We continue this week in our brief series of messages from the Old Testament book of Jonah. As we said last week, Jonah is forever identified as the book where a fish swallows a prophet. But it has so much more that is genuinely helpful to those who want to know and love God better. Last week, as we walked through chapter one, we were introduced to Nineveh—the city to which God called Jonah to bring his message of judgment.
The Assyrian Empire that Nineveh was a part of was the dominant power in the Ancient Near East and it was infamously brutal and savage. The Assyrians were hated by all other nations and the Jews shared that hatred of them. These pagan idolaters in Nineveh were the worst enemies of the Jews and when God called Jonah to physically relocate to this place and pronounce his judgment on it—he was calling this prophet to make unique and remarkable sacrifices.
Jonah had been a prophet or a spokesman for God for years when the events of this book play out. However, he simply could not stomach the prospect of preaching to these wicked people in Nineveh. So, he bolted from God’s presence and immediately sought to sail as far away from Nineveh as he could. This was a case of instantaneous rebellion from Jonah and the author very intentionally paints a negative picture of him as he contrasts this Hebrew prophet of God with the pagan sailors who he accompanied aboard this ship sailing for Nineveh.
This first chapter also reveals some powerful truths about God. One is that God is completely sovereign over his creation. He is in control—not only over the wind and wave that he used to violently batter Jonah’s ship. He was also sovereign over Jonah. We see this in the fact that, though Jonah took many, very intentional—even drastic steps to escape from God’s call on him to go to Nineveh, he could not escape God. As we’ll see again today, God in his sovereign power foils his escape plans, drags him back to himself and later, reissues his commission to Jonah to go to Nineveh.
This morning, you heard Brian begin with the account of Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish. That part of this story is so far-fetched that it has caused many over the centuries to doubt whether any of this actually happened. When we’re confronted with those kinds of doubts and even ridicule for believing such an outrageous story, there are at least two responses that are the most common. One is—some believers seek to scientifically prove that it was indeed plausible for this event to have occurred. These folks try to address questions about what kind of animal might this have been that swallowed Jonah.
Here, you find topics discussed like the average size of the esophagus of a Sperm whale and how long it takes for digestive juices to reduce a person to mush. Although you can read several opinions online about those questions, it’s generally not a profitable direction to take. This is because it’s simply NOT possible to prove scientifically that it is plausible for what Jonah describes here to happen-because there are no verifiable instances where this has ever happened before. Even harder to know for certain is how Jonah could have known that he’d been in the belly of this creature for three days and nights.
A more sane response to these kinds of questions related to Jonah or any miracle in the bible is to root your faith, not in finding a rational explanation, but in the infinite power that God has to do ANYTHING he wants to do. If God can create the sun, moon and stars, then keeping a man alive in the belly of a sea creature for three days and nights is a piece of cake. If finite, fallen and foolish humans can build submarines that enable hundreds of men to live in the ocean for months at a time, then the all-powerful Lord of the universe can surely create a fish to with a belly large enough for a passenger.
It’s also helpful to remember someone with amazing credibility and who clearly believed this story. That would be, Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus cites Jonah’s three-day-and-night journey in the belly of a fish, and he doesn’t treat it like a myth or fairy tale or a parable. He teaches it as historical fact and compares it to another well-verified historical event, his own burial and resurrection. If Jesus, who knew everything and believed this story, then it would seem more credible for others to assume it’s a true story.
This prayer we heard a few minutes ago of Jonah’s in chapter two is the turning point in the book. It’s in this chapter where Jonah comes back to God and is ready to go to Nineveh and preach to wicked Assyrians. This prayer is in the form of poetry and Jonah quotes many phrases from the book of Psalms. It’s important to clarify the way Jonah composed this poetic prayer. Obviously, Jonah didn’t have parchment paper and ink with him inside the belly of the fish. This prayer was obviously written after this event. But because its Jonah’s account of this event and because its inspired by God, this poem accurately represents the events described here as well as the feelings Jonah had at the time.
The poetic prayer divides into the three parts. The first and shortest section we could call “God’s rescue of Jonah.” The second part we could call “God’s discipline of Jonah” and the third part is “Jonah’s response to God.” First, let’s briefly look at God’s rescue of Jonah. Even though the rescue obviously follows Jonah’s time in the ocean, we’ll look at it first because it appears first in the text. You can find at least three elements of God’s rescue. The first element is one you see so often in Jonah and that is—God’s rescue of Jonah was totally sovereign. God is always sovereign—that is, he is always in complete control of all things. But in Jonah, we see his sovereign control over persons and events in very obvious and powerful ways that force us to see his sovereignty.
In 1:17, the author credits God with the rescue saying, “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” The presence of this unique fish in these waters was no coincidence. Whatever kind of sea creature this was with this strange capacity for swallowing rebel prophets, God sent it to this area so that—at precisely the right moment in time, when Jonah as mere moments from death, the fish would deliver him from this watery grave. In verse 10, when the fish had accomplished its mission, the author is again careful to explicitly credit the LORD. “And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” This prophet regurgitation occurred at the precise moment of God’s prompting and God gave that order when the fish was near dry land. This story again shows us what a big God we have, and we must need to be constantly reminded of that because the bible is chocked full of evidence of it. The author wants us to see how muscular God’s sovereign power is to deliver Jonah like a package to whatever destination HE chooses in whatever form of transport HE chooses.
Another element of this rescue of Jonah is—God’s rescue of Jonah was fruitful. We will see just how fruitful this was regarding Jonah’s future ministry later in the book. But we see the “firstfruits” of this rescue in Jonah’s heart. Verse one says, “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish.” The instructive phrase there is “the LORD his God.” That’s the author’s way of telling us that this prophet, who had not only rejected his call to be a prophet, but also rejected God himself, has now turned back to him God in some way. As we’ll see, the rest of the prayer supports that Jonah has reconnected with God. He has gone from running from God to crying out to him in prayer.
The second part of this story begins we see in verses three and four. Let’s look at God’s discipline of Jonah. When we use the word “discipline” for how the Lord treats one of his people, we are not talking about him being disgusted with someone and letting them have it. Hebrews 12 tells us that when God disciplines his people, it is rooted in his love for us and is intended to produce “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” [12:11] and to the end “that we might share his holiness” [12:10]. God’s discipline is intended to train those he disciplines, and we clearly see that intent here as Jonah describes his terrible trial in the ocean.
Did you notice that Jonah’s prayer says nothing about what it was like in the belly of the fish? We can imagine that this would not have been at all pleasant. But when Jonah recounts God’s discipline of him, he completely limits that to this harrowing experience in the water before the fish swallows him. For Jonah, THAT time under water was the worst part of this entire experience and he clearly sees that this came directly from God. In verse three Jonah prays to the LORD, “For you cast me into the deep and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.” Again, we see that one element of God’s discipline is God’s discipline of Jonah is God’s sovereign doing.
We know from the story that it was the sailors who throw Jonah overboard. But Jonah clearly understands that his near drowning experience was an act of God. Jonah sees these sailors as God’s tools he used to throw him overboard. To Jonah, it would have been no less evident that God was behind this if God had sent fiery angels to fling him into the sea. In his prayer to God, he calls the waves and billows on the surface of the ocean, “your waves” and “your billows.” Again, Jonah sees this entire trip into the sea as God’s doing.
Another element of God’s discipline that the author goes out of his way to reveal is God’s discipline of Jonah is severe. Part of the reason this is written in graphic poetic language is to better capture the sheer terror Jonah must have felt as he descended into the deep. Notice the progression here. In verse five, he says, “The waters closed in over me to take my life.” So, after he hits the water, he immediately begins his descent. Next, he says, “the deep surrounded me.” So, he’s sinking deeper and is totally surrounded by miles of water. Finally, he vividly communicates what happened when he had sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
He says in verse five, “…weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains.” The scholars tell us that the words translated “wrapped about my head” convey that Jonah was “hopelessly entangled.” If you’ve ever had a near-drowning experience, you know the terror it is to be totally out of control under water and feeling entombed. In verse two, he summarizes the experience as being in “the belly of Sheol.” Sheol was the Hebrew word for what they believed was an underground cavern where the souls of dead people ended up. That’s how trapped Jonah felt and it’s clear that he knew with absolute certainty that he was a goner. That’s what he conveys in verse six where he says, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me, forever…” He was so certain of his imminent death that it felt as if the door of death had been bolted behind him and that it was impossible for that door to ever reopen for him. Jonah KNOWS he is a dead man at this point. He summarizes the experience in verse seven by saying, “When my life was fainting away…”
One modern-day comparable experience that illustrates this kind of certainty of death would be if you were on a jet airliner at 38,000 feet and both engines failed. After some time gliding, the plane eventually falls from the air at a rapid descent. You are in free-fall for about 30 seconds and by that time, you have no doubt that you and everyone else on that airplane will very soon be violently reduced to a statistic. That kind of absolute, abject horror of the utter certainty of death is what this poetic language intends to communicate. Then, as Jonah is trapped and is certainly mere moments from death by drowning, he says in verse six, “…yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.”
The use of poetry is intended to cause us to feel the desperate situation in which Jonah found himself. The point is—this was severe discipline from God. God brought Jonah to the very brink of death—allowed him to feel the utter terror that comes from this kind of utter hopelessness. This was not like your friend at the swimming pool holding your head under water for a few moments. If you have a dream like this, you wake up terrified.
God could have stopped the discipline at this horrific storm he brought that caused the pagan sailors to cry out to their gods in terror. THAT was surely a horrible experience where everyone had all but given up any hope of survival. But God causes Jonah, not only to endure that terrible trauma, he had a much worse one in store for him after he was thrown in. This was severe discipline for Jonah—severe enough to cause him to decide it was ok for him to preach to those undeserving Ninevites.
The third part of the poem reveals Jonah’s Response to God. We’ve seen much of this already but notice five short elements of Jonah’s response. First, as we have seen, Jonah is desperate. His summary of this event in verse two says, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress…” One scholar says that word translated “distress” communicates that “…Jonah believed that he was as good as dead, that he had been “eaten” by death, which was often spoken of as an enemy that devours.” So, before Jonah was “eaten” by this fish, he had, in his mind, already been eaten by death and he is utterly terrified.
A second element of Jonah’s response is Jonah is thankful. Unless you have been through such a hopeless, near-death experience, you surely cannot appreciate the pure glee associated with getting back your life after you had been certain it was lost. The adrenaline rush alone from that must have been overwhelming. We see Jonah’s thankfulness in verse nine as he says to the LORD, “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you…” Jonah will worship the Lord in ecstatic thanksgiving fitting a man who had lost his life only to miraculously find it again.
Another element of Jonah’s response is Jonah is refreshed in his commitment to the Lord. This is what is conveyed when he says in the second half of verse nine, “what I have vowed I will pay.” He doesn’t specify tell us the nature of this vow he had made. Perhaps Jonah vowed to God that, if he saved him from this certain drowning, he would never refuse God’s call to preach again. We can’t know for certain. What we CAN know is that this rescue of God, for at least a short time, made Jonah more committed to the LORD and we see that in his journey back to Nineveh.
A fourth element of Jonah’s response is Jonah reaffirms his trust in God’s power to save. That’s what he means in the last sentence in verse nine. “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” That is—no one but God saves from imminent destruction—be it in drowning or in spiritual judgment—no one but God. Commentators tell us that this verse serves as the pillar verse of the entire book of Jonah because it supports everything else here. God saves Jonah and God will save the Ninevites if they repent. At least one scholar has said that this is the pillar verse of the entire Bible!
A final and the most fascinating element of Jonah’s response is found not in anything Jonah says, but in what Jonah does not say. In his response, Jonah is manifestly incomplete. Did you notice the absolutely glaring omission in Jonah’s prayer? Think about it. He has just gone through this horrific ordeal where his life flashes before his eyes in the certainty of his imminent and violent death. He is rescued and he is thankful, newly committed and reaffirming of God’s power to save. But ALL of this trial that he has written so graphically about in his prayer is due to one thing. That is—his fateful decision to run from God to Tarshish. THAT was the root cause of ALL of his troubles. God did nothing to him here except in direct response to Jonah’s willful sin of rebellion.
Jonah is grateful, recommitted, newly appreciative of God’s saving power, but one thing Jonah is not is—penitent. There is ZERO explicit evidence of Jonah expressing regret for his sin against God even though we know from chapter one that he was absolutely aware that HE and his sin were the cause of this calamity. And yet as Jonah makes his confession of this amazing trial and rescue, as it relates to any sign of repentance, he is as silent as the grave from which he had been rescued. In verse nine Jonah speaks of offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving. What about another, much more important sacrifice?
Jonah promises that he will make sacrifices to God in response to his rescue of him. But in King David’s psalm of repentance, Psalm 51, he says in verse 17, “17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” You can look high and low throughout the length of Jonah’s prayer and you will not find one scintilla of evidence pointing to “a broken and contrite heart” over his rebellion. In verse four, when he speaks of his earlier separation from God, it would have been accurate for him to say, “I intentionally and rebelliously fled from your presence.” But notice how does he expresses his separation from God in verse four. “I am driven away from your sight.”
That makes it sound like his role in this was passive. That God had for some unknown reason driven him away from his. That’s not at all what chapter one says. It’s clear that Jonah was the active participant here in running away from God. This was not about driving Jonah anywhere. It was about Jonah running from God!
This omission is so crucial in the way it contributes to one of the main messages of the book. The book of Jonah is filled with irony and we will see more of that in the weeks to come. But the central irony of the book is that Jonah here thankfully accepts the Lord’s merciful forgiveness and a second chance at life but, as we’ll see, his heart desperately wants to deny those expressions of mercy to the Ninevites. And, what the author is trying to tell us is that at least one of the major reasons why Jonah’s heart was not completely transformed here into wanting the Ninevites to repent and be saved is because, he never repented of hatred of them. Out of his gratitude to God for his rescue, he would stop running and go back to Nineveh and do the bare minimum there to be faithful to God. But there was no mercy in his heart toward the pagans because he never repented of his bigotry toward them.
This communicates some very important truths about how God changes a life in repentance. As we’ve said before the Greek word for “repent” literally means “a change of mind.” By a change of mind, we don’t mean, “I used to think that sinful attitude, desire or action was ok, but now I know it’s sinful—I’ve changed my mind about it.” No! Most of us know in our minds the difference between sinful and right attitudes, desires and actions. The truth is–repentance results in a change of behavior but is itself NOT a change in behavior. Now that may sound like an unimportant detail, but it’s actually very important.
The actual change in a person’s behavior is what the Bible calls “the fruit of repentance.” When John the Baptist was preaching repentance, his call was to “8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In Luke 3:8, Jesus says, “8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…” In Acts, Paul is preaching in chapter 26 and says of the Gentiles “… they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Repentance is not itself a change in behavior; it LEADS TO a change in behavior.
To repent of a sin means that you think differently about it in the sense that what you once found appealing you now find appalling. THAT kind of radical shift in your attitude toward your sin is repentance and Jonah doesn’t show an ounce of that. That’s why, on the one hand, a grateful Jonah is willing to go to the Ninevites and preach a terse message of God’s judgment—his gratitude will take him that far. But his heart toward the Ninevites hasn’t changed. The mercy that he had received from God over his sin had done nothing to soften his heart to want to give mercy to the Ninevites. That’s why, as we’ll see later in the book, when they repent of their sins, Jonah is positively adolescent in his reaction to it.
Paul says two things bring repentance to a sinful soul. In Romans chapter two, Paul says in verse four, “4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” In Second Corinthians chapter seven, Paul says in verse 10, “10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” So, on the one hand, God’s kindness and patience over our sin leads us to repent but on the other, godly sorrow produces repentance.
The way those two fit together is this—if you know in your heart how kind God has been to you in the cross, when you sin grievously, you will feel godly sorrow—sorrow directed toward God because you realize that you have grieved the heart of One who sent his only Son to die for you. ITS THAT response to God over our sin that brings about transformation. As we see the glory of Christ in the cross and we see and internalize God’s kindness to us there, then the sin we once found appealing we will now find appalling because we don’t want to grieve a God who has done so much for us.
Apply that to Jonah. Jonah had tasted of the Lord’s kindness in ways few people have EVER experienced it. Jonah was absolutely filled with gratitude over God’s kindness—so much so that he was willing to go preach to the Ninevites. But Jonah never experienced this godly sorrow, this penitence, this broken and contrite heart that David had. Deep down, he still hated the Ninevites and had not changed the way he viewed them or what they deserved. Because there was no godly sorrow in response to what he had one in response to a God who had been so kind in rescuing him, instead of repenting, he felt freedom to wallow in bitterness when the Ninevites turn from their sin.
We’re running out of time, let’s just leave the application at this. If we want to see transformation in our lives, we must preach BOTH halves of the gospel to ourselves. We’re always reminding the church to preach the gospel to ourselves every day. We need to be constantly reminded of how much God loves us because we cannot show the kind of loving, fervent obedience God wants from us unless that is rooted in a sense of God’s love and acceptance of us. If you are unsure of God’s love for you, you will never be radically obedience because “we love because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19].
The story of Jonah reminds us that we must not only show gratitude for God’s rescue of us in the cross. Jonah did that much with his rescue. What Jonah failed to do and what we must do if we are to live in constant repentance, is also remind ourselves of the horror of our sin before a holy God. We don’t do that to beat ourselves us. This is not spiritual self-abuse. But unless we see the tremendous debt that our sin had racked up before God, we will not rightly appreciate or be transformed by the knowledge that God in his grace has rescued us.
This is what Jesus is getting at in Luke chapter seven. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus into his house and the story ends up with the prostitute showing profound gratitude to Jesus for forgiving her sins while Simon is disgusted by this woman’s love for Jesus. Jesus summarizes the difference between this woman and the Pharisee in 7:47. Jesus tells Simon, 47 …I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” This woman saw what a terrible sinner she was. When she found forgiveness from Jesus, she was profoundly grateful and willing, with joy, to do whatever Jesus wanted.
Jonah clearly had not processed his sin against God but only his rescue of him. The result was that his heart was not transformed—he just wanted to repay God the favor he had done for him. If we want our hearts transformed by the gospel, we must meditate not only on what God has done for us, but the depths of our sin that made it necessary. May God give us the grace to be transformed for his glory and our joy as we preach the full truth of the gospel to ourselves.
 A few unverified reports have surfaced over the centuries, but nothing with any credible documentation.
 The Minor Prophets” Volume Two, A Commentary on Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Thomas McComiskey, Editor, Joyce Baldwin, commentator on Jonah, Baker Books, p 570, 1993.
 Smith, B.K., & Page, F.S. (1995). Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Vol. 19B, pp. 242-245). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Smith, 1995, Broadman and Holman.