Father Mapple almost seems to think that he’s actually still on a ship: he uses maritime terminology to order the congregation to cluster together.
Father Mapple leads the congregation in a prayer and a hymn. The hymn, a version of Psalm 18, is a Jonah-esque tale of being trapped in the belly of a whale and escaping.
Then Father Mapple begins preaching on—what else?—the story of Jonah and the whale, focusing especially on Jonah’s disobedience toward God’s commands. We think you will agree that Ishmael’s made it pretty clear by now that the main topic of this novel will be whaling.
(At this point it might be useful for you to read the Book of Jonah, which is (a) really short, and (b) pretty important background for this chapter in particular, and for Moby-Dick in general.)
Father Mapple retells the story of Jonah to the congregation in his own way, modernizing it a little and making the seafaring details more concrete:
Disobeying God, Jonah decides to flee God’s wrath by getting on a ship made by men and going across the known world.
As Jonah tries to book passage on a ship, Father Mapple imagines his fear that he will be discovered and the suspicion of the mariners that he has committed some terrible crime.
Father Mapple further imagines that the captain of the ship can tell Jonah has a guilty conscience, but doesn’t care because Jonah pays for his passage on the ship ahead of time—and pays much more than the going rate.
Jonah then goes into his cabin and lies down, but can’t lock the door because he doesn’t have a key.
The small, cramped cabin foreshadows Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale.
Jonah watches the lamp that hangs from the ceiling swinging slowly; he knows the lamp is hanging straight because of gravity, and that makes it obvious that everything else is crooked as the ship rocks slowly back and forth.
Father Mapple makes this an allegory for Jonah’s conscience (like the lamp, it always hangs straight) and his soul (which is all crooked-like).
Finally Jonah falls asleep as the ship sails on.
As Jonah sleeps, a fierce storm blows up, and all the sailors work hard to keep the ship from sinking.
The captain goes to Jonah to wake him, and Jonah stumbles out onto the deck.
The sailors vote (or "cast lots") to find the cursed one responsible for the violent storm, and they decide it must be Jonah.
The sailors start asking him questions about who he is and where he comes from.
Jonah explains that he is a Hebrew who has defied God.
Jonah doesn’t ask God for forgiveness yet, but he tells the sailors they should throw him overboard and save themselves.
The sailors try to save the ship without throwing Jonah overboard, but eventually they give up and take him up on the offer.
Suddenly, the sea calms: the storm is centered on Jonah personally.
Whirled around by his own personal storm, Jonah almost doesn’t notice when the whale swallows him.
In the whale’s belly, Jonah prays to God for forgiveness, but not for his punishment to end.
Jonah accepts God’s punishment as justice, which is why, says Father Mapple, God eventually has mercy on him.
Father Mapple pauses for a moment, and then explains that the story he’s just related is the lesson regular churchgoers should derive from the story of Jonah.
As a clergyman, there is another, more difficult lesson that he must accept personally: if someone chosen by God to be a prophet or a leader refuses to preach the truth, as Jonah did, then God will visit a terrible punishment on him.
However, Father Mapple says, the reverse is even more true—God will grant favor and delight to those who do preach the truth.
Father Mapple blesses the congregation and kneels, covering his face with his hands, while everyone leaves the chapel.