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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

- Jonah

by Daniel Whedon



The Prophet.

THE events recorded in the Book of Jonah center around Jonah, the son of Amittai (Jonah 1:1). A prophet bearing the same name is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, and since the two names are found nowhere else in the Old Testament it is exceedingly probable that the Jonah of 2 Kings 14:25, and the hero of this little book are identical. According to the passage in Kings, Jonah prophesied in the northern kingdom previous to the conquests achieved by Jeroboam II, which would make him a predecessor of Amos and Hosea. In addition we learn that he came from Gath-hepher, which was a village on the border of Zebulun and Naphtali, near Japhia and Rimmon (Joshua 19:12-13), a place commonly identified with the modern village of el-Meshhed. Here may be seen one of the numerous tombs of Jonah, and the natives, both Christians and Mohammedans, regard this as the home of the prophet. Their belief finds support in ancient Jewish and Christian traditions. Jerome, for example, states that the home and tomb of Jonah were shown two miles from Sepphoris on the road to Tiberias. Sepphoris is identified with the modern Seffurieh, a village about two and one half miles from el-Meshhed.

Of the personal life of Jonah nothing is known except what is recorded in the book bearing his name and in 2 Kings 14:25. (On the historical value of the book see pp. 314ff.; 338ff.) Some modern commentators, following the suggestion of Hitzig, have thought that Jonah is the author of Isaiah 15:1 to Isaiah 16:12, of which Isaiah says that it was spoken in time past, or at least of the prophecy underlying the two chapters, but this is mere assumption and is not probable. That numerous traditions and legends concerning Jonah should grow up among the post-biblical Jews is not surprising, in view of the peculiar character of the Book of Jonah, but these legends are of little or no importance in our study.

The Book of Jonah.

1 . Contents. The Book of Jonah narrates certain incidents connected with the prophet’s commission to preach in Nineveh. It opens with an account of the commission of Jonah (Jonah 1:1-2). Jonah, unwilling to obey, decided to flee “from the presence of Jehovah”; he went to Joppa and embarked for Tarshish, in Spain (Jonah 1:3). Soon a great tempest arose, which threatened to destroy the ship (Jonah 1:4). The terrified sailors attempted to save the vessel, but the danger only increased (5a). Meanwhile Jonah was asleep; he was finally aroused by the captain, who implored him to pray to his God for help. This he did, but no relief came (Jonah 1:5 b, Jonah 1:6). Then the sailors, convinced that the storm was due to the anger of a deity against some one on board, decided to discover the guilty one by casting the lot. It fell upon Jonah, who then made a confession and urged them to cast him overboard (Jonah 1:7-12). At first they hesitated, but finally they cast him out, and immediately the sea “ceased from its raging” (Jonah 1:13-15). As a result the men recognized that the God of Jonah was the God, and to him they offered sacrifice (Jonah 1:16).

Jonah did not perish, for a “big fish” swallowed him, in whose belly he remained for three days (Jonah 1:17); at the end of that period he was cast forth “upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). While in the fish’s belly he offered a prayer consisting of thanksgiving for deliverance wrought and a promise forever to remain loyal to his God because “salvation is of Jehovah” (Jonah 2:1-9).

After this wonderful deliverance the command to go to Nineveh was repeated, and this time the prophet obeyed. Having found a suitable place in the city, he delivered the message, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:1-4). The effect of the preaching was immediate; king and people turned to Jehovah in sorrow and repentance, whereupon Jehovah determined to withhold the threatened judgment (Jonah 3:5-10).

This displeased Jonah, and he complained bitterly because Jehovah showed mercy to the Ninevites; and finally he prayed that Jehovah should take his life (Jonah 4:1-3). Jehovah rebuked him gently and afterward taught him by the miraculous growth and destruction of a “gourd” the absurdity of his complaint and the justice of the divine mercy (Jonah 4:4-11).

2 . Outline.


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

2. The discovery of Jonah’s guilt Jonah 1:4-10

3. Jonah’s punishment Jonah 1:11-16


1. Jonah, preserved in a fish’s belly, reaches dry land Jonah 1:17; Jonah 2:10

2. Jonah’s prayer Jonah 2:1-9


1. Jonah’s second commission and preachingJonah 3:1-4; Jonah 3:1-4

2. The repentance of the Ninevites Jonah 3:5-9

3. The withholding of the judgment Jonah 3:10


1. Jonah’s displeasure and prayer for immediate death Jonah 4:1-3

2. Jehovah’s remonstrance Jonah 4:4

3. Rebuke of Jonah’s narrowness and justification of the divine mercy Jonah 4:5-11

Interpretation of the Book.

The Book of Jonah is unlike any other prophetic book in the Old Testament canon. All the others record chiefly prophetic utterances, though sometimes embodying brief narratives of events; this book records a prophet’s work and experiences, giving little space to his utterances. The Book of Daniel does not come into consideration here, since it is an apocalyptic and not a prophetic book in the narrower sense of that term. In some respects the Book of Jonah is unlike any other book in the entire Old Testament. It is unquestionably, as a Jewish tradition says, a book by itself. This being so, it cannot be thought strange that the most widely diverging views have been held concerning it.

For convenience’ sake the various interpretations of the book may be divided into two classes: 1. The interpretation that views it as a true history of actual events. 2. The interpretations there are several that consider the purpose of the book to be primarily didactic, without intending to record actual history. Though interpreters belonging to the second class are constantly increasing in numbers, there have been even within recent years those who have insisted very strongly on the historical character of the book. Among scholars of a generation ago Pusey and Keil defended the historical interpretation so ably that more recent writers have added little or nothing to their arguments. Of the two, Keil presents the arguments in a more systematic manner, and his outline may be followed here to indicate the grounds upon which the historical interpretation rests.

Before passing to these arguments it may be noted that the use of parables by Jesus forbids the a priori denial of the presence in the Old Testament of a didactic book which is not history. It is well also to bear in mind in this connection that the Old Testament itself is rich in symbolism, especially when speaking of the exile. Attention is called again to this fact in discussing the teaching of the book (p. 330); however, it may not be amiss to mention here one or two of such passages. The vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37:0, one of the most sublime chapters in the Old Testament, is a symbolical representation of the restoration from exile (compare verse 12). An even closer, indeed a remarkably close, parallel to the picture of Jonah in the fish’s belly and of his deliverance is presented by the prophet Jeremiah: “Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon hath devoured me, he hath crushed me, he hath made me an empty vessel, he hath, like a monster, swallowed me up, he hath filled his maw with my delicacies; he hath cast me out” (Jeremiah 51:34). And again in verse 44: “And I will execute judgment upon Bel in Babylon, and I will bring forth out of his mouth that which he hath swallowed.” If the Book of Jonah were regarded as a symbolical representation of the exile and the restoration, how natural it would sound as an expansion of this vivid picture of Jeremiah (see further p. 330).

Keil says concerning the book: “Its contents are neither pure fiction, allegory, nor myth; nor yet a prophetic legend, wrought up poetically with a moral and didactic aim, embellished into a miraculous story, and mingled with mythical elements; but with all its miracles it is to be taken as a true history of deep prophetico-symbolic and typical significance.” In support of this position he advances the following reasons: 1. Traditions handed down both among Jews and among Christians agree in interpreting the book historically. 2. The many historical and geographical statements in the book are of a genuine historical character. For example, the mission of Jonah is in perfect keeping with the historical relations of his time; the description of the greatness of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3) is in harmony with the statements of the classical writers; its deep moral corruption is testified to by Nab. Jonah 3:1; Zephaniah 2:13 ff.; and the mourning of man and beast (Jonah 3:5-8) is confirmed as an Asiatic custom by Herodotus (9:24).

3 . The fundamental thought of the book, that Jehovah would show mercy even to the heathen if they repented (Jonah 3:10; Jonah 4:10), excludes everything fictitious; the psychologically truthful delineation of the personality of the prophet, of the mariners, and of the Ninevites favors an historical interpretation. 4. The position of the book among the prophetical writings points in the same direction. “Had the collector of the canon not believed in the historical truth of this fact, had he beheld only religious truths in the garb of an allegory or fable in this book, why did he not place it among the Hagiographa?” 5. The historical character of the book is raised above all doubts by the utterances of the Lord in Matthew 12:39 ff; Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:29-32, which at the same time throw light upon the prophetico-typical character of the prophetic mission. 6. The origin, contents, and tendency of the book become incomprehensible as soon as we reject the historical character of the narrative. 7. The objections raised by the opponents of the historical view rest partly upon an unjustifiable denial of the miraculous, partly on misunderstandings, unfounded assumptions, and untenable assertions.

To a superficial observer these arguments may appear overwhelming; but if they were so it would seem very strange that so many modern interpreters have remained unconvinced, that very few, if any, experts in Old Testament study to-day hold the historical view. It may be well, therefore, to consider these arguments briefly:

1. That the post-Old Testament Jewish writings, such as Tobit, 3 Maccabees, Josephus, Philo, and the Talmud considered the narrative of the book of Jonah as literal history may be readily admitted; and it is equally true that the historical view was commonly accepted by the early church fathers; but this fact is far from proving the historical character of the book, for Jewish traditions have been found very frequently to be unreliable, and it is universally admitted that in no case can their testimony be accepted as final. Early Christian traditions concerning Old Testament subjects have little or no independent value, since most of them were taken over bodily from the Jews without any inquiry into their accuracy or reliability. At the most, these traditions may serve as starting points in investigations, but they cannot be adhered to in the presence of legitimate contradictory evidence.

2. The phenomena mentioned under the second head are more weighty; but are they conclusive? That a Hebrew prophet might have visited Nineveh about 770 B.C. is undoubtedly true, but the possibility of such a visit by no means proves that it was actually made, or that all the events recorded in the Book of Jonah are historical. It is not quite accurate to say that the size of Nineveh as given in Jonah 3:3, is in accordance with the statements of classical authors; nor does it seem to be in accord with modern research (see on Jonah 3:3). Koenig, a very cautious scholar, says that “the diameter of even the fourfold city (Genesis 10:11) was not equal to a three days’ journey”; and he quotes Friedrich Delitzsch as saying, “The length of the road from Kouyunjik to Nimroud is only some twenty English miles.” Similarly, the fact that the moral condition of Nineveh is described accurately, or that the writer is acquainted with ancient Asiatic customs is far from demonstrating that the whole book is intended to be historical narrative. Modern novels frequently embody accurate descriptions of moral conditions prevailing at a certain period, yet no one would claim that, for this reason, they must be accepted as historical throughout (compare Quo Vadis).

3. Why the fundamental idea of the book should exclude everything fictitious even in the external form cannot easily be seen. The use of parables by Jesus as a means of instruction indicates that the sublimest religious truths may be taught in the literary form of fiction. It is generally recognized that Shakespeare gives in his works “psychologically truthful” delineations of human nature; does it necessarily follow that his plays are historical in every detail?

4. With reference to the fourth point, C.H.H. Wright, who is exceedingly conservative and cautious, says, “If the book had been regarded as an historical narrative when the Hebrew canon was arranged, it would scarcely have been inserted among the prophetical books, or have been placed among them in the order in which it now stands.”

5. The references of Jesus appear to some to decide the question finally in favor of the historical interpretation; on the other hand, there are devout Christian scholars who believe that the references of Jesus are in perfect accord with the didactic interpretation of the book. Many of the latter would be perfectly willing to accept the testimony of Jesus as final even in this purely literary question, if it could be shown that he gave or intended to give any decision affecting the point under consideration; but since they can find no indication, direct or indirect, of any such desire or purpose on the part of Jesus they consider the question one that must be determined by scientific investigation. Of the verses mentioned, Matthew 12:40, is thought by many not to be an original part of Jesus’s utterance; but even granting that it is original, do the words of Jesus prove conclusively that the Book of Jonah is an historical book? The question is not whether the words may not be interpreted as implying an historical view this may be readily admitted; this admission, however, leaves the question open, to be decided finally on other grounds. The question is rather, whether or not the words of Jesus do “raise above all doubt the historical character of the book.” There are those who insist that they do, and who consider any other view a sure indication of infidelity and hostility to the Christian faith. “Our Lord says, ‘Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly,’ and no one who really believes him dare think that he was not” (Pusey). On the other hand, there are those equally devout and pious who in all sincerity believe that the question is not settled and was never intended to be settled by the utterances of Jesus. Says C.H.H. Wright: “The New Testament references decide nothing except that the book is in some way or other a book of prophecy. Consequently the question whether the book is also historical must be decided from internal evidence alone.” Even Von Orelli admits, “It is not, indeed, proved with conclusive necessity that, if the resurrection of Jesus was a physical fact, Jonah’s abode in the belly of the fish must also be just as historical.” The present writer indorses most heartily the admirable statement of Dean Farrar: “If it could be shown that Jesus intended by these words to stamp the story as literally true, every Christian would at once, and as a matter of course, accept it. But this is an assumption, and it is a bad form of uncharitableness to adopt the tone of those commentators who charge their opponents with setting aside the authority of Christ. Seeing that our Lord so largely adopted the method of moral allegory in his own parabolic teaching seeing that it was part of his habit to embody truth in tales which were not literal facts, but were only told to fix deep spiritual lessons in the minds of the hearers nothing is more possible than that he should have pointed to the deep symbolism of an Old Testament parable without at all intending to imply that the facts actually happened.” The scribes and Pharisees had come to Jesus asking for a sign; he refused to give it, and declared that they already had a sign before them, his own preaching, and that one supreme sign should be given, “the Son of man shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The prediction of the resurrection is the essential point; the reference to Jonah is only by way of illustration. For purposes of illustration it is of no consequence whether he draws upon the realms of poetry or of fact. Surely the point to be emphasized loses none of its reality or power if it is illustrated from allegory, parable, or poetry instead of from history. “Suppose we tell slothful people that theirs will be the fate of the man who buried his talent, is this to commit us to the belief that the personages of Christ’s parables actually existed? Or take the homiletic use of Shakespeare’s dramas ’as Macbeth did,’ or ‘as Hamlet said.’ Does it commit us to the historical reality of Macbeth or Hamlet? Any preacher among us would resent being bound by such an inference. And if we resent this for ourselves, how chary we should be about seeking to bind our Lord by it.” These words of G.A. Smith call attention to the injustice of insisting that Jesus, by referring to the Book of Jonah, put upon it the stamp of historicity; though it might have been better to state the argument in a slightly different form. The historicity of the person Jonah is not under investigation; therefore the parallels of G.A. Smith are not quite to the point. The question should have been worded, whether such references would prove that the parables of Jesus are narratives of actual historic facts, or that the plays of Shakespeare are historically true in every detail. We may conclude, then, that, unless it can be shown that Jesus meant to confirm the historical character of the Book of Jonah, his references cannot be used legitimately to prove its historical character. The utterances themselves contain nothing that would in any way throw light on the question, and the point of his teaching remains the same whether the book is history, or parable, or allegory. There is, however, one consideration in connection with Jesus’s utterances that favors the nonhistorical interpretation. The defenders of the historical view are compelled to admit that the repentance and conversion of the Ninevites were without permanent results. Says Huxtable, “The impression, like that made by Elijah on Israel, was no doubt as superficial and short-lived as it was for the moment marked by passionate earnestness.” Over against this it should be noted that the words of Jesus imply that the repentance and conversion of the Ninevites were permanent; its results were to be manifested in the day of judgment to the confounding of those listening to one greater than Jonah. Indeed, the validity and significance of our Lord’s argument is closely bound up with this permanence; it is completely invalidated by the admission that the Ninevites soon relapsed into their wickedness. Similarly, the Book of Jonah represents the conversion of the Ninevites as real and permanent; else how could it have been acceptable to Jehovah and caused him to withhold the judgment? But if the book is to be taken as historical the silence of the entire Old Testament concerning this remarkable conversion and the extensive information furnished by the inscriptions concerning life in Assyria during the eighth century B.C. create a serious historical difficulty (see further p. 322). On the other hand, if the book is an allegory or parable this difficulty disappears, for these forms of literature retain their value though they may not be based upon actual historical events. To say the least, therefore, the New Testament references to the Book of Jonah fail to establish the historical character of the book.

6. Whether the origin, contents, and tendency of the book become incomprehensible with the didactic interpretation of the same will be seen later in the discussion, as also, 7, the justice or injustice of the statement that the objections to the historical interpretation are based upon unwarranted assumptions and an unjustifiable denial of the supernatural.

In an address published in Bible Student and Teacher, Sept., 1905, Revelation John Urquhart mentions another argument in favor of the historical interpretation: “Of all parables this was the most impossible to any Jewish writer. For what are the contents of the book? An Israelitish prophet, with regard to whom we have the distinct assurance that he prophesied to the Ten Tribes, and that he uttered predictions that were verified. Now, here is a book given to us by the ministry of that Israelitish prophet that has not a single particle of Israelitish ministry in it from beginning to end. This man is confined to whom? To a Gentile people. It has for its sphere what? Not any city of Israel, but the city of Nineveh, the capital of the great opponent of the Ten Tribes of Israel. And the whole scene is confined to his ministry in regard to that Gentile people, and the Gentile people are the object of divine commiseration, and Jonah himself is the object of divine complaint, if not of condemnation. Now, I say it was another ( sic! = an utter?) impossibility that any Jewish mind would have conceived fiction after that pattern. It would have been to the glorification of Israel and not to the glorification of Nineveh. It would have been to the setting forth of God’s fierce anger against the Gentile people, and not his commiseration toward the destroyer of the people of God.”

The present writer does not profess to know what a Jewish mind “could” or “would” have conceived or written; and yet for the sake of argument it may be admitted that no ordinary “Jewish mind would have conceived fiction after that pattern.” Why? Because the ordinary Jewish mind seems to have failed to appreciate the lofty conception of the character of Jehovah implied in the Book of Jonah. The truth of this statement is confirmed by the utterances of all the prophets, who sought to give to the people this loftier conception, and by the utterances of Jesus himself. It was on account of this narrow exclusiveness that Jehovah inspired a “Jewish mind” with a loftier conception of himself and impelled this “inspired Jewish mind” to present to his contemporaries in the Book of Jonah, a more adequate conception of the character of Jehovah. This, as we can see from the parables of Jesus, might be done by the use of a parable as well as by the use of an historical narrative.

Thus far our investigation has been confined to an examination of the arguments in favor of the historical interpretation, and it has been found that they fail to establish their point.

What, then, are the arguments advanced against the historical, in favor of the didactic, interpretation? 1. If the conversion of the Ninevites to Jehovah took place on the scale recorded in the Book of Jonah, it is one of the most marvelous events in human history, and certainly the most marvelous event in Hebrew history. Such event would have furnished Hebrew prophets with abundant material with which to emphasize their earnest appeals for repentance to their contemporaries, and with which to support their frequent denunciations of Nineveh. Surely it is not without reason that one writer asks, “On what principle is the silence about such a remarkable fact of the Book of Kings, and the silence of such prophets as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, to be accounted for? 2. The statement of Layard has often been quoted in favor of the historical view: “I have known a Christian priest to frighten a whole Mussulman town to tents and repentance, by publicly proclaiming that he had received a divine commission to announce a common earthquake or plague.” But neither the book itself nor the use of the incident by the Master permits the placing of the conversion of the Ninevites on the same level as this temporary, superficial, and superstitious turning to God. If, however, the conversion was as far-reaching as the Book of Jonah would indicate, such wholesale conversion of a world city like Nineveh from heathenism to the worship of Jehovah, as the result of the preaching of a single individual, is without analogy in the religious history of the world. 3. The Old Testament everywhere represents the Ninevites as idolaters, and gives no indication that any time they worshiped Jehovah. 4. The history of Assyria and Nineveh during the eighth century B.C. is well known from the inscriptions, at least in its broad outlines; and yet nowhere is there even the slightest hint of a religious revolution such as is described in the Book of Jonah. The kings of Assyria during the period of Jonah are fairly well known, and it is not easy to imagine a monarch of the type depicted in the Assyrian inscriptions behaving as the king of Nineveh is represented in the Book of Jonah. 5. From the time of Ashur-nasir-pal (about 880 B.C.) to the time of Sennacherib, whose reign began in 705 B.C. the date of Jonah being about 770 Nineveh does not seem to have been the capital of Assyria, but Calah. “For nearly two centuries Calah remained the capital, and it was only under Sennacherib that Nineveh resumed its place as the chief city of the empire” (Sayce). 6. The size of the city and the number of the inhabitants are said not to be in accord with the modern measurements of the site (see p. 317 and on Jonah 3:3). 7. The very structure of the narrative seems to indicate the didactic character of the book. The author introduces just such details as serve to illustrate this purpose; had his primary object been history, his silence concerning several points would be peculiar. “He says nothing of the sins of which Nineveh was guilty, nor of the journey of the prophet to Nineveh, nor does he mention the place where he was cast out upon the land, nor the name of the Assyrian king. In any case, if the narrative were intended to be historical, it would be incomplete by the frequent fact that the circumstances which are necessary for the connection of events are mentioned later than they happened, and only where attention has to be directed to them as having already happened.” Here should be noted also the abrupt close of the story. The author, having pointed out, so to speak, the moral of the story, has no occasion to pursue the narrative further. “Indeed, throughout the book the truths it enforces are always pushed more to the front than the facts.” Baudissin has also called attention to the symmetrical structure of the book as indicating that the author was not concerned primarily with the narration of history as such, but with the artistic and forceful arrangement of certain material at his command for didactic purposes. As illustrations he mentions the similarity in the opening words of the two main divisions of the book (Jonah 1:1-2; Jonah 3:1-2); the words of the ship captain and of the king of Nineveh (Jonah 1:6; Jonah 3:9). Twice Jonah desires death in almost identical words (Jonah 4:3; Jonah 4:8); twice he is reproved by Jehovah in the same language (Jonah 4:4; Jonah 4:9); etc. 8. Professor Ladd ( What Is the Bible? p. 84) calls attention to another objection in these words: “A narrative in which a man is represented as composing a poetical prayer, surrounded with water, his head bound with seaweed, and drifting with marine currents, while inside a monster of the sea, was surely never intended by its author to be understood as literal history.” 9. So far no reference has been made to the miraculous element in the book; the objections enumerated are principally historical; and, though some students may consider them more weighty than others, it must not be forgotten that no interpretation which fails to take them into consideration can be regarded as satisfactory. There must be mentioned now one other objection, and it is based upon the miraculous element in the book. Here one must move very cautiously. The accusation has been frequently made that disbelief in miracles or in the supernatural is the chief ground for denying the historical character of the book (see p. 316). “But for them (the miracles) it may well be doubted whether anyone would ever have taken the Book of Jonah to be anything but history” (Perowne). This sweeping accusation is unwarranted and unjust; for there are many devout commentators who entertain no doubts concerning the reality of the supernatural, or the possibility of miracles, who nevertheless doubt the historicity of the Book of Jonah; and when such men assert that their attitude on this question is not due to a disbelief in miracles it is certainly unfair and unchristian to accuse them either of falsehood or of self-deception. Says Dr. Dale, “I receive without a shadow of doubt many miraculous stories of actual facts, but this book, on the whole, looks to me unlike a story of actual facts.” Again, it should be noted that the defenders of the historical interpretation center the question of the supernatural and miraculous around the ability of a fish to swallow a man. Urquhart, having proved, as has been done many times before him, that a certain kind of whale can easily swallow a man, exclaims in triumph, “And who will tell me now that the whale is not able to swallow a prophet; that there isn’t a whale in all the seas able to swallow Jonah? It could have swallowed six Jonahs and given them up again.”

As a matter of fact, the swallowing of Jonah is only one comparatively unimportant incident in the narrative; and it may be readily admitted that any one of several kinds of fish might swallow a human being. It is not the impossibility of miracles, or the presence of any one miracle not even one of those much more startling than the swallowing of Jonah that is urged against the historical interpretation, but the long succession, in such small compass, of a considerable number of miracles. There is a miracle at every step. The disobedient prophet is pursued by a miraculously wrought tempest; the lot is miraculously directed to Jonah; the prophet is cast overboard and immediately the storm ceases. To preserve the life of the prophet, immediately a great fish appears; without injury Jonah passes into his belly; there he is miraculously kept alive for three days and three nights, when, as Luther remarked, “in three hours he might have been digested and changed into the nature, flesh, and blood of that monster.” In the fish’s belly his mind remains clear enough to compose a song of thanksgiving, then at the divine command he is cast upon the dry land. Greatest wonder of all, at the preaching of Jonah the whole wicked city of Nineveh immediately repents and turns to Jehovah. A “gourd” is made to spring up in one night; in one night it is caused to wither; and, finally, Jehovah causes an east wind to blow. Here are twelve miracles recorded in a book of forty-eight verses. Is there anything like it anywhere in sacred writ? That God might have done these things is not and need not be questioned; whether God did do it is a question of evidence. The fact that nowhere else in divine economy, even in connection with much more serious religious crises, is there any indication of such lavish use of miracles raises the question in this case.

To say that the statements in the book itself put the subject beyond doubt is begging the question, since it is not yet proved that the book is intended to record history.

The difficulties felt with regard to the miraculous element in the book may be summarized thus: (1) The miraculous character of the book from beginning to end is unique in the sacred literature of the Bible; (2) the book presents no crisis demanding this extraordinary display of divine power; (3) so far as we know the processes of the divine economy, the miracles of the Book of Jonah are without parallel.

The defenders of the historical view seem to be conscious of a peculiarity or difficulty, for, strange to say, almost without exception they seek to minimize the miraculous element and to explain the events, as much as possible, as due to natural causes. In this attempt some have not hesitated to force the text into saying things far removed from the clear meaning of the words. Even Henry Clay Trumbull, in his attempt to establish at least the possibility of the historical character of the book, has fallen into this error. But it is significant that he is conscious of the extraordinary character of the miraculous in the book; for he asks, “Where in the New Testament or in the Old Testament except in the Book of Jonah is there such a seemingly unnecessary miracle as the saving of a man’s life by having him swallowed in a fish, instead, say, of having the vessel that carried him driven back by contrary winds to the place of its starting?”

These are the nine most important reasons urged against the historical interpretation. That they amount to a mathematical demonstration of the nonhistorical character of the book is not and need not be claimed. In questions of this kind such demonstration is impossible, especially when external evidence is absent. The exact weight of these arguments may be variously estimated by different readers, but that some of them possess considerable weight cannot be denied. At any rate, the most careful students of the Book of Jonah are almost universally agreed that the primary purpose of the book is not historical, but didactic. With some this conviction is the result of a careful consideration of the facts enumerated; with others it seems to be the outgrowth of their general intellectual and spiritual development. Of the latter class is Dr. Dale, who writes: “If you ask me why I have come to this conclusion, I should answer: Very much in the same way in which you have come to the conclusion that the Pilgrim’s Progress is a work of the imagination. When we know what real life is, Bunyan’s story does not look to us like a story of real life. And so quite apart from the story of the great fish which swallowed Jonah, and which after three days discharged him alive on the dry land, this book does not look to me like a plain story of events which really happened.”

Teaching of the Book.

When the conclusion is reached that the Book of Jonah is primarily didactic, the question remains, what is the teaching of the book? To this question various answers have been given from time to time. Among the more prominent views are the following: Ewald thinks that the aim of the book is to teach the truth that “true fear and repentance bring salvation from Jehovah.” When the sailors give Jehovah alone the glory they are saved; when the Ninevites forsake their evil ways and turn to Jehovah their doom is averted. Chapter iv, he thinks, teaches that the ultimate basis of this truth is to be found in Jehovah himself. It “makes evident the supreme divine love as the true and necessary basis of the above redemption of the penitent of all classes without exception.” Hitzig ascribes to the book an apologetic purpose. It seeks to justify the prophets for the nonfulfillment of their oracles against the heathen nations by pointing out that the prophets did not speak of themselves, but under divine compulsion; therefore, if any justification is needed it is needed by God, who is behind the prophet. At the same time it seeks to justify God and to silence all complaints arising out of the nonfulfillment of these oracles (Jonah 4:10-11). Vatke’s view is almost identical with this. Similarly Riehm: “The practical purpose of the little book is to give instruction as to the proper attitude toward prophetic threats; they are to be respected as God’s words, which the prophet must proclaim even against his own will; but their fulfillment may be averted by repentance, and when this has happened no exception must be taken to the nonfulfillment of the divine message.” This purpose the book fulfills by showing, (1) that a prophet must carry out any commission imposed upon him; that neither his own efforts nor external circumstances can excuse him from doing his duty (chapters 1, 2); (2) that God is not absolutely bound to fulfill the threat uttered by the prophet; even heathen nations, if they repent, may be shown mercy (chapter 3), and in this manifestation of mercy God is perfectly justified (chapter 4). As another illustration of the difference of opinion may be mentioned the view formerly held by Volck. He saw in the book an attempt to set forth the true nature of the prophetic calling. “We learn from it, (1) that the prophet must perform what God commands him, however unusual it appears; (2) that even death cannot nullify his calling; (3) that the prophet has no right to the fulfillment of his prediction, but must place it in God’s hand.”

There is an element of truth in all these views; all the lessons mentioned may be learned from the book; but the views indicated fail to emphasize sufficiently that which seems to be the very heart of the matter. In some respects the Book of Jonah reaches the sublimest heights of Old Testament religion. A general idea of its worth is given in these words of Cornill: “This apparently trivial book is one of the deepest and grandest that was ever written, and I should like to say to everyone that approaches it, ‘Take off thy shoes, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ In this book Israelitish prophecy quits the scene of battle as victor, and as victor in its severest struggle that against itself.”

What, then, gives to the little book this significance? What is the lesson that “runs like a red thread through the whole and at last becomes a knot whose unloosing in Jonah 4:10-11, forms the glorious finale”? It is the universality of the divine plan of redemption. Nowhere else in the Old Testament is such a continued stress laid upon the fatherhood of God, embracing in its infinite love the whole human race. The Book of Jonah is indeed a “missionary book,” teaching that God does not wish that “any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Some of the postexilic writings of the Old Testament indicate that there was growing among the Jews an exclusive, particularistic tendency (see on Joel, p. 149), which produced the idea that salvation was for the Jews only, an idea against which early Christianity had to battle with all her might. To counteract this narrow Jewish particularism is the aim of the Book of Jonah; to show that it was a false assumption that Jehovah would save only the Jews and destroy all other nations. “The national limits of the old covenant are here wondrously broken through; the entire heathen world opens as a mission field to the messengers of Jehovah. Thus the book with its wide-hearted outlook on God’s ways, and the sharp criticism of the selfish spirit of the Jewish people, as a didactic work, is itself a miracle in the literature of this people.” No one but a prophet, filled with the spirit of Jehovah, could have written this, the most Christian of all Old Testament books.

If this central lesson is once recognized it matters little whether the book is called a prophetic parable, or an allegory, or an historico-symbolic prophecy, or even a Midrash. It is of little consequence whether it is a parabolic history of all Israel, as Kleinert, Cheyne, C.H.H. Wright, G.A. Smith, and others seem to think, or is understood as describing and condemning only a party in the postexilic community. Nor does it make much difference whether it is, so far as the narrative part is concerned, entirely a product of the imagination, or an elaboration of certain traditions centering around the prophet Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25; it does not matter even if it could be shown that the author drew upon mythology for the figure of the “great fish.”

If the book is an allegory of Israel’s history, Jonah symbolizes the nation. Israel had received a divine commission to make known Jehovah to all the earth (Isaiah 42:5-9; Genesis 12:3; compare Jonah 1:1-2); but Israel was disobedient and failed to carry out the divine purpose (Isaiah 42:19-24; compare Jonah 1:3-4), and in consequence was swallowed up by the “monster” (Jeremiah 51:34; compare Jonah 1:17; the word translated “monster” in Jeremiah is translated “sea monster” in Genesis 1:21; Job 7:12, etc.). In exile Israel turned to Jehovah (that the exile would have this effect is stated again and again in the prophetic writings; compare Jonah 2:1 ff.); then Israel was delivered from the “monster” (Jeremiah 51:44; Ezra 1:1 ff.; compare Jonah 2:10). The duration of Israel’s judgment is represented by Hosea as lasting three days (see on Hosea 6:2; compare Jonah 1:17).

While the exile brought the Israelites, in some measure, to their senses, they were not entirely cured. Their mission was not revoked; it remained their duty to carry the knowledge of Jehovah to the ends of the earth. But Israel remained silent. There were many who were thinking of the nations as doomed; they were displeased because the threats of the pre-exilic prophets remained unfulfilled. To teach such the folly and wickedness of their attitude is the aim of chapters 3, 4.

This may be the correct view. On the other hand, the coincidences with the earlier history may be purely accidental. The author may have in mind only the unspiritual Israelites of the postexilic period; and the purpose underlying the book may be to convince these of the iniquity of their selfish particularism and to give them a more adequate vision of the divine purpose. In this case Jonah would represent not the whole nation, but only the unspiritual portion of the postexilic community; yet the chief lessons of the book would remain the same.

Budde, accepting, on the whole, the latter view of the teaching of the book, that it is directed “against the impatience of the Jewish believers who are fretting because, notwithstanding all predictions, the anti-theocratic world empire has not yet been destroyed, because Jehovah is still postponing his judgment upon the heathen, giving them further time for repentance. Jehovah, it is hinted, is hoping that they will turn from their sins in the eleventh hour; and he has compassion for the innocent ones who would perish with the guilty,” believes that the Book of Jonah is a Midrash, that is, an imaginative development of a thought or theme suggested by Scripture, a didactic or homiletic exposition, an edifying religious story. He thinks that the book is a section of a Midrash on the Books of Kings, either that mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:27, or one otherwise unknown; and he suggests that the passage underlying it is 2 Kings 14:25-27, the only Old Testament passage in which Jonah is mentioned. “The author of the Book of Kings puts into Jehovah’s mouth warm words of mercy toward the northern kingdom. It is easy to see how a Midrash might be added showing that his mercy extended even to an alien, heathen empire.” Budde’s suggestion is worthy of consideration, but it cannot be regarded as fully established. It is, indeed, doubtful that the M i drash used by the Chronicler was permeated by the universalistic spirit so prominent in the Book of Jonah. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that the author secured the narrative material for the work from such Midrash. But these are all secondary questions.

Whatever the final conclusion as to the kind of literature to which the little book belongs, the significance of its teaching will in no wise be affected. It must ever be considered as reaching the summit of Old Testament vision. “In no book of the Old Testament,” says Bleek, “is the all-embracing father-love of God, which has no respect for person or nation, but is moved to mercy toward all who turn to him, exhibited with equal impressiveness, or in a manner so nearly approaching the spirit of Christianity.”

The Date of the Book.

If the interpretation of the book suggested in the two preceding sections is correct, it follows almost inevitably that the Book of Jonah was not written by the prophet bearing that name; that its origin must be assigned to a period separated from the time of the prophet by several centuries. Indeed, to such late date the book is assigned by all commentators who interpret the book as having primarily a didactic purpose. But even some of the defenders of the historical view believe that the book was not written by Jonah. Says Harman, “The language seems altogether inconsistent with such an early date, and would indicate a period just before, or soon after, the Babylonian captivity.” Defenders of the authorship of Jonah rarely advance specific reasons for their belief; they are content with pointing out that there is nothing in the book to prove that Jonah was not the author. Beardslee advances five reasons, two of which have no bearing on the question of authorship; the remaining three are: 1. Its place among the Minor Prophets. 2. “All details of the narrative lead us to regard it as a personal record.” 3. “The tone of the book… is more in harmony with Jonah’s time than with the later postexilic period.” The weakness of these arguments can be shown best by considering the arguments on the other side.

The question of date must be determined wholly on the basis of internal evidence; for the position of the book in the collection of the Minor Prophets proves nothing (see Joel, p. 130; Obadiah, p. 287); it certainly does not prove that the compilers of the canon “were firmly convinced that the prophet Jonah was the author.” Its didactic character would make the prophetic collection its only suitable place; its brevity would secure for it a position among the Minor Prophets, and its mention of the prophet Jonah would determine its admission among the books considered the earlier. Jewish tradition is silent concerning the authorship, perhaps, because it took for granted that Jonah was the author. “In the Talmudic period,” remarks Furst, “the question respecting its author was left altogether undecided.”

It remains, then, to consider the arguments aside from what has been said in the preceding sections in favor of the late date of the book:

1 . The Literary Arguments (1) Jonah is nowhere mentioned as the author; he is always spoken of in the third person, except where the author places in his mouth direct utterances (Jonah 1:9; Jonah 2:2 ff., etc.). While this use of the third person does not establish diversity of authorship, it certainly does not militate against it; and Koenig calls attention to the fact that Hosea, who also opens with the third person (Jonah 1:3 ff.), in the course of the story passes to the first (Jonah 3:1 ff.). (2) “Although there are many vivid details, they are such as might be suggested by ordinary experiences, a storm at sea or exposure to the sun; there are none of those casual allusions to time, place, or person which we expect in a man’s account of his own experiences.”

2 . The Linguistic Argument. (For a general estimate of the linguistic argument see on Joel, p. 137.) It is generally admitted that the Book of Jonah contains several linguistic peculiarities, especially Aramaisms; but concerning the explanation of these and their bearing upon the question of authorship opinions have differed very widely. Keil is content with saying that none of the unusual words and expressions “can with certainty be said not to belong to the old Hebrew modes of expression.” Others point out on the basis of the Book of Hosea that the dialect of the north differed from that of the south, and that, the northern kingdom being nearer the territory in which the Aramaic was spoken, it would not be strange if in the language spoken there Aramaic elements were found, even at an early period. Were the peculiarities fewer in number, this might serve as a sufficient explanation; but when so many peculiarities are found crowded in so short a space, it seems, to say the least, more reasonable to explain them as due to the fact that, when the Book of Jonah was written, the literary language of the Hebrews had already been considerably influenced by the Aramaic. That takes us down to the period of or after the exile. (A list of these expressions may be seen in Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible, ii, p. 748; Driver, Introduction, p. 322.)

3 . The Theological Argument. All, including those who defend the historical interpretation, admit that the book has a didactic purpose. Now, if any one of the views concerning the teaching mentioned above (pp. 327ff.) is correct, the theological ideas expressed and the general tone of the book favor a period subsequent to the activity of the great pre-exilic prophets. For the expression of its ideas no period was more suitable than that after the exile, when a living voice was needed to counteract the particularistic tendencies of the age (see on Joel, p. 149).

4 . The Historical Argument. (1) Nineveh enjoyed its greatest splendor subsequent to the time of Jonah, but even during its most flourishing period it did not reach the extent suggested in Jonah 3:3 (see there and p. 317). It would seem, therefore, that one familiar with the city from personal observation could hardly use the terms employed in the book; on the other hand, they would not appear strange if the author had never seen the city, if he wrote after the destruction of Nineveh in 607-606, and was dependent for information upon oral tradition or upon a late Midrash. (2) Driver suggests that the “non-mention of the name of the Assyrian king, who played such a prominent part in chapter 3, may be taken as an indication that it was not known to the author of the book.” (3) “King of Nineveh” as a title of the kings of Assyria is very unusual. The conservative archaeologist Sayce remarks that this title could never have been applied to the kings of Assyria while the Assyrian empire was still in existence; and this conclusion is supported by the exhaustive study, by Professor Wilson, of the titles of the Assyrian kings found in the inscriptions and in the Old Testament ( Princeton Review, July, 1904 and 1905). (4) The definite statement in Jonah 3:3, “Nineveh was an exceeding great city.” It has been attempted to weaken the force of this tense by calling it a “synchronistic imperfect”; Jonah looking back to his first impression of the city says that Nineveh was a great city that is, at the time when Jonah first saw it. In support of this interpretation reference is made to Genesis 1:2, where the same tense is used, “and the earth was waste and void.” But this passage rather confirms the interpretation that the greatness of the city was a thing of the past; to the author of Genesis 1:2, the earth was no longer waste and void.

5 . The Argument from Literary Parallels. The Book of Jonah presents many literary parallels with other Old Testament writings. With Jonah 3:9, compare Joel 2:14; with Jonah 4:2, compare Exodus 34:6; Joel 2:13; Psalms 86:15; Psalms 103:8. More marked are the parallels exhibited by the prayer in Jonah 2:2-9: with verse 2 compare Psalms 18:5-6; Psalms 120:1; with verse 3 compare Psalms 42:7; Psalms 18:4-5; with verse 4 compare Psalms 31:22; Lamentations 3:54; with verse 5 compare Psalms 18:4; Psalms 69:1; Psalms 116:3; with verse 7 compare Psalms 142:3; with verse 9 compare Psalms 3:8; Psalms 50:14. These numerous resemblances cannot be due to accident; the only natural explanation is that the author of the prayer adopted and adapted passages from the psalms with which he was familiar, though it would be incorrect to consider the prayer merely a string of quotations. Some of the psalms used are certainly later than the age of the prophet Jonah. Consequently the literary parallels also point to a late date for the composition of the Book of Jonah, or at least of the prayer (see below).

These five lines of argument all point in the same direction, namely, that the book was not composed by the prophet Jonah, and that the date of the book is several centuries later than the age of the prophet. How late, it may be impossible to decide definitely. If the dates of the psalms quoted could be determined absolutely, or if it were beyond doubt that the author quoted Joel, this might be done with greater assurance. But the whole question of the dates of the psalms is one of peculiar uncertainty, and the resemblances with Joel are not of the character to establish direct dependence of the one author upon the other. We need not be surprised, therefore, to find that, while nearly all scholars are agreed on a late date, there exists great diversity of opinion when they come to fix the exact period of writing. Kleinert thinks of the exile; Ewald, of the sixth or fifth century; Driver, of the fifth; Von Orelli, of the latter part of the Chaldean or the earlier part of the Persian period; Cornill, of the close of the Persian or the early years of the Greek period; Nowack, after Joel; G.A. Smith, probably about 300; Marti, about 300 or the third century; Koenig, not later than 300; Hitzig, the Maccabean age; etc. If the prophetic canon was completed, as is now generally thought, about 200 B.C., the Book of Jonah cannot be of a later date; and if the interpretation of its teaching set forth in this commentary is correct, it is probably not earlier than the reforms under Ezra and Nehemiah, which to some extent were responsible for the rise of the particularism condemned in the book. Hence the date of the Book of Jonah may be placed somewhere between 450 and 200 B.C.

The arguments from literary parallels, based upon Jonah 2:2-9, are of value in determining the date of the whole book only if the “prayer” formed a part of the book in its original form. This raises the question concerning the unity of the book, and especially concerning the relation of the “prayer” (Jonah 2:2-9) to the rest of the book. Against the prayer being an original part of the book it is urged that it is not suitable in its present position, that it is not appropriate in the mouth of Jonah while he was in the belly of the fish, but only after he had been cast out upon the dry land; hence it would be more suitable after Jonah 2:10. This being so, the author of the book, were he also the author of the prayer, would undoubtedly have placed it after Jonah 2:10. These considerations have led most recent commentators to regard the prayer a later addition, made by some one who may have “found the psalm ready-made and in a collection where it was perhaps attributed to Jonah, who inserted it after verse 2 (Eng. verse 1), which records that Jonah did pray from the belly of the fish, and inserted it there more readily because it seemed right for a book which had found its place among the Twelve Prophets to contribute, as all the others did, some actual discourse of the prophet whose name it bore.”

While there is some weight in the arguments advanced in favor of this view, others hold that it is not necessary to deny the prayer to the author of the rest of the book. Whether he composed the prayer or found it “ready-made” may be difficult to determine, nor is that of much consequence; but it is quite conceivable, they say, that he inserted it in the book and gave to it its present place. The author knew, when he wrote Jonah 1:17, that his hero would be saved, for he stated that God “prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” As soon as Jonah had entered the belly of the fish he was safe from the viewpoint of the author and a song of thanksgiving was in order. “Given the fish,” says G.A. Smith, “and the divine purpose of the fish, the psalm is intelligible and appears in its proper place.” Absolute certainty on this point may be impossible. That the prayer was not composed by the author of the Book of Jonah is quite likely, for he would probably have selected expressions more suitable to the condition of his hero; on the other hand, it cannot be regarded as certain that it was not he who inserted it in the book.

A few attempts have been made to prove that, even aside from the prayer, the book is a compilation from several different sources. Nachtigal distinguished three sources, the oldest being the prayer, which was thought to have been uttered by Jonah “after God had delivered him out of the hand of the king of Assyria.” To it were added chapters 3, 4 by an exile in Babylonia, and still later Jonah 1:1-17; Jonah 2:1; Jonah 2:10, by a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah. Koehler also thought that he could discover an early and a late stratum. Boehme, after careful examination, reached the conclusion based upon what he considered contradictions in the narrative, differences in the language, the use of different divine names, etc. that the work of four hands may be distinguished in the book, besides a few minor later additions. He distributed the contents among the contributors as follows: (1) A, the author of the kernel of chapters 1-4; (2) B, the author of the narrative, found in chapters 3, 4 in some instances parallel with the second part of A, in others differing from it; (3) R, the redactor who combined A and B; (4) the reviser who expanded ABR in chapters 1 and 4, and inserted the prayer composed by an unknown poet; (5) a few smaller additions, the latest of which is Jonah 1:8 a, subsequent to the LXX. translation. The oldest of these sources (A) Boehme assigned to the fourth or third pre-Christian century. Compare also Zeitschrift fuer die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 1905, pp. 285ff. These various attempts to disprove the unity of the book have not been favorably received by scholars, the common opinion being that, with the possible exception of the prayer, the Book of Jonah is a unit that it is substantially what it was when it left the hands of the author.

One other question needs to be considered, namely, whether, so far as the narrative portions are concerned, the book is entirely a work of imagination or not; and if not, where the author found the material out of which he constructed his narrative. Hitzig, Cornill, and others consider the narrative portions purely a work of imagination. Other commentators have thought that they could discover in it traces of ancient myths, either Greek or Babylonian. Thus the book has been connected with the myth of Hercules, who delivered Hesione, the daughter of King Laomedon, from a sea monster; and with that of Perseus, who is said to have freed Andromeda from a monster near the city of Joppa. There is, however, little similarity with these myths, and it is highly improbable that there is any connection between them and the story of Jonah. In more recent times the “great fish” has been connected with Babylonian mythology. F.C. Baur suggested that Jonah had some connection with the Babylonian Oannes, mentioned by Berosus. Cheyne and others suspect a dependence upon the Babylonian Tiamat myths. Marti calls attention also to the Buddhist story of Mittavindaka, and to an Egyptian legend of the third pre-Christian century. All of these contain certain resemblances to the narrative concerning Jonah, but a direct connection between the latter and any one of these myths and legends is more than improbable. On the other hand, there may be some indirect connection between the “great fish” and Tiamat, other reflections of which may be seen in the Old Testament figures of Rahab (Isaiah 51:9; Psalms 89:10), and Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1; Job 3:8; compare also Jeremiah 51:34; Jeremiah 51:44; Tob 6:3 ff.). If this were so, the rest of the story might still be a work of imagination.

But this raises the question, why should the author make his imaginary story center around the name Jonah? Cheyne replies, because “the custom was springing up of calling Israel, symbolically, a dove” (Psalms 68:13), whose Hebrew name is identical with the proper name Jonah. He finds no connection between this figure Jonah and the Jonah of 2 Kings 14:25. By why is this “dove” called a prophet? Because, he replies, the mission of Israel, which is symbolized by the “dove,” is a prophetic mission (Isaiah 54:13, margin; compare Isaiah 42:4, etc.). A different explanation is favored by G.A. Smith: “In history Jonah appears only as concerned with Israel’s reconquest of her lands from the heathen. Did the author of the book say: I will take such a man, one to whom tradition attributes no outlook beyond Israel’s own territories, for none could be so typical of Israel, narrow, selfish, and with no love for the world beyond herself?”

If the narrative portion of the book must be regarded as purely a work of the imagination, Smith’s answer is more natural and satisfactory than that of Cheyne. There are many, however, who think that the narrative is not purely imaginative, that the author of the Book of Jonah owes much of his material just how much it may be impossible to say to tradition; and that the narrative centers around Jonah because the traditions utilized centered around the prophet Jonah. The traditions may have told of a journey of the prophet to Nineveh, of a shipwreck and other experiences, or of a discourse uttered by him against the great Assyrian city. This material the author cast into literary form in such a manner as to set forcibly before his readers the truths he desired them to take to heart.

For an appreciation of the permanent religious value of the book, however, it matters little whether the narrative is entirely a work of the imagination or not, and if not, whence the author received his material. The narrative is only the garment in which the author clothed the truth, which is the substance; the latter is the all-important. It certainly is not a product of the imagination, nor is it derived from tradition; it is a divine truth, impressed upon the heart and mind of the author by the Spirit of the living God.

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