Jonah and the "Big Fish" Story

We've all heard the story about Jonah if we've been anywhere near a Sunday School as a child. Jonah, swallowed by a big fish, survived three days until the fish spit him out on dry land.
Great story, but could it possibly be true?
I mean really...we're adults now, let's get real.

In wanting to get more familiar with the Old Testament, I read through the story of Jonah this morning, wondering what God would have me learn from it.

As a child, and then even as an adult reading this story to my children out of a book of colorful Biblical poetry, it seemed like a fun story. Jonah runs away from God, gets swallowed by a big fish, and lives through it--only to be spit out onto a beach after three days have passed. But I have asked myself as the years have gone by, do I really believe such a tale? Doesn't it seem like one of those fish stories where the "big one" got away? Isn't it more an example of something rather than a true story?

Then reading it again this morning, I was directed to also read in Matthew 12:39-41 where Jesus talks about Jonah and comparing his three days in the fish to Jesus' three days in the tomb.

For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for
three days and three nights, so I, the Son of Man,
will be in the heart of the earth for three days and
three nights.
Matthew 12:40 (NIV)

Now Jesus is telling the "fish" story...Jesus wouldn't lie. If Jesus had a small fish on the end of his line, and it got away, would the "size" of the fish grow as the tale grew? I don't think so! Yes, He was flesh and blood but He was also the Son of God. He was sinless...even when it came to fish stories.

This puts a whole new light on the story of Jonah for me. This really did happen to Jonah because Jesus is still telling the story hundreds of years later and it hasn't changed. Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, he spent three days and three nights there, and then he was spewed onto dry land. End of story.
We're to believe it because it is in God's word.
How do we though?
Like this:

Then Jesus prayed this prayer: "O Father, Lord of heaven
and earth, thank you for hiding the truth from those who
think themselves so wise and clever, and for revealing it
to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way!
Matthew 11:25-26 (NIV)

When we read this story to our children, they swallow it hook, line and sinker. Why wouldn't they? They are children who believe what we tell them and what is written in the ook we hold in our hands. They have no fears of looking foolish, no qualms that they might be being suckered into some scheme, and no reservations in finding joy in the great stories of the Bible.
Have you ever met a child that didn't like the story of Jonah and the "whale"?
Probably not!

And then we become adults...we start to question and grow suspicious and doubt most things unless they are proven to us 100 percent--but God isn't like that. He says, "Believe in Me. I Am."

It is the only way--to just believe, with a childlike faith. But even if we are shown miracles, it doesn't seem to help us. We soon go back to our old ways, the miracles fading from our memories.

Then Jesus began to denounce the cities where he
had done most of his miracles, because they hadn't
turned from their sins and turned to God.
Matthew 11:20 (NIV)

Do you know that the town of Nineveh, where God had requested Jonah to go, believed and turned from their sins simply by Jonah walking up and down the streets of the city shouting, "Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!" Even the king of Nineveh "took off his royal robes" and prayed that God would have pity on them and not destroy them! I don't know what was going on in that city, but God was not happy about it and He wanted some changes to take place or they would have all been destroyed.

Jonah really didn't want to do this for Nineveh. He didn't even like these people, they were enemies of Israel. He wanted them to fall, to be destroyed by God. That would have been good in his eyes...but not in God's eyes.

When Jonah was asked to go and warn them of their impending doom, he refused to do it. He ran away instead. He ran and booked himself on a ship heading to Tarshish. He was getting as far away from this "assignment" as possible. He told the sailors on the ship that he was "running away from the Lord."

Well Jonah, I believe you can run but you can't hide!!

God knew right where he was and God sent a terrible storm that could have destroyed the ship. The storm needed to stop and the only way the sailors saw to stop it was to throw Jonah overboard, since they believed his disobedience to "his" God was the reason for the storm. (They all had their own gods.) They threw Jonah overboard--he actually told them to do it. He would have rather been cast into the sea and drowned than to have obeyed God's command to save a city that was a danger to Israel. He was willing to sacrifice his own life, doing what he thought was best, instead of what God knew was best.

So into the sea he went, and do you know what happened to the sailors on board the ship? They were "awestruck by the Lord's great power and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him." Jonah 1:16 (NIV) The very men who just a few minutes ago were worshipping their own gods, now believed when they saw God calm the stormy sea after Jonah was tossed into it! Out of Jonah's disobedience, they came to believe in the One True God. God can use anything, can't He?

I wonder if they even knew what happened to Jonah? They must have thought he drowned for sure, and maybe they never heard of him again? The Bible says he "sank beneath the waves, and death was very near." It says, "I was locked out of life and imprisoned in the land of the dead." Jonah 2:6 (NIV)

Then it happened, the great "fish story!" The one we are all familiar with, but how did it happen? What changed? Why was Jonah saved?

Because God was in control and God had "arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah." Jonah 1:17 (NIV)

There he was, inside this large fish, having been scooped up from the deep, dark sea and I have to believe it was a deep, dark pit of a fish's stomach. Who can imagine what that must have been like in there, but I think we can all imagine what we would be doing in there--we'd be PRAYING!!

When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more
to the Lord. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your
holy Temple.
Jonah 2:7

Smart man! He called on the only One to help him now, and even in his disobedience God heard him when he turned back to God. After three days and three nights in the belly of that fish, "Then the Lord ordered the fish to spit up Jonah on the beach, and it did." Jonah 2:10 (NIV)

Do you know why Jonah was running away in the first place? Because he knew that God was a "gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love." Seems backwards, doesn't it? Yes, but because of that he knew how easily God could cancel his plans for destroying these people in Nineveh. (Jonah 4:2) Jonah didn't want God to save them, he wanted them to be taken down!! They were a threat to Israel.

Then Jonah finds himself in the belly of a large fish, being just as disobedient as the city of Nineveh, and what does God do? He shows that very compassion and gracious Spirit to Jonah and saves him first!!

God knew all along that Jonah would run. He knew when He created that little baby fish, how it would be used--that it would grow into the huge fish that would swallow Jonah, giving him a chance to repent.

O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive,
so full of unfailing love for all who ask your aid.
Listen closely to my prayer, O Lord; hear my urgent
cry. I will call to you whenever trouble strikes, and
you will answer me. Nowhere among the pagan gods
is there a god like you, O Lord. There are no other
miracles like yours.
Psalm 85:5-8

You can believe that Jonah was sending up an "urgent cry" from the belly of that fish! He may have been willing to die for his beloved Israel but when push came to shove, he wanted OUT-and spit out he was!! God heard his prayers, even from the deep dark waters of the sea-and we wonder if God can see us in our distress as we sit in our living rooms or our backyards etc...

Jonah had tried disobedience, tried to get his own way and run from God, but it didn't work. God had a plan, and he wanted to use Jonah to accomplish it, for whatever reason. Sometimes we wonder if God can use us-it seems we are so disobedient or so sinful or so stubborn and set in our ways, we can't possibly be of much use to God. But wouldn't that describe Jonah? Talk about stubborn and wanting things his own way?!

And yet, God was still able to use him.

That should give us all hope!

Jonah ended up saving the city of Nineveh because they actually listened to him as he shouted out to them that they would be destroyed in forty days! When they stopped their evil ways, God had mercy on them and didn't carry out the destruction He had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

I bet this made Jonah happy?
No, it sure didn't!!
There was that compassionate God Jonah was concerned about, the One who forgives those who repent--and they did, so God did!

Now Jonah was angry beyond words!!
He just wanted to die, really!
He said,
"Just kill me now, Lord." Jonah 4:3 (NIV)

His enemies had been saved from certain disaster because of what God had called him to do. Do you think then he wished he'd just died in the belly of that fish? Perhaps! And why would God do this when this very city was a threat to His own people the Israelites?

In reading the book, "What The Bible Is All About," by Henrietta C. Mears, she says that Jonah was a "...symbol of Israel--disobedient to God, swallowed by the nations of the world, who will yet give her up when Christ comes. Then Israel will be witnesses of God everywhere."

Here I'm thinking all these years that the story of Jonah is really about a big fish that swallows some guy for whatever reason-and now I see much more clearly that God's ways are so much higher and His thoughts are so much wiser even in this "children's" story. There is such symbolism here of God's people and His plan of redemption for those that will believe in his Son, Jesus Christ.

The story continues...

As Jonah sits outside the city on the east side, God speaks to him there:

"Is it right for you to be angry about this?"

Almost like a child, Jonah is pouting-it's like he is stomping his feet because he didn't get his way. The city of Nineveh repented, God spared them, and now Jonah feels he is to blame for their continued threat to his people.

God had one last lesson to teach Jonah in this story in the Bible. First God comforted him with a leafy plant that spread over Jonah's head for shade. It "eased some of his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant." Jonah 4:6 (NIV)

But then, God sent a worm the very next morning to eat through the stem of the plant "so that it soon died and withered away." Jonah 4:7 (NIV) If that wasn't enough, "God sent a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. Jonah 4:8 (NIV)

"Death is certainly better than this!" he exclaimed.
Then God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be
angry because the plant died?"
Jonah 4:8b-9a (NIV)

Well, Jonah thought he had a right to be angry! Don't we all when things don't go our way? When times get tough and it seems God might just be picking on us? So many of us act like Jonah, and yet God is only trying to do what is best for His children. He wants that none should be lost, not even the city of Nineveh with their sinful ways and their threats to His people. He loves us each and every one of us and all who will turn to Him and accept His loving forgiveness through his Son Jesus Christ will be forgiven. It matters not who we are, what we have done, or how many times we have done it. Today is a new day! God is calling us to Him!!

In forty days, Nineveh would have been destroyed and those people would have been lost. God gave them another chance when he sent Jonah to warn them. He gives all of us many chances as He warns us over and over in so many different ways! One of those ways is right here in this message-will anyone take it? Will anyone hear Jonah calling out through this "children's story" even today?

We feel sad when bad things happen, especially to good people. We don't want to see even a plant wither in the heat, especially if it has been cut off at the roots needlessly by a so-called stray worm. Why should one plant have to die? Why should anyone, when Jesus came to give us life?

The Enemy slithers around seeking whom he may devour. When he starts to eat through the very things that we cling to for life, what will we have left? We will mourn the loss of a home, a car, our health, a job, a hobby or even a loved-one?--but as God said about the plant in Jonah, "a plant is only, at best, short lived." Everything we see, touch, taste, feel, and even experience on this earth is short lived, at best. 

"Lord, in the beginning you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
Even they will perish, but you remain forever.
They will wear out like old clothing. You will roll them
up like an old coat.
Hebrews 1:10-12 (NIV)

The world as we know it, the heavens above us, the earth below us, God will roll them up like an old coat. We need something more lasting than that, something more secure in our lives to depend on if we are to live in peace each day.

We can't think that this is all about us. That the world revolves around what we want, what we enjoy and what we think is important. There are more important things at work here than that. Jonah found that out. No matter what his plans were, no matter how far away he tried to run away, God had a bigger plan, a better plan and one that He would see accomplished even through a stubborn, obstinate character like Jonah.

God is compassionate. He saw a city of 120,000 people in Nineveh who needed saving and He didn't want to lose them, not even one of His sheep. They were all precious to Him, just as we are today. That's why He continues to call to us--to send us pastors and missionaries and teachers and writers and the person next door, or the checker at the grocery store, or even your own spouse or another family member to shout loud and clear, "Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!" The message may sound different and it may not be shouted, but it is there, calling to you! God wants to save you from certain disaster! He wants to give you ever-lasting life! He is preparing a place for you when your time on earth is finished. He wants you to come home to Him when you leave this earth to your heavenly home. So while you are here, He will continue to call your name.

Can you hear it?

Listen closely...Nineveh...Nineveh...John, Steve, April, Mark, Sally, Larry, Bill, Martha....the list is as endless as the love God has waiting for all those He calls.

This not about the "big one that got away," this time it's about you!

Thanks for letting me share this fish story with all of you!