John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Although Jonah was not the author of Psalm 130, what is written therein expresses what lived in his soul. And remembering the story of Jonah as we find it in Holy Writ, we can see that had he known the versification of it, as we have it in our Psalter, there was a moment in his life when he would have sung it. I have in mind these words:

From the depths do I invoke Thee,

Lord to me incline thy ear;

To my voice be Thou attentive,

And my supplication hear.

The way Jonah did put it was: “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and Thou heardest my voice.” And the affliction to which he refers is the heavy hand of God upon him because of his sin in refusing to go to Nineveh, as he was called, to preach unto Gods people in that great city. +God had sent a storm of unusually great force to buffet the ship which Jonah was using to flee to Tarshish. Shipwreck seemed imminent. And God had so guided the lots which were ‘cast, that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this storm was because of Jonah’s sin. He confessed it before the sailors, telling them that he was trying to flee from God’s presence. He was even more specific. For he told them in no uncertain terms, “I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.”

Jonah did not yet see that thousands of Ninevites could also perish because of his sin, namely, that of refusing to go and warn them of God’s wrath against them because of their sin. There were elect children of God there, as subsequent history shows; and they would have perished with the children of the devil. For he did not understand how God could want to save these people, who in Jonah’s mind were so far out of the covenant sphere.

Having been given grace to acknowledge his sin before these mariners—who likewise were Gentiles, even as the Ninevites were—so that he instructed them to cast him overboard, so that they might be saved from the destructive power of this storm, Jonah now has the awesome experience that in a matter of moments, rather than the forty days before Nineveh’s destruction, he will face God in death! The God, from Whose presence he sought to flee, will now confront him here outside the promised land. He is walking in sin, and he is outside the covenant sphere because he wanted to leave it. Try to put yourself in his position as the sailors pick him up and he sails over the side of the ship and begins to descend to those waters whipped up by that unusually powerful storm. Indeed he would get wet; but after that would not the fire of hell change things completely for him? And as he descends to the bottom of the sea, what thoughts must have flashed through his mind, now that no one less than God Himself had told him that this storm was because of his sin.

The picture, however, is often distorted, particularly in Bible story books with illustrations drawn or painted to try to get the idea clearly before the minds of the children. It is presented as though the fish is right there, just under the surface of the water and right next to the ship, so that Jonah is at once transported from the safety of the ship—safe in the sense that there he could breathe the oxygen he needed for his life—and into the fish’s belly, where oxygen again is provided for him. But in Jonah 2 we get a different picture. In verse 5 we read, “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the depths closed round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.” Then too in verse 6 he speaks of going “down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever.” Plainly Jonah had fallen to the bottom of the sea. The fish may have been there near the ship, and even near the surface. But he did not immediately swallow up Jonah and give him a place of safety to enjoy, with no moments of stark fear and terror gripping his soul. No, he says that the waters compassed him, even to the soul. He had sunk to the depths of the sea, and he had gotten tangled in the weeds. In that sense “From the depths do I invoke Thee” was characteristic of Jonah’s prayer. Those weeds that were wrapped about his head, as he states in verse 5, were not inside the fish’s belly. Note that he continues in the next verse by stating that he “went down to the bottom of the mountains; and the earth with her bars was about me forever.” Even if he could swim, this was now impossible because of the thick weeds into which God’s hand had guided him, as he fell deeper and deeper to the depths of the sea. All this was before the fish found him and swallowed him. All this was also before he was safely inside the fish with a divinely prepared supply of much needed oxygen.

In Jonah 2:2 we read that he cried from out the belly of hell. This does not refer to the belly of the fish. In the KJV of the Bible there are several words that are translated as hell, but they do not all mean exactly the same thing. The one we find here is the Hebrew word sheol and means the grave. Jonah was in his grave when he cried to God. This word means, as far as its derivation is concerned, that which is hollow, as is a cave wherein men in those days buried the dead, or a hole in the ground, as is our custom. And that word does not necessarily or always mean the place of torment, and the fire of God’s wrath. Every unbeliever will with his soul go there at death. But his body goes into the hollow place, called the grave. Jonah considered himself in his grave, before the fish came and swallowed him up, and before he was supplied with the oxygen he needed for his life.

Thus the word is also used in Psalm 16:10 when, prophetically, we read of Jesus: “For Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” This is explained in the next clause, “Neither wilt Thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” That is the corruption of the body in the grave. In the Greek there are three words that are translated as hell. There is the word hades, which we find in Acts 2:27 as a fulfillment of what we find inPsalm 16:10. It plainly means the tomb, the grave. Then there is the word gehenna, which means the place of torment, the place of the fire of God’s holy wrath. And there is the word tartarus, used only once and by Peter in II Peter 2:4. We may safely conclude that what Jonah speaks of here is his grave. He did not go to the place of torment, although he had every reason to fear that. He is crying to God from the moment he was thrown into the waves, and fell deeper and deeper in the sea, and while he became entangled in the weeds. He expressed his thanks to God after he was picked up by the fish; and he knew that his life was spared. Then he stated what we read in verse 2: “. . . and Thou heardest me.”

No, the fish was not a moving grave for Jonah. When in the fish, he was already out of his grave. That fish was a special “ship” prepared by God to bring him back to dry land, so that he could still go to Nineveh.

Certainly we do not deal here with a fish story. We have a true story of a real fish. This is not a bit of fiction with a spiritual meaning. It is no fable. Consider what the Son of God Himself said. He assured us that so as Jonah was in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights, so He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. If Jonah’s was fictitious, then so was Christ’s. Perish the very thought! That would mean that our sins were not actually blotted out, and that He did not conquer death and the grave for us. Then we would have a fictitious salvation. And we would be the people of whom Jonah speaks when he says in verse 8, “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” More of that next time. But keep it in mind.

Now as to the fish, we do not know what kind of fish it was. The KJV in Matthew 12:40 has the word whale. But it is interesting and striking to note that the Hebrew, which records the actual event in Jonahs life, has a word that means a whale. We find that word already in Genesis 1:21 where we read that God created great whales. But that is not the word that we find here inJonah 1:17 and Jonah 2:10. The word in Genesis is tannin; and the word in Jonah is dag. They neither look alike nor sound alike. And the word in the Greek of Matthew 12:40 cannot be limited to the whale. It simply means a large fish. Some translations, as the Philips and the New English Bible have “sea monster.” The reason why men think it was a whale is the fact that a whale breathes air, and it takes its oxygen out of the air, while other fish have gills and take it out of the water. This would indeed be better for Jonah’s life. At least in our way of thinking, God would pick a fish like that.

What we are to note carefully is that we read that God prepared a great fish. He did not send one, or find one already adapted to supply Jonah with air. He prepared one. If now it was a whale, we would still have to maintain that it was one especially formed and adapted to supply Jonah with air in its belly, where Jonah was. He was not in the lungs of the fish, but he was swallowed, and went into the belly. God could have prepared another kind of fish as easily as He could change a whale. The point is that God prepared, and performed special work. We do not know all the fish that could have been in the Mediterranean Sea at that time. Huge land beasts roamed our continents years ago, and they are not in existence anymore. Could God not have spared a particular fish, other than a whale, to be there for Jonah’s life?

God performed a special work here. And salvation always is a special work. Did He not send us a Son and Savior in the special way of a virgin birth? Did He not do that when the royal line of David had ended in a woman, and there was no man of that royal line left to beget a son to sit on David’s throne? And even apart from that, did He not do a special work at the Red Sea to save Israel and destroy the enemies? Salvation was a special work there. At the River Jordan it was the same thing. In each instance God prepared the way and saved by preparing a way when in an ordinary way His work would never have given them salvation.

Yes, out of the belly of hell Jonah cried. And we ought to try to put ourselves in his place, when he was thrown overboard into his grave, with the finger of God pointing at him as one who deserved this fierce wrath, this terrible storm with such billows and waves. If we do, we can appreciate those words of Jonah when he summarizes the whole ordeal: “Salvation is of the Lord.” Jonah was no Arminian. He knew better than to attribute the smallest part of his salvation to works which he performed. His works brought him into that belly of hell. And there was no condition he could fulfill. Surely there was no way in which he could now go to Nineveh and do the work he refused to do. Of this we will have more to say in a future installment.