In the previous blog, The Holy Prophet Jonah, we learned about how suffering is part of the message of the Book of Jonah. Jonah suffers in not wanting to warn the Ninevites, Israel’s enemy, about God’s plan to destroy the city unless the people repent of the evil they are doing. Jonah does not want to deliver a message which would save the people of Nineveh from destruction. He suffers in being swallowed by the whale, enduring three days in the watery grave of the whale’s stomach before being vomited up on the shore. He delivers God’s message and the Ninevites heed that warning and repent, once again to Job’s anguish.
When God saw what the [Ninevites] did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “I pray You, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take my life from me, I beseech You, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 3:10-4:3)
Jonah, the faithful Israelite, who must have known the story of Noah and the Great flood, does not know God to be vindictive and vengeful and full of retribution. Rather Jonah knows God to be gracious, merciful, constant in love, slow to anger and ever giving people the chance to repent, even the enemy of His people. Some believers want to only focus on those stories in the Bible in which God vengefully visits punishment on sinners. This is not the God that Jonah knew, and his prophecy is part of Scripture as well. We cannot ignore the entirety of scripture because we prefer one story or idea about God.
When Jonah shows pity for a plant that was shading him dies, God confronts the vengeful and angry Jonah.
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:9-11)
God shows Jonah that He suffers for His creation – the Ninevites are portrayed as being none too bright (they don’t know their right hand from their left! The directionally challenged might be happy to know that God is merciful to these folk). The Ninevites don’t follow the right religion either. And yet despite their description as being of the wrong religion and pathetically hopeless by any measure of intelligence, God cares for them too, and has no desire to destroy them but hopes they too will repent of their sins.
The story of the Prophet Jonah is a story about the nature of the ever patient, merciful and loving Creator of the universe. It confronts religious and ethnic bigotry.
And yet, that isn’t the most important aspect of the story, for its importance and its prophecy is only revealed in Jesus Christ. As St. Matthew records in his Gospel:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! (Matthew 12:38-41)
While many modern Christians want to debate the historicity of the story, the New Testament does not discuss the literal integrity of the story. St. Matthew and St. Luke both mention Jonah but only as a prophecy of Christ. Matthew and Luke are not so concerned with the historical event but see Jonah’s three days in the watery grave of the whale’s belly as a prophecy and prototype of Christ’s resurrection. Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the whale is not reported in the Gospels for its miraculous content. The importance of the Jonah narrative to the Gospel writers is it prepares believers for the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Thus the Jonah story can only be fully appreciated from a Christian point of view when one reads it as prophecy. The story can be stood in itself, but after the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the story makes sense as prophecy which Christ fulfills.
The prophetic calling of Jonah in the New Testament is not so much his being told to warn the Ninevites as it is to prepare future generations to understand the death and resurrection of the Messiah as something God planned for His Christ. Thus the story of Jonah is rescued from being nothing more than about some unusual ancient event which has no real significance to the modern believer. The prophecy of Jonah finds its fulfillment in Christ and it is a typology which only makes complete sense with the resurrection of Christ, which is the event it pointed to. Its importance is experienced by us when we read it on Holy Saturday and understand it as one of many events which are a type of the resurrection. Jonah’s emergence from the belly of the whale is preparing us to recognize the resurrection of Christ from the dead as proof that He is in fact the chosen Messiah despite the crucifixion. In the resurrection we come to recognize Jonah’s experience as a prophecy and prototype.
In the Paschal Nocturnes Canon which we sing before our processional celebration of Christ’s resurrection, we joyfully proclaim:
Caught but not held in the belly of the whale was Jonah; for, bearing the image of You, Who suffered and was buried. He came forth from the monster as from a bridal chamber…
And then in the Canon of Pascha sung after the proclamation of the Resurrection Gospel we hear the words:
You descended into the nethermost parts of the earth, shattering the eternal bars that held us captive, O Christ, and on the third day, like Jonah from the whale, You arose from the tomb.
Jonah’s story and prophecy are part of our celebration of the resurrection.