Jonah: Swallowed Up by God’s Grace
Week Two: the REPENTENT PROPHET
Last week we began our consideration of the book of Jonah where we saw in chapter 1 a RUNAWAY prophet, a ship’s frightened crew, and a saving God. Because of God’s universal grace, He intends to save a heathen city (Nineveh), a bunch of pagan sailors, AND a runaway prophet.
In chapter one, the narrator gives us details about Jonah’s actions…his disobedient, rebellious actions, along with God’s unique way of saving everybody in the story. This morning let’s read the second of these four chapters as we begin to get a sense of Jonah’s heart. [Read Jonah 2]
It has likely NOT escaped your notice that THIS chapter is vastly different from the first. Whereas chapter 1 is written from a historical point of view, chapter 2 is poetry rather than narratival. Nonetheless, this poem offers insights into Jonah’s heart from a historical perspective. More on that in a minute.
First, I want us to notice the “bookends” the writer uses to encapsulate the poem. It really begins with the last verse of chapter 1à “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fist three days and three nights.” At the end of the poem, the writer gives us another bookendà “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
Let’s camp here for a minute and focus on what God did for and to Jonah THROUGH this “creature.” God “provided” a huge fish to save Jonah; then God commanded that fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land, presumably near where he started in Joppa.
What about this FISH? What was it? Of course, the children’s story version of this “tale” is that it was a whale. A whale of a tale! If it was a whale, why not just call it a whale? The Hebrew word used here is dag (“dawg”), the same word used by God when speaking to Noah following the Great Flood, telling Noah that fear and dread of man will fall on all beasts, birds, and dags, fish, of the sea. It’s a generic term for all swimming creatures in the waters, of which there are many. According to one source, there are over 33,000 known species of fish!
But THIS one fish has to be big enough to engulf a man without harming or killing him. Could a whale do that? Maybe, if it’s big enough. According to 18th and 19th century testimonies from the whale industry, the sperm whale not only can grow large enough, but also has two distinct features that make one of them a possible character in our story. First, they tend to swallow giant squid whole. And second, they have more than one stomach, so it is possible that one stomach could occupy a rebellious prophet while the other digest squid! So, if you want to call the fish in this story a whale, then be my guest!
But what OTHER sea creature mentioned in Scripture might be large enough to swallow a man live? What about a Leviathan? That’s the Hebrew word for serpent or sea monster and is mentioned 6 times in the OT. In Job—after 37 chapters of Job arguing his case of righteousness to his friends, the Lord shows up and puts Job in his place. In Job 41, the Lord questions whether Job could control the sea monster [Leviathan] like God can. Listen: 1“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? 2Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? 3Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? 4Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? 5Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?”
Here’s the point I don’t want you to miss. Whether the live sea vessel that saved Job was a common whale or a sinister serpent representing evil, our great and awesome God APPOINTED it to save Jonah. God not only controls the seas and the weather [remember, he caused the storm, then he caused it to cease when Jonah was thrown into the sea], but our great and awesome God controls every living creature…INCLUDING WHALES AND SEA MONSTERS.
I’m not certain the struggles you’ve faced (or are facing). Maybe the uncertainty of a life-threatening diagnosis has you tangled up in seaweed. Perhaps you’re drowning in debt. It could be you’ve got family members so far from God and so close to jailtime, or chemical dependency that you feel like your suffocating emotionally.
But one major truth we need to hear this morning is this: God appoints everything in due season for his glory and our salvation! He appointed Jonah to speak to Nineveh in order to save them. Instead Jonah runs the other way. Then God appointed the storm to get his attention…and that of the crew on the ship…and then he appointed it to stop. He appointed the whale…or sea monster…to swallow Jonah live and unharmed. This creature is NOT the protagonist of the story…it is the agent of God for Jonah’s salvation. [Later in chapter four, we will see that God appointed both a plant and a worm to prove a point to Jonah about God’s universal, redemptive grace. Stay tuned!]
Our God is good and our God is great! He can do ALL things! He can heal the sick…eradicate cancer…restore marriages…move people out of debt…liberate people from anxiety and depression…and more! God can remove our sin and give us NEW LIFE in Jesus Christ! AMEN!
Now, let’s take a look at the prayer poem of Jonah, the heart of chapter two. It begins like this: “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.” This summary statement sets the stage for the way Jonah describes his condition: disciplined by God, a sense of banishment, sinking further and further away from God.
Again, many of us know this feeling. We’ve lived a life of rebellion from God, all the while knowing it was wrong. Still, we either couldn’t or wouldn’t seek the way out. We kept running from God…doing the same things…living for ourselves instead of God and others. God will often give us enough rope to hang ourselves. Truth is, most of us are where we are spiritually, emotionally, financially, and physically because of our own doing. We’ve made wrong, sinful choices. Or, when others have hurt us, we came to believe and act on those beliefs that became self-destructive. Resentment, bitterness, unforgiving, self-pitying. The enemy has used all these attitudes to choke us deep under the waters. It’s time to come up for air!
When we turn to Jesus…when we turn to God’s Word to understand our worth and our purpose, we can begin to see the surface of the waters. Salvation is a breath away!
The words of this prayer are more like a hymn Jonah might have memorized from the Psalms—like Psalm 18. Listen to the first 6 verses:
1I love You, O LORD, my strength. 2The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer. My God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 3I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from my enemies. 4The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of chaos overwhelmed me. 5The cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. 6In my distress I called upon the LORD and I cried to my God for help. From His temple He heard my voice, and my cry for His help reached His ears.
There are strong similarities in Jonah’s prayer and David’s in Psalm 18 (and others). There are the chords of death (seaweed) encompassing him. There are torrents of chaos (God’s waves and breakers) overwhelming him. In both hymns, it was in distress that each troubled soul cried out to the Lord for help and in both cases, the Lord heard and responded to his child in distress.
Here’s the SECOND major point I want us to get this morning. The first point was about the greatness of God who can appoint whatever, whenever, to bring us help in our time of need. The second point is this: Calling out to God in times of trouble is a sure way to find salvation and peace amidst death and chaos.
But something we can’t miss. The prophet already had a relationship with Yahweh. He already knew God as deliverer of the children of Israel. Jonah knew the presence of God through the holy Temple. Twice in this hymn of prayer Jonah speaks of looking toward His holy temple…the place where God was known to dwell. But unlike the gods of other nations—who were territorial—we come to see that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God of John the Baptist, Peter the outspoken disciple, and Paul the persecutor turned church planter…is present EVERYWHERE!
I love how the psalmist puts it in chapter 139:7-12à 7Where can I go to escape Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? 8If I ascend to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. 9If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle by the farthest sea, 10even there Your hand will guide me; Your right hand will hold me fast. 11If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me”—12even the darkness is not dark to You, but the night shines like the day, for darkness is as light to You.
Surely these truths would have been in sight for Jonah as he toured the ocean depths in that unusual submarine creature. Though Jonah was in a dark place, he was in a SAFE place BECAUSE of God’s grace. And we are, too. It may seem dark to us now…either because of decisions we’ve made, lies we’ve come to believe, or wrongs committed against us…God is present.
I’ve given this quote before but it bears repeating here. Upon John Wesley’s deathbed, with Christian community gathered around him, the last words he spoke as he drifted from this life to the next, was “Best of all, God is with us.” No truer words have ever been spoken.
Because of God’s loving presence, we can endure any hardship, weather any storm. And God’s Word is a beacon of light drawing us to safer shores. That’s why reading, digesting, and living God’s Word is vital for disciples of Jesus Christ. It is in times of crisis when draw God’s truth from deep within us. That’s why Moses repeatedly warns the Israelites to have God’s Word on their heart and in their mind as they enter the Land flowing with milk and honey. It will become too easy to forget God’s deliverance, his providence, and his presence when they encounter other ways of doing life. In fact, they are told to remember at least 70 times in the OT.
Yes, Jonah knew God through the Scriptures. Out of the consequences of his rebellion against God and God’s grand and unique way of extending grace through a whale, Jonah came to know God through EXPERIENCE. Truth be told, many of us know Jesus through stories of old, but some of us are still waiting for our whale experience. We have YET to encounter the living Christ who continues to save…out of the depths of despair and gently onto God’s beautiful shore.
Jesus Christ had his own belly of the serpent experience. He willingly and lovingly endured suffering and death upon a cross so that we would not have to. And when he died, he was placed in a borrowed tomb…a Sheol of sorts…a place of the dead. But on the third day by the power of the Holy Spirit, that grave gave up its temporary visitor and Jesus walked out more alive than he ever was…a life that never ends. And because of HIS life, we too can experience NEW and EVERLASTING LIFE!! Have you cried out to Jesus from the depths of your struggles? Your doubts? Your pain? Jesus stands ready to snatch you up and plant your feet upon His Rock!
The story could end here, and it would have been EPIC; but there’s more. Next week we will look at chapter three when our hero gets a second chance to make a first impression. We will continue to see how God demonstrates his universal, reckless love to an undeserving, unworthy world. We will continue to see Jonah’s story as our story…a story of second chances…a story of hope. Why? Because we serve a mighty God who appoints anything at any time to:
- Get our attention
- Give us instruction
- Discipline us when we need it (because the Lord disciplines those he loves)
- AND to SAVE us when we cry out to him.
He appointed his only Son to take the penalty for the sins of the entire world so that we might be set free from sin and death! Our God is mighty to save! He not only gets glory when he saves us, but he also gets glory when we CALL OUT TO HIM. While God will give us enough rope to hang ourselves…or entangle us in a big knot, GOD IS AT THE END OF OUR ROPE!
God WANTS us to cry out to Him. And because we read and learn God’s Word of the Bible, WHEN we face times of trouble, we can cry out using God’s Word. He hears and He saves…in HIS way for HIS glory and OUR salvation and good. We will then KNOW God through His salvation.
As Joyce Myer and others have said, “God can turn any MESS into a MESSAGE, any TEST into a TESTIMONY, any TRIAL into a TRIUMPH, and any VICTIM into a VICTOR.” That is…IF…IF we cry out God, surrender our will to God’s will, turn away from self-destructive and self-serving thinking and behaviors, and start living for Jesus.
You’ve heard of “real and present danger?” I want to suggest to you that our God is a “REAL and PRESENT HELP” in times of trouble. Draw close to Jesus and HE will draw close to YOU. How? By the presence of His Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in the life of every believer. And if you don’t know Jesus personally, today you can have a REAL and PRESENT SALVATION” in Him. Call out to Him. Admit you’re a sinner in need of a Savior. Ask Jesus to come into your heart and save you. He will do just that…guaranteed. God’s Word confirms it!
All of us…draw close to God. He longs of a deeper, more intimate fellowship with you and me. Call out to him and He will answer. AMEN.