The LORD disciplines his disobedient children by appointing appropriate means that serve both to chastise them and deliver them; such discipline teaches us to see God’s difficult dealings with us through the lens of Christ’s suffering and glory.
Introduction & Background – The first chapter of Jonah is about his desperate disobedience: that disobedience always has consequences, is a poor witness, and leads to God’s discipline. Jonah chapter 2 teaches us how God disciplines his people. We expect parents, teachers, and other authority figures to be fair when meting out punishment. Even creative and odd punishments (mostly) fit the crime. I read of a parent who assigned to their child public jumping jacks while confessing his disobedience (“I-will-not-use-potty-talk-especially-at-the-table”). But for some, God’s punishment of his wayward prophet Jonah calls into question his fairness in discipline. If I (as God’s child) sat down right now and refused to preach the rest of this sermon, would it be right to throw me overboard to drown and become fish food? Could God consider this appropriate discipline? Is God’s discipline really restorative? If so, why is it so painful and sometimes seemingly cruel? Chapter 2 of the book of Jonah shows us that the LORD disciplines his disobedient children by appointing appropriate means that serve both to chastise them and deliver them; such discipline teaches us to see God’s difficult dealings with us through the lens of Christ’s suffering and glory.
Before we begin, let’s briefly review the book of Jonah. It is one of the minor prophets in the OT, and is a strange little book. God calls the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach a message of judgment, but because Jonah hates the Assyrians and their capital at Nineveh, he heads in the opposite direction, sailing to Tarshish (the end of the known world). So God sends a violent storm to stop Jonah’s flight. Jonah is thrown overboard (at his request) and before drowning, God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah and spit him back on dry land. While in the fish’s stomach Jonah prays to God and thanks him for rescuing him from drowning. Jonah vows to worship God again in the temple, and promises to “pay his vow”. Chapters 1, 3, and 4 are narrative and chapter 2 is Hebrew poetry (a psalm). Because of the many miraculous elements in the story (the storm, the great fish swallowing Jonah and Jonah surviving for 3 days and nights, the rapidly growing plant, the worm who destroys the plant), some have refused to believe that Jonah is a historical narrative. Alternative literary genres that some propose include allegory, parable, midrash, and legend. But there are significant problems with these theories. For example, the book of Jonah is probably too long to be considered an allegory or a parable. Jonah is a historical character, a man who prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II (2 Kgs 14:23-25). Most significant, Jesus Christ himself drew from the story of Jonah and interpreted it as historically reliable (Mt 12:39-41). Jonah 2 is Jonah’s prayer. Specifically it is a thanksgiving psalm which is typically a prayer of thanks to God for deliverance from some trial or misery. Jonah prays to God out of desperation.
I. Desperation Awakens Us to Our Need of Salvation
A. Trial by ordeal (vv. 3-6a)
In the ancient Near East people accused without evidence of crimes were sometimes tested to discover their innocence or guilt. Such a test was known as “trial by ordeal” (second law of Code of Hammurabi; cf. Num 5:11-31). These tests were supposed to reveal the divine verdict for the accused. If the person survived the trial, he was innocent because God would not let an innocent man die. If the person died (or otherwise failed) in the trial, he was guilty because God would not rescue a guilty man. Jonah’s trial is a “watery ordeal.”
Think of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries. These were essentially “trials by ordeal” although the test was modified (if the person sank, they were considered innocent; if the person floated, it was considered evidence of witchcraft). Before we laugh at the superstitions and ignorance of pre-modern people, consider how very far we’ve come.
When you take an academic exam you studied for but still don’t feel prepared, don’t you fear that you’re going to be “discovered” to be a failure? And that failing the exam somehow reflects a moral or character flaw? “What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I pass? I hate myself!” Or what if you ace the exam? Don’t you feel superior to everyone who didn’t do as well as you? “What’s the matter with them? I suppose they aren’t as disciplined and studious and gifted and good as me.” There are also other ways we tend think like this:
1. Job interviews (“Good workers always gets a job, but I can’t find a job, therefore I must not be a good worker)
2. Relationships (“My good marriage/relationship must mean I’m a good person”)
3. Health (“Why am I always sick? What did I do to deserve this?”)
4. Religion (“My prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing”)
Such thinking is foolishness apart from God intervening to reveal the truth of the situation. But Jonah’s case teaches us that God is in control of our trials (the storm, the fish), and that he is able to intervene to judge such “trials of ordeal.”
Jonah was the one revealed to be on trial. God stirred up the tempestuous sea to be Jonah’s trial of ordeal! That is why Jonah told the sailors to throw him into the sea, and why the sailors pleaded with God to forgive them if Jonah proved to be innocent (Jon 1:14-16), because if he was innocent the penalty would fall on the sailors. But Jonah knew he was guilty of running from God and his call to preach to Nineveh. Jonah knew he would not survive this watery trial because he was the guilty one. Jonah knew if he were to be saved, God must show mercy to a guilty man. He was desperate, and needed salvation.
B. The great fish: agent of judgment or deliverance? (vv. 17; 1, 10)
1. Objection: Is it possible for a man to survive such an ordeal? Disputed account of James Bartley in 1891 (fell overboard, swallowed by a whale, whale caught, rescued from its stomach 15 hours later). Was the great fish that swallowed Jonah a whale? I don’t know. Whales are not native to the Mediterranean Sea, but that does not mean a whale couldn’t swim through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean (especially under God’s direction). Even if similar natural accounts are nothing more than tall tales, we must remember that Jonah’s ordeal was supernaturally intended. The God of the miraculous storm is the God of the great fish.
2. Remember chapter and verse divisions are not original to the text. The Hebrew Bible puts verse 17 at the beginning of ch 2. This is significant because if Jonah being swallowed by the fish is the final detail in ch 1, we would probably conclude that the fish was God’s final agent of judgment (the storm, then the sea, then the fish). But if the fish swallows Jonah at the beginning of ch 2 (and fittingly concludes with the fish vomiting him up to safety at the end of ch 2), we should conclude that the fish was God’s first agent of deliverance (although Jonah is not out of “deep water” yet lest he presume on God’s mercy).
II. Prayer Turns Us to the God of Salvation
A. Jonah remembered God and cried out in prayer (vv. 1-2, 4, 7)
Jonah had finally “gone down” to the bottom (cf. 1:3, 5; 2:6). The water had engulfed him and he sank to the “roots of the mountains.” From the belly of the fish and the belly of death (Sheol), Jonah finally prayed. Jonah did not merely wrestle with natural foes (the flood and the loss of biological life) but with cosmic forces as well. It is Sheol with whom he contends. It is God himself who has plunged Jonah into this watery ordeal. He prayed for deliverance from this distress so he could once again see God’s holy temple—to return to God’s presence. Jonah had faith that his dying prayer reached from the depths of the sea up to God’s heavenly temple (2 Chr 6; 7:14).
How do you respond when you are in big trouble? Do you tend to run from God because you figure he’s responsible for your suffering? Do you run to your friends, parents, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or children for rescue? Are you willing to try anything except praying to God because you’re afraid God will hear but not listen since you’re too far away from him, or you’ve sinned too greatly, or he knows what kind of a person you are in private and on the inside? Remember, you are never too far away from God. He knows you better than you know yourself, and yet he still loves you God hears and listens to every sinner who cries out to him for salvation!
B. God heard Jonah’s prayer and listened (vv. 2, 7)
That God listens to our prayers may seem trite. After all, isn’t that God’s business—listening to and answering prayers? But ancient people who understood the transcendence (highness and loftiness) of God knew that God doesn’t have to listen to our prayers. God is free to listen or not (Isa 1:15). He is God and Jonah knew God didn’t owe him anything, especially a rescue after he had disobeyed. But Jonah recognized that the fish’s stomach was not his tomb, but God’s vehicle for salvation. Jonah thanked God for sending the fish to swallow him and thus deliver him from his watery ordeal. The fish was proof that God heard Jonah’s prayer and mercifully forgave him.
When I was at a Christian conference worship service during my college years I sensed my first sense of an internal call to the ministry . Although I discerned God’s call to go to seminary someday, I primary interpreted it as a call to quit running from the Lord, quit wasting my life, and begin seriously pursuing him. In other words, to quit presuming on God’s mercy to me and love him like he deserves—to worship and obey him. That night I swallowed hard and publicly confessed to my church that I had been like Jonah—serving God when it was fun and suited my purposes, but running from his lordship and repeated calls to bow my knee to his will in all things. (I’ve had to continue to repent, stop running away, and seek God.)
Are you presuming on God’s mercy, offering up the same old prayers for God to bail you out of your latest mess with no real intention of changing your direction? Resolve today (even now) to repent of your lack of love for God, ask him to restore you, to give you a deep desire to worship and obey him. Your responsibility as his child, desperate without him, is to repent, pray for forgiveness, for true and full restoration that you might worship and obey him as not just your savior, but your Lord and God as well.
III. Restoration Enables Us to Work Out Our Salvation
A. Restored to a life of worship (vv. 4b, 8-9)
When God restores us from our trials it is always that we may worship him again (cf. Ps 22:21-23). Jonah hoped he would worship in God’s presence again in the temple. Jonah hoped in God’s love (Hebrew: hesed) which is covenant love that manifests in faithfulness, steadfast love, mercy, and lovingkindness. He also confessed that idolaters (literally those who “revere empty nothings”) forfeit their hope in God’s love. This shows that Jonah, despite a restored life of worship, still does not rejoice in the love of God for pagans. Jonah was probably thinking of the idolatrous pagan sailors who threw him into the seas as outside the love of God. Jonah will thank the LORD for hearing his prayer and mercifully restoring his life. Jonah will sacrifice to God and pay his vow (probably as an act of worship in the temple). Jonah will proclaim to all that salvation belongs to the LORD!
B. Restored to a life of obedience (vv. 6b, 10)
God brought Jonah’s life up from the pit, restoring his life so that he could continue to use Jonah as his prophet (cf. Phil 2:12-15). Although the sailors could not save Jonah, and Jonah could not save himself, God saved Jonah by commanding the fish to vomit him up on dry land. Jonah is now back where he started—safe, on dry land, and available to go to Nineveh to preach God’s message. Jonah was alive even though he didn’t deserve to be, that is why he prayed a psalm of thanksgiving. God had not treated Jonah as his sins deserved. God had given him a second chance. There is an element of playful irony in God commanding the fish to vomit up Jonah on the beach. This gross and absurd scene implies that Jonah needs to clean himself up and start again.
The story of Jonah could have ended here, but the main point of the book has not yet been reached. Jonah still needed to learn how wide God’s mercy is, how far it extends across the earth, and how deep his own sin extends into his flawed theology of God’s love.
C. Restored through Christ’s trial by ordeal (Mk 10:38 || Lk 12:50; Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:11-14)
If Jonah was guilty and didn’t deserve to survive his trial by ordeal, but was only delivered by God’s mercy, how is that good news for you? How can you be sure God will treat you with mercy when you don’t deserve to be saved from your trials either? How can you survive your trial by ordeal? How can you be sure God will listen to your prayers for mercy? Because Jesus has suffered the ultimate trial by ordeal in your place! Like Jonah, Jesus also suffered a “watery ordeal” (Lk 12:50; Rom 6:3-4), being “cut off” from God (Col 2:11-14). Jesus dived into the waters of God’s judgment and sank to the very pit of death, banished from God’s presence. God turned his face away from his obedient Son and did not listen to his cries for deliverance (Mt 27:46) so that God could listen to and rescue sinners. Jesus died in his trial by ordeal, but because he was innocent, he passed the test, and God the Father vindicated him by raising him from the dead (Acts 13:28-35), restoring him by giving him all authority and power under heaven (Mt 28:18).
Conclusion – Someone is thinking: Jonah never actually repented of his disobedience! His prayer is beautiful, but strange because it is just like other thanksgiving psalms: “Help! My suffering is not my fault.” Jonah’s prayer seems out of place because he still seems to not get it. His repentance presumably came later, but here God saved him because God wasn’t through with Jonah. God delivered him from his trial by ordeal, not because Jonah was tested and got a passing grade, but only because God had mercy. Jonah had nothing to boast of in surviving his watery ordeal. He was delivered from death and banishment from God’s presence because God heard his cry for help and God graciously answered his prayer. God rescued Jonah because he delights in saving desperate runaways. All those who are united to Jesus’ death in the watery ordeal of baptism will likewise be united to Jesus in his resurrected life! His death is your life. His suffering means your glory. He is with you in your trials (Isa 43:1-3a). This means your suffering, although perhaps painful, is not cruel because God is restoring your life for worship, obedience, and thankfulness to Jesus Christ, the one greater than Jonah. So if God has to use extreme measures, the result is greater because it is glorious! When you grasp this truth and marvel at Christ’s loving sacrifice in enduring his trial of ordeal for you, you will begin to understand, appreciate, and even take joy in your trials for what they are—God’s customized means for your deliverance from your suffering to your glory.