3.2.16 Fish: Lost Humanity
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.16
Fish: Lost Humanity
On the theory that God never tells us anything by accident or does anything on a pointless whim, it would seem that fish in scripture represent Yahweh’s “quarry,” those He would like to “reel in”—we who are, if you catch my drift, the whole reason He “bought the boat” in the first place. Like any fisherman, He knows from the outset that He’s not going to “catch” all of us, and that some who end up in His nets (as we shall see) are dead—or worse, poisonous. But there’s a sea of humanity out there who are lost and vulnerable. So although you can’t bend this metaphor too far without breaking it, God asks us to pay attention to what He said about fish.
It was no accident that several of Yahshua’s chosen disciples were fishermen by trade. These guys were in the perfect position to be able to comprehend the core nature of their calling—being “fishers of men.” “On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on [Yahshua] to hear the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret [i.e., Galilee], and He saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, He asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the people from the boat.” Peter figured he was done for the day. The popular young rabbi had drawn quite a crowd, and Peter, being a devout man, wanted to hear what He had to say as well. So lending Him his boat to use as a pulpit was the natural thing to do. But Peter was in for a surprise: “And when He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets….’” Peter was tired, and probably more than a little frustrated with his unproductive night’s work. But something Yahshua had said had encouraged him, so although he wouldn’t have done it at the suggestion of his partners (who, like him, knew there weren’t any fish out there), Peter did what Yahshua suggested. It seems evident that “faith” was the least of his response. His faith seems to have been like that of Naaman the leper: minimal but desperate, just enough to admit the possibility that there was something to be gained through obedience. Perhaps he merely wanted to avoid offending the rabbi.
“And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.” When God decides to bless you, be prepared for an overabundance. Until this moment, Peter had no idea who had been preaching from his boat, not really. Oh, he had heard about the enigmatic endorsement that Yahshua had received from John the Baptist, and had been stirred by the words of hope and redemption that Yahshua had spoken to the assembled crowd. But Peter now saw the young rabbi do something only God could do: turn nature on like a faucet. Note that the miracle came after Peter’s accommodation of the teacher, not before. That is, the fish were provided not to draw a crowd to Yahshua’s words, but as confirmation that those words were true—that they had been spoken with divine authority.
“But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” His reaction was perfectly natural (which is not to say many people alive today would have had the self-awareness and humility to put two and two together like Simon did). “For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.” They all knew, based on Yahshua’s works and words, that they were standing in the presence of—at the very least—Yahweh’s personal representative. And Yahshua did what God always does in the face of humbleness and repentance: he enabled the man to stand upright, redeemed and empowered to fill his role in the kingdom: “And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him.” (Luke 5:1-11)
Matthew’s retelling of this incident is abbreviated, but it includes one interesting detail: “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. And going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him.” (Matthew 4:18-22) Zebedee & Sons was a successful, prosperous fishing business. It has been proposed that the reason John was so easily able to gain admittance to the trial of Yahshua before Annas (see John 18:15) was that he had served as his father’s agent in Jerusalem, selling their catch to the household of the High Priest. So for both James and John to suddenly leave their father to follow Yahshua would have put a serious crimp in the family business. But the record implies that the brothers remained on good terms with their parents, which leads me to the conclusion that Zebedee too was a man of faith, someone who saw the hope of Israel in the eyes of Yahshua. So Zebedee stayed behind to run the business, allowing (and, I’m guessing, enabling) his sons to follow Yahshua personally. There is more than one way to serve.
All of this happened shortly after the disciples had first met Yahshua, at the beginning of His ministry. But something similar happened at the end—after the resurrection. And the point was identical: the Messiah was transforming these catchers of fish into fishers of men. With his Master gone (though far from forgotten), Peter and his former fishing partners reverted to “default mode.” “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.” Déjà vu, all over again. “Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some….’” I can practically guarantee that the hairs on Peter’s neck stood up. “So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved [i.e., John] therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.” At this point, the fish meant nothing to Peter: his focus was on Christ. “The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread….” Interesting: Yahshua already had breakfast prepared, so it wasn’t that He needed the fish in the net. What He “needed” was for Peter and the others to realize that the job wasn’t over; it was just beginning. As before, He would provide the increase, and they would be tasked with drawing in the nets. But from now on, the “catch” would be people. The Great Commission has just been acted out in pantomime.
Although Yahshua already had some fish on the barbie, He wanted to make it clear that the disciples’ fish were an essential part of the lesson. “Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’” Yahshua’s “catch,” so to speak, had been the disciples themselves. But from this point forward, they would be the ones drawing folks into the kingdom. “Now none of the disciples dared ask Him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after He was raised from the dead.” (John 21:3-14) Christ was now in His resurrected, “spiritual” body—something that, though absolutely real and corporeal, was as different from his former human shell as an oak tree is from the acorn from which it grew (see I Corinthians 15:35-50). The disciples knew Him not by His appearance or by the sound of His voice: they recognized Him by the unmistakable power He displayed.
At this point, it may be instructive to inquire what God considers a “fish” and what He doesn’t. The purpose of the Levitical dietary laws was not only to keep the children of Israel healthy by avoiding animal food sources that were less than desirable. They were also symbolic—designed to teach us to be discerning what sorts of things we should put into our lives. So we read, “These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. But anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. Everything in the waters that has not fins and scales is detestable to you.” (Leviticus 11:9-12) Regular bony fish were okay to eat, while other sea creatures were not. The disapproved list would include everything from fish-like swimmers without scaly skins—whales, dolphins, sharks, eels, and rays—to ostensibly edible creatures like lobsters, crabs, shrimp, clams, and oysters. Even though they may not kill you outright, laboratory tests (David I. Macht, M.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1953) on fifty-four different kinds of sea animals proved conclusively that the fish on the Torah’s “approved” list (i.e., with both fins and scales) were safe to eat, while those forbidden for food were all toxic to some degree.
But what about the symbolic aspects of differentiating good fish from bad? If “fish” are metaphorical of the state in which we all begin—swimming in a sea of lost humanity—then Yahshua’s parable should be taken very seriously: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered some of every kind. [Though implied, the word “fish” isn’t actually in the text—the net has brought in a variety of sea creatures, whether clean or not.] When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad.” The “good” fish, of course, represent those who have entered into the kingdom of God, having received the Good News of grace through faith, resulting in redemption, reconciliation, and the quickening of the Holy Spirit. In contrast, the “bad” are thrown away. The word translated “bad” here is the Greek sapros. It means rotten and decayed, putrefied, decomposed; thus unfit and worthless. A fish that is sapros is dead, and judging by the stench, has been for some time. “So it will be at the close of the age….” These bad sea creatures are likened to spiritually dead men, those whose souls have not been made alive by the indwelling of immortal spirit. They are destined to be unceremoniously disposed of when this age has run its course. This is bad, of course, but it doesn’t sound at all like the “torment in hell” we’ve heard about all our lives. These lifeless sapros fish are simply discarded. Does that mean there’s no such thing as hell? No, it doesn’t. It simply means that there is a difference between being dead and being damned.
Yahshua goes on to explain: “The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:47-50) This “fiery furnace” is analogous to hell. So in contrast with the merely “bad” fish, these “evil” ones—“wicked” in some translations—are not rotten or putrefied, left to decompose in peace. The Greek word used to describe them is poneros, meaning one who causes pain, peril, and trouble—someone who is diseased, malignant, seriously faulty, evil, morally corrupt, or vicious: even one who derives his wickedness from supernatural evil powers. Fish that are poneros are very much alive, and because they are, they’re dangerous. Dead fish (or people) don’t “weep or gnash their teeth”; but the wicked ones most certainly will. So there are three potential destinies for men at the end of the age: (1) eternal life with Yahweh (a very good thing), (2) death (a bad thing), and (3) everlasting punishment like that reserved for Satan and his demons (something infinitely worse than bad).
I don’t know if it’s significant in this context or not, but it’s worth mentioning a prophecy whose literal fulfillment will take place sometime during the second half of the Tribulation: “The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.” (Revelation 16:3) The question is—does this prophecy also have a symbolic component? That is (since “fish” seem to be metaphorical of the lost humanity Yahweh is trying to reach), could this mean that no one alive will remain uncommitted—either to Yahweh or Satan—as the age draws to a close? Judging by such passages as the “separation of the sheep from the goats,” this would indeed seem to be the case. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25:31-32) By this time (unlike this present hour) there will be no one in the middle still trying to make up their minds (or studiously attempting to ignore the issue). But it seems to me (for what it’s worth) that there’s no time like the present: choose Yahweh—choose life, love, and liberty.
From the very beginning of man’s tenure upon the earth, part of his job was to exercise “dominion” over the other living creatures in this world—including fish. “So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas.” (Genesis 1:21-22) Yahweh’s intentions for man were stated soon thereafter: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26) Two issues are implicit here. First, authority is bestowed upon the lesser by the greater. It is not incumbent upon fish, birds, and beasts to grant mankind authority over them: it must be granted (if at all) by Someone greater than man—Yahweh. And it bears repeating: man was not given dominion over other men, but only animals.
The second issue is that man’s derived dominion over the earth’s biosphere implies his responsibility to take care of it, to preserve, manage, and protect it to the best of his ability. Like dominion itself, this is a reflection of the benign administration of the universe by its Creator. We are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, of course, but we do have a gift that no mere animal possesses—free will, the ability to make moral choices. It seems to me, therefore, that the dominion granted by God to mankind over the animals of this earth was designed to teach us something. Being responsible for the biosphere should tell us something important about the way Yahweh deals with us: we are to approach our mandate the same way Yahweh does—with wisdom, the best of intentions, selflessness, and pragmatism.
A responsible manager of planet earth should realize that balance is required. Doing absolutely nothing (if it is in our power to do something) is irresponsible—the refuge of lazy and careless fools. It leads to plagues of rats, bad water, rampant disease, and poverty. But the converse—the arrogant and misguided attempt to control everything, eliminating the “bad” and imposing the “good” (according to our own definition of the words) leads to environmental blunders, scorched-earth tactics, and the “law of unintended consequences.” The problem is, of course, that we are fallen creatures—neither omniscient nor particularly wise. “Bad” and “good” mean different things to different people. “Good” to some may simply mean that vast sums of money can be made, never mind the horrendous cost in terms of human suffering and environmental damage—the very thing others would call “bad.” It’s all a question of our point of view.
So the wise manager tries to strike a balance, recognizing that nature the way Yahweh made it is, to a great degree, self-correcting; but that sometimes it needs help—invariably because fallen man is part of it. (Examples: there ought to be safeguards against introducing species with no natural predators into the local environment. We should have regulations designed to protect groundwater resources when extracting mineral resources or disposing of waste. Mankind’s exploitation of renewable natural resources—such as harvesting fish from the sea—should never exceed the ability God built into nature to replenish itself.)
How does this teach us about Yahweh’s methods? It compels us to confront the fact that as long as man has free will, God doesn’t right all the wrongs, punish all the wicked, or make life prosperous and painless for all of His friends. To do so would have the effect of abridging our freedom to choose: we’d be forced to acknowledge Yahweh’s sovereignty—something that would preclude a response in love. We are to approach our world the same way. Promote freedom; don’t impose bondage. Supervise; don’t control. Nurture; don’t dominate. Love, but don’t smother. Fight injustice, but don’t forsake mercy. Advance liberty, but neither neglect nor micromanage.
We should be aware, however, that God’s present paradigm (of benign tolerance driven by hope) is temporary. Yahweh gave us six days (read: six thousand years) in which to work—something He Himself defined as “believing in Him whom Yahweh sent,” i.e., Yahshua the Messiah; but the Sabbath is coming (and soon, if I’m not mistaken) in which no man may work. I’m referring to the impending Millennial reign of King Yahshua—a thousand years of perfect peace, liberty, justice, and divine supervision. These things will only be possible because everyone alive will have already chosen to honor Yahweh. For the raptured immortals, “free will” will have become an anachronism of sorts, replaced by perfect liberty—the Law of Love imposed and enforced on a global scale. It’s not so much that we’ll no longer be able to make choices; it’s that we will no longer have a sin nature begging us to make bad ones.
But I digress. We were talking about fish, and how man’s dominion over them illustrates Yahweh’s dominion over us in the present age. It is incumbent upon every man to honor Yahweh in his flesh, because he never knows when “the net” will fall—when his mortality will catch up with him. Consider the case of the fish in the Nile River as Yahweh prepared to free His people. Moses reported to Pharaoh: “Thus says Yahweh, ‘By this you shall know that I am Yahweh: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood. The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile….’ Moses and Aaron did as Yahweh commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:17-18, 20-21) This was the very first plague, but it offered a portent of what would soon happen to virtually every Egyptian household: death would visit unexpectedly. If Pharaoh had understood that the fish in the Nile represented all of lost humanity—and that Yahweh was willing to bathe them in blood in order to free His people—perhaps he would have taken the sign a bit more seriously than he did.
Don’t look now, but a corollary looms in the prophetic destiny of earth. During the Tribulation (as Yahweh sets about once again separating His people apart from Satan’s) millions—nay, billions—of clueless “fish” will be scooped up in the nets of genocidal war and unrestrained natural (and unnatural) disaster. Most will die without having made a conscious decision about whom to serve—Yahweh or something inferior. Like the fish in the Nile, God would prefer to spare them, if He could do so without abridging their free will. But He can’t: His character constrains Him. The fates of these “fish” (physically, anyway) will be in the hands of those who hold the reins of power—the “Pharaohs” of the age. And they will once again have put themselves in the hands of Satan.
This all puts a sobering spin on Yahweh’s “sit-rep” to Noah after the flood: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered.’” (Genesis 9:1-2) Again, on the symbolic level, awesome responsibility is being placed on the shoulders of Noah and his sons. If we accept the metaphor that “the fish of the sea” are the world’s lost souls in need of the truth, and the “sons of Noah” are Yahweh’s redeemed representatives, then it should shake us to the core to discover that “they are delivered into our hands.” It is our fault if Yahweh and His Messiah aren’t presented clearly and compellingly to the world. It is our fault if the honest seekers never get a good look at the truth because we’ve masked it with religion, smothered it with tradition, and choked it with enough rules to make the tax code look like a pamphlet in comparison.
Remember what I said about Yahweh “managing” the world with tolerance and restraint, not willing to abridge anyone’s capacity to choose? Habakkuk brought this into focus for us, asking Yahweh why He didn’t force the issue, why He didn’t impose justice and righteousness all the time. He asks, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he? Why do You make men like fish of the sea, like creeping things that have no ruler over them?” All this freedom, he complains, is downright inconvenient for the victims of the wicked aggressors. “They [the wicked ones] take up all of them with a hook, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their dragnet.” Life isn’t fair, the prophet moans. Why don’t You do something about it? Evil overlords are scooping us up like sardines in a seine! “Therefore they rejoice and are glad. Therefore they sacrifice to their net, and burn incense to their dragnet, because by them their share is sumptuous and their food plentiful. Shall they therefore empty their net, and continue to slay nations without pity?” (Habakkuk 1:13-17) The wicked one is not content merely to exploit and abuse his victims. He also worships the implement of his conquest, “praying” that his power will bring him even more power, and his money will buy him more wealth. For him, there is no such thing as “enough.” So why doesn’t Yahweh do something to impose justice on the world on an ongoing basis?
In the very next chapter, Yahweh answers His frustrated prophet. “For the vision is yet for an appointed time. But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it, because it will surely come: it will not tarry.” Justice, He says, will be dispensed on My predetermined schedule: when all of humanity have made their choices to reciprocate My love—or reject it. Yahweh is on a timetable, one He introduced to us in the very first chapter of the Bible (if we had been astute enough to recognize it for what it was)—one He referred to time after time throughout scripture. The pattern is six days of work, followed by one day of rest—that is, six thousand years in which fallen man is given the opportunity to decide what to do with God’s plan of redemption, followed by one thousand years of “rest,” the state of affairs for which Habakkuk yearned. (Note that any way you calculate it, man’s six thousand years of making choices are almost over.) So the wicked, those who regard people as a commodity, as “fish” to be caught in a net and sold for profit, are contrasted with those who rely upon Yahweh: “Behold the proud: his soul is not upright in him. But the just shall live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:3-4)
This is all strikingly reminiscent of Peter’s indictment against the false prophets who would plague the church: “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you [KJV: “make merchandise of you”] with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (II Peter 2:1-3) The “many who follow their sensuality” are the same people as Habakkuk’s “fish.” We are not to let false prophets go unchallenged. Note that when he says “their destruction is not asleep” (or it “does not slumber”), Peter is equating these false teachers with the “wicked fish” (those described as poneros—dangerous, diseased, malignant, evil, morally corrupt, or vicious) that are destined to be cast into hell’s fire, as we saw in the Matthew 13 passage above.
The whole dominion vs. responsibility thing is summed up by King David: “O Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set Your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants, You have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.” That is, You have shown Your strength to us, your little children, who use it to put Your adversaries to shame. “When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” Since we are operating in Yahweh’s strength alone, we have nothing to boast about. Whatever “glory” we have is strictly derivative, and besides, we aren’t even the most capable creatures in God’s creation—the angels have us beat by a mile. And yet, “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8) I surmise from this that although we aren’t literally given dominion over other men, we have been given the responsibility to pursue “the fish of the sea,” symbolically, the lost masses of humanity seeking to reconnect with their Creator. It’s the Great Commission all over again.
Although the “fish” of the world are God’s objective, and thereby the object of our commission to seek the lost as well, we must draw a distinction between the purpose of our quest and the object of our worship—two things the world confuses on a regular basis. These things are linked, to be sure, but they’re not the same. We might couch this in temporal terms: if we are the workers, the fish are the job, but God is the employer. Or, if we are the actors, the fish are the audience, but Yahweh is the Playwright. We (God’s people) have a relationship with Yahweh, but a responsibility concerning the fish. We are not to confuse the two things.
Moses made that perfectly clear: “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that Yahweh spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18) This, of course, is a restatement of the Second Commandment. The Israelites were about to encounter a Babylonian/Canaanite fertility god named Dagon (pictured as both a fish and a stalk of grain—the idea being that he promised to multiply the wealth of his worshippers). As the “fish god,” Dagon (the Hebrew word for “fish” is dag) rose to the head of the pantheon of the Philistines—the sea peoples. At this late date, this all may seem academic, but it’s not: the Pope still wears a hat modeled on Dagon’s fish head.
A more current permutation of worshipping “the likeness of fish” might be the all-too-prevalent propensity of modern mainline Christian churches to focus on demographics, tailoring their services—and their theologies—to attract the “right sort” of congregants. They’re not necessarily wrong (i.e., heretical or apostate) in their teachings, mind you. But where in the Great Commission did Yahshua say to “Go and make disciples of upwardly mobile young couples with 2.3 children living in large homes in guard gated communities, people who will support your ministry with their tithes as long as you keep the sermon under forty minutes and don’t stretch them too much.”
That’s not to say that “fish” have nothing to offer. But it’s counterintuitive, to say the least. What the fish bring to the party is need—a hunger for a God they know must be out there somewhere, but don’t know how to find Him. Job remarked, “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of Yahweh has done this? In His hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10) We “fish” are all born with the capacity for indwelling with Yahweh’s Spirit. We feel empty without it. Some try to fill that emptiness withem diversions and distractions, some with pride and possessions, but nothing “fits” the chasm within our souls other than the Spirit of Yahweh Himself.
One such fish played a starring role in scripture—a literal fish “helping” God’s reluctant prophet to turn around and attend to the needs of a whole “school” of symbolic fish. I’m speaking, of course, of Jonah and the lost souls of Nineveh. It’s a familiar story. Yahweh had told Jonah to go and preach in the Assyrian capital city, but the prophet didn’t see any point in warning these barbaric pagans about the wrath that awaited them. In his opinion, they had made their spiritual bed, and they could jolly well sleep in it. I must confess that I can sometimes relate to Jonah—to my shame. I have no problem reaching out to most of the world’s lost—Hindus, Buddhists, apostate Jews (and Christians), and secular humanists, etc. But having studied Islam’s scriptures, I have a sporadic mental block about people who follow a religion whose stated goal is to enslave and then kill every non-Muslim on the planet, starting with Jews and Christians. Pointing a loaded gun at my family is not the best way to get on my good side. I have to forcibly remind myself that ninety-eight percent of the world’s Muslims are victims of their own satanic religion and culture. They are being held in bondage and ignorance, and they don’t even know it. The fact is, Christ died so that they might live—along with every other lost fish in the sea.
So Jonah did what my own raw instincts would tell me to do: flee. God said to go east, so he got on a boat and headed west—as far away from Nineveh (and Yahweh) as he could possibly get. Long story short, God sent a storm to get His prophet’s attention, and Jonah eventually confessed to the terrified crew that the reason for the storm was his own rebellion. So, praying for God’s forgiveness, they tossed the prophet overboard—and the sea became calm again. “And Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)
At this point, most of us react like Pavlov’s dog and make the leap to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Although that’s close, it’s not really the point at all. The gospel record states, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from You.’ But He answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth….’” The problem is, Yahshua didn’t spend “three days and three nights” in the tomb, like most everybody assumes. He was crucified on Passover (A.D. 33), dying late Friday afternoon, and His body was placed in the grave before sunset. There He spent a day and a night removing our sins from us on the Sabbath, in fulfillment of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Before sunup on the next day, the Feast of Firstfruits, Christ arose from the tomb, proving His power over death—not to mention His deity. So add it up: He spent only one full day, one full night, and part of another night in the grave—in perfect compliance with the requirements of the Torah.
Therefore, the passion was not the “sign of the prophet Jonah,” not exactly. But He explained what the sign actually was in His subsequent statement, if only we had been astute enough to catch it: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:38-41) He’s talking not about conquering death or atoning for sin. He’s talking about sojourning among the lost (as Jonah was within the fish) for three days and three nights, in order that the “worst” of us (exemplified by the Ninevites) might have the opportunity to hear and repent. For what it’s worth, the number three symbolizes accomplishment, while days and nights remind of the dichotomy between light and darkness—all of which tells us that Yahshua would accomplish His goal of reaching the lost whether the conditions were favorable or not.
When Yahshua invokes Jonah’s adventure as a sign, He’s not talking about the tomb being the “belly of the earth.” Rather, He’s referring to His unbroken sojourn in Jerusalem, the “heart of the Land” of Israel, the city of Yahshua’s temple, His temporary tomb, and His future throne. Transmitted through Greek, of course, the two things would have looked quite similar, and indeed, the linguistic parallel was Yahshua’s whole point. I’ve stood within that tomb. It’s hardly what you’d call the “heart of the earth.” It’s just a small walk-in cave cut into the side of an old limestone quarry wall. But remember what language Yahshua was speaking—Aramaic, a close cognate of Hebrew. The word he doubtless used for “earth” is ara, the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew eretz, which can mean land, earth, the whole world, country, territory, the land of Israel, or even soil—it’s so general that it’s silly to presume that it must mean the planet upon which we live. I’m convinced the usage Yahshua meant to convey was “the Land of Israel,” that piece of earth Yahweh set aside for Himself—something still called “eretz Israel” by those who love it.
Jerusalem, then, is where Yahshua spent “three days and three nights” in fulfillment of the sign of the prophet Jonah. We can follow His itinerary in the Book of Mark. The week (with weekdays as in the year 33 AD) looks like this: On Monday (Nisan 10, as required in Exodus 12:3) the triumphal entry took place (see Mark 11:1-10), after which He left Jerusalem and stayed in Bethany. (This day also marked the fulfillment of the “coming of Messiah” prophecy of Daniel 9:25.) He came back on Tuesday (Mark 11:12), but again spent the night out of town. Same thing on Wednesday (11:20). But on Thursday morning He came back to Jerusalem and never left again until after the resurrection. Passover (14:1) began on Thursday evening, running through Friday afternoon, when He was slain. His body lay in the tomb over the Sabbath (as required in the Torah), and rose sometime after sunset, His risen status being discovered by His followers early on Sunday morning. So Yahshua spent Thursday, that evening, Friday, that evening, Saturday, and that evening—precisely three days and three nights—in the heart of the Land of Israel: Jerusalem. And the reason he did this is the same as the reason for Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the big fish: so that the lost of the world—the “fish,” as our present symbol puts it—would have an opportunity to hear and respond to Yahweh’s lifesaving message.
Just for fun, I went back and did a little word study on the other statements that might lead one to believe that Christ intended to be three full days and nights in the tomb (something that would have thrown the requirements of the Torah into a cocked hat). It turns out, He never said that. Fourteen times, the phrase “the third day” is used concerning the whole process. No problem there, since any part of a day would count: if He were crucified on Friday afternoon and rose any time after sunset after the Sabbath, this would rightly be called “the third day.” In cases where our translations read, “After three days...” the word for “after” is meta, which has as its primary meaning: “mid, amid, in the midst of, with, or among.” So in cases like Mark 8:31, the meaning is “...and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and in the midst of (or within) three days rise again.” In the original Greek, it’s precisely correct. And in cases where the phrase used is “in three days” the word translated “in” is dia, whose primary meaning is “through or throughout.” So John 26:61 should read, “two false witnesses came forward and said, This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it throughout three days.’” Which is exactly what Yahshua did, if you understand what the temple signifies.
So the sign of the prophet Jonah was to “endure the big fish,” to the point of death, so that other fish might find their way—that is, to bear the lost souls of the earth so that the rest of them (us) might have an opportunity for redemption. Note what Jonah had to say about it: “Then Jonah prayed to Yahweh his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called out to Yahweh, out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice.” For Jonah, the belly of sheol was metaphorical, but for Yahshua, it was all too literal. “For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me.” The reference to “seas” might be a sideways symbolic reference to the gentile nations—both the Romans who crucified Yahshua and the majority of those who would subsequently hear and respond to His word (represented, in Jonah’s case, by the Assyrians). “All Your waves and your billows passed over me.’ Then I said, ‘I am driven away from Your sight.” Remember Yahshua’s plea from the cross? “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” “Yet I shall again look upon Your holy temple….’” The symbolic references abound: the temple indicates the totality of Yahweh’s plan for man’s salvation.
Amid all this symbolism, we must never forget what a horrific trial was endured—by both Jonah and Yahshua—for our sakes. “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.” Mountains are symbolic of power; their “roots” are their foundations. So Jonah’s plight—and Yahshua’s sacrifice—speak of submission to a higher power for the sake of the lost. “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever. Yet You brought up my life from the pit, O Yahweh my God.” Jonah’s “resurrection” was clearly a dress rehearsal for Yahshua’s. “When my life was fainting away, I remembered Yahweh, and my prayer came to You, into your holy temple.” It’s not as if Jonah (or Yahshua) had forgotten Yahweh; but there’s nothing like a sojourn in sheol to bring things into focus. “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 Yahweh!...’” Yahshua was the sacrifice; His name means “Yahweh is salvation.”
“And Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” (Jonah 2) The final lesson is that the trial that achieves our redemption (if we will but receive it) is temporary: three days and three nights. Jonah didn’t “move in” to the belly of the fish, nor did Christ remain in Jerusalem—or in sheol—for longer than the appointed time. The real job was yet to come: Jonah still had to go to Nineveh to deliver God’s word, as Yahshua still must assume the throne of His kingdom, reigning over the earth in truth and justice.
The reason Yahweh could recruit fish as a metaphor was that they were familiar to everyone—a common source of food, a nutritional resource that could be tapped from seas, rivers, and lakes. Their symbolic role as “God’s quarry” is supported by the observation that fish can be hard to catch—they’re slippery, wary, and often swim in schools—that is, like lost souls, they tend to find shelter (if not actual safety) in conformity. In that respect, they can be quite a bit like the people Yahweh seeks to “catch.” In a sense, God’s policy is “catch and release.” That is, once we have been brought aboard, we are given a degree of liberty that is far more meaningful to us than that which we enjoyed before we encountered the Great Fisherman. But this isn’t a sport or a game to Yahweh. It’s serious business, a matter of life or death—ours. That being said, under normal circumstances, the point of fishing is not to kill the fish, but to eat them—that is, to assimilate them into one’s body. And in a way, that is precisely what God wishes to do with men: make them part of Himself. It is as Yahshua told His disciples on the night before His crucifixion: “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me…. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” (John 14:11, 19-20) As counterintuitive as it may sound, as “fish,” we will not really “live” until we are “caught” by God and assimilated into Himself—the source and destiny of all life. Yes, it’s true that death is part of the formula: we must die to sin in order to live to God. But our bodies are going to die anyway. It’s what comes after death that ought to be our primary concern.
Keeping that in mind, let us examine a few scriptures in which fish are seen as food. The land of Goshen, where the Israelite slaves had spent four hundred years, was close to both the Nile delta and the Mediterranean Sea, so not surprisingly, fish were part of the staple diet there. But once the Israelites had left Egypt, that food source was no longer available. Instead, Yahweh provided manna, a nutritious and tasty (if somewhat monochromatic) dietary staple—something that would sustain the people for the next forty years. But after a year or two on this diet, the exiles of the exodus expressed their earnest desire to “fall off the wagon.” “Now the rabble [literally, ‘the collection,” that is, those other than the Israelites who had gathered together with them in order to flee from Egypt] that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, ‘Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’” (Numbers 11:4-6) We can all relate to having cravings—for foods or other things. Living here in a nation that has been blessed by God with an overabundance of nearly everything, getting what we crave is not a problem: we need only weigh our cravings against their downside—whether health, budget, morality, or our testimony before men—and choose whether or not to cave in to them. But the Israelites and the mixed multitude with them had no such options: there were no fish, melons, or garlic to be had—at any price. Their “choices” consisted of (1) stifling their cravings and thanking Yahweh for His provision, or (2) moaning and complaining about what they couldn’t get anymore, now that they were no longer slaves in Egypt. They chose poorly.
Actually, though, there was a third option open to them—one that apparently occurred to no one: they could humbly and reverently ask Yahweh to provide a little variety in their diet, acknowledging that, as their Creator and Lord, He was capable of doing anything He chose to do. I realize they were new to this, but Yahweh had revealed His character when He saved them from their Egyptian overlords and provided water and manna. This wasn’t rocket science. Yahshua would later point out what should have been obvious: “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-10) The fact is, God wants to give us good things. The only reason He finds it necessary to withhold His blessing is our immaturity or unfaithfulness. He wants us to “grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man,” but sometimes the only way we can learn what we need to know is for Him to be selective about His gifts. Yahweh is not in the habit of buying Ferraris for twelve-year-olds. If we’re His children, however, we’ll never lack what we need. As David put it, “Yahweh is my shepherd: I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1)
Yahweh decided to satisfy the cravings of Israel’s rabble—but probably not quite as they had envisioned. He told Moses that He would give them meat to eat for an entire month—they’d gorge on it until they vomited it back up through their noses! This left Moses in confusion, for he had no idea how Yahweh intended to fulfill this pledge. Was he supposed to procure this questionable feast? No. “Moses said, ‘The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and You have said, “I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!” Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?’ And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Is Yahweh’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.’” (Numbers 11:21-23) In our section on “Birds,” we saw what happened next: millions of low flying quail flew through the camp, and a frenzy of hysterical greed set in among the people, who slew a hundred times more birds than they could possibly eat—not comprehending that Yahweh could provide meat for them anytime He wished, if only they’d trust Him. Fallen man doesn’t know himself very well, and as often as not, he refuses to learn. I can guarantee that if they had been able to flash freeze and transport every quail they knocked out of the air, they would have ended up every bit as weary of it after a year as they were with the manna. But “reverence for Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.” If we know our God, we will soon come to terms with our own weaknesses and limitations.
I don’t know why this lesson seems so hard for us to learn, but the fact is that God (having built us) knows what we need, and (because He loves us) desires to provide for us. To one extent or another, every religion in the world presents its god (or gods) as tyrants who must be appeased in return for favorable treatment, whether now or in the hereafter. Even in atheism (where the “gods” are wealth, power, pleasure, and pride) one must make sacrifices in order to attain the desired result. But Yahweh is nothing like that—quite the opposite, in fact. All He “wants” from us is to trust Him, like a small child intuitively trusts her mommy and daddy. Appeasement never crosses her mind. She doesn’t try to earn her parents’ love. It’s just there, naturally permeating their relationship. And yet, her parents (if they’re wise) don’t give her everything she might want, even if they can afford it. They don’t let her live on M&Ms and Red Bull, but insist on proper nutrition (at least as they understand it). They don’t let her watch horror movies and porn, but instead insist that she goes to school to learn useful things. Why? Because they love her, and have her best interests at heart—and they know better than she does what’s good for her and what isn’t. Ideally, our relationship with Yahweh is very much like that.
But wait a minute! What about all those sacrifices in the Torah? What about tithing, and keeping the Sabbath, and turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile? There is a seemingly endless list of “rules” in the Bible. Isn’t trying to “keep them” tantamount to appeasing God? No. We will remain confused about God’s intentions until we come to realize that everything He told us to do—everything—is designed to teach us what He was doing for us. The Levitical sacrifices teach us that He sacrificed Himself for us; giving alms teaches us to trust Him; His Millennium (the seventh since the fall of man) will give us rest from our mortality; He restrained Himself from retaliating against our foolishness and arrogance; and He went the distance to achieve our reconciliation. Through Moses, the Messiah, the prophets, and the Apostles, Yahweh told us to “do” hundreds of things. But none of them benefit Yahweh in the least. They neither enrich nor empower Him—or even those who shepherd His flock in this world. They’re all for our benefit and edification.
Yahweh’s desire to provide for us—to meet our needs—is demonstrated quite forcefully in two similar incidents recorded in the Gospels, the feeding of the four thousand and the feeding of the five thousand. Since they describe the same event, let us combine the accounts of John and Matthew: “Now when it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the day is now over. Send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Lifting up His eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward Him, Jesus said, ‘They need not go away. You give them something to eat.’ Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’ (He said this to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do.) Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little….’” As with the Egyptian expatriates in the wilderness, God knew what they needed, and He was prepared to provide it. But it was even more important that they came away from the experience enriched in knowledge and spiritual insight—starting with His disciples. Yahshua’s “test question” to Philip put things in perspective: “If I asked you to feed all these people, what would you do?” The correct answer would have been, “I’d ask You (since you are Yahweh in the flesh) to take care of them, and then I’d await Your instructions.” Philip, being human—willing to help but still ignorant of God’s power—immediately began calculating the cost of the task, as if there were no God in the picture at all. He threw a “food drive thermometer chart” up on the wall, and began contemplating who he could tap for a year’s worth of income to get the job done.
We shouldn’t be too hard on Philip, of course. This is precisely the course of action we invariably take when faced with similar problems. We proceed exactly as we would if God didn’t even exist! That’s not to say that Yahweh wants us to sit around waiting to be taken care of like baby birds in the nest. There’s a place for our involvement and investment, but we aren’t to presume that we have to do God’s job for Him. One of the twelve stumbled (quite by accident, I’m pretty sure) onto the principle Yahshua wanted us all to learn: “But one of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?...’” We are left to speculate, of course, but I like to imagine that the boy had overheard the discussion about how to feed the throng, and spontaneously stepped up to help. Like a four-year-old who wants to “help” daddy buy a diamond necklace for mommy’s birthday with the seventy-two cents he has saved in his piggy bank, we may smile at his naiveté. But Yahshua’s reaction is, “Perfect! That’ll be just enough. Well done.”
“And Jesus said, ‘Bring them here to Me.’ Now there was much grass in the place. So he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.” The order to sit down was a signal that He had something further to teach them. The crowd had no idea that they were about to be fed, but they were hungry for every word that came out of Yahshua’s mouth—something even more important than food. “The men sat down, about five thousand in number, besides women and children.” What were actually counted here were families—men with their wives and children, all of whom had made the trek out to the “desolate place” to hear Yahshua teach. Thus there were probably fifteen to twenty thousand people in attendance. Statistics don’t really mean much to Yahweh, of course. Some 600,000 such families took part in the exodus, and He provided bread for all of them—for forty years. For that matter, planet earth is currently inhabited with roughly seven billion people—and Yahweh would love to feed us all, if only we’d honor Him with our trust.
“Jesus then took the loaves, and when He had looked up to heaven and said a blessing of thanksgiving, He broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds, distributing them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted….” It’s interesting that Yahshua offered thanks. To whom, we might reasonably ask. He Himself was Yahweh in human form, though the undiminished Father Creator still stood outside of time and space, set apart (i.e., holy) from the work of His hands. But perhaps a better question would be “thanks for what?” I’d venture that it wasn’t as much for the miracle of multiplication the crowd was about to witness as it was for the boy’s willingness to contribute his lunch so that others could eat. And it wasn’t so much God giving thanks for being God as it was God being thankful for people who were hungry for the truth—the “fish” of our current area of study.
“They all ate and were satisfied. And when they had eaten their fill, He told His disciples, ‘Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with broken fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten….” I just can’t resist doing the math on this. The boy had contributed enough food for maybe two people. So Yahshua multiplied it by a factor of as much as ten thousand. The human stomach holds about one quart. Since they “ate their fill,” that equates to up to 20,000 quarts, or over 600 bushels of food. We aren’t told how big the “leftover” baskets were, but we are informed that there were twelve of them. Interesting: just enough for the disciples who had been passing out the food to all those people. They didn’t get rich, but they did get fed (as did the boy who had contributed the loaves and fishes in the first place). And as far as we’re told, Yahshua took nothing for Himself: miracles (like rules) are for our benefit, not God’s.
The result of the whole thing was a dim awareness that Yahweh was at work fulfilling His prophetic promises: “When the people saw the sign that He had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” (Matthew 14:15-21, John 6:5-14, blended) Not just a prophet, but The Prophet, the One Moses had predicted: “Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to Him you shall listen…. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.” The Prophet would be a leader operating the power and authority of Yahweh (like Moses in that respect), and He would be an Israelite. “And I will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And whoever will not listen to My words that He shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19) I realize that these guys didn’t have the Torah app on their iPhones just yet, but they would have done well to concentrate less on the food and think more about the words of the One who had provided it. God here had promised to hold them accountable to take heed of Yahshua’s message—for “the Prophet’s” words were, in fact, Yahweh’s words.
A very similar thing happened a bit later (or at least, it’s listed later in both Gospels that record the incident). It was occasioned by the very same thing—the urgent desire of the masses to hear what Yahshua had to say, even if they had to walk miles out of their way to get to where He was. “In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, He called His disciples to Him and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with Me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away….’” He had been willing to teach for as long as they had been willing to listen. But nobody had really anticipated staying with Yahshua for three whole days. Still, how could you leave? This man had the words of eternal life.
There was no lack of compassion on the part of the disciples. But after three days, their supply of food was seriously depleted as well. There was only enough left to feed half of them. And this time, there was no little boy offering to donate his lunch to the cause—the last of that had been eaten for breakfast—yesterday. The disciples (perhaps because their own stomachs were rumbling) had forgotten that “next to nothing” is more than enough to work with—if you’re God incarnate. “And His disciples answered Him, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?’ And He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ And He directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, He broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, He said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people.” (Mark 8:1-9; cf. Matthew 15:32-39) The Matthew account makes it clear that, once again, the number of families are in view, that is, they only counted the heads of the households. So there were actually more like eight or ten thousand people there, hanging on Yahshua’s every word. And once again, every last one of them received a good meal to sustain their bodies on the journey back home, just as Yahshua’s words had sustained their souls for the journey into Yahweh’s presence. The number seven shows up twice in the narrative—the number of original loaves, and the number of baskets left over. Since “seven” is the consistent Biblical code for completion or perfection, we may safely infer that that if we give our all, everything we need will be given back to us—if Yahshua is in charge of blessing and breaking the bread.
It would come as an epiphany to most of mankind that this designation “everything we need” includes some things that, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need. Like atonement for our sins: it shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. As in the story of Jonah, a fish plays the starring role in God’s demonstration of this principle: “When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the tax?’ He said, ‘Yes….’” This wasn’t a Roman tax, but an annual levy that went to the support of the temple. It was a requirement of the Torah (see Exodus 30:11-16), where it was referred to as a “ransom” that would secure “atonement,” something that would function as a “memorial for the Israelites before Yahweh.” Technically (according to the Torah) it was only supposed to be collected whenever a census of the Israelites (i.e., males twenty years old and above) was taken—something that would only be done when preparing for battle. The key to its significance lies in the related words “atonement” and “ransom” (based on a single Hebrew root: kapar/koper/kippur). The concept Yahweh was teaching us is that of substitution. The fighting men of Israel were being “ransomed” for half a shekel (a symbolic pittance, and an amount that was the same for rich and poor alike—which tells us that our relative wealth or status among men means nothing to God). In the same way, our sins would be atoned—our lives would be ransomed—by Yahweh’s own personal sacrifice: His only begotten Son. And here too, the same sacrifice was declared sufficient for each individual. So this “tax” had nothing to do with the maintenance of the temple (even though that’s where the money went), and everything to do with communicating God’s plan for the redemption of mankind.
But here in Capernaum, Yahshua had another lesson in mind. “And when he [Peter] came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?’ And when he said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea [Capernaum was situated on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee] and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for Me and for yourself.” (Matthew 17:24-27) If the “temple tax” had actually been intended for the upkeep of the temple, then Yahshua would no doubt have paid it in a straightforward manner. But the Exodus 30 passage that defines this precept states no fewer than four times that the half-shekel belonged to Yahweh. Hence the lesson: Yahshua, being Yahweh in the flesh, would not logically pay taxes to Himself, nor would His “sons,” His followers, like Peter. The point was that if one was following Yahshua (even here, before the crucifixion), his ransom had already been paid; his atonement was already secure: “the sons are free.”
Why, then, did Yahshua arrange for the ransom to be delivered by a fish? If, as I have been asserting, fish are symbolic of a sea of humanity in need of “catching,” then it makes perfect sense. The fish Peter caught, you see, wasn’t itself the ransom. It was merely the delivery vehicle. So in the metaphorical sense, the fish doesn’t provide atonement, but it does (once it’s “caught”) convey God’s atonement to us. Thus the fish here is an illustration of the Great Commission. Christ would not bring the good news of His saving grace to all people—not personally, anyway. Rather, He would leave that job up to the “fish”—we who have taken Peter’s hook (so to speak). That “hook” (if I may stretch the analogy like a reel of five pound test pulling in a ten pound bass) was Peter’s statement that Yahshua was “the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Once we’ve swallowed that truth, all folks have to do is “open our mouths” to find what it takes to pay their ransom.
Fish, like people, don’t live forever. Be not deceived: one way or another, we all eventually get caught. Either we end up in Yahweh’s net, or in Satan’s, or we perish without ever leaving the sea—“caught” by our own apathy or ignorance. To adapt Robert Burns: “The best laid plans of fish and men oft go astray.” Or as Solomon put it, “I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12) We’re all in the same boat, so to speak, and the boat’s name is Mortality. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a shark or a minnow: your earthly life is transient and temporary. The only hope any of us has is to be “caught” in Yahweh’s net, for there, a different sort of life—blessed and eternal—awaits.
In the meantime, we must deal with life as we find it—a tempestuous and dangerous sea, populated by predators. Yet even now, there is safety to be found in Yahweh’s net, and He still casts it hopefully into our waters. But remember the Law of the Sabbath: there comes a time when the work is finished, when it is unlawful—even for Yahweh—to continue “fishing” for the lost. In the creation account, we read, “On the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3) And the Torah codifies the principle in the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11) It is no stretch whatsoever to deduce from this that Yahweh will “pull in His nets” for the last time as the sun nears the horizon at the end of the sixth day.
That, of course, begs the question: what is the “sixth day?” I believe that the entire history of fallen man—from Eden to the inauguration of Yahshua’s Millennial reign—will span precisely six thousand years. Besides the Sabbath principle, we are given heavy handed hints of Yahweh’s schedule in such passages as II Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4—one day in God’s redemptive plan is equated to one thousand years of human history. (You’ll note that I said nothing about the process or timeline of creation there, only the duration of Yahweh’s plan for mankind’s redemption.) And any way you slice it, we are fast approaching the end of the “sixth day.” So it is with the utmost urgency that we encourage the lost fish of the world to enter Yahweh’s net now, before He pulls it in and rejoices in his catch—us. After that time (if I may stretch the metaphor) the only way to reach God will be the hard way. With no divine net in the water, they’ll have to jump into His boat—something the other lost fish will consider suicide, but in truth will be a death that leads to eternal life.
I’m speaking, of course, of the last seven years of this age—a period of time commonly known as The Tribulation. (To be more precise, the “withdrawal of God’s net” will be the rapture of the church, an event that can be expected to occur before—and perhaps years before—the beginning of the Tribulation.) There are hints concerning the ramifications for these symbolic fish spread throughout the prophetic record. For instance, Ezekiel writes, “Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lies in the midst of his streams, that says, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’” Egypt is symbolic of bondage in the world, so its king, the Pharaoh (seen here as a great dragon), represents the one imposing the slavery—in the end, Satan. He covets Yahweh’s creative nature, so he would like us to believe that he made and owns us all. (Trust me: he didn’t, and he doesn’t.) But Yahweh, when it suits Him, will deal with this dragon: “I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales; and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams, with all the fish of your streams that stick to your scales.” Yahweh isn’t the only one who has been fishing these waters: the dragon, Satan, has been casting his nets here too. And those he has snared will share his horrible fate. “And I will cast you out into the wilderness, you and all the fish of your streams. You shall fall on the open field, and not be brought together or gathered.’” (Ezekiel 29:3-5) Note that the dragon and his hangers-on won’t merely be slain. This is worse: they’ll be consigned to an alien environment where they’ll have no power, no allies, no breath—this is hell itself.
Hosea addresses the “why” of it all. “Hear the word of Yahweh, O children of Israel, for Yahweh has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.” He’s warning Israel, but Israel is a metaphorical microcosm of the whole earth: the lessons taught to (and through) Israel should be taken to heart by every living human being. Why, then is Yahweh confronting His people? “There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery. They break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away.” (Hosea 4:1-3) The bottom line is that the world’s lost souls—the fish of the sea—look at Israel’s relationship (or lack of it) with Yahweh and—because of Israel’s historic faithlessness—see nothing of value, nothing worth emulating. So the fish languish in despair, and in the end are swept away with the tide of time.
And what about these seven individual sins that Hosea has listed? Each of them has symbolic ramifications that extend beyond mere “bad behavior.” (1) “Swearing” doesn’t mean using foul language. The word is ’alah, meaning to utter a curse (invoking divine sanctions against an enemy) or bind under an oath. Basically, this entails the breaching of the Third Commandment, using Yahweh’s name lightly or for unworthy purposes. (2) “Lying” is the Hebrew kachash: to deceive, to deal falsely, or feign obedience (cringing in fear instead of submitting oneself in reference or relationship). This, then, isn’t merely telling untruths; it’s doing so with an intent to deceive men and God to gain an unwarranted advantage. It’s one step away from treason or treachery, and it’s akin to violating the Ninth Commandment. Of course, the only reason one would do this is that he didn’t trust Yahweh, so he felt that he had to “look out for Number One.” (3) “Murder” (see the Sixth Commandment) is a euphemism drawn from the physical world to illustrate the equivalent thing in the spiritual realm. If one murders, he has purposely separated someone’s soul from his body, an act that results in physical death. But the spiritual equivalent is much more serious: it’s preventing someone from having a life-giving relationship with Yahweh—in effect severing soul from Spirit. (4) “Stealing” is a violation of the Eighth Commandment. Again, the only reason one would do this is that he didn’t trust and rely upon Yahweh, who promised to meet all of our needs if we’d honor His word. (5) Physical “adultery” (as in the Seventh Commandment) is symbolic of idolatry—the giving of one’s affection and devotion, something that rightly belongs to Yahweh alone, to someone or something else—anything else. (6) The “breaking of bounds” (Hebrew: parats) is hostility, opposition, spreading out to increase one’s prosperity. The best example I can think of is Hitler’s bloodthirsty quest for lebensraum (i.e., “living space”) at the expense of Germany’s neighbors in the late 1930s. It’s “coveting” on an international scale, a violation of the Tenth Commandment. And (7) “bloodshed” is what it sounds like—the shedding of blood through violence and havoc, usually resulting in death. It’s taking life, for “the life is in the blood.” It’s the very thing to which Yahshua submitted Himself for our sakes.
And lest we lose sight of the forest for the trees, remember that we’re looking at “fish” as a symbol of lost humanity. When people commit these seven heinous crimes against man, “even the fish of the sea are taken away.” That is, the lost are impeded in their search for the truth. Why? Hosea explained it right up front: “There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land.” And that’s a problem, for a few verses later, he reminded us, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hosea 4:6) When Israel is destroyed for lack of knowledge, the whole world suffers, for Yahweh assigned them to be the repository of truth.
If it were up to man, the situation would be hopeless: Israel has (if I may use a football metaphor) dropped the ball; and even though the Christians—the “second stringers”—have recovered the fumble, we’re not moving it down the field. As the clock runs down, we find ourselves in terrible field position, two points behind our adversary. What we need is “impossible,” a seventy-seven yard field goal. Can our Star Kicker do it? I wouldn’t bet against Him. Yahweh says, “Is My hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver? Behold, by My rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert. Their fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst.” (Isaiah 50:2) Yahshua’s return to the “field” in the last moments of the fourth quarter will prove once and for all who owns this game. And the “fish,” the spectators, will find their fortunes suddenly reversed. Those who have bet everything on the Adversary will find themselves gasping for breath, but those fish who had almost lost hope in Yahweh’s Home Team will find themselves suddenly refreshed and cleansed in streams flowing with living waters.
You find that a little too generalized? Okay, how about this for specifics? “But on that day, the day that Gog shall come against the land of Israel, declares the Lord Yahweh, My wrath will be roused in My anger. For in My jealousy and in My blazing wrath I declare, On that day there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel. The fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all the people who are on the face of the earth, shall quake at My presence.” (Ezekiel 38:18-20) He’s speaking of a yet-future all-out Islamic invasion of the Land of Israel—one that will take place (according to the revealed Last Days timeline) during the first half of the Tribulation, beginning roughly one year into it. “Gog” (said to be “of the land of Magog”—Islam’s northern non-Arabian contingent) is the leader of a multi-national Islamic coalition. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s the one the Muslims will hail as the long awaited Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam of Islamic eschatology (a self-fulfilling prophecy from their point of view, but a prophetic fait accompli from Yahweh’s). The battle and its outcome consume two amazing chapters, Ezekiel 38 and 39.
A couple of things bear particular notice. First, Yahweh will not obliterate the Muslim hordes until they enter His Land: they will fall on the “mountains of Israel.” Second, they will be decimated with a variety of “natural” (that is, divinely administered) causes—an earthquake (as we see here), fire and brimstone (as in Sodom and Gomorrah fame), pestilence, floods, and hail—as well as a disastrous level of fratricide (the same thing that killed the Midianite hordes that Gideon confronted). Neither Israel’s vaunted IDF nor the Antichrist’s U.N. Peacekeepers (it’s a long story: see The End of the Beginning on this website, chapters 15-17) will logically be able to take any credit for the Mahdi’s ignominious defeat. Third, because of the mode of the Muslims’ annihilation, the whole world will be put on notice that Yahweh Himself is fighting for Israel. Most notably, Israel will begin to awaken to the reality of their God, for we read, “And I will set My glory among the nations, and all the nations shall see My judgment that I have executed, and My hand that I have laid on them. The house of Israel shall know that I am Yahweh their God, from that day forward.” (Ezekiel 39:21-22)
But what was that about fish? “The fish of the sea…shall quake at My presence.” This is but a restatement of my third point—that the world’s lost masses will have received an unmistakable sign that God is real, and that He’s willing to defend His people. They may or may not respond appropriately, but they will at least be made aware of the “elephant in the room.” They will “quake” at Yahweh’s presence, and not just because of the earthquake.” The fear of Yahweh, after all, is the beginning of wisdom.
There’s one more fact about the Battle of Magog of which we should all be cognizant. There have been wars before, and Israel has been invaded many times. But this will prove to be the final little push that sends human civilization as we know it careening off the cliff of destiny. That is, it will escalate into a thermonuclear nightmare, World War III—and worse. Zephaniah delivers the bad news: “‘I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ declares Yahweh. ‘I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,’ declares Yahweh…those who have turned back from following Yahweh, who do not seek Yahweh or inquire of Him.” (Zephaniah 1:2-3, 6) Once again, the “fish of the sea” represent the lost souls Yahweh goes so far out of His way to “catch” in His nets of love. And if you’ll recall, the “birds of the heavens” are symbolic of the consequences of our choices. Yahweh won’t force us to enter His net, even though, in the end, it’s the only safe place.
But it’s not all bad news for the fish. Some have already responded to Yahweh’s “bait,” the love He showed us through Yahshua’s self-sacrifice—and more will. As Paul put it, His kindness leads to repentance. In a glimpse of the world during Christ’s Millennial kingdom, we read, “And he [an angel] said to me, ‘This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea.” He’s describing a stream that flows eastward from the temple, healing the Dead Sea! “When the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh, so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.” (Ezekiel 47:8-10) Besides the astonishing literal ramifications, there may be a symbolic component to this as well. The Millennial mortals—the offspring of the relatively few “sheep” who will survive the Tribulation and enter the kingdom age as blessed but mortal souls—will still be born with sin natures, just as we were. They too will require the attention of “fishers of men,” just like we of the church age did. Here we see that even where life was formerly impossible, it will thrive under the reign and restoration of Yahweh’s Messiah, King Yahshua.