The Sign of Jonah

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As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation … The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. (Luke 11:29-32) 

It was the prophetic destiny and purpose of Israel to be a light unto the nations, and to take the knowledge of God to the ends of the earth. God promised to bless Abraham so that he would become a blessing – all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his seed (Genesis 22:18).

This is a responsibility that most Jews have shirked and despised – being constrained by racial pride to rather pursue an exclusive relationship with YHVH. Jonah is a prophetic type representing the Jewish people. Jonah, meaning “dove”, is an allegorical name which God used to describe Israel in its stubbornness and pride:

And the pride of Israel testifies to his face. And they do not return to YHVH their God, nor seek Him in all this. Ephraim also is like a silly dove without heart …. (Hosea 7:10-11)


The Soncino Commentary states in its introduction to the Book of Jonah:

“According to the allegorical interpretation, Jonah is representative of Israel … Like Jonah, Israel flees from the duty which God has laid upon him, and like them he exhibits an ‘ill-will to believe that God has any fate for the heathen except destruction.’”(1)

Paul testifies to the same attitude at the time of the apostles: They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. (1 Thessalonians 2:16)

The same antagonism later caused Paul to be expelled from Jerusalem (see Acts 22, especially verses 21-22).

But there is more to the ‘sign of Jonah’ than the conversion of the Gentiles that would follow soon after Jesus’ death in response to his gospel. Let us consider the story of Jonah to understand more fully the sign that Jesus offered.

Jonah’s commission to Nineveh is recorded in the first verses of his Book:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah arose to flee to 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 of it, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. (Jonah 1:1-3)

Nineveh is described as the great city. In chapter 3 we see that it took three days to cross the city from one side to the other. But its greatness, in God’s eyes, was due to its very large population, a population that was about to come under His wrath and be lost to Him forever (Jonah 4:11). God’s obvious desire in sending Jonah to Nineveh was that the city should repent of its evil and turn to Him. (As Jonah is a ‘prophetic type’ of the Jews, his commission to Nineveh must be seen as signifying God’s desire for the salvation of all nations.)

Repentance is always God’s desire, as we read in Ezekiel:

‘Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live …’ (Ezekiel 33:11).

Again, we see in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

It was this message that God had persistently sent to Israel for 150 years before the Babylonian conquest, but which the majority of Israel, with equal persistence, had rejected. Jonah had himself prophesied ‘to the Jew first’, before his rescue mission to Nineveh (see 2 Kings 14:25).

Nineveh was also the capital of Assyria. Thus, according to the Soncino, Nineveh was chosen “to emphasise the contrast … the Assyrians were the bitterest enemies of Israel, yet they were the object of God’s care.” (2)

This contrast is yet starker when the immediate fate of Nineveh – being spared from destruction by God’s mercy – is compared with the fate of Jerusalem, that other “great city” (Revelation 11:8) which the Hebrew prophets had since called a harlot (Isaiah 1:21) and associated with Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:10), and which, shortly after Jonah’s successful mission to Nineveh, was overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians.

Jonah fled “from the presence of YHVH” to Tarshish to avoid the fulfilment of the commission, not for fear of the Ninevites (see Jonah 4:2). Once more, according to the Soncino Commentary,

“Jonah recognised that his mission had a redemptive purpose. If the proclamation were merely a prediction, it could have been made equally well in the Land of Israel. The fact that he had to go to Nineveh and announce its overthrow to the inhabitants could only mean that God wished to give them an opportunity of repentance and redemption.”(3)

God would not have His desire for Nineveh frustrated by Jonah’s defiance. The dramatic events that follow Jonah’s flight – the storm on the boat and the miraculous deliverance after three days and three nights in the belly of the fish – testify to this. At the time of Jesus, God would no less relent of His plan for the salvation of the Gentiles because of the failure of the majority of ethnic Israel to remain faithful and perform its prophetic role.

As Jesus announced the commencement of the messianic age, he called Israel to repentance: From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17)

As in the case of Jonah, the appeal was made ‘to the Jew first’ – but this time with greater urgency. The Kingdom was at hand, and only those who repented of their sins would qualify for redemption: “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares YHVH. (Isaiah 59:20)

As in the earlier generations of Israel, the message was mostly rejected. The city Jesus cried over was not Nineveh, but Jersusalem:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. (Matthew 23:27)

But Jesus came also to fulfil Abraham’s prophetic calling, i.e. in order that all the nations of the earth should be blessed through Abraham’s seed. As YHVH had spoken through Isaiah: It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).

Matthew’s gospel emphasises a different aspect of the sign: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’ (Mat. 12:40).

In the case of Jesus, his confinement would be on behalf of / in place of his people. God would again intervene supernaturally and would miraculously resurrect Jesus on the third day, so that Israel’ prophetic mission to the nations could be accomplished.

In Jonah’s case, the three days and three nights in the belly of the big fish pre-empted the completion of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh. I.e. it was only after Jonah’s “resurrection” that the gospel reached the Gentiles, and caused their repentance and salvation.

While Jesus clearly stated that in his natural life, he had come “only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), he commissioned the apostles  after his resurrection, and sent forth the gospel “to all nations” and “to the ends of the earth” (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8). This mission bore its first fruits when Peter was called to Cornelius’ house from Joppa – the same port city from which Jonah had fled to Tarshish.

That the Gentiles would once again accept the offer of salvation that so many of the Jews had rejected is a further and obvious implication of the sign of Jonah. The New Testament testifies to the wide-scale repentance that followed, and the readiness among the Gentiles to believe and be saved.

Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
 (Acts 13:46-48)

Even in the repentance of the Gentiles, the prophetic parallel intimated by the sign of Jonah was not yet exhausted. Just as Jonah had announced the destruction of Nineveh within forty days (Jonah 3:4), so Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem within forty years. (The ‘generation’ spoken of in Matthew 23 and 24 is, with reference to Numbers 32:13, a period of forty years).

As at the time of Jonah, when the repentence of Ninevah pre-empted the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, the salvation of the Gentiles following the death and resurrection of Jesus, would once again serve as an omen of Jerusalem’s imminent destruction. The men of Nineveh would “stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it,” and so too would the Gentile converts stand as a witness against those Jews who had hardened their hearts against God’s offer of mercy and salvation.

At the conclusion of Jonah’s story, we find the prophet to the east of Nineveh, lamenting God’s compassion and forgiveness. Here God gives him a gourd or vine as a protection and comfort. The destruction of this vine followed as a grave lesson to those who are interested only in their own well-being, while refusing to share in God’s sense of loss over an estranged humanity, or in the Father’s desire for reconciliation with His errant children:

And the LORD said, You have had pity on the plant, for which you had not laboured, nor made it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night.
And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than a hundred and twenty thousand men who do not know between their right and their left hand, besides much cattle? 
(Jonah 4:10-11)

Jonah’s vine “for which you did not labour, neither made it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night” (Jonah 4:10) alludes to the treasured Land of the Jews:

So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. (Joshua 24:13)

The east wind (Jonah 4:8) alludes to judgment that would come (see Isaiah 27:8). But it represents a sifting judgment, as the wind at harvest time which separated the wheat from the chaff. Soon after the time of Jonah, another prophet – namely, Ezekiel – lamented over a vine, withered by the east wind and displaced into captivity.

Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard planted by the water; it was fruitful and full of branches because of abundant water. Its branches were strong, fit for a ruler’s scepter. It towered high above the thick foliage, conspicuous for its height and for its many branches.
But it was uprooted in fury and thrown to the ground. The east wind made it shrivel, it was stripped of its fruit; its strong branches withered and fire consumed them. Now it is planted in the desert, in a dry and thirsty land. (Ezekiel 19:10-13)

Ezekiel spoke of the Babylonian captivity, a temporary loss of the Land after the time of Jonah. The parallel event after the crucifixion of Jesus was the eventual loss of the Land to which the unfaithful remnant of Israel had clung so tenaciously, as its assurance of God’s blessing and favour. This event concludes the remarkable parallels signified in the story Jonah, the prophetic sign by which Jesus chose to confirm – for all who care to see – that he was and is Messiah, Lord and King.



(1) The Twelve prophets, Soncono Press, London, 1959. A. Cohen, ed., p. 137

(2) Op. Cit., p. 138.

(3) Ibid.