The Mediterranean has always been one of my favorite places in all the world. I love the water, the reefs, and particularly how the Alps come right to the coast in France and Italy. There is a Bible character, however, for whom that sea was a horrific, near death experience: Jonah.
Jonah was cast overboard and swallowed by a sea creature especially prepared by God for that task. Jonah cried out to God from an unimaginably terrifying place: “out of the belly of hell cried I.” (Jonah 2:2)
Jonah was inside that creature for around seventy-two hours. (The ancient Hebrews idiomatically counted a part of a day as a whole day, so that ‘three days and three nights’ could have been as short as 38 hours.) That whole time, Jonah was moving. He had no understanding of that movement. He just knew he was in a hellish place from which he did not expect to escape.
I have observed Gray Whales migrating off the coast of California. These giant creatures average about five miles per hour in their migratory journeys. Humpback Whales travel at three to six miles per hour, and Blue Whales cruise at three to twelve miles per hour. That gives us an average speed of a little over five miles per hour for migrating whales. If we assign that speed to Jonah’s creature and multiply that figure by the duration of the journey, we find that Jonah was thrown overboard around 400 miles from shore. A speed of three miles per hour would place Jonah’s overboard experience at just over two hundred miles. It doesn’t matter much for our purposes here. What we can establish is that Jonah was out of sight of land, and being thrown overboard there was for him a death sentence. It was, however, so much more than that.
Jonah may have had a very curious take on this amazing experience. After all, he expected to die: “I will look again toward thy holy temple.” But did Jonah see this amazing experience as something beside “the belly of hell?” He may well have. Consider something else that he says: “all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.” Whether or not Jonah saw any element of salvation in the isolation of the fish’s belly, that fish for him, whether he knew it or not, was his only hope of making it alive to terra firma.
After three days in the bowels of this great fish, “God spake to the creature and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” None of us can imagine Jonah’s condition or state of mind at this moment. His skin was no doubt bleached by the strong digestive acids of the fish. His hair may have been gone. Without question, he probably was traumatized beyond description, and absolutely looked the part. After all, he is described as “vomit.”
For me, the principal point in this account is simple and I think consistently overlooked: the great fish that swallowed Jonah was his deliverance! Without that fish, Jonah would have drowned at sea and never been heard from again. Understandably, there is no indication in the biblical narrative of Jonah’s account that this concept ever entered into his thoughts.
Many people have been “vomited out” of an abusive church. There they are on the beach after having cried out to God that, “the earth with her bars was about me for ever.” Perhaps this was Jonah’s description of the great fish’s ribs that enclosed him like a cage. Perhaps for someone today it was an abusive religious system that demanded far more from you than God ever has and then vomited you up on a barren shore when your usefulness to them had been exhausted. From God’s perspective, however, I wonder if what came from what Jonah called “the belly of hell” was perhaps the sweetness rising to a Father’s ears that his son now needed Him more than at any other time in his life and was crying out to him in a powerful, anguished and passionate way.
For me, the lesson from Jonah is simple, quite relevant to my life and easy to apply. It gives me a comfort and a level of understanding that what I have been through, though at times hellish, was in fact God’s transportation for me to the shores of His will for my life. It brings to me the perception that what often lies between His purpose for my life and my willingness to express and live that perfect, divine will may be a sojourn in the “belly of hell.” Maybe for you and I, what we saw as a death sentence in such a place was in fact a ticket to the shores of God’s will for our lives where we could one day bless others in remarkable and miraculous ways.
“And the floods compassed me about.
Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; “
“ The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
the depth closed me round about,
the weeds were wrapped about my head.”
“I went down to the bottoms of the mountains;
the earth with her bars was about me for ever:
yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.”
“ When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord:
and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.” Jonah