The Sermon


Early in the book Moby Dick,  in Nantucket, Ishmael attends an ominous church service in a church built to resemble a ship. The set is stunning.  In the movie version of the story, the sermon is delivered by Orson Wells who plays the part of Father Mapple. It really is an astonishing performance.

The sermon of course is on the subject of Jonah and the whale. What else could it be? The preacher points out,

“all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobedience, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”


Ahab, like Job, is a rebel. He rebels against God. Jonah is wary but obeys.

Father Mapple, a bit of a cynic, eloquently says this line: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at the frontier.” Amen to that. He does not preach the prosperity gospel to the seamen. His religion is much harsher.  “Terrors run through his soul. In all his cringing attitudes, the God-fugitive is now too plainly known.” These men know they must fear God.

Jonah sails right into the storm and sinks into the sea leaving smooth water behind. And he drops into “the opening maw of hell.” As the preacher says, “here shipmates, is true repentance, not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.” Jonah “being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of unwelcome truths.” After all, “God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom.” Like Ahab later is swallowed by the whale and dragged to his doom. As the preacher preached,


“Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet –out of the belly of hell—when the whale engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish: and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breaching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air earth; and vomited out Jonah upon the dry land… Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood!”


And then in a line that echoes the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I will get to when I consider that classic, “Woe to him who would be true, even though to be false were salvation.” How is that possible? You will have to wait on this meandering journey. This is the woe of the rebel. As the preacher concludes,

“But oh shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe there is a sure-delight, and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. …Delight is to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, and stands forth his own inexorable self…Delight, top—gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges, no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven…O Father!—chiefly known to me by Thy rod—mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”


A powerful sermon indeed. And to follow God is hard. Too hard for some  on this voyage. Ishmael should have been warned.

Leave a Reply