This lesson demonstrates how and why God is willing to discipline His children in order to teach them and bring them to maturity. Jonah discovers not only that God prepared a ministry for him, but God prepared a contingency plan to save the ministry—and the minister.

In the seventeenth verse of Jonah, chapter one, the scene changes from a ship to a fish—a great fish prepared by the Lord for a specific purpose. It is quite evident that the Lord is not finished dealing with his servant. The Lord prepared a fish to swallow him up.

There is no story in all the Bible that has caused so much derision, mockery, and blundering exposition as the story of Jonah and the whale.  In many areas of biblical study, secular research often brings historical data alongside the Scriptures to shed modern light on ancient events. While we don’t wait for this evidence before we believe the Bible (we believe the Bible because it is the Word of God), discoveries often marvelously confirm that which many felt to be fanciful or mythical. The biblical story of a fish swallowing a man is that kind of event. Our own research in biblical or non-biblical books will give us pages of detail about actual cases of fish large enough to swallow humans, and of humans who were swallowed by fish and lived to tell about it!

Consider the 100-foot-long sulphur bottom whale caught off Cape Cod in 1935, with a mouth 12 feet wide, and multiple stomach compartments large enough for several men. This mammal is know to be able to disgorge offending stomach contents just as Jonah was disgorged by his great fish.

Records exist of an English sailor who fell overboard in the English Channel, was swallowed by a monstrous whale shark, and was found alive when the shark was caught 48 hours later. There was a similar experience of another sailor on a whaling ship near the Falkland Islands who was swallowed by a giant whale but found alive when the whale was harpooned and cut open a number of hours later.

Interesting as these stories are, they really are not the point. We do not need the records of natural man to prove to us that a sovereign God can create, and direct, the elements of His creation to accomplish His purposes.

If we do not believe that God could, and did, prepare a giant fish to discipline a prophet, then we will have trouble believing as well that a dead man named Jesus of Nazareth came back to life.

Don’t forget—it is the three days of Jonah in the belly of a great fish that Jesus used to predict His own resurrection after three days. Jesus said it, we believe it, and that settles it.

Trusting the “how” to God, let’s move ahead and discover the “what” and the “why” behind this marvelous account.

God Prepared the Great Fish to Rescue Jonah from Drowning

Jonah thought his life was over. As we read into Jonah’s prayer, we hear what was going through his mind as he splashed into the cold waters of the Mediterranean Sea:

17  And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah’s Prayer
1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3  For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4  Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5  The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6  at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
7  When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8  Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9  But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Jonah Goes to Nineveh
1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”
– Jonah 1:17-3:2 ESV

Wow! Jonah is in serious trouble, about to drown. But the great truth of Romans 11:29 saved Jonah’s life: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Jonah had been called by God and had not yet completed his assignment!

But even beyond his mission to Nineveh, there was another calling of God on Jonah’s life—and that was to know and submit to his God. And he could not do that as a dead man. So, first and foremost, God sent a great fish to rescue Jonah to keep him alive. God was not finished with him yet.

God Prepared the Great Fish to Return Jonah to Nineveh

Jonah was running as fast as he could from Nineveh—and from God. He thought he had himself covered when he ended up in the ocean, then in the belly of a giant fish, then on a sandy beach. Just as he opened his eyes and was trying to figure out where he was, God’s voice came to him again: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2). Same song, second verse. All Jonah’s trouble was for nothing. God picked up the conversation exactly where he left it before Jonah started running.

We can’t outrun God. When God has a purpose for us, He will get that purpose accomplished. We say, “God, your plan is not good for me. That’s not what I want for my life.” And God says,

I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope – Jeremiah 29:11

God knows what is best for our lives, and it was best for Jonah—and for the Assyrians—that Jonah go to Nineveh.

What are some reasons you can think of why God would rescue a believer out of a difficult situation in life?

God Prepared the Great Fish to Reach Jonah’s Heart

Jonah was a prodigal prophet who had run away from God, and though he didn’t end up in a pigpen like the New Testament prodigal son, he arrived in something very similar—actually, much worse. God is not above designing classrooms for His students that are attention-getting (to say the least). Jonah’s classroom was totally dark, burning with digestive acids, slimy, filled with decomposed sealife, gurgly, and constantly in motion. And while we might consider his condition as being almost unbearable, something tells me that you and I have experienced the same “I’m about to die” feelings in some of the classrooms God has designed for us.

What is the most difficult situation that God ever rescued you from? What did you learn in the process of waiting, and then from His rescue?

One thing makes Jonah’s classroom a lot like ours: God has our undivided attention so that we are ready to listen and learn. Before the end of Jonah’s three-day session, he realized the foolishness of his mistake in running away from God. God was doing major surgery on Jonah’s heart, and it is futile to run while on the operating table.

What indications has He given you concerning His direction for you? What has been your response to His leading?

Have you been tempted to go in a different direction? Why or why not?

About the only thing one can do is respond to God, otherwise known as prayer. Jonah had passed up numerous opportunities to pray before now. In fact, everyone on the ship was praying but Jonah. First, the sailors on the ship prayed to their gods. Then the captain asked Jonah to pray (which we have no record of his doing). Then the sailors started praying to the true God, and then they sacrificed and made vows to God. Still, not a word from Jonah. Not even an “Amen.” Until, verse 2:1 when he is in the belly of the great fish. Finally, Jonah begins to pray.

We do everything we can to get our own way and to make ourselves look good. We may know in our hearts we did the wrong thing, but we keep trying to fix it and make it better. We will do anything until we just hit the wall and God has to say to us, “OK, that’s it!” Then we pray.

We try everything in our own strength until we realize we can’t do it, and then we pray. Maybe it’s just part of our fallen nature that we have to be driven to pray. God wants us to pray, and so He puts us in situations in which we have no choice but to pray. Even if it’s from the belly of a fish, at least Jonah is ready to pray.

Have you ever noticed some of the strange places where prayer meetings happen in the New Testament? In Acts 16, Paul and Silas had a prayer meeting at midnight in jail. Daniel no doubt had a prayer meeting when he found himself in a lion’s den (Daniel 6:22). And the Lord Jesus told the story about a rich man who started praying in hell (Luke 16:24). It is interesting how God has to work on us to make us people of prayer. Whatever it is that God is doing in our lives, however He is working in us, we need to learn everything we can before the pressure is on.

God Prepared the Great Fish to Recommission Jonah for Service

God commissioned Jonah for service, and Jonah didn’t accept his commission. But now, after being in school for three days, Jonah is ready to be recommissioned. The ultimate purpose God had for Jonah wasn’t just to save him from drowning. God had a plan for his life, and he wanted that plan to be worked out. Therefore, Jonah is set back on the original path that God had placed him on—the path to Nineveh.

What does discipline communicate to a child?

What does lack of discipline communicate to a child?

If God disciplines you, what does that imply about His feelings toward you?

The particular method of discipline that God used in Jonah’s life may never be found in your life or mine. But discipline of one sort or the other will be. Regardless of the manner of God’s discipline, the fact of the matter is that if we ever run from God’s call or commission, we can be certain that He will be looking to recommission us in His service. Let’s look at the characteristics of God’s discipline, regardless of the method He uses.

God Prepares Loving Discipline Perfectly Suited for Us

God’s Discipline Is to Prove that He Loves Us

When I say that God loved Jonah, you might say, “Well, he sure had a funny way of showing it.” No, God loved Jonah. If He hadn’t loved Jonah, he would just have let him drown, or he could have killed him on the spot when he didn’t do what he was told. But God patiently disciplined Jonah so that he would come to trust in the directives of God. What is going on in the Book of Jonah is a picture of God’s faithfulness and patience with a runaway prophet?

Why do you think we don’t naturally respond when God gives us His directions or instructions?

Why do you think affliction is such a good teacher in the spiritual life?

What kind of insights can we get from these following verses from Psalm 119?

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. – Psalm 119:67

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. – Psalm 119:71

I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. – Psalm 199:75

When I was a little boy I learned an interesting concept, you might have similar experiences. When I had a boat on a pond and it began drifting away from the shore, an older boy noticed and came to help me. He began tossing stones on the far side of the boat, and the ripples from the stones began pushing the boat back toward us.

That’s how God’s discipline is. When we drift away from him on the sea of sin or the pond of unrighteousness, He throws the disturbing stones of His loving discipline out beyond us and pushes us back to our first love. That’s why Hebrews 12:6 reminds us that God’s discipline is his love:

5And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children?* He said, “My child, don’t make light of the LORD’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. 6 For the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” – Hebrews 12:5-6 NLT

And when you go through discipline, you ought to look up to God and say, “Lord, I know if you didn’t love me, you wouldn’t do this.”

God’s Discipline Presents to Us a Realistic Picture of Ourselves

Until we are faced with the consequences of what we do wrong, we won’t even admit it to ourselves. We are the most marvelous people at rationalizing wrongdoing. In our culture, absolutes are almost gone. We face a major problem in the church today with people doing what is absolutely wrong and having a good case for why it is not so bad. Until we face the penalty for our wrongdoing, we often won’t face up to ourselves.

What is the value to the believer of coming face to face with his own sin?

What do you realize about your relationship with God when you see your sins?

How do you view Christ’s death on the cross when you see your sins?

I think Jonah probably had a good case for not being the right man for the Assyrian job until situation became real to him in the belly of the fish. Then he started to say, “Well, maybe I am the right man for the job after all.” Some people think that this type of foxhole conversion isn’t genuine. But just because we say “Yes” to God under pressure doesn’t mean we aren’t being honest. It means we had to get to “Yes” the hard way, but we got there all the same.

God’s Discipline Produces a Great Maturity in Us

There is a real case made in the New Testament that without discipline there is no growth, no real maturity. In fact, one of the reasons for God’s discipline is that we might share in “His holiness”

For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. – Hebrews 12:10 NLT

I find that one of the most amazing verses in the Bible. He disciplines us for our profit or benefit. And what is the benefit? Sharing in His holiness! Now, turn that concept around and ask yourself, Would I share in His holiness if He didn’t discipline me? Well, we don’t have a verse that answers that question, but the implication is pretty strong that we would not.

God’s Discipline Provides a New Start for Us

In Jonah 3:1 we read: “Now, the Word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time.… ” Aren’t you glad He is the God of the second chance? He may have to work us over to get us ready for chance number two, but God doesn’t give up on us. As badly as Jonah messed up, God didn’t throw him away. Aren’t you glad God doesn’t throw us away? Who of us would be here today if He did?

Remember: regardless how God’s discipline comes, it comes because He loves us, wants to show us ourselves, wants to share His holiness, and wants to give us another chance. That’s the inside story from one who knows.

Jeremiah, D. (1998). The runaway prophet: jonah (Study guide) (pp. 35–39). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.