Jonah in Sheol
When Jonah was cast into the sea—at his insistence—it represented more than the death of Christ. It also prophesied of the rejection of Christ, that is, being “cast out.” We cannot separate His rejection from His death, because without being rejected, they never would have crucified Him. His death was necessary to solve the problem of the troubled sea of humanity and the divine judgment.
Furthermore, the crew then “offered sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (Jonah 1:16), and this prophesied the conversion and restoration of the nations back to God. Since these were non-Israelites offering sacrifice to the God of Israel, it shows that the scope of this restoration is universal, not just national.
This scene also foreshadowed the conversion of the city of Nineveh as well, which gives us the result of the work and the climax of the prophecy itself. The people of Nineveh were not Israelites.
Jonah’s Prayer in Sheol
The second chapter of Jonah gives his prayer in the great fish. Jonah 2:1, 2 says,
1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish, 2 and he said, “I called out of my distress to the Lord, and He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; Thou didst hear my voice.”
Since Jonah wrote his testimony afterward, he was able to tell the readers that God heard him and answered his prayer.
The belly (meah, “inward parts”) of the fish is called “the depth of Sheol.” The Hebrew word sheol is often translated “hell,” but it is better rendered “grave, a pit where the dead are placed.” The old English word “hell” originally referred to a “covering,” still seen in our word helmet (covering for the head). Farmers used to hell potatoes, putting them in the root cellar for storage. A helot is a serf or bondsman, one who is under authority, or covered by a master or owner.
The Hebrew word sheol is translated into Greek as hades in the Septuagint. Hence, the New Testament uses hades as the equivalent for sheol in the Old Testament. Paul uses the term just once in all of his letters: 1 Cor. 15:55 (KJV),
55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave [hades], where is thy victory?
Paul speaks much of death itself, but he has nothing to say about hades, other than to treat it as a defeated foe. This is, perhaps, unfortunate from our point of view, for much misunderstanding has arisen as the church redefined hell from a grave to a place of burning torment.
Yet we see no such burning in Jonah’s sheol. It merely represents the place of death. Some insist that Jonah had to truly die in order to be a type of Christ, but it is hardly necessary to take the metaphor that far. Likewise, to try to prove from Jonah’s experience that the dead are conscious goes beyond the scope of the prophecy.
As for Jesus’ experience in fulfilling the prophecy, we read in The Emphatic Diaglott Peter’s words in Acts 2:29-32,
29 Brethren! I may speak to you with freedom concerning the patriarch David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is among us to this day. 30 Being, therefore, a prophet, and knowing that God swore to him with an oath that of the fruit of his loins he would cause one to sit upon his throne; 31 foreseeing he spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not left in hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 But God raised up this Jesus, for which we are Witnesses.
The Diaglott says in its interlinear text that hades means “invisibility.” The Concordant Version’s notes say that it is more than invisibility. They use the term “imperceptible,” to exclude all forms of sensation when speaking of death.
Of course, because it is the soul (not the spirit) that goes to sheol or hades, the terms apply to soulish perceptions that include the five senses. The soul does indeed die, as we read in Ezekiel 18:4, “the soul who sins will die.” It is not merely the body that dies, but the soul as well, because the soul is fleshly and is the identity of the first Adam who was condemned to death in Gen. 2:17, where God said, “you will surely die.”
The spirit, on the other hand, returns to God, for Eccl. 12:7 says,
7 Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
We are spirit, soul, and body, and each has a conscious mind of its own. The body has a brain; the soul has a fleshly mind, and the spirit has a spiritual mind. The consciousness of the body and soul die, but the conscious mind of the spirit does not suffer the same fate, but returns to God, its place of origin. Death is a return to the place where each part of our being originated.
The soul came into being when the breath (Spirit) of God was breathed into the dust of Adam’s body. When the Spirit leaves the body, death occurs, for James 2:26 says, “the body without the spirit is dead.” When the spirit leaves the body, the soul returns to the state of imperceptibility, or hades. This part of us cannot regain conscious perception until the resurrection, when spirit and body are again reunited to bring forth a new soul. This new soul will remain in its rightful place that is subordinate to the spirit’s authority.
So Jonah, the type of Christ, was raised up from Sheol, as he says. His “resurrection” from the belly of the fish and the watery grave prefigured Christ’s own resurrection in fulfillment of the oath that God made to David not to be left in sheol/hades. That oath applied to David as well as to Jesus, and it applies also to all mankind (Rev. 20:5, 12).
Cast into the Deep
Jonah 2:3 continues,
3 “For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me. All Thy breakers and billows passed over me.”
The term “heart of the seas” is used often in Ezekiel 27 and 28 when speaking of the overthrow of the king of Tyre. On the surface, it refers to the “midst” of the sea, as it is translated in the KJV. But on a deeper level, it suggests that the king of Tyre was seated in the heart of the sea of nations, for Rev. 17:15 says that the waters “are peoples and multitudes, and nations and tongues.” Hence, this king and his prideful actions represent the heart of all fleshly nations that know not God.
So Jonah was cast into the heart of the seas, where the king of Tyre was also pictured metaphorically. He was cast into sheol, where all sinners go, not only on account of his personal sin, but as a representative of the nation of Israel, which was soon to be cast out as well and swallowed up by Nineveh, or “Fish City.”
Yet the good news is that on another level Jonah also represented Christ, who was cast into sheol to pay the penalty for the sin of Israel and also the whole world (1 John 2:2).
Death is a time of breaking. So Jonah 2:3 says, “All Thy breakers and billows passed over me.” The Hebrew word translated “breakers” is mishbar, from the root word shabar, “to break, break in pieces.” It is an interesting word choice, because Jonah’s self-will was being broken as well.
The New Testament teaching about putting the old man to death, or crucifying the flesh, is really about breaking the will of the old man of flesh in order to subordinate it to the will of the spiritual man, that is, the New Creation Man. So when we ourselves die to the flesh, God’s “breakers” come to break the fleshly will.
Expulsion and Hope
Jonah 2:4 says,
4 “So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Thy sight. Nevertheless, I will look again toward Thy holy temple.’”
In the middle of the sea, far from his homeland, far from the temple in Jerusalem, Jonah must have felt lost. He knew by this time that he had done wrong, and he had every reason to be full of despair at his hopeless situation. Yet in spite of everything, Jonah had the revelation that the God of Israel was a God of mercy. Somehow he knew too that God was not finished with him.
To look toward the temple probably means to reach out to the God from whom he had been fleeing. In other words, at that point he stopped running. He could go no further, for he had reached the end of himself. He was trapped, and any hope of reaching Tarshish was gone. Perhaps this also means that he had revelation that he would again see the temple in Jerusalem. We do not know.
Meanwhile, however, by all natural perception, Jonah’s condition was hopeless. Jonah 2:5 says,
5 “Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head.
Jonah had “weeds” wrapped around his head. Jesus had “a crown of thorns” (Matt. 27:29). Jonah 2:6 continues,
6 I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars [beriyach, “bolt, crossbeam, bar on a gate”] was around me forever [olam], but Thou hast brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”
Jonah was “behind bars” in the sense that he was unable to extract himself from the situation. The pit was so deep that he could see “the roots of the mountains.” He was there “forever,” say many translations. The Hebrew word olam, however, does not mean “forever.” It comes from the root word alam, “to hide.”
Olam is a hidden, or unknown period of time. It is indefinite, not infinite. In this case, olam was just three days. But Jonah did not know how long he would remain in the grave, for his time in the fish was hidden from him. No doubt, after he reached the shore, he was able to figure out that he had been in the fish for three days.
Perhaps Jonah used the word olam to suggest a double meaning. When he was in the heart of the seas for a hidden period of time, he was also alone and hidden from the sight of all men. Yet hope remained, though hidden in his heart until that moment.
Jonah 2:7 says,
7 While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to Thee, into Thy holy temple.
As Jonah was losing consciousness, his thoughts turned to the temple of God in Jerusalem. He prayed toward that temple in his mind, and the Lord heard his prayer. It was as if Jonah had come to the temple, though he was far away in the middle of the sea. Perhaps he had an out-of-body experience, where his spirit was taken to the temple in Jerusalem, leaving his body behind.
Mercy and Correction
Jonah 2:8 continues, quoting from the KJV,
8 They that observe lying vanities [empty vanity or vain idols] forsake their own mercy [chesed].
Dr. Bullinger’s note says this about the Hebrew word chesed (or hesed):
mercy. Heb. hesed. A homonym with two meanings: (1) lovingkindness… and (2) correction, or chastisement… a wicked thing bringing down punishment.
In Gen. 24:12, Abraham’s steward prays to “show chesed to my master Abraham.” It was a prayer for lovingkindness or mercy, not a prayer for correction.
But in Lev. 20:14, chesed is translated “wickedness” (KJV) or “immorality” (NASB) that was to be judged or corrected. The word is used again in Lev. 20:17, where the NASB renders it “disgrace.”
Jonah uses the term to express a dual idea. First, those who depend upon vain idols (or heart idols) forsake the mercy and lovingkindness of God—as he himself had already done. The idol in his heart had caused him to flee, rather than to preach the word to Nineveh. He did not want Nineveh to see the lovingkindness of God (Jonah 4:2). He wanted God to judge Nineveh.
Hence, the first lesson (warning) is that heart idolatry prevents us from understanding the merciful nature of God. When men do not understand the nature of God, they tend to be judgmental of sinners that surely ought to be judged!
The second lesson is that those who have heart idols forsake God’s correction through discipline or judgment. In other words, they refuse to be corrected. In Jonah’s case, he refused correction until he knew that he must be cast into the sea.
An idol of the heart is any hidden motive or desire that prevents us from seeing truth or from seeing God as He really is. Incorrect or distorted views about God’s law, judgment, and the mercy factors built into the law (such as the Jubilee) are all evidence of heart idolatry. To overthrow such idols requires exposing the problem, for once a person sees the problem, the idols come crashing down. Heart idols require secrecy to retain control. Once they are known, they lose their grip upon the hearts of men.
The Revelation of Jonah
This lesson in Jonah 2:8, which is bound up in the homonym of chesed, is perhaps the main theme, lesson, and purpose of the book of Jonah. The book is about the mercy of God toward Nineveh, and the purpose of correction and judgment. The judgments of God are not meant to destroy but to correct. For this reason Isaiah 26:9 says, “for when the earth experiences Thy judgments, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”
Judgment does not come from a vindictive God, nor from a God of Justice apart from mercy and love. Certainly God is just, but insofar as His nature is concerned, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Hence, all of His judgments, first and foremost, are applied by a God of Love. God has built the law out of the principle of love, which never ends and which always finds a way to succeed in the end.
So, as we will see, the entire city of Nineveh is shown the mercy and love of God. Jonah still had a problem with this, because He believed in the justice of God, but he still disagreed with the universal application of God’s love and mercy.
To truly understand the lesson from Jonah, we must see that the judgments of God are remedial and corrective. They are designed to destroy sin and flesh in order to restore all men back to God. The success of this divine goal does not depend upon the will of man, nor does it depend on how well men fulfill their callings. Success is based fully on the ability of God to fulfill His vows, oaths, and promises.
Those who see the divine plan only in terms of men’s ability to fulfill their vows of obedience cannot understand how God could actually save all of creation. They usually believe that God COULD do it, but that He has restricted His power by delegating “free will” to mankind and making their salvation dependent upon their own choices.
Such a plan, of course, would have no chance of succeeding. But fortunately, though God has indeed delegated authority, He has never given away His sovereignty. His promises do not depend on the will of man, but solely upon His own will.
The book of Jonah, then, is really about the Restoration of All Things, which appears in Scripture from the beginning, but which was hardly understood until the apostles wrote of it. The coming of Christ and the work He did on the cross was the most important step that God took by the counsel of His own will to intervene in history.
This was not the only intervention, however, for He did not leave the fate of the world in the hands of imperfect men. He will continue to intervene. There will be a second coming, accompanied by a resurrection of overcomers. Later, at the Great White Throne, He will summon all of the dead and reveal Himself to all. Then every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess Him as Lord (Phil. 2:10, 11).
In other words, they will all submit to the righteous judgment of the “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2, KJV). They will not avoid judgment, but yet they will learn righteousness (Isaiah 26:9) during that final Age.
At the end of that Age of Judgment, there will be a Creation Jubilee at the end of time, where all sin-debt will be canceled, so that all of creation can be set free into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). Then all things will be put under His feet so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28), and this will be the point in time when the rest of God’s promises are fulfilled.
Jonah 2:9 says,
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.
Jonah was in no position to make a sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem. But he knew that God accepted sacrifices of thanksgiving—even from the belly of the whale. He knew that God placed no value on animal sacrifices in themselves. He knew that true sacrifice came from the heart. Hence, what he could do, that he did.
Hosea 6:6 (KJV) says,
6 I desire mercy [chesed] and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
Isaiah 1:11 echoes this, saying,
11 “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of cattle. And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.”
Jonah understood this. He knew that he did not have to go to Jerusalem to make a sacrifice, nor did he need to offer the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats for God to hear him. Even more important is the fact that Jonah offered “the voice of thanksgiving.” There, in the belly of the great fish, lost at sea, he gave thanks to God, and his sacrifice was accepted!
No wonder the apostle Paul instructed us in 1 Thess. 5:18, “in everything give thanks.” It takes real faith to thank God for everything. We often remember to thank God for the good things in life—and so we should—but the most valuable thing in the world is thanksgiving for adversity in our lives. Such faith goes against human nature. It is, in fact, an act of spirituality from the New Creation Man.
Jonah 2:9 says, “Salvation is from the Lord.” The Hebrew word translated “salvation” is yeshua, which is Jesus’ Hebrew name. Every time the word yeshua is used in the Old Testament, it is a prophetic reference to Jesus in some manner.
This was understood by Simeon, when he took Jesus in his arms and said in Luke 2:29, 30,
29 Now, Lord, Thou dost let Thy bond-servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; 30 for my eyes have seen Thy salvation.
When Simeon laid his eyes upon Yeshua-Jesus, the promise of God was fulfilled to him, for his eyes had seen God’s Yeshua.
Later, John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. Luke 3:6 says,
6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Indeed, all flesh will see the Yeshua of God. They will recognize Him as King. They will confess Him as Lord. They will bow their knees to Him in the end. It is written.
Jonah 2:10 concludes the chapter, saying,
10 Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.
This was the prophet’s resurrection to newness of life.