And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.Jonah 1:17
Even in the midst of judgment, God Almighty will often provide a means of mercy in accordance with His sovereignty in order to perfect His will. Even when the natural consequences of our sin seem to crush us, God Himself will prepare a respite in the midst of our judgment in order to give us an opportunity to repent and humbly turn to Him in obedience. Sometimes that mercy may come from the most unlikely, and miraculous, of places.
The first thing I want you to notice today is “The Lord appointed…”. One of the great attributes of Almighty God is that He is. His very name, YHWH, is literally translated as “I am”. When addressing Him in Scripture, in this specific verse, the writer of Jonah uses the word יְהֹוָה which is pronounced “Yᵊhōvâ“, which is translated as “the existing One.” God Himself is self-existing – an attribute of His divinity articulated as the doctrine of divine aseity. God was not created by human hands; He exists beyond our capacity for creation. And He does not need our permission to exist. This is a truth that is not only celebrated throughout the Old Testament, but reiterated by the writers of the New Testament. God is and He doesn’t require your belief in order to be.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.Acts 17:24, 25
By virtue of His divine aseity, He alone has authority over Heaven and Earth and all of creation as our Creator. He alone has full authority to move within space and time to exact His will as He sees fit for His purposes. As Creator He also has the right to expect certain behaviors of His creation and when we step outside of His design, consequences, both natural and supernatural will manifest as a fulfillment of the simple law of cause and effect. Yet, God in His desire to see His will perfected will sometimes step in with a divine appointment that is designed to provide mercy and inspire repentance and submission to His will.
Because He is and He is the Lord of all creation, He has the authority to bend the rules of nature to His liking and His need. The word that is translated “appointed” is in effect a term of official assignment. It implies intent with a specific purpose. Just as judges are appointed and pastors are ordained, so God has appointed a “great fish to swallow up Jonah.”
Skeptics through the years have tried to deny or reinterpret this passage as “apocryphal” due to a fundamental lack of knowledge or belief in the possibility that God would use a fish to swallow a man. The passage does not say that God created some new species of fish that was large enough to swallow a man whole. Now does it say that it was a whale that shallowed Jonah. In the Mediterranean Sea there lives the second largest known species of fish called the basking shark. Reaching sizes of up to 10 meters and weighing as much as 7 tons, the basking shark is generally a harmless fish whose tiny teeth serve to filter planton and other small fish through its gills. Its mouth and jaws can open wide enough to swallow a small man in a single gulp.
Now I’m not suggesting that this particular species is explicitly what God used to contain Jonah in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, the only suggestion I make is to point out the natural possibility of a fish large enough to swallow a man whole and to point to the idea that God Himself will often use that which He has already created in order to get our attention when we have gone astray.
Jonah remained in the belly of that fish for 3 days and 3 nights. Imagine resting in stomach acid of a fish that is only used to eating plankton and suddenly he has this large human in his belly. Naturally the fish’s body would compensate and produce more stomach acid in an effort to try to break down the foreign substance in the digestive system. Prolonged exposure to this acid would bleach the skin and cause one’s hair to fall out due to root damage. Imagine the sight when three days and three nights later, Jonah is coughed up on a beach near where he began his journey on the ship. I can imagine it would not have been an attractive sight and would not likely have endeared the people of Nineveh to come near to hear him speak.
For three days and three nights, the prison belly of that fish acted as a sort of tomb for a man that by all rights should have been dead. By the authority of God, Jonah was imprisoned with the body of large fish who would then carry him to near his intended destination all along. Even in the midst of judgment, God provided a shelter to protect Jonah from drowning in the middle of the storm. Even in the midst of discipline, God provided a safe place for Jonah to come to his senses and repent of his abandonment of the Almighty and submit to His authority.
When you abandon God, rest assured He will not abandon you. Even as He disciplines those whom He loves, He provides an opportunity for grace. Even when we deserve death, He gives us life. When we deserve isolation, He provides us with fellowship. When we deserve pain, He provides comfort. His love for us drives Him to seek our hearts. His love for His creation compels Him to exercise His authority to draw us to Him, no matter the cost. And it isn’t always going to come the way we might expect. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a phone call from an old friend. Sometimes it’s the righteous anger of an adversary. Sometimes it’s the discerning words of a pastor or mentor. Whatever the case may be, He will always pursue you with a grace that may sometimes smell noxious to the natural senses, but will always be for our good and for His purposes. The real question is whether or not we will embrace that good and submit to His purpose.