Jonah and the “Whale”
King Amaziah of Judah and king Joash of the ten-tribed nation of Israel, accompanied by their respective armies, had a surprise meeting about ten miles from Jerusalem (II Kings 14:1-11; II Chron. 25:17-21).
“Why have you brought your men to the soil of Judah?” asked Amaziah haughtily.
“To keep your army off the soil of my kingdom,” Joash sternly replied.
The inevitable battle was only minutes old when it was evident which side would win. The soldiers of Judah lacked the desire to fight. What started as a large fray ended in a massive rout of Amaziah’s men, many of whom escaped to the south. Amaziah and his top officers had no choice but to hastily follow.
But escape, if any, wasn’t going to be that simple. Amaziah’s speeding chariot was surrounded by Joash’s cavalry and forced to a halt (II Kings 14:12, II Chron. 25:22). And he was taken prisoner, the king of Judah bitterly recalled the warning of the prophet (II Chron. 25:14-16).
Joash and his army moved on to Jerusalem, which he planned to invade. He found the barred gates very strong and the walls unusually high, but he didn’t allow those conditions to deter him. He displayed the captive king of Judah before the guards on the walls.
“Order your guards to open the gates,” Joash told Amaziah.
Shackled in his chariot, Amaziah refused to say anything.
“Don’t you recognize your king in shackles?” one of Joash’s officers shouted up to the guards. “Open the gates, and we won’t kill him!”
The guards moved nervously about, but the gates remained closed.
“There has been enough delay!” Joash barked.
“A gate isn’t the only way into this city! Break down the wall!”
The high, thick wall was an irksome challenge to Joash. He wanted to prove that it could be penetrated. By the use of heavy battering rams propelled by lines of soldiers, a section of the wall about seven hundred feet long was gradually and painfully cracked into sections that thundered down into a state of rubble (II Kings 14:13; II Chron 25:23).
Many men lost their lives in this rash operation. Those atop the wall hurled all kinds of missiles down on the invaders. It would have been simpler, faster and safer to ram through the gates, but Joash was stubbornly determined to go through the wall.
A path was cleared through the debris. The attackers poured inside the city, battling Amaziah’s guards into submission. Then Joash, King of Israel triumphantly rode over the rubble in his chariot, following by his officers and the shackled Amaziah, King of Judah.
For hours Joash’s men ransacked Jerusalem. The temple and the royal palace provided most of the spoils. Just before the invaders left, they released Amaziah, who expected death any moment as he watched his palace being looted.
“How do you know that I won’t muster another army and come up to besiege Samaria?” Amaziah asked Joash.
“I don’t,” Joash answered. “But if you do, members of your family will be the first to die. I’m taking most of them with me” (II Kings 14:14; II Chron. 25:24).
Although he had been defeated in war, had lost most of his personal wealth, had been humiliated and disgraced and had become unpopular with a great part of his people, Amaziah managed, with difficulty, to stay in power in Judah. Joash, ruler of the ten tribes, died not long after invading Jerusalem, but Amaziah no longer had any interest in war nor in taking advantage of the loss of Joash’s firm leadership. For 15 more years he remained the ruler of Judah, but with increasing opposition.
One day he was informed that there was a plot to assassinate him by certain men who wanted to come into power in Judah. Amaziah was so troubled by this report that he fled from Jerusalem to the town of Lachish, about 40 miles southwest of the capital of Judah. It was very close to Philistia, and only about 7 miles from the east shore of the Great Sea.
By means of watchful agents and high rewards, Amaziah’s residence was found and reported to his opponents, who sent assassins to Lachish to carry out their murderous orders. Amaziah’s body was carried back to Jerusalem, where he was buried with the former kings of Judah (II Kings 14:17-20; II Chron. 25:25-28).
Years before Amaziah’s death, the king of Israel, Joash, had been succeeded by a son, Jeroboam, who followed in the ways of the other king Jeroboam who had begun his reign a hundred and twenty-eight years previously (II Kings 14:15-16, 23-24).
After the death of Joash, who had triumphed over the Syrians, those ancient enemies again returned from the east to reduce the northern nation Israel to a weakened state. God inspired Jeroboam, in spite of his wrong pursuits, with the desire to shake off the control of the Syrians and restore the boundaries of Israel to where Joshua had proclaimed, according to God’s instruction, they should be.
This inspiration started out as a desire for power and revenge. Jeroboam’s ambition was greatly strengthened when a prophet named Jonah disclosed to him that he, the king, was destined by God to bring Israel out of its wretched state and expand it once more almost to the size it was when Solomon reigned.
Believing that the God of Israel would protect him in whatever he did to develop Israel, Jeroboam’s confidence was increased. Like so many people of that time – and this time also – he respected and even believed God, but at the same time he chose to worship only the gods he could see.
Over the years, through many surprise attacks and battles, Jeroboam took back all the cities, towns and land that had been captured by Syria. He freed the Israelite prisoners, took the Syrian capital, Damascus, and recaptured the city of Hamath, far to the north. From there southward to the east coast of the Dead Sea he reclaimed all territory that God had given to the whole of Israel in Joshua’s time (II Kings 14:23-27).
Jeroboam became the most powerful ruler of the ten tribes since Israel had become divided. The larger and more prosperous the northern kingdom became, unfortunately, the more the people became complacent in their attitude toward God. Many reasoned that the growing prosperity was due to an increase in religious activity.
However, this often consisted of a strange, contrived worship of images that were supposed to represent a composite of God and pagan deities. This would mean breaking the first three Commandments. God did not – and does not – reward such worship with prosperity.
This was the last time the northern kingdom, the House of Israel, was to experience such national welfare and strength. The years of that kingdom were numbered. Jonah, the prophet who had predicted that Jeroboam would beat Israel’s enemies back, probably knew what Israel’s future would be, and that God was allowing the nation to be strong for a time before it would cease to be a nation unless the people turned from idolatry.
Jonah must also have known that one way God was making the Syrians conquerable was by allowing Assyria, a nation to the east, to war with the Syrians. This growing country was gradually swallowing up surrounding regions and becoming powerful at the same time Israel was gaining strength.
Like the people of Israel, the people of Assyria became more corrupt as the nation became more prosperous. The inhabitants of Nineveh, the sprawling capital of Assyria on the Tigris river, were especially lawless and reprobate. God was so displeased with them that He decided to destroy the city, but not without first warning the inhabitants so that any innocent people would have a chance to escape.
Jonah was surprised when God told him that he should make the long trip to Nineveh to warn the Assyrian people what would soon happen, but the more Jonah thought about it, the less enthusiasm be had for the task. He reasoned that if the people repented after his warning them, God might spare them and he, Jonah, would be branded a false prophet and lose his life. Besides, he hoped that Nineveh would be wiped out. Otherwise, the Assyrians would probably triumph over the Syrians and come westward to attack Israel.
This prophet was part of God’s plan. Through Jonah, God had warned the Israelites about their idolatry. They had refused to heed. Now God intended to warn a Gentile people. If they were to heed and be spared, it would be a sobering warning for Israel.
The prophet knew that he couldn’t escape from God, but he reasoned that if he could quickly get out of Israel, God might choose another prophet there to go to Nineveh. He made a hurried trip to the seaport of Joppa on the coast of Dan. There he found a sailing vessel about to set out for another port close to what is now known as the Rock of Gibraltar in Spain. That point was about as far as he could get from Israel as fast as possible. Jonah hoped God would forget about him. Furthermore, it was in the opposite direction from Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3).
Having paid his passage, Jonah went below deck to rest. After his hasty trip to Joppa he was so weary that he fell asleep at once. Later he awakened to find the ship’s captain roughly shaking him. He was aware of a howling wind, pounding waves and violent rocking of the vessel.
“Wake up, man!” the captain shouted. “How can you sleep through this storm? If it gets any worse, we’ll capsize! Whoever your God is, pray to him for your life! We’ve already had to throw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship.”
Jonah struggled to his feet, crawled up the hatchway and stared out at the billowing, spray-shrouded water crashing every few seconds over the deck of the vessel.
“Someone on this ship is causing a curse on us!” the superstitious sailors complained to the captain. “We must draw lots to find out who it is!”
The captain agreed, not knowing how right the sailors were. Jonah drew the lot, through God’s influence, to point out that he was the cause of the trouble. The crew swarmed accusingly around him (Jonah 1:4-7).
“Who are you?” the sailors asked. “Where did you come from? Why do you want to go across the Great Sea?”
“I am from Israel and I am a prophet of the God of Israel,” Jonah answered. “I was foolishly trying to escape from Him because of a difficult thing He required of me. Now I know that my God has caused this storm to prevent my running away.”
“We’ve heard about how terrible your God can be!” one of the frightened sailors exclaimed. “What must be done to quell His anger?”
“Throw me off the ship!” Jonah shouted above the noise of the storm. “The wind will abate as soon as I am gone!”
The crew struggled stubbornly to move the ship shoreward, but the east wind blowing from the land was too much for them. The heathen sailors, who had gods of their own, surprisingly raised their voices to Jonah’s God to spare them and forgive them for what they were reluctantly about to do. Only then did they take hold of the repentant, praying prophet, lift him off his knees and swing him over the leeward rail. The last they saw of him, he was valiantly trying to keep his head above water, though he knew he couldn’t continue doing so much longer.
The sailors were amazed at how suddenly the wind abated. They were so shaken by this miracle that they built a small altar on the deck, offered a sacrifice and vowed loyalty to God before sailing on westward over a calm sea (Jonah 1:15-16).
After being swept away from the ship, Jonah kept afloat for a short time. Just when he became too weary to paddle and tread any longer, he had the dreadful sensation of being sucked under the water by some great force. From then on, for quite a time, he wasn’t certain what was happening. Vaguely he felt that he had been into some sort of soft, dark, cramped area. He had the feeling of considerable movement about him, as though his container could be moving about with many twists and turns.
Hours went by, Jonah was certain that he was under the surface of the sea, yet he was able to breathe. Eventually he arrived at the fantastic conclusion that he had been swallowed by a very large fish. Earnestly he prayed that he would be delivered from his captor before he was consumed by its digestive process.
After what seemed a very long time, the prophet was startled by violent motion, as though he were being shot like an arrow from a giant bow. After recovering from his confusion, he realized that he was on a beach. Only a few feet away, in shallow water, was a very large fish whose broad mouth, directed toward Jonah, was slowing opening and closing as it gasped for oxygen it could get only through water. From the fish’s teeth hung shreds of Jonah’s torn coat. The prophet knew then that he hadn’t just imagined things. The fish had swallowed him, carried him to some shore unfamiliar to him, and had disgorged him on the beach! As Jonah pondered these startling facts and how much he had to be thankful for, the fish twisted violently to and fro. Finally, it managed to get back into deep waters, where it disappeared (Jonah 1:17; 2:1-10).
Abruptly Jonah was aware that he wasn’t alone. He was surprised to see several men staring silently at him from only a short distance away.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here,” they demanded to know. Jonah called out in Assyrian, “I am a prophet of the God of Israel, and I am sent by Him with a warning message for your king and your people~!”
From a brief conversation with those men he was amazed to learn that he had been three full days and night inside the fish, and that he was now standing on the south shore of what later was called the Black Sea! God had brought him all the way up through the Aegean Sea and had deposited him just north of Assyria.
About eight and one half centuries later, Jesus pointed out that there would be only one sign that He was the Son of God. That sign was that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights, before being resurrected just as Jonah was held inside a fish for three days and three nights before being freed (Matt. 12:38-41).
It was painfully clear to Jonah that God had brought him close to Assyria in spite of his efforts to evade doing the thing God had told him to do. He realized at last, that it was futile to go against God’s will. This was even plainer to him when the men insisted on taking him to Nineveh. God’s purpose was to use them in getting the prophet to Nineveh to warn that city of impending destruction.
From the town of Sinope, near where Jonah had landed, it was about five hundred miles south to Assyria’s sprawling capital. There, on the streets teeming with thousands of people, Jonah was pointed out as the man brought to Assyria by a huge fish. Excited, curious Assyrians gathered to stare. Jonah was irked and embarrassed at being put on display, but he realized that this situation was created for what he must do.
Taking advantage of all the attention, Jonah repeatedly shouted his message. “I have been sent by the God of Israel to warn you that Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days” (Jonah 3:1-4)!
The surprised crowed was silent for a few seconds. Then the people began to mutter, many of them in anger.
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of Man.