READ : Jonah 2:1-10
People in trouble have prayed prayers of desperation in some pretty unusual circumstances, but I doubt that any prayer has ever been offered from a stranger place than Jonah’s.
If you know something of the story of the prophet Jonah, you might recall that Jonah was given a commission from the Lord to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, but Jonah didn’t want to do that. Instead, he ran away in the opposite direction. He set sail for Spain, but the Lord interrupted his flight by sending a great storm, and when the sailors on board the ship discovered that Jonah was the cause of it, they cast him overboard. That should have been the end of Jonah’s story, but it wasn’t because God was determined that Jonah should fulfill the purpose God had intended for him. So we read at the end of Jonah 1 that the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah and that Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights. And then this statement: “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God” (2:1, niv).
I was once talking about the story of Jonah to a group of children who found a lot of things there that puzzled them. “When Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, why did he run the other way?” one of them asked. Small children, you see, are taught to obey their parents and others in authority. They find it hard to believe that someone would dare to disobey God in such a spectacular fashion. “If Jonah was a prophet,” another one wanted to know, “why didn’t he trust God?” That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer to that one. In fact, I don’t know why I don’t trust God more either. But the one question on every child’s mind was the one about the whale. How in the world could that ever have happened?
Actually, according to the Bible, the answer is fairly simple. First of all, it wasn’t necessarily a whale at all, even though we talk always about “Jonah and the whale.” The Bible says that the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah and that he was inside the fish for three days and three nights. This obviously was not a natural or a normal occurrence. It was a miracle from start to finish. Either God created a special fish to swallow Jonah uniquely, or he must have modified an existing one in fairly significant ways. As one noted Christian commentator said, Jonah “was received inside the fish as if it were a hospital” (John Calvin). Patrick Fairbairn, a great Scottish preacher of the last century, put it this way, “The devourer is transformed into a house of safety.”
Of course, many people read this story today and conclude that it never could have happened. “This is the stuff of legend,” they say. The story of Jonah has to be classed among the fairy tales of the world. But interestingly, Jesus Christ didn’t seem to think that. He spoke about Jonah as a real flesh and blood man, and he referred to Jonah’s story as something that actually happened. I tend to think that too, because, you see, if God was involved in it (and the Bible says that he was), then, of course, anything could have happened. There’s a great deal for us to learn by listening to Jonah while he’s inside the belly of the fish, but before we do that, let’s recall again just how he got there.
The whole story up to this point is really a tale of Jonah’s decline. To decline means literally “to go down” and Jonah has done exactly that from the very beginning. His whole course from the moment he decided to try to run away from God has been downhill. He first went down to Joppa (1:3), traveling from the hill country of Israel down to the coast of the sea, the Mediterranean. Then he went down into the hold of the ship (1:5) in which he was trying to flee. Eventually he went overboard into the sea (1:15) where he sank down, down into the depths until, according to Jonah, chapter 2, the deep surrounded him and the seaweed was wrapped around his head, down to the very roots of the mountains he sank (2:5,6).
Jonah’s physical descent mirrors his spiritual decline. The fact is, throughout this whole time of disobedience, Jonah is being degraded and humiliated. He is being brought low. Aside from everything else, his whole experience was profoundly embarrassing. What a thing for the prophet of the living God to go through! Did he really think he could escape God, that if only he got far enough away from the land of Israel, God would lose track of him and be unable to reach him? Did he imagine that the God of the Bible was some local deity whose power extended only as far as the territory of his tribe?
The low point for Jonah seemed to come on board ship in front of its pagan crew. Imagine one of God’s spokesmen being called to prayer by a group of sailors! Sailors as a class are not distinguished for their piety or devotion. Think of Jonah sitting there while they cast lots to determine who the guilty party was and then all turned to look at him accusingly when he was singled out. It was all so embarrassing for a man of God. Then they picked him up like the useless cargo he was and flung him into the sea, where he would sink to an ignominious death. How far it is possible to fall from the life God intends for us!
But that’s exactly what happens to people who try to push God out of their lives, or ignore him, or run away from him, or live as if God doesn’t matter. When people do that, they start to slide downward. Their lives begin to unravel and sooner or later they hit rock bottom. Sometimes it happens at the moment they die, but often long before that.
One of the hard rules of life is that you can’t ignore or contradict reality forever. Sooner or later, reality catches up with you. And God is ultimate reality. Have you ever seen a little child playing the game where they hold their hands up in front of their face and cry, “You can’t see me”? That’s cute in a toddler, but it’s not so cute in an adult. You can’t live as if God doesn’t see you, as if he has no claim upon you or authority over what you do. When you try to do that, your life will start to decline. Bit by bit, you’ll begin to slide into the depths, and if you go on sliding long enough, you will lose your humanity altogether.
Chapter 2 of the book of Jonah begins with a simple statement. “From inside the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” It seems like a minor detail but this is no small thing. Quite literally, it is a turning point for it marks the moment when Jonah stopped running from God and turned back toward him for help. Jonah’s call from the depths is a powerful and a moving prayer. Listen to part of it:
In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me,
From the depths of the grave 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. . . .
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 brought up my life up from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.
Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
Salvation comes from the Lord.
This prayer reads very much like one of the Old Testament psalms. In fact, someone has counted 16 different allusions to the book of psalms here in Jonah’s prayer. One explanation for this is that when Jonah was in trouble, he found comfort and strength from remembering and piecing together the words of Scripture.
Listen carefully to what Jonah says. You’ll find wonderfully descriptive language about his predicament. He was in “the depths of the grave” when he called to God for help. One can almost feel the pounding of the storm as Jonah was “hurled into the deep,” and “the currents swirled about” him and “the engulfing waters threatened” him. Then Jonah sinks deeper and deeper, so far down it seems to him as if he had reached the place where the mountains had their roots.
I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that. Have you ever been in such trouble that it seemed like there was no way out? Have you ever been down so low, in so deep, that you were sure there was no escape? What did you do then?
Jonah had only one option left. He remembered the Lord. He called to God for help. But wait a minute! God was the very one Jonah had been avoiding. He was disobeying God. He had let God down. He had failed the crucial test. What right did Jonah have now to suddenly remember the Lord and turn to him and cry out for help?
The answer is: he had no right at all, no more than any of us do. But here’s an amazing thing: whoever we are, whatever we may have done, however deep the hole in which we’ve sunk, however far we’ve gone from God, if we turn back to him, if we call on his name really meaning what we say, God will listen. “From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.”
You’d think that God would grow tired of being used like that, being taken advantage of, so to speak. You might imagine that he would not respond to people who spent years and years ignoring and offending him and then on their death bed or some place like that, suddenly turning and asking him to save them. But God is wonderfully patient. He doesn’t react the way you or I might. It really is amazing grace he offers to us.
The important thing, though, to remember is this – when you call from the depths for help, you must be sure it is the real God on whom you call. Listen again to Jonah,
Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs . . . Salvation comes from the Lord.
One of the things that always saddens me is the sight of people calling on other gods for help. Recently I was in a country where most people worship idols in the literal sense. I visited a temple there and watched as a steady stream of people came to offer their prayers before a group of statues. “Worthless idols,” Jonah calls them. Worthless because they aren’t really gods at all. They can’t do anything to help us.
But don’t forget, an idol can be anything to which someone gives their allegiance and trust in place of the living God. For many people today money is an idol. Science and technology are idols. Property and possessions and power are idols, and “those who cling to these things forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
“When my life was ebbing away,” said Jonah, “I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you” (v. 7). What a wonderful phrase: Jonah remembered the Lord. Even more wonderful: The Lord remembered Jonah. And Jonah’s prayer was answered. As far as he had sunk, God raised him up again and restored him to life.
You know, there’s an important connection between Jonah in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament. One day some people came to Jesus and asked him for a sign to prove that he truly was the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus told them the only sign he would give was the sign of Jonah. What was the sign of Jonah? It was to be buried in the grave for three days and nights, as Jonah was in the belly of the fish, and then to be raised up again to life by the mighty power of God. In Jonah’s case, the death and resurrection were figurative, but for Jesus they were as real as they could be.
Do you know what difference that can make in your life? Those of us who know and trust in the Lord Jesus have the hope of deliverance from death itself. None of us can escape death. We’re all sliding downward toward the grave, that grim devourer of all life and hope and joy and happiness. But because of Jesus Christ, “the devourer is transformed into a house of safety” for everyone who belongs to him. Don’t you want that to be true for you? Then why don’t you remember the Lord and call on his name? Do it now.