Jonah did not want to go to the Ninevites and preach doom. He feared that if God were to pardon them — as in his immense goodness he was wont to do — the pagans would be confirmed in their unbelief and would have contempt for the Lord’s threats and for the words of his prophets.
Impelled by the prophetic spirit, which was pressing upon him internally, Jonah said to God: Lord, this is a message that I cannot deliver, for I know that “you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and that you repent of evil” and are always ready to forgive men their iniquities (Jonah 4:2). You will once again pardon this unbelieving city. They will no longer listen to those who speak in your name. In vain will we make known the rigor of your judgments to Judah and Israel. Your ease and indulgence will harden men in their evil. O Lord, said Jonah, take my life, for “it is better for me to die” (Jonah 4:8) than to be found a lying prophet and to expose prophecy to derision.
In his extreme distress, not only did Jonah seek to avoid hearing the prophecy, but he fled from the Lord, taking ship at Joppa to go to the other end of the world. We must not persuade ourselves that the holy prophet believed that he could pass out of God’s sight or leave God’s empire by traveling to a far-off land. After all, we will soon hear him say to the mariners, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9).
Jonah knew full well that it was impossible to escape God’s power or to leave his kingdom. The face of God that he was attempting to flee, this presence that he wished to avoid, was the face that God shows interiorly to his prophets. This is the presence by which he enlightens their spirit when he sees fit to inspire them. This was the face that Jonah believed he could escape by separating himself from the Holy Land and from the people of Israel, where God had been accustomed to pour forth prophecy.
He fled, therefore, both the Holy Land and Nineveh at once, not believing that God would want to bring him back against his will. But he had no sooner gone on board when “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.”
While “each cried to his god” with horrible wailing, and they “threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea to lighten the load,” Jonah, without wondering at his great peril — for we often see that those strong souls who are under the hand of God fear nothing but him alone — went “down to the inner part of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep” (cf. Jonah 1:4-5). In this he was like Jesus, who, in a similar storm, slept peacefully on a cushion and allowed the waves to fill the boat in which he was with his disciples (Mark 4:37-38).
By a similar mystery, and to show that we have nothing to fear when God is with us, and that all we can do in any event is to abandon ourselves to his will, Jonah slept amid the wailing and the terrible clamor of the wind and waves until he was awakened — in just about the same manner the Savior was — when they said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish” (Jonah 1:6).
The hand of God never left his holy prophet. Jonah immediately sensed that the storm had been sent against him. Calmly he watched the passengers cast lots to discover the cause of the storm. He saw the lot fall on himself without fear, for he preferred to die than to prophesy, be contradicted, and see prophecy blasphemed (Jonah 4:3).
He spoke boldly to the mariners, who wished to spare him: “Throw me into the sea” without delay, “then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12). Astonished by his extraordinary calm, they respected him and, even more, the greatness of the God he served. They made their utmost effort to regain land without it costing his life. But the more they rowed, the more the sea rose, until they were constrained to throw Jonah into the sea, taking God as their witness that they drowned him only with regret and were innocent of his death. Immediately, the “sea ceased from its raging” (1:15). And here already, in prefigurement of our Savior, all the people were saved from death — as they believed — by the holy prophet, who had voluntarily offered himself for them. Yet this is not the whole of the mystery. The rest is explained by the Savior himself: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:39-40).
The spirit of prophecy did not abandon Jonah in the belly of that enormous fish, for he sang this divine canticle: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me . . . yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God” (Jonah 2:2, 5-6). “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (2:10), as a prefigurement of our Savior.
It did not belong to Jonah — who was only the prefigurement — to have all of the characteristics of the truth, nor to have that liberty with respect to death that was reserved to the Savior alone, nor to predict his own death and resurrection. But there is hardly anything that better resembles death and the tomb than the belly of that fish, nor is there a more vivid image of a true and perfect resurrection than the deliverance of Jonah.
Let us then adore the one who left “not an iota, not a dot” (Matt. 5:18) of either the prophets or the Law unaccomplished. Let us learn never to lose hope, no matter into what abyss of troubles we are cast, for Jonah came out of the belly of the whale, and Jesus Christ from the tomb and from hell, thus assuring his faithful ones of their own deliverance.
This article is a meditation found in Bp. Bossuet’s Meditations for Lent, which is available as a leatherette or ebook from Sophia Institute Press.