Jonah's Prayer

Jonah 2:1-10

20 August 2000

Greyfriars Church


The Bible contains some very peculiar verses, doesn't it? But I must say that our text this morning is framed by two of the most peculiar I've come across recently.

Nonetheless, as any of you who will be here this evening will hear, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousnessref. So let's find out what we can learn from Jonah's fishy experience!

It's a little while since the reading, so it would be useful if you could dig out the book of Jonah again if you haven't already done so. Just to remind you, it's tucked away between the books of Obadiah and Micah.

The theme of the book of Jonah is salvation: salvation for Jonah, and salvation for the heathen people of Ninevah, in different ways. Jonah says in verse 9 of chapter 2 that salvation comes from the Lord.ref, and God's salvation is shown particularly graphically in this chapter we have before us, where we find Jonah inside a giant fish, having been saved from certain death by drowning.

I'd like to look at this great theme of salvation under three headings: first, Jonah; then Jesus; finally You and Me.


First Jonah. Last week we saw Jonah, the great prophet, in a surprise move running away from God. Then we find him sleeping in the bottom of the ship during a terrible storm while even the pagan sailors were praying to their Gods. Finally he wakes up to himself when the captain of the ship challenges him, and knowing that the storm had been brought upon them by God because of his disobedience, Jonah regains some credibility by volunteering to be thrown over board to save the others.

But, amazingly, Jonah doesn't die, because, as it says the LORD provided a great fish to swallow himref, and that's where we find him now: inside the fish, at last praying to God.

So, what can we learn from Jonah's prayer, and what does it teach us about the theme of salvation?

First, Jonah has recognized that God brought him into this great danger, as it says in verse 3, 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.ref This is like Psalm 51 where, in repentance, David says to God let the bones you have crushed rejoiceref.

Since beginning his flight from God Jonah's story has been one of descent: he went down to Joppa, he went down into the ship and down below deck and finally down into the depths of the sea. This was the lowest point of Jonah's life, and here he acknowledges that God had brought him to it.

You see, Jonah might have given up on God, but God had not given up on Jonah. Jonah had started his troubles, but God finished them. God had pursued Jonah, but the sleeping Jonah was so deaf to him that God had had to bring to the lowest point of his life to wake him up. That's the first thing we learn about Jonah's salvation: God did not give up on him.

Is there a chance that sometimes God has allowed us to get into trouble, even brought trouble to us, to wake us up? Sometimes people's experience is that God strips everything else away from their lives so that there's nothing left but to cling to him. Perhaps that's how you feel this morning. What are you going to do about it?

Well, Jonah's response to his peril was to pray. We see that in verses 5-7. The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head... When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy templeref.

People have different reactions to crises. I've seen people in terrible situations who turn to God, and their relationship with him grows stronger and stronger through the trouble, and I've seen people in similar situations turn away from God completely. Perhaps they blame their problems on him. Two contrasting reactions, but Jonah does the right thing. In trouble he returns to God; he knows there's nowhere else to go.

How would we respond if we were in such great trouble? One response is to be like those who, as Jonah puts it in v8, "cling to worthless idols." Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.ref We can trust in our money, our cleverness, our families, our own hard work, but in the end these things are worthless idols. God wants to rescue us his way; if we trust in anything else we "forfeit the grace that could be ours."

Perhaps Jonah could have tried to save himself. Maybe he could have tried to swim for it, trusting in his own strength. That's so often what we try to do isn't. But he surely would have drowned in the storm. Instead he had to trust in God, and God in his grace provided a rescue for Jonah. It might have been bizarre, but it was certainly effective. That's the second thing we learn about salvation: Jonah could not save himself; only God could save him.

Third, Jonah responds to the salvation that God has given him. In verse 9 he makes a promise to God, But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make goodref. And on the evidence of chapter 3, Jonah appears to keep his promise. He comes out of this experience a changed man.

So, we learn a third thing about salvation: God's salvation demands a response. Jonah turned away from his rebellion against God, and turned back towards him. I will look again toward your holy templeref, he prayed.

So, Jonah is saved, and we've learnt three things about his salvation: God had not given up on Jonah; Jonah could not save himself; but in response to being saved Jonah changed his life, turning back to God.

By the way, it's interesting to note that even though Jonah had been saved from death, things still don't look too good for him in the belly of a giant fish. He wasn't home and dry yet. As one commentary puts it, Jonah has been rescued from drowning, but he's still in deep water! His salvation is not complete until the fish has vomited him up on dry land a little bit later.

So that's the story at face value. It's a simple story of how God's prophet Jonah was saved from death and turned back to God by rather peculiar means.


So, what about my second heading, Jesus? Well, there is a deeper way of understanding this story, in the wider context of the whole Bible. This story of Jonah has what William rather obscurely referred to last week as some "powerful typology". I'd like to unpack that a little.

The point is that the Bible has a coherent theme throughout. It might look like a collection of sixty-six quite different books by many different authors, but there is a single purpose and a single divine mind behind it: so it should also be read and understood as one book by one author.

Because of this, surprising connections sometimes pop up. Events in the Old Testament sometimes prefigure events in the New as God gradually reveals his great plan of salvation to the world. It's perhaps a little like a detective novel where clues are carefully laid along the way, and then at the end there is a great revelation, and you smack your forehead and say, of course, it was the butler all along!

So, the Old Testament gives us clues about how God's salvation works: the sacrifice of the passover lambs prefigures how Jesus' death will deflect God's judgement from us; the entry to the promised land prefigures how one day we will enter the new creation; Noah and the flood prefigure the last judgement, and our safe passage through it.

When this kind of thing happens theologians call the former event a "type" of the latter. We get the words prototype and typical from the same origin.

Anyway, the point is that Jonah could be viewed as a "type" of Jesus. Basically, what Jonah went through, probably before 700BC, in some ways prefigures what Jesus did centuries later.

Let's compare the two of them:

These things suggest that what happened to Jonah was not an isolated incident to be studied on it's own, but it has a meaning in the wider context of the whole Bible. It's an event that should point us to a bigger picture of salvation, and ultimately to Jesus himself.

Perhaps you think all this is a bit fanciful, that it's just theology gone mad. Well, actually, it is Jesus himself who makes the connection between himself and Jonah. In Matthew chapter 12 some Pharisees come to Jesus and demand that he gives them a miraculous sign. Jesus' reply is like this,

A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.ref

So, Jesus was very conscious that he was following in Jonah's footsteps.

But there are some crucial differences between Jesus and Jonah.

As the Apostle Peter put it, Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.ref

You and Me

Well, I hope that that was an interesting theological digression for you, but actually it's much more important than that. The point is that Jesus brings this story right up to date for us. It's not just a story about Jonah being saved, it can also be a story about us being saved. And this is my third heading: You and Me.

Remember that the theme of the Book of Jonah is salvation. Jonah's story on its own shows us that God can and will save us from times of deep trauma in our lives, and he saved Jonah from the storm. And that's certainly one level on which salvation works. But the connection with Jesus shows us that salvation works at a much deeper level too.

Jesus' death shows us that God wants to save us from a much more serious peril that we find ourselves in. Like Jonah we are all in danger, although our peril is not so obvious and not so immediate.

Like Jonah; we have all run away from God, and this means that we are all under his judgement. God is the source of all goodness, all light, all truth, all justice and all love, and we have turned our backs on that. If we insist on trying to live without God then He will let us, but one day our choice will become permanent, it will be too late to change our minds. We will be cut off from all of this forever.

What would it be like to live in a world without goodness, light, truth, justice and love? I don't think we can imagine it; it's so far removed from our present experience. Perhaps the victims of the Nazi holocaust, or of the Rwandan genocide have experienced something a little like this. That helps to put it into perspective a little, doesn't it? Life without God will literally be a living hell. That's what's in store for us without God; that's what we need saving from.

Perhaps we don't feel that we are in danger; it's easy to ignore a peril that we can't see. Perhaps the prospect of being forever cut off from God doesn't sound like a very great threat to us. But spiritually speaking it's as if our souls are trapped in a crippled submarine at the bottom of the sea; cut off from light, from air, from freedom, and from hope. But like the rescuers currently at work on the Barents Sea, God does not give up on us. He will try again and again to save us by whatever means he can. God doesn't let us go, he pursues us.

Once we realise the danger that we are in—perhaps because, like Jonah, we find that God brings us to some sort of crisis—we will see that God has also given us a means of salvation. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal liferef.

To save Jonah God provided a fish; to save us he provides a substitute, his Son.

Jesus shouldn't have gone to that cross, we should. But because Jesus did, we needn't. Jesus never rebelled against God, but he died the death of a rebel, the death that we should die. Jesus saves us from danger by taking our place in that danger: he pulls us out of storm, but dies in the storm himself. That's how God's salvation works: it's the story of the Bible.

So how can we receive God's salvation, if we have not already done so? Well, Jonah shows us the way in the prayer he prays here in chapter two. It's the same three points that we looked at earlier.

If you would like to hear more about how God can save you as he saved Jonah, then please talk to one of the prayer team who will be here after the service, or me or Dennis. Don't leave here with questions unanswered!

I guess that many of us here this morning will have taken this step, and I also guess that a few of us don't actually feel very saved. Perhaps things don't look too good for you, and you're wondering what has happened to this great salvation. Well, remember that our salvation is not yet complete. Jonah had been saved, but was still in the belly of the fish, and that's exactly where we are too. Final salvation is yet to come. One day we will be raised to new life in God's kingdom, just as Jonah was eventually spewed up onto dry land. Sometimes we just need to put our hope in that. Like Jonah, we have a hope that we will again look towards God's holy temple.


To finish I'd just like to remark that it's interesting that the two main symbols of Christianity are the cross and the fish

The cross clearly represents Jesus' death, but also his resurrection: it is an empty cross. But what does the fish represent? Well, it's just an accident really. In Greek the initial letters of the phrase "Jesus Christ, son of God, saviour" spell "ICHTHYS", which means fish.

However in the light of Jonah I believe that, with one modification, the fish could become a much more relevant symbol for Christianity, reminding us of God's salvation at work. What modification would I make? Well, surely it should be a vomiting fish, so that it represents not only the three days in the tomb, but also the resurrection to new life. Please go and modify your car stickers accordingly.