Fishermen are among the greatest storytellers in the world. Did you hear the tale about the big fish that got away? Many fishermen stand next to their catch and snap a photo because we cannot always believe the tales they tell. The photo is proof their fish story is true. 

 

The Bible contains the biggest fish story ever told about a runaway prophet named Jonah who got swallowed by a big fish, perhaps a whale, and lived to talk about it. But is it true? No photos exist of Jonah standing next to the whale that swallowed him or of the whale spitting Jonah out of its mouth. Can we believe Jonah’s fish story? If it is true, why does it matter?   

 

For what it’s worth, a veteran lobster diver named Michael Packard tells a fish story similar to Jonah’s. A little before eight o’clock in the morning on June 11, 2021, Packard recalls swimming with schools of sand lances and strippers about ten feet from the ocean floor off the coast of Massachusetts, an area where humpback whales come to feed. Commercial lobster divers like Packard plunge deep into the ocean off Cape Cod and snatch lobsters off the sandy bottom.

 

“All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,” Packard said after his release from Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. “I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth.”[i] Less than a minute later, Packard saw light again as the whale expelled him from its mouth. 

 

Fact or Fish Story?

 

Fish stories like Packard’s (there are others) should convince us of the plausibility of Jonah’s experience. However, much skepticism still exists about Jonah’s fish tale.[ii]

 

Despite reasonable skepticism and anecdotal evidence, good reasons exist to believe Jonah’s fish tale is fact, not fiction. For example, Jonah was a real person in history, not a make-believe character like Mad Hatter or Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. The book does not say, “Once upon a time there was a man named Jonah,” as we might expect of a fairytale. Rather, it begins by placing Jonah in historical context (1:1). Second Kings 14:25 also mentions Jonah historically as “the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher,” which was located three miles north of Nazareth in the Galilee region. Jonah lived during the time of King Jeroboam II (782-752 B.C.), who reigned after Elisha’s ministry and before Amos and Hosea.

 

Furthermore, two respected scholars from the first century named Philo and Josephus wrote about Jonah as though he was a real person who lived in a real place and time. The catacombs of Rome feature Jonah’s story as real and historical. Thus, it should not surprise us that the literary form of the book is historic narrative, not fable or allegory, which is significant to consider when interpreting the book of Jonah. 

 

Jesus also affirmed the historicity of Jonah. Surprisingly, He established His credibility and linked His future resurrection to the fish story. In response to the Pharisees who demanded a sign from Him, Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:39-41).[iii]  

 

Besides the anecdotal evidence and more, Jonah’s fish tale is believable because the Christian worldview is supernatural; it presupposes divine intervention and miracles. In other words, nothing is impossible for God. However, Jonah’s story still leaves us wondering why this book is among the Old Testament Minor Prophets and how the biggest fish story ever told relates to the Christian faith. 

 

The Call of God

 

The book begins with Jonah receiving specific instructions from the Lord. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come up before me’” (1:1-2). 

 

Jonah is the only Hebrew prophet in the Old Testament sent by God to a Gentile nation. He reminds us that God has a missionary’s heart and a plan for the Gentiles, a lesson the apostle Peter had difficulty learning (Acts 10-11). Jonah is the Old Testament book that reminds us “God so loved the world,” including the Gentiles. 

 

Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, which had a reputation for strength and brutality, though at Jonah’s time they had not reached the zenith of their power. Still, God calling Jonah to Nineveh was like him telling us to pack our bags, move to Afghanistan, and preach the gospel to the Taliban. No wonder Jonah ran away. The wickedness of the Assyrians had reached the Lord’s nostrils and smelled to the high heavens!

 

Verse 3 says, “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” Geographically, Tarshish was west, and Nineveh was northeast, nearly in the exact opposite direction. Jonah ran from God’s call and thought he could run from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7-12). But he ran into a big storm and paid a huge price for his disobedience. The word “down” appears four times in chapter one to describe Jonah’s physical and spiritual decline (1:3, 5).

 

God planned a perfect storm for the purpose of intercepting the runaway prophet, who was now sleeping in the hull of the ship. It must have been a storm-of-the-century because it frightened the seasoned sailors on board the ship. However, while living completely out of the will of God, Jonah slept peacefully, a sure sign that he was in a dangerous spiritual place. God also appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah as the seasoned sailors tossed him overboard in a superstitious attempt to satisfy Jonah’s god and quell the storm (1:4-16). 

 

How to Pray from the Belly of a Fish

 

Nearly one fourth of the book is a prayer Jonah voiced “from inside the fish” (2:1-10). Jonah cried out from the depths of his despair, and he did so by rejoicing that God heard his prayer. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me” (2:2-3).

 

Let’s give Jonah credit for praying. But too many of us pray only when we find ourselves in trouble like the runaway prophet.

 

Jonah knew God’s word well enough to fill his prayer with words from Scripture. From memory, he recites phrases from Psalm 18:6, 31:22, and 42:7, demonstrating the power of hiding God’s word deeply in our hearts so that we can retrieve it at the right time (Psalm 119:11). The practice of praying God’s own words back to Him always centers our supplications in the will of God. 

 

Amazingly, Jonah’s prayer shines like a bright light in a dark place—the deep, swampy belly of the fish. The runaway profit accepts the Lord’s discipline (2:3-6), anticipates the Almighty lifting him out of the pit (2:6), remembers the Lord’s holy temple (2:7), denounces idols (2:8), gives thanks, (2:9), promises to pay his vows (2:9), and acknowledges the Lord’s salvation by saying, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (2:9). In other words, “Lord, only you can save me from this mess!” This is the prayer of a repentant man who is looking up to heaven from the bottom of the ocean. 

 

Chapter two ends by stirring our imagination with what happened to Jonah next, “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land” (2:10). 

 

A Second Chance to Say Yes to God

 

Chapter 3 begins with these familiar words, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord” (3:1-3). The same call from God came to the same prophet, telling him to go to the same people with the same message. Fortunately, the God of the Bible is all about second chances. 

 

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, once described the Christian life as “a long obedience in the same direction.” Until now, Jonah’s journey was a short disobedience in the wrong direction. But it was not too late for the runaway prophet to change course and do the right thing—run in God’s direction! That meant going straight to Nineveh, which Jonah did.[iv]

 

My sanctified imagination runs wild, picturing a wild-eyed prophet entering Nineveh like a street preacher with an urgent message. Jonah is weary from the four-hundred-mile journey that he traveled back toward the capital city. His flesh has bleach marks from the acid wash his body received while inside the belly of the great fish. He stinks like Charlie the Tuna. If Jonah’s smell and appearance did not turn the Ninevites away from him, surely his message would. He delivered eight words laced with fire-breathing judgment, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4).

 

God gave Nineveh only forty days to turn from their wicked ways. Surprisingly, the Bible says in the next verse, “And the people of Nineveh believed God” (3:5). The Ninevites wasted no time by sitting around and discussing the prophet’s message; instead, they acted upon it immediately. They called a fast and wore sackcloth. Even the king took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then, the king issued a royal proclamation, urging man and beast to do the same and “call out mightily to God” (3:8). When God saw how the Ninevite’s responded, He relented of the disaster.

 

The Pouting Prophet

 

The Ninevite’s response marked the second of two spiritual awakenings in the book of Jonah. The first great awakening took place among the frightened sailors who turned from their idols to serve the true and living God (1:16). By repenting, the pagan sailors and Ninevites did what the Israelites, God’s chosen people, did not do before calamity fell upon them.

 

While the Ninevites’ response was cause for rejoicing, Jonah was not happy with the positive result of his ministry. In fact, 4:1 says, “It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” Anger is an odd response, but Jonah’s prayer reveals why he was so outraged, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:2-3). 

 

Instead of rejoicing that the Ninevites turned from their wickedness to God, Jonah engaged in self-pity by pouting. He took more interest in a growing plant that provided shade for his head than the one hundred and twenty thousand people who needed God. The Lord mocked the prophet for pouting, and then God defended His right to pour His gracious pity upon the Ninevites (4:4-11). 

 

The book of Jonah is truly the greatest fish story ever told. From it, we learn that God’s call is irrevocable, God’s presence is inescapable, and God’s grace is irresistible. 

 

[i] ‘I was completely inside’: Lobster diver swallowed by humpback whale off Provincetown, Doug Fraser, Cape Cod Times, June 11, 2021, accessed on September 21, 2021, https://www.capecodtimes.com/story/news/2021/06/11/humpback-whale-catches-michael-packard-lobster-driver-mouth-proviencetown-cape-cod/7653838002/

 

[ii] Henry Morris, a respected creation scientist with a Ph.D., was the founder of the Institute for Creation Research. After much scientific inquiry, he believed the creation account in the Bible was true; he also believed Jonah’s story was both believable and plausible. However, in his book The Remarkable Journey of Jonah, Morris admits, “The account of Jonah and the whale stands out as one of the most difficult stories to believe in the Bible. It has been the subject of extensive ridicule, the source of Hollywood caricature, and the brunt of many jokes. Skeptics focus their deepest criticism at the very concept that a man could be swallowed by a whale and live to tell about it” (p. 7). 

 

[iii] The Pharisees also challenged Jesus about His Galilee roots, saying, “No prophet comes from Galilee” (John 7:52). However, they were wrong. Jonah came from Galilee.
 

[iv] God instructed Jonah a second time to take His message to the people of a great city, a reminder that the Lord is the “God of the City.” 

 

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Romans 8:28 MSG