CHAPTER I. INTRODUCTORY THE TIME AND CIRCUMSTANCES OF JONAH’S APPEARANCE AS A PROPHET
IT is always of importance for a correct understanding of the prophetical scriptures, to know something of the time when they were indited, and of the persons to whom they were originally addressed. In the case of Jonah it is not difficult to ascertain this, as a passage in the Second Book of Kings marks with sufficient distinctness the period of his agency in the affairs of Israel. Speaking of the second Jeroboam, the great-grandson of Jehu, and the last of his seed that for any length of time occupied the throne of Israel, the inspired historian says, “He restored the coast of Israel, from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet which was of Gath-hepher (a town in the tribe of Zebulon); for the Lord saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter; for there was not any shut up, nor any left, nor any helper for Israel; and the Lord said not, that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, but he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam, the son of Joash.”— (2Ki_14:25-27)
This passage puts it beyond a doubt, that Jonah was in the exercise of his prophetical office, certainly not later than the commencement of the reign of Jeroboam II; for, the prediction he is recorded to have uttered respecting the recovery of a part of the Israelitish territory from the yoke of Syria was fulfilled by the hand of Jeroboam. And as this monarch, in fulfilling it, had to wage a difficult and arduous warfare with Syria, in the course of which he got possession of Damascus, the capital of the kingdom, and raised Israel anew to much of its former splendour and importance, we may certainly conclude, that he was at the time in the vigour of his days, and that the conquests achieved by his hand were made much nearer the beginning than the close of his reign. But the prophecy which foretold the result of these conquests must have been earlier still. Nay, it was manifestly uttered at a time when the affairs of Israel were in the most shattered and depressed condition; when, as it is said, “there was none shut up or left,” that is, confined or left at large; when there was neither bond nor free, the inhabitants of all conditions being utterly wasted, and there seemed to be none that could act the part of “a helper for Israel.” But the kingdom of Israel was never in such a state at any period during the reign of Jeroboam, nor even when he ascended the throne. It had been so, indeed, in the days of his father Joash, who had found the kingdom reduced to the most abject subjection to the king of Syria; but he had gradually restored it, by a succession of victories, to comparative strength, and commenced the prosperous career which was only continued and carried out by Jeroboam. So that the utterance of Jonah’s prediction concerning the recovery of Hamath and Damascus, seems rather to belong to the earlier part of the reign of Joash than to any period of Jeroboam’s reign; and, though the fulfilment of it is ascribed only to Jeroboam, because it was he who recovered the more distant portion of the territory of which it spake, yet the prophecy itself appears to have equally included the preceding victories and nearer conquests of Joash.
We thus arrive at the result that Jonah was the earliest, in point of time, of all the prophets whose labours and predictions have been recorded in separate books. Hosea and Amos are both reported to have prophesied in the days of Jeroboam; but, from the other marks of time given in their writings, they could not have begun to prophesy till near the close of his reign. (Thus Amos expressly states, that he began to see his vision concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah and Jeroboam, two years before the earthquake. Now, this earthquake, we learn from Zec_14:5, happened in the reign of Uzziah, king of Judah, who did not begin to reign till about fourteen years before the death of Jeroboam. But Jeroboam reigned altogether forty-one years, so that at whatever precise period in Uzziah’s time the earthquake may have happened, the two years before it, mentioned by Amos as the commencement of his prophetical agency, necessarily carries us into the latter half of Jeroboam’s reign. Then Hosea is said to have prophesied so late as the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah; and between even the last year of Jeroboam’s reign and the first of Hezekiah’s, a period of about sixty years intervenes. He must, therefore, have been a very young man at the close of Jeroboam’s reign, and could not have entered on the prophetic office much earlier. So that Jonah, who seems to have uttered a prediction in the days of Joash, was considerably earlier than either of these prophets. They were the next to follow him; and as it is probable that the transactions recorded in the book which bears his name took place in the latter period of his life, the book itself may possibly not be much older than some portions of the writings of Hosea and Amos. Various reasons might be assigned for the Jews not placing his book precisely at the commencement of the minor prophets; and the belief of Lightfoot (Chronim Temporum) and many others, as to his being actually later than Hosea and Amos, seems partly to have arisen from a wrong view of his mission, of which afterwards.) The time of Jonah thus treads closely on that of Elisha; and we can scarcely doubt that the two were for some years contemporaneous. Elisha lived to an advanced age, and died some time in the reign of Joash, before the close of his successful conflict with the Syrians. And, as Joash’s entire reign did not exceed sixteen years, we may reasonably infer that Jonah, who in the course of that reign appeared on the prophetic stage, had in his early years sat at the feet of Elisha. His first appearance also was of a kind that fitly became the successor of that gentle and humane ambassador of heaven; for the word then put into the mouth of Jonah, the only direct word, indeed, he is recorded to have uttered concerning Israel, was a word of mercy and consolation to the covenant people. It told them, that the Lord still yearned over them for their good, and would once more drive back the tide of evil which had been flowing in upon them, and recover the territory they had lost. Yet, while this promise of returning prosperity was held out, it was not doubtfully intimated, that all stood in an uncertain and hazardous position. The mercy of heaven hovered over the land, as if ready to take its departure; and the Lord had only not said, he would blot out the name of Israel, but neither had he said, he would preserve it. The fate of the kingdom hung in a kind of fearful suspense, as if He on whom its destinies depended, were waiting the issue of a last trial, to decide whether it was to be established in peace or given up to perdition.
Such was the posture of affairs in the kingdom of Israel when Jonah entered on his prophetical career. But whence originally arose this extreme danger? How did it happen, that, in a religious and moral point of view, they had come into so peculiarly critical and perilous a condition? It is necessary to know this, in order rightly to understand the future mission and history of the prophet of Gath-hepher; and it will consequently be proper here to take a rapid glance of the course which this kingdom of Israel had pursued since its commencement, and of the kind of dealing to which it had been subjected on the part of God.
The erection of the kingdom of Israel, or of the ten tribes, into a distinct and separate government, it is necessary to bear in mind, is constantly represented in Scripture as a great evil. It came at the first as the visitation of a sore chastisement; and, so long as it existed, it necessarily destroyed the unity of the covenant-people, maintained a rival interest in what should have remained an undivided brotherhood of love, interfered with the arrangement which conferred the rights of royalty as a divine inheritance on the house of David, and opened the door both for corruptions springing up within, and for the assaults of adversaries making havoc from without. Fraught as it necessarily was with such great evils, the erection of the separate kingdom could not fail to be displeasing to the mind of God; nor could prosperity in the full sense—prosperity as designed and promised by God—be enjoyed by either branch of the divided inheritance until the breach was again healed, and the people were once more united under one head of the house of David.
At the same time, there can be no doubt that, in a certain modified sense, the erection of the separate kingdom had God’s sanction and approval. It came expressly as a gift from God to Jeroboam, under the hand of Ahijah the prophet, and with a promise from the Lord, not indeed of its absolute perpetuity, but of its prolonged existence, if Jeroboam and his seed would walk in the ways of the Lord. (1Ki_11:30-39) On this account, also, Rehoboam was discharged from attempting to reduce the lost tribes again under his dominion, as the Lord had meanwhile given them to Jeroboam. And for the reason of the proceeding, we must, no doubt, find it in the fact, that the house of David had proved unfit to exercise the high and responsible trust committed to it, as appointed to reign in God’s name over God’s heritage, and carry out the great ends of his spiritual and righteous government. The external power and glory that had come to be connected with the honour, was more than David’s successors—more even than his most renowned and wisest successor—could properly bear and employ; even in his hands, it was abused to purposes of carnal pomp and selfish aggrandizement at home, and abroad to the rendering of Jehovah’s name utterly distasteful, by the exaction upon the subject heathen of an oppressive tribute, and the enforcement of a galling yoke. Even the abominations of those surrounding heathen, which should have been striven against and dispelled by the manifestation of divine truth to their consciences, were taken by the house of David under its countenance and protection; and thus, instead of serving as a sacred lever to raise the state in all its relations into nearer contact with heaven, the elevation of that house was rather tending to depress it in condition and character to the level of an earthly kingdom. The Lord must, therefore, bring a shade over its external glory, and weaken the arm of its temporal power, in order, if possible, to check the carnalising tendency, and secure for it a higher good.
But the incompetency on the part of the house of David to bear the glory to which it had been exalted, had its counterpart among a large portion of the people, in their insensibility to the honour of having a visible representative of the most high God reigning over them, and their disposition to view the kingdom in the light of a mere human institution. Great pains had been taken by Samuel at the period of its institution to elevate the people’s notions respecting it; and David, during his lifetime, had also exerted himself to the uttermost to give the kingly government a divine aspect in the eyes of the people, and awaken that higher and fuller development of the divine life, which it was the special calling of the Lord’s anointed to foster and promote among the tribes of his inheritance. This David did partly by the vigour and righteousness of his administration, which ever had mainly at heart the interests of truth and piety; partly also by the new life and power which he infused into the tabernacle worship; and finally, by the composition and destination to public use of those divine songs, which, were not more adapted to beget and nourish a spirit of devotion, than to identify in the minds of the people the peculiar glory of their nation with the royal dignity and blessed administration of David’s house. Still, the people as a whole never became thoroughly adjusted to the constitution under which they were placed. They wanted spiritual discernment and faith to enter into the plan of God, and to realise their own honour in the honour of the house of David. A large proportion of them viewed its exaltation with a carnal and envious eye, and bore with impatience the yoke of its authority; for which, doubtless, the selfish and worldly spirit that so early appeared in that house itself furnished too ready an excuse. Therefore, on both accounts—both as a necessary chastisement and humiliation to the house of David, and as the most appropriate way of administering a wholesome discipline and instruction to the people—the Lord saw it needful to disturb and weaken the commonwealth for a time, by the erection within it of a separate kingdom. Happy if both parties had understood that this device was sanctioned only as a temporary expedient, a grievous evil in itself, though intended to work out an ultimate good, and an evil which, so long as it lasted, inevitably prevented the full inheritance of blessing which God had promised to bestow. This, however, they failed to do. The breach, instead of leading to true repentance for sin, and from that to mutual reconciliation on higher grounds, became perpetually wider and deeper. And those who attained to power in the new kingdom of Israel, were plainly bent on nothing more than on establishing their total independence of the house of David and the kingdom of Judah.
It was not against this, however, the civil aspect of the evil, that the prophets in the kingdom of Israel struggled, or were called directly to interfere. They had to do only with the religious change, by which it was soon followed, and which had in no respect the sanction of God; but, on the contrary, his uncompromising resistance and severe reprobation. While he in some sense authorized Jeroboam to erect the ten tribes into a separate kingdom, he gave him no permission to institute within its borders a separate worship; and to throw, if possible, an effectual bar against any attempt in that direction, he caused Ahijah twice in the original message to Jeroboam, to declare Jerusalem to be the one place he had chosen, in which to put his name.— (1Ki_11:32, 1Ki_11:36). Motives of worldly policy, however, induced Jeroboam to disregard this plain intimation of the divine will, and to set up a separate worship. For, he naturally imagined, that if the people of his kingdom should continue to go up to Jerusalem at the stated feasts, their hearts in process of time would be won back to the house of David, to the prejudice of his own family, and the ultimate overthrow of his kingdom. And so, pretending to a considerate regard for the comfort and convenience of the people—that it was too far for them to travel to Jerusalem—he consecrated two sanctuaries with their respective altars, the one at Bethel in the south, the other at Dan in the north. With these also he connected two golden calves, which were apparently designed to hold the same relative place to the sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel, that the ark of the covenant did to the temple at Jerusalem; were designed, in short, to serve (after the manner of Egypt, where Jeroboam had spent many years of his life) as proper and becoming symbols of the true God. But such innovations were too palpably opposed to the law of Moses to meet with the approval of the priesthood; who therefore, with one consent, refused to enter the sanctuaries of Jeroboam, and minister at his altars. Their refusal, however, only led to another flagrant violation of the Mosaic constitution; for Jeroboam, still determined to adhere to his wretched policy, took and consecrated for priests of the vilest of the people—men needy in circumstances and worthless in character—entirely fitted to act the part of obsequious ministers to the royal will. Thus the religion introduced into the kingdom of Israel in four most essential particulars—its sanctuaries, altars, symbols of worship, and ministering priesthood—bore on it an earthly image and superscription, it was polluted at the centre by the inventions of men; and though most of the rites of Judaism were still retained in it, yet “the Lord could not smell in the solemn assemblies of the people, nor accept their offerings.” Besides, the religion being thus essentially changed in character, it necessarily lost its moral influence on the people;—itself now a grovelling superstition, moulded after the will of man, and administered by unclean and servile hands, it could raise no effectual bulwark against the tide of human corruption; a rapid degeneracy ensued in the general character of the nation; and this again made way, as it proceeded, for further corruptions in worship, until at last undisguised heathenism, with its foul abominations and shameless profligacy of manners, took possession of the field. (The great evil of idolatry, even in its earliest and least offensive form—that is, when it does not set up a plurality of gods—but only an image or symbol through which to worship the supreme God, consists in its necessarily conveying low and debasing views of his character and glory. The mind contemplates God through the symbol, and rests in the ideas it suggests. Hence, as no symbol can adequately represent Jehovah, he can never be known and worshipped as the true God where idolatry is practised; for example, the symbol of the bovine form, or calf, as it is generally called in Scripture, was regarded in Egypt, the country of its birth, as the emblem of productiveness; it represented God as the great producer, the source of all life and sustenance, or material comfort.— (Wilkinson’s Egypt, V. p. 194). And, no doubt, the promoters of the false worship in Israel would endeavour to reconcile men to it, by asking if the representation it gave of God was not a just and honourable one? It might have been such, indeed, if the God of Israel had been merely the God of nature—the source of life and production as these exist in the external world. But there is plainly nothing moral, no germ of holiness in such an idea of God; it is just what all heathenism in some form or another always was, the deification of nature; whereas the true God is pre-eminently the Holy One and the Just; and precisely in proportion as this fundamental idea is lost sight of, in any form of religion, will its influence for good be found to decline, and the bonds of morality under it become loosened. From what has been said, it appears, and it is not unimportant to notice, that the worshipping of God anciently under the symbol of a calf, was relatively quite the same with acknowledging and worshipping him now simply as the God of nature. Those who disown or forsake God as he is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, and who, neglecting his sanctuaries and his Sabbaths, go to explore him, as they say, in the works and operations of nature, are the legitimate followers of him who made Israel to sin. Worshippers of a shadow! their religion wants the reality of truth for its foundation, and being at best but a nature-worship, it has no moral power to regenerate and sanctify the heart.)
Such were the inevitable results of the change introduced by Jeroboam into the worship of God, which from being regarded as essential to the independence of the kingdom, was clung to ever afterwards with fatal obstinacy. But there were also certain attendant circumstances which contributed materially to accelerate the progress of the evil. Of this nature was the secession of the Priests and Levites, who went over in a body to the kingdom of Judah—thus withdrawing from the kingdom of Israel not a little of its spiritual life.— (2Ch_11:13-14) And not only did many in Israel continue as before to go up to Jerusalem to worship; but the growing evil in Israel on the one hand, and the revived zeal and prosperity of Judah and the house of David on the other, led multitudes to abandon altogether their inheritance in the kingdom of Israel, and go to reside in that of Judah.— (2Ch_15:9) Thus another large draft was made upon the life-blood of the nation. So strong was the tendency in this direction for some time in Israel, that we are told Baasha, the king of Israel, set about building Ramah as a convenient fortress for preventing the intercommunion between the two kingdoms.— (2Ch_16:1) It appears afterwards, indeed, to have almost ceased; which is easily accounted for, as Judah itself became leavened with the surrounding corruption, and alliances were even formed between the house of David and the infamous family of Ahab, who carried the apostasy to its height in Israel.
This second decline on the part of the house of David and the kingdom of Judah, gave rise to a new stage in the method of God’s procedure toward Israel. Hitherto he had left the testimony against the prevailing evil to be borne by the faithful still remaining in the land of Israel, aided by the salutary influence which had proceeded from Judah, and which was felt even in some of the neighbouring heathen countries.— (2Ch_15:8, 2Ch_17:9-11) When Judah, however, also began to prove unfaithful, and the iniquity in Israel became more flagrant and atrocious, stronger and more direct measures were required to meet the evil. These were found, first, in the gigantic energy and labours of Elijah, who for a time fought single-handed against the rampant idolatry; and then by the new organization of the prophetic order, or the re-establishment of the schools of the prophets, which he accomplished with the aid of Elisha. By these means a very considerable revival was effected in the kingdom of Israel, which reached even to the palace of Samaria; for while Elijah, at the commencement of his career, found it difficult to obtain standing-ground for his ministry, the very name of Jehovah being proscribed, there were, some time before his death, four hundred prophets in Samaria who openly professed to speak in the name of Jehovah.— (1Ki_22:5-6) And a little further down in the history, we find Joram, the son of Ahab, professing to entertain the highest respect for Elisha, and requesting Elisha’s servant to rehearse the miraculous deeds that had been done by his hand.— (2Ki_3:12, 2Ki_8:4)
But, whatever abatement this might indicate of avowed hostility against the worship and service of Jehovah, the original corruption remained in full vigour; and it would even seem, that, under a certain disguise, the worship and service of Baal held its place to the last. For though, on the occasion of Ahab’s going up with Jehoshaphat to Ramoth-Gilead, the prophets all professed to speak in the name of Jehovah, yet there was evidently a marked contrast between the four hundred who had the confidence of Ahab, and Micaiah, who alone uttered the mind of the Lord. And on another occasion, when Jehoshaphat and Joram were engaged in the war with Moab, and they went together to ask counsel of Elisha, the prophet indignantly addressed the king of Israel with the words: “What have I to do with thee? Get thee to the prophets of thy father, and to the prophets of thy mother;”—plainly indicating that these still were virtually prophets of Baal. Not only so, but when Jehu was executing his fearful commission against the house of Abab, a false proclamation brought out four hundred in Samaria—an ominous number, being precisely that of those who had formerly contended with Elijah on Carmel, and were slain—who styled themselves prophets of Baal, and as such were put to death.— (2 Kings 10) And passing a few generations more, as we approach the close of the kingdom of Israel, we find the worship of Baal again rising into notice as part of the prevailing abominations for which the wrath was made to fall upon them to the uttermost: “And they left all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal.”— (2Ki_17:16) To which may be added the testimony of Hos_2:13 : “And I will visit upon her the days of Baalim, wherein she burned incense to them, and she decked herself with her earrings and her jewels, and she went after her lovers, and forgat me, saith the Lord.”— (See also Mic_6:16)
It would seem therefore, that with the mass of the people, and in the high places of the land, there had been only a superficial improvement, but no thorough reformation. The terrible displays which Jehovah had given of his power and glory, and especially the slaughter of Baal’s prophets on Mount Carmel, had inspired the worshippers of that Syrian deity with terror; and afraid of again provoking such awful outbursts of judgment, but still unwilling to abandon their corruptions, they attempted to compound the matter by calling Baal Jehovah, and Jehovah Baal,— (hence, “Thou shalt call me no more Baali,” my Baal, Hos_2:16)—as if these were but different names for one and the same God. This was in the highest degree insulting to Jehovah, because, in the most offensive manner, it lifted up his name to a thing of vanity, and proceeded on the supposition that there was no fundamental difference between him and the idol gods of the Gentiles. And that the people at large, in particular the more wealthy and influential classes, really viewed the object of their worship rather as an impure Syrian deity than the heart-searching righteous Jehovah, is abundantly manifest from those portions of the prophetical writings which describe the moral condition of Israel in the last years of their political existence, and which represent the land as all polluted with scenes of lust, revelry, oppression, rapacity, and crime.— (See especially Amo_2:6-8; Amo_5:7-15; Amos 6; Hosea 4; Isaiah 5; Isa_9:8-21)
To sum up the whole. The grand evil in the kingdom of Israel was the idolatry and corruption introduced into God’s worship, with its natural and necessary consequences. The Lord in various ways caused a solemn protest to be lifted against the evil at the period of its introduction—by the self-denying resistance of the priests and Levites—by the warning voice of the prophet that went from Judah (1 Kings 13), and the appalling word of judgment delivered by the aged Abijah to Jeroboam’s wife (1Ki_14:9-11). The protest was for some time vigorously maintained by a faithful remnant in the kingdom, who refused to assemble for worship at Dan and Bethel, but still repaired to Jerusalem, and not a few of whom ultimately went to settle there. It was further maintained, or rather in another and more palpable form raised by Elijah and Elisha, and the schools of the prophets instituted by them, who formed a kind of supernatural order of God’s servants in the kingdom, called forth by the emergency of the times—a provisional substitute for the exiled priesthood of the house of Aaron—and a standing witness against the existing worship, from whose unauthorized priesthood and disallowed services they stood entirely aloof. By terrible things in righteousness the Lord had also protested against the evil, having expressly on this ground first cut off the house of Jeroboam, then the house of Baasha, then Zimri, then the family of Ahab—while, at the same time, he raised up the kingdom of Syria as an instrument of evil to scourge and afflict the land of Israel in its borders. And now, at the time of Jonah’s appearance on the stage of history, the house of Jehu, because they also followed in the same forbidden course, had been brought to the verge of ruin, and the whole kingdom lay bleeding under strokes of judgment so severe, that recovery seemed almost hopeless. But divine compassion was not yet exhausted, the Lord remembered once more his covenant, and, seeking to win the people again to his love and service, he gave yet another promise of returning prosperity, which he also fulfilled by the hands of Joash and Jeroboam. This new course of prosperity, however, only supplied new wings to corruption; a more heedless infatuation and widespread profligacy every where appeared; and, sinking into profound carnality of spirit, the people had come to ascribe both their former troubles and their present prosperity to merely natural causes, “not regarding the works of the Lord or the operation of his hands.” But might there still not be another, if possibly a final and desperate, effort put forth for their recovery? One that, from its very nature, might at once bespeak the inexcusable nature of their impenitence, and the certainty, if continued, of immediate retribution? There was such another, and we find it in the great work and mission of Jonah. Though bearing respect immediately to the Ninevites, it spoke also in the loudest and most impressive manner to the people of Israel, and was even like the shooting of God’s last arrow of mercy, leaving no alternative in respect to them, should it prove ineffectual, but the speedy execution of vengeance.