These four short papers are sent out in response to a desire on the part of those who studied the book of Jonah with the writer at Chelsea. May the Lord graciously bless every reader, and increase the number of those who prize His holy written word in these sceptical days. "For the word of the Lord endureth for ever," and is still "a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path."
A short story of 1,328 English words; a perfect literary gem, the narrative being so related that the interest is sustained throughout, with vivid description and convincing dialogue. Persons and places, movements and motives all stand out in bold relief — Jonah — the sailors — the captain — the King of Nineveh and his nobles — the people — Joppa — Tarshish — Nineveh — all pass in review before the mind of the reader, as plainly as pen portraiture can present them. It is considered in literary circles as the perfect style of short story writing. God has the first word and the last; for it is a revelation of His holy but gracious character. It is a story of which every word is meant to tell. It is the Missionary book of the Old Testament. Jonah reveals himself (cf. Jonah 2; Jonah 4:2) as a man saturated with the letter of scripture, and possessed of a knowledge of God's true character as a creed; but sadly hampered by spiritual and intellectual limitations — cf. Jonah 1:3, 10. He shows both by action and speech a hard, narrow, exclusive, unlovely character, a typical product of the letter of the law divorced from the real spirit of the Divine Lawgiver. He is not like God although one of God's people. God reveals Himself not only as "gracious, merciful, slow to anger and of great loving kindness" to Jonah, but as the God of the Gentiles; the One too Whose tender mercies are over all His works — cf. Isa. 45:21, 22; Ps. 145:9; Rom. 3:29. Since the object of the sacred Scriptures is to reveal God and man, we are not surprised to find this exquisite fragment doing so in a fuller and fresher way than had been known. Mr. W. Kelly says of it: "As far as it goes, a more instructive book for the soul, and in view of the dealings and dispensations of God with man and creation, there is not in the Bible."
As to its authorship, who else could have written it but the man who had been converted by the experiences recorded in it? That he was an historical character and a prophet of God our Lord quietly asserts, giving at the same time all the august weight of His word to the two most extraordinary happenings recorded in the book.
As to Jonah himself, we know his father's name, his home, his profession, his success therein, and the times when he lived.
The son of Amittai, living in Gath-hepher, town of Galilee, was a successful prophet known and undoubtedly honoured by his contemporaries in Israel. He prophesied in the reign of Jeroboam II., who reigned roughly seven centuries before Christ, when Isaiah and Micah and Amos were living.
Hamath, at the extreme N.W. of Palestine, had been allied with Judah, and the Kingdom of Israel accordingly suffered; but Jonah prophesied that God would restore the full border to it again, and Jeroboam II., an able but idolatrous king, won it back and raised the Kingdom of Israel to its height, yet fifty years later it fell away into the Captivity to Assyria, owing to its idolatry and rebellion against God. But this fixes, approximately, the date of Jonah's story.
Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, wicked and ripe for destruction, presented a most hopeless mission field to any Israelite. Cruelty and violence with unnumbered crimes against humanity are laid at her door by the prophet Nahum, and she was destroyed 606 B.C., a century after her repentance under Jonah's preaching, having again relapsed into her evil state.
The contents of the book of Jonah may be summarised briefly as consisting of:
The spiritual exercises of the mariners — Jonah 1:14;
the spiritual exercises of the prophet — Jonah 2:1-9; 4;
the spiritual exercises of the Ninevites — Jonah 3.
God's "repentance" — Jonah 3:10 — is explained by Jer. 18:7, 8, for "He delighteth in mercy." Micah 7:18. Old and New Testaments alike bear witness to this. The Book of Jonah reveals God as: the God of Nature, of Providence, of Judgment, of Grace, and of Mercy, whether dealing with an individual or a nation. A great God and greatly to be feared, yet "a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness." If this was so revealed before the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, how much clearer now is seen to be God's intense hatred of sin, and yet His amazing love of the sinner, since Christ died for us! (Rom. 5:8.)
The Spiritual Exercises of the Mariners
The spiritual exercises of the mariners in the book of Jonah are extraordinarily interesting, as they so clearly illustrate the steps by which souls pass from darkness to light. One of the two great lessons drawn by our Lord from the story of Jonah (Matt. 12:41) is that there is hope for the penitent however deeply sunken; the other being that there is condemnation for the impenitent however privileged.
A dozen verses in the first chapter disclose in a most graphic way the spiritual exercises of the mariners on board the ship upon which Jonah had taken passage for Tarshish. The outward storm was indeed a figure of the inward tempest of alarm which began to rage in the hearts of these pagan seamen.
In desperation every one invokes his god, and the startled shipmaster coming upon his sleeping passenger, roughly awakens him with the sharp rebuke: "What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not."
As one has sagely remarked, "Jonah held his tongue as long as he could, though he knew right well who was the culprit," but the time rapidly arrived when silence was no longer possible and the guilty secret came out. Then by his confession of God — the true God "Jehovah the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land," he increases the alarm of his fellow voyagers. For it now appears that no hope of escape from His tempest is possible since they have his rebellious, disobedient servant on board. They now become exceedingly afraid, terrified, panic-stricken in fact, for their case is manifestly a hopeless one.
Jonah proceeds to instruct them as to their only hope of safety, but their humane feelings recoil from what he bade them do. How can they cast a living man, a fellow human being, into these boiling waves which every moment grow more and more tempestuous?
So they once again try to save themselves by their own desperate efforts, and row hard to bring the ship to land, but cannot manage it. Then baffled, beaten and in despair they appeal to the true God — not this time each man to his own god, but to JEHOVAH of Whom they have so recently heard and learned, and obey the word spoken to them. Heathen as they were, they realise themselves now to be in the hand of JEHOVAH the God of heaven, Maker of the sea and the dry land. What deep exercises of spirit in so short a time! Their own gods are helpless; the true God at best they have only dimly known after a natural manner; now the presence and power of the true God is felt as His Name is declared to them by His prophet. Faith came by hearing; by the report of Who He was. The sense too of the solemnity of His government in the case of this disobedient, rebellious prophet — their passenger, sinks into their very souls, filling them with awe and fear. "Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows."
In their extremity they had called upon His Name; in their great deliverance they showed reverence and true godly fear. The goodness of God when believed always creates and deepens reverence for Himself, and carefulness as to His holy will in worship and service.
These Gospel Gleanings from the first chapter of the book of Jonah truly describe the way whereby awakened exercised souls pass from the dread of an unknown God and His power (verse 5) into the knowledge of the Name and salvation of the Saviour God (verse 16). They may be briefly summarised as:
(1) A sense of real danger, and of entire helplessness; this being the condition of every one, by nature, before God.
(2) A hearing of the report of One Who can save, but being also the great and holy God Whose anger is to be feared — will He do so?
(3) A further desperate attempt to save themselves in spite of the way of salvation indicated to them by the prophet of God — how very human!
(4) A final acceptance of the unusual conditions of deliverance offered to them; the obedience of faith acting upon the word declared to them.
(5) The resultant sense of awe and wonder at WHO He is, and WHAT He has wrought.
May every reader dare to believe that there is life in a look at the CRUCIFIED ONE, simple as this means of salvation appears, and, believing in Him
"Who was delivered up for our offences and raised again for our justification," enjoy peace with God through our LORD JESUS CHRIST.
The Spiritual Exercises of the Prophet
The spiritual exercises of the prophet Jonah himself were more varied, searching and extended than those either of the heathen mariners in chapter 1, or of the wicked Ninevites in chapter 3 of our book. In their cases, however, as in his own, and in every other of real spiritual exercise, the one lesson taught and learned is, that "salvation is of the Lord." Jonah 2:9.
This is the common lesson, but special methods were employed in Jonah's case because of his personal and prophetic character.
Personally, he was a backslider, a rebellious servant, one who knew the will of the Lord but was not willing to do it. He had sunk into a more unconcerned condition of soul than the heathen mariners, for while they were earnestly engaged in calling upon their gods, Jonah was fast asleep. Alas! alas! how often do we see this repeated in human history; men with a true knowledge of God's will behaving more indifferently than those around them who make no profession of religion at all. But such will assuredly be dealt with by God, and in the storms of adversity overwhelmed by the waves of sorrow, bereavements maybe, and trouble, will have to verify in their own personal experience that Salvation is of the Lord or they will never be delivered, but perish everlastingly.
Prophetically, or typically, Jonah's spiritual exercises had a threefold reference.
(1) To the Captivity and Return of the Jewish people from Babylon, cf. Jer. 51:34, 44; Dan. 9:2, in which Scriptures the swallowing up as by a dragon or monster and the returning again to the land on prayer and repentance is plainly seen, and had its fulfilment.
(2) To the Death and Resurrection of Christ whereby salvation is wrought out and proclaimed to the Gentiles, cf. Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:31, 32; Matt. 12:38-41.
(3) To a then future Captivity (A.D. 70) and a still future Return of the Jewish people when they shall turn to the Lord. cf. Rom. 11:11, 26; Hosea 6:2.
But note how our Lord regards the spiritual exercises of Jonah. His testimony (and when He has spoken the last word is said on any subject for His people) proves three vital facts about Jonah and what happened to him. In the scripture cited above (Matt 12:38-41) He speaks of Jonah's personal existence as an historical character; of Jonah's prophetical office; and of Jonah's miraculous fate; saying he (and what happened) was a sign, that is, an embodied significant lesson.
This sign was a real miracle typifying a like event in our Divine Lord's own life; so Christ died and was buried to lay the storm our sins had raised; and lay in the grave, in the heart of the earth three days and three nights (Jewish reckoning) in the prison house of the grave. The third day He came forth as Jonah did, and by His messengers preached repentance and remission of sins even to the Gentiles. "Our Saviour Jesus Christ has annulled death; and brought to light life and incorruptibility by the glad tidings." 2 Tim. 1:10. New Trans.
In all true spiritual exercises the soul has to do with God Himself and knows it. Hence we find Jonah regards all as God's direct dealing with himself. "Thou" (not the sailors) "hast cast me into the sea." "Thy billows and waves"; the sea is His and He made it; His by creation, and now in the case of Jonah, His also by commission. Thou hast brought up my life from corruption, or the pit, for Salvation is of the Lord. It is He with Whom Jonah has to do. It is His judgment that is according to truth. It is His Salvation that alone avails. The heathen sailors, the rebellious servant, the wicked Ninevites and the reader of these lines, are all in the same boat in this respect.
The Spiritual Exercises of the Ninevites
The spiritual exercises of the people of Nineveh were caused by the solemn and definite message delivered by Jonah in the very heart of their great city. Sternly the alarming cry rang in their streets: "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown."
Both the message and the messenger arrested public attention, for they had already heard enough of his extraordinary experiences to cause him to be a sign to them that is, as remarked before, an embodied lesson. Our Lord Jesus Christ said that the prophet Jonah was a sign to the men of Nineveh in their day, adding and "they repented at the preaching of Jonah." This implies sufficient knowledge of him to make both the man and his message intelligently significant. So this living sign, this embodied lesson of judgment and mercy; this man who had experienced both; this man who by disobedience to God had thereby brought condign judgment upon himself; this man who had himself repented and cried to God for mercy; this man who had learned by first-hand experience that "SALVATION IS OF THE LORD"; this is the man who in the heart of the great city of Nineveh announces the wrath to come because of their great wickedness.
He enters a day's journey into this exceeding great city — a city the circumference of which was nearly sixty miles. One ancient classical writer makes the circumference of Nineveh to be fifty-five miles, pastures and pleasure grounds being included within its walls. These latter were one hundred feet high with fifteen hundred towers upon them, and broad enough for three chariots abreast to race around them. (Diodorus Siculus ii.)
The threatening of imminent destruction proclaimed by Jonah in his awful message so stirred the Ninevites that an immediate movement of repentance took place. From the highest to the lowest all became aware of their wickedness and alarmed at the consequences. A desperate ray of hope appeared as they considered the God Who sent the message, and the messenger whom He had sent. Had not Jonah himself been dealt with mercifully when he repented, and been spared when he cried to God?
"Who can tell?" they say one to another, "who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?"
Accordingly they did works meet for repentance; not to purchase immunity, but to show that their sorrow and alarm were real.
"They believed God," and then by outward act showed that they trembled at His word while they hoped in His mercy. This is ever the way of repentance and salvation. For having believed and acted upon the message of warning they received the answer of mercy. It was as true then as now that, "HE DELIGHTETH IN MERCY."
The Old Testament and the New alike proclaim with unwearying persistence this grand truth. "As I live, I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord"; "God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Ezekiel the Prophet and Peter the Apostle delight in declaring the long-suffering patience of a holy righteous God towards His rebellious sinful creatures.
To the reader we would venture to repeat the searching questions of the Apostle Paul when he asks: "And thinkest thou this, O man . . . that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despiseth thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?"
Not so was it with the wicked Ninevites; turning to the One against Whom they had sinned they found that forgiveness which awaits every truly repentant soul. In concluding our paper on the Book of Jonah we clearly see writ largely all through it the wideness of God's mercy and the narrowness of man's mind. The patience of God with His erring servants and His rebellious foes is clearly shown by His persistence with Jonah and His pity for the repentant Ninevites.
Beautifully also appears the ever faithful Creator in His consideration for helpless infants and cattle in chapter 4 of the book.
Jonah himself does not come out well in the picture; but the God of Jonah is revealed in the holy, gracious, merciful, patient, considerate Figure presented by the Spirit of God in this very ancient book. Better than the best thoughts of the best of His people, He is seen to be the God of the Jew and of the Gentile; the God of Nature and of Providence; the God of Judgment and of Mercy; the God Whose tender mercies are over all His works; the God Who loves and cares for little children. It remained for the Only begotten Eternal Son to fully manifest Him in those wonderful three and thirty years of the Days of His Flesh. Yet we do not wonder that a contemporary of the prophet Jonah should have exclaimed with adoring wonder: "Who is a God like unto Thee that pardoneth iniquity? He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy." Micah 7:18. To know God is to love Him; to love Him is to worship Him. May each of our readers thus fulfil the true end for which they have conscious being. For as our Lord Himself affirmed: "This is life eternal, to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent."