Jonah ben Dov stifled a shudder that didn't come from the February freshet that drenched him with icy wetness. It was the early spring of 1960, and he was standing on a concrete pier on the north east coast of the United States. What made Jonah shudder was the thought going through his mind as he contemplated being swallowed by the huge steel fish lying low in the water in front of him. "Swallowed" was the only way he could describe his feeling as he measured with his eye the 447 feet of menacing metal Five thousand nine hundred tons of tin fish! "Swallowed" was the only way he could describe his feelings as he remembered his namesake of long ago - three days and three nights, that wasn't long to be under water, but three months of days and nights, or more? Well, at least he wouldn't be alone. He was only one of a hand-picked crew of well over a hundred men chosen to navigate the USS Triton atomic submarine around the world. Under water! Without coming up! Once! Commander Dov shook off the feeling that came from superstition and tradition. He was proud to represent his people in an unprecedented and historic event. What was the matter with him anyway? He didn't suffer from claustrophobia, and he was trained for this mission. Be sides, this vessel represented the epitome of man's technological know-how. It was silent, sleek, powerful, and potentially more deadly than any other weapon its size known to man. He felt better. He had faith in the intelligence, artistry, and industry that had created this fantastic machine. And he was totally dedicated to any service he could give to the country that had given him so much. Needless to say, as Jonah himself knew, his fears were unfounded. After eighty-four days underwater and after circumnavigating the globe for 36,000 miles following the trail of Magellan, the USS Triton safely deposited all its crew, jubilant, on the same concrete pier from which it began its incredible journey! I bet you believe that story! If you don't, you should, because it's true. Read about it in any up-to-date encyclopedia or history book. It happened! I invented Jonah ben Dov, but the facts about the fish are irrefutable. And isn't it interesting that this nuclear-driven naval vessel is named after a mythological god? ("Triton: a sea god, son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, having the head and trunk of a man and tail of a fish" - sort of a male mermaid!) It doesn't take imagination or faith to believe that story. We've got facts, pictures, documents, living human beings who experienced the event, and the actual physical object used, all with us.
That human beings, clever as they are, ingenious and technologically advanced as they are, could conceive of and create a great fish equipped to swallow over a hundred men for three months and then "vomit" them safe on shore produces not one inkling of a strain on our brain. But to claim that God, who allegedly created the universe and every thing in it, could conceive of and create a great fish capable of swallowing one man - Jonah - for three days and three nights and of vomiting him safely onshore causes either embarrassment or a knowing smile (like letting the kids about Santa Claus) - and hardly anyone really believes that story!
The unfortunate assumption on the part of many is that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The King James translators of 1611 read the term for "great fish" and, I guess, the greatest fish they could think of was a whale, so they translated it that way (Matt. 12:40). Of course we all know, as I am sure they did, that a whale isn't a fish at all, but a mammal. The original story is in the Old Testament book of Jonah.
Jonah was written in Hebrew. The Hebrew language has a word for whale (tannin) which the narrator could have used had he wished to report that the animal which swallowed Jonah was a whale, but instead he used the Hebrew word dag, which is unmistakably "fish." And obviously, since the fish had to be a sizable animal to accommodate a man, the translators added the word "great."
In a book called The Harmony of Science and Scripture by Harry Rimmer this is explained in detail with the addition of an unnecessary, but interesting and hair-raising tale or an English fisherman in 1936 who survived for 48 hours in the innards of a whale shark and only suffered loss of hair and a yellowing of the skin!
The point, however, is not whether we can find some sort of sea animal capable of performing this feat, but that we ought to read the text a little more carefully in the first place: "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" (Jonah 1:17). Clearly this was no standard creature already known or now known to mankind. It was a special act of creation for a special purpose unique in the history of mankind.
Did God run out of ideas, talent, and power after the six days of creation mentioned in the first chapter of the Bible? Is there no more variety possible in the genetic pool of present creation, or no more possible variations God could introduce! How long does it take God to "prepare" a great fish? If he created all the variety and abundance of sea life as well as all the fowl of the air in 24 hours on the fifth day of creation, he could probably whip up one great fish in about the time it look Jonah to fall from the deck to sea!
This was a super fish, a special, one-of-a-kind creation of God, who is after all the creator. This special animal was capable of a symbiotic relationship with a man for a given period of 72 hours. Jonah didn't know it at the time, terrifying experience that it must have been, but he was as safe as a possum in a pouch. If we could duplicate it, it would make a great attraction at Disneyland!
At the time, in pitch blackness, cramped space, with weeds wrapped around his head and no prospect of survival. Jonah was ready to accept God on his terms. In short, he said, "Look, Lord, if you get me out of this, I'll do anything you say!"
God talked to the fish and caused him to spit Jonah out on the beach - and Jonah, true to his word, carried out the mission God assigned him, but not without reservations and, incredibly, with an angry, "I told you so" to God himself before the job was done.
What was Jonah's message? Simple: Nineveh is going to be wiped out in forty days! However reluctant the prophet was to proclaim the message from God, he was convincing. Everybody wound up believing him!
And that made Jonah mad! Angry mad!
You have to be patient and understanding with Jonah. After all God was. If you look at it from this standpoint and do not actually have to personally experience the trauma he suffered himself, the story of Jonah is humorous and informative in addition to being problematic.
Why was Jonah angry when God didn't destroy Nineveh? Well, Jonah had to tell a very warlike king and city that they were going to be overthrown. In addition, there was a time limit on his prophecy: 40 days, Now nobody likes to prophesy something he knows won't happen - neither did Jonah. He probably didn't like Nineveh, or Ninevites. because they were ancient enemies of Israel and Judah. Besides they worshipped the wrong gods. And Jonah knew all along that God was going to be merciful! That's why Jonah was upset.
The book doesn't mention anything about Jonah saying " repent - or you'll be overthrown." But, just as he feared at the beginning when he attempted to flee his responsibility, sure enough Nineveh repented. The king, the nobles, the people, and even the animals fasted. The people put on sackcloth, begged God's forgiveness, and hoped for the best. "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way: and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not!" (Jonah 3:10.)
Jonah was deeply displeased and very angry: "... Was this not my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me: for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:2-3). Now that is being upset!
Jonah would rather have died than to see those dirty, rotten, sinning, mean, obnoxious, evil, lust filled, greedy, perverse killers of pagan Nineveh forgiven!
So Jonah sat and sulked on a hilltop nearby under a temporary shelter of brush he'd made to shield him from the burning sun - waiting, hoping that God might yet fulfill his prophecy of doom. Now, Jonah was a good guy, basically. He just had a lot of prejudices to overcome. God loved Jonah too, as well as the Ninevites, and he wanted to teach him a lesson - a lesson we can all share. God loves a repentant sinner, no matter what his sins, color, creed, or nationality. God's forgiveness is for every living, breathing human being, God's blood pays for all sins of everyone at the time of belief and repentance.
God took advantage of Jonah's discomfort to teach him that lesson. Overnight, while Jonah spent his time in troubled sleep. God dipped into his bag of creation and whipped up a special, one-of-a-kind gourd - instant, giant gourd if you please. No, there aren't any of these around or for sale today. Search the world over, and you'll not find one such as this. There just "ain't" none. Incredible? Unbelievable? Preposterous? God couldn't make a gourd grow to maturity overnight, could he! Well, if he's able to create all the stars of the universe. I guess he could!
Jonah was pleased. He has his own special gourd, a beautiful plant, and the shade it provided was quite literally a Godsend. Jonah really liked that gourd!
But God wasn't finished. Now he made a single-edition, one-of-a-kind worm capable of consuming the unique gourd - overnight, of course. No use wasting time. (You know, I can't help getting the feeling God must enjoy and have fun doing things like this despite the serious purpose involved.)
But the sun rose, the worm ate, the gourd died, God added a special east wind and ordered extra hot temperatures for the day, and Jonah was m-i-s-e-r-a-b-l-e! I hate to say this, but "Jonah was out of his gourd!" He fainted from exposure and wished (again) that he was dead.
"And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death." It seems Jonah shared with so many of us that streak of stubbornness so common to all humanity. "Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow [God did that, remember]; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and I should not spare Nineveh?" (Verses 9-10.)
That must have been a selling argument. One thing that frustrates me is that the book of Jonah ends there. God's message is complete for Jonah and for us. He doesn't bother telling us whether Jonah repented of his selfish attitude of wanting the Ninevites to be destroyed even when they repented of their evil ways. (The first thing I want to ask Jonah when I see him - granted we both make it into God's kingdom - is for him to tell me the rest of the story.)
Now, the being who spoke to and dealt with Jonah and Nineveh is Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ. And in order for us to know how important the principles and lessons of the book of Jonah are, he made two telling points from it.
When people asked him for a sign to prove he was indeed the Christ, Jesus said. "There shall no sign be given... but the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly [the word Jesus used was ketos, a Greek word having the ambiguous meaning "monster of the deep," not whale]; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:39, 40).
There is no other name under heaven whereby we may be saved, except by the name of Jesus Christ. We are saved by his life and justified by his bloodshed for us. His blood, which is his life, pays for our sins, because his sacrifice was perfect. He never sinned. But the only sign he gave at the time he was asked (when he was not yet through with his human life, still subject to terrible trials, temptations and possible sin) was that everyone would know for certain that he was the Messiah when his Father resurrected him from the dead. As, of course, no sinning sacrifice would be adequate, the efficacy of his sacrifice would be absolute when and only when his Father raised him from the dead.
That's why the resurrection is so important. His sacrifice is valid. Jesus is alive to administer all his promises.
Yet how many people alive today do you know who believe this only sign Jesus gave to prove his messiahship? And for those who say they believe, how many only believe in part - most say Jesus was in the tomb 36 hours, not 72. You figure out Good Friday sunset to Easter Sunday sunrise and see how many hours you come up with. (We have an interesting booklet on the subject of the resurrection, by the way.)
A second point Jesus made from the book of Jonah to the "generation of vipers" to whom he was speaking was this: "The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here" (Matt. 12:41).
What he was saying in short was: "You've got to believe and repent or my being the Christ won't be of any help to you at all." Do you suppose those of Jesus' day may have shared Jonah's prejudices about Ninevites? Do you think it might have made them upset to be told that repentant Ninevites would be closer to the kingdom of God when they are resurrected for their one and only chance at salvation than the pious people of Judea?
I think somebody somewhere said. "When you think you stand, take heed lest you fall!"
There are many terrifying prophecies for our day. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are about to ride: deception, war, famine, disease. The seas are to become so polluted they'll look like blood, with no life in them. Many nations will perish in wars ending in a nuclear holocaust that defies the imagination. There will be earthquakes by the score, all at the top of the Richter scale. A time so chaotic is coming that Jesus said. "And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved."
Now is the time for all good men to come to repentance. Now is the time to follow the example of the Ninevites in belief - not of Jonah or of Jon, but of Jesus.
Don't let some long-dead inhabitant of Nineveh rise in judgment and condemn you!