7th March 2021

Belly of the whale

In 1891, in the black, cold waters off the Falkland Islands, a whaling boat was attacked by a giant sperm whale. One of the sailors went missing. A day later—or a few days depending on who you ask—the whale was captured and its stomach cut open. Here’s a report from one of the sailors on deck: “Out came a boot on a trousered leg and there was James Bartley…”  

His skin was bleached white and he was nearly blinded by the digestive acids in the whale’s stomach. He went on to live another 18 years and now rests under a tombstone which reads, “James Bartley – a Modern Day Jonah.”

Well, whatever you might think of this fascinating story, it certainly sticks in   your mind. There’s been plenty of doubt cast on it, as well as several retellings that don’t quite add up, and yet it’s still an image that stays with us.

Almost everyone knows the story of Jonah and the whale—a story that should make us think and rethink about the way we look at God and the way we look at our place in the grand narrative of the world

.Jonah is unique because it is essentially a story of a story. Most prophet books are about the words the prophet brings. This book is about the prophet who brings the words. 

The wider context is important: Jonah was sent to Nineveh to tell them to repent. Nineveh was a sworn enemy of Israel. Jonah didn’t want to see them repent and be saved from destruction, so he fled to sea. When a violent storm arose, he told the sailors he was to blame and they should cast him overboard.

He was swallowed by a whale and regurgitated on land three days later. He fulfilled the mission he was given and then got angry when the city repented and God forgave them.

He screams out at God at the end of the book:

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah 4:1-2 (ESV)

Even after Jonah tried to commit suicide, God turns the whole thing on its head to get his merciful will done. The underlying message here is that God will use anything—even a lost whale with indigestion—to bring us, and others through us, to himself. That’s good news!

Have you ever been swallowed up? Spat back on the sand with your skin bleached white and your eyes nearly blinded? God can use every one of our belly-of-the-whale circumstances: addiction, challenging relationships, sickness, to meet us again and again. He can use anything to fulfill the purpose he has in you. 

So where and how is God meeting you?

Presented by Greg Williams


About the presenter:
Word of Life each Sunday is taken from ‘Speaking of Life’, (https://www.gci.org/videos/media-speaking-of-life/), a public resource video on the USA website of Grace Communion International. Greg Williams is President of Grace Communion International and lives in North Carolina, USA.

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