In My Distress I Called To The Lord
Key Verse 2:9
“But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.”
The last verse of chapter 1 tells us what happened to Jonah after the crew of the ship picked him up and threw off board. Jonah 1:17 says: “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” The very next verse in chapter 2:1 says: “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” Let me tell you a few things before we get into that prayer of his.
There are a lot of things that we do not know because they are not recorded here. What’s not clear, for example, is the time Jonah spent in the ocean before the fish came to his rescue. In other words we do not know how much time lapsed between the time the sailors threw him overboard and when God sent the fish to swallow him. It may have been minutes, or hours, or it may have also been days. We also do not know if the trauma of the turbulent ocean or the trauma of finally being swallowed up by fish was the vessel— or agent— of discipline that led the prophet to repentance. It really does not matter. Either one would have served God’s purpose in disciplining the renegade prophet and in bringing him to desperation. But here is what we do know for sure. We know that Jonah prayed from inside the fish. Verse 1 tells us that. He may have prayed while being tossed into the seas. He may have prayed while it seemed to him that he was drowning. He may have prayed when the fish seemed to have been trying to eat him. We know that many who are on the edge of death cry out to God with all kinds of prayers. But in this chapter we have a record of Jonah’s prayer from within the fish. We have is a vivid description of the horrendous ordeal— or his personal near death experience— that caused him to cry out to God in prayer. In his prayer we see Jonah’s decision to obey God. We also witness his resurrection faith. And God’s assurance of salvation.
Read verse 2. “He said: ‘In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.’” In his prayer, and several times, Jonah makes reference to death. In this verse he says: “From the depths of the grave.” In the Hebrew language, the word grave is Sheol, and used exclusively for the under or unseen world— the world of death. Let’s try to understand his situation here a little. When the fish was about to swallow Jonah, perhaps just as he was sliding down the throat of that great fish, he must have felt that the fish would be the last place he would ever see in this world. The place was dark and constrictive. It was like a grave to him. He was sure that he would die inside the fish. And very likely it is right here and at these very moments that Jonah cried out to God to save him from sure death and the grave. He says in verse 1: “In my distress”, perhaps even in unimaginable distress, Jonah asked God to raise him from the dead. So if you are asking yourself whether Jonah actually died in the fish’s belly, I am of a strong opinion that he did— and that God actually raised him from the dead three days later when the fish vomited him out on dry land as verse 10 tells us. This is how God answered Jonah’s prayer— he raised him from the dead. And as far as gospel truth is concerned, this would be more in accordance with Jesus’ own reference to his death and resurrection. In other words, Jonah didn’t simply slosh around in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, while holding on to dear life— or as some paintings depict him, sitting at a table inside the belly of a fish, writing his prayer! He was simply dead. And God brought him back to life.
Read verses 3-4. “You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.”
Whether dead or alive from inside the fish, In his unimaginable distress, Jonah’s prayer tells us that he felt that God had hurled him into the deep, and had banished him from his sight. The words Jonah uses “hurled” and “banished” are very strong words. In other words, he felt as if God had cut him off. To be banished from God’s sight is a serious thing. Jonah understood that well. For those of you who have studied Genesis, you know that when Cain was banished from God’s sight, his relationship with God was no more— he was cut off from God forever. He became like a walking dead man, and so did all his descendants after him— all those who did not walk with God— restless wanderers on the earth— without God and without meaning to their lives. Today Cain’s descendants outnumber the children of God. They are physically alive, but they are spiritually dead, cut off from God, and banished from his sight— still restless wanderers like their ancestor Cain. But the reality of one banished from God’s sight, is really dreadful— an affliction for which there is no earthly cure. This world is like a graveyard for most people, where they feel oppressed, abandoned, hopeless, and where they can find no real meaning to their lives, and as if the weight of the whole world is on their shoulders. They don’t know why they feel this way, but they do because that is what life without God— cut off from God— and banished from his sight feels like— like being in a graveyard. Only God gives life to us and offers hope for our souls beyond the grave. This is exactly what Jesus came to do, to redeem the children of Cain who had been banished and cut off from God, and to set them on a pilgrimage to the kingdom of God. And God had done so through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I explained the meaning of being hurled and banished to you in order to give you a glimpse into Jonah’s distress. “I have been banished from your sight” is a tragedy for any person to suffer— let alone for a man of God who had lived his life as a servant of the Most High God. We mustn’t forget who Jonah is! Jonah was a man of God in every sense of the word. He had been obedient to the word of God. He had been zealous for the Lord. He was a man who loved God, and whom God entrusted with his very words. As far as we know, he had never gone against the will of God in his life. In other words, up until now, his life had been an exemplary life of faith and obedience. To be so close to God— To walk with God— And then to be banished from his sight! At the moment that Jonah suffered a sense of banishment, a sense of being cut off from God— the world must have felt as if it had ended for him. Jonah felt the sentence of death upon his soul— as if God had flung him away. The fish must have felt like a grave.
Read verses 5-6: “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God.” When Jonah makes such statements as “The earth beneath barred me in forever” and “You brought my life up from the pit”, both statements may well be references to death itself. His words seem to indicate that Jonah may have literally died. But the reason we are making a big deal is the fact that it is a big deal— in the end Jonah was raised from the dead— and the resurrection is always a big deal. Jonah’s references to death is what makes the message of the book of Jonah largely a resurrection message, as the Lord Jesus himself made reference to it in his own teachings. We should know that the resurrection is one of the two pillars of our salvation— and upon which our faith as well as the church of our Lord stands. Our faith stands on two pillars, one is the death of our Lord Jesus, and the other is Jesus’ resurrection. They both appear in the Old Testament and this short book of Jonah illustrates his resurrection.
Read verse 7: “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” I don’t know how long it took for this man to lose consciousness inside the fish, but this seems to be the moment when he was between life and death— the moment before everything turned dark and life slipped away. But before he lost consciousness, he says something very significant. He says: “I remembered you, Lord.” Then he also says: “And my prayer rose to you and to your holy temple.” What he seems to be saying is that at this moment he remembered God and prayed his prayer. Some have suggested that Jonah prayed his prayer after three days and three nights of soul searching and heart wrenching conviction in the belly of the beast. I don’t think so. I believe his prayer was spontaneous out of misery at a moment of distress as his life was ebbing away. But I can imagine how a man undergoing some serious life trials might do that, caught up in a battle with his own fears and pains. He might wrestle with God for a long time until he finds relief. Jacob did that. When Jacob heard that his brother was coming to meet him with 400 armed men, he panicked, thinking that his brother had come to take his revenge on him. And in a moment of unimaginable anxiety, Jacob divided his family into two groups, scattering them here and there in order to reduce the would be damage to a minimum. He crossed the Jabok river and he wrestled with God in prayer all night. We cannot possibly imagine the anguish of Jacob’s soul as he poured out his heart to God in prayer that night— what confessions poured out of him— what repentance he offered— what promises he made— what tears he shed all night— if God would only spare his life and the life of his wives and children. The Bible tells us that Jacob’s struggle was so intense that night that he literally wrestled with the angel of God. Therefore, some people may have extended periods of soul searching battles with themselves and God. But Jonah was like a man being shot in the chest, and taking his last breaths. What would he do in those moments? In his last moments he remembered God and prayed to him.
Read verse 8. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” Consider what Jonah says here in his prayer. They are a mystery as to why he even said these words. But regardless of why he says what he says, let me tell you that they hold a timeless truth, and belong with the great proverbs of all time. The words themselves tell us one of the most enlightening things every human being ought to know. Here is what they say: That the grace of God— especially his mercy and forgiveness— is abundant and available for all people of all time regardless of who they may be. That is what crossed Jonah’s mind in the moment when his life was ebbing away. His words also tell us another timeless truth— that while God’s mercy and forgiveness are there for all people, people literally forfeit them— that is, they give them up— for something else. And he tells us what usually is that ‘something else’. He says that it’s usually for something worthless— worth more to them than God and his mercy on their souls. They choose to cling to— to hold on— to whatever it is that they love more than God. Like I said, it’s hard to understand why Jonah thought of this at this moment of distress. But Jonah may have been thinking about himself, wondering how close he had come to forfeiting the grace of God in his own life!
Needless to say the grace of God in our lives is the most precious thing we can cling to. There is nothing here on earth that is worth giving our hearts to. But the grace of God is that gift that God has chosen to give to anyone who asks for it. In the greatest act of mercy and forgiveness, God sacrificed his One and Only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. His grace is that one thing worth holding on to and not letting go of. Jonah’s life had been full of God’s grace. And if that were not enough, God had personally called him to a special mission to serve him as the messenger of his word. That was grace upon grace. But Jonah here had almost forfeited God’s grace for a worthless idol. The question is what sort of idol might Jonah have suddenly realized he was clinging to rather than God?
To better understand Jonah’s idol, the KJV translation sheds light on this. Verse 8 in the KJV reads like this: “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” Jonah may have seen his own vanity as an idol. And in a moment of distress repented of his vanity. Indeed vanity or its equivalents— pride— self-importance— arrogance— conceit— egotism are dreadful idols that displace God from his rightful place in our hearts. Consider why Jonah was running away from the Lord. He wasn’t running away from the Lord to get drunk or to engage in sexual immorality or to do his own thing. He was running away because in his heart he felt he had a good and righteous reason to do so. He was running away because he believed that those wicked people of Nineveh needed judgment— That they didn’t deserve a second chance. Jonah had a moral issue to pick with God. But God was angry with Jonah and disciplined him at sea. And Jonah tasted God’s righteous anger and was filled with holy dread. And now in a moment of anguish caught between life and death Jonah realized his sin. He had made himself a judge equal with God. His vanity was an idol in his heart. His vanity caused him to sin against God. Then even more dread flooded his heart because he knew that if he held on to his vanity, he would forfeit the grace of God. What a tragedy that would be for a man of God like Jonah to forsake that grace.
And after this glorious revelation, here is what Jonah decided in his heart perhaps before he took his last breath. Read verse 9. “But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.” The word “But” is significant. What follows this are not the words of a man who has despaired of life and given in to death. Nor of a man who has given in to self condemnation. Rather they are the words of a man who has cried out to God in his distress, repented and received God’s forgiveness and assurance of salvation. I am not sure in what manner God gave Jonah assurance, but there is no doubt that Jonah felt God’s hand of grace deep in his soul before he closed his eyes one last time. He entrusted himself to God, such that his last words were words of thanksgiving and surrender. In his desperate moment he had vowed— decided to forsake the pride of his heart, to humble himself and obey God. He had finally decided to do as God commanded and go to Nineveh to deliver God’s message to the people there.
But these last words that he said tell us much about Jonah’s resurrection faith. “Salvation comes from the Lord.” He was in the throes of death. He was a dead man. But he trusted that salvation would come to him. He believed that salvation would come to him after his terrible ordeal because salvation belongs to God. This is the essence of faith. Believing— trusting— that God holds life and death as well as resurrection in his hands. This has been the faith of our ancestors. They all believed that salvation comes from the Lord. They all believed that God would raise them from the dead. Their faith was not fully formed, because only in Jesus is our faith perfected— for he is the author and perfecter or our faith. (Hebrews 12:2)
Jonah’s light went out for three days and three nights. Look at verse 10. “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”