Sermon by Daniel L. Sonnenberg | October 13, 2013
17 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. 2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, “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.
3 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.4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’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. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. 7 When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” 10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” (Jon.1:17-2:10)
In this part of the story, Jonah is in deep trouble. In these verses we hear Jonah looking back on his near-death experience in the sea due to his own disobedience and his merciful deliverance by God through the fish. This is a typical Psalm of Thanksgiving which likely Jonah wrote after his experience in which he recalls his personal crisis and call for help, God’s gracious rescue and his resultant vow of praise.
What should we do when we are in trouble as a consequence of our own disobedience, or by reason of our own sin? If we are already believers, we should do as the prophet Jonah did, cry out for help to his God. And if we are not yet believers, we should do as the pagan sailors did in chapter 1, cry out to God for his help. Why? Because God saves both prophets and pagans who cry to him for help. God saves sinners and saints who call to him for mercy. And the result for both is worship and obedience.
How do we know this? Because this passage tells us first God is sovereign over salvation, and second our faithful response to this salvation is honest prayer and worshipful obedience.
A sovereign salvation
God is sovereign over salvation. He initiates salvation in each of his children, he causes us to persevere in salvation, and he brings salvation to its conclusion. See how God saves Jonah from beginning to end.
In verse 17 he initiates Jonah’s deliverance. 17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah… God appointed a fish – just before the point of drowning in the sea – to swallow him up. Jonah did not jump into the fish on his own initiative. God who controls the wind and the waves, also controls the fish in the sea. He directed the fish to swallow Jonah just before he drowned and saved his life.
Also in verse 17 God continues Jonah’s deliverance. He preserves Jonah’s life for three days. “And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jonah did not stay alive in the fish by his own power or will. He was likely blacked out for most of the time. The same God who kept Christ safely entombed in the grave for parts of three days and nights, also preserved Jonah in the belly of the fish for a similar period of time. Remember the song? “He who began a good work in you…will be faithful to complete it, he’ll be faithful to complete it, he who started the work will be faithful to complete it in you.”
In verse 10 God concludes Jonah’s deliverance. 10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” Jonah did not deliver himself alive to the shore. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead, also brought Jonah alive out of the belly of the fish back to the land. At God’s direction, the fish accomplished its God-given mission so that Jonah might accomplish his God-given mission in Ninevah. God raised him from the dead, as it were, just like he would do one day in truth to Christ. Remember the song? “Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes. He arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign. He arose, He arose, Hallelujah Christ arose.”
A faithful response
How should we respond to God’s sovereign grace in our lives? We should respond in faith in two ways, by prayer and praise. The first response is prayer. This passage has a great deal to say about prayer.
First, God wants us to pray for his help even when we are being judged for our sin. It was Jonah’s disobedience that got him thrown overboard. We see this in verse 3. 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. Yet he is praying for God’s help. Though we are suffering discipline for our sin, if we repent of our sin and sincerely seek God for help, God may still relent and save us from something even worse. You may be guilty of some sin right now. You may be experiencing God’s judgment against you in some form of discipline. But it’s still right to pray for God’s deliverance if you are truly repentant. God is waiting. God is listening, God will answer. Verse 2 says Jonah “called out to the LORD” in his distress and God answered him. God heard and God answered in spite of the Jonah’s guilt, in spite of God’s judgment.
Second, God wants us to pray for his help even when we don’t sense his presence. In verse 4 Jonah prays, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ Jonah sensed that God was far from him, that he was far from God because of his disobedience. Yet that did not deter him from calling out to God. Having forgotten God in his disobedience, now he remembers God’s promise to hear and forgive those who pray to the God of the Solomon’s temple. So he has hope that God will deliver him from death and allow him once again to return home and see the temple of his God. Even when God seems far away because of our disobedience, it’s right to sincerely pray for his help in a spirit of repentance, remembering God’s promise to forgive and to deliver.
Third, God wants us to pray for his help even when it looks impossible. Jonah prayed in verses 5 and 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; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. Jonah knew he was sunk without God’s help. The weeds were wrapping around his head, holding him under. He was sinking deeper and deeper into the place of the dead. Yet he prayed for God’s help. As Jesus said referring to how a rich person may be saved, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mat 19.26) No matter how impossible our situation looks, it’s still right to pray to God for his help.
Fourth, God wants us to pray for his help even at the last minute. In verse 7 Jonah remembers, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. It’s never too late to pray. Jonah’s life was fainting away. He was about to black out, but still he prayed for God’s help. As long as there is breath in our bodies, as long as we are conscious, we should pray for God’s help. It’s never too late to pray.
Are you in need of God’s help or deliverance right now? This is the right time to pray for his help, even if you’re being disciplined for your own sin, even if you don’t sense God’s presence, even if the situation looks impossible, and even if it’s the last minute. Your honest prayer of repentance and faith in God is the right thing to do. God will hear and answer. Will he answer in exactly the way you ask? Probably not. Jonah did not ask God to send a fish to swallow him up. He merely called to the Lord in his distress. The sovereign God arranged the circumstances for Jonah. He will do the same for you. Will you be spared from all discipline for your sin? No, you may suffer some temporal discipline to help you learn your lesson, but a repentant response in prayer to God for help will certainly spare you from eternal judgment. The sovereign God is a merciful God. He is waiting, his listening, he will answer your repentant cry for help.
A faithful response to God’s grace includes not only prayer in time of need, but also praise for our deliverance. God expects us, to give him our heartfelt thanks and to do what we promised to do at the time of our deliverance. God’s deliverance obligates us to worship and obedience. Look at verses 8 and 9. (8) Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. 9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” We would say it like this, “Lord, I know that only you can help me. If you get me out of this, I’ll do whatever you want me to do for the rest of my life!!! I know that you are my only salvation.” Jonah understands that those who look to anything other than the true God for help give up hope for anything like steadfast love. In other words, our modern idols of money, power, prestige, intellectual superiority, or self-effort can’t save us. They certainly don’t love us. We may love them, but they can’t love us back. They can’t deliver what they promise. But our covenant God does love us and he can deliver what he promises. Therefore, Jonah turns away from his stubborn disobedience to the steadfast love of the Lord. And turning to the Lord in true repentance results in praise to God. Praise to God sounds like the voice of thanksgiving, it looks like acts of obedience. It is the confession of our mouth and the work of our hands that says “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”
Evidence of true faith in God is a voice of thanksgiving that comes out of our mouths in praise to God and encouragement to others. If we find ourselves often complaining, like Israel in the wilderness, it should cause us to wonder if we have true faith, or if our faith needs to be renewed once again. A heart of thanksgiving does not focus on the negative, but on the positive aspects of God’s kingdom. It focuses on what God has done for me, not on what God has not done for me. I’m thankful for what I have, not griping about what I do not have. A heart of thanksgiving also looks for the good in others, however small. It focuses on what God is doing in others, not what he has not yet done in them. The voice of thanksgiving finds words of encouragement for others in order to build up the body of Christ. The voice of thanksgiving both praises God and encourages others.
Evidence of true faith in God is seen not only in the words of our mouths but also in the work of our hands. Jonah promised to pay the vows he made at the time of his deliverance. That means he must take action in obedience to God. Jonah’s first action after his deliverance onto dry land will be to go and fulfill God’s mission in Ninevah. If Christ is truly Lord of our lives, our actions will reflect his actions. We will obey his commands. We will live as he lived. We will do as he did. We will love as he loved. We will fulfill his mission in the world. Evidence of true faith affects our words and our works.
Notice finally the parallel between Jonah and the sailors. The way the last verse is phrased here draws attention back to how the sailors responded to God’s grace toward them. The sailors, when in distress from the raging sea, finally cried out to the true God for his help. The sailors, after God calmed the seas, in chapter 1 verse 16 “offered a sacrifice and made vows.”
What’s the point? The main point is that God rescues both sinners and saints when they cry out for help in repentance and faith. God is no respecter of persons. As Peter said to the Gentile Cornelius, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts10:34-35)
A secondary point is the irony that the pagan sailors responded properly to God before the prophet Jonah did. In other words, that’s not how it should be! Saints should respond more quickly than sinners. Both should respond to God in prayer and praise. How much more quickly should saints who already know the grace of God respond than sinners who do not yet know God’s grace! Don’t let sinners show you up! Keep short accounts with God and with others. Be ever-ready to acknowledge your own sin before God and to others that you might receive God’s ready grace.
The climax of the entire story appears in these verses. Jonah’s cry for help and God’s merciful deliverance results in his confession that “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” Salvation is of the Lord!” The sovereign God who controls the wind and the waves, the fish in the sea, and your every circumstance, is the only source of physical deliverance and of spiritual deliverance from beginning to end. God will deliver us through the crises of life, even when they are the fault of our own sin, when we honestly call to him for help in repentance and faith. God will deliver both sinners and saints from their stubborn disobedience, from their stubborn unbelief if we will call out to him with contrite hearts. And what will result is a new heart for unbelievers, and a re-newed heart for believers. A heart that is changed, that flows out of our mouths in thanksgiving to God and encouragement to others and that flows through our hands in loving obedience to do whatever God commands.