The Great Fish

In chapter 2, the record returns to follow Jonah’s plight and most of the events described would have occupied about 3-5 minutes. On the surface, newly converted sailors are making sacrifice and vows to their new God. Beneath the surface, Jonah desperately utters a vow too,  having just sacrificed himself for Israel and for the sailors. Knowing he has about 3-5 minutes to live, Jonah is painfully aware of his hypocrisy.

God chose a specific “great fish,” preparing it in advance to affect Jonah’s salvation (1:17). The species of animal is not identified, nor is it important. The words used in both Old and New Testaments mean fish. We need to recognise that 1) God prepared a literal fish for this task, and 2) it is a miracle.

Jesus said, “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s (fish’s) belly” (Matt 12:40) thereby endorsing the event as literal. What encouragement for Jesus! Jonah’s literal disgorging after three days inside a fish assured him that he would walk alive from his tomb.

A man surviving three days and nights in the stomach of a great fish is indisputably miraculous. It is possible Jonah was literally dead for most of the three days; in any case, without divine intervention Jonah is as dead inside the fish as if drowned in the sea.

The prayer he uttered in this chapter was given from the fish’s belly (v1). But this is not a prayer for deliverance from its stomach; it is thanksgiving and praise for deliverance already received. Deliverance from what? It was deliverance from drowning, which was Jonah’s greatest fear. See his references to water.

v2 “the belly of hell”, (the depths of the sea)
v3 “the deep”

“in the midst of the seas”

“the floods”

“thy billows”

“thy waves”

v5 “the waters”

“the depth”

“the weeds”

v6 “the bottoms”

“the earth with her bars” (Hebraic expression describing the weight of the waterpreventing the land from spreading into the sea’s territory).

Jonah was unconscious when the fish swallowed him (v7) and on his revival, he realised God had not left him to drown. Though in the stomach of a fish, Jonah is so relieved to discover he is alive, he can’t help but express his joy and thankfulness in prayer.

This is a prayer of intimacy and love to his God, the God he tried to escape from, and the God he will argue vehemently with later in chapter 4. But the wonderful thing about this prayer is that it reveals a heart full of the psalms. Indeed, there are allusions to at least 13 different psalms—a testament to Jonah’s knowledge of these psalms and what they meant to him. Jonah recalls and reflects on the awful 3-5 minutes between hitting the water and lapsing into unconsciousness, graphically illustrating the type of man Jonah was and why Jesus calls him great.


Verse Phrase Allusion
2 “I cried…”

“Out of the belly…”

Psa 18:6 – v4-10 cp Psa 120:1

Psa 34:6 – v4-9,15-18 cp Psa 18:5-6; 116:3

3 “For thou hadst…”

“And the floods…”

Psa 88:6 – v5-7,16-17 cp Psa 69:14-17

Psa 42:7 – v4-8

4 “I am cast…”

“yet I will look…”

Psa 31:22 – v22-24 cp Psa 77:7-9

Psa 5:7 – cp Psa 116:4

5 “The waters compassed…”

“Even to the soul…”

Psa 116:3 – v1-6 cp Psa 18:4; 40:12

Psa 69:1-2,15-18

6 “The earth…”

“Yet hast thou…”

Psa 69:15 – cp Job 38:10; Psa 63:9

Psa 30:3 – v2-4,8-12 cp Psa 16:10; 103:4

7 “When my soul…”

“And my prayer…”

Psa 142:4 – v1-7 cp Psa 143:4; 61:2

Psa 18:6 – v4-6, 16-19 cp Psa 116:4

8 They that observe…”

“Forsake their own…”

Psa 31:6 – v1-9 cp Deut 32:21; Hos 1:9-10

Psa 144:2 – v2-4,7-8 cp Psa 18:25-28

9 “But I will sacrifice…”

“I will pay that…”

“Salvation is of …”

Psa 116:17 – v8-9,12-19

Psa 22:25 – v24-28 cp Psa 18:49

Psa 3:8 – v4-5,8 cp Psa 18:46

Jonah’s overall experience is summarised (v2) with first, his initial anguished cry to his God while sinking into the depths he feared would be his grave forever and second, the remarkable way God heard his voice and sent the fish to swallow him and preserve him. Jonah has enough experience of God’s sovereign care and mercy to suitably qualify him to share this message with others. He has come to realise that God was always aware of his affliction as he sank and that He can respond mightily to His servants’ cries wherever they are and whatever circumstance they are in.

Jonah recognised the sailors were merely God’s agents to put him here (v3): “For thou hadst cast me into the deep.” He also recalls the “floods” that “compassed” him the moment he entered the water. The “floods,” that is, an ocean current, seized him and dragged him down like a flooding river, so that the billows and waves “passed over” him. Jonah was an unresisting victim when the sailors lifted him up to throw him into the sea, reminding us of Messiah being “led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa 53:7).

The situation is desperate (v4), time to death is measurable in seconds and Jonah says, “I am cast out of thy sight.” The Hebrew word means ‘to divorce.’ Though feeling divorced from God, relatively safe in the fish’s belly Jonah resolves to look again toward the temple and reflects on forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Confessing his sins, he admits he should never have given up his commission or turned his back on his God and the temple.

This is also Jonah’s statement of faith. The first thought: all is over, the second: faithful confidence of forgiveness and a desire to once more enter Yahweh’s presence to worship in His temple.

The water “compassed” Jonah (v5) and the pressure increased as the current dragged him to the bottom of the sea “to the peril of my life” (Roth). The need to breathe is becoming urgent; Jonah knows it’s only a matter of time before he inhales water and drowns.

At the bottom of the sea, “the weeds were wrapped about my head.” While most refer to seaweed, given ancient mariners preferred to be constantly in sight of the coast, this is more likely the seagrass “Posidonia oceanica,” which grows in depths up to 45 metres. This places us about 10km from shore off the coast of Joppa[1]. The ship was not far from shore when this happened (see 1:13), demonstrating God’s control in ‘hurling’ the storm at the ship at precisely the right time.

Jonah fell (v6) to “the roots of the mountains” (ESV). The Jews poetically conceived mountains having roots extending to the bottom of the sea. The mass of water weighing him down slams Sheol’s doors shut, dropping “the earth with her bars” into place forever (the weight of water holding the land back).

“Yet,” in the final moments before expiration, God acts and brings Jonah’s life “up” from Sheol (mg “the pit”), saving him from corruption in the sea. This is the first time a direction other than “down” is used. Jonah’s life now heads upward for the first time, indicative of spiritual regeneration and reconciliation.

The climax comes when Jonah “fainted” (v7), which refers to darkness oozing over eye and mind as he slipped into the unconsciousness from which he will never awake. Just then, as Jonah was dying, his desperate prayer was heard in heaven and the “great fish” swooped down and picked him up from among the weeds with perfect timing.

In a wonderfully touching way, we gain insight into the sort of man Jonah was. His last conscious thought as he lapsed into unconsciousness and death was of his God. To ‘remember’ doesn’t indicate he sank to the bottom of the sea and nearly died before deciding to ask for help. Brother HP Mansfield wrote, “The spiritual training of a lifetime asserted itself against the growing numbness of Jonah’s mind.” Imminent death focuses the mind on what is truly dear to us. In this prayer, what is dear to Jonah comes through very clearly.

Safe inside the fish, Jonah recalls lapsing into unconsciousness and the crushing burden of being cut off from God as, with his last breath, he cried desperately for forgiveness and salvation. His mind is on the temple and on his relationship with God. Jonah imagines his prayer travelling “into thine holy temple,” into heaven. Following Solomon’s advice given at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:28-30), a repentant Jonah prayed in faith. He now knows God did hear “in heaven [His] dwelling place” resulting in the forgiveness he sought and knows he is not deserving of.

Jonah then, in verse 8, quotes directly from Psalm 31:6, “they that observe lying vanities.” The mercies of Yahweh are substantially the subject of the psalm and David’s connection between God’s mercy and the faithful trust of the supplicant should be noted.

To “observe lying vanities” is to hold firm to false hope, that is, to worship idols. 2 Kings 17:14-16 summarises Israel’s final state—they went into captivity because idolatry consumed them. Israel put their faith and trust in the idols of the nations, refusing to listen to prophets or respond to God’s evident mercy to them.

Both Jonah and Psalm 31 have a clear connection with Deuteronomy. The Hebrew word translated “observe” is used 73 times in Deuteronomy—65 of them in the context of holding the commandments of Yahweh firmly so the people could live and possess the land promised to the fathers (see Deut 5:31-33). A further three relate to God’s faithful intention to perform the promises He made to the fathers if Israel was obedient (see Deut 7:8-9).

Given Moses’ desperation to impress the importance of understanding, and appreciating the magnitude of their redemption from Egypt, this is perhaps not surprising. The solemn injunction to keep and do the commandments is often found in the context of the nation’s release from bondage in Egypt (see Deut 6:16-25). Our release from bondage to sin and death was achieved by the gracious intervention of our God. We need to understand and appreciate the magnitude, and the cost, of our redemption. Understanding and appreciating, then, needs to affect our hearts so that we willingly observe to do as Yahweh our God has commanded, not “turning to the right hand or to the left.”

Deuteronomy’s only occurrence of ‘vanity’ is in chapter 32:21—a passage used in many significant places in Scripture. One is Hosea (prophesying in Jeroboam II’s reign) when announcing Israel’s rejection and imminent destruction (1:9-10). Hosea highlights the nation’s critical lack of knowledge (4:6-8) and idolatry (4:12-13,17). Israel was worshipping the wrong god of Bethel; theirs sat immobile on a stone pedestal but Jacob’s stood at the head of a stairway between heaven and earth (Gen 28:11-12). That same God promised the land he was lying on to Jacob and his seed, in which all families of the earth are blessed.

Jacob focussed on material blessings (Gen 28:20-22), which was Israel’s current problem. Under Jeroboam II, God protected the nation and gave great material blessings, but with no response to His mercy. By his second visit to Bethel, Jacob had learned that God is the only power we can lean on in life and that the pursuit of material blessings is utterly futile. Israel never learned this as they attributed their blessings to the ‘vanity’ of the Canaanite pantheon.

Jonah is making a significant confession. He acknowledges he is idolatrous in the sense that his idol is Israel. He also understands and accepts that because Israel provoked God to jealousy by worshipping vain idols, they in turn would be provoked to jealousy. Those who should be God’s people were to be rejected and those who were not a people would be accepted. God’s salvation can and will extend to gentiles to provoke Israel to jealousy to bring them to their senses (Rom 11:11-15). Jonah remains challenged by this point (ch 4), but his argument is not whether gentiles deserve God’s mercy; it is more that Israel has the first priority to God’s mercy.

Deeply grateful for Yahweh’s loving kindness, Jonah covenants to offer the “sacrifice” and pay his ‘vows’ (v9). This was the same as the offering by the sailors (see 1:16). By offering the “sacrifice of thanksgiving,” he rededicates himself to his prophetic commission. Thankfulness is emphasised by the peace offering (Lev 7). It is the highest form of praise we can offer to God because it comes from appreciating our utterly hopeless situation naturally, contrasted to the peace of our relationship and fellowship with the God of all the earth.

While confident of being delivered, Jonah understands it is God’s sole prerogative to grant salvation: “Salvation belongs to Yahweh” (ESV). He alone chooses who is saved, and no one can presume on His mercy. Jonah was saved because God’s sovereign purpose worked in his life, giving him another opportunity to obey. Similarly, we have many opportunities to reject “lying vanities” but, when making poor choices, we cannot presume upon God’s salvation. Our deliverance may be because we have a role still to play in God’s sovereign purpose. Each opportunity needs to be used wisely; we cannot presume on God’s mercy because we don’t know how many chances we may be granted.

Following acknowledgment and confession of sin, a declaration of God’s righteousness and a development in Jonah’s understanding of God’s sovereign authority, God responded in mercy (v10). After Jonah had expressed these lessons learned, God then spoke to the fish, and an already revived man was vomited up on to dry land. About 760 years later the stone was wrenched aside, the grave disgorged its dead, and an already revived Messiah stepped forth to bring life and immortality to light through the gospel.


[1] Gideon Almagor and John K. Hall, “Bathymetric chart of the Mediterranean Coast of Israel”, Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, Geological Survey of Israel, Marine Geology & Geomathematics Division, Jerusalem, 1984