Sometimes it takes drastic measures to turn us around and set us back on the right path. Praise God, He loves us enough to do what is necessary to bring us to repentance and restoration and to remind us, as He did Jonah, that He never abandons us.
The Prodigal Prophet Comes Home
Last we saw Jonah he had been thrown overboard. He is now swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. But here in the last verse of Jonah chapter 1, he suddenly disappears in one big gulp. Verse 17 explains:
The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most ridiculed passages in the Bible. Over the centuries, people have come up with all kinds of creative ways to keep Jonah out of the literal belly of a literal fish.
One author argued that what actually happened was another ship, named The Fish, came and rescued Jonah. Another author suggested that Jonah swam to dry ground and then stayed at an inn named “The Fish;” where he recuperated for three days and three nights.
Skeptics used to argue that the throat of even a whale was too small to swallow a person; but now we know the averagesperm whale has a throat fifteen feet tall, and nine feet wide. That’s big enough to swallow a bus! Marine biologists also have learned that these huge animals have enough air inside their stomachs for someone to breathe, although it would be a hot and humid environment.
Now I really don’t need to know that a whale can swallow a bus. Frankly, all I need is the record of Scripture, which says in verse 17, “The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Beloved, the question is not, “Is there a fish out there big enough to swallow Jonah alive?” The question is, “Is God big enough to create and command such a fish?” Well, if our creator God is for real, then this fish part is easy.
We are told here that the Lord “appointed” this fish. The Hebrew verb can be translated “prepared,” “assigned,” or “commanded.” Interestingly, this is not the only reference in the Bible to God giving an assignment to a fish. The Lord appointed a fish to gulp down a shekel—a coin about the size of a nickel—so that Peter could go fishing, catch that fish, and get that shekel out of its mouth to pay the temple tax for him and Jesus (Matthew 17:27). Now that’s my kind of fishing!
The book of Jonah is going to use this same Hebrew verb translated “appointed” to describe assignments God gives to other things He created. Over in chapter 4 God appoints a plant, a worm, and an east wind to blow into Nineveh. And don’t miss the irony: everybody and everything is obeying God, except Jonah. How long is it going to take for Jonah to get the message?
Now as Jonah dropped down into the belly of this great fish and took a breath or two of this hot, putrid air, he would have realized where he was. And what a realization that must have been.
Jonah knows he has no hope; he is beyond any human help. God is essentially allowing Jonah to experience a taste of what the Ninevites would experience in judgment—hopelessness and helplessness.
Chapter 2 opens with these words: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” We are not told exactly when Jonah cried out to the Lord. Was it the third day, or was it immediately after he landed in the dark cavern of the fish’s belly? I don’t think I would have waited very long at all.
What we do know is that at some point, this prodigal prophet finally started praying. And his prayer is a wonderful illustration of genuine repentance. He begins with full admission. Jonah prays in verses 2-4:
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol [the grave] I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas . . . Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight.’”
Jonah is admitting his sin here and acknowledging that he is justly experiencing the discipline of God.
Jonah’s prayer continues in verse 4: “Yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” This was a statement of recommitment for an Old Testament saint. At the dedication of the temple, back in 1 Kings 8, Solomon prayed:
“Whatever prayer . . . is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear in heaven . . . and forgive.” (verses 38-39)
Jonah evidently had these verses memorized because he is praying them back to God. And he is praying them even though death seems certain.
Now this is my opinion, but I think Jonah was never closer to God than when he was in the belly of that great fish. He says here in verse 7, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.”
When Jonah ran out of hope, he remembered the Lord. What about you today? Perhaps you are in a seemingly hopeless, helpless situation—there is no way out. Like Jonah, start looking up. When you run out of hope, remember the Lord. It just might be a time in your life when you draw closer to the Lord than ever before.
Now with that, Jonah adds thanksgiving and appreciation to his prayer of repentance in verses 8-9:
Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you.
Again, beloved, keep in mind that Jonah is not thankful because he is back on dry land—he isn’t. He does not know if he will reach land again or not. But he is thankful for what matters most—that God has turned his heart from rebellion to submission.
Jonah ends his prayer in verse 9, saying, “What I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” Notice that Jonah is using the same vocabulary used to describe those sailors when they repented and began to worship the God of Israel. They vowed to serve God with their lives, and now Jonah is effectively vowing the same thing.
Maybe you are wondering what good that will do now. What does Jonah have to offer the Lord now?
Well, Jonah can offer the same thing you can offer the Lord, no matter how far you run from God and no matter where you are right now. In Psalm 51, David wrote in repentance, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (verse 17).
When you have run from God, the devil is happy to tell you, “Why would God ever want you back? What good are you to Him now? You have nothing to offer Him.” Well, that is a lie. You can offer to God what He wants most—a broken and teachable spirit and a submissive heart.
As Jonah now offers up these sacrifices, God responds by giving this fish the biggest case of indigestion you can imagine. Suddenly, this great fish just cannot keep Jonah down. Verse 10 tells us, “It vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.”
There he is. The prodigal prophet has returned home—by whale express. However, the most amazing miracle here in Jonah 2 is not Jonah’s ride in the belly of a fish; it is the restoration of Jonah’s heart. God’s wayward servant has come home, revived, restored, and reenlisted as a prophet of God.
We will leave Jonah here for now, soaking wet, on the side of the Mediterranean Sea, where a great crowd is no doubt gathering.
 Cited by William L. Banks, Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Moody Press, 1966), 44.
 Cited by David J. Clark, Norm Mundhenk, Eugene A. Nida, and Brynmor F. Price, A Handbook on the Books of Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah(United Bible Societies, 1993), 73.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets, Volume 1 ((Baker Books, 1983), 282.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Amazed (Victor Books, 2004), 78.