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Would you rather drown than obey God? It would be easy to classify Jonah’s actions as simple disobedience and rebellion. And to be fair, his actions were both disobedient and rebellious; but his reasoning was anything but simple.

Jonah 1:1-3
1 Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
3 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. KJV[1]

What could be so awful about going to Nineveh that would make one rather face the entire western breadth of the Mediterranean to points beyond?[2] Nothing much, really. Nothing much, that is, unless you hang out with prophets and happen to take them seriously.

Jonah didn’t begin his career by running the other way. The Lord had used him during a tumultuous time in Israel’s history when Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel. Jonah it was who prophesied that Israel’s boundaries would be restored; that the lands she had lost to the Syrians of Damascus would once again be hers. And so it was (2 Kings 14:25). Israel’s regained northern boundaries ushered in a time of stability, prosperity, and spiritual complacency. Enter Amos.

Amos was a contemporary of Jonah (Amos 1:1) and one can guess, not nearly as popular. His message wasn’t one of deliverance for the Northern Kingdom but of doom and impending judgment.  Because of their persecution of the righteous, their oppression of the poor, and their prostration before idols; God would carry them away into captivity “beyond Damascus” (Amos 5:27). Beyond Damascus lay the looming cloud of the Assyrians in Nineveh.

Jonah was having none of it. If he went north declaring doom to the heathen, they might just repent. And though the Lord’s vengeance was fearsome, Jonah knew YHWH well enough to know that He was mighty prone to forgiveness. Not on his watch, no siree! Better the heathen go to hell than let them take over Israel. Get me on a slow boat to China, quick![3] He soon discovered that sails are useless in the face of the One who drives the wind.

Jonah 1:4
But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.

Jonah tried to sleep through the storm, but the pagans sailors from whom he had purchased passage held no desire to perish. Pray, they said, to your God and we might yet live. Jonah wasn’t exactly in the devotional mood. I can almost see him peering over the gunwale and hoping the wind was driving them hard westward. The crew was desperate and sure that someone had brought a god’s displeasure on board with their baggage. Lots were cast and Jonah was exposed.

Bad news, fellas, I can hear him say, I didn’t upset a god. I upset the God; the God of heaven, creator of sea and land. Why would you do such a thing? Why on earth would you board our ship to run away from the God who made the sea? And what was Jonah to say, I really hate Assyrians? After all, they might think he was racist. Look, just toss me overboard and you will all be saved.

Would you rather drown than obey God? The wages of sin is death, Romans 6:23 tells us, but there are many times we would rather die than obey God. I find Jonah’s tenacity terrifying; not so much because he stubbornly faced the broiling sea and asked to be thrown down into his own oblivion, but because I find in myself the same terrifying tendency. Many are the times when I’ve chosen sin over salvation, death over obedience, drowning over deliverance. Cue the fish.

Jonah 1:17
Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

If you grew up thinking this was a whale, who can blame you? After all, it’s probably the most common depiction you will find in a children’s Bible storybook. And if you happen to be a fan of classic Walt Disney films, the reinforcement of Pinocchio swimming around in the whale’s mouth is hard to negate. What better way to have a person survive than have them trapped in the mouth of a mammoth sea mammal? But whoever said Jonah was alive?

The scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus seeking a sign. Dance for us and we might sing your tune, they cynically taunted. The Master wasn’t falling for it.

Matthew 12:39-41
39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
40 For 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.
41 The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. NKJV[4]

Commentators often caution against pressing any biblical analogy too far. Warning to the reader: before I’m done, I’ll be pressing both analogy and poetry to the boundaries of their plain reading. I don’t believe that the length of Jonah’s stay in the fish’s belly was the only point of comparison that Jesus was drawing their attention to.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4
1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

The gospel is clear: Jesus died and was buried. He was a dead man in the grave for three days and three nights just as Jonah was a dead prophet in the belly of the fish. Death is easily confirmed as corpses aren’t prone to wander or speak. If you’ve ever been witness to someone’s last moments here on earth or ever attended an open-casket funeral, you know this is all too well. But a corpse is a body and a body does not a whole man make.

1 Thessalonians 5:23
And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Emphasis added.]

Man is spirit, soul, and body. In the economy of God, each has its place in death. Jonah was cast into the sea and its surface calmed. The runaway prophet glided down the fish’s gullet and gasped out a prayer.

Jonah 2:1-4
1 Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly,
2 And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.
3 For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
4 Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. [Emphasis added.]

Note the progression of Jonah’s prayer. It begins “out of the fish’s belly.” This is the location of his body. Prayer turns to cry and cry to a shout “out of the belly of hell.” He then says that God had cast him “into the deep.” Were it not for the reference to hell and Jesus’s reference to Jonah, it would be tempting to mark this all down as mere poetic language. But something deeper is going on here, much deeper.

The Hebrew word translated “hell” in verse two above is sheol[5] and it corresponds to the New Testament Greek term hades. If you wonder that a man could cry out from hades, recall that this was the testimony of our Lord regarding the rich man (Luke 16:19-24). Hell is a term we tend to use haphazardly. For this we have the Translators[6] to thank, for they chose to use “hell” as the English analog for several different terms used in the original languages. This has unfortunately led to much confusion, for all hells aren’t created equal (see link below for more details).[7]

From the deep, Jonah said “I am cast out of thy sight” (vv. 3-4). The Deep is a worthy study in its own right. We will only plumb some of its depths here. Conceptually, it resonates with the Abyss; abussos in the Greek and translated as “the deep” and “the bottomless pit.”

Romans 10:6-7
6 But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)
7 Or, Who shall descend into the deep [abussos]? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)

From the deep to heaven describes the breadth of Christ’s journey from death to ascension. But Jesus walked on water, he wasn’t buried in it. Paul’s use of the Abyss here in quoting Deuteronomy 30:13 is somewhat peculiar. But it agrees with the pattern portrayed in Jonah.

Jonah 2:5-6
5 The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.
6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.

Hear Jonah’s cry in verse 6. The bars of the earth were about him forever. He describes his descent as going beyond the depths of the sea into the heart of the earth (Matt 12:40). Even so, God brought his life up from corruption. He was raised on the third day (Jonah 1:17; Luke 24:46).

The journey that Jonah symbolized, Jesus realized. Jonah was swallowed by the great fish; our Lord’s body was laid in a tomb (Matt 27:59-60). Jonah cried out from sheol; Christ’s soul went to hades (Acts 2:31). Jonah was cast into the deep, bound beneath the bars of the earth; Christ’s spirit went into the Abyss – also known as Tartarus and the Bottomless Pit – and there witnessed to the spirits in prison.

2 Peter 2:4
For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [Greek tartaroo; to cast into Tartarus, a place as far beneath hades as earth is below Heaven[8]] and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;

1 Peter 3:18-20
18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

Jonah was one who, like many of us, would rather drown than obey God. Thankfully, Jesus chose death over disobedience and graciously offers life to all who will come (Phil 2:5-11; Rev 22:16-17).

Romans 10:6-11
6 But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)
7 Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)
8 But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;
9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
11 For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

[1] All Scripture references are from the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.
[2] Admittedly, Tarshish is a subject of much conjecture. The Iberian Peninsula is a popular candidate among commentators, but it is possible that this class of ships went as far as the British Isles. Ships of Tarshish traded in tin, among other things (Ezek 27:12). Chuck Missler speculates that the Phoenicians brought tin all the way from Cornwall (Supplemental Notes: The Book of Ezekiel, Chuck Missler, © 2008 Koinonia House Inc., p. 187).
[3] China, you might well ask. Idiomatically, taking a slow boat to China is our near equivalent to Jonah buying a ticket on a ship to Tarshish. Such ships departing from Joppa might not return to the coasts of Israel for another two to three years!
[4] I use the New King James Version here because it more accurately translates the Greek keetous as “great fish” instead of the “whale” of the KJV Translators, which is the source of all those illustrations you saw in Sunday School. Now, a whales would have been considered a keetous, but whales are not the only large sea creatures that would qualify as such.
[5] As a matter of fact, anytime you read the word “hell” in the Old Testament of the KJV, it is the Hebrew word sheol. But sheol isn’t always translated “hell”.
[6] And by Translators with a capital “T” I mean the King James Version Translators.
[7] For a short primer on the different “hells” mentioned in Scripture, click here to see my video, “Hellish Confusion”, on YouTube.
[8] Merrill F. Unger, Biblical Demonology: A Study of Spiritual Forces at Work Today, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications 1994), 50.