Text: Jonah 1:17-2:10
Jonah has been removed from service because of his disobedience. He tried, in vain, to flee from the presence of the Lord. Now in the belly of the great fish he reflects upon his sin and stupidity. He agrees with the Psalmist when he wrote about the impossibility of hiding from God … “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:7-10.) Finding himself in misery in his personal hell, the prophet begins to repent over his waywardness.
Fishy Facts and Fishy Tales
Jonah was about to be taught a valuable lesson in a very extraordinary classroom! While we do not know exactly what species the fish (whale) was, we accept that God prepared it for this occasion. This might infer that it was a special creation that was removed once it fulfilled its purpose.
There are two species of whale that are capable of swallowing a man whole. We need to be careful about stories that were published in the Victorian era about finding live men in whales; these have been proven to be fishy tales. The “Sulphur-bottom whale” (Balaenoptera Musclus) and the “Whale-shark” (Rhinodon Typicus) have no teeth, and their mouths alone can measure around 12 feet in circumference. There is a cavity in their heads measuring 7 feet wide by 7 feet tall by 14 feet long that stores oxygen. Most whales have between 4 and 6 compartments in their stomachs. A visit to a Natural History Museum would convince anyone that it is possible for a man to be swallowed by a whale, especially in light of the fact that Jonah probably was not a tall man.
Dead or Alive?
There is a school of thought that suggests that Jonah may have actually died the moment the great fish swallowed him, but that on the third day, when he was vomited out, God resurrected him. This comes from the use of the word ‘hell’ in Jonah 2:2. But how can a dead man pray? Does everyone who says something like, “We had a hell of a time on holiday,” literally mean that they died and spent two weeks roasting in Hell? Those who teach this theory think that they are reinforcing Jesus’ teaching about His resurrection from the grave … “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). The Lord was using Jonah’s experience as an illustration of His death and resurrection. It is foolish to reverse this to make Christ’s resurrection an illustration of Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish.
Jonah did not die, but he did think he was going to. The word ‘hell’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘sheol’ which, in the Old Testament, means the grave. The prophet thought that the belly of the fish was going to be his tomb. By reading the text correctly we find that Jonah must have begun to reflect on his situation as he sunk to the seabed and saw the gaping mouth of the huge fish coming towards him (2:3-6.) His whole life must have flashed before his eyes. He considered his death, but God had other plans for him. “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me” (Psalm 69:1-2.)
A Near-Death Experience (2:7-9)
Death would be on our minds too if we found ourselves in a life-threatening situation. How many people turn to Christ the moment death show its face only to forget their vows when health returns? Believers often promise to reform their lives if only God would hold back death. This is exactly what Jonah did.
Jonah finally acknowledged his sin and rebellion. He had forsaken God’s will to follow after “lying vanities.” This tem literally means ‘idols’, and the idol in the prophet’s life was not made of stone but of self-will, the honouring of self above God. His repentance includes a promise to do better if God would work a miracle for him. Verse 9 seems to indicate that he realised that God had not finished with him yet. Nevertheless, though he prayed wholeheartedly and vowed to serve the Lord, he would quickly return to his old ways, as so many do.
Jonah repented and the fish was repulsed. We can almost hear the fish saying, “The moment he prayed my stomach turned.” True repentance makes Heaven rejoice and the devil sick (Luke 15:7.) Before God could restore him, Jonah had to die to himself, his will, his bigotry, and his opinions. Jonah then had a ‘born again’ experience.
Scriptures says, “The way of transgressors is hard” (Proverbs 13:15.) This was true for Jonah, and remains so for all backsliders.