“The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever felt like you’ve had a rough day? Have you ever felt like everything is falling apart around you and the pieces keep getting smaller and smaller such that trying to put them back together is looking like an increasingly hopeless project? Whenever that depressing feeling is pressing in on you and despair is starting to take hold in your heart, tell yourself this one little things and feel better about your situation: At least I’m not sitting in the belly of a giant fish.
Happy New Year. As we get started on this entirely new decade, I pray you have gotten off on the right foot. Spending a bit of time in the Scriptures like this is a great place to start. After taking a month to give our full attention to the season of Advent, we are going to start this year by finishing up the journey through the Minor Prophets we began back in August.
We paused in the first chapter of Jonah and will pick up where we left off. And because it has been a month since we’ve talked about it, let’s make sure we’re on the same page.
God called Jonah to go to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in order to proclaim against the city because His intention was to destroy it for the sinfulness of its people, but He didn’t want to strike them with no warning. That would be unjust.
Jonah did not want to do this and actually made to run to what amounted to the other end of the world in order to avoid doing the thing God called him to do. We spent some time talking about why he was so resistant to this idea and finally concluded that he hated them and would have rather seen them destroyed than be given the opportunity to repent.
God, however had plans that He wanted to see come to pass. So, He threw a violent storm on the water that stopped the ship that Jonah took to run from God in its tracks. The pagan sailors all panicked and started crying out to all the gods they knew in hopes of appeasing the one that started the storm. When the captain discovered Jonah sleeping in the bottom of the boat, he scolded him for his attitude toward both his god and to them.
The scene draws to a close with his telling the sailors to throw him overboard. At first they outright refuse because they don’t want to be responsible for his death. But eventually the ferocity off the storm cuts through their resistance and they toss him in.
Here’s where things got interesting. At first glance, it looks like Jonah made a noble sacrifice to save the life of the sailors. But when we read a bit closer, things aren’t as they appear. First of all, it’s Jonah’s fault they were in the storm at all. He was running from God. Even the pagan sailors acknowledge how crazy that was to do.
The fact that Jonah was running from God points us toward something else. His volunteering to be thrown overboard wasn’t a noble sacrifice at all. It was a final insult to God. He was so committed to not doing what God commanded that he was willing to throw away his life rather than obey.
It looks like Jonah is going to get his way. The Ninevites are going to be destroyed without warning just like he wants. But the God who is big enough to use a wild storm to stop a ship to keep his chosen prophet from running away from the task to which he’d been called isn’t going to let something as paltry as his getting thrown overboard keep him from the task either. And in the final words of this scene we’re told that God sent a giant fish to swallow Jonah whole and alive and God kept him alive in this great fish’s belly for three days and nights.
So then, here at last, we arrive at the thing for which Jonah is best known. Jonah and the whale is how it is mostly known and told to kids. The Hebrew calls it a great fish, though, not a whale. Whale gets inserted because although it isn’t technically a fish, ancient folks likely wouldn’t have known the difference and a whale is the biggest sea creature we can imagine in whose belly a man might fit for three days and nights.
Even as this is the thing for which the story is best known though, this is also the point at which most folks abandon ship on the truthfulness of the story. They assume entirely reasonably that this couldn’t really have happened and further assume the story is either heavily embellished or else simply better fits in the realm of fairy tale.
I’m not going to try to make a case for the truthfulness of the story here for three reasons. First, it doesn’t really matter to the larger point of the book and the lessons we should learn from it. Even if it is made up, the things it teaches us about God and His character are still true. Second, no one’s salvation depends on their accepting the historicity of the book of Jonah. You can start following Jesus, in fact, without accepting the historicity of any of the Old Testament. That can come later. Third, I don’t have to make such a case because Jesus accepted the historicity of Jonah and He predicted and pulled off His own death and resurrection. If somebody does that, we can trust whatever they think about…well… anything.
The question that really matters to me is what we should make of God sending a fish to swallow Jonah after he got himself thrown overboard. I mean, yes, God saved Jonah’s life. There’s no question about that. But was this an act of mercy or an act of judgment? While we want to say mercy for obvious reasons, in saving his life God was just going to make him do the thing he didn’t want to do so desperately he was willing to die to avoid doing it. That doesn’t seem so merciful when you think about it in those terms. So what should we make of this?
I think it’s this: Sometimes what we think is God’s mercy is really an act of discipline because it means setting us on something we don’t want to do. When God calls us to something, He expects us to do it. This is particularly true when it comes to doing something that is for the benefit of someone else. Jonah was bigoted, selfish, and disobedient. God loved not only him, but the people he was supposed to help too much to let him remain on that particular course.
There’s also this from the perspective of the whole book: God’s mercy isn’t going to be deterred by our disobedience. When He plans to show grace to some people, He is going to follow through on that aim. That’s just the kind of God He is.
Those are some lessons along the way. Here’s the point: just because the text looks a certain way at first glance doesn’t mean that’s it. We’ve got to keep reading and really consider the context before racing to any conclusions. The deeper we dig, the richer the prize we find will be. Stick with the text. Sit with it with the Holy Spirit and let Him help you see the full riches available in it.