Sinking toward the bottom. Overcome by despair. Near the end of your rope. At death’s door. Holding your breath and gasping for air. Jonah’s stubborn rebellion and insistence on a life apart from God has finally caught up with him. He’s literally drowning under the weight of his sin, and hopelessly entangled in the weedy mess he’s created for himself.
But our God is a merciful God. The Day of Reckoning does not always issue forth justice. To the contrary, we often don’t get what we deserve. Instead of upholding justice, the Judge opts for mercy instead.
But God’s merciful hand reaching down into our pit of despair to rescue us often involves a messy process. A time of repentance, pruning, discipline, sanctification, purification or detox, whatever we call it our journey back to God is often as pleasant as 3 nights lodging in the belly of a giant fish. Now I’ve never been inside the stomach of any living being, but I’m guessing its quite a few notches below the accommodations of your nearest Super 8. Dark, hot, cramped, smelly, slimy — not unlike my freshman college dorm room.
Now I had always drawn the conclusion that being swallowed by a big fish was just another part of Jonah’s punishment for disobedience. Yet, shockingly, the storyteller is clear that this “fishy situation” is actually a remarkable picture of God’s amazing grace. “Yahweh mounts a special rescue operation: an enormous fish plays the astounding part of a submarine to pick up Jonah from the murky seaweed at the bottom of the ocean and transport him safely to the mainland” (Leslie Allen, 213). The belly of a fish is no pleasant place to be, but it sure beats the alternative which for Jonah was death.
What’s the lesson here for you and me? The belly of the fish represents that unpleasant place of turning back to God, of finally surrendering our fight, of giving in, of handing over the controls, of finally admitting our helplessness and utter reliance on the mercy and provision of God. We all find ourselves sinking at times; sometimes under the weight of our own sin, and other times as innocent victims in a broken world. Then out of nowhere God shows up to rescue us but does so by way of the belly of the fish.
Have you spent three nights in the belly of a fish? Coming to terms with your own frailty, brokenness, need of grace? Was it a time of divine discipline, being humbled in the presence of the Almighty? Perhaps you checked into treatment, or finally confronted the person you’ve wronged. Maybe it was three days and three nights of personal spiritual retreat where you rediscovered “your first love” (Rev. 2). Maybe it was your own Dark Night of the Soul. Whatever it was, it was likely a dark, unpleasant experience that nevertheless brought you face to face with the saving presence of God, and as painful as those three days and three nights were in the belly, you wouldn’t trade them for the world.
You were swallowed up by a giant fish; but it was divine grace in the end that would eventually spit you back onto dry land — a new person.