The Grace of Repentance in a Fish’s Belly

Reading Time: 7 mins

He shows up when we are at our worst to usher us back to his side, lead us to repentance, rescue us, and reclaim us as his own.

After running as fast and far away as he could from “the presence of the Lord,” Jonah’s running finally caught up with him. With his plans sufficiently detonated, he now found treading water in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, in the middle of a furious monsoon. By every conceivable measure, God’s prophet had squandered his God-given opportunity to be used by God to declare his Word. He had taken the divine calling on his life and had flushed it down the drain. Nevertheless, for as much effort as he exerted, Jonah earned nothing but a three-night stay in the stomach of some great fish. 

Referring to this story as “Jonah and the Whale” is a flawed way to think about the Book of Jonah primarily because it falls short of helping us see in Jonah something of ourselves. We have all been where Jonah was at some point in our lives — in a place where God seemed impossibly far away, and all we could do was cry. Jonah is at rock bottom. He is drowning, both literally and figuratively. He feels hopelessly abandoned, closed off from everything and everyone. But maybe that’s a good thing since God shows up and finds us when we’ve hit the bottom and have nowhere else to turn. He shows up when we are at our worst to usher us back to his side, lead us to repentance, rescue us, and reclaim us as his own. This is what the “Psalm of Jonah” is all about. Amid this runaway prophet’s desperate cries, we are given a glimpse of what it looks like to repent. 

The first step in the process of repentance is getting low enough to see that you are the culprit. There is an interesting grammatical clue that serves to show us Jonah’s blatant disobedience, beginning in Chapter 1, where we are told that “he went down to Joppa” (Jonah 1:3). Later, we learn that “Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down” (Jonah 1:5). Now, notice how Jonah describes the sinking feeling of being swallowed whole: “The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (Jonah 2:5–6). It’s no coincidence that each of Jonah’s decisions to “flee from the presence of the Lord” leads him on a progressively downward path. Down he went, till he got to where he was in Chapter 2, the place he calls “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:2).

In its most basic form, “Sheol” is a provocative term for “the grave” or “the place of the dead.” Whether Jonah considered Sheol to be a literal place or just a figure of speech doesn’t matter much since, in this case, he’s being metaphorical. Jonah had not literally been transported to “the place of the dead,” but he might as well have. From Jonah’s perspective, he’s as good as dead. He has come the closest to death anyone could possibly get without actually dying. As he sinks “into the heart of the sea” inside the belly of that “great fish,” he descends to the lowest place possible, and it’s there, with darkness closing in around him, that he comes to his senses. Jonah finally admits that this whole fiasco is his fault. “For you cast me into the deep,” he cries, “into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple’” (Jonah 2:3–4).

Jonah understands that what he is going through is from God himself. The hands of the Lord were in it all and behind it all. The waves were his, and the fish was his, just as Jonah’s life was his. This descent “into the deep,” was God’s way of bringing Jonah to the lowest place imaginable so that he might recognize that his mess is self-made. This whole thing was his own doing. When he ran from God’s call, he was not merely choosing to go “another way,” he was choosing his own exile. When he fled from God’s presence, he expelled himself from God’s sight and forsook his “hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:8). But God loved Jonah so much that instead of letting him go, he stopped him in his tracks. That’s what he does. 

As low as we may sink, grace goes even lower. 

Sometimes, God has to put us flat on our backs for us to see both the mess we’ve made of things and our utter incapacity at making things right. It’s only when we hit “rock bottom” that we are finally able to see who the guilty party is: us. “It’s only when you reach the very bottom,” writes the late Tim Keller, “when everything falls apart, when all your schemes and resources are broken and exhausted, that you’re finally open to learning how to completely depend on God” (72). Lying flat on our backs lets us see our failures and shortcomings in the clearest light possible, giving us the best view of the worst of ourselves. But the good news is that this is when we get the best view of who God is, too. “If there’s any good that comes from having the wheels come off,” Stephen W. Ramp once wrote, “maybe it puts us in contact with who we really are, what really matters, who God is” (421). Ours is a God of the depths. He is a God who is unafraid and unashamed of joining us in the pit to pull us out of it. Indeed, there’s no place so low where God is not there (Ps. 139:7–12). As low as we may sink, grace goes even lower. 

As Jonah sinks like a stone into “the heart of the sea,” he is made to realize another harsh reality — namely, that he can’t fix it. Not only is this whole predicament a result of his own disobedience, but it is also a predicament that he cannot put back together by himself. Notice how he describes, in vivid and alarming detail, the darkness that overwhelmed him (Jonah 2:3–6). As the watery depths enveloped him, he was sure he was as good as dead. But as the waves threatened to swallow him whole, something else swallowed him instead. The fish’s stomach became Jonah’s prison, from which there was no escaping (Jonah 2:6). When that “great fish” closed its jaws around him, it was as if the “gates of death” had been barred forever. In the prison of the fish’s belly, he, at last, understands how helpless he truly is — he gives up

This lets us see this “great fish” as an unmistakable gift of God’s “violent mercy,” to use Paul Tripp’s terminology. “In love,” Tripp says, “he has worked to dent and deface my glory so that his glory would be my delight. He has plundered my kingdom so that his kingdom would be my joy. And he has crushed my crown under his feet so that I would quest to be a good ambassador and not crave to be a king. In this violent mercy, there is hope for every person” (181).

This is what God does. He puts us flat on our backs in order to remind us that our mess is not fixable by us. Part of repentance is not only seeing that we are the problem but also that the problem cannot be remedied or resolved by anything we do. Realizing this is often painful and frustrating since we are so resistant to the idea that we cannot fix what’s wrong with us. This is a notion that goes against our nature. The natural bent of the human heart is to believe that we can be our own saviors. However, what makes “bottoming out” so much worse is when we still insist on being our own rescuer. This makes about as much sense as a person who cannot swim, thinking they can save themselves from drowning. 

Sometimes, God allows us to bottom out, and sometimes, he keeps us there. Not because he likes to see us suffer or struggle but because he wants us to see that we have no other hope until we find him to be our Only Hope. Sometimes this means God has to employ some “violent mercy” to get us to stop resisting and running and to just give up. For Jonah, that meant being swallowed by a fish. That might mean losing something or someone of great value. It might mean seeing your plans go up in smoke. It might mean watching as God closes door after door instead of opening them. As you watch all of that unfold, you’re getting a glimpse of God’s “violent mercy,” which paves the way for our rescue. Hope blossoms when we bottom out and come to the end of ourselves. 

As he looks, he remembers; as he remembers, he prays; and as he prays, God hears.

When God puts us flat on our backs, it’s not because he is angry with us. Rather, it’s because he loves us. He is eager for us to repent, which is why he aims for us to see not only that “we’ve done it” and that “we can’t fix it,” but also that there is one who can. As Jonah is swallowed by the waves, and the whale, his gaze is driven back to a specific place — namely, the Temple of the Lord (Jonah 2:4, 7). The Temple, of course, was a place that was representative of Yahweh’s atoning presence. Stretching back to the days of King Solomon, when it was first constructed, the Temple was meant to stand as a bastion of God’s forgiveness (1 Kings 8:46–52). Therefore, when Jonah’s gaze is reoriented to the “holy temple” of God Almighty, he is looking once more to the place where he knows his sins can be taken care of, where forgiveness is, where help is. As he looks, he remembers; as he remembers, he prays; and as he prays, God hears (Jonah 2:1–2). 

The most amazing part of this whole narrative isn’t that Jonah is in the belly of some “great fish” but that, even there, God hears him. Even when we have sunk to places so low that we can barely hear, let alone see God, his ears are bent toward us. “Jonah was as far away from God as one can humanly get,” Stephen Ramp continues, “yet even there, God hears and acts in mercy. Wherever we are, we are not beyond God’s providence and love” (417). He is never deaf to the desperate cries of those he loves. God always hears no matter how deep you’ve fallen or how far you’ve strayed (Ps. 34:6, 17). And not only does he hear, but he also takes action. The Lord heard Jonah’s quivering prayer and demonstrated his merciful control over him and all things by raising him “from the pit” (Jonah 2:6, 10; cf. Ps. 16:10; 103:4). 

Jonah knows that he owes everything to the gracious Word of the Lord. He was very aware that there was nothing he could have ever done that would have resulted in his salvation, which is why he ends his prayer with the confession, “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9). He has come to the end of himself and has been made to turn to the one who is his Only Hope. The very prophet who was sprinting away from the presence of the Lord now expresses his gratitude that God’s presence has rescued him, serving as a graphic illustration of what it looks like to repent. This, of course, is not only good news for Jonah but for every sinner and sufferer who is brought to the end of themselves, which is why Martin Luther insisted that the defining Christian paradigm was none other than repentance. “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’” he declared in the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, “willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” The fickleness of the human heart requires a repeated turning to the Lord and Savior. Fortunately for us, he never grows weary of our wandering, nor does he tire of inclining our hearts to him. The prevailing hope for you who are belly up in despair is that there is a God who is lying there with you.