What Is The Meaning Of The Story Of Jonah And The Whale?

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What is the meaning of the story of Jonah and the whale?

My guess is when you hear about the story of Jonah you think of a guy getting swallowed by a whale… Well, technically big fish… But that’s not the meaning of the story of Jonah. Actually, it’s only a small part of the narrative. The purpose of the book of Jonah is much deeper and richer. It’s a story that is needed today.

The story of Jonah is a story of an intensely patriotic, a highly partisan nationalist, who got his allegiance mixed up.

Tim Keller argues that the main message of the book is that God cares how we believers relate to and treat people who are deeply different from us. 

I’m willing to bet you’ve treated people who were different than you poorly… More than once. Maybe not to their face. But you’ve made fun of that weird kid in school. You’ve said some pretty bad things towards the opposing political party. When you see that beggar on the street corner your thoughts aren’t always the nicest. Or maybe you think America’s interests outweigh people from other countries. 

I’m not trying to get political. But it’s going to, at least a little bit. It has too. Because at some point Christians are going to have to choose who comes first. Their allegiance to God or their country or {fill in the blank}. You cannot serve both, not equally anyway. And I think far too many Christians have mixed their allegiance up. Something, someone, or some ideology has overtaken God’s spot in their life. 

We’ve let a good thing, become an ultimate thing. And ultimately that’s lead to a destructive thing in our life.

If that’s you… And be honest, it’s all of us at some point or another. Then the story of Jonah is for you. Jonah did the same thing. And we can learn from his mistakes. 

If you are wondering whether I’m going to address the big fish thing and if it’s real or figurative, I’m not. Often we argue whether that’s possible and in doing so we entirely miss the significance of what’s happening. I think the message of this book is SO important for us to understand I don’t want a silly argument to overshadow it. 

So, let’s dive into the story of Jonah and see what we can learn.

The Story Of Jonah

What is the meaning of the story of Jonah and the whale? Before we can answer that we need to back up and look at the story. So, let’s start from the beginning.

Jonah was a prophet, basically, a guy that spoke on God’s behalf to others. But he didn’t always support the things God supported. In previous years, Jonah had supported Jeroboam’s aggressive military policy to extend the power and influence of the nation. In other words, he was a political player… He had opinions, power, and influence in the political realm. 

Tim Keller says the original readers of the book of Jonah would have remembered him as intensely patriotic, a highly partisan nationalist. That’s important as we are trying to understand the story of Jonah meaning.

In words, Jonah loved his country. Which is a good thing. But Jonah took a good thing and turned it into an ultimate thing. He put his nationalism above his allegiance to God. 

We see that attitude displayed in full when God asks him to do something absurd. 

The Ridiculous Request

The story of Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1:2) starts with an outrageous request. Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh. 

You’re not shocked are you? 

That probably means very little because you don’t know anything about Nineveh. Or maybe you’ve heard it compared to Las Vegas… Which is a terrible comparison. 

Let me give a little more modern example. 

Imagine if Jonah lived in 1943 as a Jewish Rabbi. God shows up and says “Hey Jonah… I want you to go to Berlin. You know the Nazi capital. And I want you to tell them who you are and tell them to repent for their evil.” 

How’s that going to play our for Jonah? Not very well. So it makes sense why Jonah runs away to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3). The 1943 equivalent of Australia. 

You see, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, to put it mildly, they were evil… Worse than you are thinking. They were an effective war machine that specialized in being brutal. When they captured an enemy they would often cut off their legs and one arm and as they slowly bled out they would shake their remaining hand mocking them in their defeat. Often they would force family members to parade with the decapitated heads of their loved one. They’d pull out tongues, flay people while alive, burn boys and girls, and cut off extremities. They were bad people. 

If you want to read more about the Assyrian empire’s brutality check out this article from the Biblical Archaeology Society: Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death

This is who Jonah is told to go to. That’s who Jonah is told God wants to forgive. And he’s thinking no way… My people, my country, has suffered at the hands of these people. I want them to pay, not be forgiven. 

Jonah Runs

Why did Jonah run? Part of it was probably fear. He was most certainly afraid for his safety and his life. But I don’t think that was the only, or maybe even primary reason. Jonah wanted the people of Nineveh to get what they deserved. He wanted them to pay. He didn’t want them to repent. He wanted them to be brought to justice. 

And that’s not just Jonah’s thought. The nation of Israel would have been repulsed at the thought of the Nineveh being spared. They would have likely shunned anyone who thought that. How could someone betray their country like that?

And you and I are no different. What if on September 12th, 2001 someone suggested we forgive Osama Bin Laden and his organization? They would probably have been labeled a traitor. Because those people need to pay for what they’ve done. 

Most of us don’t even want that political leader in our own country to repent, you want to watch them crash and burn. You don’t want those people on the other side of the world to repent, you want them to get what they deserve. You don’t want that person that hurt you deeply to be forgiven, you want them to pay. 

We are just like Jonah. 

I grew up being taught that the story of Jonah is about a guy who disobeyed God. He shouldn’t have done that. And on the one hand, that’s true. But you and I would have the same reaction. We would run the other way. 

This reaction Jonah, and by proxy us, reveals our ultimate allegiance. And it’s not God who’s our ultimate allegiance.

Jonah’s Rebellion

This is the part of the Jonah Bible story that we are most familiar with. Jonah runs away. If you haven’t read it you can read it here: Jonah 1

In short, Jonah tries to run away. But God chases him. Which should tell us the incredible depths of God’s love. He wasn’t mad at Jonah as much as he just wanted Jonah to get it. God continually gives Jonah 2nd and 3rd chances. He offers him grace and is trying to correct his wayward heart. 

Jonah finds himself on a boat in a storm with pagans. Ironically the people he is refusing to go to are now the people he is surrounded by. And in an interesting twist again we see just how far off Jonah’s heart is. Even the pagans on the boat are better representatives of God than Jonah is. 

Continually Jonah is looking out for his problems, he’s absorbed in himself. While the sailors are looking out for the good of everyone on the boat. And maybe most surprising each of the sailors starts to pray to their gods (Jonah 1:5), but Jonah does not pray to his God; the only real one. At every point the sailors upstage Jonah. 

Jonah doesn’t get it. He refuses to turn back to God. He is revealing the severity of his damaged heart. 

So they threw him overboard… 

The imagery is of Jonah going down. Physically he went down to Joppa, he went down to the belly of the ship, and now he’s going down to the bottom of the sea. But his physical trajectory isn’t the only thing going down. It’s just following his heart. 

Jonah is revealing how far his heart is from God’s. He doesn’t want others to be forgiven he wants his own needs to be satisfied. 

Jonah’s Heart Is Fully Revealed

This is the part of the story of Jonah where he seems to have a change of heart (Jonah 2 – 3). Finally, he turns back to God. Seemingly, we see the story come to a happy ending. Jonah seems to repent. The fish spits him up. He makes his way to Nineveh. He does what God tells him to do and tells the people that if they don’t repent God will destroy them. And to everyone’s surprise, they repent. 

Remember this would be like Nazi Germany repenting to a Rabbi preaching in the streets… Surprising to say the least. 

That should be good news right? Jonah should be happy. Wrong. He’s not. He’s pissed that God actually forgave him. He’s upset that God did what he said he would do. In his heart, he was hoping they wouldn’t repent and God would destroy them. 

Jonah is revealing his heart is ultimately for his nation, not his God. He’s upset because Israel’s enemies were forgiven rather than being taken out. He wanted national security more than he wanted people to be forgiven. 

Jonah 4:1-3 sounds like a toddler complaining about a sibling getting off the hook… God, I knew you’d forgive them. I knew you’d be too compassionate. I knew you’d give them grace… I just knew it. 

So just kill me. – Jonah

Talk about a temper tantrum. 

Depressed, Jonah goes and sits down outside the city. And again God shows him compassion. He caused a leafy plant to grow to provide him shade (Jonah 4:5-6). But then God does something interesting. He sends a worm to kill the plant (Jonah 4:7-8). And again Jonah loses his mind. Asking again for God to just kill him. 

God is revealing Jonah’s heart… Jonah 4:10 -11, God is digging into what is really in Jonah’s heart. 

The word used in verse 10 and 11 for compassion is a word that means to grieve over someone or something, to have your heart broken for, weep for it. What God is saying “Jonah, you wept over it. You wept over a plant. Your heart became so attached to it that you grieved a plant, Jonah. Jonah your heart is for a plant. But I have compassion, I grieve, for these people.” 

What God is saying is that Jonah has compassion for the wrong thing. His heart breaks for people, while Jonah’s heart broke for a plant. Jonah’s got the wrong focus. 

That’s the meaning of the story of Jonah. Jonah had his allegiance to the wrong thing. And God was trying to, gently, correct his heart.

What Is the Meaning Of the Story Of Jonah and The Whale

Do you hear the depth of God’s love in this story? It’s for everyone. The worst people, like the Assyrians. But it’s also for Jonah. Jonah keeps screwing up and God keeps loving him and trying to get him to understand. God has love and patience for everyone in this story. 

I think we need to take two things away from the story of Jonah. One is a challenge. Where’s your allegiance? Is it to something in this world? Or is it to God? As long as there is something more important than God to your heart, you will be, like Jonah, both fragile and self-righteous. Where’s your heart? 

What is the meaning of the story of Jonah and the whale? It’s a challenge to align our hearts to God’s heart.

But there’s a second part to the application that offers some encouragement. God didn’t give up on the evil of the evil and he didn’t give up on the person that was struggling to understand and do the right thing. If that’s true, then he won’t give up on you either. He has grace for you in your struggles and failures. And more than anything he wants your heart to reflect his. But he has patience with you in that process. 

What is the meaning of the story of Jonah and the whale? It’s that God will not give up on us in the middle of our struggles. His grace is enough.

Like this story? You’ll probably like this one too: The Story Of Samson (what they didn’t teach you in Sunday School)

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Let’s hear from you! How would you answer this question: What is the meaning of the story of Jonah and the whale?

Jeffery Curtis Poor
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