"I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and He answered me" (Jonah 2:2).
It was good for Jonah to be swallowed by the fish. Rarely will a person reach out for God as earnestly as when he is afflicted. There is something about the "comfortable" life that will lull us to sleep. When all is smooth and pleasant, the spiritual faculties hibernate; the sense of one's desperate need for God cools. But when we are thrown upon the storms of life, the crack of each wave against our face brings us back to our senses. That is why God out of His love does not let us go too long without some hardship to endure, without some difficulty to overcome. Jonah in this respect is the story of us all.
Jonah tried to escape when God spoke. He intentionally closed his ears; and during those days of escape, he probably slept and awoke each day without uttering a single prayer. Only the awful experience of the fish's belly could have turned Jonah around to utter a prayer so sincere in heart, so earnest to reach God, and so certain of His mercies. It is surely one of the greatest poems of the Bible. And its greatness is due to the fact that every person who reads it may say that it expresses quite accurately the distress of a heart in dire trouble. It is as great as the Psalms indeed it is very probably a personal adaptation of several Psalms Jonah had memorized as a young Israelite boy.
The sense of having waters drowning the soul and of weeds wrapped around the head (Jonah 2:5), of being buried under mountains and imprisoned under the earth (Jonah 2:6), expresses the ultimate depths of human woe.
Yet as soon as it feels buried, the soul looks upward for its salvation is near. While Jonah enumerates his pains, there is yet a sense of hope, a faithful conviction that God has already answered his plea for help even as still in the belly of the fish. "You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God" (Jonah 2:6). It was a deep, dark pit, in which Jonah lay immobilized three days, from which he uttered prayers of the heart, since prayers of the voice were impossible. Yet spiritual light shone in that deep darkness. The black void was penetrated by an inner radiance from heaven. Though Jonah tried to flee from God, he knew God was now by his side.
There are many today, not only atheists but also biblical scholars who like to vaunt their "scientific" approach to religion and the Bible who dismiss the book of Jonah as merely a moral fable weaved together from old pagan myths. "Those who do not know God will ask," says St. Cyril, "how was Jonah preserved in the fish? How was he not consumed? How did he endure the natural heat, and live, surrounded by such moisture, and was not rather digested? For this poor body is very weak and perishable. But if God be declared its Author, who would any more disbelieve? For God is all-powerful, and He transforms easily the nature of things to what He wills, and nothing can resist His ineffable will" (Jon. C. 2. beg.).
Besides the inconsistency of denying Jonah's miracle but believing other "more acceptable" miracles of the Bible; and besides the absurdity of denying to the Creator of all sea creatures the ability to alter the digestive enzymes and oxygen levels of a single fish besides these things, we are fortunate enough to have the testimony of some very interesting modern cases of fish-swallowing, gathered by the eminent scholar E. B. Pusey. He writes:
A natural historian of repute relates, In 1758 in stormy weather a sailor fell over from a frigate in the Mediterranean. A shark was close by, which, as he was swimming and crying for help, took him in his wide throat, so that he forthwith disappeared. Other sailor had leaped in the sloop, to help their comrade...The captain had a gun which stood on the deck discharged at the fish, which struck it so, that it cast out the sailor which it had in its throat, who was taken up, alive and little injured...The fish was harpooned, taken up on the frigate, and dried. The captain made a present of the fish to the sailor who, by God's providence, had been so wonderfully preserved. The sailor went around Europe exhibiting it...It was 20 ft long, and with expanded fins, 9 ft wide, and weighed 3924 pounds... From all this, it is probable that this was the fish of Jonah.'
In the Mediterranean there are traces of immensely large species of fish, now extinct. Sailors have found the fossiled remains of fish with as many as 400 teeth, some reaching a length of 6 inches. If one were to calculate the size of the throat needed to hold so many teeth, it ought to be at least 8 to 10 feet wide. There was one fish taken up in the 19th century near the island of St. Marguerite, weighing 1500 pounds. On opening it, the sailors found a horse quite whole, which had been thrown overboard from a previous ship. (Pusey, Comm. on Jon.).
As Dr. Pusey remarks, such facts ought to shame those who speak of the miracle of Jonah's preservation in the fish as a thing less credible than any of God's miraculous acts. The creation of the universe, of the whole solar system, or of a fly, are all alike to Him, which are simple acts of His divine will. "He spoke, and it was done" (Psalm 33:9). We ought to marvel at the loving wisdom of God in the way He chastises His saints, and the patient and faithful praise of a man hymning from the belly of Sheol (Jonah 2:2).