Jonah's Prophecy and The Resurrection
Biblical Research Monthly, March 1970 — by Dr. David L. Cooper
Much is said about the Book of Jonah and the story contained therein. Unfortunately, many who do not believe in the miraculous elements of the Scriptures make fun of this book. Nothing that God has said should be taken lightly, but should be taken seriously.
There are only four short chapters in the Book of Jonah. One can read it easily in twenty minutes.
In chapter 1 we are told that God commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach the message commanded of him. Instead of doing as the Lord had charged, Jonah purchased a ticket and boarded a ship bound for Tarshish (England). But men who are called of God cannot easily run away from the Lord. To arrest His disobedient servant, and force him to do what he was commanded, the Lord made the sea tempestuous, threatening to destroy the ship. The sailors cast lots in order to determine on whose account the storm had been sent upon them. The lot fell upon Jonah. They immediately inquired about his identity, his plans and occupation in life. With all candor he divulged the truth. “I am a Hebrew: and I fear Jehovah, the God of heaven, who hath made the sea and the dry land.” They then asked him what they should do to him. “Take me up,” he replied, “and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you ...” This they did and — according to Jonah's statement — the storm ceased.
In the last verse of chapter 1 we are told that God prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. What is the meaning of this word, prepared? The answer is found in verses 6, 7 and 8 of chapter 4. In each verse appears the identical Hebrew word, rendered prepared. According to verse 6, “Jehovah God prepared a gourd.” Chapter 4, verse 10, informs us that God made the gourd to come up in a night, and perish in a night. At the close of one day there was no gourd vine. At the dawn of the next day there was a gourd vine large enough to shade Jonah. What, or who, put that gourd vine there? There is but one answer. God said that He “prepared” it during the night. The God Who was able to create the universe is also able to create a gourd vine during the night!
In Jonah 4:7 we are told that God “prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd, that it withered.” According to this verse, God “prepared” a worm which smote the gourd and caused it to wither. There was no worm at the place when the morning rose; God prepared it at that time. The word prepared, in this instance, means that God created the worm which destroyed the gourd.
Again, in Jonah 4:8 “... it came to pass, when the sun arose, that God prepared a sultry east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and requested for himself that he might die ...” In Palestine this is called a “sirocco.” God prepared this hot east wind “when the sun arose.” Those hot, sultry east winds always come up gradually, during a period of two or three days. Not so with this sultry east wind that troubled Jonah. When the sun arose, this scorching hot wind was prepared. The facts in the case show that a miracle was wrought. Hence, in each of these three instances, the word indicating a miracle is prepared, the same word used with reference to the fish. “Jehovah prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). Here, the word prepared has the same connotation as found in the three cited instances.
In the light of these facts we may be bold in saying that God created a great fish — not a whale, as so many say — but an especially great fish to swallow Jonah. The Hebrews call this “a great fish,” but the Greek text of Matthew 12:40 speaks of it as a sea monster (see marginal reference A.S.V.).
In chapter 1, verse 17, we are told that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of this great fish which God created. In 2:1 we are told that then — after the three days and three nights, he prayed to God. The petition is found in 2:2-9. It is, indeed, a wonderful prayer!
I called by reason of mine affliction unto Jehovah, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me: all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. And I said, I am cast out from before thine eyes; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the deep was round about me; the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed upon me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit, 0 Jehovah my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Jehovah; and my prayer came in unto thee, unto thy holy temple. They that regard lying vanities forsake their own mercy, but I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation is of Jehovah.” (Jonah 2:2-9)
One should keep in mind that this petition was prayed by Jonah after he had been in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Failing to keep this fact firmly in mind, one has difficulty in understanding this petition. Jonah testifies that he had prayed to God by reason of his affliction, and that the Lord heard him (2:2). In this same verse he gives us more specific information by saying, “Out of the belly of Sheol cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” In talking to the Lord, Jonah declared that he had been in Sheol and had been in affliction; that he had prayed and God had answered him. Sheol is in the center of the earth as we learn from various passages of Scripture. In Old Testament times, when a person died, his body was laid in the tomb, but his spirit went to Sheol. Thus Jonah declared that he was in Sheol, and that he was in affliction. From Adam to the death of Christ, all the dead — both saved and unsaved — went to Sheol. Since Christ has won the victory over Satan, He has the keys of Death and Hades. Upon death the saved now go immediately to Heaven.
From all the facts before us we must conclude that Jonah died and that his spirit went to Sheol. Does the evidence support this conclusion? As a further explanation of how it was he went to Sheol, he declared: “For thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me” (2:3). Note, this verse is introduced by the conjunction “for”; it is given as an explanation of how he went to Sheol. He was cast into the heart of the sea. He bobbed up and down in the water. The waves and the billows continually passed over him. Of course, the longer he stayed in the water, the more was his strength depleted.
While he was bobbing up and down in the water, he remembered the Lord and prayed: “... I am cast out from before thine eyes; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.” Corresponding light comes upon this subject from the petition contained in Solomon's prayer at the time of the dedication of the Temple (II Chronicles 7:11-18). According to it, if the Jews should be cast out of their land, were living on foreign soil, and wished to pray, they were to turn their faces toward the Temple and pray in faith, asking God to hear and answer. Jonah, taking the Scriptures literally, paddled in the water until he was looking eastward. He was in the Mediterranean, west of Jerusalem. Thus, he prayed by faith, looking toward the Temple. Still bobbing up and down in the water, Jonah said, “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul...” What is the significance of these words? There is but one meaning, the waters continued to pass over him until he became completely exhausted and finally drowned.
The expression, “even to the soul,” has a specific meaning. In Jeremiah 4:10, the same idiom occurs, and it has but one meaning, death. In the case of the Jeremiah passage, death was accomplished by the sword. In the case of Jonah, death was accomplished by the continual waves exhausting him until he sank and drowned. We here have a plain declaration from Jonah that he drowned and actually died. His next statement is this: “The deep was round about me; the weeds were wrapped about my head.” To what weeds does he refer? There is but one answer, seaweeds. They grow at a certain depth beneath the surface of the water. Evidently Jonah's body was caught in a down-current of water which carried him through a batch of these weeds. As he went down, his neck was caught by some of them.
What about the bottom of the sea where Jonah drowned? The answer is found in verse 6: “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains ...” The place where he drowned was a mountainous region. There are mountains and valleys below the sea's surface. An island is but a mountain projecting above the water's surface. Jonah's body was forced by a down-current to the bottom of a valley, between two mountains: as he said, “I went to the bottoms of the mountains.”
Where was the great fish God had created to swallow Jonah's body? The Lord had the fish at the spot where the body was taken when it was carried down to the bottoms of the mountains. Here we may be certain the fish swallowed Jonah's body. The question, “What happened to Jonah's spirit when he drowned?” is answered in the latter part of verse 6: “The earth with its bars closed upon me for ever ...” Jonah's spirit descended into Sheol. The Lord mentioned the gates of Sheol to Job: “Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Or hast thou walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed unto thee? Or hast thou seen the gates of the shadow of death? Hast thou comprehended the earth in its breadth? Declare, if thou knowest it all.” Apparently, the gates of Sheol are beneath the sea.
Jonah's spirit passed through the gates of Sheol and the bars of death, figuratively speaking, closed upon him forever. There was no possibility of his returning from that place. The rich man, of whom Jesus spoke in Luke 16:19-31, had everything that could be desired in this life. Finally, he died and lifted up his eyes in Hades, being in torment in a flame. If he could have gotten out of that place, he certainly would have done so! But he was not allowed to get out. Neither was Jonah allowed to escape from Sheol when he went down there at the time of his drowning.
Yet, Jonah did come up out of Sheol! How did he do it? The answer is found in the last clause of verse 6: “Yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit, 0 Jehovah my God.” This statement reminds one of Samuel the prophet who died and descended to that compartment of Sheol where, upon death, the saved and blessed went (of course, I am speaking of that period of time between the fall of Adam and the conquest of Christ on the cross.) For a special reason, God brought Samuel up temporarily, to deliver a message to Saul, as seen in the Book of I Samuel, chapter 28. In a manner similar to this, God brought Jonah up from Sheol. It is only reasonable to believe that when God brought Jonah's spirit up it entered that body which had been swallowed by the fish and which had been in its belly three days and three nights.
In his prayer (2:2-9) — at the end of the three days and three nights — Jonah refers to the time when he was drowned. He refers to that crucial moment in the following words: “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Jehovah; and my prayer came in unto thee, into thy holy temple.” This was not an ordinary faint. My reason for making this statement is Jonah's own words: “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered ...” When people faint, they do not remember. But when Jonah had the experience of “fainting,” he was in full possession of his mental faculties. This was not an ordinary faint; it was his spirit's moving out of the body at death. When he realized that his spirit was leaving the body, he prayed very earnestly to God.
By the time Jonah's body had been in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, the fish had reached land. When Jonah promised the Lord that he would pay the vow which he had made, the fish vomited him up. On land, the Lord spoke to Jonah again, the second time, and told him to accomplish what he had before been told to do. By then, Jonah was perfectly willing to go and do as the Lord had commanded him.
Having had the experience of dying and descending into Sheol, and having seen realities connected with the future world as he could never have seen and known them under any other conditions, Jonah went to the city of Nineveh and preached with such fervor and power that it produced conviction among the Ninevites. All were affected, from the king upon his throne to the most menial servant in the city. Nineveh was a large city. There were more than 120,000 babies who were not yet accountable to God and who did not know the difference between their right hand and their left. The preaching of this man was of such a nature, and was accompanied with such spiritual power, that the whole city — as tremendous as it was — put on sackcloth and ashes and repented before God.
Jonah could not have preached in such a manner as he did, had he not experienced death and descent to Sheol. God overruled Jonah's disobedience and gave him an experience that has never been duplicated from that day until this an experience which equipped him for the special task to be accomplished. Yes, Jonah died. But there is a sequel to the story. God brought him up, back to the land of the living, to fulfill the commission God had given him. Romans 11:29 says, “The gifts and callings of God are not repented of.”
Jesus, in referring to Jonah's experience of death and resurrection, said it was typical of His own. God had a specific purpose in causing Jonah to pass through this peculiar experience. The Lord Jesus said to the Pharisees who were asking for a sign:
An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign: and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet: for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale [literally, sea monster]; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:39,40)
In this quotation Jesus declared that Jonah's experience was typical of His own crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Thus, we may be safe in saying that Jonah was, in some respects, a type of Christ. Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, “so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Our Lord was put to death in the flesh, but in the Spirit He descended into Sheol. He made an announcement to the spirits that had been disobedient in the days of Noah. Then He came forth, leading captivity captive — the spirits of the saved ones whom He led on into glory when He returned on High.
The greatest thing that could ever occur, was our Lord's dying for our sins, going down to Sheol to grapple with the powers of the unseen world and winning a victory over them. For, when He came back out of Sheol, He brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. As proof that He had accomplished this, He seized the keys of death and Hades [Hebrew, “Sheol”] and triumphantly said:
I am the first and the last and the Living one; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” (Revelation 1:17b, 18)
He is the Lord of Life, life that now is and that is to be in the future. May we trust Him to guide us safely through the storms of this life and into the haven of eternal rest and bliss forever and ever, is my prayer.