Almost everyone is familiar with the story of Jonah and the whale. As recorded in the Bible, the big creature that swallowed Jonah wasn’t actually a whale, but a “fish”.
That’s a technicality, though, as Jonah didn’t likely know a whale/mammal from a fish/fish. He just knew a large sea creature of some kind gulped him from a tumultuous sea for supper, and I doubt he looked to see if the beast had gills or not.
Many consider Jonah to be a fish tale, a metaphor or parable perhaps, but not to be taken literally. Though the belief that Jonah could live three days in the belly of a whale may not hold up to the scrutiny of the scientific method, by faith I choose to accept it as fact.
Realistically though, whether Jonah was literally in a fish or not is sort of splitting hairs, or should I say scales? Regardless, there’s a powerful lesson to learn.
The story goes like this:
There was a large, commercial metropolis named Nineveh, where “wickedness” had gained systemic control of the culture. God instructed the prophet Jonah to visit the city and speak against the evil, telling the people to change their ways.
This assignment was intimidating for sure. Jonah bolted another direction, boarding a ship called the Minnow routed to Tarshish and away from Nineveh (just kidding about the ship’s name).
When they launched to sea, the weather started getting rough. The tiny ship was tossed. If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).
The stormy seas continued to escalate, and the tempest became so treacherous the crew pointlessly cried out to their “gods” for calm. It was then determined Jonah’s God, not theirs, was powering the gale, and it became obvious Jonah’s God was ticked at Jonah, not Gilligan and Skipper.
So, to calm the storm Jonah volunteered to be thrown overboard. Fearing Jonah’s God, the crew declined the suggestion and decided to mercifully row him to shore instead, yet the seas worsened even more. Jonah was eventually thrown into the drink, the seas calmed, and God sent a huge sea creature to keep him in solitary confinement for three days and nights.
Jonah prayed. Good call. From that juncture I think I’d be praying too. Within the confines of the fish’s tummy, he confessed a recommitment to his mission, and God forgave him.
In Sunday School lessons, the whale is typically portrayed as an instrument for Jonah’s punishment. I understand the concept, but it’s not accurate. God sent the fish to save Jonah, to initiate a mid-course correction, and ultimately to provide rapid, nonstop transportation to Nineveh. Pretty cool how God did that, huh? Jonah’s submission to God’s submarine mission.
We need to understand that God knows what He’s doing. He is incessantly working to draw us close. His nature is good, merciful, kind, compassionate, and patient.
He is just, of course, but discipline is not wielded unnecessarily or in vain. And even when God’s correction is exercised, it is always in the spirit of love, looking out for our best.
Back to the story. The big fish belches up Jonah on the sands of the Grand Nineveh Beach Hotel, and, bleached white from gastric juices and adorned with seaweed garland, he makes an appearance like a Zombie back from the dead, preaching the word of repentance.
Nineveh changed immediately (good staging, huh?). A food and water fast was decreed, and everyone, from the King of Nineveh to the Professor and Mary Ann, humbly acknowledged their error and repented.
Get this though … after Nineveh repented and their relationship with God was restored, Jonah was miffed. He felt God let Nineveh off too easy.
Personally, he suffered severely to bear the message for Nineveh, and in his eyes, Nineveh should have had to suffer like he did. More groveling and sacrifice please. I get it, but that’s not how God operates.
Corrective discipline is God’s last straw, not the first. Our Father in Heaven is not Zeus with lightning bolts prepared to throw our way, or a heavenly accountant tracking divine debits and credits, or the Wizard of Oz demanding more than we’re capable of. That’s not God.
Who is He then? God is revealed in how Jesus related to others (see Colossians 1:15). Jesus’ heart shows Father God’s true temperament. He is patient, not wanting anyone to perish (see 2 Peter 3:9), not even the wicked sinners in Nineveh.
Introspectively, Jonah came to a better understanding of God, and said (Jonah 4:2): “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” That’s the God Jonah finally came to know.
He’s the God I know too. His preference always is to refrain from dispatching calamity unnecessarily. It’s a last resort.
Let me leave you with this thought: Nineveh, perhaps the largest, most industrious city in the world at the time of Jonah, had degenerated to a repository of refuse spiritually. It was wicked; seemingly unredeemable.
But God knew otherwise. He was willing to go the extra mile, patiently providing a warning of pending disaster through the prophet Jonah, and then greeted the city’s heart of repentance with His forbearance and forgiveness.
I wonder if God has been sending the United States warnings of impending disaster like He did Nineveh? I believe He has. We have to question, though, if our nation can find the humility to acknowledge our waywardness and turn to God for forgiveness as they did. Discontentment and divisiveness stand in America as formidable obstacles barricading God’s blessing, but I also know His power is greater than the spirit of rebellion.
We need to pray for mercy, and hope for divine intervention here, like Jonah facilitated in Nineveh.
What do you think?
Dave Hinman is Pastoral Elder at Dove Church in Wilmington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.