But the LORD sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 2:1)
Jonah tried to escape from his mission to preach to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, the future empire that would destroy Israel. What nationalistic prophet would want such an enemy be converted and escape the wrath of God? So Jonah tried to get far away from it on a ship. But a storm blocked the progress of the ship and the only solution to saving the lives on the ship was to throw Noah into the sea. It was then that a big fish sent by God swallowed up Noah.
We are told that Noah prayed in the belly of the whale. Did Noah realize the error of his ways and therefore he prayed? The prayer itself seems to be the prayer of a man in danger of death. In 2:7, he says that he was already in the depths of the earth, behind barred gates when the Lord delivered Him. There is nothing in the prayer that is connected with his desire to escape from his mission or anything that is connected to a change of mind. And yet, it was as a response to this prayer that “the Lord commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land” (2:11)
Jonah had a near death experience. At least that is what we are given to understand. He was in the belly of the whale but he prayed “out of the depths of Sheol”. He was there three days and three nights — enough time to allow him to become a sign of the death and resurrection of Christ later on. It would seem that an experience of death or something similar to it can become an occassion for a change in one’s life direction. Jonah began to preach to Nineveh after he was vomitted out by the whale. Running away from God does not solve any problems especially when He is intent on getting one. Just this thought reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “Hound of Heaven” and the theme of God’s relentless pursuit of man. Jonah’s near death experience was his “negative grace” — as Fulton Sheen would put it. And I have heard cases of people with near death experiences that were changed persons after the experience.
If I were swallowed up by a whale and stayed in its belly for three days and three nights, what would I think about, I wonder?
Lord, I don’t need to be swallowed by a whale or any large animal to be moved to conversion. Besides, I don’t think I can survive the darkness inside an animal’s belly. I’d be content with a metaphorical experience, something like John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” or Walter Hilton’s “Cloud of Unknowing”. But please, Lord, do disturb me when I grow satisfied, and pull me in when like a kite I begin to be sucked up by high winds and go awry in my flight. And as you did to Noah, rescue me at last and let me out of the narrow confines of this life’s imprisonment.