“Jonah” series: (post #3)
Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. (Jonah 1:17-2:1, N.K.J.V.)
When last we left Jonah he had just been thrown into the Mediterranean Sea, at his own request, by a group of sailors who were trying to keep their cargo ship from being ripped apart by a great windstorm. While it’s easy to think of Jonah struggling to bob up and down in those tumultuous waves, the Bible says that as soon as his body hit the water the sea ceased from its raging (Jonah 1:15). This miraculous calming of that storm impressed those sailors enough to cause them to not only offer up a sacrifice to God right there on their ship but also take vows to Him in what seems to have been a genuine salvation experience for each man (1:16).
The Bible doesn’t tell us how long Jonah was in the water. Neither does it tell us how he was handling the situation. Was he trying to stay afloat or was he choosing instead to end his life by way of drowning? Actually, a straightforward reading of the story seems to indicate that he really didn’t have time to either sink or swim before a great fish came along and swallowed him whole (1:17).
The Hebrew word that gets translated as “fish” in Jonah 1:17 and Jonah 2:10 is dag, and it is nothing more or nothing less than the common Hebrew word for “fish.” For example, it’s the same word used in verses such as Genesis 9:2, Numbers 11:22, Psalm 8:8, and 1 Kings 4:33 in reference to the fish of the sea. Also, it’s the word used in 2 Chronicles 33:14 and Nehemiah 3:3 in reference to the Fish Gate, which was the specific gate within Jerusalem’s walls by which fishermen were to bring their fish to sell in Jerusalem’s fish market.
There is another Hebrew word, tanniym, that can be used to refer to any type of large creature (i.e., a “monster”) that exists either on land or in the sea. This is the word the translators of the K.J.V. translated as: “whales” (Genesis 1:21), “whale” (Job 7:12), “dragon” (Nehemiah 2:13; Psalm 91:13; Isaiah 27:1; etc.), and “dragons” (Deuteronomy 32:33; Psalm 44:19; Psalm 74:13; Micah 1:8; Malachi 1:3, etc.). Again, though, this isn’t the word the original Hebrew uses to describe the creature that swallowed Jonah. Instead, the word is the basic Hebrew word for “fish.”
The popular idea that Jonah was swallowed by a whale finds its roots in the K.J.V. translation of Matthew 12:40, which quotes Jesus as saying:
For as Jonah 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.
The Greek word used in this verse for the creature in question is cetos, which literally means “a huge fish.” For this reason, no other translation other than the K.J.V. goes with the translation “whale” in the verse. Instead, they go with: “the great fish,” “the huge fish,” or even “the sea monster” (N.A.S.V.).
Still, though, the creature actually could have been some type of whale. I say this because the Old Testament and the New Testament were written long before our modern biologists started classifying whales as mammals rather than fish. To the writers of the Bible, any creature that had a vertebrate and lived in the water was a “fish.” They simply didn’t take into account that whales are warm blooded, give birth to live young rather than laying eggs, and must come up every now and then to take in air.
Whatever the creature was, it was big enough to not only swallow Jonah whole but also house him in its belly for three days and three nights. Could any such creature exist? You bet. One example is the sperm whale, which does swim the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. These whales have massive heads, mouths as large as twenty feet long and fifteen feet high, and gullets big enough to swallow a man’s entire body. For the record, these creatures are known to feed on squid, and squid oftentimes grow larger than men.
The sulphur-bottom whale could be another candidate for the one that got Jonah. In 1933, a one-hundred-foot-long sulphur-bottom whale was captured off the coast of Cape Cod. That whale had a mouth that was over ten feet wide. These whales also have stomachs that feature multiple compartments, any one of which is big enough to hold a full-sized man. These whales also have heads that serve as air-storage chambers.
For that matter, any whale is going to hold a certain amount of air inside it at all times. That is, after all, how they breath underwater since they don’t have gills. It’s their mandated taking in of air that requires them to breach the surface at regular intervals. So, if the creature that swallowed Jonah was indeed a whale, couldn’t Jonah have remained alive on the air the whale consistently took in?
Getting back to the possibility that the creature wasn’t a whale, the whale shark is actually a shark that can grow to up to 40 feet in length. Like the sulphur-bottom whale, the whale shark feeds in an interesting way. Rather than biting into its food, it simply opens its enormous mouth, takes in the food, strains out the water, and swallows whole whatever is left. In other words, these creatures don’t chew, a feature that plays right into the idea of swallowing a man without actually killing him.
What I’m trying to show you is that the story of Jonah really could have happened. This is, of course, not even taking into account the fact that God can do anything He wants to do by way of a miracle. For that matter, if you favor the interpretation that God spared Jonah’s life by way of a straight-up miracle, that interpretation might be supported by the story’s wording that the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah (1:17). That wording, obviously, might lend itself to the idea that this was a unique creature that God had created especially to use to miraculously save Jonah’s life.
At any rate, whether or not this was a 100% miracle, and whether or not the creature was a whale or some other type of marine giant, the point is that God used the experience to break Jonah of his rebellion regarding the ministry trip to Nineveh. As we’re told, Jonah prayed while he was there in the creature’s belly (2:1). And just how important was this prayer? It was important enough to take up eight verses of a book only forty-eight verses long. Putting the importance another way, it was important enough to take up virtually an entire chapter of a four-chapter book. That’s a pretty important prayer!
In the prayer, Jonah admits that God is the one who has afflicted him (2:3), but he also sings God praises for hearing his prayer (2:2) and saving him from his fate (2:5-6). Surprisingly, there is even optimism and hope in Jonah’s words as he speaks of what he is going to do in the future once God has fully rescued him. He says, “Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple” (2:4), “I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving” (2:9), and “I will pay what I have vowed” (2:9). None of that sounds like a man expecting to never leave the inside of that sea creature.
You see, the Jonah at the bottom of the sea is not the same man as the Jonah asleep aboard the cargo ship. The rebel has become the man of prayer and the runner has become the worshiper. Such brokenness is a rare thing, and we dare not miss it in all our talk of sea monsters, whales, and the like. Let us not make the same mistake that Thomas John Carlisle, the famed poet and ordained Presbyterian minister, admitted to making when he said, “I was so obsessed with what was going on inside the whale that I missed seeing the drama inside Jonah.”
On this subject of brokenness, another famed preacher, Vance Havner, once said:
God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth the perfume. It is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.
Therefore, as we close this portion of Jonah’s story, we must understand the significance of Jonah’s newfound brokenness. It is because of that brokenness that he is now in a place spiritually wherein God can use him in great and mighty ways. To be sure, his training isn’t complete, but it’s complete enough to qualify him to move on to the next step in his life, which, of course, will be him making that trip to Nineveh and doing that preaching. For this reason, God speaks to the great fish, and the fish obligingly vomits him out onto dry land (2:10). Do you know what you call that? Class dismissed, at least for now. The prophet has become the pupil, and the lesson he has learned is the lesson of brokenness. And that’s a lesson that you and I must learn as well if we are ever going to amount to much in service to the Lord.