Though it has been highly romanticized as a Sunday school classic, Jonah’s three-day stay inside a fish was an indescribable horror. Lodged in the cramped and clammy darkness, he was likely unable to move and barely able to breathe due to the suffocating stench. The gastric acids of the fish’s stomach ate away at his skin, and the constant motion of the fish combined with the changing pressure of the ocean’s depths must have been absolutely nauseating.
Though attempts have been made to provide a scientific explanation for Jonah’s survival, it is best to understand this remarkable preservation as a divine miracle. The Lord prepared the fish to swallow Jonah, and He protected Jonah supernaturally. (Because the Hebrew word for whale is not used, Jonah’s host was likely not a warm-blooded mammal—making his agonies in the cold wetness all the more unimaginable.)
The Penitent Prophet
In the midst of his misery, the humbled prophet cried out for deliverance. His prayer of repentance, recorded in Jonah 2, is one of the most poignant in all of Scripture, a cry out of suffocating circumstances:
I called out of my distress to the Lord, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice. For You had cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me. So I said, “I have been expelled from Your sight. Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.” Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, Weeds were wrapped around my head. I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple. Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord. (Jonah 2:2–9)
The man who recoiled at the thought of God extending mercy to Assyria begged the Lord for grace and compassion from the depths of his own desperation. And God graciously answered his prayer.
Jonah’s prayer indicates that he sank far below the surface before being swallowed. His reference to “Sheol” does not necessarily mean that he died, but more likely refers to the catastrophic circumstances surrounding his near-death experience. It was there, submerged in the ocean deep, that Jonah cried out for the God he was running from to come to his aid. He acknowledged both the Lord’s powerful presence (Jonah 2:1–6) and His saving grace (Jonah 2:7–9). Drowning under the weight of God’s hand of judgment, Jonah prayed for deliverance and compassion from the Judge Himself.
Three days later, a wet, disheveled, and slime-covered prophet collapsed with a stench onto the sandy beach. He had just been violently expelled from his gastric prison by a fish that had endured three days of indigestion so that the Lord could teach Jonah a lesson. But the rebel prophet had repented. When the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, he would be sure to obey.
Jonah Goes to “Fish Town”
The Lord’s compassion toward Jonah not only resulted in the prophet’s rescue but also in his restoration to ministry usefulness. In Jonah 1:2, God had commissioned the prophet to go to Nineveh, but Jonah disobeyed. Two chapters and several traumatic events later, the Lord issued the same command again: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you” (Jonah 3:2). This time Jonah fully submitted, traveling east to the Assyrian capital.
Nineveh was settled on the banks of the Tigris River approximately five hundred miles northeast of Israel. According to historians, magnificent walls almost eight miles long enveloped the inner city, with the rest of the city and surrounding district occupying an area with a circumference of some sixty miles. The name Nineveh is thought to derive from ninus (for Nimrod, the city’s founder) and means the residence of Nimrod or nunu, which is Akkadian for fish. Thus, the city’s name could be reduced to “fish town.” Moreover, the people worshipped the fish goddess Nanshe (the daughter of Ea, the goddess of fresh water) and the fish god Dagon, a statue of a man with a fish head. As these examples indicate, fish were of particular significance to the Ninevites—which likely explains why they took such great interest in Jonah and his fish story when he first arrived in the city. (It has even been suggested that acids from the fish’s stomach bleached Jonah’s skin so that he arrived in Nineveh with a distinctly white, almost ghostly appearance.)
Jonah’s message was far more than a fish story. It was a threat: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). What happened next was a far more extreme and amazing miracle than the supernatural storm and the prophet-swallowing fish had been. The text declares the miracle in a seriously understated way: “The people of Nineveh believed in God” (Jonah 3:5). Those few words describe the largest revival recorded in the Old Testament, as the entire population of Nineveh—numbering in the hundreds of thousands—repented and turned to the Lord.
What made the Ninevites so receptive to Jonah’s message? Some scholars have suggested that military defeats or civil unrest or natural phenomena (like earthquakes and eclipses) may have preconditioned the people so that they were ready to receive the prophet’s warning. In reality, there is no natural explanation for such a massive conversion. There is, however, a supernatural explanation: The Lord went before Jonah and prepared the hearts of the Ninevites. To accomplish His sovereign saving purpose, He used a rebellious prophet to bring rebellious people to faith in Himself.
The full extent of their repentance is explained in Jonah 3:5–9. Everyone in the city, including the king himself, responded with heartfelt sorrow:
Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.”
The king, likely identified as either Adad-nirari III (ca. 810–783 BC) or Assurdan III (ca. 772–755 BC), exchanged his royal robes for sackcloth and ashes. In a public display of personal mourning and to symbolize national repentance, the Assyrian monarch pled to the true God for mercy and forgiveness. Just as He had done for Jonah, the Lord answered the king’s prayer.
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)
Such an astounding impact on an entire nation by a deeply flawed prophet who repented is a classic example of God’s grace in making heroes out of unlikely people.
And Jonah’s reaction to the revival in Ninevah shows just what an unlikely hero he was. Rather than celebrate and praise the grace and mercy of the Lord, he retreated to pout and complain. But even in his sinful response to God’s goodness, there is much we can learn about the Lord and ourselves.