The real Jonah: holy prophet and type of Christ


Some years ago I attended a Sunday school class on the book of Jonah. The teacher did a very good job presenting the standard Mormon view of Jonah, but I found myself disagreeing with it, not from any logical standpoint, but simply because it felt wrong. So I opened up the book of Jonah and read the whole of it during that class (it’s only four chapters, so this is not any great feat.) As I read, a new view of the prophet Jonah opened up to my view.

At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it and decided to keep my mouth shut during the class, since it was a complete departure from the perspectives that everyone else was giving. After the class, I had opportunity to approach the teacher and told him I had gotten a new view of Jonah and wanted to tell him about it. He expressed interest in knowing my thoughts so I told him I would send him an email later that day. I went home that day, composed the email and sent it off to him. I never kept a copy of it for myself. He wrote back saying it was interesting, but that it really wasn’t supported by the text. I left it at that and never mentioned it again to anyone else, essentially forgetting all about it.

A few days ago I picked up a Bible and it fell open to the book of Jonah, so I read it. Bible scholars typically say that Jonah was “proud, self-centered, pouting, jealous, blood-thirsty; a good patriot and lover of Israel, without proper respect for God or love for his enemies” (Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Merrill C. Tenny, Zondervan Publishing House, 1976, pg. 442.) As I read the book, I had this characterization of Jonah in my mind, but when I got to the last chapter, I recalled that I had once in the past re-interpreted Jonah quite differently. I tried to recall that interpretation, but couldn’t remember it. The only thing I could remember was that instead of casting Jonah in a negative light, it cast him in a very good light.

Frustrated that I could not remember the interpretation, I decided to re-read the book of Jonah yet again, this time with my mind fixed that Jonah was a holy prophet that acted righteously, in the hope that this would trigger my brain’s memory recall function. As soon as I read verse one, the interpretation I had received years ago popped right back into my mind, in its fulness, including the circumstances on how I came to think of it.

As I disclaimer, I do not know where this information comes from, but I wanted to write it down somewhere (and I have chosen this blog) so that when the full records come forth that show us the life and ministry of Jonah, we would be able to compare this to that and discover whether this was just a foolish imagination of my heart or if it was given of the Spirit.

Before I begin, let me quote this, taken from the Times and Seasons blog:

Karl D has already pointed us to the LDS Church’s official position with regard to Jonah (and Job):

In October 1922 . . . the First Presidency received a letter from Joseph W. McMurrin asking about the position of the church with regard to the literality of the Bible. Charles W. Penrose, with Anthony W. Ivins, writing for the First Presidency, answered that the position of the church was that the Bible is the word of God as far as it was translated correctly. They pointed out that there were, however, some problems with the Old Testament. The Pentateuch, for instance, was written by Moses, but “it is evident that the five books passed through other hands than Moses’s after his day and time. The closing chapter of Deuteronomy proves that.” While they thought Jonah was a real person, they said it was possible that the story as told in the Bible was a parable common at the time. The purpose was to teach a lesson, and it “is of little significance as to whether Jonah was a real individual or one chosen by the writer of the book” to illustrate “what is set forth therein.” They took a similar position on Job. What is important, Penrose and Ivins insisted, was not whether the books were historically accurate, but whether the doctrines were correct.

Alexander, Thomas G., 1996, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930, University of Illinois Press (Paperback), page 283.

The important part of that quote is that

they said it was possible that the story [of Jonah] as told in the Bible was a parable common at the time. The purpose was to teach a lesson, and it “is of little significance as to whether Jonah was a real individual or one chosen by the writer of the book” to illustrate “what is set forth therein.”

In other words, assuming that this originated from the Spirit (and I’m not saying that it did), perhaps the interpretation I got was based upon the real events of the real Jonah, and not so much on the parable that is today known as the book of Jonah, which is why this interpretation and the standard one are so different. Okay, here it is:

Jonah’s self sacrifice

Now the word of the Lord came unto 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. (Jonah 1:1.)

Jonah received a message from the Lord, in the which he was shown (by vision) the great city Nineveh, the exceedingly great wickedness of its inhabitants and the impending destruction that would very soon come upon them due to their iniquities. He was overcome by what he saw, both by their abominations and also by the scene of destruction that would shortly ensue. He was told to go to Nineveh and prophesy of their utter destruction unless they repented of all their sins, according to the vision which he had seen. This was to be done that they would be left without excuse.

Instead, Jonah thought upon the principle given to Ezekiel:

When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul. (Ezekiel 33:8-9)

Based upon what he saw in the vision of Nineveh, Jonah did not believe that such wicked people would ever repent of their sins, for there were all manner of abominations among them, greater than he had ever seen. His reasoning was that if he went and prophesied, as the Lord commanded, they would be left without excuse, according to the word of the Lord, and thus would be fully condemned and perish spiritually and physically. If, however, he did not go and prophesy to them, they would still die in their sins, but having not been fully warned, they would have an excuse and a better chance in the afterlife.

Jonah was moved to compassion for them and sought to take upon himself their sins by not prophesying. He vowed to offer himself as a sacrifice and was putting his faith on the fact that the Lord was “a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness” (Jonah 4:2) and would turn “away the evil that He had said He would bring upon them” (JST Jonah 3:10.)* His desire was to turn the Lord’s wrath, which was waxing hot upon the Ninevites, toward himself, that he might suffer in their place, so that they might be spared.

But Jonah rose up to flee unto 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 thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:3.)

So, he fled from his mission, going in the opposite direction. This physical action of going in the opposite direction was symbolic of the turning of the Lord’s head away from Nineveh, which was according to Jonah’s desire. The Lord’s head and attention were focused on, and looking to, the right, at Nineveh, so Jonah went to the left, causing the Lord’s head to turn away from Nineveh and focus instead on Jonah. His physical action had a spiritual dimension to it, according to his desire of faith.

Although Jonah had disobeyed the instructions of the Lord, the intentions of this heart were in the right place, which is why the Spirit of the Lord did not leave him. In fact, it appears that the Lord accepted his vow to sacrifice himself because his desire to take the sins of the Ninevites upon himself pleased the Lord. Jonah became, by his actions, desires and the sorrow for sin that he felt (his exceedingly broken heart and contrite spirit), a type of the Lord Jesus, foreshadowing what the Savior would do in the flesh.

But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. (Jonah 1:4.)

The Lord grants according to the desires of the children of men, according to their faith. Jonah desired in faith to be sacrificed, to save the Ninevites, and the Lord accordingly sent out the tempest, to accept his sacrifice. Jonah did not fear death. In fact, he welcomed it, for this was what he desired. The Gentile sailors, on the other hand, did fear death and they all called upon their gods to save them from destruction. Jonah was sleeping down below and the ship-master woke him up and asked him to pray to his own God for the salvation of the ship.

The tempest was not of an ordinary nature, and the sailors rightly ascribed it as supernatural, caused by some god to destroy one of those in the ship. They cast lots to see who was the one responsible for the storm, or who was the one that incited the anger of the god that was creating the storm. The lot fell upon Jonah and they asked him who he was and why the supernatural storm was upon them.

And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. (Jonah 1:9.)

Jonah took the opportunity and preached the gospel to the sailors and presented himself to them as both a holy prophet of the Lord and also as a sacrifice for the sins of the Ninevites. All the sailors on the ship converted to the Lord, for he preached with power and authority from God and the Spirit of the Lord was present, testifying to the sailors of the truthfulness of his message. Jonah knew that the Lord had accepted his intent to self-sacrifice and had prepared the storm for this very purpose. When the sailors asked him what they should do to get the supernatural storm to calm down, Jonah prophesied to them that if they tossed him into the sea, the storm would cease.

This, however, was not something that the sailors wanted to do, for they had converted to the Lord through Jonah’s preaching and so tried, instead, to row the ship to land, but to no avail. Finally, convinced by the raging tempest, by Jonah himself and by the workings of the Spirit of the Lord upon them, confirming to them that it was the will of the Lord that Jonah be tossed overboard, these new Gentile converts prayed to the Lord to spare the ship and to not be held responsible for causing Jonah to drown in the sea, calling him “innocent blood.” After their prayer, the sailor converts tossed Jonah overboard and continued to worship the Lord with sacrifice and vows.

Jonah dies and is brought back to life

Jonah died in those waters and the Lord prepared a sea creature to swallow his body. His physical body remained inside the creature for three days and three nights, while his spirit body went to the spirit world. After the three days and nights were over, he was brought back to life and the sea creature spat him out onto the shore. During the three day interval, Jonah prayed to the Lord in spirit and in truth, a prayer of the truly penitent and the Lord heard him and answered him by putting him alive upon dry ground.

At that point, Jonah was a new man. He had died and returned from the dead. He had intimate knowledge about the afterlife, both of hell and paradise, as well as what it meant to die and to come back to life again. He was unique among all the prophets, having received a vision of the spirit world that no one else in his time had been given.

Jonah is called to preach again

And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. (Jonah 3:1-3.)

This time Jonah did as he was commanded. Nevertheless, he still fully believed that the Ninevites would not repent, but based upon his three day “out of body” or “in the body of a sea creature” experience, he now desired to preach repentance to them and spare them from the afterlife they would receive if they died in their sins. What he did not understand was that his experiences on the ship, in the sea creature and in the spirit world would make his preaching and prophesying overwhelmingly powerful, so that when he got to Nineveh and traveled a day’s journey into it and then started preaching, his message would have a profound effect upon the people.

And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. (Jonah 3:4.)

Jonah’s preaching and prophesying can be compared to Lehi, who prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem. When Lehi testified to the Jews, “he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations.” Jonah did the same. He had seen what they were doing in vision and he testified of all their wickedness and abominations, all their secret acts of iniquity. He preached the gospel of faith and repentance to them, told them of their evil deeds done in secrecy, told them of the destruction which awaited them in forty days if they did not repent in sackcloth and ashes and told them of the afterlife that awaited them when dead. He recounted his experiences on the ship, in the sea, in the sea creature and in the spirit world, including him coming back to life. He spoke to multitudes and then bade them to go and tell everyone in the city. When Jonah was finished delivering his message in all the great squares and plazas where people gathered, he took his leave of the city, traveling eastward and setting up a shelter where he had a view of the city and could witness with his own two eyes its destruction.

Now, the Ninevites were amazed at Jonah’s preaching, for he preached in power and authority and had knowledge of all their secret abominations. They deemed it impossible that Jonah could know these things except it was through the power of a god and took all his testimony of their secret works of wickedness as a witness that Jonah was speaking the very words of God, for this was the reason why Jonah was instructed by God to tell them of these things. The same principle was offered to Oliver Cowdery as a witness:

And now, behold, you have received a witness; for if I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness? (D&C 6:24)

Unlike the Jews in Jerusalem during Lehi’s time, who also had their secret works (which no man knew of) revealed by a prophet of God, for Lehi saw these iniquities in vision, but who mocked Lehi and rejected his testimony because Lehi lived among them and was aware of the ways and customs of the Jews as well as the words of the other prophets among them, and who therefore dismissed his claims of divine knowledge, the Ninevites could not account for how Jonah knew these things, for Jonah had just arrived and was a foreigner that knew nothing of them, except as God had told him. So, they accepted Jonah’s testimony as God-given, and all that Jonah said, all of it, as valid and true.

When Jonah left the city to set up camp on the east side of it, he wasn’t aware of the effect his preaching had had upon the men of the city. After the multitudes listened to him in amazement, they followed his instructions and repeated to everyone they knew the words he had spoken. Eventually, every last person in the entire city had heard the message, from the least to the greatest, and they were all equally affected or moved by it, and struck by a sense of urgency, for it was a timed message of destruction: repent in 40 days or perish. Therefore the king and his nobles acted rapidly, proclaiming a fast throughout the city and encouraging everyone to repent in sackcloth and pray to the Lord for forgiveness.

Jonah was in his shelter overlooking the city and could not see what was going on in it. He was of the thought that they were going about their lives as usual, unrepentant and fully ripening in inquity, his preaching having been in vain. Ever the man of sorrows, he became angry at the situation.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. (Jonah 4:1)

The text of the book of Jonah is essentially correct, but is written in a fashion that seems to cast him in a negative light. This particular verse should have come after Jonah 3:4, so that the text instead read: “And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.” Instead, it comes after Jonah 3:10 so that it reads: “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.” In other words, Jonah 3:5-10 is an insertion between Jonah 3:4 and Jonah 4:1. The insertion tells what happens to the Ninevites after Jonah’s preaching, but the insertion can be removed and the text would flow accurately from Jonah 3:4 to Jonah 4:1.

Now, it did not displease Jonah that the Ninevites were repenting of their sins, for he was not aware of what was happening in the city. No, what displeased Jonah was that he had to deliver a message of doom and that his preaching was in vain, for he believed that they had not repented, or would not repent, and that he was sent to this city for nothing.

And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4:2-3.)

Once again Jonah turned to his old way of doing things, petitioning the Lord to take his life as a sacrifice, to allow him to take upon himself their sins, that the Lord would spare the city in return for his own life. He made this petition because he had no faith that they would repent. Also, because he lamented having to witness again the great destruction of Nineveh with his physical eyes, which he had already seen with his spiritual eyes in vision.

Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry? (Jonah 4:4.)

The Lord knew what was happening in the city, but Jonah did not. To teach Jonah a lesson that the Lord’s heart was even greater than Jonah’s, He caused a gourd to grow overnight, making Jonah glad for the shade it offered him, and then He had a worm wither it the next night, making Jonah uncomfortable in the heat of the day and an east wind. Once again, Jonah was miserable and wished to die, for Jonah’s heart sorrowed for all life lost, even that of a gourd.

And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?  (Jonah 4:9-11.)

It was at this point that Jonah learned from the Lord that the Ninevites had repented of their sins and that the Lord had spared them from destruction. At this news, Jonah rejoiced and returned to Nineveh, where he was hailed as a hero and holy prophet sent from the Lord. The conversion of Nineveh was held to be a great miracle on the same grand scale as Melchizedek’s preaching to Salem:

Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; but Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father. Now, there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention. (Alma 13:17-19.)

In the same way that Salem did for Melchizedek, the Ninevite converts of that time “more particularly made mention” of Jonah’s name. To them, Jonah was the greatest prophet of all time and they were all aware of his various attempts to offer his life as a sacrifice for their sins and to be their advocate and mediator before the Lord. This love that he had for them was reciprocated by them and when the full records come forth we will see just how highly esteemed Jonah was by that generation and also throughout generations of Ninevites. Even the Lord took notice of Jonah’s unique spirit. It was Jonah’s proclivity to self-sacrifice that caused Jesus to point to him as one of His types.

Jonah’s preaching was on a par with the greatest of all preachers, for everyone he preached to converted, without exception. All of the men on the ship converted to the Lord as well as all 120,000 Ninevites. In fact, Jonah may have been on the same level as Nephi, whose preaching power was so great that “it were not possible that they could disbelieve his words” (3 Ne. 7:18.) This is important to understand because when Jesus said that “a greater than Jonas is here” (Matt. 12:41 and Luke 11:32), He was comparing Himself to one of the greatest of all preachers, if not the very greatest. So, the Savior essentially was saying, “This is the greatest preacher you’ve had, and he truly was great, but I’m even greater.”

*Note: Jonah became a mediator of the Ninevites, mediating between them and the Lord and advocating their cause before Him. He did the same thing that Moses did for the Israelites—who pleaded with the Lord to pardon the iniquities of the people each time His wrath waxed hot and He was about to destroy them and make a new nation out of Moses—by appealing to the Lord’s gracious nature. See Exodus 32, Numbers 14 and Deuteronomy 9.

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