Some days you eat the fish; some days the fish eats you.
And of course, there are times when it’s hard to distinguish between personal suffering and God’s wounds of grace—and there are still other times when the two will be one and the same.
Jonah had previously ran from God’s presence and found himself in the belly of a “great fish.” In Jonah 1:17, we read:
“Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.”
But here, in the darkness and the deep, we see a glimmer of hope, and we hear the gospel through the utterances of this wayward prophet.
DID IT REALLY HAPPEN?
First, let’s get something out of the way. Can we really trust that this story is reliable? The whole thing sounds like the legendary stories of a primitive, pre-scientific culture. Sure, we tell our kids about “Jonah and the whale,” but then we grow up and we learn that there’s no such thing as Mother Goose or Cinderella or the other tales from the world of make-believe.
After all, tales of great fish were common in the ancient world. The Jews often spoke of a creature called “leviathan” which typically symbolized chaos and disorder. And, as a point of clarity, we should note that the text never tells us that it was a whale. In fact, I somehow doubt that Jonah even knew what sort of fish it was, and I doubt he bothered checking once his ordeal was over.
Still, we probably shouldn’t waste time trying to parse out what kind of fish this was or what kinds of fish men can live inside. The point is that Jesus appeals to the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16, Luke 11) and seems to take the story quite literally, and if it’s good enough for Jesus then I suppose I’ll throw my lot in with the One who came back from the dead.
Dr. William Lane Craig suggests that maybe what happened is that Jonah actually died after being swallowed, and he was resurrected after being spit back onto the land. The prayer in chapter 2 may then be a literary device. Interesting, though I don’t agree. First of all, why would it be easier to believe that God preserved Jonah then to believe God resurrected him? If one miracle is to be believed, why not another? But more importantly, Jonah’s prayer is more than a mere plot device. It is the lynchpin of the story, and in the belly of the beast, we find the very heart of the Christian gospel.
ROLLING IN THE DEEP
The second chapter of the book of Jonah is an extended prayer. Imagine, for a moment, the darkness that this man was plunged into. The sounds, the coldness of the sea—maybe even the scarring of stomach acids or the constriction of fish guts. In the midst of all that, Jonah offers this prayer:
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish. 2 He said,
“I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble,
and he answered me.
I called to you from the land of the dead,
and Lord, you heard me!
3 You threw me into the ocean depths,
and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves.
4 Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence.
Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’
5 “I sank beneath the waves,
and the waters closed over me.
Seaweed wrapped itself around my head.
6 I sank down to the very roots of the mountains.
I was imprisoned in the earth,
whose gates lock shut forever.
But you, O Lord my God,
snatched me from the jaws of death!
7 As my life was slipping away,
I remembered the Lord.
And my earnest prayer went out to you
in your holy Temple.
8 Those who worship false gods
turn their backs on all God’s mercies.
9 But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise,
and I will fulfill all my vows.
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.” (Jonah 2:1-9)
In this darkest of moments, Jonah pulled from his memory bits and pieces of the psalms to affirm his trust in the Lord in all circumstances. Now, it’s not hard to imagine that maybe later an editor came along to “tidy up” Jonah’s language here. But I doubt that anyone had to put words in his mouth. This was a man who went to the deepest place on earth and affirmed his trust in God. And this, as we’ve said, is the heart of the gospel.
THE TRUE AND BETTER JONAH
After three days, Jonah’s prayer is answered:
10 Then the Lord ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach.
Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.” (Jonah 2:10—3:2)
Please don’t miss what’s happening here. Please don’t sweep this aside as a mere fairy tale or moral fable. This is more than a morality play. This is a powerful testimony to God’s grace. Jonah had disobeyed God before, choosing to flee from his very presence. Now he learns that not only is there nowhere to run from God’s presence, but when God catches up his attitude toward sinners is of mercy and a second opportunity to serve his kingdom.
You see the greatest danger that we face is not that we might experience suffering—because we will. The greatest danger that we face is not that we will fail God—because we all have. The greatest danger is that we not recognize the circumstances around us working together for our good and God’s glory, and we therefore let God’s grace slide past us unnoticed and unappreciated.
Jonah is hardly the first to descend to the low places. Paul tells his readers in Ephesus that “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
8 Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:7-10)
Jesus stepped from heaven to earth in order that he might show us grace and redeem mankind. Jonah’s disobedience took him to the depths of the sea; Christ’s obedience took him to the surface of the earth. And because of Christ’s obedience, because of God’s grace, there is no mistake we can make, no circumstances we can endure, that put us out of the potential reach of God’s redeeming love.
Jonah should remind each of us that God indeed does have a greater plan for his expanding Kingdom. No, that plan may not always seem pleasant when sitting in a whale’s belly, but here we, too, might experience the loving embrace of a God who lovingly and gracious allows suffering to point us toward his mercy and his grace.