The Fish Story

Unbelievers and skeptics abound when it comes to the book of Jonah, especially chapter two. It is often argued that it is impossible for a huge fish or a whale (we are not told exactly what it was) to swallow a man whole and keep him alive for three (3) days.

First, we do not know if it was a whale or not. The text literally just says that it was a “great [or “large”] fish. Logic would seem to require that whatever it was, it would have to be a mammal and breathe air in order for Jonah to have any air to breathe for three days and three nights. So let’s just assume that it was a whale, for the sake of argument.

Some say that it is impossible for a whale to swallow a man whole at all. That has been shown to be false. Some species of whale are known to swallow things much larger than a man. Sperm whales are known to sometimes swallow an entire squid whole.

Others say that even if a whale were able to swallow Jonah whole, there would be no way for him to be kept alive and unharmed in the belly of the whale for three (3) days and nights. There is at least one modern account of a sailor being swallowed by a whale and living to tell the tale.1 It was reported that in 1891 a sailor on a whaling ship called the “Star of the East” fell overboard and was later found alive and unconscious inside the whale’s stomach. But let’s give the skeptic his due. That sailor wasn’t inside that whale for three (3) days and nights, was he? And he was alive, but no completely none the worse for wear. He certainly wasn’t alert and praying (that we know of), like Jonah was.

So what do we say about Jonah and the whale? How is it possible?  The text plainly tells us, if we would take the time to see it.  Look at Jonah 1:17 again:

“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.”

It’s right there. It may sound like a cop-out or an easy answer, but it really is the answer, isn’t it? The LORD made it happen.

Is anything too difficult for the LORD?

How did the LORD create the heavens and the earth? He created them (the entire universe!) out of nothing, by simply speaking. “He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Hebrews 1:3 tells us that He also sustains all things “by the Word of His power.”

Ask yourself this? Why did God even bother using a fish to do it? He certainly didn’t need to, did He? Couldn’t He have just kept Jonah alive without using a secondary cause (the great fish) at all? Absolutely. (Of course, that would raise a whole new set of problems for the skeptics and scoffers, wouldn’t it?)

The real problem for the skeptics isn’t the great fish at all – it’s really the first three words of Jonah 1:17 – “And the LORD . . . .” If you really believe in God, then, by definition, you cannot rule out the miraculous. We are neither atheists (people who claim to not believe in God’s existence) nor deists (people who claim to believe in God’s existence, but prefer to think of Him as, for all intents and purposes, completely passive or inactive in the course of history and the affairs of men).

Do you know what a deist really is? A deist is nothing but an atheist who lacks the courage of his convictions (or lack of convictions). He wants to be able to say that he believes in God, but wants to be able to live as if God were not around. He is a practical atheist, isn’t he? To be fair, even believers sometimes act as if God were not there at times, don’t we? Let this be a lesson for us!

If you are a deist (or an Arminian, for that matter), the book of Jonah is going to be quite a bumpy road for you, isn’t it? Practically everything about the story of Jonah is intended to show us that the LORD is in control – that God is sovereign.

He is sovereign over big things and little things. He is sovereignly in control of a plant growing and being eaten by a worm in chapter 4, and He is sovereignly in control over the weather, the life or death of every individual in the story from the sailors to Jonah to the entire population of the city of Nineveh.

And He is also sovereign in the salvation of sinners throughout the story!

“Salvation is of the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9)

1  See The Minor Prophets Volume 1, p.284, by James Montgomery Boice.



  1. Great article! Jesus’ description of his being in the heart of the earth for 3 days and 3 nights, as Jonah was in the belly of the ‘whale’, gives even more evidence, that the account of Jonah is an historic fact and not just a myth.

    1. Exactly right! Those who deny the historicity of the account must basically call Jesus a liar. He clearly viewed Jonah, the great fish, and the great revival in Nineveh as historical facts.

      Thanks for your comment.

      – Andy

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