Part Two: Praying to God; The Fish That Went Manning—Jonah 2

In Moby Dick, we read of the flight of Jonah from the commission God had given him: "With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign, but only the Captains of this earth. He skulks about the wharves of Joppa, seeks a ship that’s bound for Tarshish…Miserable man! Oh! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas.

"So disordered, self-condemning is his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck. How plainly he's a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag—no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux (farewell)"— Herman Melville, Moby Dick.


Melville wonderfully describes the disobedience of the running prophet, Jonah. In Chapter 1 of the book of Jonah, we saw the terrible danger to which he exposed the men of the ship, as he refused to repent even in the midst of a storm he had caused. We called Part One A Whale of a Tale, leaving Jonah at the point where he is being thrown overboard. Verse 17 describes one of the most widely known incidents in the Bible—"But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights."


Outline (Text follows)

Chapter 1:17 - Chapter 2—"The Fish That Went Manning"

I. The Pressing Questions about the Whale/Big Fish

A. Could a whale swallow a man, and if it could, would a man survive?

1. The response of a Christian

2. The types and behavior of whales

3. The tale of a big fish


B. Did it happen?


C. What does Jonah's experience in the whale initially say to us?

1. The feeling of being alone

2. The fish list for being alone

3. The questions about being alone and disobedient


II. The Principles of Pain and Failure


III.The Prayer to Pray When You're a Pain in the Stomach

A. Thanksgiving—vv. 2-6

B. Repentance and confession—vv. 7-8

C. Rededication—v. 9


The Pressing Questions About the Whale

v. 17—"But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights."

The most common question asked about this book is: "Could a whale swallow a man, and if it could, would a man survive?"

Although this question has been answered time and again, I think it's helpful to give as thorough a response as possible.

The Christian response. For someone who believes in God and the inspiration of the Scriptures, this whole issue of Jonah in a whale is no problem at all. God can easily toss the wind around to make a storm, and He can miraculously rescue someone from drowning via a whale—it's obviously no problem for Him!

A more important consideration is, "What is the biggest miracle in this book?" The physical miracle of the whale is not nearly so wonderful as the 2) "moral" miracle of Nineveh's repentance, or the 3)"spiritual" miracle of the revelation of a divine character in the 4th chapter. It's obvious to believers that the moral and spiritual miracles should be our focus.

The critics, however, do not swallow this story, because they say it cannot happen. In answer to the critics, let me share a little research (i.e., six books and two videotapes on whales, and numerous other sources).

The types and behavior of whales.

Why would a whale be present? In some of my research, I found that whales follow ships for the garbage thrown overboard. What were the sailors doing in v. 5? 1:5—"…they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship." The sailors could well have attracted a whale by throwing the cargo overboard.

Can a whale swallow a man whole? Yes and no. There are two types of whales—the Odontocetes and the Mysticetes.

blue whaleThe first is represented by the blue whale, the largest, which is 100 feet long and weighs 150 tons. It cannot swallow a man because from its upper jaw hangs a series of hundreds of thin plates acting as a strainer. Thus the whale eats only small sea creatures, e.g., crustaceans.

sperm whaleThe second type, the Mysticetes, is represented by the sperm whale. Its teeth are not for chewing, only for securing prey. It eats anything that moves, and its food is swallowed whole, e.g. fish, sea turtles, seals, penguins, squid, etc.

An example of this type of whale swallowing a man is found in "Journey to the Center of the Digestive System" (from Best, Worst and Most Unusual, by Bruce Felton and Mark Fowler).

Jonah had a tough enough life without several thousand years of detractors. They've been calling his book a fish story since the day it was written. But James Bartley became a believer in February 1891. He was a seaman on an English whaling ship, Star of the East. They were chasing a sperm whale near the Falkland Islands when the whale dove, hit one of the whale boats with its tail, and upset it. One man drowned and another, Bartley, was missing and assumed dead. The whale was killed and dragged to the ship, where the process of stripping off its oily flesh began.

The morning after, they were still at it. Lifting tack was attached to the whale's stomach, by then exposed, and it was hoisted up onto the deck for cutting. A slight, spasmodic movement from within startled the sailors. They thought there might be a large fish inside: cases of 12 and 16 ft. sharks swallowed whole are on record.

But on slitting open the gigantic jaw, they found Bartley, doubled up, drenched and in a coma, but still alive. Doused with sea water, he began to come around. But his mind wasn't clear, and he was taken to the captain's cabin and kept there under lock and key for two weeks. He was a half-human, gibbering lunatic.

By the end of the third week he had recovered his senses and gone back to work. The acidic gastric juices of the whale had bleached his face, neck, and hands to a dead white, with the look and feel of old parchment. He could clearly remember the ordeal: the sensation of being thrown into the water, followed quickly by a rushing sound and then, "a great darkness." He felt himself slipping along a smooth passage that seemed in motion itself, carrying him with it. Then a short time later, he realized he had more room. He felt around in the blackness for the walls of his prison, and found them thickly slimy and soft.

When he realized where he was, he was overcome with fear. There was a terrific, oppressive heat inside the stomach (a whale's body temperature is 104º F). He had no difficulty finding air to breathe, but fought a terrifying, absolute silence. Eventually he passed out and woke up in the captain's cabin. On last report, he was "in splendid spirits and enjoying life."

The story was confirmed in separate, detailed accounts by the ship's captain and one of her officers. Later investigators were convinced of their veracity. It stands as one of the strangest stories on record, and a convincing suggestion that Jonah's tale was more than a fish story. (This story is also quoted in Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 72 (1915); Neue Lutheranische Kirchenzeitung (1895); A.J. Wilson, Princeton Theological Review, vol. 25 (1927).

In addition to this source, one commentary states: "Several reliable accounts exist of people's survival at sea after being swallowed by whales. These natural survivals, due to the body's remarkable ability to live on small amounts of oxygen (though normally unconsciously) in cold water, (is) something medically well established. Also a factor is a whale's frequent surfacing for air. Jonah's rescue was by divine arrangement, however, and thus supernatural in considerable measure"—New Bible Commentary, editor G.J. Wenham, I.V.P., 1994, p. 818.

In the Daily Mail of Dec. 14, 1928, Mr. G. H. Henn, a resident of Birmingham, England, gave the following testimony: "My own experience was in Birmingham about 25 years ago, when the carcass of a whale was displayed for a week on vacant land Navigation Street, outside New Street Station. I was one of 12 men who went into its mouth, passed through its throat, and moved about in what was equivalent to a fair-sized room. Its throat was large enough to serve as a door. Obviously it would be quite easy for a whale of this kind to swallow a man."

In Sir Francis Fox's book, 63 Years of Engineering, the manager of a whaling station informs us that the sperm whale swallows lumps of food 8 feet in diameter, and in one of those whales they actually found the skeleton of a shark 16 feet in length.

The tale of big fish. What are we to make of all this evidence? Does this mean it is now proven that Jonah was swallowed by a whale? It may or may not have been a whale. It is translated "great fish" in Jonah 1:17; 2:1,10. In Hebrew nomenclature, it could be a whale, a large fish, or a shark. We are under no obligation to believe that God actually created a whale to receive Jonah. The narrative says "...the Lord provided a great fish"—v. 17. It could have been a real live Jaws. The Phinoclon shark has swallowed sea cows up to 1,000 pounds without a broken bone—completely whole. It could even have been a large tadpole; God can do anything!

So did it happen? Yes! As we shared in our last study, we have the confirming word of Christ in Matt. 12:38-41, and as far as I'm concerned, that settles it.


God has often used creation—animals and inanimate objects—to assist in communicating and carrying out His will; e.g., in Jonah there is a storm, a whale, a plant, and a worm. Other biblical examples include Balaam's talking donkey (Num. 22:28) and the ravens which fed Elijah (I Kings 17:1-6).
What does Jonah's experience in the whale say to us initially? 1:17b—"and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights."

The feeling of being alone. Can you imagine what Jonah felt like when he was in the whale? There was nothing to do but sit, and I have the feeling the fish didn't just float—this was the ultimate roller coaster ride! Here's one author's description of what it might have been like. (Warning: it's pretty ugly!)

"Pitch black. Sloshing gastric juices wash over you, burning skin, eyes, throat, nostrils. Oxygen is scarce and each frantic gulp of air is saturated with salt water. The rancid smell of digested food causes you to throw up repeatedly until you have only dry heaves left. Everything you touch has the slimy feel of the mucous membrane that lines the stomach. You feel claustrophobic. With every turn and dive of the great fish, you slip and slide in the cesspool of digestive fluid. There are no footholds. No blankets to keep you warm from the cold, clammy depths of the sea. For three days and three nights you endure this harsh womb of God's grace"—Charles R. Swindoll, Old Testament Characters, Insight for Living, Fullerton, CA.

The fish list for being alone. Think of it. When Jonah went into the stomach of the whale, he had nothing but the clothes on his back. The only things of value he had were the contents of his heart and mind—his inner person.

When we enter certain circumstances, we also can feel stripped of the exterior props and resources we normally rely on. Sometimes even our relationships are severed or distant.


Option for small group setting:

If you knew you would be isolated for an indefinite period of time, what interior things would you take with you? i.e., what good things would you store in your heart? (This is whether the storm or trial is of your own making, or you are innocently caught in a very negative circumstance.)

Be very specific about what interior possessions and/or resources you can draw upon, and what resources/beliefs you can potentially draw upon.

Note to a teacher: If in a small group or a teaching setting, write the answers down on the drawing of a whale.

Questions about being alone and disobedient.

How do you feel when you act contrary to orders, or contrary to what you know you should be doing?

How do you feel when things don't go as planned?

How do you feel when questions 1 and/or 2 happens and then you are shut up alone? For example, you have to be in the hospital for an extended period of time

Why don't we like to be alone?


Chapter 2

How long was Jonah in the whale before he prayed? It seems to indicate almost three days, because right after he prayed the prayer, God had him ejected from the fish. (Read chapter 2.)


The Principles of Pain and Failure

Our pain is not always physical; obviously, it can be mental or emotional. Let me ask a few questions about pain and failure.

How is failure misunderstood?

One of the misfortunes of our culture is that we have become a generation of success worshippers. We have our "superheroes" to whom we give praise, but at the same time we look with disdain upon those who fail. Tragically, the church has often accepted the world's standard of success and bowed alongside it at that altar. On the contrary, we can't measure success as the world does.

Look at the life of Jesus. He started well, but what happened in the end? One of His disciples betrayed Him, one denied him, nine ran from Him. Only one followed Him to the cross. When you look at it that way, Jesus' ministry was not a real success in terms of numbers, but His success was measured differently—in terms of building 11 men to be His apostles throughout the world.

Because we, on the other hand, have accepted the world's standard, we are not as loving, compassionate, understanding, and forgiving to members of the body who fail or run; we evaluate too soon.

Some Christians say that failure has no place in the kingdom of God. Is that true? Think of the "failures" in Scripture, how God worked through them in spite of their failings.


Unfortunately, because of many contemporary Christians’ attitude toward failure, one who fails has the added burden or weight of wondering whether God has forgotten him. This can be a big blow to his faith, and prompt him to doubt God's love for him.

What can failure mean to Jonah and to us?

Here's a random list:

Failure sometimes means that we have not obeyed the rules, e.g., Jonah.

Failure means God's will can be accomplished, and new meaning and uniqueness brought to our lives if we cooperate with Him; e.g., our failures become foundational to future success.

Failure frequently means the Holy Spirit will go beneath the surface of our lives, to explore the hidden recesses of the soul, like He did with Jonah.

Failure frequently means God will expose resentments and hurts deep within us—the kinds of things we would prefer to have left dormant.

Failure means that God will apply the right pressure to dislodge us from our rebellion and/or reluctance to follow Him.

Failure can speak to us in ways we will fail to hear at any other time, if we will listen, observe, and pray in the midst of it.

Failure is permitted by God because He is intent on saving and healing us.

Therefore, how can pain be helpful? (This is not a complete study.)

Pain can bring us to God's will, e.g., the whale.

1] From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. 2] He said: "In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave [ Hebrew Sheol ] I called for help, and you listened to my cry. 3] You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. 4] I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.

It seems Jonah was in the whale three days, then he prayed. It took three days of climbing stomach walls. It took seaweed constantly tripping him up and wrapping around his head. v. 5—"The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head." It took a sense of complete failure and helplessness, before he finally said yes. 4b—"I will look again toward your holy temple."

C. S. Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks into our conscience, but shouts in our pain." There are times God wants to show us dreams, but cannot, because our eyes are filled with our own dreams. There are times God wants to place something in our hands, but they are full (e.g., Jesus had to open His hands to receive the nails).

Pain comes and shouts to us: "Hey, remember your God," or, "Hey, that's the wrong way."

Pain dispels the notion that all is well. 2:5—"The engulfing waters threatened me, [ Or waters were at my throat ] the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6] To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God."

Sometimes we live in a dream world, unaware of where our life is going, or what we are doing to others. We may even think it doesn't matter what we do, because there doesn't seem to be any consequences to our sins. Pain dispels that notion and gets our attention.

v. 7—"When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple." It took Jonah's life "ebbing away" to remember!

Pain shatters the illusion that what we have is our own, and that we can cling to whatever and whoever we like.v. 8. God's resources and our idols cannot be held simultaneously. "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs." We forget where our resources come from until they are taken away or put in jeopardy. We also take God's grace for granted. In pain, however, we realize we have been forfeiting the grace He has for us because of our devotion to idols.



A East Indian woman in a friend's church was taking a break from the service. As she was standing outside on the front porch, a man came by. She told him he ought to go inside because the Christian God was showing Himself to be alive. The man went home, changed his clothes, came back, and gave his heart to Jesus. He wanted his wife and children dedicated to the Lord, because he had been involved in witchcraft and animal sacrifices. My friend dedicated the whole family.

Another woman who came to my friend's church to be prayed for was healed. She then had some others come to her house and take away the idols in a room she had set aside for that purpose. They took them away and burned them.

These two understood you can't have the true God and idols. How about our American idols; e.g., success, resources. Result? v. 8.


The Prayer to Pray When You're a Pain in the Stomach

Thanksgiving—vv. 2-6.

Pain opens our eyes to the need to thank the Lord for who He is and what He has done. v. 9—"But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD." We forget who gave us what we have, and pain reminds us to give thanks, to praise Him. This psalm contained in Jonah 2 is really a psalm of thanksgiving.

Repentance and confession—vv. 7-8

Pain helps us see the need to pray and to evaluate our situation from God's perspective. Jonah was in a very painful place when He finally began to pray, crying out in v. 3—"You hurled me into the deep..." Who threw him overboard, anyway? The sailors, right? Yes, but ultimately Jonah sees God behind his circumstances. That's looking at life from God's point of view.

Such insightful perspective and wisdom in trials comes only through the light of prayer. In the context of trials, James writes in v. 5, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him."

Sometimes it's difficult to see God's hand stirring the storm. Certainly at times we are thrown overboard and fail to recognize that He is doing the tossing. There are times, too, when we are swallowed by monstrous circumstances and held captive (Jonah 2:6), failing to understand that the great fish/whale was "appointed" by God. Prayer is what gives us three-dimensional perspective to see God at work in our lives, and the strength to obey the Lord's command.

Pain is not purposed for punishment, but for bringing Jonah (and us) to our senses, and for preservation. Was God's protection through Jonah's running typical of His character? Yes, because God wanted to save Jonah and the Ninevites.

Is all pain from God? No! (See Job 1-2)

Pain may remind you that in your running and disobedience, you have lost the feeling of His presence—1:3,10; 2:4; Ps. 51. Usually, what you are running from is what you need the most. People who have run from God say, "Hey, I don't feel God anymore." I want to say, "Isn't that what you wanted?" Many times they have to come back to God completely, by faith, and with no emotion.

Rededication—v. 9

Pain is designed to turn us from our sin, and repentance is the proof that we have responded properly to God's work in our lives. v. 9—"But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD." Jonah now promises he will do God's will and go to Nineveh.


A word of caution about prayer in distress:

Don't make rash promises you won't keep. People often go back on the promises they make in repentance: "Oh God, if you'll deliver me, I'll not only preach in Nineveh, I'll..."

Remember, your friend or family member may have to go through a lot of pain before he comes back to the Lord's will for his life, so don't take upon yourself total responsibility for his salvation. God knows how to get his attention! He won't force people, but boy, does He know how to make them listen. If I were God, I might have reasoned, "How about leprosy? Nah, I've used that before. Besides, Jonah wouldn't care."

Or, "I've got it, how about Jonah being eaten by a thousand sea crawdads, and then when he repents, we'll have them spit him up on the shore. That's too messy. We might not get all the pieces back just right. But it ends up, "Ah, how about a whale? That would be a whole lot easier. If that doesn't do it, nothing will.

God knows what it takes. Don't get hung up on words said to a person who is running from God. ("Oh, if they could only hear this," or, "If I could just get them to go to this or that meeting or special event, then they would respond.") Reaching the prodigal has less to do with words spoken than with receptivity. (Jonah heard the voice of God).

Prayer for prodigal sons and daughters:Pray that God will help them receive the truth, and that God will use any way He thinks best to speak. A great example is the mother who said to God every time she prayed, "But God, [my son's] such a good boy." Finally she said, "Yes, God, he's a sinner who deserves to die. Have mercy; speak to him any way you can!"



Jonah teaches us that no matter where we find ourselves, we can pray anytime, any place, and with confidence. What do you need to pray for at this moment?


Learn and Grow Guide

What is your response to the controversy over the whale? What does it say to you about your faith and the authenticity of the Scriptures?

Can you think of a time when God's grace came to you in a way you did not expect? (e.g., you were caught in a terrible problem and didn't know how to get out of it)

If you found yourself in the stomach of some dark, slippery, distasteful circumstance, what would be an appropriate response?

If the stretching circumstance is obviously caused by your own disobedience, do any of the specific verses in Jonah's prayer give you ideas about what to say, or to do? What verse(s) in the prayer give you encouragement or instruction? Why?



Jonah is a type in three ways. One concerns this incident in the whale. Jesus has said, "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale (sea monster) so shall the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

There are those who hold that Jonah actually died inside the fish and was brought back to life, so as to make him a type absolute of our Lord's resurrection. To say this really strains the Scripture, as the book doesn't say this, and it is not necessary in order for Jonah to be a type of the death and resurrection. I think he fulfilled the type, in fact, by remaining alive, conscious in the fish; for the interior of that fish is likened, in Jonah's prayer, to Sheol (the Hades of the New Testament). This is the place our Lord went between His death and resurrection, where he "preached unto the spirits in prison"—I Pet. 3:19.

Note: We run into problems by trying to make types completely parallel in every respect.


Jonah wasn't like Jesus; he was running from God, not doing God's will. Jesus said in Matt. 12, "Someone greater than Jonah is here." Jesus was fulfilling the exact will of God.

Jesus wept over Jerusalem because it didn't receive His message; Jonah sulked because Nineveh didn't repent.

If you go crazy with types, you come to weird conclusions, like: We know a whale is 104º in the interior; therefore, if Jonah was in a place like hell, then hell must be 104º.

Important: The problem, of course, is that if Jesus is like Jonah and Jonah didn't die in the fish, a parallel type would mean Jesus didn't die? That is a conclusion that would be completely unfounded; we'd have to make all Scripture referring to Christ's death only symbolic. That would cause all kinds of problems.