I have no idea what living for three days in the stomach of a fish would be like, but I can’t imagine it would be enjoyable. So Jonah 2:2 intrigues to me:

I called out of my distress to the Lord,

And He answered me.

I cried for help from the depth of Sheol;

You heard my voice.

This verse comes after Jonah has been swallowed by the fish God had prepared, but before “the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land” (2:10). I could understand such a triumphant, exultant, thankful tone coming from Jonah’s lips as he kissed the firm ground beneath him. But from the belly of the fish?

Perspective is key – alive in the stomach of a fish is better than dead on the bottom of the sea. Jonah had just been engulfed by the sea and tossed incessantly by the waves. Seaweed had encircled his face and his head throbbed with the pressure of sinking deep in the water. And while none of his cries would have been audible, he was desperately screaming out to God for help. And God heard. He heard the voice of His rebellious prophet, and He answered him! Jonah found himself in the stomach of a fish, and he rejoiced! He sang out a prayer of thanksgiving to God for graciously preserving his life.

Not only did God preserve his physical life, but God was drawing Jonah back to his presence. Chapter one makes it clear that Jonah was doing everything he could, not just to avoid Nineveh, but to go in the opposite direction God desired him to go – he was willfully fleeing “from the presence of the Lord” (1:1, 10). And in God’s immense love, not anger, he sent a storm. He ordained sailors to pick Jonah up and throw him into the foaming sea. And He prepared a great fish. So when Jonah was swallowed by the fish, he was brought to his divinely ordained place of repentance. The fish swallowing Jonah was not judgment; it was a supreme act of grace to a rebellious son.

God’s grace is often found in strange places – places that to other eyes might look like His condemnation. But He prepares great fish to swallow us so that we might call on him from their pitch-black bellies. He places us in places that might otherwise evoke a fist-shake towards heaven, but when He has made it clear that the alternative is the bottom of the sea, away from the presence of the Lord, then we kiss the rod and thank God that we have been swallowed. We fall on our knees in repentance, because the darkness helps us to see that we were willfully and foolishly running from the place we most want to be.