If Jonah is a well-known biblical character, it’s most likely because he was swallowed by a great fish, or possibly, by a whale. This mammoth sea creature became a tool in the hands of God to rescue His prophet from drowning in the stormy waters, to bring Jonah back to the dry land, and to be a resting place in which Jonah could reason with himself and repent of his rebellion against God.
For three days and three nights, Jonah was safe and secure in the fish’s belly. What was it like in there, I wonder? What thoughts went through Jonah’s mind during those many hours? Did he fear that he’d never see the light of day again? That he would die of suffocation or starvation? Surely he thought a lot about his disobedient behavior--how he’d run from the presence of the Lord, and how the Lord had pursued him with a mighty storm.
Whatever Jonah may have been thinking, the Bible tells us what he DID: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.” The opening of Jonah’s prayer tells of his heart-cry to the Lord as he sank into the murky depths of the sea. It also tells of a living God who not only hears the desperate cries of His children, but answers them. We often take it for granted that God hears and answers our prayers. But this is a precious, precious truth! Those who bow down to other gods might wish and hope for some kind of answer, but they hope only in vain! Believers in the God of the Bible can be assured that every prayer of theirs finds their heavenly Father willing and eager to listen...able and willing to help them in their time of need.
The next part of this prayer recounts how Jonah found himself in trouble: “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas...all your waves and your billows passed over me.” Notice how the prophet gives glory to God. Gives the Lord the credit for everything that happened. Even though it was the sailors on the ship that physically threw Jonah overboard, Jonah knows that the sovereign God of heaven acted behind the scenes to engineer the whole thing. “YOU cast me into the deep...YOUR waves and YOUR billows passed over me.”
Several weeks ago, a great theologian and Bible teacher, R.C. Sproul, went home to be with the Lord. In his teaching, he’d often refer to his favorite fiction book, Moby Dick. This great American novel tells the tale of a ship’s captain named Ahab, who uses his ship and crew to hunt down a great white whale, Moby Dick. The whale had attacked Ahab in the past and taken off one of the captain’s legs. It had crippled both Ahab’s body and his soul. Ahab searched and searched for Moby Dick to get his revenge by killing it. R.C. Sproul believed that this was a symbol of man’s pursuit of God, not out of love, but a hunger for vengeance.
Yes, there are those who know that our God exists, and yet do all they can to put Him out of their thinking--to kill God off in their hearts and minds. They do this so that they can be free of His laws and demands and expectations. In effect they are, like Jonah, running away from the presence of the Lord. But when those same people get into some kind of deep, dark trouble, where do they turn? Many of them turn to God out of desperation. They come to the end of their rope and have nowhere else to turn, so they PRAY.
Prayer, however, is no panacea--no magical formula that automatically solves all of my problems. People wrongly think of God as a kind of supernatural bellhop who is just waiting for us to ring for Him when we have a wish or request. What we discover in the book of Jonah, is that God is SOVEREIGN. That is, He is in control of all that exists in His creation, and all that happens to all His creatures, all the time. When he was sleeping in the hold of his ship, and even when the storm was raging all around them, Jonah failed to pray. But God arranged the events and circumstances in such a way that when Jonah was cast into the sea, at last he was willing to cry out to the Lord his God.
Do you see the purpose in God’s treatment of Jonah? The story began with Jonah running away from the presence of the Lord. He was running from the responsibility of being God’s prophet, of going to Ninevah and preaching against that city. But the Lord pursued him. The Lord didn’t give up on him. The Lord loved him and planned to return Jonah to a life of loving obedience. At first Jonah’s reaction to God’s casting him into the sea was: “Then I said, I am driven away from your sight.” But soon, inside the fish, he prayed: “yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.”
When dangers and tragedies happen to you and me, often we are tempted to become bitter like Captain Ahab. We are tempted to say, “Lord, why are you treating me this way? Are you trying to drive me away? I don’t deserve this harsh trial.” Or, perhaps we think, “I really DO deserve this. God must be doing this to punish me because He has stopped loving me.” When Jonah was tempted to turn bitter, he remembered instead the lesson of God’s “holy temple.”
What did the temple represent to God’s people Israel? A God who dwelt in their midst. A God who didn’t want to keep away from those He loved. A God who chose to share His own holy presence with them in a special, concentrated way. A God who wishes to be available for fellowship, not just with perfect, holy people...but with fallen, rebellious, guilty sinners.
Jonah went on in his prayer to describe the terrors he experienced as he sank deeper and deeper into the angry sea. He was staring death in the face. The concept of Sheol that he mentioned earlier is a shadowy underworld where the wicked dwell after death. Even as he drew closer and closer to drowning in the waters, Jonah’s hope in His God welled up inside him and he prayed for help!
The temples of false gods are so often UNHOLY temples. They are places where idol worshipers released their sinful passions and broke the laws of decency in order to please their wicked deities. But Jonah’s God came close to His people in a HOLY temple. A place where people were cleansed from their sins and gave sacrifices to a God of truth and purity and beauty: a God who called His people to be holy as well. A God of great and precious promises about a coming Savior who would bless not only Israel, but ALL the nations of the earth!
God longs to bless His people, to answer our faintest prayers. Remember this when you are weak, discouraged, fainting, even drawing close to death! Remember that this is often WHY you are tried and tested by dangers and difficulties: because God desires that we turn to Him for His blessings. He is well able to bring us up from the deepest pits just as He did for Jonah. Even our weakest, faintest prayer is heard in the heavenly courts of our all-seeing Father. He can but speak a word, and his almighty life-giving power can be unleashed to save His child.
Even the bonds of death are no match for the strength of our mighty God. Think of all the people in the Bible who were raised from the dead! Our Lord Jesus suffered death on a terrible cross at the hands of sinners and under the curse of God the Father, so that believers could be freed from their sins and receive eternal life. Then Jesus arose from the tomb three days later, fulfilling what He called “the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
The three days Jesus spent in the tomb were not like others who died. He saw no decay, because God had promised He wouldn’t. And the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the fish, God also preserved him from decay. Both Jesus and Jonah still had work to do. Jesus rose from the tomb to send His followers into all the world to make disciples of all nations...Jonah rose from the fish to take the message of the true God to the lost sinners of Ninevah.
But before Jonah fulfilled his mission, Jonah had a pledge to pay. A vow to fulfill. The Israelites would sacrifice to the Lord for several different reasons. They would make offerings for the covering of sins--to acknowledge their guilt before a holy God. But they would also bring offerings of thanksgiving, sacrifices to celebrate the answers to prayer they had received. Jonah was now more than ready to lift his voice in thanksgiving to the Lord of his salvation.
“Those who pay regard to vain idols,” he prayed, “forsake their hope of steadfast love.” Even after running from God’s presence, Jonah hadn’t lost his basic awareness that the false gods of the sailors could do nothing to assure their salvation. He knew that the One pursuing him with a storm was the Maker of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He realized that his own people were making a grave mistake by paying regard to the vain idols of the neighboring nations.
“As for me,” Jonah concluded, “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to YOU.” The covenant-keeping God of the Bible, the One who keeps all His promises. And then he tells us why: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!”