James Jordan offers a compelling psychologizing of Jonah, which he attributes to Scottish Presbyterian Patrick Fairbairn:
Jonah had been reluctant to preach to Nineveh, fearing that God would convert those people and thereby raise them up as a powerful nation. He knew that Israel deserved judgment, and that God had threatened to take the Gospel to another nation, thereby raising it up as a weapon to punish Israel (Deuteronomy 32:21). Sure enough, the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, and Jonah was horrified. In spite of her sins, Jonah loved wayward Israel and hated to see the Gospel taken from her to the Gentiles (compare Paul, Romans 9-11). (Jordan, Through New Eyes, 83)
This makes Jonah akin to the possibly despondent Elijah of 1 Kings 19. It also means that Jonah’s failure becomes a double failure. For one, even if this means that Jonah is not exhibiting garden variety nationalistic prejudice, clearly he is lacking in compassion for Assyria (witness God’s rebuke in Jonah 4:11). But in addition to that, he is misunderstanding God’s intentions towards Israel. Far from simply raising up Assyria as a scourge for Israel, God is actually using Jonah to prepare a place for Israel in exile. In fact, just as Moses spends forty years in the wilderness before leading Israel into the same experience, Jonah’s own experience is a foreshadowing of what God will bring the faithful remnant in Israel through. Just as Jonah is carried through the sea by a big fish before being spit upon dry land, Israel will be carried through the Gentile sea by Assyria before being brought back into their land. Just as Jonah is shaded from the heat of the sun by a plant, Israel will be shaded by Assyria for a time (God explicitly compares Assyria to the plant in Jonah 4:10-11).
The exile experience will be a judgment upon faithless Israel, but God will preserve a remnant through it, and will in fact use the residue of Ninevite believers converted by Jonah both to help soften the blow of exile and to help preserve his people. (You may wonder how it can be said that the ten lost northern tribes were preserved. The myth of the “ten lost tribes” is generally discredited. One quick illustration of this lies in the fact that Asher’s line remains alive in Luke 2:36.)
The Big Fish was Assyria. God was sending Jonah to convert Assyria to Him. Assyria would become a place of refuge and protection for Israel while they were in captivity. Eventually they would leave the land of Assyria (after Babylon and then Persia took it over) and return to their own land. (Similarly, in Jonah 4, converted Assyria would be a suddenly-arising gourd plant to shade captive Israel from the sun of God’s wrath.) Even though later on Assyria apostatized, as the book of Nahum records, still there would be a remnant there who would provide a pillow for Israel’s coming experience of captivity. (Jordan, Biblical Horizons issue 91, 1996)
Jordan observes that some of the imagery of Jonah also suggests that he is a new Noah creating out of Assyria an ark in which to preserve God’s people into the new post-exilic creation. Jonah’s name means dove, Jonah himself is carried safely through a storm on the seas, and the salvation brought by Jonah even includes the preservation of animals (Jonah 3:7-8, 4:11).
This understanding of what God is doing in Nineveh also serves to greater highlight his mercy. Not only is God showing mercy upon Jonah and upon the people and animals of Nineveh, but God is even as a result of this showing a double mercy upon Israel: first, to provoke them to a jealousy that will win them back to him (as in Romans 10); and second, to prepare not only a scourge but also a refuge for them. There is also possibly a “nearer” mercy that God is showing to Israel here. Jordan points out that there is the strange case of the savior for Israel mentioned in 2 Kings 13:5. Clearly this savior was not king Jehoahaz (2 Kings 13:7). It may be that God used Assyria as a more immediate shade to Israel as well.
Jesus later sleeps in a boat and calms a storm. Unlike Jonah, Jesus’s sleep is one of faith rather than unbelief. Jesus calms the storm and will later pass into the heart of the greater storm as a substitute, exactly like Jonah (Matthew 12, 16). Jesus does not simply use Jonah as a convenient analogy to express the time span of three days. In fact, “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” is a strained analogy for the crucifixion. To make Jesus’s experience cover three days and three nights, we must extend it to his time on trial, so that the “heart of the earth” is Jerusalem and thus includes Jesus’s trial by Jew, Edomite, and Roman. (Calling Jerusalem the “heart of the earth” is not a novel reading; Ezekiel 38:12 refers to the “navel” of the land, and Ezekiel 5:5 describes Jerusalem as being in the “middle” of the nations.) So: Jesus passes into the storm of God’s wrath, at the hands of the Romans and Jews, to prepare a home for his people. We could speak of this home in both a not-yet and an already sense; Jesus prepares a place for us in the resurrection, but also a place for us now, in his church, which is a sort of ark and shade for God’s people in the present age.
So, then, the time Jesus spent in the tomb is parallel to the time Jonah spent in the Big Fish. Then Jesus is resurrected and goes forth to create a new Church (like Assyria) into which His old people can migrate for safety from the wrath to come upon Jerusalem. (Jordan, Biblical Horizons issue 91, 1996)
This ark-and-shade church was even founded by fishermen-apostles, and sailing tentmaker-apostles. There are a few more direct echoes of Jonah after the crucifixion. Peter struggles with God’s call to minister to Gentiles at the city of Joppa, but unlike Jonah at Joppa, Peter obeys God (Acts 10). Paul equally wrestles with the question of taking the gospel to the Gentiles in Romans 10-11, but expresses confidence that God will use it to bring about salvation. Paul thus does much sailing for the purpose of visiting Gentiles. Ultimately, Paul does not calm the storm like Jonah and Jesus, but leads people out of a sinking Roman ship in the midst of a storm (Acts 27). You could say that Rome served as a temporary protecting shade for the church during Jewish persecution, to allow the full number of Jews to pass into Jesus’s church. Then Rome’s protection is withdrawn, Jerusalem is destroyed, and the church stands alone as a possible protection from and even a table of bread in the storm.
In fact, you could even say that it is the church, through baptism, who turns the tables on the stormy nations and takes the waters of God to them; we are to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them” (Matthew 28:19).