One of the best introductions to the little book of Jonah is given by a fictional preacher, “Father Maple,” of what is hailed by many as the great American Novel, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
“Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—‘And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.’ Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.”
Though immersed in nautical terms, though that novel centers on a whale, Father Maple gets closer than many to the true message of the book. Maple was a former whaler and knows more of what Jonah is about than we landlubbers who are preoccupied with the great fish.
Father Maple said Jonah teaches a two-stranded lesson. The first lesson concerns the sin and repentance of Jonah. The second he later says is “to preach the truth in the face of falsehood.”
Still, Father Maple misses the greatest point of this little book. Greater than Jonah’s sin and greater than Nineveh’s repentance is God’s mercy. God’s grace makes blue whales look smaller than the krill they feast on. God’s grace is so great, a multitude of blue whale-size sinners can swim and live in it.
G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.” The most astounding thing that happens in this book isn’t that God appoints a fish to swallow Jonah, but that he appoints His grace to swallow sinners. This is a whale of a tale, a big fish story—and it is true. God’s grace really is that big.