We’ve all heard the stories about Jonah and the Whale. But in actuality, the stories should read “Jonah and the Great Fish.” The Bible never explicitly calls this fish a whale. It is simply described as a “great fish.”
“Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jonah 1:17
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matthew 12:40
Who Was Jonah?
The story of Jonah is told in the Book of Jonah. We can see Jonah’s attempted flight from God as an exact illustration of one of the qualities that a prophet or true leader must possess: selflessness.
Jonah was a prophet who had great success. Every time he shared the message of God’s word with his listeners, they were moved by his words of reproof and turned to God in repentance.
So why did he try to flee? Did he want the countries he addressed to disregard God’s word? Did Jesus really want to punish the Ninevites and not have them turn from their terrible ways?
A Lesson in Leadership
Jonah’s sensitivity to public opinion led to his flight. Jonah recognized what current statistics have demonstrated: the likelihood that a leader will become popular after he or she operates in that capacity is only about 8%!
To put it another way, leadership nearly always comes with the inherent risk of encountering contempt, ungratefulness, and estrangement from the people it serves.
Those who take on leadership roles out of a sense of superiority toward their followers ultimately fail in their endeavors. We are well aware of the abyss into which many charismatic leaders of the 20th century led their countries and the entire world, and it is true that many of them suffered from delusions of grandeur.
A lot of people want to be led by someone whose inflated ego will both flatter them and ignite their spirits. Although it may be enjoyable for the leaders, this kind of leadership is viewed as a false prophet. It does not move society in a safe, beneficial, or moral direction.
Self-Effacement in Jonah: A Leadership Quality?
In the story of Jonah and the great fish, the first time Jonah ran away from God, he said, “I am not worthy of glory or honor for I have many defects.” But God continues to seek Jonah out and believes that he is worthy and vital to the mission, precisely because of his unwillingness to accept the assignment.
As we may initially perceive him, Jonah is not unfit; rather, the self-effacement necessary for leadership is what drives the prophet to leave.
Jonah and the Great Fish: How Did He Get in There?
Jonah gets swallowed into the fish’s stomach at the beginning of the story, after first being nearly drowned by the sea. He is by himself in these locations, out of sight from the public, and aware that he is only a man. Even here, in this lonesome seclusion, the sense of mission and the call of God pursued him.
Despite the fact that Jonah is a man with worries, flaws, despair, and doubts, the ship’s captain recognizes Jonah’s special qualities and his capacity to calm the storm. For these reasons, he awakens Jonah and exclaims, “It is done!” “Just how do you sleep? Ask your God to change his mind so that we won’t perish by calling to him ” (1:5).
Jonah revealed his identity to the crew of the ship by saying, “I am a Hebrew and I fear God, Lord of the skies,” yet despite his awe of God, Jonah still felt ill-equipped to take on the challenging leadership role assigned to him.
The Belly of the Great Fish: Jonah’s Spiritual Growth
A third stage in spiritual growth is represented by the fish’s belly, where Jonah spent three days and nights after being swallowed. Being isolated from people helped Jonah prepare for the loneliness present in human society.
With the use of this skill, Jonah can complete his lonesome duty without being pulled behind by the herd. Jonah also felt closer to God within the fish than when he revealed his religion, identity, and country to the ship’s captain.
The prophet describes a relationship with God that is not merely intellectual but also more personal: “Out of my misery I called to God and He answered me” (2:3); “When my spirit died within me, I remembered God” (2:8).
In the process of the prophet’s growth and development, he experiences a spiritual reversal: from a logical understanding of God as the Creator, “who made the sea and the land” (1:9), Jonah eventually develops a strong, intimate relationship with Him.
The prophet now stands as a leader in front of the citizens of the large, brazen, corrupt city of Nineveh and confidently declares that “Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days.” This mature position is the outcome of a process of psychological and theological purification. People pay attention to Jonah precisely because of his mature personality.
Jonah’s Relapse into Resentment
5 “So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. 6 And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant.” Jonah 4:5-6
Why then does Jonah relapse into resentment once more, retreating into his solitude in the plant’s shade? After all, if the inhabitants of Nineveh truly “repented of their corrupt ways” (3:10), they obviously did not regard him and his predictions with contempt.
Jonah’s distancing from his audience was caused by their partial repentance more than the fact that they avoided punishment. True, the Ninevites somewhat turned away from their bad ways. Jonah would not have been worried by the horrible prophecy going unmet if their repentance had been pure. The people who turned to God as a result of him would then view him as a hero.
Depravity Persists Even After Jonah’s Warning
However, it appears from this story that the commonplace, everyday depravity persisted. Mockery of the unusual, fear of the lonesome, contempt for the frail, and displays of disdain for leaders are not regarded as grave moral wrongs but rather as the way of the world and a component of imperfect human nature.
The inhabitants of Nineveh may have stopped killing, pillaging, raping, paying bribes, and cheating, but they continued to practice the minor injustices that characterize human nature and occur on a daily basis.
Jonah, who experienced a protracted but comprehensive maturing process, fails to recognize God’s gracious acceptance of these human frailties. Jonah demands no partiality and no mercy. After having a profoundly personal encounter with God, he now seeks unwavering divine justice.
Jonah is, however, upset when the same God who sent him on this mission, does not carry out the full extent of moral justice. He is upset with God because of the lower level of goodness that God has compromised with.
Jonah presents us with the possibility of a forming hope and reconciliation, that is the spiritual shore he has reached; the conclusion of the prolonged and painful yet full and powerful process that a mature leader should reach, before he gives in to anger and depression after completing his mission.
In the end, God teaches Jonah that he should not have compassion on the city of Nineveh. (4:11). In other words, kindness is favored to severe justice as long as society upholds an acceptable standard of righteousness.
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.” Psalm 1:6
Jonah and the Great Fish: Following God’s Example
There are times when the leader must follow God’s example of restraint, pardon petty offenses, and turn a blind eye to minor transgressions. Preserving human life, which is most sacred, is the ultimate goal of this.
At the conclusion of the process the maturing leader went through, Jonah finally understands the proper balance of justice and compassion after experiencing himself the stages of loneliness, separation, closeness, responsibility, and disappointment.
Jonah also strikes a balance between intimacy and solitude, feels called to his mission yet feels unworthy of it. He is a self-taught prophet who lacks confidence in himself but tries his best.
He is a prophet who rises and falls, but who, throughout it all, learns new things about God and man, and who, as a result, is able to influence people and steer them away from wickedness, ultimately saving their lives.