We don’t often talk about it, but the earth’s gastro-intestinal health is of great importance. Beginning with the murder of Abel, this image traces through many significant events in the history of Israel, including the defeat of Pharaoh’s armies at the exodus and the sin of Korah. The psalmists employ this language routinely throughout the Psalter, the prophets prophesy with these pictures, and the dragon in Revelation spends a significant amount of time in the earth’s disproportionately long digestive track. This image often simply portrays death—the earth swallows people into Sheol, whether it wants to or not—but there are a couple times when the earth gets a bad case of indigestion and vomits its meal back up.
The most obvious case is the resurrection of Christ. The God-man dies, but by the power of the Spirit the earth vomits him out of the grave, disgusted with its profane meal. The grave simply couldn’t hold on to life himself.
This is one of many connections between the gospel narrative and the story of Jonah. Having disobeyed the command of God to minister amongst the Ninevites, Jonah fled by sea towards Tarshish. To everyone’s surprise, his misadventure lands him in the belly of a giant fish. There he sits for three days, until he eventually repents and agrees to follow through on the Lord’s command. With his announcement that “Salvation belongs to the LORD,” the fish—repulsed by the prophet—vomits Jonah upon the shore freeing him from his intestinal grave.
Though Christ himself draws the connection with Jonah—in Luke 11 for example—there is another character that should be considered in this nauseating trio. His message had been quite unpopular with both the king and the people so they threw Jeremiah into a cistern. Thankfully, the cistern held no water, and the prophet was not drowned, but the bottom was muddy and Jeremiah quickly sunk into the mire. It was only on the request of Ebed-melech that Jeremiah was regurgitated from the earth which had swallowed him.
At first glance, the story of Jeremiah in the cistern seems a little out of place—certainly, the connection between Jonah and Jesus is more clearly established by the gospel writers—but looking at the similarities between Jonah and Jeremiah presents a compelling case that the Spirit is up to something. That something is the salvation of all people.
Times were tough in the land of Judah. Though they had been repeatedly called back to the worship of God, the people of God continued in sin. Jeremiah had been charged with the responsibility to warn them of the coming attack of Babylon. By the hands of the Babylonians God would exact his judgement on the people of Judah for their sin. Exile was imminent. Things were looking a lot like what had happened to Judah’s brothers and sisters in the land of Israel not too long before. And that seemed a dismal end.
Shortly before this dismal happening, Jonah prophesied in Israel. The story of Jonah is ripe with the imagery of the coming Assyrian exile. Though the text does not say whether Jonah was still prophesying during the beginning of the exile, his book makes it clear that he was a key figure in its prelude at least. Whether a literal account or not, the story of Jonah suggests something significant about Israel’s role in the exile, something that Jeremiah picks up on at the exile of Judah.
As Jonah was swallowed by the great fish, so Israel would soon be swallowed by the great fish, the symbol of Assyria. What would be there response when this happened? Would they finally turn to the worship of God? If they would turn back to the worship of God, then perhaps Israel would finally start fulfilling its purpose as a nation of priests; perhaps they would participate in ushering the whole world into the worship of God.
This theme surrounds all three instances of the earth vomiting out its tenants. Jonah is brought forth from the belly of the earth and proceeds to (reluctantly) lead the Ninevites into the worship of God. Christ is brought forth from the belly of the earth and commissions his followers to travel to all nations and invite them into the worship of God. Jeremiah is brought forth from the belly of the earth and asks the king to surrender to Babylon on the authority of God and under threat of death. This seems a little out of place, but there are two things about this passage that suggest that God is trying to make the same point.
First, Jeremiah 38:7 introduces the reader to an unlikely key player in the story. While the whole court of King Zedekiah seems opposed to Jeremiah and his message, there is one who fights for the prophet’s life and so for the worship of God: Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian. This is striking. None of the people of Judah will stand alongside Jeremiah and turn to the worship of God, but this foreigner will. Reading this sets off a red flag that God is trying to communicate something pretty significant about his relationship with the nations outside of the tribes of Israel: while they intentionally rebel against him, there are foreigners who are willing to offer sincere worship. In a beautiful turn of events, in 39:15-18 Ebed-melech is promised deliverance alongside Jeremiah for his faithfulness to God.
Second, Jeremiah’s message to the king makes no mention of repentance. Indeed, though the issue of idolatry does show up at various points throughout the book, the king is no longer given that option. The sense is that God will either deliver Zedekiah into the hands of the Babylonians, or his line will end. This is significant. What purpose would it serve for the king of God’s people to submit to captivity in another nation? I would argue that this is a viable option because God has a bigger purpose in mind for Zedekiah. If he is willing to surrender to the Babylonians, then he will take part in ministering to the Babylonians, inviting them to become worshippers of God. This is the purpose that the Israelites were set apart for. If he is not willing to surrender, he becomes a hindrance to his very purpose as one utterly devoted to God.
Grace is abundant in the Old Testament. God has never been only the God of Israel, he has always been the God of the nations. Since brokenness first entered into the world, God has been working towards the redemption of all of creation, a fact that Christ is keen to point out in John 5:17. This understanding must frame our reading of the Old Testament. But this can get a little messy. If the Israelites were unwilling to invite the nations into the worship of God, God would have to send them to the nations. The exile did this effectively. Sent into the apparent grave of exile, there was now hope that Israel would fulfill its role in leading the nations to worship God. Just as Jeremiah’s descent ultimately led to the salvation of Ebed-melech, Jonah’s to the salvation of Ninevah, and Christ’s to all of ours, the allowed for the opportunity to participate in the redemption of Assyria and Babylon.
God has always been the God of resurrection, the God who causes the earth to vomit out his servants so that the whole world may be ushered into his family. And one day, people from every people group will be vomited out into life the way it’s supposed to be.
Major Prophets Students, what I really want to know is if this reading of the Jeremiah 38 and 39 is faithful to the rest of the book. Is it reconcilable with 50 and 51? If so, how would you do it? If you can’t reconcile them, how do the curses at the end of Jeremiah play into a missional God? Are there other holes in my argument? Did I neglect any other people that the earth vomited out? How do they affirm or contradict my understanding of this motif? I look forward to hearing your responses!