The story of Jonah is told in the Old Testament book of Jonah. It’s a short story that begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh, which was a city in what is now Iraq.
Jonah doesn’t want to go because he thinks the people there are bad, so he runs away on a boat. But then a storm hits and they throw him overboard, where he is swallowed by a whale or some sort of sea creature. After three days inside it, Jonah agrees to go back to Nineveh and tell them that God will forgive them if they repent (turn away from their sins).
The people in Nineveh repent and God forgives them, so he spares them from destruction by bringing down fire and brimstone from heaven.
Jonah and the Whale Bible Story Study Guide
The story of Jonah and the Whale, one of the oddest accounts in the Bible, opens with God speaking to Jonah, son of Amittai, commanding him to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. Jonah rebels, gets swallowed by a great fish, repents, and, at last, fulfills his mission. While many dismiss the story as a work of fiction, Jesus referred to Jonah as a historical person in Matthew 12:39–41.
Question for Reflection
Jonah thought he knew better than God. But in the end, he learned a valuable lesson about the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness, which extends beyond Jonah and Israel to all people who repent and believe. Is there some area of your life in which you are defying God, and rationalizing it? Remember that God wants you to be open and honest with him. It’s always wise to obey the One who loves you most.
Jonah’s story is recorded in 2 Kings 14:25, the book of Jonah, Matthew 12:39-41, 16:4, and Luke 11:29-32.
Jonah and the Whale Story Summary
God commanded the prophet Jonah to preach in Nineveh, but Jonah found God’s order unbearable. Not only was Nineveh known for its wickedness, but it was also the capital of the Assyrian empire, one of Israel’s fiercest enemies.
Jonah, a stubborn fellow, did just the opposite of what he was told. He went down to the seaport of Joppa and booked passage on a ship to Tarshish, heading directly away from Nineveh. The Bible tells us Jonah “ran away from the Lord.”
In response, God sent a violent storm, which threatened to break the ship to pieces. The terrified crew cast lots, determining that Jonah was responsible for the storm. Jonah told them to throw him overboard. First, they tried rowing to shore, but the waves got even higher. Afraid of God, the sailors finally tossed Jonah into the sea, and the water immediately grew calm. The crew made a sacrifice to God, swearing vows to him.
Instead of drowning, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, which God provided. In the belly of the whale, Jonah repented and cried out to God in prayer. He praised God, ending with the eerily prophetic statement, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9, NIV)
Jonah was in the giant fish three days. God commanded the whale, and it vomited the reluctant prophet onto dry land. This time Jonah obeyed God. He walked through Nineveh proclaiming that in forty days the city would be destroyed. Surprisingly, the Ninevites believed Jonah’s message and repented, wearing sackcloth and covering themselves in ashes. God had compassion on them and did not destroy them.
Again Jonah questioned God because Jonah was angry that Israel’s enemies had been spared. When Jonah stopped outside the city to rest, God provided a vine to shelter him from the hot sun. Jonah was happy with the vine, but the next day God provided a worm that ate the vine, making it wither. Growing faint in the sun, Jonah complained again.
God scolded Jonah for being concerned about a vine, but not about Nineveh, which had 120,000 lost people. The story ends with God expressing concern even about the wicked.
The primary theme of the story of Jonah and the Whale is that God’s love, grace, and compassion extend to everyone, even outsiders and oppressors. God loves all people.
A secondary message is that you can’t run from God. Jonah tried to run, but God stuck with him and gave Jonah a second chance.
God’s sovereign control is showcased throughout the story. God commands everything in his Creation, from the weather to a whale, to carry out his plan. God is in control.
Points of Interest
- Jonah spent the same amount of time—three days—inside the whale as Jesus Christ did in the tomb. Christ also preached salvation to the lost.
- It’s not important whether it was a great fish or a whale that swallowed Jonah. The point of the story is that God can provide a supernatural means of rescue when his people are in trouble.
- Some scholars believe the Ninevites paid attention to Jonah because of his bizarre appearance. They speculate that the whale’s stomach acid bleached Jonah’s hair, skin, and clothing a ghostly white.
- Jesus did not consider the book of Jonah to be a fable or myth. While modern skeptics may find it impossible that a man could survive inside a great fish for three days, Jesus compared himself to Jonah, showing that this prophet existed and that the story was historically accurate.
As my life was slipping away,
I remembered the Lord.
And my earnest prayer went out to you
in your holy Temple. (NLT)