But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
Jonah 1:17 | NIV (1984) | Other Versions | Context
Jonah, Jonah, Jonah. For years I’ve marveled at him, his character, and more precisely the events that were recorded in the book of Jonah. Granted, while it is probably not too far a stretch to call him the most well known of all the minor prophets (in modern times at least); he was still just a minor prophet, and his screen time in the Bible cannot be compared to the likes of Moses or Abraham; Jeremiah or Isaiah. There weren’t many events recorded in the book of Jonah, and the likes of Moses and Abraham certainly oversaw many humanly impossible divine interventions. Parting of the Red Sea, for one, was not only miraculous, it was also grand and majestic. But Jonah’s fishy incident hinges on the ridiculous, and therefore extremely memorable. While some of the other minor prophets were perhaps more heroic or arguably more holy, it is the events in the book of Jonah that most people would likely be more familiar with. Perhaps the image of the cartoons I’ve seen as a child of Jonah praying in the belly of a fish doesn’t help in dispelling the fairy-tale effect of this event. But the ironic thing is, though being swallowed by a fish is nothing uncommon today in fairy-tales, fiction and myths, and there had even been real incidents of it; the idea came originally from God.
A little on Jonah
The dual nature of Jonah has always made me very frustrated with him. He was a prophet, and a man who knew God so, so well. God told him to go to Nineveh and prophesy to them, but he ran away in order to avoid having to do that. His running away from the assignment of prophesying to the Ninevites showed two things: firstly, his dislike of the enemies of the Jews (or racism to some extent), and thus a natural disinclination to prophesy to them; and secondly, his knowledge of God’s compassion – he knew, likely, that God will soften his heart and not destroy them should they plead for mercy. Why prophesy about their destruction if God isn’t going to destroy them in the end? He was, by occupation, a prophet. What makes a prophet valuable? When his prophecies come true. A prophet who prophesies about things that do not happen, in the eyes of the people, can only be a false prophet. If Jonah were to exist in modern days, he would have been flamed so badly by the media that he will probably have no hiding place on land. Maybe God will send him a fish to hide in.
If Jonah’s prayer while inside the fish in chapter 2 reveals anything; it is the faith of this man. If his asking the men on board to throw him off the ship revealed anything [Jonah 1:12], it was the courage and the integrity of this man. Why then, would such a man flee from God? How frustrating. But before we go too far into this discussion, let’s ponder a bit more about the circumstances of this unusual miracle. There will be a lot more verses more appropriate in discussing the character of Jonah.
Grace or Justice?
Did God send the fish to save Jonah, or did he send it to punish Jonah? Looking at Jonah’s actions while in the fish (his prayer) and once released by the fish – he did indeed go to Nineveh – so perhaps God’s intervention was successful as some sort of punishment – maybe a wakeup call or a reminder would be a more appropriate term. (I’d personally like to insist that being forced to spend three days and three nights in the belly of a fish is too disgusting and disturbing to not be a punishment, but that’s just me.) However, it is also highly possible that without God’s intervention (of sending the fish), Jonah would have died. Clearly, God wanted to save Jonah. Despite having run away once, despite his disobedience, God still wanted to use him.
Analysis: Significance of the fish
Other than to save and to punish Jonah, there seem to be one other reason. Surely, if God so wished, he could have kept Jonah alive in the sea without utilizing the fish? It wouldn’t be any stranger, would it? And as amazing it is for a fish to sudden appear and swallow Jonah, the more crucial issue here must be that Jonah’s life was somehow preserved in the belly of the fish. Some say that the God used the fish as a prefigure to the burial of Jesus, and this is likely true as this sentiment was echoed by Christ himself in Matthew 12:40 – For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The three days and three nights that Jonah spent in the fish preludes the three days and three nights that Christ was dead; the fish represented the grave of Christ and the spitting of Jonah by the fish [Jonah 2:10] represented the revival of Christ.
God sent the fish to save Jonah. God sent the fish to punish Jonah. God sent the fish so that a prefigure of Christ’s burial could be formed, long before the birth of Christ. It’s not just a Messianic prophecy. Jonah wasn’t just like Isaiah, who prophesied by mouth about the Messiah. Jonah, though not by his own actions, was part of a figurative prophecy of the Messiah. It wasn’t by coincidence that Jonah was kept inside the fish for exactly three days and three nights. God could have released him after one night, and surely Jonah would have learnt his lesson too. Three days and three nights were necessary so that a link could be formed to the Messiah. And just as it signified a revival, when Jonah was vomited from the fish, he was like a new man – he wasn’t regarded as the prophet who ran away anymore. God continued to use him. Much can be said about the character of Jonah, but the focus today is really on God, not Jonah – how God used Jonah for the greater good of his glory.
What can I say? Once again, I marvel at the story of Jonah. Indeed, God works in amazing ways, far beyond our expectations, far greater than our understanding. Godly ways.