When I was a little boy in Sunday School I heard the story of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish. I remembering being a bit skeptical at the whole idea and was never quite sure what the point of such a story was. But recently I decided to study that story more in depth. This is what I learned.
Jonah, Chapter 1 – Verse 1 – The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.
Jonah lived approximately 800 years before the time of Christ. Very few actual facts are known about Jonah, though there are many extra-biblical stories and legends about the events that he records in this book. The phrase “word of the Lord” is from the Hebrew debar-Yahweh and means it was a message directly from God to Jonah.
Verse 2 – Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted Me.
God told Jonah to go preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was the largest city in the world at that time and was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The city was ruled by the enemies of the Jews.
Verse 3 – However, Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s presence. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.
Jonah refused to obey God and ran in the opposite direction instead. Jonah thought that by running away he would avoid the presence of God. When we do things we know we should not do, we often want to skip church and avoid our daily Bible reading and prayer.
Verse 4 – Then the Lord hurled a violent wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart.
Jonah thought he could run from God, but quickly learned that God is everywhere. God sent such a storm against that ship that it nearly broke into pieces. Though God is a loving and merciful God, He knows how to get our attention when He needs to.
Verse 7 – Come on! the sailors said to each other, Let’s cast lots. Then we’ll know who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah.
Though the sailors were not followers of God (see verse 5), they recognized the hand of God when they saw it. Casting lots was an old fashioned way of deciding something when there was no other way to find an answer. Sort of like flipping a coin in our modern society. People who cast lots believed that God, or fate, or some other power, would chose correctly. Often a bunch of flat stones were placed in a bag. One stone would be marked in some way. Whoever pulled out the marked stone was the “winner.” In this case, God directed the lot to fall on Jonah, who was indeed the guilty one. Numbers 32:23 – Be sure our sin will find us out.
Verse 12 – He answered them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea so it may quiet down for you, for I know that I’m to blame for this violent storm that is against you.”
Jonah immediately knew that it was his disobedience to God that had caused the storm. Deep inside, we know when we have done wrong and deserve to be punished. His disobedience had endangered the lives of the entire crew. Anytime we sin, those around us may become caught up in the consequences of our sin. We have a duty to live rightly before God for the sake of others.
Jonah was so focused on his own sinfulness that he misunderstood the purpose of the storm. God was not trying to kill Jonah. God was trying to get Jonah to repent of his sin and return to a place of obedience. Jonah told the men to throw him overboard, thinking that his death would satisfy the wrath of God and the storm would end. There is only ONE MAN’S death that could satisfy the wrath of God, and that man is Jesus! We should stop making everything about us and accept God’s mercy.
Verse 17 – Then the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah…
“Appointed” is the Hebrew word manah, which literally means “prepared.” God had prepared this fish to do this particular job at this particular time in Jonah’s life. Though we often run the wrong direction and do the wrong thing, God is always prepared to turn our mess into something wonderful. This may have been a unique fish that God prepared solely for this purpose. God often does “once in a lifetime” things for us, for which we should be grateful. This may have been a regular fish that God used in a special way. God often uses the regular things in life to make His will known to us. Whether it was a special fish or a regular fish, God was going to use it to teach Jonah an important life lesson. Whether God uses unique experiences or everyday occurrences, He will guide us if we will learn to listen. Some skeptics have argued that the entire Jonah story was too fantastic to believe.
Could a great fish really swallow a man?
There are two types of known fish that are large enough to swallow a man. One is the Balaenoptera Musculus – sulpher-bottom whale. The other is the Rhinodon Typicus, often called the whale shark. It is the biggest fish in the world. Both feed by opening their enormous mouths and scooping up large quantities of water and whatever else is in it. They strain out the water and swallow the rest. Neither have teeth, so they do not chew up their catch, they just swallow it whole. These fish have 4-6 compartments in their stomachs, any one of which is large enough for a person to fit in. In the head of the whale is an air storage chamber that measures 7 feet high, 7 feet wide and 14 feet long. If the whale swallows something that gets in its nasal sinus chamber where all the air is stored, it gives the whale a head ache and it goes to shore and spits it out. Though God may have used some special fish that He created just for the single purpose of swallowing Jonah, God could have also used either one of the types of regular fish. Either way, God was the one making all this happen.
Could a Person Survive Being Swallowed By Such a Creature?
The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper quoted an article written by Dr. Ransome Harvey who said a dog was lost overboard from a ship. It was found in the head of a whale six days later. The dog was both alive and barking! (Page 18 of “Jonah” Dead or Alive? By J. Vernon McGee.)
Frank Bullen wrote a book called “The Cruise of the Cathalot” which tells the true story of a 15 foot shark which was swallowed alive by a whale and was spit out just before a whaling ship killed the whale. (Page 18 of “Jonah” Dead or Alive? By J. Vernon McGee.)
M. de Parville, a famous French scientist, records the story of James Bartley, who lived in the Falkland Islands of South America, who was reported to have drowned at sea. Two days after Mr. Bartley’s disappearance, some sailors killed a whale. When they cut the whale up, to their surprise, they found Mr. Bartley inside, unconscious but alive. He recovered and lived a long and normal life. (Page 19 of “Jonah” Dead or Alive? By J. Vernon McGee.)
Dr. Harry Rimmer, president of the Research Science Bureau of Los Angeles, writes about an English sailor who was swallowed by a gigantic Rhinodon in the English Channel. He fell overboard trying to harpoon the beast and it turned around and swallowed him. 48 hours later that same fish was finally slain and the sailor was inside alive. He recovered in only a matter of hours. (Page 19 of “Jonah” Dead or Alive? By J. Vernon McGee.)
We may choose to believe by faith that this was a special fish God made just for this purpose and feel no need for a scientific explanation. We may choose to accept science’s examples of past “Jonah – like” occurrences. Either way, faith and science agree that a person can be swallowed by a big fish and live to tell about it.
Verse 17 -… and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights.
“Three days and three nights” was how long Jonah spent in the fish. This was most likely how long it took to get Jonah from where he was NOT supposed to be to where he WAS supposed to be. Though God can turn our messes into something good, we may have to spend a period of time in the darkest messes of our lives. We should not expect “instant” fixes from God, He seldom works that way.
Chapter 2, Verse 1 – Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish.
Jonah had made a bad decision and was now in a mess because of it. However, Jonah realized that God still loved him and could help. Jonah did the only thing he could do, PRAY! When we make a bad decision, we should never be too embarrassed to talk to God about it. He is just waiting for us to come to Him for help.
Verse 2 – I called to the LORD in my distress, and He answered me. I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol; You heard my voice.
“Distress” – Though Jonah was a prophet of God, he still did not really learn to rely on the Lord until he was in distress. Too many of us do not really learn to depend on God until something really bad happens in our lives. When God does help us in our distress, we need to make sure we do not abandon God as soon as the crisis is over. “Sheol” – this is the word most often translated as “hell” in the Bible. It carries the idea of being completely cut off from both God and others. Imagine Jonah sitting in the absolute darkness. Think of how cramped and smelly it must have been. Most likely other fish and small sea creatures had also been swallowed. Imagine feeling one of them crawling across our bodies in the dark! Jonah must have felt like he was in a living hell. Little did he know that God was waiting to hear from him and deliver him. Sometimes things get so bad it seems like we are living in a hell on earth. Sometimes we feel cut off from God and everyone and everything that is important to us. But God is waiting to hear from us!
Verse 4 -… yet I will look once more toward Your holy temple.
Jonah felt separated from God but decided to give the Lord one more try. Jonah looked back to the Lord and that was the beginning of his salvation from the living hell he was experiencing. No matter what our past is like and what baggage we may carry, we can always turn back to the Lord and be saved both from a living hell and from an eternal hell.
Verse 6 -… the earth with its prison bars closed behind me forever!
Jonah felt trapped in a prison of his own making. It seemed to Jonah that this prison would last forever. But we know that his journey in the fish was only going to last three days. Remember: pain and sorrow will not last forever. Be careful not to make permanent decisions in an effort to solve temporary problems.
Verse 9 -… I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving.
Watch Jonah’s quick spiritual growth. He goes from despair to prayer once he focuses his attention back on Jesus. Jonah goes from an attitude of hell to one of hope. Jonah had been running from God, now he is ready to sacrifice anything for God and thank the Lord for the chance to do it! We often turn to the Lord in a time of trouble and difficulty in our lives. Though some are only looking for a quick fix from God and will then turn back to their sinful ways, others realize this is a chance for a whole new life. Those that really find the Lord will begin to sacrifice for God and be thankful to do it.
Verse 10 – Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Notice that the Lord was in command of the fish the entire time. We must never forget that no matter how bad things get in our lives, God is still in control. God has the power to issue commands to anyone or anything in the universe and God often uses that power to impact our lives in powerful ways. The fish vomited Jonah back up. Vomit of any kind is pretty disgusting, but imagine how much vomit a giant fish has! Jonah must have looked pretty rough as he walked into the city and began to preach. It was probably not the impression he wanted to make as he began his preaching crusade! God does help us get back to where we need to be, but we should not expect all the consequences of our mistakes to disappear. There are often certain aspects of our past mistakes that remain in our lives. We should be thankful for how they remind us of how bad it was when we were walking in disobedience to God.
1. When God clearly tells us what to do, we should obey!
2. If we disobey, we are going to get ourselves in a big mess.
3. No matter how big a mess we make, God has prepared a way to deal with it.
4. To fix our mess, we must stop running from God and call out to Him.
5. God gives second chances, but must be ready to live with some of the consequences of our mistakes.