Jonah 1 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Jonah 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers







THE Book of Jonah occupies a position unique in the Bible. Classed among the prophetical books, it has no single point in common with them. Its one prediction of the overthrow of Nineveh differs entirely from the judgments announced by Nahum against the same power, by Isaiah and others against Moab, or Philistia, or Babylon. In these, according to the true prophetic spirit, ruin is connected immediately with sin as an inevitable consequence. We have pictures of moral corruption, and of the social and political convulsions that must necessarily, in the course of God’s providence, follow. In Jonah’s one utterance we have simply a prediction of a coming overthrow, with a date precisely stated in a manner quite foreign to the ordinary prophetic style. In the body of prophecy, therefore, the book has no proper standing. As a narrative in one of the historical books, the story of Jonah’s mission would have been in place. Indeed, it appears as if it were a fragment from a series of narratives of prophetic acts, similar to those incorporated in the Books of Kings about Elijah and Elisha.

This displacement from its true position is no doubt due to the opinion of the collectors of the canon as to the authorship of the book. They assumed that Jonah himself wrote it. This assumption is nowhere made in the narrative itself, though the use of the third person must not be taken as conclusive against it.

That the prophet is identical with the Jonah of 2 Kings 14:25, the statement of his parentage, “son of Amittai,” leaves no doubt. A native of Gath-hepher, of the tribe of Zebulun, Jonah the son of Amittai prophesied at the commencement of the reign of Jeroboam II., i.e., in the latter part of the ninth century B.C. His prophecies, we gather from the same passage, had reference to the victories of Jeroboam. Beyond this we know nothing of him till he abruptly bursts on us as the prophet commissioned to announce the destruction of Nineveh. A passing allusion in the Book of Tobit (Tobit 14:4), which refers to the prediction as still waiting fulfilment, and evidently knows nothing of its sequel; and the well-known references in the New Testament (Matthew 12:40; Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:30), exhaust all that Scripture has to tell us about Jonah and his mission. Tradition, fastening on the meaning of the name Amittai (’ēmet, “truth”) identified him with the son of the widow of Sarepta, because, on receiving him back alive, she knew that the prophet’s word was “truth.” A tomb at Gath-hepher, mentioned by Jerome, was also assigned to Jonah by tradition.

The most various opinions have prevailed as to the nature of the book. It has been accepted as literal history, it has been described as pure fiction. Some have called it a parable, others an allegory, others a poetical myth,[19] others a dream; others again, while recognising an historical basis, hold that the narrative has been enlarged and embellished to suit the purposes of the unknown author. It is not within the scope of this Commentary to discuss these various modes of treatment,[20] and happily the lessons of the book are entirely independent of the views as to its character. Whether history or parable, it conveys in the most striking way some of the profoundest truths of religion, truths which, if to be discovered at all elsewhere in the Old Testament, are certainly nowhere else pronounced with such firmness and power. The story of the threefold deliverance—of the vessel when relieved of its burden of guilt—of the prophet, in whom, however reluctant, the Divine purpose had found its fitting instrument—of the doomed city, saved, in spite of its doom, by repentance—this story does not lose its impressiveness even if read as the work of imagination trying to explain the mysterious dealings of God. Many minds, not sceptical of a basis of miracle, yet find a difficulty in the concentration of so much of the marvellous round one figure and one brief incident. But the figure is none the less striking, the character none the less instructive, if it is the creation of fiction; and the incident, even if unhistorical, carries a wealth of profound spiritual truth. The tradition mentioned above connecting Jonah with Sarepta, however fanciful, is singularly appropriate, since in the book bearing the prophet’s name we come upon a clear anticipation of so much of the teaching of Him who commended the faith of the Sidonian woman, and rebuked the exclusiveness of the disciples. That the heathen world might look to the great God for blessings which the favoured race was rejecting or despising, that others beside Israelites had a claim on the justice and mercy of Jehovah, that repentance and prayer could be effectual outside the Mosaic system—these lessons, which even Christ’s disciples were slow to learn, are the prominent lessons of this book. Others less obvious are touched on in the notes. The power and universality of their application have been well brought out by Dean Stanley, who thus sums them up. “In the popular traditions of East and West, Jonah’s name alone has survived the lesser prophets of the Jewish Church. It still lives, not only in many a Mussulman tomb along the coasts and hills of Syria, but in the thoughts and devotions of Christendom. The marvellous escape from the deep, through a single passing allusion in the Gospel history, was made an emblem of the deliverance of Christ Himself from the jaws of death and the grave. The great Christian doctrine of the boundless power of human repentance received its chief illustration from the repentance of the Ninevites at the preaching of Jonah. There is hardly a figure from the Old Testament which the early Christians in the Catacombs so often took as their consolation in persecution, as the deliverance of Jonah on the sea-shore, and his naked form stretched out in the burning sun beneath the sheltering gourd. But these all conspire, with the story itself, in proclaiming that still wider lesson of which I have spoken. It is the rare protest of theology against the excess of theology; it is the faithful delineation, through all its various states, of the dark, sinister, selfish side of even great religious teachers. It is the grand Biblical appeal to the common instincts of humanity, and to the universal love of God, against the narrow dogmatism of sectarian polemics. There has never been ‘a generation’ which has not needed the majestic revelation of sternness and charity, each bestowed where most deserved, and where least expected, in the ‘sign of the prophet Jonah’” (Stanley, J. C. ii. 356, 357).

[19] Two classical myths have been by various critics brought into connection with the story of Jonah, that of Hesione, who was chained to a rock as food for a sea-monster, and was delivered by Hercules, and that of Andromeda saved by Perseus from a similar fate. The latter is locally connected with Joppa. A Babylonian myth, in which the name Oannes, supposed to be cognate with Jonah, occurs, has also been adduced.

[20] The references of our Lord to Jonah no more attest its literal truth, than his allusion to the Psalms as David’s settles the authorship of the whole of the Psalter. It would be strange if He who chose the parabolic method to convey the highest truths of His Kingdom, should have hesitated to enforce them by reference to writings of the same kind, even supposing we are not right in judging of His knowledge on points of literary criticism as limited. The argument of Keil and others, that Jonah could not have been adduced as a type of Christ unless his history is actual fact, is only valid when we have restricted the meaning of the word type to suit the argument. And the New Testament does not represent Jonah as a type, but as a sign.

If the question of the nature of the narrative may be set aside as of secondary importance, that of authorship and date must be given up from want of sufficient data. The linguistic argument may be used as strongly for the North Palestinian origin of the author, as for his late date. He was evidently familiar, beyond most scriptural writers, with the manners and language of the maritime cities of Phœnicia, and apparently knew more of the appearance of Nineveh and its customs than mere hearsay was likely to give. The repentance of the city, and its consequent salvation from a threatened overthrow, have, as yet, found no confirmation from profane history.[21] The other references to Nineveh in the Bible are apparently inconsistent with them. Prophets later than Jonah, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, continue to denounce the idolatries of the Assyrians, and predict their punishment. They give no hint of any previous sudden conversion. The only allusion to Jonah in writings anterior to Christianity (Tobit, see above) is ignorant, as we have seen, of any repentance, a fact which makes the existence of the book of Jonah before the probable composition of the book of Tobit, about B.C. 180, extremely doubtful.

[21] Unless we may connect the occurrence with the incursion of the Scyths mentioned by Herodotus (I. 103) which appears to have interfered with the prosecution of the siege of Nineveh by Cyaxares, and saved it for some twenty or twenty-five years. This historical fact may have been used by the author, like the name of Jonah himself, as a basis on which to found his story.

The various theories and counter theories that have been built upon this slender evidence, leave the book with the description that has happily been given of it, “this book of unknown authorship, of unknown date, of disputed meaning, but of surpassing interest.”

The division into chapters, in the Authorised Version, gives the best arrangement of the contents of the book. Its language is prose, but with sparks of poetic feeling showing in words and expressions, as well as in the hymn (Jonah 2), which, though modelled on, and in a great degree dependent, both in thought and style, on the Psalter, is yet evidently the work of an original mind.

Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,

(1) Now . . .—More strictly, And; but the English quite adequately represents the Hebrew style of beginning a narrative, whether it formed a book by itself, or merely continued an historical account. (See the opening of Exodus, Leviticus, and other historical books; Ezekiel 1:1; and comp. 1 Kings 17:1, &c.)

Jonah the son of Amittai.—See Introduction.

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
(2) Nineveh, that great city.—The size of Nineveh is throughout the book brought into prominent notice. (See Jonah 3:2-3; Jonah 4:11.) The traditions preserved in Greek and Roman writers dwell on the same feature; and modern researches among the huge mounds scattered along the left bank of the Tigris more than confirm the impression produced on the ancient world by the city, or rather group of cities, buried beneath them. (Comp. Genesis 10:11.)

Cry.—A common word for a proclamation by a herald or a prophet. (Comp. Isaiah 40:6, &c.) The English word, in the sense of “proclaim,” lingers in the term “public crier.”

For their wickedness is come up before me.—“Every iniquity has its own voice at the hidden judgment seat of God” (S. Gregory, Mor. v. 20; quoted by Pusey). But, as Pusey remarks, the Hebrew implies especially evil-doing against others, that violence which in Jonah 3:8 is recognised by the Ninevites themselves as their characteristic sin.

But 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.
(3) But Jonah rose up to flee.—The motive of the prophet’s flight is given by himself (Jonah 4:2). He foresaw the repentance of the city, and the mercy which would be displayed towards it, and was either jealous of his prophetic reputation, or had a patriotic dislike of becoming a messenger of good to a heathen foe so formidable to his own country.

Tarshish.—This can hardly be any other than Tartessus, an ancient Phœnician colony on the river Guadalquivir, in the south-west of Spain. (See Genesis 10:4; 1 Chronicles 1:7.)

A profound moral lesson lies in the choice of this refuge by Jonah. A man who tries to escape from a clearly-recognised duty—especially if he can at the time supply conscience with a plausible excuse—is in danger of falling all the lower, in proportion as his position was high. Jonah, commanded to go to Nineveh, in the far north-east, instantly tries to flee to the then farthermost west. Often between the saintly height and an abyss of sin there is no middle resting-point. The man with the highest ideal, when unfaithful to it, is apt to sink lower than the ordinary mortal.

From the presence of the Lord.—Rather, from before the face of Jehovah. The words may imply (1) the belief in a possibility of hiding from the sight of God (as in Genesis 3:8), a belief which, as we gather from the insistence on its opposite in Psalms 139, lingered late in the popular conception; (2) a renunciation of the prophetic office. (Comp. Deuteronomy 10:8; 1 Kings 17:1); (3) Flight from the Holy Land, where the Divine presence was understood to be especially manifested. Commentators have generally rejected the first of these as implying ignorance unworthy of a prophet; but, on embarking, Jonah went below, as if still more securely to hide, and used the same expression to the mariners, who would certainly take it in its literal and popular sense.

Joppa.—Heb., Yāpho; now Jaffa, the port of Jerusalem. (See Joshua 19:46; 2 Chronicles 2:16.)

He found a ship.—Probably a Phœnician vessel trading between Egypt and Spain, and accustomed to touch at Joppa.

But 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.
(4) Sent out.—The Hebrew word (see margin, and comp. Jonah 1:5; Jonah 1:12; Jonah 1:15, where the same word is rendered “cast forth”) expresses the sudden burst of the storm. A squall struck the ship. The coast was well known to sailors as dangerous. (See Josephus, Ant. xv. 9, § 6, B. J. iii. 9. § 3.)

So that the ship was like to be broken.—See margin for the literal expression, which is that of a sailor to whom the ship is a living thing, with feelings, hopes, and fears. For the word break, of shipwreck (comp. naufragium), see 1 Kings 22:48.

Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
(5) And cried every man unto his god.—If Phœnicians, the sailors would have their favourite deities in the national Pantheon; but they may have been a motley crew composed of various nationalities. For the panic comp. Psalm 107:23-30, and Shakespeare’s Tempest,

“All lost! to prayers! to prayers, all lost!”

Wares.—The Hebrew word is of general import for furniture of any kind, and so including all the movables in the ship. The cargo would probably, as in the case of St. Paul’s shipwreck, be reserved till the last extremity.

To lighten it of them.—This gives the sense, though the Hebrew idiom appears to mean, to give themselves relief. (Comp. Exodus 18:22, “So shall it be easier for thyself;” 1 Kings 12:10, “Make thou it lighter unto us.”)

Sides.—Rather, recesses. The word is used of the inner part of the Temple (1 Kings 6:16), of a cave (1 Samuel 24:3), of a dwelling-house (Psalm 128:3).

Ship.—The Hebrew is different from the word used earlier in the verse, and is peculiar to this passage. Its derivation from a root meaning “to cover with boards,” indicates a decked vessel. Jonah had gone below into the cabin, the natural course for a man flying from a disagreeable duty. To stand on deck and watch the slow receding shore would have been mental torture.

And was fast asleep.—The fatigue of the hasty flight to the sea-shore accounts for this deep slumber. The same expression is used of Sisera (Judges 4:21). Besides, when a resolution is once irrevocably (as we think) taken, conscience ceases to disturb with its wakeful warning, and the restlessness of remorse has not yet arrived. There is a brief time during which “the exile from himself can flee.”

So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
(6) The shipmaster . . .—Literally, the chief of those who work at the rope. Jewish nautical terms are infrequent and therefore obscure. The word mariners, in Jonah 1:5, correctly renders a term which seems, from its use in Ezekiel 27:8; Ezekiel 27:27; Ezekiel 27:29, as well as from its derivation (from salt; comp. the term “old salts”), to denote seafaring men generally. “Those who work the ropes” may be either “steersmen” or “topmen” as contrasted with rowers.

What meanest . . .—Literally, What to thee sleeping? i.e., How canst thou sleep so soundly? The motive of the question was no doubt partly the need of sympathy, as in the case of the disciples (Mark 4:38), partly a belief in the efficacy of the prophet’s prayer. This belief seems to have sprung not solely from superstitious fear lest any deity should be overlooked, but from a vague sense that the God of Israel was pre-eminently great and good. The term used is ha Elohîm, “the God.”

And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
(7) Come, and let us cast lots.—We are to suppose that Jonah, coming on deck in compliance with the captain’s request, adds his prayers to those of the crew. Finding all unavailing, the sailors propose recourse to the ancient custom of casting lots to discover the guilty person against whom the deities are so enraged. Classical authors as well as the Bible (comp. Joshua 7:14, seq.; 1 Samuel 14:36-46) afford many illustrations of the belief that the presence of an impious man would involve all who shared his company in indiscriminate ruin. Naturally the feeling expressed itself most strongly at sea.

“Who drags Eleusis’ rite to day,

That man shall never share my home

Or join my voyage; roofs give way,

And boats are wrecked; true men and thieves

Neglected Justice oft confounds.”

HOR.: Od. iii. 2, 26-30. (Conington’s trans.)

Comp. the story told by Cicero of Diagoras (de Nat. Deor. 3:3). Æsch. Sept. cont. Theb. 601-604. Soph. Ant. 372.

Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?
(8) For whose cause . . .—The Hebrew idiom is peculiar, on account of which to whom; but in this verse, when addressed by the sailors to the prophet, it is expressed in a more elegant form than when used to each other in the preceding verse, one among many touches marking the artistic perfection of this narrative. It is true some MSS. omit this repetition of the question, and it is therefore by some commentators treated as a gloss. But the repetition is quite natural. The sailors seeing the lot fall on one whose appearance was so little suspicious, are anxious to have it confirmed by his confession. Not less natural is the rapid and excited leap from question to question. (Comp. Virg. Æn. 8:112, 113.)

And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.
(9) And he said . . .—“The emergency recalls Jonah to his true self. All the better part of his character now comes out. His conduct throughout the remainder of the chapter is dignified and manly, worthy of a servant and prophet of Jehovah” (Perowne).

I am a Hebrew.—The original order is more striking, A Hebrew I. The LXX. read, “a servant of the Lord.”

Which hath made . . .—These words mark the great change that has already come upon the prophet. He feels now how futile it was to try to hide or fly from the Creator of all the universe. But he speaks also for the sake of the crew, who, though recognising the existence of Jehovah as the tribal God of Israel, had never realised His relation to themselves as Creator of the world in which they lived, and of the sea on which they sailed. The storm preached the omnipotence of God.

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.
(10) Why hast.—Rather, What is this that thou hast done? The question expresses horror, not curiosity.

For the men knew that.—Jonah’s answer in Jonah 1:9 is evidently intended only as an abbreviation of what he actually replied.

Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.
(11) What shall we.—The prophet would of course know how to appease the God he had displeased.

May be calm unto us.—See margin. The word rendered calm occurs (Psalm 107:30) of a lull after a storm, and in Proverbs 26:20 metaphorically, of peace after strife.

Wrought, and was tempestuous.—Literally, was going, and being agitated; an idiom rightly explained in the margin. (Comp. a similar idiom Genesis 8:3.)

And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.
(12) Cast me forth into the sea.—There was no need of prophetic inspiration to enable Jonah to pass this sentence upon himself. He is too manly not to prefer to perish without involving others in his ruin.

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.
(13) Rowed hard.—This is a sufficient rendering of the Hebrew verb, though it misses the metaphor. In every other instance of its use the word refers to the violence employed in breaking through a wall or enclosure. (See Ezekiel 8:8; Ezekiel 12:5; Ezekiel 12:7; Job 24:16; Amos 9:2; and compare the use of the derivative noun in Exodus 22:2; Jeremiah 2:34.) The figure of forcing the ship through the great wave wall is very striking. The Latin infindere sulcos and our ploughing the main are kindred metaphors.

It is a fine trait in these sailors that they will not obey the prophet’s request to throw him overboard till all efforts to save the ship have been tried.

Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.
(14) Wherefore they cried unto the Lord.—There is presented here, as throughout the book, a strong contrast between the readiness of the heathen to receive religious impressions, and the stubbornness and obstinacy of Israel.

For this man’s life . . .—i.e., for taking it. The law of retaliation was as familiar to them as to the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 19:21). (Comp. 2 Samuel 14:7.)

For thou.—The original is more impressive: For Thou, Jehovah, as it hath phased Thee, Thou hast done. The storm, the lot, the request of the prophet himself, all showed that the sailors were but instruments in carrying out the Divine purpose.

So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.
(15) Raging.—Comp. maris ira, Ovid. Met. i. 330; iratum mare, Hor. Epod. ii.57.

“At whose burden

The angered ocean foams.”

SHAKESPEARE: Ant. and Cleop.

Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.
(16) Offered.—There may have been some live-stock on board suitable for sacrifice; but the offering could only be completed on landing, wherefore they made vows.

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.
(17) Now the Lord.—In the Hebrew, Jonah 2 commences with this verse.

Had prepared.—The pluperfect is misleading. Render appointed, and comp. Jonah 4:6-8, where the same word is used of the gourd, the worm, and the east wind. The Authorised version renders the word accurately in Job 7:3; Daniel 1:5-10. Previous special preparation is not implied, still less creation for the particular purpose. God employs existing agents to do His bidding.

A great fish.—The Hebrew dag is derived from the prolific character of fish, and a great fish might stand for any one of the sea monsters. The notion that it was a whale rests on the LXX. and Matthew 12:40. But κῆτος was a term for any large fish, such as dolphins, sharks, &c. (See Hom. Od. xii. 97.) And unless we have previously determined the question, whether the Book of Jonah is intended by the sacred writer to be a literal history, or an apologue founded on a history or a parable pure and simple, tota hœc de pisce Jonœ disquisitio, as an old commentator observes, vana videtur atque inutilis. The explanations given by commentators divide themselves into those of a strictly præternatural kind, as that a fish was created for the occasion; or into the natural or semi-natural, as that it was a ship, or an inn bearing the sign of the whale; or that it was a white shark. (For the last hypothesis see all that can be collected in Dr. Pusey’s commentary on Jonah.) In early Christian paintings the monster appears as a huge dragon.

Three days and three nights.—See Matthew 12:40, New Testament Commentary.

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