Formations 05.11.2014: In the Belly of the Beast

Jonah 1:17–2:10

Jacopo Tintoretto, Jonah Leaves the Whale’s Belly, 1577–78

Jacopo Tintoretto, Jonah Leaves the Whale’s Belly, 1577–78

As children, we may have been fascinated with the great fish (usually depicted as a whale) that swallowed Jonah and later spit him out on the shore. To our young, impressionable minds, the whole thing must have sounded like a harrowing adventure. Visions of the Disney Pinocchio movie, with Geppetto and Pinocchio hoping to free themselves from a similar fate, may have even danced through our heads.

We may not have realized that the Jonah story has long been mined for a deeper meaning. Martin Luther, for example, compared Jonah’s anguished struggle in the belly of the fish to the existential struggle that everyone faces from time to time, the turmoil that sends us reeling, the doubts and fears that assail us—and that we often bring upon ourselves through disobedience, unbelief, or simple foolishness.

In that sense, we’ve all spent a few days in the belly of one monster or another. As distressing as that experience can be, perhaps it can at least remind us, like Jonah, to look to God for salvation.

It took three days in a monster’s belly to convince Jonah to go through with God’s mission of preaching to the Ninevites. In the prayer of thanksgiving that forms our text for this week, Jonah expresses the depths of his crisis and his gratitude to God for having at last been brought up “from the Pit” (2:6).

Help learners identify with Jonah’s experience of rescue from distress and danger. How does God help us in such times? What should be our response when we are safe once more?


• When have you experienced the depths of despair that Jonah describes?
• When have you experienced something like Jonah’s rescue from distress and danger? What role did God play in this rescue?
• How should Christians respond when we have been brought once again to safety?

Reference Shelf

Danger at Sea

Sea may designate either large bodies of water in general (Gen 1:10), a specific body of water (Mediterranean, 1 Kgs 5:9), or a ceremonial (molten sea, 1 Kgs 7:23) or symbolic (sea of glass, Rev 4:6) structure. In the Ugaritic literature Sea and the storm-god Baal Haddu are enemies who do battle in cycles (evidently corresponding to the changing of the seasons). While the sea is less personified in the Bible, it is, if not itself the enemy , at least the harborer of enemies of God against which he does battle (Isa 27:1) but which ultimately submit to his sovereignty (Pss 114:3ff.; 104:25ff.).

In both OT and NT the sea held unknown dangers and was an object of fear if not almost personal enmity. That the normally nonseafaring Solomon had ships and could readily traverse the sea (1 Kgs 10:22) and that Jesus could still the raging sea with a word (Mark 4:39) was verification of God’s protection and his sovereignty even over the sea. Rev 21:1 promises that in the world to come there will be no more sea, that is, either no more dark and fearful enemies as harbored by the sea or no more separation symbolized by the sea for the island-exile John.

Edd Rowell, “Sea,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 803.

Jonahs in the Church?

The thanksgiving song that has been placed in the narrative of Jonah gives the impression of a penitent prophet who turns to God at the point when all seems lost. However, foxhole confessions are only as real as the follow-through. In many respects, this song provides all the elements of a dramatic moment of conversion. The poem, placed into the narrative, adds details to God’s deliverance of Jonah. It presents the actions of a God who hears cries of distress. It portrays Jonah’s gratitude to God for the grace of deliverance, gratitude that would be lacking were it not for the poem. The song provides an image of the softer side of Jonah. The reader of the book now expects a different Jonah to continue the journey. However, what the reader will encounter is a Jonah who does only the bare minimum to fulfill the commission God required of him (see Jonah’s five-word sermon in 3:4). Moreover, in chapter 4 Jonah resents the fact that God will show mercy to the Ninevites. How does one account for these opposing pictures of a Jonah whose gratitude to God runs deep for his own deliverance, but whose anger at God for extending compassion to foreigners colors all his actions?

Theologically speaking, Jonah is not the real subject of this tension. Rather, like Jesus’ parable of the log and the speck (Matt 7:3), the story of Jonah should cause us to look at ourselves. It is far easier for most of us to see the faults of others than to acknowledge our own shortcomings. The church, like the world at large, still has many Jonahs. These persons can speak at great length about gratitude for what God has done for them, but they have far less interest in what God has done for others. They can tell of dramatic conversion from a life of sin to a life of fulfillment in Christ. Yet they have little compassion for those who remain trapped in similar cycles of destructive behavior or in systems that keep them in poverty. It is far easier to find comfort worshiping with those who are like us than to live and work in ways designed to improve the lives of those who will not be found inside the church walls.

James Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea–Jonah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 433–34.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email