Sunday, July 17, 2022


It was a summer afternoon, and the Geo Barents – that's a ship – was sailing on the Mediterranean. Alarm Phone reported an urgent need for their attention in the waters north of Libya, on Africa's northern coast, and so the ship changed course and reached the scene. The Geo Barents is a search-and-rescue vessel, chartered now by Doctors Without Borders. Upon arriving after a three-hour search, what they found horrified them. An inflatable white canoe filled with migrants from various African nations was going under; the wooden floor of the canoe had cracked through in the middle. People were drowning left and right, some having already fallen out into the deep waters and drifted far from the wreck. One heroic 17-year-old Togolese boy had scooped a four-month-old infant out of the waters, resting it on his back as he himself strove to keep himself and a couple others above the water, clinging to a fragment of wood. The Geo Barents crew managed to rescue 71 people; between 20 and 30 were missing, some just children – all irreplaceable lives. Those not rescued drowned. Their bodies couldn't be found. That was twenty-seven days ago. They rest beneath the Mediterranean waves.1

Unfortunately for him, Jonah lived in the days before Doctors Without Borders. No search-and-rescue vessels plied the Mediterranean in his time. There were to be no rescuers on the waves. You see, when we last left our hapless friend Jonah the wayward prophet, he was being thrown overboard – at his own suggestion, mind you – by the hands of the Gentile sailors who crewed the ship he'd hired to help him escape from God. As it turns out – surprise, surprise – that was a spectacularly ill-conceived idea. And so, with a splash in the storm, Jonah hit the wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean, still choppy (for the moment), churned into a frenzy.

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the river surrounded me” (Jonah 2:3a). That's Jonah himself testifying to his experience. Jonah's not picturing himself in merely shallow waters. He's not at home in his bathtub. He's not in the kiddie pool. He hasn't waded out a little bit too far. This is “the heart of the seas” – it might as well be the mid-Atlantic, not that Jonah can even fathom that. And he's caught in the current. “All your breakers and your waves passed over me” (Jonah 2:3b). These are heaps, hills made of water, and the crashing movements that break ships in pieces. As Jonah tries to swim and get his head above water, the waves break over his head, dousing him, bit by bit inundating his lungs.

Then I said, 'I am driven away from your eyes, yet I shall look again upon your holy temple.' The waters closed in over me up to my throat, the deep surrounded me” (Jonah 2:4-5a). Jonah's disbelief at what's going on around him yields to him sinking into the water. It's a different word for 'deep' now – this is the word from back in Genesis, the original ocean when everything was ocean. Jonah can no longer surface to catch a breath. And he realizes that his is a fatal set of circumstances. As he sinks, his brain is losing oxygen. Everything begins to feel like a dream, and panic gives way to an eerie calm. His loosening mind, unwinding from all the walls he put up, turns to God's temple, imagining himself there. But that's not where he is. “Weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains” (Jonah 2:5b). On the way down, he's gotten himself tangled in seaweed. But he claims to have reached 'the roots of the mountains.' That's the bottom, that's the seabed. Now, either Jonah is exaggerating wildly, or he's completely drowned, because there's only so low Jonah can get with air in his lungs, and even diving he couldn't reach the bottom before running out of air, to say nothing of the crushing water pressure. Whatever the case, the situation he depicts is obviously beyond any human help. The seaweed wrapping around him might as well be a shroud; he might as well be carried toward his tomb.2

And, sure enough, that's how he puts in in the very next lines: “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (Jonah 2:6a). Elsewhere he calls it “the Pit” (Jonah 2:6b) and “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:2b). He's talking about the underworld. That's where he's claiming he went: the realm of the dearly departed, the land of the dead. All through chapter 1, we watched as Jonah kept going down, down, down – he “went down to Joppa,” he “went down into” the ship (Jonah 1:3), he “went down into the bowels of the ship” (Jonah 1:5), all while God and man are telling him to get up (Jonah 1:2, 6). Now he's gone down into the deep, down to the roots of the mountains, and finally down to the underworld. It is, by definition, the last stop on the line. There's no more down from Sheol's belly. Jonah's been gobbled up by death, he's in the Pit, he's as low as it goes. Nor is there an up for him: the prison bars of death have slammed shut “forever,” says Jonah. It's a permanent end. Jonah sides with Job, who declared: “He who goes down to Sheol does not come up” (Job 7:9). And, according to King Hezekiah decades later, “Sheol does not thank you, Death does not praise you; those who go down to the Pit do not hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18). Jonah could easily believe there's no point in praying.

But on the other hand, isn't it also written: “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD (Proverbs 15:11)? Isn't it said: “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:8)? Didn't Samuel's mother Hannah sing that “the LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6)? And so, says the drowned prophet, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD (Jonah 2:7a). “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress” (Jonah 2:2a). “And my prayer came to you, into your holy temple” (Jonah 2:7b), “and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2b). Yes, testifies Jonah, “he answered me” (Jonah 2:2a). “You brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God” (Jonah 2:6b). Jonah's itty-bitty prayer, not even audible, just a gurgle or a thought, outside the land of Israel, away from dry land at all, well beneath the face of the deep, perhaps as far away as the underworld – it zapped itself all the way to Jerusalem, to the house where heaven meets earth, from which God heard the prayers of his people. And where Jonah has no claim by merit to God's intervention, yet God doesn't turn a deaf ear to Jonah's distress. God helps Jonah switch from down to the first movement up.

What the narrator tells us is that “the LORD had appointed” a solution already. Even before Jonah began to call out, even when Jonah was sullenly silent, even when Jonah was at his most disobedient and his least deserving, already God had appointed a solution to his coming troubles – already God was setting a rescue operation into motion. God handed down an assignment to a creature he'd handpicked for just that task, a creature whose very purpose in life was this moment. Now, wouldn't it have been awful for Jonah if that creature had Jonah's heart? If that creature responded to God's call by swimming the other direction?

But Jonah's persistent pattern of disobedience is blessedly contradicted by this creature's timely obedience. He resuscitates, he revives, he regains life inside something submarine. You see, “the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17a). In Hebrew, it's just described as a 'great fish.' Later, when this story got translated into Greek, the Jews picked a different word, ketos, which by that time could mean specifically a whale, which is where we've come to get that impression. But actually, the word was broader, and meant, more generally, some kind of sea monster. In the oldest art we have of Jonah and this 'great fish,' it doesn't look much like any whale I've seen. Truth be told, we don't really know what God appointed to swallow Jonah. Maybe it was some species of whale. Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was something we couldn't identify even if we saw it. For all we know, maybe it was something God made one-of-a-kind for just that occasion. As fun as it'd be to know, that's not the point the book's trying to make. All we can say is that this creature was fishy, and this creature was big – very big, like the storm was big. It was a 'great fish.' It was a sea monster.

Whatever that 'great fish' is, it swallows Jonah, it devours him whole. Almost never could that be a good turn of events! Nowhere else are you going to read a passage of Scripture where Thing A devouring Thing B leads to a positive outcome for Thing B. There aren't many health benefits to getting eaten. Except right here, where God has chosen to arrange Jonah to find a moderate air supply and shelter by it. Jonah has a place to breathe, revive, dwell. But it's also cramped, smelly, wet, and dark. In other words, it probably feels like waking up from being buried alive. You're not dead: hooray! – but you're still in the grave: not-so-hooray. The inside of the 'great fish' is at once the means of Jonah's sudden salvation and also the means of Jonah's continued chastisement. This is solitary confinement of a repulsive sort, and in the sleepless darkness, with no sound grasp on the passage of time, Jonah is forced to face his thoughts. It might as well be torture “in the belly of the fish” (Jonah 1:17).

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish” (Jonah 2:1). He's in the fish's innards, the bowels. Sometimes, this 'belly' can refer to the stomach, like when Zophar tells Job how a person's “food is turned in his belly” (Job 20:14). But sometimes this 'belly' can also refer to the inner source of new life, like when Naomi warns Ruth that she's got no further sons “in my belly” (Ruth 1:11), or when a psalmist says that God “took me out of the belly of my mother” (Psalm 71:6). When Jonah gets swallowed, the 'belly' surely is the stomach – but when Jonah prays, suddenly the word for 'fish' in Hebrew switches from masculine to feminine, which opens up the possibility of a womb once Jonah starts praying. If Jonah's a changed man, if he prays well, then his deliverance out of the great fish can be a new birth to a new life. But if Jonah's unchanged, if he prays poorly, then his exit is regurgitation as the same ol' sourpuss.3

And that's when we come to Jonah's psalm. I have to think that, for all the psalms David wrote, that shepherd boy never did his composition in such a setting. But Jonah is. His second prayer is poetry, a psalm. And on first blush, it's a beautiful one. Here's a man who can talk the talk, who prays well-placed words rich with piety and orthodoxy!4 But if we start to look closer, there are some odd things about it. To a Hebrew ear of the time, it would've come across with a mismatch. It's like... you know that it's technically possible to sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” to the tune of the theme song from Gilligan's Island, right? (Try it out yourself: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost, but now am found; / was blind, but now I see – / blind but now I see....”5) Well, Jonah's psalm comes across like that. It mixes up the conventions for happy songs and sad songs – there were things Jews knew to expect in psalms of thanksgiving, and other things Jews knew to expect from psalms of lament, and this somehow manages to straddle the divide.6

A lot of the lyrics are ripped off of other psalms we know, sometimes down to exact quotes.7 And to be sure, it's progress insofar as Jonah is now at least talking at God.8 But whether Jonah realizes it or not, the pictures he's painting and the words he's choosing keep hearkening back to the song Israel sang right after the exodus, when they stood on the east shore of the sea in which their Egyptian pursuers had drowned (Exodus 14-15). To listen to those songs side-by-side is to get the impression that Jonah's been on a reverse exodus, a betrayal of Israel's most basic story, right up to the point where he cries for help.9 But for all that, nowhere in this psalm does Jonah accept responsibility for anything. He's constantly pointing the finger at God: You cast me into the deep..., all your breakers and your waves passed over me..., I am driven away from your eyes...” (Jonah 2:3-4). But Jonah wasn't driven away, chased away by an outside force; he ran, he fled! Jonah's mentions of God in the second-person here – where Jonah actually talks to God in this psalm – are principally about blaming God. Nowhere in it does Jonah show contrition or repentance. He's not sorry for how he behaved. He's unchanged.10

What's more, Jonah's focus in this psalm is carefully written to be predominantly about himself. First, it's all about his troubles, and God appears in the background as their cause. Then, it's all about Jonah patting himself on the back for praying, and crediting his prayers for being the defining change in his circumstances. Jonah yields barely half a verse to mentioning the actual rescue by God which he's supposed to be praising!11 And that impression is borne out by how Jonah ends his prayer. He refers derogatorily to other people who “cling to vapors of emptiness” – in other words, Gentiles trapped in their pagan ways, whose worship is directed to hollow nothings that don't last. And this exact phrase shows up in one of the psalms, but the next thing the psalmist says is, “But I trust in the LORD (Psalm 31:6). Jonah doesn't say that here. Instead, he condemns Gentiles for having “forsaken their mercy” (Jonah 2:8) – he suggests that their misguided lifestyle has surrendered an entitlement to God's favor that they could've had if only they'd lived like Jonah has. Jonah contrasts himself to such Gentile fools by saying that he, unlike them, is going to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good on whatever vows he made (Jonah 2:9a). But, quite unbeknownst to Jonah (but knownst to us!), the Gentile sailors will indeed do that, recognizing God's mercy. Will Jonah? Hard to say.

The point is, Jonah's prayer sounds good from a distance, but not so much with a magnifying glass. He flatters himself instead of accusing himself. He comes across as proud and self-righteous still. And that's nauseating. Certainly God seems to think so, judging from what happens next. Jonah's prayer sits about as gently on the fish's stomach as a few slices of week-old pickle-and-chocolate-chip pizza. It sickens God, and the great fish gets the distinguished displeasure of making that sentiment quite colorfully known when the fish spews Jonah to the sand, barfs him onto the beach. For “the LORD spoke to the fish” – here the word 'fish' is masculine again, cutting off the womb option – “and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). God is indeed faithful to bring Jonah back to terra firma, thus completing his rescue from this submarine voyage. But it's a second chance without a second birth. Instead, it foreshadows how, in just a few decades, Israel is going to be vomited out by the land, largely because of the same attitudes Jonah is bound up in (cf. Leviticus 18:28). So the prophet is upchucked onto the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, possibly near where his ship set out from.12

As we'll find, perhaps in keeping with whatever vows he made, he's now prepared to follow at least the letter of what God says, if not its spirit. Splatted onto the beach, covered in ambergris and sand, possibly naked if his clothes dissolved away, Jonah is a joke, totally humiliated by his mode of re-entry onto the land. And whenever he gets the chance to ask somebody what day it is, he'll realize how long he was inside the great fish, how long it's been since he was left for dead: “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).

Now, down through the centuries, as the adventures of Jonah were told and re-told, often people tried to gloss over some of his weaknesses, and they came to fill in the details with all sorts of legends. In a time of crisis, one Jewish teacher begged God to rescue Israel from danger, and appealed to the example of Jonah. He said to God: “When Jonah was pining away unpitied in the belly of the monster of the deep, you, Father, restored him uninjured to all his household” (3 Maccabees 6:8). A popular belief then arose that Jonah was the same person as another Bible character: the widow's son whom the prophet Elijah had raised from the dead (1 Kings 17:22).13 So, in one way or another, Jonah was becoming cemented in people's minds as someone who had seen the underworld and escaped to live again, as a man brought back from the abyss by the power of God.14 It had to be the power of God: without miracles all along the way, there's no chance for Jonah to be scooped up at the last second, or to avoid being digested, or to find air, and or to be returned to dry land. But with God, all things are possible. What's more, his emergence from the fish came to be interpreted, after all, as a “sign of rebirth.”15

And so when we get to the Gospels, we shouldn't be too surprised when Jesus points back and unfolds the story. Some of the local religious crowd, trained scribes and card-carrying Pharisees, press him to give them a sign from heaven. Now, Jesus has been working miracles all over the place, to help people. But the scribes and the Pharisees dismiss all that. They want Jesus to prove himself to them. But Jesus has no interest in sating their curiosity. He's about mercy. Their demands are markers of an “evil and adulterous generation.” But if they want proof of who Jesus is – proof beyond all that's in front of their eyes – then they can wait and watch, because “no sign will be given to [them] except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39).

And what is that sign? “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” (Matthew 12:40). If the Pharisees could recognize Jonah as one who went down to the abyss and was made a sign of God's power by coming back, then Jesus – One far greater than Jonah, and a trillion times more faithful – will do the same, not out at sea, but here on dry land, when he dies, is buried, and then returns to walk the world of the living. The sign of Jonah is that Jesus will die and rise again on the third day, voyaging to the underworld and then being restored. In him will be shown true the last words of Jonah's prayer: “Salvation,” or rescue, “is of the LORD (Jonah 2:9b)!

Those were the words with which Jonah closed his psalm. And while Jonah might have thereby painted himself into a corner, it remains a true statement, even on hypocritical lips. Which is good news for us! Because, let's be honest: Sometimes we strut through life a lot like Jonah. Our love for God is mingled with a focus on self. Our judgmental guts make a mess all over our pretty pieties. Our prayers can't decide what genre they are. In the same breath, we run to God and run from God. And without the sign of Jonah, all we little Jonahs are helpless and hopeless. But the sign of Jonah has now been shown forth in a much bigger way than this book of the Old Testament can contain: for Jesus dove to Sheol and rose up again to the land of the living, not in humiliation and in weakness but in glory and in power! His is now “an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16).

And just as God heard Jonah's hollow prayers and had mercy on him anyway, so God is often merciful to those of us who wear the wayward prophet's swim trunks. It's not for nothing that each of us enters the Church by way of a simulated drowning. That, after all, is exactly what baptism is. As Jonah was submerged three days and three nights beneath the surface of the deep, so are we plunged in the deep, “buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Rather than being locked up in Sheol forever, and rather than being vomited out as our Jonah hearts deserve, this taste of death and burial brings us to the prospect of new life – although, much as Jonah found, it can be humbling to die to self.16

Now, as we go through life, we are marked by the sign of Jonah, each and every one of us who's been baptized into Christ Jesus, the Greater Jonah. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been inscribed on our lives. As mixed up as we can be, as much as our residual passions press on us like the crushing waters, as many scrapes as we can get ourselves in, we are stamped as having been to the underworld and risen again – a reality that, if we're faithful to it, will be played out in the “first resurrection” in spirit when we reach heaven and then the “second resurrection” in body when Christ brings a new creation to full flower (Revelation 20:4-6, 12-13). In the meantime, we – an extension of Jesus' sign of Jonah – walk this earth as living reminders – to ourselves, to one another, to all the world – that “salvation belongs to the LORD (Jonah 2:9b)! So it ever does: it's never too late to pray, to cry out, to seek his rescuing mercy in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.

1  See, e.g., “At least 30 people feared dead after tragic rescue in the central Mediterranean,” press release, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), 28 June 2022: <>; Charlotte Boitiaux, “'Quand on l'a sorti de l'eau, il ne respirat plus': le sauvetage in extremis d'un nourrisson de 4 mois lors d'un naufrage en Méditerranée,” InfoMigrants, 4 July 2022: <>; Kathleen N. Hattrup, “Teen saves baby from drowning,” Aleteia, 13 July 2022: <>.

2  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah: A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 112.

3  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah: A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic Press, 2019 [2013]), 108.

4  Philip Peter Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: A Theological Commentary (T&T Clark, 2008), 57.

5  For a fun rendition of “Amazing Grace” to the Gilligan's Island tune, see <>.

6  JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, EEC (Lexham Press, 2019), 379-381.

7  Ehud Ben Zvi, Signs of Jonah: Reading and Rereading in Ancient Yehud (Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), 47-48.

8  Philip Peter Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: A Theological Commentary (T&T Clark, 2008), 59.

9  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah: A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic Press, 2019 [2013]), 121.

10  JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, EEC (Lexham Press, 2019), 453.

11  Daniel C. Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation, and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah (IVP Academic, 2011), 82.

12  JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, EEC (Lexham Press, 2019), 472.

13  Lives of the Prophets 10.6 (first century AD)

14  Simon Chow, The Sign of Jonah Reconsidered: A Study of Its Meaning in the Gospel Traditions (Coronet Books, 1995), 43.

15  Pseudo-Philo, On Jonah 95 (perhaps circa first century AD)

16  On Jonah's experience as a prefigurement of baptism in Christian readings of the text, see Ehud Ben Zvi, Signs of Jonah: Reading and Rereading in Ancient Yehud (Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), 139.

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