The Prophet Jonah

By Augustine Sokolovski, doctor of theology, priest

On 5 October, the Church commemorates the Prophet Jonah. In the orthodox liturgical calendar, as in the ancient menologies, this commemoration day falls on the first day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This is deeply symbolic and meaningful.

After all, the Exaltation is the only true Christian political feast, and Jonah is an underrated political prophet. For politics in the biblical sense is the highest form of love for one's neighbor, and love for one's neighbor is repentance of unlove, love is a cross.

The book of Jonah is one single stand-alone narrative. It is a story. A tale of destiny and salvation of a city. A story of salvation from a wrong destiny.

The narrative of this prophetic book is built around one single prophecy. This is the prophecy about the destruction of Nineveh. "Forty days more, and Nineveh will be destroyed" (Jonah 3:4). In this - that is, in the form of the narrative and in the fact that it is built around a single utterance - the essential difference between Jonah and the other prophetic books.

In addition to the book bearing his name, Jonah is mentioned in the Book of Kings II. According to the latter, the Israelite King Jeroboam II (788-747) "restored the borders of Israel, from the gate of Hamath to the sea of the wilderness, at the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spoke through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, a prophet from Gath Hepher" (2 Kings 14:25). This was not because this 13th king of the northern kingdom of Israel was strong or great, but solely because "the Lord saw the distress of Israel, very bitter, so that there remained no prisoners, nor any helpers for Israel" (2 Kings 14:25). In translation, the name Jonah means "dove". Not Jeroboam, literally "the people are multiplied", but "a dove", as a sign of the helpless power by which God Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, or better Lord of Armies, triumphs all-conqueringly. 

Besides that, the ancient tradition identified Jonah with the son of the widow of Zarephath, whom the prophet of God Elijah raised up: "Then the son of this woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick, and his sickness was so strong that he had no breath left in him" (1 Kings 17:17).

So, according to the biblical text, the prophet Jonah received a command from God to go preaching to Nineveh. Nineveh in the eighth to ninth century BC was a huge city. Jonah was frightened and refused to carry out his mission. He boarded a ship that was going the other way, got caught in a storm, was thrown overboard, found himself swallowed by a fish, but was finally saved by the power of God. 

The Lord sent Jonah a second time to preach (Jonah 2:1), and this time Jonah went. "And Jonah began to go about the city as much as he could go in one day, and preached, saying, 'Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed!'" (2,4).  Like all great cities, Nineveh was a huge human city - a city with its own fears and expectations. But this City of Sin heard Jonah's preaching, the King himself proclaiming repentance. 

Jonah's prophecy of the coming destruction sounded extremely radical and bold, and so it seemed that Jonah just had to wait for that destruction. Contrary to expectation, Nineveh repented before God and was therefore saved. "For God - as Jonah himself would later proclaim - is  gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, God who relents from sending calamity" (Jonah 4:2).

At the time of the Ecumenical Councils days of prophetic commemoration had a special significance in the Church in Constantinople. After all, the emperors saw themselves as successors not only to the Roman Caesars, but also to the Jewish Kings. The hymnographers dedicated liturgical texts to the prophets and wrote services and canons. The Roman Empire had been like the pagan Nineveh, but it had repented, been baptized, and erected the cross on its banners. It was in the Era of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross that, as a result, the Church Fathers and their contemporaries believed that God would grant its victories forever.