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God’s Word for You

Jonah 1:17 pt. 1 Jonah and the whale

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, September 1, 2018

17 But the LORD provided a huge whale to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights.

Our Savior uses this passage as a sign of his own death and resurrection (Matthew 12:40). We do well to pause and allow Jesus’ words to fill our hearts with awe, remembering that this was a prophecy and that Jesus had foreknowledge of the kind of death he would suffer, and also the time he would spend in the grave before his resurrection:

    “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly
    of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three
    nights in the heart of the earth.”

Believers, scholars, critics and scribes have wondered about this passage for centuries. We wonder about the creature that swallowed the prophet, and some doubt. But before we talk about the creature, let’s be certain we understand the reason for the creature and the swallowing of the prophet. Jonah was not punished in this verse, he was rescued. In his commentary on Jonah, St. Jerome says, “Where he awaited death he found his salvation.”

The whale took Jonah into the only possible vessel available to save his life (its own body) and took him back the way he had come so that he could resume his journey to Nineveh as the Lord had commanded. So, although the whale was a terrible, frightening and probably sickening experience for Jonah, it was in those ways no different than the grave for anyone, including Jesus Christ.

There are some natural questions, at least three or four, that the reader will ask, and they aren’t necessarily evil questions or the product of unbelief. Each one deserves an answer:

1, What kind of fish or whale might this have been? I will reserve this answer for next Saturday, since it will require a fairly long discussion.

2, How could Jonah tell day from night in the belly of the whale? Martin Luther asked this question in his 1525 Latin commentary, but he also gives the answer: “It is remarkable how Jonah was able to count the days, since he neither saw nor heard anything when he was shut up in the belly of the fish. But he did notice the day when he was thrown headlong into the sea and when at last he was restored to the light” (LW 19 p. 16). By knowing the date when he arrived on shore and comparing it with the day the storm hit and the casting of lots, Jonah discovered that his ordeal within the whale had lasted three days.

3, Does Jonah mean “three days and three nights” the way we would think of 72 hours? Not necessarily. The expression usually means that any part of a day counts as a day, just as we see with Jesus’ time in the grave. Jesus died in the early afternoon, about 3:00 pm (the “ninth hour” after sunrise, Mark 15:33), and was buried soon after, before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath day (John 19:31). The Lord was in the tomb all the next day (a true Sabbath rest) but rose very early on Sunday (Luke 24:1-3). If Jesus rose as late as 5:00 or 6:00 am on Sunday, he would have been dead and in the tomb for less than 40 hours. Jonah, too, may have been in the whale’s belly for far less than 72 hours.

4, How could a man survive that long in a whale’s stomach? There are dozens of stories of men who have been swallowed by whales and survived. Quite a few editions of Melville’s “Moby Dick” offer various accounts from newspaper clippings and court cases in their introductions. One of the more famous of these is the disputed account of seaman James Bartley (1870-1909) who served aboard a whaling ship in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Sailing ships use many small rowboats for various purposes (longboat, jollyboat, cutter, gig, etc.) but the “whaler” was quite innovative since its design meant that it did not need to be turned; the men could simply turn around in their seats and begin to row the other way if necessary, since prow and stern were identical in shape. In February 1891, while rowing in a whaler like this in a whale hunt near the Falkland Islands, Bartley’s boat was butted by a Sperm Whale, and Bartley fell overboard and was swallowed alive. After “a day and a night,” the same whale was found dead by the ship (it was said to have died of constipation), and the crew began to cut away the meat for rendering and storage in barrels. They found Bartley, blind but still alive, his skin bleached white by the stomach acids of the whale (New York Times, November 18, 1896). There are other accounts like this. Another man rescued from the stomach of a whale said that he had plenty of air to breath, but that the heat and humidity were nearly unbearable.

We must also see the hand of God in Jonah’s survival. The Lord kept Jonah alive in this exceptional living lifeboat and brought him back to where he needed him to be. We will consider Jonah’s prayerful response to God which is recorded for us in Jonah 2:2-9. God will carry you and me safely and successfully through the ordeal of the grave until, like Jonah, we are given back to give glory to God, and to praise him with our words and work.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

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