Chapter 2 of the book of Jonah is one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture, or at least one of the stories most often told to children. It’s an easy image to exploit: a man thrown from a boat into the sea, swallowed by a big fish who brings him back to land safe and sound… It’s nice. Easy to tell, easy to imagine, easy to understand and remember. And when we read the story, we quickly identify with Jonah, who appears to be almost a caricature of things we have all felt.
The fish shows up in verse 17 of chapter 1: And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. And then in verse 10 of chapter 2: And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Interesting to note that this episode begins and ends with the fish obeying God, whereas Jonah himself is characterized by disobedience…) So this chapter tells us what went on while Jonah was inside this fish, and focuses most especially on the state of his heart—verses 3 to 10 relate Jonah’s prayer to God from the belly of the fish.
This is the prayer we’re going to look at this morning, to understand what it tells us not only about Jonah’s heart, but our own. And as we saw last week, we’ll see that this chapter exposes to us sinful tendencies in ourselves, through those we see in the prophet Jonah.
1) Jonah, Perfectly Saved by God…
Last week we saw that God called Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, to warn its resident of God’s imminent judgment against their sin. We see later on that the people of Nineveh are violent, wicked people. So God commissions Jonah to go warn them that God will destroy them if they continue. Jonah got up from where he was, but went in the opposite direction from where God had called him: He boarded a boat en route for Tarsis, whereas God had called him to Nineveh (modern-day Spain and Iraq, respectively), trying to escape God’s presence. And the boat is caught in a violent storm. The mariners cast lots to discover who sinned to bring them into this situation, and the lots fall to Jonah—Jonah admits his flight from God and, despairing of his call, is cast into the sea.
In verse 5-6 we read Jonah’s own description of the scene: 5 The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. Jonah is in the Mediterranean Sea, without a life vest—and to make matters even more dire, he is swallowed by a huge fish. So his chances of running across a boat which could pick him up, or to simply be washed ashore, are pretty much gone. Occasionally we find things lost at sea (like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s plane, found 60 years after his disappearance), but if it’s swallowed by a fish, the search perimeter basically becomes all the seas in the whole world. So Jonah is absolutely lost: in verses 2-3 he describes himself as being in the belly of Sheol…[in] the heart of the seas. But God, in his grace, protects and saves him. He saves him from a situation that was 100% desperate and definitive—v. 2: I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me… V. 7: …you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. Jonah cries aloud his thanks to God in v. 9: I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!
So Jonah, who is utterly lost, is divinely saved. This is the first thing we see in this prayer: protection and rescue that God graciously gives to Jonah, who had called on him for help; the power of God to save; the joy of the saved one who narrowly escaped death; the knowledge that God alone can do this… These are things the text says, but are they the only reasons that Jonah’s prayer is in the bible? Is the goal of this prayer to teach us truths about divine protection and salvation which comes from God?
The context of this text doesn’t allow us to read the prayer like this. We saw in the last chapter that Jonah rebelled against God’s call when he fled. And we’ll see in chapters 3 and 4 that this episode with the fish, despite the vows he makes at the end of the chapter are not the end of his rebellion. His heart is still hardened to the grace of God; he will be profoundly angry when God’s grace is given to the Ninevites. In fact, in addition to the notions of protection and thankfulness, this prayer shows us darker sides of Jonah’s heart. It is a prayer of thanks; but it is missing the one thing which would show Jonah’s heart to be truly changed. It is a beautiful prayer, but a wildly incomplete one.
We need to understand not only what Jonah says in the prayer, but why this prayer comes here, in this story—why the author took the time to write it out for us in detail. In order to see this, we need to ask ourselves two questions: First, what does Jonah say (or, what is the content of his prayer)? And secondly, what does he not say? What should be here, but isn’t?
2) Jonah, Not Yet Saved from His Imperfections
First, let’s look at what he says. I don’t know if you felt this while you were reading, but there are three verses here that strike us as very odd, when put together with the rest. The first is verse 3. Jonah says, For YOU cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all YOUR waves and YOUR billows passed over me. What is strange here is that Jonah seems to be attributing his situation entirely to God. We don’t have the impression that Jonah considers himself responsible for what happened, deserving of God’s judgment on him. He is the one who decided not to obey God. Even if God is sovereign over all things, it was Jonah who fled from God, it was Jonah who got on the boat which brought him out to see. Jonah never expresses any realization that he is responsible for this personal shipwreck. He never admits his sin or his guilt.
There is also verse 8, where Jonah affirms something which is at least superficially true: Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. This makes sense: it’s logical to say that the more we replace God with other things that are not God, the further we separate ourselves from him. But in this story at any rate, that’s not what happens! The only people in the book of Jonah who repent are idolators! First, the mariners, who are clearly idolatrous (chapter 1, verse 5: Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god), end up offering sacrifices to the one true God at the end of chapter 1. That is, by their sacrifice and vows they admit their sin and take steps to turn from it. The Ninivites as well benefit from God’s grace when they repent and God relents from what he had said he would do to them (which we’ll see next week). So in this story, idolators are not too far from God for his grace to reach them. Those whom we would call “lost” because of their actions are in fact in reach of God’s transforming work and forgiveness.
Lastly, we have verse 9, where Jonah affirms that he will pay what he has vowed—he will do what he has promised. We know from what comes afterward that this is at least half true, half false. He will go to Nineveh according to God’s call, but clearly (as we see in chapter 4), his heart is not in it. His obedience is mechanical; he proves by his attitude that he has no desire to obey God; he has no desire to see the Ninevites forgiven—he even gets angry when they are!
So this prayer is not in this story primarily to teach us truths about divine protection, but rather to make us see Jonah’s heart, which despite all his pretty words, is still hard—he’s quite simply happy God saved his own skin.
Now, what is missing from this prayer? I’d like to read a short passage from Psalm 51, which David wrote following his criminal acts with Bathsheba and her husband. In this psalm, we see a radical contrast with Jonah’s prayer, a disposition of the heart which is cruelly missing in Jonah’s case. 1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. 6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
In this psalm, David’s repentance, his brokenness over his own sin, is striking. He has sinned; he has disobeyed God; and he confesses. He asks God to renew his heart, to give him a pure heart which would no longer desire the things he has just done. This is not happening with Jonah. There is no evidence in Jonah’s prayer of regret, nor of the desire for God to transform his heart so that he might go to Nineveh hoping they might be saved. Even the king of Nineveh, this idolatrous and wicked city, repents in ways which put Jonah to shame (speaking to the people in chapter 3, verse 8, he says, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands”). The mariners as well show their repentance through the sacrifice which they offer to God. But Jonah does not do any of this.
So there are two conclusions we can draw here. Firstly, Jonah clearly thinks that because God has saved his life, things must be right between them; if God has saved me, I must be close to him! But this isn’t the case: his life being saved does not mean his heart has changed. The circumstances he’s going through and the grace God has shown him blind him to the fact that his heart desperately needs help.
Secondly, Jonah compares himself to the idolators, putting himself above them, imagining that he has received grace that they don’t deserve. His thankfulness is real and right and sincere; but it is nevertheless self-centered—he thinks of his relationship with God rather than thinking of what his call from God. He doesn’t see that in all likelihood, God saved Jonah not for Jonah, but for the Ninevites—that Jonah might do what God called him to do and preach repentance to them. Jonah feels superior to them because he doesn’t practice the same wicked acts; because he doesn’t act like them, his heart must be different from theirs; he is closer to God. To give us a contrasting example, think of the way Jesus considered those who hurt him, who nailed him to the cross. Rather than arrogantly placing himself above them, he speaks love to them: And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.34).
It could be easy for us to judge Jonah here—clearly, what he is doing is not right. But we shouldn’t fall too quickly into accusation without recognizing that we are like him. We spoke about this in our community group Wednesday night: we can see ourselves in Jonah—he looks and acts very much like we do! We have this same tendency to believe that our hearts, our thoughts, our values, are better than those of others, or at any rate better than what they actually are. We all have this sinful tendency to be more shocked by others’ sin than by our own.
We can clearly see what’s going on with Jonah here—but what about us? Through this text, God calls us to ask ourselves some questions. Firstly, do I consider myself superior to those who haven’t received the same grace we have? Jonah imagines that because God saved him in the sea, he must be better than these idolators who forsake their hope of steadfast love. Do we believe that what God has given us is somehow proportionate to our faith, our relationship with him? “I’m doing well; I have all I need; so I must be right with God!” But our relationship with God cannot be measured by how much he has blessed us.
Do I believe, even implicitly, that because I received the promotion I dreamed of, or because I was able to buy this excellent, well-situated apartment, or because I make a good living, that means that all is right between me and God? And inversely, when everything seems to be falling apart, do I have a tendency to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Jonah imagines that because God saved him in the sea, he must be better than these idolators who forsake their hope of steadfast love—whereas God saved Jonah in order to save those very people. Let us be thankful when everything is good; let us pray fervently when everything falls apart. But let us not imagine that if things are going well, it must be because God is proud of me; and let us not imagine that if everything is falling apart, it must be because God is angry with me. God blesses us for his glory and our joy, and he causes us to go through trials for his glory and our joy; the proof of our right standing with God is the faith that he has given us in his Son, who died to make us right with God.
Second question: Do I think I am more deserving of God’s grace than those who don’t have faith in him? God saves Jonah; he loves him and wants to protect him. This is true. But he saves him so that he might fulfill his calling to go to the residents of Nineveh and preach repentance to them.
This text displays the pride (rather paradoxical but very real) that people can draw from being saved and forgiven by God. It’s paradoxical because we are saved by pure grace, through faith—and this does not come from us, but is the gift of God. We can quickly consider ourselves above, more deserving of others, and thus despise the grace God has shown us. God came to get me where I was, to bring me into his presence, so I recognize my sin—I am responsible for my sin, Lord, and your grace alone brought me to live, independently of what I have done or thought. This is David’s prayer: 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment (Psalm 51.3-4).
If you are a Christian saved by grace, how do you consider that grace? Do you stop at gratitude and an understanding of God’s power? We must never content ourselves with mere thankfulness; because we are thankful, we ask God to sanctify us for his service. God has given us grace not because we are better than others, but so that we might share it with others, because we need the same Savior they do! We are all made of the same stuff! Share the gospel—show others the grace that you have received: give of your time, of your resources, of your energy, of your talents, for others. Do not let yourself be the only beneficiary of the grace God has given you.
We saw in Jonah’s prayer that he was missing the repentance that serves at the proof of our faith. And we also saw that we’re all in the same boat (so to speak). So this text calls us to ask one last question: Am I aware of my sin before God, and do I desire to repent of it? It is in approaching God that we are made aware of our sin; it is through prayer that God teaches us to see our sin as he sees it. Our sin is crystal clear when seen in comparison to his holiness, whereas there is no real gap between our sin and that of others, like Jonah did with the Ninevites. This is why we have a time of confession and repentance during each service: we want to recognize our sins and manifest our desire to sin no more. And this is what God calls each of us to do every day.
Last week we saw that our main question was not, “What is God calling me to do?” but rather, “How do I respond to what God has already called me to do in his Word?” In this chapter, the main question is not, “How has God blessed me?” but rather, “What shall I do with the blessings God has given me?”
The story of Jonah is not a cute story to tell to children. It is an easy story to tell, but one through which God speaks to us clearly and profoundly, by making us question our self-centered way of seeing the world around us. God saves us because he loves us; but also so that we might respond to his call to be holy. He saves us to use us, for his glory and our joy.