The story of Jonah is probably the most popular story in the Bible, and also the most misunderstood in regard to the facts of the story. Millions of Christians tell the popular story of how Jonah survived three days in the belly of a great whale. Unfortunately, the story of Jonah has been told from memory so long that few people have ever actually read the Bible story carefully to understand the facts of the story.
The facts of the story are very simple. Jonah was commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh and preach judgment, but Jonah ran away from God instead, and booked passage on a ship to Tarshish—an unknown city in the Mediterranean Sea. On the voyage to Tarshish, God caused a great storm on the Mediterranean Sea that caused Jonah to be cast into the sea. According to the Biblical text, Jonah drowned and even had seaweed wrapped around his head at the bottom of the sea. Yes, Jonah died in the sea! This is not only a rational and logical conclusion but a solid fact, for the Bible states unequivocally that Jonah died and descended into Sheol at the bottom of the mountains—NOT THE SEA. Sheol is the abode of the dead. The following Scripture passage confirms this sequence of events:
(Jonah 2:3-6 KJV) (3) For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. (4) Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. (5) The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. (6) I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.
Verse 5 above emphatically states that the waves surrounded him and even took his life (i.e., soul) as he was in the abyss of the sea. Verse 6 clearly states that Jonah went down to Sheol at the “bottoms of the mountains” and the bars of the earth closed around him forever. JONAH WAS DEAD!
The following two verses provide some very significant details to the story:
(Jonah 2:1-2 KJV) (1) Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly, (2) And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.
It is very important to note that verse 1 has Jonah praying to God from the belly of the fish. This is after the three days that Jonah spent in Sheol, and Jonah has been resurrected in the fish’s belly. In Jonah’s prayer after three days, he relates in verse 2 how he cried out to God from the belly of Sheol (translated “hell”) because of his affliction, and God heard his prayer. Jonah states in the last part of verse 2:6 above “yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God”. This is an explicit statement that God brought Jonah back to life from “corruption”. The Hebrew word for “corruption” means the grave or the pit. God brought Jonah back from death.
The following passage of Scripture in Jonah is highly significant, for it shows that Jonah repented of his disobedience just before he fell unconscious and died:
(Jonah 2:7-10 NASB) (7) "While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer came to Thee, Into Thy holy temple. (8) "Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, (9) But I will sacrifice to Thee With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD."
If it were not for Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2:2-9, we would not know for sure that Jonah had died in the sea and descended into Sheol at the foot of the mountains. We would also not know that Jonah repented of his unfaithfulness just before he died. God heard Jonah’s cries up from Sheol and brought him up from the grave in the fish’s belly. At the end of Jonah’s prayer from inside the fish, God causes the fish to vomit Jonah up upon dry land.
The true Biblical facts about Jonah’s death, burial and resurrection point to an important sequence of events in the New Testament. Jonah dies because of sin, and his spirit descends into Abraham’s bosom in Sheol, where it remains for three days and three nights. His body is entombed in the grave of the great fish’s belly for the same three days and three nights. After three days and three nights, Jonah is resurrected inside the tomb, and he promptly exits the tomb when the jaws of the great fish are miraculously opened.
This true story from the Old Testament clearly portrays the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself even confirms the story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jonah in the following Scripture:
(Mat 12:39-41 KJV) (39) But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: (40) For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (41) The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.
As stated by Jesus, the death, burial and resurrection of the prophet Jonah was the only sign the Jews would receive that Jesus is the true Messiah. The story of Jonah was a major type or picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus was real just as the death of Jonah was real. The burial of Jesus was real just as the burial of Jonah was real. The resurrection of Jesus was real just as the resurrection of Jonah was real. It is most interesting that the story of Jonah is doubted because it is difficult to believe that a man could survive three days in the belly of a whale. The truth of the story is that Jonah died before the great fish swallowed him. However, a more miraculous event occurred when Jonah was resurrected after three days. It is even more miraculous in that Jonah was resurrected while in the great fish, and was then vomited up as a living, breathing, human being. Thus, the story of Jonah is even more miraculous than most Christians understand.
God could have had the fish vomit up Jonah’s dead body onto the dry land and then resurrect him, but this would have spoiled the type. Jesus was resurrected while in the tomb, and then He exited the tomb as a living, breathing, human being when the great stone was miraculously rolled away. God is very particular about his types, as Moses found out when he struck the rock instead of speaking to the rock to get water.
Summary: In order to understand the facts of Jonah, it is necessary to read the prayer of Jonah very carefully in Jonah 2:2-9, and to distinguish between Jonah’s prayer inside the great fish after his resurrection, and Jonah’s description in his prayer of his cry out to God while in Sheol—the abode of the dead. Jonah relates the details of his cry out to God in vs. 2, his death in vs. 3-6a and his resurrection in vs. 6b.
The Word of God must be read and studied carefully to understand the details of Scripture.