God had told Jonah to arise and proclaim the word of the Lord to the Ninevites, but Jonah ran the opposite direction because he did not want to have anything to do with a possible display of mercy upon the enemy nation of Israel. Like Adam, Jonah started his spiritual descent when he decided to disobey YHWH and then to run and hide from him.
As the text repeatedly emphasizes, Jonah went down to Joppa, then down to the ship, then down to the lowest parts of the ship, down to the depths of the sea, and ultimately down to the depths of the belly of the fish.
It is at this point that Jonah realizes that he is at the end of his journey, and that all that is left for him is the grave. Now he recognizes that the One from whom he had been running all along is the only One who could save him.
The fish becomes the ultimate expression of the descent into the depths, and, as Jonah recognizes here, he was in the belly of the fish, and thereby he was also in the belly of Sheol. But it is from there that he prays to God, and it is from the depths of death that God rescues Jonah:
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
The ambiguity of this situation is pervasive in the book of Jonah. YHWH appointed a fish to swallow Jonah, but the fish is not only the ultimate expression of the grave in the narrative, but also the means by which Jonah is saved! The fish functions as a grave for the rebellious prophet, but it is that very belly of Sheol that saves Jonah from drowning and literally dying. Jonah deserved death, but God in his mercy saves and redeems his wayward prophet.
As we begin to see in the narrative, Jonah, as one who deserves death and is spared, enjoys the same mercy he wants to deny to the Ninevites. Jonah and the Ninevites are not that different, but God is merciful, and pleased to bestow his mercy on those who do not deserve it.
3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; Yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’
The image of the flood sweeping over Jonah points us to the instrument of death and judgment. The flood waters are associated with baptism because they have been God’s instruments of drowning his enemies and delivering his people – as with Noah and the Exodus. Jonah is drowning because he is the one who has rejected YHWH. The floods surround him, the waves pass over him. Jonah experiences the ultimate expression of judgment in that he is driven from God’s sight
Adam was driven out of the garden of God, where God’s presence was manifest. It was David who said, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” Ultimately, it was Christ who cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22).
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.
What Jonah describes here is his journey into the depths of death. He was, as it were, held in a grave at the roots of the mountains, i.e., at the lower parts of the earth where there are only shadows, which encircle those who have been forsaken and have been cast out of the land of the living. Jonah went down to hat forsaken realm with bars that closed upon him forever. Jonah was locked up behind the bars of Sheol. He sees the gates of hell, which cannot be broken – except by the Son of God.
But Jonah also knew something about YHWH. In his sin, the prophet refused to preach to the Ninevites because he knew that YHWH is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness. It is this mercy now that he receives.
Yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. 7 When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. . . . And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
From the depths Jonah “remembers the Lord” and cries out for his mercy.
De Profundis (Ps. 130)
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
The belly of the fish had become both a grave for the prophet’s death, as well as a womb for his resurrection.
The man who comes out of the fish’s womb of second birth is not a perfect man, and the narrative cleverly hints at that by stating, not that Jonah was gracefully laid at the beautiful sandy beach, but actually that “the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” It’s not healthy for fish to eat rotten prophets.
The perfect salvation of YHWH was still to come, when his perfect Prophet would not disobey God, but fulfill all his will and gladly preach salvation to those who do not deserve it. Yet, it was that same perfect, sinless prophet, Jesus Christ, who himself was swallowed up by the gates of Sheol – not just almost, as with Jonah, but truly and completely locked up behind the bars of death, as the entered the realm of the roots of the mountains when he entered his grave hewn out of the rock.
Jesus did not reject God’s command like Adam, and he was not a rebellious prophet like Jonah and like all of us, but he was the perfect Man attested by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him. The gates of Sheol could not hold him back. The Lord of light, the creator of the universe cannot be contained by death.
God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,
“‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
As Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon to those who marveled at the 120 disciples who had gathered in the upper room, now publicly praising God in the tongues of every people and tribe and nation, he points out that God’s inspired Word had promised that he would not allow his Holy One to see corruption. David wrote the Psalm (16), and David was the anointed prophet, priest and king, the holy one of Israel; but David was in the grave.
Peter reasons that either God’s promises are false and have fallen to the ground – and so all David had was wishful thinking about his own destiny – or else the Holy Spirit was speaking through David concerning the ultimate prophet, priest and king to come, the Holy One who is both God himself and the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Peter shows his hearers that Christ is the fulfillment of the promise of resurrection.
Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.
For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Jonah was vomited on the beach, and he remained a sinful man, and he eventually died. But Christ rose from the belly of Sheol, he broke the bars of death as the stone was rolled from the mouth of the grave, and he resurrected victoriously and gloriously never to die again.
Christ went under, he was swallowed up by death, and drank the bitter cup to the fullest. He was covered by the flood so that he might become the ark that saves from the flood – the ark that saves Noah and his family, i.e., all those who trust in Christ, and, as Peter says, their children, and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.
Christ has been raised from the dead never to die again, sitting in glory in heaven until all of his enemies are made his footstool. And we, united to Him through faith and through the Sacraments, have been raised with Him. We have been, like Jonah, saved from the flood and vomited up on the beach, so that now under the favor of God we might make our way back up onto Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.
Now through Word and Sacrament God gathers his Church and nourishes us even as we still live a constant death, until that day when all tears will be wiped out from our eyes. We know that God who appointed the fish to spit out Jonah back into life, and who raised Christ from the dead, is the same God who is in the business of bringing light out of darkness, and life out of death. He restores minds and hearts that have given up hope, he provides for the needy, and he gives purpose to lives that have none. Most importantly, he is the God who unites us to Himself so we can be with him forever.