Jonah Prays
Part 1 of 3

Thus far in our study of Jonah, we have considered Jonah’s flight from the will of God and indeed from the presence of God Himself. Jonah had received a clear word from God to go to Nineveh to cry out against the great wickedness of that great Assyrian city.

Jonah refused. He rightly suspected that God had the intention of saving that generation of Ninevites through his preaching. He could see the destruction of the rebellious house of Israel at the hands of a repentant Assyrian nation.

Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with that. And so in his stubbornness and foolishness, he ran to Joppa, where he found a ship departing for Tarshish. Jonah bought a ticket, went down into the boat and fell into a deep sleep.

The LORD did not immediately stop Jonah in his tracks. But neither did the LORD let Jonah get too far away from Him. Jonah was a true child of God, and God, in grace and mercy, pursued him to bring him back.

And the way that God did that was to hurl a furious storm into the Mediterranean Sea that threatened to tear the ship apart and destroy everything on board. The sailors at first cried out each man to his own god and they hurled all their cargo overboard.

When that didn’t work, they suspected that someone onboard had offended one of the gods and so they cast lots to identify that person, and the lot, not surprisingly, fell on Jonah.

Jonah was forced to make a confession to everyone onboard of who he was, where he came from and which God he worshipped. The sailors were exceedingly afraid when they heard that Jonah had offended not just any local deity, but the great God of heaven and earth and the sea.

Jonah then counselled them to hurl him into the sea so that the storm would cease and they would live. He himself would rather die than to repent. The sailors were initially unwilling to do so and tried their utmost to row the boat to safety. But God would not let them.

And so eventually when they came to the end of their resources, they cried out to the LORD to be merciful to them and then they hurled Jonah into the sea and the storm immediately ceased.

The sailors became even more afraid. They knew that Jonah was a true prophet because what he said came true. But more importantly, they knew that Jonah’s God, in contrast to all their false gods and idols dumb, was the true and living God.

And they immediately worshipped Him with sacrifices and vows onboard their ship. Jonah had become the means of conversion for these pagan sailors. But Jonah did not know that and he was not around to conduct the worship. Instead, he had disappeared deep down into the sea. And from the depths of the sea, the LORD would rescue His runaway prophet and bring him back to himself.

Chapter 1 verse 17 to the end of chapter 2 is one unit centered on the prayer of Jonah. I’ve divided it into three parts. In this article, we’ll look at the first, which has to do with the mercy of the LORD.

The Mercy of the LORD

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 (Jon 1:17).

The word “prepared” can be translated ‘ordained’ or ‘appointed.’ It is closely related to the word manna. Just as God provided His people with manna or bread from heaven for 40 years to keep them alive in the wilderness, so He provided a great fish to save Jonah from certain death.

It was not by accident or chance that a big fish happened to be swimming by that day. God ordained and appointed that it would be at the right place at the right time. There are no chance occurrences or accidents in a world that is governed and controlled by Almighty God.

Interestingly, this phrase “he prepared” will appear three more times in the book of Jonah, and in each instance, it refers to God’s sovereign power over nature and His ability to do with it whatever pleases Him.

And so that day, the God of the sea ordered one of His great sea creatures in the Mediterranean to swallow His disobedient prophet in order to preserve his life for future service.

Jonah deserved to die for his blatant disobedience to a clear word from God. God would have done him no injustice if He allowed Jonah to sink deeper and deeper into the sea and eventually to drown at the bottom of it.

Jonah himself probably thought that he would die the moment he was thrown overboard. But God was merciful and gracious to him. He provided a fish to deliver His wayward prophet from drowning.

This fish, together with the storm, was part of the whole process started and directed by the good Shepherd to bring back and restore His lost sheep. Jonah was one of His lost sheep, who had gone astray. The fish was one of the means of bringing him back to where he ought to be.

And so for 3 days and 3 nights, Jonah was in the belly of the fish. But why 3 days and 3 nights? One reason I can think of is that this period provided time for instruction and reflection. One commentator says it well when he writes, “The belly of the fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a good place to learn.”

During those 3 days, Jonah was given the opportunity to reflect upon and pray over his recent experiences, particularly of being thrown into the depths of the sea and nearly drowning but then being delivered from certain death by a marvellous miracle. It was part of God’s mercy that Jonah was being given this time to think on these things and to learn some important spiritual lessons for his own life, such as the lesson of God’s great power over all of creation, of God’s sovereignty in ordering all things, and especially of God’s relentless, persistent, and pursuing grace in drawing him back unto Himself.

But Jonah must also have considered his great commission to go to Nineveh to preach the gospel there and he must have resolved in his heart to go there if ever he was given another opportunity to do so.

But another reason for Jonah’s 3 days and 3 nights in the fish’s belly was so that he might serve as a type of our Lord Jesus Christ in His burial and resurrection. Christ says in Matthew 12:40, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Here, Jonah serves as a positive type of Christ. Previously, the comparisons between Christ in the storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jonah in the storm on the Mediterranean sea were largely negative. For example, Jonah was the cause of the storm whereas Christ was the One who caused the storm to cease. Jonah was running away from doing the will of God whereas Christ was in the midst of fulfilling His Father’s will.

But his 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the fish was a positive type of Christ, and we’ll say more about that later.

And so we’ve seen the mercy of God in saving Jonah from drowning. In the next article, we’ll consider Jonah’s prayer while he was in the fish’s belly.

—Linus Chua