Jonah 1:17 The story of Jonah’s being swallowed by a “great fish” is often ridiculed by unbelievers. It even figured in the famous Scopes trial in 1925 in an exchange between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Darrow, counsel for the defense of John Scopes who was accused of teaching human evolution contrary to Tennessee law, asked Bryan: “But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale—or that the whale swallowed Jonah…how do you literally interpret that?” To which question Bryan, the counsel for the prosecution, answered: “When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah…I believe in a God who can make a whale and can make a man and make both do what He pleases.” Bryan, of course, was crucified by the media, especially by H. L. Mencken, who called Bryan a “buffoon” and his arguments in defense of the Bible and creationism, “theologic bilge.”

Liberal Bible scholars, who do not believe anything miraculous and who waste inordinate amounts of paper and time seeking natural explanations for the supernatural or explaining the supernatural away entirely, also reject the historicity of Jonah, especially the story of his being swallowed by a fish. Most see the story of Jonah as parable or allegory and raise the same objections to the story as do secular evolutionists. Over against such unbelief, we believe that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and that he lived three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Our attitude and that of all who believe the inspiration of the Bible is that of William Jennings Bryan, who also said: “If the Bible had said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I would believe it.”

There are several reasons for this article, however, not all of them by way of insisting on Jonah’s historicity. Believing that the story is historical, we also believe that the story of Jonah and the great fish is the story of a miracle, a miracle of grace, and a story that points to the saving work of Jesus. It is, as well, a demonstration of the great truth that salvation is of the Lord, for the great fish is part of the story of Jonah’s salvation and the salvation of Nineveh.

As to the authenticity of the story, the reference to Jonah in Matthew 12:40 ought to lay all doubts to rest. Jesus, the Son of God, believed that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, and if He believed it, we may not doubt it.

The Bible does not actually speak of a “whale” though that is how the story is usually remembered, due to the translation of the KJV (AV) in Matthew 12:40. The Hebrew Old Testament uses the word dag or “fish” (cf. Dagon, the fish-god of the Phoenicians, I Sam. 5:2- 7). Matthew 12:40 uses a Greek word from which we get our word “cetacean,” a word that refers to any great sea-creature, not necessarily a whale.

There are those who speculate on the actual identity of the creature, attempting to name a creature large enough to swallow a man and suggesting that it was a Whale Shark, a Great White Shark, a Sperm Whale or even some extinct sea creature, but they miss the point of Jonah 1:17. So do those who try to prove from other incidents that a man can live in the belly of a fish or a whale for three days, something that is ordinarily impossible.1 Jonah 1:17 puts all that speculation and argument to rest with the words, “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”

That God prepared the creature that swallowed Jonah may very well mean that the whale or fish was something never before and never after seen. Even if it was some creature we know, it would have had to be miraculously “prepared” for Jonah to live inside it for three days. The whole story is the story of a miracle, not only the preparation of the fish itself, but its presence when Jonah was thrown overboard, its swallowing Jonah when he was about to drown, and its spitting Jonah out again three days later on dry land and in the direction of Nineveh.

As with all miracles, it is also a miracle of grace, sovereign saving grace shown both to Jonah and to Nineveh. Always in the Bible miracles are not just events that make us wonder, but events that point to the wonder of God’s great salvation that rescues us from death and destruction and makes us children of God. For this reason miracles are always signs, signs that point in one way or another to something greater.

Jesus makes reference to the “sign of the prophet Jonas” in Matthew 12:39, 16:4, and Luke 11:29, 30, clearly referring to Jonah and the great fish. He does this to those who asked for a sign from heaven, a sign that He was the promised Messiah, the Savior. Jesus refuses to give them a new sign, referring them to the sign of Jonah. If they had understood that sign of Jonah the prophet, they would have believed in Jesus, for that sign, like all signs, pointed to Him. If they did not understand that sign and did not believe in Him, there was no sign that would make them believe.

In this is also the similarity, the only similarity between Jonah and Jesus. Jonah was not a type of Jesus. He could not be a type, for it was his disobedience that landed him in the belly of the fish and his repentance that set him back on the way to Nineveh. Jesus was in the grave as part of His perfect obedience, and it was not in the way of repentance that He arose from the dead but as the Victor over that dark domain.

Hugh Martin in his commentary on Jonah goes to great lengths to prove that Jonah was a type, mentioning five similarities. In both cases he says there was a death and resurrection, in both cases the death and burial are judicial processes, that both with Jesus and Jonah the burial and resurrection “constituted the gate by which the word of Jehovah went forth from the Jewish to the Gentile world.” He speaks of both the experiences of Jonah and Jesus as an enforcement of the gospel message and adds that, just as Jonah’s experience was his preparation for new loyalty and obedience, so Christ’s risen life is the source of newness of life and service.2

Much of this, however, is contrived. Jonah’s experience was indeed preparation for new loyalty and obedience, but it was not the source of that loyalty and obedience as was Christ’s work. As Martin himself says, if Jonah’s new obedience was a type of anything, it was a type of our new obedience, not Christ’s obedience. Neither is Jonah’s experience of the belly of hell and his deliverance a “death and resurrection” that picture Christ’s death and resurrection.

The similarity between Jesus and Jonah begins and ends with the fact that what happened to Jonah was a miracle: he was miraculously swallowed by the fish, lived miraculously in the belly of the fish for three days and nights, and was miraculously delivered from the belly of the fish. That miracle of Jonah was a sign that pointed to the miracle of salvation of which Christ’s burial was a part. The sign that was Jonah, miraculously saved, pointed to the miraculous reality of Christ’s saving work, though only in a small way.

Jesus says in Luke 11:30 that the miracle of Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites. That is difficult to understand but must mean that the Ninevites somehow learned of what had happened to Jonah and saw in that something of the miracle of God’s great salvation in Jesus Christ. That would explain the mystery of Nineveh’s repentance when all Jonah preached was “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” He may have said nothing of the promises of the coming Messiah who would be a light to the Gentiles, but he could not help being a living testimony to salvation by a miracle of grace. Thus, the Ninevites had the gospel preached to them, not just the threat of eternal destruction. Jonah was and is a demonstration of the great truth that salvation is of the Lord, and so he remains a sign to us, as he was to the Ninevites and to the Jews of Jesus’ day, a sign that points us to Jesus Christ, the revelation of that great salvation.

What a wonder God’s salvation is! He used every means to save Jonah—the storm, the rebuke of the heathen sailors, and the specially prepared fish. He then used a disobedient prophet to bring the gospel to the Ninevites, first making him a demonstration of His great salvation in the way of Jonah’s disobedience and its consequences. He made Jonah such a living example, because even after he repented, Jonah remained reluctant and grudging, trying to fulfil his commission by proclaiming only Nineveh’s imminent destruction.

The sign and miracle of the prophet Jonah should remind us of what Paul says in Romans 11:33-36: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”

Jonah was a sign indeed, but so are we all, for whether grown up in a covenant family or rescued from the gutter, whether coming to faith at a very early age or believing in Christ in the last moments of one’s life, we all—saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ dead, buried, descended into hell and risen again—point to Him as the only fountain and source of salvation. We do that by our witness and words, by our life of obedience, but also simply in being saved, lost and dead sinners that we are.

Like the storm God sent on the Mediterranean Sea, the fish that swallowed Jonah was Jonah’s fish, specially prepared by God for Jonah, used by God to bring His disobedient prophet to repentance and then also to put him back on the way to Nineveh. God used a fish only in that instance, while in other instances He uses a sermon, years of covenant instruction, the witness of a friend or neighbor, the example of godly wife or husband, employer or employee; but salvation is always a miracle and the miracle is always the miracle of God’s grace in Christ.

We still sing it, thinking not of Jonah but of ourselves:

They that traffic on the sea,

While unceasing watch they keep,

See Jehovah’s majesty

And His wonders in the deep;

For He bids the stormwind fly,

Lifting ocean’s waves on high.

By the billows heavenward tossed,

Down to dreadful depths again,

Troubled much, their courage lost,

Reeling, they like drunken men

Find their skill and power o’erthrown;

None can save but God alone.

To Jehovah then they cry

In their trouble, and He saves,

Drives the darkness from the sky,

Calms the storm and stills the waves,

Makes their sad forebodings cease,

To their haven guides in peace.3

1 Cf. the story of James Bartley, who was supposed to have been swallowed by a whale and to have lived for several days in the whale’s belly, a story that is fictitious.

2 Hugh Martin, Jonah (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 205-225.

3 The Psalter (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018), #295 (Ps. 107).