On September 21 each year the Orthodox Church celebrates the prophet Jonah. His story is not the usual one when it comes to prophets. We normally have this image of an Old Testament prophet as being someone who had brought themselves close to God, and as a consequence they were able through the Holy Spirit to reveal certain future events in order to guide the people of Israel.
Jonah was already a prophet when told to go to the city of Nineveh by “the Word of the Lord” to tell the city that it would be destroyed. The city of Nineveh was a city of Gentiles in Assyria who did not believe in the God of the Israelites. Jonah did not want to obey God and fled from Joppa (which means “beautiful” in Hebrew), boarding a boat to Tarshish (which means “sea”). When storms attacked the boat it was established that Jonah and his disobedience was the cause of storms. And so Jonah was thrown into the sea and swallowed by a giant fish and the sea was calmed.
Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights before he was vomited out. This is one instance where Jonah is a type of Christ, who resurrected on the third day. Jonah even calls the belly of the fish “the belly of Hades”. Christ, prophesying His Resurrection, said to the Pharisees and the scribes that the only sign they will receive is that of the Prophet Jonah.
The story of Jonah even up to this point teaches us many lessons. The first is that it is not possible to flee from God. Jonah tried to do this physically by boarding the boat and humanity does it physically through acting in ways which are not pleasing to God. People do what they want and face severe consequences as a result of their will turning against that of God. And yet we can learn from how Jonah reacted to God’s will being made clear, willingly jumping into the sea and sacrificing his will for that of God. Where others might have followed the advice of Job’s wife, cursing God so they might die, Jonah instead repented and praised God from within the belly of the fish.
And so the Word of the Lord came again to Jonah, telling him to go to Nineveh. Jonah obeyed this time, telling Nineveh that it will be destroyed in forty days time. The reaction of the Ninevites teaches us how to repent - completely, without holding anything back. Everyone from the king and the nobles to the animals and the cattle fasted and wore sackcloth in the hope that God would accept their repentance.
God saw the repentance of Nineveh and accepted it, deciding not to destroy the city. There follows a strange scene, with Jonah being annoyed at the city not being destroyed. He then went outside the walls of the city, seemingly awaiting its destruction, and a plant grew up in a single day to give him some shelter in the heat of the desert. A day later, the plant was eaten by a worm, leaving Jonah abandoned in the heat with a hot wind from the east causing him to faint. Finally, God tells Jonah that if he was so sad over the fate of this plant and his own fate, he should also be concerned over the fate of the people of Nineveh.
The second journey made by Jonah highlights that it is still possible to follow one’s calling even after initially rejecting it, and also shows that it is possible to walk again in the way of the Lord after initially taking another path. Jonah also shows that the Word of God, Christ, will go to both Jews and non-Jews - going to all who would repent and accept God.
Jonah was confused at God not punishing the Ninevites, because he did not understand how God would have him preach that the city was to be destroyed and yet the city was preserved. St Cyril of Alexandria comments that he thought that God made him look like a false prophet, and could not accept being humbled. In awaiting the destruction of the Gentiles, Jonah was - according to St Augustine - “a type of the carnal people of Israel, for he was sad over the preservation of the Ninevites”.
The plant scene might seem strange to some. St Augustine explains the significance with the plant being the promise of the Old Testament, the law which was “shade from the heat of temporal evils in the land of promise”. When the worm attacked the plant, it showed the impact of the Pharisaic mentality on the law. The withering of the plant is paralleled by the scene in the Gospels of the withered fig tree which bore no fruit, and showed that with the coming of Christ the tree of the Law was no longer needed and faded away.
Just as after the withering of the plant there came a hot east wind, so after the coming of the Gospel there came the Holy Spirit. The word in Greek for wind in Jonah 4:8 is the same as the word for Spirit (pneuma). The east symbolises the heavenly nature of the Spirit. Finally, the heat of the wind prefigures the fiery tongues and winds which came to the Disciples at Pentecost. Through Jonah’s life and his actions we see Christ and our salvation prefigured and prophesied.