“Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly, 2 And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. 3 For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. 4 Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. 5 The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. 6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. 7 When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. 8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. 9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord” (John 2:1-9).
Jonah was a reluctant prophet. When the word of the Lord came to Jonah and commissioned him to go to Nineveh, that Great City, and cry against it, the nationalistic spirit of Jonah caused him to say, “No!” Jonah would have said “Yes!” to any positive message that God might have had for Israel (Rom. 9:1- 5), but when it came to preach to the enemies of Israel, Jonah said, “No!” There was a reason. Jonah knew the great grace and mercy of God. He knew how longsuffering the Lord could be. Despite the abominations of the heathens they could still be converted, and Jonah did not want that to happen. He was personally very angry with his national enemies.
Historically, the Assyrians had been very hostile to Israel. Why should they now be helped? They deserved to be destroyed. So Jonah left the ministry instead of preaching the gospel of redeeming grace. In leaving the sphere of ministry, Jonah decided to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. Located in western Spain, the servant of God tried to get as far as geographically possible from the place where he knew the Lord wanted Him to be. It was Jonah’s considered opinion that the people of Nineveh did not deserve to hear the gospel of redeeming grace. They deserved to be left in ignorance and spiritual darkness, for the people of Nineveh were known for their greed and selfishness and cruelty. Jonah wanted not grace, but judgment to come to Assyria.
However, God almighty did not ask Jonah his opinion about this matter. The Lord simply commanded Jonah to obey. But Jonah could be stubborn. We do not find the prophet even piously praying about the matter in an effort to get God to change His mind. We do find Jonah beginning to run from God, and therefore running into trouble as he boarded a ship heading for the wide-open sea. It was not long before Jonah found himself alienated from the other people on board ship. There is always something distinct about God’s people no matter how hard they try to hide the fact. As David was discovered by some discerning Philistines to be different, as a little maid observed that Peter was a disciple of Jesus, so Jonah was found to be different from the other seamen.
Once discovered, by his own confession, Jonah said he was the cause for the unusual turbulent waters the ship had sailed into. He should be cast overboard, he said. And finally he was. Once in the raging waters of the sea, with the waves pounding and cascading upon his head, Jonah may have thought that his minutes alive were numbered. He believed that he would soon have to pay the ultimate price for disobedience to the known will of God. To his surprise, if not sheer terror, Jonah looked into the murky mist, and beheld a great fish coming his way. With a mouth opened as wide as a canyon, the fish swallowed Jonah with one massive gulp. For three days and three nights Jonah would ride as a passenger on the most unique submarine in all of history.
In reading the story of Jonah and the great fish, there are two basic ways to understand the biblical narrative. The first is to treat the event as a Jewish myth, with meaningful lessons to learn. That is how many liberal theologians and skeptics read their Bibles. The second way to understand this narrative, is to consider this whole event as a literal and historical event that really did take place. We can take by simple faith, that what the Bible says happened, happened. Someone said once, “I believe that the whale swallowed Jonah and if the Bible had said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I would have believed that too.” That is God honoring childlike faith.
In all points, great and small the Bible is to be trusted. Charles Spurgeon said, “I would recommend you either believe God up to the hilt, or else not to believe at all. Believe this book of God, every letter of it, or else reject it. There is no logical standing place between the two. Be satisfied with nothing less than a faith that swims in the deeps of divine revelation; a faith that paddles about the edge of the water is poor faith at best. It is little better than a dry-land faith, and is not good for much.”
In Matthew 12:40 we find that Jesus Christ believed in the story of Jonah and the whale. The Lord referred to this event as a perfect picture of His own death, burial, and resurrection. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
While in the belly of the whale, the Bible says that Jonan began to pray. We do not find Jonah praying up to this point. We find him in open revolt, running away from God. Jonah did not pray until there was a great crisis in his life. The irony is that the heathen sailors had acted better than Jonah in this matter, for they began to pray to their gods very quickly when the storms of life broke over them. But not Jonah. Only when the prophet was in the depths of despair, in the midst of the sea did he cry out unto the Lord.
The experience of Jonah is not unique. How often do God’s people act the same way. The pressures of life begin to build, but we do not pray. The storm clouds gather. There is thunder, and lightening and the threat of disaster.
Still, no prayers are offered to calm the raging winds. The heart is cold. The will is stubborn. God is forced to deal more harshly in order to subdue the will of His own, and conform it into His image.
One can only wonder what might have happened, if early on when the storm broke out, Jonah had not only recognized his sin (1:9), but also confessed his attitude and actions as sin, and repented. But Jonah did not confess. He did not repent until the heavy hand of divine discipline swung in judgment, and others were caught up in the prophet’s moment of chastisement. There was a great crisis, and Jonah was about to perish when he began to pray.
The narrative tells us not only when Jonah prayed (2:1), but why he prayed (2:2). Simply enough, Jonah prayed because of his great affliction. Jonah was being afflicted because of his sin. When affliction comes it is not improper to ask the one seeking comfort, “Have you confessed specifically all known sins to the Saviour?” We must go beyond the general prayer for the forgiveness of sin. Sins are single and particular. We need to be specific with the Lord, for there is a spiritual cause and effect relationship to what happens in life if sin is involved. The psalmist said, “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long” (Psa. 32:3).
As there is great discipline for willful sinning, so there is great mercy when transgressions are confessed and forsaken. Jonah said, “I cried and thou heardest my voice.” Jonah knew God would hear. Jonah understood something about the matchless character of God. Jonah understood that the Lord delights in showing mercy.
Mercy can only be shown to those who are conscious of needing it. The prophet, in the belly of the whale, in the depths of the sea, had only one hope for salvation, and that was the grace of God. He who had shown no mercy to others now needed the same.
There is a wonderful story associate with Napoleon. A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice, and justice demanded death. “But I don’t ask for justice,” the mother explained. “I plead for mercy.” “But your son does not deserve mercy,” Napoleon replied. “Sir,” the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” “Well, then,” the emperor said, “I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman’s son.
Jonah cried and he was heard. God spared him, for there is no distance too far for the cry of a human heart to reach the ear of God. There is no place beyond the watchful eye of God to behold. Today, all over the world, people are calling upon God. Some are at home. Others are at church. Some are in trouble. Others are at peace. Wherever people are found calling upon the Lord, there is assurance that He hears.
Access to God is something like a large multitude of people going to the Atlantic Ocean with a cup. Thousands upon thousands can dip their cup into the splashing water and take what they need, and still the ocean is not drained. Jonah’s knowledge about the Lord created a measure of hope in his heart. His faith cried out in 2:3, “though I am cast out of thy sight, yet will I look again toward thy holy temple.
With these words, we hear something of the great faith of the prophet Jonah. Many people have asked the question, “How can I have great faith?” The answer is simple, “Know God.” Know that God will not be mocked, and sin will be dealt with in time, as well as in eternity. Know also that God is good. There is hope and hope turns into faith. “I will look again toward thy holy temple,” said Jonah. “Despite my sin, despite my failure, despite my rebellion, I will look again toward thy holy temple.”
The holy temple was the dwelling place of God with man. The holy temple was where the Shekinah glory dwelt. The holy temple was the place of sacrifice and offerings. Jonah thought that he could live without the church. Jonah thought that if he got far enough away from church, and the presence of the Lord, that he would find peace, security, and happiness. Jonah thought that the absence of holy duties, and righteous demands, would make him free.
Jonah thought that if he just said “No!” to serving God somehow he would be more mature and more in control of his life. In all of this Jonah was wrong and he admitted it. His heart longed to see the Holy Temple once more. It is a sad truth of human experience that we never really appreciate what we have until we have them no more. While spiritual objects surround us we think that we can do quite well without religion and without the Lord. Then we are forced to learn the lesson of 2:8. “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” There are many lying vanities.
First, there is the lie that a person can go somewhere and be free of the eye of God. Many people find themselves tempted to abandon going to church, reading their Bible. People are tempted to stop playing and singing. There is always a sense of release and freedom, when religious duties are no longer faithfully rendered. There is also the forsaking of mercy.
Second, there is the lie that we can be wiser than God in determining who is to have the gospel message. Jonah had determined that the people of Nineveh should never hear the gospel of grace. Jonah forgot that “God will have mercy on whom He wills.”
Jonah wanted national Israel to be saved, and no one else. Because of grace, Jonah was finally able to forsake all of the lying vanities, and bond himself afresh to the Lord with a holy vow. Jonah came to the point where he was willing, once more, to offer sacrifice and praise to the Lord. Jonah became determined to perform all that he had vowed to do.
Jonah became a prophet with a holy passion. He became a new man with a virtuous sincerity. Jonah was given a second chance because he learned that, “salvation is of the Lord!” The people of Nineveh had only one hope, and that was God would send them the message of salvation. Jonah had only one hope, and that was the Lord would show mercy to him, and provide salvation. The Lord did have mercy, for we read that “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon dry land.”
As Jonah lay on the dry land he looked around. Life was suddenly beautiful and wonderful. The sky never looked so blue. The sun never looked so bright. The sandy beach was lovely against the green sea. As he lay on the beach one phrase kept ringing in his ears, “Salvation is of the Lord!”
That is always true. Salvation is of the Lord. Matthew Henry comments, “Jonah’s experience shall encourage others, in all ages, to trust in God as the God of their salvation; all that read this story shall say with assurance, say with admiration, that salvation is of the Lord, and is sure to all that belong to Him.”