A Prophet Who Doesn't Get What He Deserves
Scripture: Jonah 1:17–2:10
[Sermon manuscript from 9/17/17 delivered in Woodstock, IL]
How does God rescue us when we run from him? While we fight to stay above water, he’s a breath of hope. When we hit bottom, he’s a lifeline who lifts us up. When we are drowning, he’s a lifeguard who’s always on duty.
I grew up swimming and I’m sure most of you did as well. I took swimming lessons at the pool. I swam in ponds and lakes. I played “king of the dock” and “king of the raft” with friends in high school. Water can be really fun. But water can also be really scary.
When I was pretty young, we visited my uncle in Arizona and drove to San Diego so we could go to Disneyland. We spent a day at the beach and my uncle took me out into the ocean. He was showing me how to jump when the waves came. But I was struggling. I wasn’t timing them right or wasn’t jumping high enough. I kept getting the sting of salt water in my eyes, nose, and throat. I wasn’t having enough time to breathe. But the waves kept coming and coming. The ocean isn’t going to stop. So even as I’m struggling, the waves are continuing to hit me and I have to keep trying to time things right. That was scary.
Or have you ever had someone put their arms on your shoulders and push themselves up on you so that you go down below the water with their weight on top of you? It’s terrifying. That feeling of drowning induces panic.
Today, we continue our four week series in the biblical book of Jonah. When we think about Jonah, usually what comes to mind is the big fish that swallows him. But Jonah is so much more than a story about a guy who gets swallowed by a big fish. It’s a story about a big God who shows grace to the least deserving of us.
Last week, we saw how Jonah was a man who was supposed to be a spokesman for God. God told him, “Go to the city of Nineveh and tell them they are in trouble because I know of their evil.” The Ninevites were a ruthless people who used terror to win battles. They would impale people alive on sticks and other horrible things. But how does Jonah respond to this assignment? He runs the opposite way. He wants nothing to do with Nineveh. He tries to go to Tarshish - the equivalent of Timbuktu. But God sends a storm upon his boat and Jonah submits himself to God’s judgment. He tells the sailors to throw him overboard. Then the storm calms and the sailors come to know the one true God who is the Creator of all things.
When we left off last week, we were focused on the sailors and their worshipful response to God. Meanwhile, Jonah was in the sea. In our passage today, our focus goes to Jonah and what happens to him.
The big question this passage answers is: how does God rescue us when we run from him? How does God rescue us when we run from him?
Whereas last week we were covering a narrative portion telling us the story of Jonah’s flight from God, today we are reading a psalm expressing Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving to God. Jonah was drowning physically as well as spiritually. As we saw last week, Jonah ran from God and it was all downhill from there. Today, we will see the bottom of that downhill journey.
Let’s pick up in chapter 1 verse 17.
The Fish Swallows Jonah (1:17)
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. (Jonah 1:17)
Here we are introduced to the big fish. We aren’t told what kind of fish. Some have speculated a whale. We really aren’t told much except that the LORD appoints it - he sends it. And it swallows Jonah. As I said last week, the fact that a man gets swallowed by a big fish in this story leads many today to reject the historicity of the book of Jonah. How in the world could this possibly be real? Next week, we will hear about another miracle in this book that makes people skeptical.
Why should we believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish? First, if we believe God exists and is all powerful, nothing is outside of his ability. Only if you reject the supernatural can you rule out something like this happening. Second, there are way crazier miracles that happen in the bible. Spoiler alert: a guy dies and comes back to life. The central truth of Christianity is that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and was resurrected three days later. That is a much bigger miracle than this. Third, Jesus seems to think the book of Jonah is reporting actual events. Our first Scripture reading gave us Jesus’ view of Jonah.
Jesus draws a parallel between his time in the tomb and Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish. Both reappear alive again after three days. Now, that in itself doesn’t present the strongest case for the factuality of the big fish swallowing Jonah. Maybe Jesus is just using a folktale to make a point. I might say, “The surface of the snow was so hard I could walk on top of it just like Legolas in Lord of the Rings.” That doesn’t mean I think elves like Legolas are real or that Lord of the Rings is real. But Jesus also says the people of Nineveh, who we will get to next week, will be present at the resurrection when people are judged. That is a weird thing to say if they are just make-believe so it looks like Jesus believes the book of Jonah is reporting facts so we should take it as such also.
What’s important to notice about this fish is that this is how Jonah actually stays alive. The fish is not the means of punishment but the means of deliverance for Jonah. This is made clear by Jonah’s psalm in chapter 2. This psalm is a poetic celebration of how God worked in Jonah’s life. Like a witness on the witness stand, Jonah is giving his eye-witness testimony of how God rescued him.
The big question this passage answers is: how does God rescue us when we run from him?
We will get three answers from the three different sections of this psalm. Let’s take a look at section one.
On the surface, treading water (2:2-4)
2 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:1)
The LORD saved Jonah by means of this fish and while in the fish, Jonah thanked God in a prayer. Now, I don’t think Jonah prays in poetry. Most likely, these words were written down later, expressing in a poetic way Jonah’s prayer while in the fish. There are lots of psalms in the bible and their beauty is in how they use high definition imagery to express truths about God and our experiences in life. That’s what we get here.
Verse 2 summarizes what this Psalm is all about. What does Jonah pray?
“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. (Jonah 2:2)
Jonah was in distress. He was in the belly of Sheol. In Jonah’s day, this was the name for the place people go when they die. Jonah was at the brink of death. But he is giving thanks because God answered him and heard his voice.
Why is Jonah in distress and praying to God? Verse 3:
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. (Jonah 2:3)
Jonah was tossed overboard to the storm of God’s judgment. He ran from God and because of that God sends a storm on his boat. On the surface of the sea, Jonah is struggling to stay afloat. He is surrounded by the pull of the water - the current, the wind. Waves are passing over him. Kasplash. Kasplash. He is treading water but probably isn’t that great of a swimmer because there weren’t any bodies of water where he is from. He is sucking in water with every wave, gasping for breath. Gasp. Gasp.
We see the thought that races through his mind at that moment in verse 4:
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’ (2:2-4)
Jonah knows why this is happening. His assessment of the situation is that he is rejected by God: “I am driven away from your sight.” Jonah fled God’s presence and now as the waves of God’s judgment pass over him, the reality of his self-inflicted rejection sets in. He’s been banished from God’s sight by his own actions. The current and waves are driving him into the water, but that is a metaphor for what is happening spiritually: he is being driven from God.
But even as his deserved condemnation pounds him, he gasps for a breath of hope: “yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” He believes that he will be in God’s sight again, restored in relationship to God. He ran from God’s presence but now his only desire is to be in it again.
Here we get the first answer to our big question: how does God rescue us when we run from him? The first answer is: While we fight to stay above water, he’s a breath of hope. While we fight to stay above water, he’s a breath of hope.
Who is responsible for Jonah’s distress? Is it God? Or is it Jonah? The answer is both. Jonah ran from God and that has only led him downward. He has gotten himself into this mess. But we know God is the one who sends the storm and as we’ve seen in these first verses, Jonah says that God is the one who has cast him into the deep and that God’s waves are passing over him.
Jonah is experiencing the consequences of running from God. If you are a parent and your child disobeys you and you discipline them, who is responsible for the child’s distress because of the discipline? The answer is both. The child did what they weren’t supposed to do which resulted in consequences. The parent administered the discipline.
Jonah ran from God and that has consequences. He must know that. Jonah did not want to do God’s will just like a child sometimes doesn’t want to do their parents will. So God has given him the consequences. When you run from God, you are putting yourself under God’s judgment. You are driven from his sight. As Jonah experiences his self-inflicted rejection, he struggles to stay above water and his breath of hope is that he will see God again. Jonah hasn’t been faithful to God. But his hope is that God is more faithful to him than he has been to God.
We’ve all been in Jonah’s situation, haven’t we? We’ve run from God and experienced the consequences. Jonah tried to be the god of his own life. But when we do that, it feels like treading water on the surface of the sea. It is a constant effort. You have to keep working and working to stay above the surface of the water. But the waves are crashing over you and you are often dipping below the surface and feeling like you are drowning as water fills your lungs.
Often we try to be “god” over our lives through control. Everything has to go our way. But things don’t go our way more often than they do. Having control means our every demand and need is met. We are constantly saying to God and others, “This is what I need. This what I want. And this is when I want it.”
Or we try to be “god” through what others think of us. We want everyone to think we are great and we don’t do anything to risk them getting mad at us or being disappointed with us. The worst thing would be for someone to think less of us. So we either always want people’s attention and approval or we just try to hide all our weaknesses. We want our name to be honored and respected. We want people to have high opinions of us.
But both of these just feel like treading water in a storm. It’s a constant fight that we are usually losing so we feel like we are drowning. Those are the consequences of trying to be God. You can’t be in control. You can’t have everyone like you. You weren’t created to be at the center of everything. Being God feels like drowning because we can’t stay afloat doing that job. We are running from him as our God to ourselves.
But even as you try to be God, know that he is more faithful to you than you are to him. And because of that, we can have hope. Even in the midst of our unfaithfulness, he is faithful. Even when we run from him and are struggling not to drown, our breath of hope is that he will restore us.
But we can often believe God is just as unfaithful as we are. We’ve left him, so we might as well just keep going. There’s no way he will come for us. But God is not like us. He doesn’t give us what we deserve.
So when you feel yourself treading water in life, see if you are trying to be god. Then look to God and his faithfulness. He has not left you or forsaken you.
The big question this passage answers is: how does God rescue us when we run from him? The first answer is: when we fight to stay above water, he’s a breath of hope. Let’s look at the second section of this psalm in verses 5 through 7.
Hitting bottom (2:5-7)
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; (Jonah 2:5-6)
Jonah has sunk below the surface of the sea and is sinking to the bottom. The waters closed over him. He is drowning. He is going to the bottom of the sea where you find the roots of the mountains. Seaweed is wrapping around his head, holding him in his watery grave. He is going down to the pit, to Sheol, where dead people go. He is at the threshold of death. Here, Jonah’s downward journey has reached its lowest point. He ran from God and now he has hit bottom. But at his lowest point, God meets him. Jonah has taken himself on a downward spiral. But now God lifts him up. Let’s continue at the end of verse 6:
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. (2:5-7)
When his life was fainting away, he remembered the LORD. And thankfully for Jonah’s sake, the LORD remembered him. Jonah’s prayer came into God’s presence and God rescued him from his watery grave.
The big question this passage answers is: how does God rescue us when we run from him? The second answer is: After we hit bottom, he’s a lifeline who lifts us up. After we hit bottom, he’s a lifeline who lifts us up.
If we keep running from God, eventually we will hit bottom. Running from God leads to death. Jonah sank to the bottom of the cold, dark, and crushing sea. When we run from God, life is cold, dark, and crushing. At the bottom, Jonah was tangled up in seaweed. When we run from God, sin entangles us more and more to the point we can’t even get free and we are laying in our own spiritual grave.
Then we hear the good news: “yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.” God rescued Jonah. His sin had led him to the brink of death. And that’s what sin does. What we earn because of sin is death. Running from God leads to death. It leads drowning at the bottom of the sea of our own sin.
But God reverses Jonah’s downward trajectory. He has hit bottom. But God is his lifeline who lifts him up from the bottom. God gives Jonah what he doesn’t deserve. Jonah ran from God. This is what he deserves. But God shows Jonah grace. “Grace” means undeserved favor. It’s an undeserved gift. Jonah’s rescue in an undeserved gift. Nothing he did could have earned him salvation.
Know that God’s desire is to lift you up. He does not want us to sink down to death in our sin and rebellion.
But we can so often think we need to battle sin on our own. “I got myself into this mess, now I need to get myself out. I need to clean myself up so God can be happy with me again.” That’s the opposite of what we see in Jonah’s story. He ran from God yet God didn’t let him go. He was there the whole time and when Jonah was at his lowest, God is the one who lifted him up from drowning in his own sin and foolish choices. And Jonah did nothing to deserve God’s rescue. Too often we try to swim up from the bottom of the sea of our sin on our own and never ask for God’s help to lift us out of it.
What sin are you trying to conquer on your own? What do you keep doing over and over again that you know God doesn’t approve of? Start asking God to lift you up out of it. Let him be your lifeline.
The big question this passage answers is: how does God rescue us when we run from him? The first answer is: when we fight to stay above water, he’s a breath of hope. The second answer is: after we hit bottom, he’s a lifeline who lifts us up. Jonah has told us the story of how God rescued him. He called out in distress and God answered. Let’s see what Jonah intends to do in the third section of the psalm, verses 8 and 9.
Recommitment to God (2:8-10)
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! (2:8-9)
Jonah compares his God to false gods. “Vain idols” is a reference to every other “god” besides Jonah’s God. There is one true God and those who put their hope in false gods should not expect steadfast love in return. All the little gods we look to for salvation cannot deliver because they are vain, empty, and fake.
In contrast, Jonah is lifting up a voice of thanksgiving. He has looked to the LORD, his God, who does show steadfast love. Even when Jonah showed no steadfast love, his God is the kind of God who is faithful to the end. From God’s deliverance springs praise and obedience in Jonah’s life. God has rescued him and now he will show his thankfulness with a sacrifice. For the people of Israel, sacrifices were a way of expressing thanks to God. In addition, Jonah says he will fulfill his vow to the LORD. This is an expression of obedience. Deliverance demands thanksgiving and obedience. When God rescues us, we don’t just go on our merry way. We respond.
The final words of the psalm are a powerful exclamation of praise: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” Who else could it belong to? Jonah could not save himself. It had to be Yahweh. It belongs to the LORD so that means he is the only Savior and it means saving people is his prerogative - he choses to whom it is dispensed. He owns it.
Verse 10 says:
10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (2:8-10)
Jonah has been rescued from drowning at sea by God through this fish and now he is back on dry land.
The big question this passage answers is: how does God rescue us when we run from him? The third answer is: When we are drowning, he’s a lifeguard who’s always on duty. When we are drowning, he’s a lifeguard who’s always on duty.
Jonah got himself into a mess. He ran from God and it just went downhill until he was drowning at the bottom of the sea. This was what he deserved for his rebellion against God. But like a lifeguard at the pool who is on the watch for floundering swimmers, God is on the watch for drowning sinners. A lifeguard has the power to save swimmers and God has the power to save sinners. Salvation belongs to him. So even though Jonah got himself into this mess, God jumps in and saves him.
In the New Testament, we hear that God looked at a world that is drowning in sin because it ran from him. He so loved the world that he jumped in to save us. He entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ and in order to lift us out of the sea of our own sin and he had to drown so he could save us. Jesus died the death in the sea of our sin we deserve so that we can be rescued from it. And just like Jonah, he reappeared alive three days later.
Know that God is the only Savior and he saves because of who he is and not because of who you are. Jonah didn’t deserve salvation. Salvation doesn’t belong to Jonah. And salvation doesn’t belong to us. It isn’t something we own or can create. Salvation belongs to God. He is the only one who can save.
But we often can look to vain idols - to little gods - for salvation. When you are in distress, what or who do you look to for salvation?
Perhaps it’s control. You think, “If only things would go my way, everything would be alright.”
Perhaps it’s comfort. You think, “If only I didn’t have any demands on me or stress, everything would be alright.”
Perhaps it’s respect. You think, “If only people recognized me for what I do, everything would be alright.”
Perhaps it’s success. You think, “If only I was advancing in life, everything would be alright.”
Any “if only” we have is usually a little god we are trusting to give us only what God can give. Our “if onlys” are what we are asking to be our Saviors. But salvation belongs to the LORD. And he is in the business of rescuing us.
What is your “if only”? What do you say to yourself and what do you say to other people? “If only you did this. If only things were this way.” One of mine happens in my relationship with Katie. I can have a lot of unspoken expectations for what she does and how she does it. If she doesn’t live up to those, I get frustrated. In my heart and mind I’m saying, “If only Katie lived up to all my expectations, things would be alright.” I am looking to Katie doing everything right without me even saying it as my source for peace and happiness. “If only things were this way, I’d be happy and not stressed.” But that is looking to control as the little god that will save me.
The big question this passage answers is: how does God rescue us when we run from him? The first answer is: While we fight to stay above water, he’s a breath of hope. The second answer is: When we hit bottom, he’s a lifeline who lifts us up. The third answer is: When we are drowning, he’s a lifeguard who’s always on duty.
We all have stories of deliverance in our lives. This is Jonah’s story of deliverance and it’s pretty dramatic. If you trust in Jesus, you have a pretty dramatic story of deliverance. When you trusted in him, you went from death to life just like Jonah did. We were spiritually dead in our sins, the bible tells us, but God made us alive. He breathed new spiritual life into us.
Within that big story of deliverance, we have smaller stories of deliverance. You have had times of distress and God has met you in a personal way in those times. You have “little gods” you have looked to as your savior and God has shown you he is the only Savior. When you go through those deliverances, I’d encourage you to make note of them in a notebook or something. Just like Jonah is on the witness stand testifying about God’s deliverance in his life, Jesus says we are to be his witnesses to our world. We are to testify of his deliverance in our lives. This is one of the least offensive and most personal ways to share your faith with someone else: telling your own story of God’s work in your life.. And isn’t it good news for people to hear that even though all those little gods we all look to can’t deliver that there is a good and powerful God who can truly save?