Footnotes follow the paragraph in which they appear. Text in red, if any, are my additions. Click on image at left to enlarge.
AFTER the death (1) of Eliseus [Elisha], the Lord wishing to show mercy to the Gentiles, raised up the prophet Jonas [Jonah] that he might go to Ninive [Nineveh] (2), and preach penance to the inhabitants of that city. The wickedness of the pagan Ninivites had provoked the anger of God, and He had said to Jonas: “Arise, and go to Ninive and preach in it, for the wickedness thereof is come up before Me.” (3)
1. The death of Eliseus.Under the reign of king Joas (Joash).2. Ninive. The capital of the kingdom of Assyria, situated to the east of Syria. This was the greatest empire of those days, and embraced all the country between the Euphrates and the Tigris (Mesopotamia), and a large tract to the north and south of it (Media, Elam and Babylonia). Ninive, the greatest city of antiquity, was on the Tigris, and was twenty-four leagues in circumference, its houses being surrounded by gardens and vineyards. The inhabitants, who numbered about 700,000, were proud and immoral.
3. Before Me. i. e. their wickedness constrains Me to punish them if they will not do penance. Jonas suspected that if the Ninivites repented, God would spare them and abandon the Israelites. He wished Ninive to be destroyed, so that the Assyrians should be rendered incapable of overpowering Israel; he did not wish to preach penance to the city, through fear that God might find reason to spare it.
Jonas, however, knew that the Lord easily forgives; hence he was afraid that if he preached to the people of Ninive they would do penance, and that consequently the Lord would spare them, while he himself would be looked upon as a false prophet. So Jonas rose up to flee from the face (1) of the Lord, and he embarked on board a ship which sailed for Tharsis (Tarshish). But the Lord sent a great storm, and the sea heaved and swelled, and the ship threatened to sink (2).
1. From the face. He wished to avoid the mission with which God had charged him, and therefore embarked on a ship bound for Spain. The prophet knew very well that he could not escape from the omnipresent God. The face often designated a person’s presence in ancient idiom, as in our modern phrase, “get out of my face” (i.e., get away from me). In verse 2 God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it “for their wickedness has come before my face.” This is one of numerous meaningful word plays in the book (e.g., In verse 2 God tells Jonah to arise for a mission and the narrative immediately portrays him in verse 3 as rising up to go down to Joppa, for which purpose he went down into the ship. In verse 5 he goes down into the ship’s hold. His flight eventually leads him to go down into the sea [2:7, or 2:6 in some translations].
2. To sink. And break in pieces.
Then the sailors, being frightened, threw into the sea all the merchandise that was on board, in order to lighten the vessel. And each one began praying to his own god for help. But Jonas was below, fast asleep, and the shipmaster went to him and said: “Why art thou asleep? Rise up, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think of us, that we may not perish!”
But the sailors, seeing that the violence of the storm continued to increase, proposed to cast lots that they might know why this evil (1) had come upon them. And they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonas (2). Then Jonas confessed his sin and said: “Take me up, and cast me into the sea, and the sea shall be calm to you.”
1. Why this evil. They were convinced that some one on board must have secretly committed a great sin, and that an angry divinity had sent this terrible storm as a punishment. Even the heathens believed in divine retribution. This last point is important in light of pagan Nineveh’s subsequent repentance.
2. Upon Jonas. By God’s Providence.
The sailors, unwilling to throw Jonas overboard, rowed very hard to gain the shore, where they might leave him in safety. But they were not able; for the sea swelled and tossed higher than ever. At last they took Jonas and cast him into the sea, and immediately the storm ceased, and the sea was calm. The pagan sailor’s reluctance to kill Jonah should be seen as a parallel to God’s desire not to destroy the people of Nineveh; and in contrast to Jonah’s anger that the Ninevites were spared.
At the same moment the Lord sent a great fish (1), a whale, which opened its jaws and swallowed Jonas. And he remained three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, continually calling on God to save him, saying: “I am cast away, out of the sight of Thy eyes; but yet I shall see Thy holy temple again.” His prayer was heard, and on the third day the fish threw Jonas out of its mouth on the dry land.
1. A great fish. Probably a shark. This fish has been known to be as much as thirty feet long, and has such enormous jaws that it could easily swallow a man whole. That Jonas remained alive inside the fish and was thrown up by it on dry land, was a miracle of God’s omnipotence.
And the Lord spoke a second time to Jonas and told him to go to Ninive, the great city, and preach penance. Jonas went without delay, and entering into the city, he walked a whole day through the streets, calling out as he went: “Yet forty days, and Ninive shall be destroyed.” The people of Ninive were struck with terror, knowing how guilty they were, and a general fast was proclaimed throughout the whole city, both for man and beast.
The king himself put on sackcloth and sat in ashes, and he and all his people, from the greatest to the least, fasted and did penance, in order to appease the anger of God. And because of their repentance God had mercy on the people of Ninive, and spared their city. Meanwhile, Jonas had gone out of the city, and sat down at some distance, towards the east, to see what would happen. And finding that God had spared Ninive, he was angry (1) and much troubled lest he should pass for a false prophet. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Jonah feared being taken as a false prophet, yet this is common speculation among commentators. As a matter of fact, the prophet himself seems to be aware that God’s predictions of punishment are contingent upon how the people under judgment respond: I know that thou art a gracious and merciful God, patient, and of much compassion, and easy to forgive evil (4:2). Jonah’s intransigence at God’s mercy stands in contrast to the Ninevites’ assumption that he might forgive them: Who can tell if God will turn, and forgive: and will turn away from his fierce anger, and we shall not perish? (3:9).
1. Angry. Because he feared that Ninive’s salvation would be Israel’s destruction.
God, however, wishing to show his prophet the unreasonableness of his anger, caused to spring up, during the night, a large vine (1), which sheltered him next day from the scorching rays of the sun. But on the following morning God sent a worm which ate up the root of the plant, and it withered away.
1. A large vine. Over his unprotected head.
Now, when the sun had risen, God sent a hot and burning wind; and the sun struck full on the head of Jonas, and he broiled with the heat to such a degree that he desired to die. Then the Lord said to him: “Thou art grieved for the ivy for which thou hast not laboured, and shall not I spare Ninive, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons that know not how to distinguish (1) between their right hand and their left, and many beasts?”
1. How to distinguish. Whom did the Lord God mean by those who knew not their right hand from their left? Little children under seven. It was, therefore, as if He had said: “Shall I not have compassion on this great city, in which are 120,000 innocent children, who have not as yet committed any actual sin?” In an earlier footnote the bishop stated that Nineveh numbered about 700,000 people; I’m not sure how he came to this number. The phrase those who cannot distinguish their left hand from their right probably refers to the pagans inhabitants in general, regardless of age. Because they lack revelation they have no developed moral sense, unlike Jonah and his countrymen, yet they come off in this book looking better than Jonah who was angry over the loss of a plant he did not pay for or labor to cultivate. God, who created both the Ninevites and the plant, can distinguish between the value of both, Jonah, though he should have also had this ability, lacks it because of his animosity toward the Ninevites.
WHAT THE STORY OF JONAH TEACHES US
God never changes. What! did He not change His intention towards Ninive? It may appear so; for first He made Jonas proclaim that the city would be destroyed in forty days, and yet after all He spared it. To this St. Jerome replies: “God did not change His purpose, but man changed his actions! From the first it was God’s intention to be merciful, and He proclaimed the punishment in order that He might be able to show mercy.” As God is ever ready to be merciful if only man will be converted, we must add to the words ‘Ninive shall be destroyed’ this reservation: ‘unless it do penance’. God threatened to punish the Ninivites for the express purpose of bringing them to repentance, so that, of His mercy, He might remit the punishment with which His justice had threatened them.
The Omnipotence of God stirred up the storm at sea, and instantly calmed it; made the lot to fall on Jonas, sent the fish to swallow him, kept him alive inside it, made it cast him up on dry land, and caused the rapid growth and as rapid decay of the plant which gave shelter to the prophet. Everything is in the hands of Almighty God; the elements obey Him, and the animals do His will.
The Goodness and Holiness of God. God loves little children, because they are innocent, and have not committed any actual sin; and for the sake of them He had mercy on the whole city.
The Justice of God. God punished the disobedience of Jonas by stirring up the storm on his account, by letting him be devoured by the fish and keeping him shut up inside it in a state of mortal fear.
The Mercy of God. He showed His mercy to Jonas first; and then to the Ninivites. “As I live, saith the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ez. 33:11).
The faith and repentance of the Ninivites was very edifying. In spite of the wonderful words and deeds of Elias (Elijah), most of the Israelites had remained impenitent. Then God turned to the Gentiles, who showed more good-will and faith than the chosen people. The Ninivites believed the word of the Lord as soon as the prophet announced it to them; and they practised penance with prayer and fasting when he quoted his own miraculous deliverance as a sign that God had sent him (Luke 11:30). Our Lord Himself held up the Ninivites as an example to the hard-hearted Israelites, when He said: “The men of Ninive shall rise in judgment with this generation and shall condemn it, because they did penance at the preaching of Jonas; and behold a greater than Jonas is here” (New Test. XXVII). How disgraceful would it be for Christians if they allowed themselves to be outdone in faith and penance by the Ninivites!
True conversion. Jonas sinned by refusing to obey God’s command. But he saw, confessed and repented of his sin, and in his repentance declared himself willing to suffer death by drowning. His conversion was sincere; for immediately after his miraculous deliverance he set off for Ninive to execute God’s commission. The surest proof of conversion is to be willing to do God’s will, no matter how hard it may be.
Fasting is, as we can see by this story, a work of penance well-pleasing to God. Therefore the Church, in order to kindle and increase our ardour for penance, has prescribed fixed fasting days.
The good works of sinners. The Ninivites were not in a state of grace when they performed their good works of prayer, fasting &c., for they were great sinners. Nevertheless, these good works were not useless, for they availed to avert the threatened judgment, and to win for many of the inhabitants the grace of conversion.
Jonas, the fifteenth type of Jesus Christ. Jonas was a type of the Divine Redeemer. Our Lord Himself teaches us this when He says (New Test. XXVII): “An adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, and a sign shall not be given it but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights, so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” Jonas is also a type of our Lord in other ways. He was sent not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles: our Lord came and died for both Jews and Gentiles. Jonas offered himself up to die of his own free will, to appease God’s anger, and save his fellow-passengers. Our Lord went willingly to death in order to satisfy the divine justice and save us, His brethren, from eternal death.
Revelation to the Gentiles. God showed mercy to the Gentiles and manifested Himself to them. The sojourn of Jacob and his descendants in Egypt, as also Moses’ great miracles in the desert, had served to make God more or less known among the Gentiles. Elias was sent to Sarepta, and there worked miracles in God’s name among the heathen. Eliseus cured the Syrian Naaman, and thereby made known God’s almighty power to the pagan Syrians. Jonas was sent by God to the greatest city of the pagan world, to preach penance to its inhabitants, and make known to them the Omnipotence, Justice, and Mercy of the true God.
Relapse into sin. Two hundred years after, when the Ninivites had returned to their former state of wickedness and, this time, remained impenitent, God’s threatened judgment fell on them. The abominable city was entirely destroyed and levelled to the ground, 606 B. C. This shows us how dangerous it is to fall back into sin.
Cruelty to animals. God showed mercy even to the beasts in Ninive, for they too are his creatures. How good it would be if men would take pity on beasts and refrain from ill treating them.
Do you take compassion, on your unfortunate fellow-creatures? Do you do your best to comfort them and help them? Or do you rejoice when any evil or punishment overtakes them? Are you ever cruel to animals?
Are you sorry for your sins? What have you done to make satisfaction for them? You could very well forego some pleasure at times, or deny yourself in eating, and offer these acts of self-denial to God as a penance for your sins. Try every day to arouse feelings of compunction in your heart!