I’m the Biggest Thing in This Whale

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

January 17, 2024

Scripture — Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (NRSV)

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.


Are you ready to be a messenger in the hand of God and an agent of God’s mercy?


When my oldest child, who is now nearly an adult, was a toddler, we used to go together to storytime at the library. One day the children’s librarian pulled out a bright green and blue book, then newly published, called I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean

In it, a squid swims around in the ocean reporting to the reader that he’s bigger than various other sea creatures—schools of smaller fish, sea turtles, other squid, and the like. Meanwhile, though he doesn’t realize it, a large whale is entering the picture behind him. The whale soon opens his mouth and swallows the entire group of sea creatures whole—including the squid. Undaunted, the squid looks around and, after a momentary pause, announces “I’m the biggest thing in this whale!”

I’ve started more than one sermon on Jonah by reading from that book. Jonah is one of the “minor prophets” in our Old Testament—called so not because he is less important, but because his book is smaller; it is one of the books which, in the Hebrew Bible, is gathered together into one book, the book of the Twelve Prophets.

If you read Jonah in comparison to the rest of the Twelve (or to the four “major prophets,” Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel), you will quickly see that the book of Jonah is notably different. Though many (not all) of the prophetic books do tell you something about the lives of the prophets involved, the majority of their bandwidth is dedicated to reports of the prophets’ prophecies. Jonah is different. It reads like a novel: it has a beginning, middle, and (sort of) an end. It has characters. It has plot twists. Jonah’s prophecy against Nineveh is mentioned, but only very briefly: we don’t really get much more than “In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).

In today’s reading, we join up with Jonah just after the thing he is most famous for—getting thrown overboard to spend three days in the belly of a “great fish” (1:17) after he runs away from God’s task for him to speak a prophetic word to Nineveh. In the belly of the fish (the Bible doesn’t call it a whale, but people often have in children’s sermons) he comes up with a pious-sounding prayer and says “What I have vowed I will pay” (2:9), and the fish releases him. But, as one of my seminary professors commented about that verse, Jonah never vows and he never pays.

Jonah does go to Nineveh the second time God calls, but when the Ninevites repent, Jonah actually gets mad about it, goes out of the city and sits under a gourd that God sends to give him shade, and then gets mad at the gourd when it dies. There we leave him, presented with the evidence of God’s mercy in sparing the city (4:11), and sulking.

In the whale, Jonah thought he was pretty big. He said all kinds of nice and pious things—some of them so nice that the early church later drew parallels between Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale and the three days Christ spent in the tomb before his resurrection. Out of the whale, Jonah was not ready to be a messenger in the hand of God and an agent of God’s mercy, especially not when he actually saw that mercy in action.

I think there’s a moral in there somewhere for the rest of us.


Where should you be showing mercy?


Since we’ve kind of been experiencing a children’s sermon today, what song can I share with you other than the famous VeggieTales one about Jonah—“God is a God of Second Chances”? Lyrics are here. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s kind of convicting, too.


Lord, may we be people who offer second chances to others. Amen.

Banner image by Robin Canfield on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: God’s Blessing for All Nations (Jonah 1:16, 3:1-4:2).

Subscribe to Life for Leaders

Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Editorial Coordinator

Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University; MSLIS, University of Illinois; MDiv/MA Asbury Theological Seminary) is the copyeditor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also senior editor of

More on Jennifer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Learn Learn Learn Learn

the Life for Leaders newsletter

Learn Learn Learn Learn