Jonah: Something Fishy (1:13-17)
“13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. 17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:13-17, ESV).
Out of Options
We now read about what these sailors do as a result of their deadly situation. Even though Jonah asks them to throw him overboard (1:12), they do not want to kill God’s prophet so they attempt to get back to dry land. “Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them” (v. 13). They know Jonah is a serious problem, but they do not want to be held responsible for killing the prophet of such a powerful God (1:14). Dry land is where they want to be, and you can visualize the back-breaking, vein-pumping rowing of the sailors as they try to fight against God’s storm. But does that work? No because, “the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.” This storm was growing more violent, more dangerous, and more terrifying. So what happens next?
“Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD have done as it pleased you” (v. 14). They do not want to die simply because they have taken on a passenger with a pursuing God. They have run out of other options. They have tried calling on other gods and lightening the ship (1:5), asking Jonah to pray (1:6), casting lots (1:7), interrogating Jonah (1:8), and rowing (v. 13). Their fear is that they will die for doing something they really don’t want to do: participating in God’s judgment on Jonah.
Realizing that they are out of options, they reluctantly proceed with Jonah’s request: “So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging” (v. 15). You can picture it, about three or four strong-armed sailors picking up the prophet and throwing him into sharp waves—and after that, hearing sigh of relief as they see that the waters are now calm. And in v. 16 we read an amazing statement: “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows” (v. 16). They fear God exceedingly. These men aren’t terrified of dying like before (1:5), they are no longer afraid of a God they don’t know (1:10). This is a different type of fear. Because this fear results in that they “offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” This fear was a reverence for a sovereign God that resulted in their changed lives. Now this text does not tell us whether this new appreciation for the Lord of heaven, land and sea is lasting (whether they keep their “vows”). Nonetheless, this passage describes something new for the sailors in relationship to Yahweh, Jonah’s God. They fear God because they have witnessed His power over creation and because He has honored their prayer for deliverance. Even in Jonah’s disobedience, God has made him effective in his calling as a prophet: bringing people to faith in God.
Readiness to Receive
These sailors provide us an excellent example by their readiness to acknowledge their helplessness, hear Jonah’s witness, act on it , and worship the true God. They hear Jonah’s witness to Yahweh and believe his witness. They, like Jonah, run from the difficult action required of them (throwing Jonah overboard) but realize the futility of rowing against God’s storm. They surrender, believing a seemingly impossible word from God, that God’s appointed man will actually die for their salvation. They believe and worship God.
When we acknowledge that we are helpless without God (Rom. 5:6), hear the gospel witness (Eph. 1:13), and act on that gospel witness—our lives will be changed forever. But will we? Apart from the grace of God we won’t, according the the Bible. The Scriptures teach that our rebellion against God is total, and we are unable to submit to God and do good to His honor. “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). We have deceitful hearts (Jer. 17:9), and “we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of [our] evil heart[s]” (Jer. 18:12).
Who can surrender to such difficult demands in faith? Indeed, we cannot. But God in His mercy calls us by His Spirit. Martin Luther writes, “I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called be by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. . .” Similarly Basil of Caesarea says, “You have not known God by reason of your righteousness, but God has known you by reason of His goodness.”
The Great Fish
The pagan sailors have experienced salvation under difficult demands and this is great for the sailors, but we are left asking, what happens to Jonah? Is this the end of the story for God’s prophet? In v. 17, the author concludes this chapter and says, “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jonah was in the sea, and God saved him from death by appointing a great fish to swallow him. Was it a whale? Probably, but we cannot be dogmatic and say that it was, even if a large sperm whale would’ve had no struggle swallowing a man of Jonah’s size. The point here is that God appointed it to happen and it was a miracle.
Was Jonah Really Swallowed by a Great Fish?
There are many skeptics who say that this story is fictional because that could never happen. Some people conclude, then, that the account of Jonah isn’t really historically true. Some say that this event wasn’t literal. That’s what I want to examine briefly. Can this event be logically true?
First, many just do not believe that miracles happen. Some reject all supernatural claims and so when they read an account like this, they feel justified in thinking that the story of Jonah is a made-up story. Don’t be surprised when you encounter people who are naturalists and reject all supernatural.
Secondly, miracles are not common things. We shouldn’t expect to find too many other people (if any) surviving being fish food. But just because something happens rarely or only once in history is not reason to reject that it ever happened. After all, how many times was Abraham Lincoln assassinated? Exactly as many times as we know of people being swallowed by a fish and surviving.
Thirdly, 2 Kings 14:25, which is clearly a history book, mentions Jonah as a prophet who really existed. Since there are no reasons to think 2 Kings mixes real history with characters from fanciful tales, we have good reason to think Jonah was a real person.
Finally, the best reason for believing that Jonah’s being swallowed was actual history is because Jesus believed it to be true. In Matthew 12:39-41, Jesus used Jonah’s entombment in the fish as a way of verifying His own authority and teaching. “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” (v. 40, ESV). If Jesus’ genuine bodily resurrection is to be understood in light of Jonah, then Jonah’s experience must have also been genuinely historical. If Jonah’s story is not real history, then Jesus’ reference to it makes no sense. Of course, those who reject Jonah as real history most likely reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus for the same anti-supernatural reasons. But the evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection powerfully supports it as real history. So for Jesus’ parallel work, Jonah’s experience must also be real history.
Also, Jesus said that the men of Nineveh, who repented at Jonah’s message, would stand up and judge the current generation for not repenting at Jesus’ proclamation (Luke 11:32). This is an empty threat unless the people of Nineveh did in fact repent. Here again, the non-historical view falls apart. So we have good reasons to accept Jonah being swallowed by a “great fish” as real history. The rejection of this account as history is the real fish story (for further scientific study see Jonah and the Great Fish)
Don’t Get Distracted
The focus however, should not be on Jonah’s miraculous residence inside the fish. The focus of the author here is on the fact that God delivered Jonah from death in this way. God rescued Jonah from drowning. Through the agency of this big fish, Jonah is forgiven and saved (Jonah 2). Also, the storm is stilled and the sailors worship the true God, and eventually the Ninevites receive the message from Jonah, repent, and are saved. In this way the bigness of the “unbelievable” fish is finally about God’s saving way in the world. The great fish makes a specific point of God’s extravagant, unrelenting, pursuing, and saving love.
Conclusion: God’s Mercy
The storm is God’s severe mercy for Jonah and the sailors; it is necessary in order to deliver them from their own lives. I say that God’s mercy here is severe because God will wreck your plans when he sees that your plans are about to wreck you. And that is for your good and for His glory. God does not let Jonah go or leave him to wallow in his rebellion, but He quickly brings him to repentance. He pursues him through the storm and gives him an opportunity to fulfill his prophetic calling before the sailors, to good effect. God assigns a fish to rescue Jonah from drowning, saving both Jonah and his aborted mission.