst the divine wrath might cease; hence they proceed to discover the guilty.

Cast lots Only a deity could reveal the culprit; therefore appeal was made to the deity by the casting of the lots, which was an ancient method of determining the will of a god (Ezekiel 21:21). It is used even in the New Testament (Acts 1:26), but not again after Pentecost.

For whose cause On whose account.

The lot fell upon Jonah Jerome’s comment on these words is worthy of quotation: “The fugitive is taken by lot, not from any virtue in lots themselves, least of all the lots of the heathen, but by the will of Him who governs uncertain lots” (Joshua 7:18; 1 Samuel 14:42).

Verses 8-9

8. The case seemed clear against Jonah. The sailors, however, do not condemn him unheard; they give him an opportunity to clear himself, if possible.

For whose cause this evil is upon us As in Jonah 1:7. After the decision by lot there could remain no question in the minds of the sailors as to the cause of the calamity. The only ground for putting the question to Jonah could be a desire to secure a confession from him. It should be noted, however, that LXX., B and several Hebrew manuscripts omit this question, and it may not be original.

The four questions which follow, and which are flung at the prophet in rapid succession, deal with his occupation, his home, and his nationality.

Occupation His occupation might possibly be offensive to the god of the tempest.

Whence City or town. The prophet’s home or people might be under a divine curse. The mystery could be cleared only by his answers. 9. Only the answer to the fourth question is stated; but Jonah 1:10 indicates that his reply was even more complete than they had requested; and it is quite possible that Jonah made a full confession. It seems that the rapid succession of startling events brought him to his senses, for throughout the rest of the chapter his bearing is pictured as dignified and manly; but it is a little too much to see in this change of attitude an evidence of conversion (compare especially chapter iv).

Hebrew The name used by the descendants of Abraham when speaking of themselves to foreigners (Genesis 40:15; Exodus 2:7; Exodus 3:18, etc.).

I fear Jehovah Not, I am afraid of, but, I am a worshiper of. He thus boldly acknowledges himself to be a servant of Jehovah; but there is no intention, as some have supposed, of claiming special piety or feigning innocence.

God of heaven A title of Jehovah indicating his supreme majesty; found chiefly in postexilic writings (Ezra 1:2; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 2:18, etc.).

Made the sea and the dry land He is the creator. What folly to attempt to escape from the presence of such a God (Jonah 1:3).

Verses 10-11

10. The words of Jonah recorded in Jonah 1:9 would be sufficient to create fear and restlessness; but if the closing words of Jonah 1:10 are original, Jonah made known his attempt to flee from this God of heaven and earth. No wonder they were “sore afraid”; for the attempt to escape from the supreme God is the climax of crime and the height of folly.

Why hast thou done this? R.V., “What is this that thou hast done?” Not a question of inquiry, but an exclamation of astonishment and indignation at his crime and folly.

The men knew that he fled While the presence of Jonah in the boat and the storm viewed in the light of the confession in Jonah 1:9 might have been sufficient to lead the sailors to suppose that they had before them a fugitive from the presence of Jehovah, there seems insufficient reason for questioning the originality of the closing words of Jonah 1:10, which state that the prophet informed the men of his attempt. 11.

What shall we do Though terror struck, the sailors are ready to deal with Jonah, who alone was responsible for their plight, in all fairness. Something must be done, but they are willing to receive any suggestion as to the proper course to pursue.

Unto us Literally, from upon us, that is, so that it may cease from rushing upon us like an enemy (Jonah 1:5).

The sea wrought, and was tempestuous R.V., “the sea grew more and more tempestuous”; literally, was ( is) going on and was ( is) being tempestuous. A peculiar Hebrew idiom, which is rightly reproduced in R.V. (compare Genesis 8:3; 1 Samuel 2:26; 2 Samuel 3:1). The words may be interpreted as the utterance of the sailors, giving the reason for their anxious appeal to him; it is high time that something should be done, since the raging of the sea is constantly increasing.

Verse 12

12. Cast me forth Jonah meets them frankly. He has learned that his attempt to flee from the presence of Jehovah is a failure; that he alone is responsible for the divine wrath which has caused the tempest; and that the only way to remove the danger is to get rid of him. Hence he is willing to suffer the consequences of his rashness and disobedience.

Verses 13-14

13. The men rowed hard Literally, broke through. They tried to break through the waves (Amos 9:2). The manly attitude of Jonah may have aroused the sympathy of the sailors; they did their best to save him, but in vain. The tempest only increased in fury. 14. When all efforts failed they finally decided to cast Jonah overboard, but first they prayed to Jonah’s God that he would not hold them guilty of murder.

They cried unto Jehovah Jonah, as the worshiper of Jehovah, was under the latter’s protection. He might avenge any injury done to his prophet. Against this divine vengeance they sought to protect themselves.

For this man’s life Which is about to be destroyed (Deuteronomy 19:21; 2 Samuel 14:7).

Lay not upon us innocent blood These words do not imply that they considered Jonah innocent, and they do not mean that they prayed Jehovah to interfere so that they might not be compelled to destroy the life of an innocent man. The casting of the lot had settled the question of Jonah’s guilt; but they, with other ancients, believed that a deity might act arbitrarily, and were afraid that, after they had thrown Jonah overboard, Jehovah might impute his death upon them as blood-guiltiness (Deuteronomy 21:8), as if he were an innocent man, and thus demand their death in turn.

Thou… hast done as it pleased thee In sending the storm and in overruling the lot. In casting Jonah overboard they were only carrying out the divine pleasure as revealed in the acts of the divine providence.

Verses 15-16

15, 16. The prayer ended, they cast Jonah out, and immediately the sea grew calm.

The men feared Jehovah exceedingly The sudden cessation of the tempest was unfailing evidence that the God of Jonah was the God (Mark 4:41). In his presence they were utterly helpless, and they were still more afraid (Jonah 1:10).

Offered a sacrifice Immediately. Partly to express their gratitude and partly to receive the good will and favor of Jehovah.

Made vows The things which they might consider necessary for suitable sacrifices to this powerful God may have been scanty on the ship, therefore, they promise that on the safe completion of the voyage they will bring additional and richer gifts. Nothing more is heard of the sailors.

Verse 17

JONAH’S WONDERFUL DELIVERANCE, Jonah 1:17 to Jonah 2:10 (in Hebrew, Jonah 2:1-10).

The deliverance of Jonah is recorded in Jonah 1:17; Jonah 2:10. Jehovah prepared a great fish, which swallowed Jonah. After he had been in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights he was, at the divine command, cast upon the dry land. Jonah 2:1-9, contains a poem, a prayer which Jonah is said to have offered from the belly of the fish. If so, one would expect it to be a petition; in reality it is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the deliverance already wrought. This peculiarity has been explained either by assuming that it was spoken by Jonah after he was vomited out by the fish, and that its proper place is after Jonah 2:10; or that it is a song of thanksgiving uttered in the fish’s belly when the prophet discovered that he was preserved alive. This preservation he regarded as a pledge of final deliverance, and for it he praised God in anticipation (see Introduction, p. 337).

Prepared The verb does not mean “created,” as if Jehovah had created the fish for this special purpose, but “ordain” or “appoint.” Jehovah appointed some great fish, already in existence, to swallow Jonah. “By God’s immediate direction it was so arranged that the very moment when Jonah was thrown into the waves the ‘great fish’ was on the spot to receive him.”

Great fish This is the literal translation. Nothing is said of the species of the fish; but for a long time the popular idea has been that it was a whale. Against this identification it has been urged that the whale is not found in the Mediterranean, and that he has such a small gullet that he could not swallow a man. However, of the existence of whales in the Mediterranean there can be no doubt, and, while the gullet of the common whale is not large enough to let a man pass through whole, there are whales that would not have this difficulty; and of these the great spermaceti whale is said to wander sometimes into the Mediterranean. Most commentators, however, who interpret the narrative literally, identify the “great fish” with the shark. The latter is not uncommon in the Mediterranean. G.E. Post says that he saw one at Beirut twenty feet long; and this fish would have no difficulty in swallowing a man. To illustrate the capacity of the shark it has become customary to call attention to the following incident: “In 1758 in stormy weather a sailor fell overboard from a frigate in the Mediterranean. A shark was close by, which, as he was swimming and crying for help, took him in his wide throat, so that he forthwith disappeared. Other sailors had leaped into the sloop to help their comrade, while yet swimming; the captain had a gun which stood on the deck discharged at the fish, which struck it so that it cast out the sailor which it had in its throat, who was then taken up, alive and little injured, by the sloop which had now come up.” From this and similar incidents it would seem that there are fish that might swallow a man whole; though it would be remarkable for him to remain alive and uninjured.

Three days and three nights Whether this is interpreted as meaning three full days and full nights, or simply “a space of time reaching backward and forward beyond twenty four hours” (Matthew 12:40), is of little consequence; according to all natural laws it would be impossible for any man to remain alive for any considerable length of time in the belly of a fish (see Luther’s words quoted on p. 325). Only by direct, divine, miraculous interference could Jonah be kept alive. At the end of this period the fish, at the divine command, vomited out Jonah.

Dry land Where, is not stated. The author probably intended it to be understood that the fish carried Jonah back to the place from which he had embarked. The traditional site of the ejection of the prophet is near Sidon.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Jonah 1". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.