In life we sometimes find ourselves in situations not to our pleasing. I guess Jonah felt like this after being swallowed by the giant sea creature. I suppose it’s understandable why many people assume this was a whale, but the text simply refers to either a fish or in the Septuagint a sea creature. Be that as it may, Jonah’s situation clearly did not look very promising. He was facing death by digestion on the inside or even if he could somehow break out, death by drowning in the depths on the outside. I mention Jonah because this Old Testament story has a curious connection with the Gospel account of the calling of the disciples to be fishers of men. Fish are mentioned in both stories of course, but the connection is more than just fishy.
The book of Jonah records the fact that our soggy unfortunate man was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. In the Scriptures more generally this time is often taken to refer to the incarceration of the soul in Hades. Christ’s own three-day burial clearly reminded the early Church of Jonah’s effective three-day entombment which is why the regurgitation of Jonah, alive in one piece onto dry land was taken as a type or symbol of Christ’s resurrection. The deliverance from death by the Lord, the Conqueror of death, is the theme common to both stories. That might be more obvious perhaps in the Jonah story but it is there in the New Testament as well where there are two accounts of the haul of great fish. The first we heard in the Gospel of St Luke earlier. Here, in this account, the disciples were called. The second story in the Gospel of St John happens after the resurrection when the disciples were sent out to be apostles and on their mission to fish for men.
These two New Testament accounts are like bookends, similar in detail on either side but spiritually having quite a different character - each respectively before and after the death of Christ. Only when our Lord had voluntarily let the waters of death overwhelm him on behalf of us all would it be possible for the Church to venture into the deep to rescue those souls drowning in the depth of sin and death. Jonah’s resurrection from death in the belly of the fish therefore prefigures our resurrection from death in Christ. When we have experienced for ourselves this new birth from death, sin and despair, we too shall be enabled by God to help others be delivered from the same fate.
So the next time you find yourself like Jonah buried in the dark smelly recesses of your own sea monster, remember his prayer for deliverance in Jonah 2 which I now recite for you:
I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, And He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice. For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’ The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; The deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols Forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord. So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
The Lord will deliver you then if you want to be delivered. But if you’re quite content to stay put and rot away in that dank fishy hole then don’t be surprised if God takes you at your word! He’s not going to do anything for you that you don’t yourself truly want. If, however, believing that God delivers from death into newness of life you choose to trust in that resurrection power, even if like Peter you have denied Christ since your first calling, then know that God will set you free from your corruption, put you on your own two feet again and send you out to serve in the fullness of His love.
In that regard Jonah really is like Saint Peter and Saint Peter like Jonah. Both men knew the depths of despair, the dark belly of the fish if you like; but both men also knew that our God is the Mighty Deliverer. Jonah of course never lived to be a great spiritual fisherman. I think he probably stayed on dry land quite a bit after his experience. Indeed, the Lord had much yet to show him so that his heart might be enlarged to recognise the grace of repentance in the men of Nineveh. Saint Peter made greater and quicker progress with the Gentiles. He was soon ready to become a fisher of all men, together with his fellow apostles. One of these, a latecomer to apostleship, a certain St Paul, had showed him an even more amazing fact … not all God’s little fish were Jewish! And so the net was not torn. The kingdom of God could not be consumed by the monster of death and Christ burst forth from the tomb becoming a great worldwide net for many different and wonderful kinds of fish.
So, are we slouched downcast in the belly of the fish or are we striding away from the shore with God’s net in our backpack? The choice is always ours. Let us choose well.