Whale, Whale, Whale, It’s Maundy Thursday Again

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is not the easiest book to read. A large part of it has to do with the way that Melville swamps his readers with details. For an example of his minutiae, look no further than the sermon delivered by Father Mapple in the Whaleman’s Chapel. Another author may have simply written “From the pulpit, Father Mapple began to preach about Jonah, describing the prophet’s sin and God’s wrath.” Melville, on the other hand, writes out every word of the preacher’s sermon. In the Oxford University Press paperback edition, Melville’s sermon takes almost nine pages.

And truth be told, not only does Melville write an entire sermon, he writes a good sermon. In preaching on Jonah, Father Mapple illustrates a point of Lutheran preaching that’s often misunderstood. When people hear about Law and Gospel preaching, it often conjures up images of balance: Half the sermon should be Law, half the sermon should be Gospel. Don’t go into either ditch, but keep on the narrow road. Find the proper mix of responsibility and freedom.


However, for Luther and those who follow in his footsteps, the key is not balance. The key to Lutheran preaching is to preach 100% of the Law and 100% of the Gospel in every sermon, and that almost never leads to a sermon equally divided between the two. Father Mapple understand this and illustrates it. For eight pages, Mapple thunders, hammering home Jonah’s sins and God’s wrath. He leaves Jonah and his hearers no escape from the hand of God. He drowns his readers in a sea of Law until they sink straight to the bottom. But then, when his hearers flounder in the watery depths, in two sentences, he preaches the Gospel: “Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet-‘out of the belly of hell”-when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the 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 breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

That’s it. Eight pages of Law, 2 sentences of Gospel. But each preached 100%.

Quotations from Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. 41-49.

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