Jonah Is No Enigma
One day a small group of Pharisees and scribes approached Jesus saying, "Master, we would see a sign from you."
Jesus knew what they were up to, and that it didn't have anything to do with coming to faith. He thundered back at them.
An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given it but the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the son of man be three days and nights in the heart of the earth!
What in the world was he talking about? How was the swallowing up of an Old Testament prophet a sign to anyone let alone these Pharisees and scribes some four hundred years after the fact? Jesus' diatribe has left more than a few Bible scholars scratching their heads.
The whale account itself is cryptic; a prayer sandwiched between two short verses.
Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and nights. Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, 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.
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.
Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight;
yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
the depth closed me round about,
the weeds were wrapped about my head.
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.
When my soul fainted within me
I remembered the LORD:
and my prayer came in unto thee,
into thine holy temple.
They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay that that I have vowed.
Salvation is of the LORD.
And the Lord spoke unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
Here is one what leading Bible commentary (one of my favorites, by the way, but not for Jonah) deduced from the episode.
The psalm slows down the movement of the plot, heightens the irony, and complicates the character portrayal of Jonah. It shows how distorted is his perception of reality. Contrary to the narrative, he asserts that Yahweh has sought to destroy him, that he has shown true piety in the midst of calamity, that he projects a voice of thanksgiving, and that he has been delivered from danger. The psalm also evinces Jonah’s self-centeredness. The first-person singular as subject, object, and possessive dominates throughout. His arrogance peaks when he contrasts himself favorably with idol worshipers. This reference sends the reader back to the sailors and forward to the Ninevites, the two non-Hebraic groups in the story who are outside the “loyalty” (ḥesed) of Yahweh. The depiction of them in the narrative belies Jonah’s characterization of them in the psalm. Appearing between the genuine worship of the sailors and of the Ninevites, the psalm offers counterfeit piety from loquacious Jonah.
The closing line, “Deliverance belongs to the LORD!” (2:9) elevates the dissonant tone. If isolated, this sentiment might capture a dominant message of the book, but when spoken by Jonah it has a nauseating effect. So Yahweh spoke to the fish and “it vomited Jonah” (2:10). At the end, the psalm plays a role in delivering the fish from an indigestible burden, a deliverance that allows the narrative to begin a second time.
With that, you could imagine the Pharisees looking at each other thinking "Why is he so worked up about such a conceited, low-life?"
The reason so many preachers and Bible scholars steer off into oblivion with Jonah is because they've failed to take Jesus' own words at face value. In short, they have refused to believe the inspired narrative. Jesus said he'd be in the heart of the earth just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish. Once you understand Jonah as a type of the Lord (type meaning that by which something is symbolized) the story of prophet-in-the-belly-of-hell explodes with unmistakable meaning and prophecy both for those first-century Pharisees and for us who stand on the other side of resurrection.
When Jesus flung the sign of Jonah at the Pharisees, they knew exactly what he was saying—God was going to raise a faithful Israelite out of Sheol who was going to take the gospel to the nations (Gentiles) with or without them.
Note: Look for our upcoming series of podcasts on Jonah.