Did Jonah die in the belly of the fish?
The record of Jonah’s cry from the belly of the fish is:
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet shall I again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD.Jonah 2:1–9.
There are two phrases in this passage that might lead us to think that perhaps Jonah did actually die in the belly of the fish. In verse 2 we read “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” and in verse 6 we read “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” Sheol is a common name in the Old Testament for the grave. For example, Jacob four times said he would go to Sheol in sorrow over losing his son Joseph and at the prospect of losing Benjamin (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29; 44:31). The second phrase seems even more direct. Jonah said he “went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever”. The “bars” would prevent escape.
Nevertheless, we need to remember that this passage is used prophetically by the Lord. In Matthew 20:40, He specifically draws attention to Jonah being three days and nights in the belly of the great fish as speaking of His own burial. In such passages language is sometimes used poetically to indicate events of the future. In addition, we must allow the Holy Spirit to use common literary methods of emphasis. Figurative speech may be taken as an exaggeration or hyperbole if taken excessively literally. Yet, such exaggeration is important to properly convey the seriousness of the subject.
Another example is that of David in Psalm 22. The very well-known expression “my God my God why have you forsaken me” could not be true literally for David. God never forsook David. David only would have felt that way under certain circumstances and the spirit of God moved him to express those words prophetically. The Lord used that expression from the cross. In verse 3 of Psalm 22, we get the reason for the expression. “You are holy oh you that inhabit the praises of Israel.” That gives the solemn reason for the expression on the cross. There are many examples in the Psalms and elsewhere where the expressions go beyond the immediate context and we see in these expressions a prophetic fulfillment or serious expressions of judgment or blessing.
In the case of passages that are clearly of a poetical nature, an appeal might be made to “poetic license” to excuse non-literality in the language. But, this degrades the character of Scripture as even prophetic passages that are poetical are really history written before the fact. Even in strictly historic passages we find many expressions that are not literally true in the immediate context (Num. 13:32–33; 2 Sam. 2:18).
In addition, we need to recognize the historical context of passages. For example, we do not today expect to find a grave marker for Rachel’s grave in spite of the fact that Scripture clearly says that it remains “to this day” (Gen. 35:20). We also do not fault Scripture when it says that the famine in Joseph’s day was “over all the earth” (Gen. 41:57) when it affected “all Egypt and Canaan” (Acts 7:11; also Acts 11:28). We do not impose our modern conception of geography on Genesis. The lesson is that we need to be careful of “excessive literality” which would rob us of deeper lessons or create an occasion for doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture.
So, here in the case of Jonah, I think we can say that the language is intended to convey the experience of death and burial, but at the same time, this was not literally Jonah’s experience. The passage is intended to give us another picture of the death and burial of the Lord Jesus and this is shown by the Lord’s own use of this passage (Matt. 12:40). There is no need to assume that Jonah literally experienced death in this case.