So you’ve been swallowed by a whale…now what? (Jonah 2)

Some days you eat the fish; some days the fish eats you.

And of course, there are times when it’s hard to distinguish between personal suffering and God’s wounds of grace—and there are still other times when the two will be one and the same.

Jonah had previously ran from God’s presence and found himself in the belly of a “great fish.”  In Jonah 1:17, we read:

“Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.”

But here, in the darkness and the deep, we see a glimmer of hope, and we hear the gospel through the utterances of this wayward prophet.

DID IT REALLY HAPPEN?

First, let’s get something out of the way.  Can we really trust that this story is reliable?  The whole thing sounds like the legendary stories of a primitive, pre-scientific culture.  Sure, we tell our kids about “Jonah and the whale,” but then we grow up and we learn that there’s no such thing as Mother Goose or Cinderella or the other tales from the world of make-believe.

After all, tales of great fish were common in the ancient world.  The Jews often spoke of a creature called “leviathan” which typically symbolized chaos and disorder.  And, as a point of clarity, we should note that the text never tells us that it was a whale.  In fact, I somehow doubt that Jonah even knew what sort of fish it was, and I doubt he bothered checking once his ordeal was over.

Still, we probably shouldn’t waste time trying to parse out what kind of fish this was or what kinds of fish men can live inside.  The point is that Jesus appeals to the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16, Luke 11) and seems to take the story quite literally, and if it’s good enough for Jesus then I suppose I’ll throw my lot in with the One who came back from the dead.

Dr. William Lane Craig suggests that maybe what happened is that Jonah actually died after being swallowed, and he was resurrected after being spit back onto the land.  The prayer in chapter 2 may then be a literary device.  Interesting, though I don’t agree.  First of all, why would it be easier to believe that God preserved Jonah then to believe God resurrected him?  If one miracle is to be believed, why not another?  But more importantly, Jonah’s prayer is more than a mere plot device.  It is the lynchpin of the story, and in the belly of the beast, we find the very heart of the Christian gospel.

ROLLING IN THE DEEP

The second chapter of the book of Jonah is an extended prayer.  Imagine, for a moment, the darkness that this man was plunged into.  The sounds, the coldness of the sea—maybe even the scarring of stomach acids or the constriction of fish guts.  In the midst of all that, Jonah offers this prayer:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish. 2 He said,

“I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble,
and he answered me.
I called to you from the land of the dead,
and Lord, you heard me!
3 You threw me into the ocean depths,
and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves.
4 Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence.
Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’

5 “I sank beneath the waves,
and the waters closed over me.
Seaweed wrapped itself around my head.
6 I sank down to the very roots of the mountains.
I was imprisoned in the earth,
whose gates lock shut forever.
But you, O Lord my God,
snatched me from the jaws of death!
7 As my life was slipping away,
I remembered the Lord.
And my earnest prayer went out to you
in your holy Temple.
8 Those who worship false gods
turn their backs on all God’s mercies.
9 But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise,
and I will fulfill all my vows.
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.” (Jonah 2:1-9)

In this darkest of moments, Jonah pulled from his memory bits and pieces of the psalms to affirm his trust in the Lord in all circumstances.  Now, it’s not hard to imagine that maybe later an editor came along to “tidy up” Jonah’s language here.  But I doubt that anyone had to put words in his mouth.  This was a man who went to the deepest place on earth and affirmed his trust in God.  And this, as we’ve said, is the heart of the gospel.

THE TRUE AND BETTER JONAH

After three days, Jonah’s prayer is answered:

10 Then the Lord ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach.

Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.” (Jonah 2:10—3:2)

Please don’t miss what’s happening here.  Please don’t sweep this aside as a mere fairy tale or moral fable.  This is more than a morality play.  This is a powerful testimony to God’s grace.  Jonah had disobeyed God before, choosing to flee from his very presence.  Now he learns that not only is there nowhere to run from God’s presence, but when God catches up his attitude toward sinners is of mercy and a second opportunity to serve his kingdom.

You see the greatest danger that we face is not that we might experience suffering—because we will.  The greatest danger that we face is not that we will fail God—because we all have.  The greatest danger is that we not recognize the circumstances around us working together for our good and God’s glory, and we therefore let God’s grace slide past us unnoticed and unappreciated.

Jonah is hardly the first to descend to the low places.  Paul tells his readers in Ephesus that “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

8 Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”

9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)  (Ephesians 4:7-10)

Jesus stepped from heaven to earth in order that he might show us grace and redeem mankind.  Jonah’s disobedience took him to the depths of the sea; Christ’s obedience took him to the surface of the earth.  And because of Christ’s obedience, because of God’s grace, there is no mistake we can make, no circumstances we can endure, that put us out of the potential reach of God’s redeeming love.

Jonah should remind each of us that God indeed does have a greater plan for his expanding Kingdom.  No, that plan may not always seem pleasant when sitting in a whale’s belly, but here we, too, might experience the loving embrace of a God who lovingly and gracious allows suffering to point us toward his mercy and his grace.

 

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This Thing Called Repentance – Part 1 – (Jonah Chapters 1 and 2)

We are all generally familiar with the story of Jonah the Prophet, who was called of God to go to Nineveh and preach God’s truth there. Instead, he went in the opposite direction toward Tarshish (Spain) and ended up creating a bellyache for the whale. Eventually, he got to the correct destination and completed his assignment, though with more than a wee bit of a grudging attitude. 

The book of Jonah is filled with the concept of “repentance.” And we asked in the sermon yesterday, “What does it mean to repent?”  While certainly a biblical word, repentance often concurs up in our modern minds some wide-eyed, hair-disheveled, twang-tongued, sweating, Bible-pounding evangelist yelling “REPENT, or burn in hell!”  Is it about fear? Is it about emotion?

When disciplining children, we want to get them to a point where they turn away from whatever attitude of rebellion that led to an altercation needing correction; and we want to see them genuinely break and understand what they did wrong, and therefore desire to not do that deed again and now behave in a proper way. And that is essentially what it means to repent. More on that in a moment (actually tomorrow), but let’s go to the story of Jonah.

Jonah was one of the earlier prophets, being a contemporary of Amos and Hosea – whom we have recently studied. Though these two were prophetic voices to the nation of Israel, Jonah was called by God to speak to the big, bad boys on the block in the ancient world at that time – the Assyrians. These were bad, bad people. They were brutal to captured foes in particular – known to impale people on a pole – making a human popsicle of them. The Assyrians were the enemy of Israel, and though they would later be used by God to punish Israel, their power to do so had not yet reached sufficient strength.

It was not as if Israel had her own act together as a nation – recall the messages of Hosea and Amos. Though this was the peak of their territorial expansion and material success under the reign of Jereboam II, there was nothing that really set them much apart from the heathen nations around them in terms of the true worship of God rather than idols and materialism.

So for Jonah to be called of God to go preach to these people seemed extraordinarily odd to him. Who would want to go to the center of such a place and tell them they were in trouble with God? If they did not like the message, they could make a popsicle out of Jonah. And if they repented, that would not be good for Israel. To Jonah, the whole thing looked like a lose/lose.

Over the years, I’ve used this slick little outline of Jonah to help remember the big idea of each of the four chapters of this short little Old Testament book…

Chapter 1 – Jonah makes the sea sick.

Chapter 2 – Jonah makes the whale sick.

Chapter 3 – Jonah makes the Ninevites sick.

Chapter 4 – Jonah makes God sick!

Jonah Flees From the Lord

1:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Nineveh was a huge city by ancient standards. It was seven times larger than the old city of Jerusalem for example. From Israel it was about 500 miles to the northeast – in modern Iraq near the border with Turkey … in fact, it is the modern city of Mosul, which we heard much about in the Iraq War.

Jonah essentially went in the opposite direction – catching presumably a Phoenician boat sailing to the coast of Spain to Tarshish – about 3,000 miles in the wrong direction!

4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

It is interesting to see that these pagan, idolatrous men had more compassion for Jonah than God’s prophet had for them or the Ninevites. This whole story is filled with counter-intuitive elements. But Jonah’s sin had caused the sea to get sick, so reluctantly they tossed him overboard.

Jonah’s Prayer

1:17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

2:1  From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said: “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.

So Jonah has a personal revival in the belly of the whale (or whatever large fish it was). There have been accounts of whalers who have been swallowed by whales and survived the ordeal, but without doubt, this was a God-ordained intervention, as are many other elements of the story. We don’t need to have natural explanations.

Jonah continues with his prayer of repentance …

3 You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.

4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’

5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.

6 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.

7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.

8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.

9 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.’”

10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

So, chapter 2, Jonah made the whale sick, but the fish did his job, presumably depositing Jonah again on the eastern Mediterranean coast where he could resume his trip to Nineveh, now in obedience to God, even if grudgingly done.

Let me share some application thoughts from these first two chapters …

1.  Obeying and serving God may often go against our natural sensibilities and desires… and we may foolishly just go the other way.

We may not personally like the paths that God chooses for us. We may resent his calling and want to do what we would rather do. There is no shortage of people who can testify from their lives how for so long they resisted what God wanted them to do, until finally finding peace and satisfaction by doing what he directed and desired.

2.  We may often find ourselves in denial or justification of our desires over obeying God’s call… and just sleep through reality.

Again, there is no shortage of stories of people who knew God wanted them to do something, but they fought it and denied it and went their own way. Is there something – large or small – that you know God has put in your heart to do … but you are fighting this thought / idea / feeling / open door out of fear or resistance?

3.  You can know all the right answers, but still not be in obedience to God.

This is a real warning for those of us who like the academic side of things … believing that all is right because we are thinking the correct things theologically… Jonah knew all the right answers for the seaman who questioned him.

4.  God may chose to bring an unpleasant experience into our lives to get us back on track with following him.

Unpleasant experiences are not always God getting our attention. Bad things happen because we simply live in an imperfect world. But there are times when in light of God’s work in your life and what the Spirit is telling you through the Word, that God intervenes to get you turned to a new and proper direction.

Check back tomorrow to finish Jonah and to gain some final, additional thoughts on repentance.