Jonah 1:17 - 2:10

Turning to God

2000, J.W. Carter
Scripture quotes from KJV


God has created each of us for a purpose. When someone accepts the Lord, this involves seeking to be obedient to God, ultimately enabling that purpose to be fulfilled. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. There are many worldly pressures that compete with a Christian’s desire for obedience. What are they? (selfish desires, fear…) The label of "sin" can be placed on anything that comes between where God wants us to be, and where we are, in any area of our lives. Consequently, any time a Christian succumbs to any of these worldly pressures, sin has entered that Christian’s life. This is a sin that can be identified and dealt with by confession and repentance.

Any study of the Old Testament book of Jonah will include attention to the sin in Jonah’s life. When called upon to serve God in a very clear and specific way, Jonah willfully chose to go the opposite direction. The sin in Jonah’s life was religious and social prejudice against non-Jews, and in this case, particularly the Assyrians of Nineveh. Also, Jonah did not have a close relationship with God. When Jonah ran from God (Jonah 1:1-16), he boarded a boat to head out to sea. When God sent a storm to stop the boat, all of the sailors called out to their God but Jonah. There is no reference of Jonah ever referring to anyone but himself, what he had done, and what the sailors could do to him to end the crisis. At the suggestion of Jonah, and only after exhausting every other alternative, the sailors threw Jonah into the sea.

How many of us have turned our back to God’s call at some time in our lives? How many are turning your back right now? Will God be patient and wait for you, or will God give up and let you go your own way? Or, will God place some opportunity in your path for you to come back to Him? When we look at God’s actions towards rebellious believers in scripture, we find that God is both patient, and pro-active. Sometimes God will speak, send messengers, or manipulate circumstances to get the attention of the straying believer. God’s response to the rebellious Jonah is one such example.

Jonah 1:17, 2:10.

17But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.10And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

There are very few people who have not heard the story of Jonah and the big fish. Most believe the big fish to be a whale, since we think of this as the only sea creature large enough to swallow Jonah whole and sustain his life in the interim. Some argue that it could not be a whale, because the scripture uses the word, "fish," and a whale is a mammal. This last argument is a typical interpretation error that arises when one tries to exegete scripture using English translations. The Hebrew word used here is "dag," which is usually transliterated as "Leviathan" and is simply used to refer to a large sea creature. We don’t know what kind of sea creature seized Jonah from the ocean waves, but we know that something did.

Jonah was doomed. No sailor was about to retrieve him from the sea and risk the recreation of the crisis. Jonah thought he was about to die. By running from God, Jonah found himself in the greatest crisis of his life. It started with a crisis of faith, and was culminating with a physical crisis. However, God intervened. God caused the Leviathan to rise from the depths of the sea and swallow him (or at least, hold him in its mouth). One important thing to note here is that God was in complete control of the situation. When we think that things are getting critical we often will remain oblivious to God’s sovereignty. I would imagine that if you were to tell Jonah at this moment that God was in control he would not quite agree.

Another interesting point concerning this story I how easy it is for children to believe it, and how difficult it is for science-oriented scholars to do the same. Children, and people with faith readily acknowledge that God, who made heaven and earth, could easily cause a fish large enough to accommodate the rebellious prophet to be in the right place at the right time because they accept God’s sovereignty over nature. He can, and will, use any means to accomplish his purpose. We see many examples of similar actions by God, actions that would use animals to save the life of a prophet-: shutting the mouths of lions (Daniel 6), opening the mouth of a donkey so that it could speak (Num. 22:28-30), summoning ravens to feed Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-6). Even later in this book, God will ordain a plant to give Jonah shade, and a worm to eat the plant. Jonah was obedient, and the leviathan was obedient. God used miraculous means to accomplish his purpose.

These two verses, 1:17 and 2:10 are the first and last verses of the second chapter in the Hebrew text. For what purpose did God call the leviathan? (To save Jonah’s life.) Though God may not have saved Jonah in a way that was very comfortable for him, God’s purpose was fulfilled. When God places events in our path that are intended on turning us back toward Him the experiences may not always be pleasant. More often than not, the difficult experiences are of our own making, and directly related to our rebellion. In Jonah’s case, and typically of ours, he suffered crises as a little of both, though the storm and the fish were certainly God’s doing alone.

How long was Jonah in the fish? (Three days.) Why did it take the fish so long to release Jonah onto dry land? It appears that the boat was very close to shore, so the fish could have done the task in just a few minutes. It may have served a purpose much greater than simply salvation from death. It could have been a form of punishment, it provided a time when Jonah could do nothing but consider his predicament. It may be assumed that spending three day’s in a fish’s belly is probably not very pleasant. Certainly, Jonah would have no idea of how long this experience was to continue until he would ultimately die of dehydration, suffocation, or some other malady. The odor must have been unique. Also, the total darkness must have made the entire experience that much more difficult. The wide variations in air pressure would have been almost unbearable.

What was happening to Jonah during these three days?