Date: May 12, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Jonah 1:17–2:10
And so, we come to the part of the book that everyone thinks they know – Jonah in the belly of the fish. The British preacher, G. Campbell Morgan, once said about this passage, “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish, they have failed to see the great God.” I pray that would not be true of us this morning. There are naturally a number of questions that flood our minds when we read Jonah 2. What kind of fish was it? How did Jonah survive for three days in its belly? Was he conscious the entire time? What did he eat, what did he drink? Our natural curiosity can’t help but ask those questions.
And yet, the text of Jonah 2 is entirely uninterested in answering curiosity’s questions. There are 48 verses in the book of Jonah, and a grand total of three of them refer to Jonah’s experience with the fish. What’s more, those three verses are surprisingly sparse on details. All we know is the fish swallowed Jonah – 1.17; Jonah prayed while in the fish’s belly – 2.1; and the fish then spat Jonah back out three days later – 2.10. That’s it – that’s all we know. From the text’s point of view, the fish is rather ho-hum. Instead, what the text presents as astounding is the One controlling the fish – the Lord God of heaven. That’s what jumps off the page. Twice, God commands the fish, and twice, the fish obeys. “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish, they have failed to see the great God.”
Now, of course, the question many people ask is not about the details but about the history. Did this really happen? And again, the text deals with that question plainly. Yes, the events of Jonah 2 occurred as the Bible records them. It should get your attention that the text presents this entire episode in a rather matter-of-fact way. From Scripture’s perspective, the key question is not, “Did this really happen?” Scripture’s key question is, “Do you know the God who made it happen?”
Let me just speak to this right here at the start. The only reason to dismiss this passage is if you have a prior conclusion that miraculous events are not possible. If you don’t believe in God or in his power to work in supernatural ways, then of course you’ll find Jonah 2 preposterous, just like you’ll find most of the Bible preposterous. But if you acknowledge the reality of God – which, by the way, is an unmistakably clear conclusion; the heavens declare the glory of God; it’s unmistakably clear – if you acknowledge the reality of God, then why wouldn’t he be able to work in supernatural ways like the one we find in Jonah 2? He is the Creator, the Lord of heaven and earth. His power knows no limits, and his ways are higher than our ways. And while he doesn’t normally work through miraculous, supernatural means, Scripture clearly affirms that at times he does.
If you’re here this morning and you’re not sure about this whole fish swallowing a man thing, I would ask you to consider the greater reality of Scripture – the reality that there is a God in heaven who does, in fact, intervene in his world. And that God intervenes in order to save his people and reveal his glory. Please don’t get so focused on the fish you fail to see the God commanding the fish. If you’re unsure this morning, that’s the truth Scripture demands you consider – not did this happen, but do I know the God who made it happen? And I pray that you would see God in his Word today, and in seeing him, that you would entrust your life to him.
With confidence in God’s Word, let’s turn now to consider the events of this powerful chapter. You’ll notice that the passage has a clear structure. It begins and ends with the command of God – 1.17, God appoints a fish, and 2.10, God speaks to the fish. Then in the middle, we have thanksgiving to God, v2 to v9, in the form of a psalm. And if you think about it, this the most fitting response from Jonah. He ran from God, he was tossed into the sea where he was sure to die, only to be delivered by an act of God. What do you do in response to such things? You praise God, that’s what you do. You sing a song of thanksgiving. It’s actually very fitting that the majority of the passage is taken up with thanksgiving to God. What else should Jonah do but praise?
The passage has three parts. It begins and ends with the command of God, and in the middle it focuses on thanksgiving to God. From that structure I’d like to draw your attention to four pictures of God’s work in saving Jonah. First, we’ll see the Wonder of God’s Grace – that’s in the opening verse, 1.17. Second, we’ll note the Kindness of God’s Discipline – that’s vv2-4 of ch2. Third, we’ll consider the Depth of God’s Mercy – that’s vv5-7. And finally, we’ll look at the Declaration of God’s Greatness – that’s vv8-9. Four pictures of God’s work to save Jonah.
The Wonder of God’s Grace
Let’s begin, then, with the Wonder of God’s Grace. If you think about it, v17 of chapter 1 is a rather abrupt interruption in the narrative. By the end of chapter 1, every indication we have is that Jonah’s life is over. He defied the command of God, he ran from the Lord, and he has been deservedly tossed into the waves of God’s judgment in the sea. If you were reading this for the first time, you would have no hope left for Jonah. He’s guilty before God, and he deserves what it appears he will now get. He deserves death. And that’s where v16 of chapter 1 leaves us – with Jonah’s life virtually over.
But then v17 comes of out nowhere and interrupts Jonah’s descent to death. Listen again to v17, and notice the sudden sovereignty of grace – “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.” Most people assume the fish was part of God’s judgment, but the opposite is true. The fish is the vehicle of God’s grace. Through the fish, God saves Jonah from death.
And understand, this happened entirely apart from Jonah’s ability and certainly without any reference to Jonah’s merit. Jonah was hopeless and helpless in the heart of the sea. He had no ability to save himself. What’s more, Jonah deserved death. He defied the Lord. God could have allowed Jonah to sink to his grave, and he would have been entirely just to do so.
And yet, God intervenes. The Lord commands the fish to snatch Jonah from death and then return him to the land of the living. It’s almost like resurrection – a man condemned to die is saved by grace and raised up again to new life. And why did it happen? Why did God choose to spare Jonah’s life? The answer is because God is gracious. He saved Jonah not because of anything in Jonah, but because that’s the kind of God he is. Jonah experiences firsthand the truth at the heart of this book – God will be gracious to whom he will be gracious, and God will show mercy to whom he will show mercy.
And that, brothers and sisters, is one of the most helpful effects of this chapter. The clarity of Jonah’s rescue delivers us from our sometimes anemic views of God’s grace. Too often, I’m afraid, we speak of God’s grace as something similar to niceness. He does nice things that go beyond what we could have done for ourselves. Grace is that little extra God adds that we lacked.
But as this chapter so clearly teaches us, that view of grace is woefully too small. Grace isn’t niceness, and it certainly is not the little piece we couldn’t quite provide. No, grace is divine intervention that overturns our helpless and hopeless situation. Grace doesn’t add the little extra we lacked. Grace accomplishes what we could not and would not do on our own.
And what’s more, the reason for grace is always the same as it was for Jonah. It’s because that’s who God is. He gives grace to whom he will. And if we add any other reason – our merit, our ability, our worthiness – if we add anything else, then we lose what grace truly is. It’s not just niceness. Grace is divine intervention that sovereignly rescues us from what we deservedly could not escape on our own.
It’s enough to leave you in wonder, is it not? V17 should make us stop and marvel that there is a God in heaven who shows this kind of grace to such undeserving people. And in case you’re thinking Jonah knew something better than you do, brothers and sisters, remember that your testimony as a Christian is even more astounding than this rescue. Jonah was sinking toward death, but before Christ, we were dead in our sins and trespasses. Jonah’s rescue was like a resurrection, but our salvation is actually resurrection – by grace, we’ve been raised with Christ to newness of life. Do you see it, brothers and sisters? Through Jonah, God is giving us a fresh appreciation for what he has done in our salvation as well. It’s so unlikely its unforgettable. A great fish obeys the sovereign command of God to save the disobedient prophet. Who would have planned such a thing? Only God. Even more, who could have done such a thing? Only God who has determined to be gracious to whom he will be gracious. V17 is abrupt, but it’s abrupt with grace, and therefore, we should pause and wonder.
The Kindness of God’s Discipline
Even so, we don’t stop with wonder. God’s grace always calls for our response, and as we enter chapter 2, that’s what we see with Jonah. Having been delivered, the prophet now prays, and it’s here we see the second picture of God’s work – the Kindness of God’s Discipline. Vv2-4 give us the first stanza of Jonah’s psalm, and the focus here is on God’s deliverance in the midst of Jonah’s distress. But what’s really striking is how Jonah acknowledges God’s role in orchestrating that distress. Notice what Jonah says in v3 – “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.”
Now, if you remember from chapter 1, it was the sailors who hurled Jonah into the sea. But here in chapter 2, Jonah says it was God who brought this about. He even says these were your waves, God; your billows. They came about to do your bidding, Lord. Jonah recognizes the hand of God in his distress. On some level, Jonah sees that the Lord brought this storm in order to discipline him.
This too is the mercy of God. God could have left Jonah to himself. He could have allowed Jonah to wander away in disobedience. But in his kindness, God pursued his prophet. He brought the storm as a means of discipline, a means of mercy. Now, was that mercy severe, as CS Lewis once said? Yes, it was severe mercy, but it was mercy nonetheless.
But still, the mercy continues. Notice the ultimate effect of God’s discipline in Jonah’s life. Notice v2 – “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” Again, think back to chapter 1 and the numerous instances that Jonah had to pray. Did he do so? Did the prophet pray? No, he didn’t – not when the storm was raging, not when the sailors feared for their lives – Jonah didn’t pray.
But now here in chapter 2, Jonah finally prays, but notice what brought this prayer about. It was the experience of sinking under the severe hand of God. It took being tossed into the sea to bring Jonah to pray. It took this experience of God’s discipline to bring Jonah to his senses. This is astounding. God could have allowed Jonah to sink to his death, and there would be no objection. But in his kindness, the Lord would not let Jonah go, even if he had to use a storm to get Jonah’s attention.
And therefore, Jonah can have hope in the midst of distress. Notice v4 – “Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall look again upon your holy temple.’” Remember, Jonah wanted to flee from the presence of the Lord. He wanted to get away from God. But in the heart of the sea, Jonah finally sees how awful such a fate would be. Here in the depths of the flood, Jonah’s eyes are opened, and he once again calls out for the Lord to hear him. And amazingly, God answers. Amazingly, God delivers Jonah, and Jonah once again believes that he will worship God in the land of the living. Don’t miss that note in v4. Jonah is still in the sea, and yet, he believes that God will surely restore him. Jonah’s confidence is in the God he once tried to escape – it just took a storm to bring him to this point.
This is the kindness of God. Perhaps you are a Christian this morning, but you know you’ve been running from the Lord. Perhaps there is something you’ve been hiding, some front you’ve been putting up, or some masquerade you’ve been part of. But deep down, you know your heart is far from God. And perhaps in his severe mercy, God has allowed you to taste some of the bitterness that hiding brings. Maybe he’s given you just a bit of a storm. If so, I hope you see his kindness in doing so. I hope you recognize that while his hand may sometimes be heavy, it’s always for your good. God pursues us so that we might return to him. If you belong to God through Christ, the Father’s love will not let you go, just like we sang earlier, but his love is so strong, he’ll even discipline us to save us.
If that’s you this morning – if you profess to know God but you also know you’ve been running – I hope you hear exhortation from Jonah’s life. God disciplines us to save us. He will give us a taste of where rebellion leads in order to return us to himself. The response God’s Word calls you to this morning is repentance. Listen to Jonah. He cried out in prayer, and God heard him. He will do the same for you. Even in discipline, God shows his children kindness, so that we might return to him again in repentance.
The Depth of God’s Mercy
The second stanza of Jonah’s psalm takes us deeper into the character of God. Vv5-7 give us the third picture of God’s work, and it is the Depth of God’s Mercy. Again, the focus is on God’s deliverance in the midst of Jonah’s distress. Jonah makes the same point as before, but there is a unique emphasis here. Notice the vivid language Jonah uses in vv5-6 – “The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” That’s very detailed description of drowning. But more than that, it’s a recognition that Jonah has reached the bottom of his downward spiral. Remember from chapter 1, we noted how Jonah went down to Joppa, and down into the ship, then down to sleep in the cargo hold. Remember that spiral? Well, here in chapter 2, Jonah reaches the bottom, so to speak. He sinks almost to the ocean floor – notice that phrase the roots of the mountains. He’s tangled in the seaweed, like chains pulling him down. He’s near the point of death.
In fact, notice Jonah’s reference in v6 to the land whose bars close forever. That’s a poetic description of Sheol – what we might call the grave. In the OT, Sheol is the place of the dead, and it was often pictured at the bottom of the sea, with gates that would shut people in forever. For an OT Israelite, this is the lowest you can sink – near the gate of Sheol. And that’s what Jonah envisions as he sinks beneath the waves. He’s near rock bottom. He’s as good as dead.
But once again, Jonah’s psalm returns to the merciful grace of God. It’s never far from Jonah’s mind. When you taste God’s grace, you can’t go very long before you break out in praise. Notice the end of v6 – “yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” Jonah was going down, down, down – near even to the point of death. But then God raised him up. That change of direction is remarkable, and it is the change that mercy accomplishes.
But what I want us to catch is the place of God’s mercy. Where did God’s mercy reach Jonah? At his very lowest, near the bottom of the sea. When it seemed Jonah could go no lower, God’s mercy rescued his prophet. Even the depth of the sea is no match for the immeasurable mercy of God.
We read Psalm 103 earlier in the service, and in that psalm, David celebrates that God’s steadfast love is as high as the heavens. That’s actually a repeated emphasis in God’s Word – Isaiah 55, Psalm 47, Psalm 108 – all through Scripture, God’s love and mercy are extolled as higher than the heavens. But Jonah’s psalm rounds out the picture, doesn’t it? Not only is God’s mercy as high as the heavens, but it’s also as deep as the grave, deeper even than death. That’s good news, brothers and sisters. There are some deep valleys in the Christian life, aren’t there? I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. There are some deep valleys, and some of the valleys are our own doing. We can relate to Jonah – in fact, we’re meant to. We also know what it’s like to spiral downward. We know what it’s like to sink near the bottom, perhaps even to feel like we’re as good as dead. What hope is there for people like us? What hope is there for those who are sinking? There’s hope in the mercy of God – mercy so deep, it can even reach God’s people at their lowest.
Listen, one of the evil one’s more sinister lies is that you are too far gone to repent. “You’ve strayed too far away, you’ve sunk too deep. God has no use for someone as wayward as you. You’re too far gone.” That lie is a favorite tool of the evil one, but Jonah tells us the truth. Jonah shows us that God’s mercy reaches as high as heavens – yes! – but also as deep as the grave. Today, if you hear his voice, turn and trust him. Confess your sin. Bring it into the light. Resolve today to hear God’s Word and respond in faith. That’s the entire point of God’s mercy. He reaches us at our lowest, but he doesn’t leave us there. Like Jonah, God raises up the wayward so that through repentance and faith, we might walk in a way that pleases him.
It’s such an encouraging picture, isn’t it? Jonah sinks near the bottom, and even still, God’s mercy reaches him at his lowest. And through Jonah, God is saying to us, “There’s mercy for you too.”
The Declaration of God’s Greatness
We come to the conclusion of Jonah’s psalm. Vv8-9 are the final stanza, and it’s here we see the Declaration of God’s Greatness. You’ll notice that Jonah draws a contrast between those who worship idols and those who trust in the Lord. V8 indicts idolaters. Listen again to what Jonah says, v8 – “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” Jonah’s point is straightforward. Those who worship idols will be left alone in the end. There is no deliverance for idolaters, for idols are not real! These so-called gods can deliver no one.
But those who trust in the Lord are different, by God’s grace. Notice v9 – “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.” Here, Jonah reminds us that God’s grace always demands a response, and the right response is faithfulness and devotion. We turn from sin, and we give God what he deserves – our faith, our obedience, and our worship. That’s the response Jonah envisions in v9, and it’s one he’s now willing to give.
And yet, there is some irony here, isn’t there? Think back to chapter 1. Who was it that offered God sacrifices and performed vows? It wasn’t Jonah. It was the pagan sailors. At first, they trusted in their idols, but through the storm, God revealed himself and they entrusted their lives to the Lord, at least during that storm. It’s only here in chapter 2 that Jonah follows in their footsteps. It’s perhaps an ironic reminder to Jonah of the truth he is still learning – that God will be merciful to whomever he will show mercy.
But it is Jonah’s final confession that should get most of our attention. Notice the final line of Jonah’s psalm, v9. This is the theological heart of the book. It is simple but powerful. Jonah exclaims – “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” That is a declaration of God’s sovereign greatness in salvation. The Lord is free to save whom he will save, for salvation belongs to him. God can deliver pagan sailors from a storm. He can spare his drowning, disobedient prophet. And he can even show mercy to wicked Ninevites. Salvation belongs to God, and therefore, God is free to show mercy and grace to whomever he will. Jonah himself now knows this by experience. He was sinking toward death, but God and God alone raised him up. Salvation belongs to the Lord.
The question, therefore, is whether or not Jonah truly believes what he declares. It’s one thing to declare God’s mercy and grace, as long as it applies to you. But what happens when God extends that same mercy and grace to others, even to your enemies? Will you praise him then? Will Jonah praise him? That’s the question that remains to be answered as we continue on in the book.
But for now, brothers and sisters, let’s rejoice in the truth that Jonah declares. Salvation does indeed belong to the Lord God, and here’s the key – we wouldn’t want it any other way. We need to recognize that if salvation does not belong totally and exclusively to the Lord, then there would be no salvation. If salvation somehow depended on us, then we would still be hopeless and helpless before God. Just as Jonah could not swim himself back to life, so also we were not able to raise ourselves up to new life with the Holy God. We needed God to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. We needed him to reach into the depths of our darkness, even into the grave of dead hearts, and we needed him to raise us up by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Jonah’s history in the sea should illuminate our testimony of faith, brothers and sisters. Jonah’s experience of grace is a shadow and an echo of the believer’s experience in Jesus Christ.
Now, you may be thinking, “But that seems like a stretch, Jeff. How can we jump from Jonah to the gospel? They’re so different!” That’s a good question, and Jesus himself answers it for us. In Matthew 12, the Lord Jesus connects Jonah’s experience with his own work of salvation. Matthew 12, v40 Jesus says – “Just as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus himself is drawing a connection from Jonah’s experience to Jesus’ work of salvation. It’s actually a striking point on Jesus’ part. There’s a lot to note from Jesus, and we’ll have more to say about it next week in Jonah ch3.
But for now, it’s enough to say that Jesus is telling us this – the God who worked so miraculously for Jonah has done something even more astounding in Jesus Christ. Jonah was raised from near death in the grave; Jesus was raised from actual death in the grave. Jonah was raised as an illustration that salvation belongs to the Lord; Jesus was raised to prove, once and for all, that salvation belongs to him, for Jesus is Lord.
Do you see it? It’s not merely the conclusion to Jonah’s psalm. It’s the refrain of the entire Bible – Salvation belongs to the Lord! And for those who know Jesus Christ by faith, that biblical refrain is our testimony as well. We thankfully will not spend three days and nights in a fish’s belly, but we do thankfully know the same God who spared Jonah with such grace. And praise God, we know him through Jesus Christ.
“Men have been looking so hard at the great fish, they have failed to see the Great God.” I pray we’ve seen God this morning, brothers and sisters. I pray we’ve seen him in the grace, the discipline, and the mercy he showed to Jonah. But most of all, I pray we see God in the resurrected and reigning Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s remarkable that God would raise a man after three days in a fish’s belly. But it’s good news that God raised his Son after three days to everlasting life. And it’s because of that good news that we can join Jonah in declaring, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” Amen.