Dead, But Not Forgotten.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.Jonah 2:1-10 ESV

Jonah thought he was a dead man. He had been thrown into the sea by the sailors in an attempt to appease God’s wrath, and it had worked. The sea and wind had calmed, but Jonah had sank under the water. And in his mind, his life was over. Jonah describes his predicament in stark terms: “You threw me into the ocean depths, and I sank down to the heart of the sea. The mighty waters engulfed me; I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves” (Jonah 2:3 NLT). Jonah was going to drown and he knew it. And he knew he deserved it. He had blatantly disobeyed the command of God. Jonah had doubted that God knew what was best, both for himself and the people of Nineveh. And it looked like death was going to be the outcome for his disobedience.  Jonah describes what he experienced: “I sank beneath the waves, and the waters closed over me. Seaweed wrapped itself around my head. I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever. But you, O Lord my God, snatched me from the jaws of death!” (Jonah 2:5-6 NLT).

What God had done was send a great fish. Nowhere does the text mention a whale, but when we think of a sea creature large enough to swallow a man whole, a whale is what comes to mind. But regardless of what kind of sea creature it was, God sent it and it literally snatched Jonah from the jaws of death. Jonah went from drowning to being swallowed alive. But to him, that was a blessing. Because Jonah had cried out to God for deliverance. As he had been in the process of sinking under the waves, he had prayed to God for help.

I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice – Jonah 2:2 ESV

For the Hebrew, Sheol was the place where the departed spirits of the dead went. Jonah thought he was going to join the dead. And it seems that his prayer was borrowed from a psalm of David.

The cords of death encompassed me;
    the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.” – Psalm 18:4-5 ESV

Jonah was quoting Old Testament Scripture as he struggled to stay afloat and alive. Even in the process of drowning, he had the composure to pray to God. He realized that he had turned his back on God and yet, in his predicament, he was completely dependent upon God for salvation.

“As my life was slipping away,
    I remembered the Lord.
And my earnest prayer went out to you
    in your holy Temple.” – Jonah 2:7 NLT

And God heard him and rescued him. God sent the fish. It’s interesting to note that Jonah conceived of being swallowed alive as a form of salvation. He didn’t suddenly turn his concern from drowning to being slowly and painfully digested while still alive. No, Jonah saw this as a sign from God. He had called out for salvation and God had sent it. In the form a very large fish.

We don’t know what Jonah had in mind when he called out to God. We have no way of knowing what kind of salvation he was looking for. It is likely that Jonah didn’t really care. All he knew was that he was drowning and about to die. He left the means of salvation up to God, and God delivered him. It’s amazing how we can be so specific with God when we have something we want from Him. Our prayers can be very detailed and our requests, quite to the point. But when we find ourselves in a hopeless place, where all seems lost, we tend to pray more dependently and in a far less demanding tone. We simply ask God for rescue. And we really don’t care what form that rescue takes. For Jonah, it took the unlikely and miraculous form of a giant fish. He went from the jaws of death to the literal jaws of a fish. And many of us, had we been in Jonah’s place, would have found reason to argue with God over His chosen means of rescue. We would have said, “Really, God! You call this a rescue! This is the best you can do?!”

But Jonah was more than satisfied. He somehow knew that this was part of God’s plan. He said, “yet I shall again look upon your holy temple” (Jonah 2:4 ESV). He had hope. He could see the hand of God in the form of the fish. And he praised God for His love and salvation.

“Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – Jonah 2:8-9 ESV

He was in the process of being rescued by a loving, all-powerful God. He was not dependent upon some man-made idol that sat on a shelf and lacked any ability to hear prayers, let alone answer them. It had been Jonah’s God who had rescued the pagan sailors by calming the sea and the storm. It had been Jonah’s God who had heard his cry from the depths of the sea and sent a savior in the form of a fish. I can’t help but think of the words of Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54 ESV). As hard as it is for us to believe, the swallowing of Jonah by the fish was actually a form of victory for him. It was what kept him from drowning. As strange and bizarre at it may sound to us, his time in the belly of the fish was part of God’s preferred means of rescue. In a way, all of this is tied to what Jesus referred to as “the sign of Jonah”. If you recall, Jesus had told the religious leaders that the only sign they would see was the sign of Jonah. He would die on the cross. He would then be buried or swallowed up by the grave. But then He would rise again three days later. And that is exactly what happened to Jonah. He effectively died in the sea, was swallowed by the fish, and delivered safe and sound, three days later, on the beach. Here is what the text says happened:

And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
– Jonah 2:10 ESV

Jonah lived. He had been delivered by God from a death he most certainly deserved. Jonah had rebelled against the God of the universe and lived to tell about it. And what a dramatic lesson that should have been for Jonah. Here was a man who had refused to take God’s warning of judgment to the people of Nineveh because he didn’t believe they deserved it. And yet, God had rescued him in spite of his own sin and rebellion. God had redeemed Jonah from death, not because Jonah deserved it, but simply because it was His will that Jonah live.

You would think that an experience like the one Jonah had would be truly life changing and transformative. And it was, to a degree. God had his attention. But did God have his whole heart? Was Jonah a changed man? Time will tell and the rest of the book of Jonah will reveal just how this experience impacted Jonah. One of the things we will learn is that salvation by God can have a life-changing effect on us. But once saved, we sometimes have a bad habit of forgetting just how great a salvation we experienced. We begin to forget just how bad our situation was before God stepped in. The apostle Paul had a way of reminding the believers in his day not to forget their pre-cross condition.

Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NLT

He told the Ephesian believers:

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world…But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-6 NLT

We were as good as dead. But we were rescued from death by an unlikely, unbelievable means. God sent His Son to swallow up death by dying and then rising from the dead. And we were raised with Him.

For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
 – Romans 6:4 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson