When Was Jonah Saved?

Scripture text: Jonah, Chapter 2

I love the book of Jonah. But not for the reasons many others do. They may love it for its story of a petulant prophet who runs away from God, as we often do. Or they may get all caught up in the sensational miracle of Jonah surviving three days and nights in the belly of a big fish.

I love it for a different reason. It is one of the most powerful statements in Scripture of God’s love for all humanity, including our own enemies. Those enemies can include yesterday’s militaristic Assyrians or today’s Islamic terrorists. When Jesus counsels us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, I have a sense he had absorbed the message of Jonah deep into his soul.

Still there are tricky interpretative traps in reading Jonah. One is what do we do with Chapter 2. This chapter recounts a psalm of thanksgiving that Jonah prays within the belly of the big fish. (We should note the text never calls the creature a whale. It is a big fish.)

In the psalm, Jonah thanks God for saving his life. When the sailors threw Jonah into the sea, Jonah should have died by drowning. He describes this fate in vivid imagery:

            The waters closed in over me,

                        the deep was round about 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 [meaning Sheol, the land of the dead].

            Yet thou didst, bring up my life from the Pit,

                        O Lord my God. (Revised Standard Version)

Many who read this psalm are troubled by its placement in the story. Jonah thanks God for saving him. But he is praying this psalm while still in the belly of the fish. He has not yet been vomited up onto dry land.

Some say then that Jonah is praying a song of thanksgiving in anticipation of his future rescue [in Biblical language, his salvation]. Others think the author has clumsily plopped a random song of thanksgiving into the story at an inappropriate place.

Such interpretations, however, assume that Jonah is rescued (or saved) when he is vomited upon the beach. But what if the moment of salvation is when the fish swallows Jonah, not when the fish vomits him forth three days later? Jonah is saved (not in an eternal sense, but in a this-world sense) the moment the fish swallows him.

If we understand that as the moment of rescue, then the psalm makes full sense in its placement in the story. For once the fish has swallowed Jonah, he is safe, even though he is yet to be set free upon dry land. He knows he has been saved, and so he thanks the Lord for his mercy.

This also means that the big fish is a savior figure in the story. He is the means of Jonah’s rescue.

Now this opens up a peculiar way Christians can read the story of Jonah. Following the hallowed Christian tradition of reading the Old Testament as the type for the antitype of the New Testament, the fish in Jonah can be seen as a type of Christ the Savior.

Reading the text in this way, I can’t help being fascinated that an early Christian symbol is the fish. The initials of the phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” in Greek spells the Greek word for fish. And so the fish was a code symbol early Christians used to identify each other.

Also striking is the fact that we find images of the fish vomiting up Jonah painted on the walls of the Christian catacombs in Rome. There it served as a symbol of resurrection.

The apostle Paul talks about the Christian dead being in Christ and with Christ awaiting the day of resurrection. With that Pauline understanding in mind, one begins to understand why the image of the fish vomiting up Jonah should be a common image in a Christian cemetery. The fish, the savior figure, is projecting the believer into eternal life, after a time of resting in the belly of the fish.

Now I am not at all suggesting the author of Jonah was writing cryptic Christian theology. He was not. But it is easy to understand, however, how Christians can see in the Old Testament resonances with the gospel where others would not. 

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17 thoughts on “When Was Jonah Saved?

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