There are those moments in life when you are at peace; at peace with your family and friends, at peace with your Maker; your business is flourishing or you just got promoted in your workplace and your relationship with your boss is at its peak. However, just while at that glorious moment and without any warning, things suddenly take a turn and you are left wondering what on earth struck you.
This must have been Jonah’s experience when the word of God came through to him saying “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it…” He was a renowned prophet with an excellent relationship with the Lord when this ‘unpleasant’ assignment came his way and he thought that he could run away from it and from the presence of God by taking a ship headed the opposite direction. He would later learn the folly of his undertakings.
As expected, his disobedience displeased God and the result was that a violent storm threatened to break the ship prompting an investigation which identified Jonah as the culprit. He was thrown overboard and ended up spending three days and three nights in the belly of a fish before he could resume his journey to Nineveh.
Reading the story recently, a few questions crossed my mind: What kind of a fish was it and what was its size? Why a fish and not say, a snake or a crocodile? Was Jonah conscious for the whole period? If conscious, what was he doing during the three days and what was running through his mind? How much time was Jonah in the sea before the fish ‘picked him up’? Could the fish have swallowed a lamp to illuminate Jonah’s new home or may be a table and a chair for him to use while, say, reading a book. How about some food for him or may be some chemicals to neutralize the acids in the belly of the fish?
My search for answers to these questions led me to Jonah Chapter 2, where I found his prayer at what appears to be the end of his three days stay in this deplorable, putrid, nauseating environment.
Once thrown overboard Jonah must have feared for his life. By his account “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.” Jonah 2:5-6
Being swallowed by a fish must have exacerbated his fears and everything seemed to have gone wrong. Having been a respectable prophet and, most likely, having had the best of the best in life, his life now seemed to be turning towards the worst of the worst. His good reputation and good popularity amongst Israelites was completely lost and he was headed to ‘hell in the sea’.
Luckily for Jonah, God was not done with him yet. His journey to “the deep” and the belly of the fish marked a new phase of his relationship with God whose beginning is marked by Jonah’s prayer in Chapter 2.
From Jonah’s prayer I got to learn some lessons;
- When you seek the Lord and cry out to Him, He hears your cry no matter where you are. We have, at one time or another, been in the “belly of the fish”, a point in our lives when we contemplated giving up since everything in life seemed to go wrong; our health, finances, relationships, careers, businesses and so on. At that point in life, it may take a Jonah-like experience to consider our spirituality but as exemplified by Jonah’s experience, it’s never too late to change our ways and turn back to God and call upon His name.
It’s while he was in the belly of the fish (probably kneeling or sitting!) after experiencing a near-death experience that Jonah, who had previously flatly rejected to obey God to the point of opting to die than obey, discovered that he could still draw from God’s infinite well of Mercy. In such situation in life the lesson from Jonah is that we should pray, pray and pray some more. “From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry” Jonah 2:1
- God is in control and we should always have trust in Him. Jonah teaches us that, no matter what we are going through in life, God is always in control. By boarding a ship to the opposite direction, Jonah thought that he could run away from God’s presence. How wrong he was! God, not only caused the violent storm, but also caused Jonah to be hurled to the bottom of the sea and later to the belly of the fish and finally to the city of Nineveh. He was in control of all these events for the glory of His name. He is still in control of all the events happening in our lives. The Bible says that His ways are not our ways and therefore His plans for us may involve being ‘swallowed by a fish’ and during such moments we are called to submit to His will and pray that we may remain faithful to Him.
- Keep your focus on God at all times: Jonah says “when my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” Jonah 2:7. When we find ourselves in the belly of a fish, it helps a great deal to keep our focus on God. In such circumstances, only God alone deserves our attention and faith since anything else we focus on is likely to fail us miserably, or at best, only offer some temporary relief. Faced with life challenges, it’s a normal human behavior to look for solution from friends, relatives, secular counsellors, self-help books and so on, and though these are not bad in and of themselves, the lesson from Jonah is this: “Do not look around for how the world solves their problems. LOOK UP! There is absolutely no substitute for God’s power”
- It is all about God’s plan and timings, not ours. “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” Jonah 2:10. After all the miseries and torments that Jonah brought unto himself and other sailors, God’s plan had to be executed by the person and in the manner He had planned. Often times, when God calls us to a mission, we tend to second-guess the call by considering ourselves inadequate to the task. The story of Jonah reminds us of what happens to people when God wants them to do something and they don’t want to do it; God has a way of bringing us to that place where we want what He wants. Have you been delaying the response to that call to serve in the youth ministry, the ministry for the sick, the poor or the imprisoned etc?
- Trust God to respond to prayers even before the answer is received: “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”’ Jonah was still in the belly of the fish but he knew that it was enough that the Lord had heard his prayer. In faith and trust, Jonah knew that he would be saved.