Did you see this rather incredulous story in the news? It is a modern day “Jonah and the Whale.” Michael Packard, a 56-year-old lobster diver from Cape Cod, is recovering in hospital after being swallowed by a whale. At first, he thought he was being attacked by a shark. But then he realized there were no teeth. After several seconds of discomfort - both his own and the whale’s - the whale surfaced and spit him out.
This is one time to be glad the big one got away.
As bizarre as it may seem, I believe the biblical narrative of Jonah and the big fish experience is historical. There was a guy named Jonah, there was a boat commanded by Gentile sailors, there was a big storm, and there was a big fish. Although are other documented cases in history of people having bizarre encounters with large fish (so the story is not without precedent), that is not the most remarkable part of Jonah’s experience. There are storms ferocious enough to scare the most seasoned sailor. And there are people superstitious (and scared) enough to through another human overboard in an attempt to calm the storm. That is not the most remarkable part of the story.
Later in the story Jonah, now reluctantly obedient to divine instruction, continues to whine when the miraculously fast-growing plant, a gift of God’s grace to bring relief from heat, withers up and dies. Jonah is in absolute misery. He is hot and uncomfortable. Israel’s mortal enemy, the people of Nineveh, are responding positively too his preaching. Even all that is not the most remarkable part of the story.
No, it isn’t the supernatural and spectacular events that are the most remarkable. It is this, summarized by these lines from Jonah’s prayer while in the belly of the fish:
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.
(Jonah 2:1-2 ESV)
“What?” you may exclaim. “They guy is in trouble. He prayed to God for help. I’ve done that. We all do that when we are in trouble. What’s the big deal?”
If we read Jonah’s words carefully there are three amazing details that can transform our Monday, and every other day of the week. For the rest of our lives. Forever.
First, Jonah prayed to the LORD. All-caps is not a typeset error. It is there on purpose. Throughout the Old Testament God is often referred to as “LORD.” This is the way English Bible editors help us identify where the Hebrew text uses the covenantal name for God: Yahweh. It is the foundation for the promises made to Abraham. It is the foundation of the covenants made with Moses and David. It speaks of God’s eternal, unchanging faithfulness, love, mercy, compassion, grace, righteousness, justice, holiness, and the totality of God’s nature and character. THIS is the God to whom Jonah prayed. He didn’t pray to the sea-god, or the fish-god, or the beach-god, or the sailor-god, or the god-for-runaways. He prayed to the Creator God, the LORD. He is a Person, a being, not a force or energy. He is One. There is no other. This is the same God to whom we pray today.
The second amazing observation is how Jonah describes the LORD: “he prayed to the LORD his God.” This doesn’t just identify that Yahweh was Jonah’s deity of choice out of the multitude of deities available to be worshipped. The pronoun suggests relationship with this God at a personal level. There was a relationship between Jonah and Yahweh. Although Jonah fails to be faithful to this relationship, His God Yahweh does not. Yahweh provides a crewed ship, a storm, a big fish, a willingness of the sailors to toss Jonah overboard, a beach, a plant, and ultimately, a positive response to Jonah’s preaching even though that wasn’t Jonah’s desired outcome. God is alert to and engaged in every detail of His created order. We call that providence. And God hasn’t changed. In spite of ourselves and our faithlessness to our God, Yahweh, He remains faithful to us, alert to and engaged in every detail of our lives.
The third amazing thing is repeated twice: “he answered me” and “you heard my voice.” This is a very natural outworking of the two observations above. Yahweh, the covenantal and faithful God, in His alertness and engagement, does hear our prayers. Where we are, regardless of our track record, whatever our need, God’s ear is attentive to the cries of His people. Remember, Jonah’s experience stands in contrast to the sailors who did not know God (yet still make an amazing confessional statement about Him - read 1:14) and yet God responded to them (the storm ceased). The Ninevites did not know God but God responded to them (didn’t destroy their city). There is irony there; those who did not God seemed more aware of God’s engagement than the prophet who was supposed to represent Him!
I’m impressed by the experience of Michael Packard (hope it never happens to me) and by the supernatural of Jonah’s experience. But I’m mostly impacted by the intimacy that characterizes God’s responses to the sailors, to the city of Nineveh, and to even Jonah himself. I’ve acted like Jonah from time to time. I’ve doubted God. I’ve had bad attitudes. I’ve nurtured prejudices. I’ve tried to manipulate things.
Yet the LORD, Yahweh, the One true Creator God continues to be alert to me, responsive to me, gracious toward me, forgiving my sin, providing for my needs, and even working in the lives of other people through me - in spite of me. And I still struggle to not doubt Him. I still want to be in control.
Thankfully, God is God and there is no other. He is the God of fish stories, of storms, of foolish hearts and minds like mine and yours.
That is the truly amazing part of the story.