“Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Three days and three nights in the belly of a fish!

But how? Was he alive during that three day entombment, as the consensus has always been among students of the Bible? Or is it possible that he was dead, and that the church has been in error on this point?

I should like to begin with a few general observations.

First, we are not questioning the fact as such that the prophet of the Lord was actually in the belly of the fish. Of course not! Neither is there any point in discussing whether there was at that time and is today any kind of known Mediterranean fish capable of swallowing a man whole. That this is precisely what happened is the testimony of Scripture, and that for the Christian is the end of all dispute. I once heard a minister say, “And if Scripture said that Jonah swallowed the whale I would believe that, too.” Nor will one, who really believes in miracles and the almighty power of Jehovah have any trouble whatever on this point. If there were no fish with a throat large enough to admit the passage of an entire man, the expression “now the Lord had prepared a great fish” would mean simply, that the Almighty created a fish for this special purpose. However, that need not be the implication, for there are records of fish, species of shark, that are capable of swallowing creatures far larger than human beings. According to Keil and Delitzsch a certain Oken relates as a fact, “that in the year 1758 a sailor fell overboard from a frigate, in very stormy weather, into the Mediterranean Sea, and was immediately taken into the jaws of a sea-dog (shark), and disappeared. The captain, however, ordered a gun, which was standing on the deck, to be discharged at the shark and the cannon-ball struck it, so that it vomited up again the sailor that it had swallowed, who was then taken up alive, and very little hurt, into the boat that had been lowered for his rescue.”

Secondly, I am not aware that any Christian Bible student questions the contention, that Jonah was preserved alive during his imprisonment in the belly of the fish. All commentators take this so for granted, that not one, as far as I know, even mentions it as the view of others, that the prophet might have been dead during that time. That does not mean, however, that the matter may not be questioned and that past scholars might not have been in error on this point. Things have been taken for granted in the past which subsequently have been proved wrong.

Thirdly, whether Jonah was alive or dead while in the fish, in either case we have to do with a mighty miracle of the Almighty. For that reason the modern critic accepts neither. To him the whole narrative is fantastic and fabulous, an incredible myth. If Jonah were kept alive in the belly of the fish, this would certainly be a miracle far surpassing all human comprehension. If he were dead in the fish the miracle would be equally great, for then we have to do here with a raising from the dead. Our subject, therefore, in no respect draws the miraculous into question.

The contention, that the prophet Jonah was not alive but dead during that three day entombment in the fish, would have to rest, no doubt, on the following considerations.

  1. The natural and ordinary results of such an experience as Jonah had would be death. According to all natural laws no man could survive in such a place as the belly of a fish. Would we not expect, then, that if Jonah were kept alive nevertheless during that period, Scripture would give this special mention? Instead we read, “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
  2. The three days imprisonment of the prophet in the belly of the fish was typical of the three days and nights our Savior was to be in the grave. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matt. 12:39. Would the typical significance of this incident not require, then, that Jonah too was dead? Mind you, “As Jonas . . . so shall be. . . Could this mean: fin the same manner as’?
  3. In the prayer of Jonah which is recorded in the second chapter of the book which bears his name, the prophet says, “Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” vs. 2. “Belly of hell” is literally “Womb of Sheol.” Now Sheol is the land of silence, of rest, of forgetfulness, where man has no part in all that takes place under the sun. It is the dreary abode of the shades, the realm of the dead, the grave. Doesn’t Jonah himself, then, suggest that he was dead and is this not strengthened by what he says in vs. 6, “earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit”?
  4. True, this would mean that the prayer of Jonah could not have been uttered while he was in the fish’s belly. However, is it not possible that the prophet prayed this after his release from his strange prison? The entire prayer, you will notice, is not a petition for deliverance at all, as we might expect were Jonah still in the fish, but it is a song of thanksgiving and praise for deliverance already received. You will also observe that the entire prayer is in the past tense. “I cried by reason of my affliction. . . . Out of the womb of Sheol cried I. . . .” etc. If he were still in the belly of the fish when this prayer was uttered, would he not have said, “I cry by reason of. . . .”? In addition, he speaks literally of deliverance already granted. He says, “I cried by reason of my affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” Is it possible, then, that this prayer was uttered, not while in the fish, but later? But you object, that we read in the verse immediately preceding the prayer, “Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly.” Yes, but could this mean, that Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God (being) out of the fish’s belly, i.e., when he himself was out of the belly of the fish? In that same verse we read: “Then Jonah. . . This “then” follows the words of chapter 1:17, “And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” “Then Jonah prayed. . . .” After the three days and nights? But how about the verse after the prayer, you say, which reads: “And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” However, if we should read “for” instead of the first “and”, would this not place this vomiting out of Jonah before the entire prayer?

What about it all? Is there anything convincing about these grounds that might be adduced in support of a view that Jonah was dead during his incarceration in the fish’s belly? Is there any reason to alter the age old view?

In general the answer is: Not at all! All things still point to the belief that Jonah was very much alive during his stay in that strange tomb. Consider the following.

  1. It is true that according to all laws of nature no man could live longer than a few moments in such a place. With God, however, all things are possible. It is true also that Scripture makes no special mention of the fact, that the natural thing (death) did not happen and that the prophet was kept alive. But neither does Scripture in any way suggest that he might have been dead. Holy Writ simply takes for granted that Jonah was preserved alive.
  2. The question whether Jonah was alive or dead has no connection with the typical significance of the incident. The point of comparison is not the fact that both Jonah and the Son of man were dead, but merely the entombment as such. As Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the fish, so the Son of man should be that long in the heart of the earth.
  3. It is true, that Jonah speaks of the “womb of Sheol,” and that Sheol is the land of silence, the dreary abode of the shades, the realm of the dead, where all men are cut off from all that pertains to the earth. However, this does not mean that Jonah was actually dead. When the prophet was cast into the sea, the inevitable was death. There was, as such, no other alternative. Death stared him in the face and from its snares there was no escape. In like manner David rejoices in Psalm 80:3, “O, Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave; thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.”
  4. Finally, the prayer of the prophet. It is true, that it is not a prayer for deliverance, but of thanksgiving and praise for deliverance already wrought; that Jonah literally says, that the Lord had already heard him; and that the whole prayer is in the past tense. This does not mean, however, that the prayer was not uttered until after the prophet had been released and was once again standing on dry land. There is another explanation. To Jonah the fish itself was already a refuge, an “ark of safety,” wherein the Almighty preserved His prophet alive. When Jonah had been swallowed whole, and when he discovered that he was being kept safely in his strange retreat, he regarded this as a deliverance already effected and a certain pledge of further deliverance to come. For that deliverance he praised the Lord then and there. He had been cast into the deep, into the midst of the seas; the floods had compassed him about; all God’s billows and waves had passed over him; the depth closed him round about and the weeds were wrapped about his head; the earth with its bars were about him forever. All seemed lost; utterly hopeless. Then it was that he said, “I am cast out of thy sight; yet will I look again toward thy Indy temple.” And Jehovah had heard him. He had prepared an ark of refuge, a safe if strange retreat, the great fish, to receive and preserve him. Actually, therefore, he was save:! by and in the fish. For that reason his prayer, while in the fish, can be one of thanksgiving and praise for deliverance already wrought. The marvelous grace of God had been there to preserve him, for was he not being kept alive in a most extraordinary and wonderful fashion?
  5. Furthermore, even though the prayer had been uttered, after his release from the fish, this would d ill be no proof that he had been dead. Even then the verbs “I cried,” and “I said,” and “I remembered” would allude to the period of his confinement. Besides, the simple meaning of Jonah 2:1, “When Jonah prayer unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly,” is certainly, that his prayer as such proceeded out of the belly of the fish.

Jonah, therefore, was certainly preserved alive in the fish. Not that this either adds to or detracts from the greatness of the miracle involved. But, such is to my mind the clear teaching of Scripture. In the one case the prophet would have been dead and raised again by the almighty power of Jehovah. In the other he should have been dead according to all the laws of nature, but he was miraculously preserved by the omnipotent wonder of the grace of God. However, even so the victory is definitely over death itself, and thus the entombment and deliverance of Jonah, the prophet, remains a glorious type of Him, who was to come, to die for our sins, to enter into the heart of the earth that He for us might lead captivity captive, and to be raised again the third day for our justification.