Jonah: The Rescued Prophet – learning lessons the easy way (Jonah 1:17-2:10)
Three ministers were talking
about prayer in general and the appropriate and effective positions for prayer.
As they were talking, a telephone repairman was working on the phone system in
the background. One minister shared that he felt the key was in the hands. He
always held his hands together and pointed them upward as a form of symbolic
worship. The second suggested that real prayer was conducted on your knees. The
third suggested that they both had it wrong--the only position worth its salt
was to pray while stretched out flat on your face.
By this time the phone man couldn’t stay out of the conversation any longer. He interjected, "I found that the most powerful prayer I ever made was while I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole, suspended forty feet above the ground." Jonah’s most powerful prayer was probably prayed from the belly of a fish. There are two ways to learn a lesson – the hard way and the easy way. The hard way is when we have to endure the lesson ourselves. The easy way is when we learn from someone else’s lesson without having to repeat it. That is why Jonah’s lesson is in the Bible.
“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
In today’s passage, we begin with Jonah swallowed by a great fish and end with him being vomited out back on dry land. In between we have this beautiful little psalm praising God for lessons learnt – in his case, the hard way – from being self centred to being God centred, from running away from God’s will to humbly submitting to God’s will. Lets learn from Jonah’s prayer the easy way shall we?
Before we do, let us note the context. Two weeks ago Francis gave us an introduction to Jonah and the first chapter. Lets recap:
In the half-century during which the prophet Jonah ministered (800-750 B.C.), a significant event affected the northern kingdom of Israel: King Jeroboam II (793-753) restored Israel’s traditional borders. Yet the Lord sent Amos and Hosea to announce to his people that he would "spare them no longer" (Am 7:8; 8:2) but would send them into exile to Assyria (Hos 9:3; 10:6; 11:5). During this same time the Lord also sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn that his judgment would extend to them also, unless they turned from their evil ways.
The primary purpose of the book of Jonah is to show the compassionate character of God, and challenge God’s people to reflect upon their own compassion for the lost. The purpose? The salvation of the world.
The book of Jonah is, “a literary masterpiece.” While the story line is so simple that children follow it readily, the story is also marked by literary sophistication. The author employs structure, humour, hyperbole, irony and satire to communicate his message with great rhetorical power.
The book is essentially a funny story – satire used to great effect to expose vice or folly. Note, (1) the object of the satire is Jonah himself and what he represents—a bigotry and ethnocentrism that regarded God as the exclusive property of believers; (2) the purpose of the satire is to expose Jonah's critical attitudes compared with God’s mercy, a mercy not limited by national boundaries; (3) the vehicle of the satire is a vivid, memorable funny story, with Jonah emerging as a laughable figure—someone who runs away from God and is caught by a fish, a childish and pouting prophet who prefers death over life without his tree in the shade.
The book is carefully constructed around seven episodes, like the creation narrative with three sets of parallels:
7. Jonah's lesson about compassion (4:5–11) “should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh?”
3. Jonah's grateful prayer (1:17–2:10) How does Jonah respond to God’s grace toward him?
6. Jonah's angry prayer (4:1–4)
How does Jonah respond to God’s grace to others?
2. 2. Jonah and the pagan sailors (1:4–16) How responsive are the pagan sailors?
5. Jonah and the pagan Ninevites (3:3b–10) How responsive are the pagan Ninevites?
1. 1. Jonah's commissioning and flight (1:1–3) What will happen to Jonah?
4. 4. Jonah's recommissioning and compliance (3:1–3a) What will happen to the Ninevites?
The first three episodes are paralleled by the second three. By this paralleling Jonah invites us to make a number of comparisons and contrasts. The final episode is unparalleled and stands out as the climax of the story. It ends with the penetrating question, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)
Lets now turn to chapter 2.
1.aNotice Where Jonah Prayed
“Now the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God.” (Jonah 1:17-2:1)
We don’t know for sure what kind of fish swallowed Jonah. But the top contender would have to be the Sperm Whale. It is the largest animal in the Mediterranean Sea and can grow to over 60 ft long. An average sperm whale has a mouth 20 feet long, 15 feet high and 9 feet wide. We might prefer a nice, quiet, warm, dry place to pray; Jonah is given a very secluded if rather cramped and smelly, damp place. God now has Jonah’s undivided attention, and the prophet prays. When God brings a trial into our lives, He gives us time to contemplate the lessons He is teaching. Jonah had 3 days. We may feel swallowed up by circumstance, but we have the assurance that what God brings to us is always for our good and His glory. Notice where Jonah prayed.
“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:1-7)
As we read these
verses what does it remind you of? The psalms of David. The parallels with
Psalm 18:4-6, Psalm 31:22 and Psalm 107:10-15, for example, are marked. This
should not be surprising. The reason that Jonah prays like the Psalms
is because he knew them. The psalms were the prayer book of the Jewish people –
and they continue to be. Jonah would have prayed and sang the psalms from an
early age. When you are in the belly of the fish, you don’t have much mental
energy to make up your own prayers, so you go with what you know. Jonah knew
the psalms. You may be feeling like you can identify with Jonah. Whether you
were running from God or not, you may feel like you have been through a storm,
and been thrown overboard into a raging sea. It is hard to pray in a stormy
situation. That is why it is good to have the psalms. When we can’t find the
words, they help us to pray. The Early Church Father Athanasius once said,
“Most of scripture speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us.”
Our prayers don’t have to be creative; they just have to be sincere. It’s been said, “for every sigh there’s a psalm” (Bill Gothard). Jonah’s brief psalm is an honest prayer —answered in a way he couldn’t possibly have anticipated.
Jonah is Aware of the Presence of
“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.” (Jonah 2:1-3)
If God had done nothing, Jonah’s fate would have been fitting. Yet, though deep in sin as well as water, Jonah prays; he couldn’t help it. He prays to the One he knew personally, not some impersonal force. Jonah knew his plight was his fault, yet when he “called to the Lord” (vs 1) and God responded. Jonah describes himself in the “depths of Sheol”, verse 2. This is an OT Hebrew term referring to the grave. Sheol is the condition of death. Jonah is admitting that he was as good as dead, but God reached out and rescued him! God was with him even in Sheol. Notice Jonah acknowledges his guilt. In verse 3: “You hurled me into the deep…all Your waves and breakers swept over me.” Underline (at least in your thinking) the words “You” & “Your”. Jonah knows that it wasn’t chance, circumstance, luck, or blind fate that caused his dilemma. Neither does he blame the sailors; they were merely God’s instruments, God’s means of discipline and restoration. Aware of the presence of God.
Jonah Acknowledges the Providence of
“I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, LORD my God,
brought my life up from the pit. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:4-7)
Jonah isn’t praying to be saved
from the fish but thanking God for being saved by the fish. He understands that
his deliverance from drowning and his rescue by the fish is because of the
providence of God. He is in the fish to be disciplined not punished. Punishment
looks back at what was done. Discipline looks forward to what might be. How do
we respond to correction? A father who loves his children doesn’t turn his back
on them when they go astray. God’s discipline is evidence of His love for us.
“It is better to fall into the hands of God, even in correction, than to be apart from Him.” Jonah cries in verse 4, “I have been driven from Your sight.” The word “sight” could be translated “favour”. The door of life appeared to shut with a terrible finality. Each wave howled into his ear: “Jonah, you deserve this.” In verses 5-6 Jonah describes the horror of his plight. The “roots of the mountains” refers to the mountainous ocean depths. Though things couldn’t seem worse, Jonah exercises hope in verse 4: “…yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.” Faith dares to approach God, knowing that we’re sinful people undeserving of mercy. We may spiritually sink as deep as Jonah, yet God will not abandon us. Jonah may have been thrown out of a ship, but he fell into the arms of God. We have Christ’s added promise:
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28). .To be apart from God is a hell worse than we could imagine. Jonah is aware of the presence of God; Jonah acknowledges the providence of God.
Jonah Affirms the Purposes of God
“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ ” (Jonah 2:8-9)
Verses 8-9 is a reaffirmation of
faith; this is his vow of praise. It’s one thing to confess our sins; it’s
entirely another to do something about them. Both chapters one and two end with
sacrifice and vows. Jonah is at last brought to the point the Gentile sailors
had already reached. Jonah agrees to obey God’s call.
Jonah speaks of “worthless idols” in verse 8, referring to Ninevah. We may not think of ourselves as idolaters, yet idolatry is any worthless endeavour that takes the place of God. We may bow to the idols of ambition, greed, and pride. Jonah is aware of the presence of God. He acknowledges the providence of God. He affirms the purposes of God. We have considered where Jonah prayed and what Jonah prayed. Finally lets observe,
3.aWhy Jonah Prayed
Jonah Worships a Saving God
“What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ (Jonah 2:9)
Jonah had chosen the sea as his escape route and it was there that the Lord awaited him. The conclusion here echoes 1:16. As the sailors celebrated their deliverance with sacrifices and vows, so Jonah now promises to do the same. This is the theme of the entire Bible and the key verse of this book. Salvation is a gift of God’s grace. “God loves us not because of who we are and what we have done, but because of who He is” (Phillip Yancy). If you are at all uncertain as to whether this was an historical event, remember that Jesus thought so. For the Lord Jesus, Jonah was a sign. A sign of his own work of salvation – his death and resurrection.
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:40-41)
For Jonah the belly of a fish wasn’t a pleasant place to live, but it was a good place to learn the hard way of God’s salvation - by first hand experience. Jonah returned to God, not as someone expecting special privileges, but as a rebel knowing he had been rescued from himself. In the depths of the sea he was not only stripped of his tan but also his pride. The highest moment of our life is the moment when we kneel and turn to God, confessing our sins. Jonah worships a Saving God.
Jonah Depends on a Sovereign God
“And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” (Jonah 2:10)
Jonah is literally carried
along by the sovereignty of God. Just as the fish obediently rescued Jonah from
drowning, so now the fish obediently spews up this indigestible prophet. Notice
in verse 1. Jonah speaks to the Lord, but in verse 10, the Lord speaks to the
fish! The Lord calls an obedient fish to do his will to help a rebellious
prophet do his. Jonah worships a saving God.
He depends on a sovereign God.
Jonah Obeys a ‘Second Chance’ God
“Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:1-2)
God gave Jonah a second chance. Many believe Jonah was delivered back to the beach at Joppa. Just like in Monopoly: he must “return to go”. I like to think Jonah’s arrived back in Joppa, during the Monday morning “rush hour”, in full view of everyone, his skin bleached white, his hair standing on end, his clothes smelling like a fish market, … So by the time he arrived in Nineveh, news of his albino appearance and his miraculous deliverance would have preceded him, adding credibility and weight to his message. Through Jonah we learn that we follow a God of second chances. We may at times give up on him, but he will not give up on us.
It is then perhaps not surprising that for centuries, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, the Book of Jonah was read as part of the liturgy as a penitential and confessional prayer.
We have grown accustomed to sin and the fragments of scripture lie shattered in our life; charity has withered with calculation and the sparks of purity have burnt out. Yet still we come on Yom Kippur and God who said ‘I have forgiven’ whispers it again to us and waits for our reply.
it be? What form will it take?
Let us repair what can still be repaired.
Let us give back the gain we earned by injustice.
Let us make peace with our injured brother.
Let us restore the person we wronged.
Let us admit what is false in ourselves.
Let us put right what is wrong in our family life.
Let us not sour the joy of living.
The gates of His mercy are still open. Let us enter in. Amen.
As we shall see next week,
there are several more lessons for Jonah to learn about the compassion and the
grace of God.
For now, I wonder what lessons you have and will learn from Jonah’s prayer this week. Whether they are hard lessons or easy lessons depends largely on you.
With grateful thanks to:
James Bruckner: Jonah NIV
Application Commentary (Zondervan)
Jacques Ellul, The Judgement of Jonah (Eerdmans)
Rosemary Nixon, Jonah Bible Speaks Today (IVP)
Andrew Reid, Warning Signs: Jonah (Matthias Media)
And also sermons by:
Mark Axelrod, “Responding to Tough
Peter Bines, “Prayer in a Humble Place”
Joshua Coogler “Jonah Praying”
Robert Leroe “The Psalm of Jonah”
Tim Richards, “Jonah Running to God”
Mike Wilkins “Praying in the Belly of a Fish”
Accessible from www.sermoncentral.com