Jonah’s Prayer of Thanksgiving – Jonah 1:17-2:10

Jonah’s Prayer of Thanksgiving

Nick Esch, 1/13/2019 Cornerstone Baptist Church

Context

Jonah is a prophet of God. And God gave Jonah a word to preach to Nineveh, and called him to go and tell—to go to Nineveh and proclaim His Word. But instead Jonah flees from God. The men of Nineveh were enemies of Israel; they were known for being harsh and cruel. And Jonah had no love for his enemies… So Jonah had no desire to go there, especially if God might be gracious to them and grant them repentance. And that wasn’t just a problem with Jonah; much of Israel around the time of Jonah had become too self-focused… Israel was to be a light to the nations, much like the church is to be salt and light in the world today; but instead, much of Israel had become hyper-nationalists, that only cared for themselves. And that was exactly how Jonah was, so Jonah sought to run from God.

Jonah got on a boat going the opposite direction of Nineveh, seeking to flee from the presence of the Lord. But you cannot run from God. God brought down a raging storm upon Jonah and the pagan sailors he was with. The sailors were panicked and desperate, crying out to their gods for salvation, but of course their false gods never did anything. Finally Jonah explained to them who the one true God is and that he was seeking to run from Him, and that if they wanted to be saved from the storm they should throw him overboard. Unlike Jonah, they didn’t want anyone to perish, but after exhausting all other options and determining that this was indeed the will of the Lord, they threw Jonah into the sea, and they were saved; but not just from the storm… In a display of what was to come with Nineveh, and the whole of God’s plan to save people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, God saved the pagan sailors, and granted them true repentance and faith. They sacrificed and made vows to the Lord, pledging their allegiance to the King of the universe… But, Jonah was given over to the sea. And that’s where our passage begins today.

Jonah 1:17-2:10

In 1:17 we read, “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.” Over the years many have struggled with the book of Jonah because of this very verse. They think it’s impossible for a man to be swallowed by a fish and survive for three days and three nights. And so they write Jonah off as a mere story or folk tale… But Jesus, who is the perfect all-knowing God of the universe in the flesh, seemed to actually believe in the historicity of the book of Jonah.

Listen to what Jesus said about Jonah in Matthew 12:38-41. There some of the Scribes and Pharisees petitioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But He answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”

Jesus speaks as if the whole account of Jonah is 100% true; and that alone is reason enough for us to believe that it is 100% true. And notice that Jesus refers to his death, burial, and resurrection as the sign of Jonah, because He will be in the grave for three days and then rise from the dead, just like Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and then vomited out onto dry land—alive… So as Christians who don’t merely believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but bank everything on it, we should have no problem believing in what happened to Jonah. Now again, some have struggled to believe because they don’t understand how scientifically a person can live inside a fish for this amount of time, but notice the text doesn’t actually say that Jonah did live the entire time… It doesn’t specify one way or the other; we just know that he’s alive when he reaches land again. So it very well could have been that Jonah died and God raised him back to life on the third day; after all, that goes right along with Jesus’ death and resurrection, which again, Jesus refers to as the sign of Jonah.

Beloved, if Jonah is too much for you to believe can you honestly say that you believe in the gospel? According to Jesus, that’s what this scene should bring to mind. The gospel is the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ; that God, in His great love for His people, sent Jesus to live, die, and rise again to save us from our sin. And if God can do all of that, surely He can send a fish to swallow Jonah and bring him to dry land, and either keep him alive the whole time, or bring him back to life—whichever… That so, I want you to really believe this; not merely because I want you to believe in the infallibility and inerrancy of God’s Word (though I do), but because I want you to trust wholeheartedly in God’s grace—which is what we see here.

It says God appointed or assigned or ordained this great fish to swallow Jonah and take him to the shore. This wasn’t just some shark or something that happened to be there and happened to be hungry; this was a sovereign act of God. And this wasn’t merely an act of God’s sovereignty, but an act of His sovereign grace. Look at 2:1-2. “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘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.” Here he’s praying to God from the belly of the fish, but he’s speaking of what he was praying in the sea. Jonah isn’t praying for deliverance from the fish; he knows that the fish was a means of salvation. So Jonah’s prayer here is a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s grace. Here he’s trusting wholeheartedly in God’s grace; I mean, he had to be if he was thanking God for basically being eaten—that takes a lot of trust.

Like the pagans at the end of chapter one, Jonah is trusting in God’s sovereign goodness; even from the belly of a fish Jonah’s heart is confessing that whatever God ordains is right. And part of the reason he’s able to do so is because he’s assured that God hears his prayers, and cares. Again he says, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” Here he doesn’t mean the belly of the fish, but the belly of death itself; that’s what Sheol meant in the Old Testament. Yet, even in the grips of death, God heard Jonah’s cries, and saved him… What an encouragement this is. On the one hand this tells us that God can save even in the last moments of life; that if someone cries out to Him on their deathbed, even then He can show Himself mighty to save. So friends, don’t give up hope on your loved ones who don’t yet know the Lord. Keep sharing the gospel with them, and keep begging the Lord to save them; you never know what He might do, even if it’s in the last moments of their life. But also here, we see that God hears and answers even unworthy sinners—which is good because that’s what we all are.

Jonah was covered in his sin; he was in direct rebellion against God, yet God heard him and saved him… And he hears the guilty for the very same reason He saves the guilty: because of Jesus. God saves sinners because Jesus lived, died, and rose again, and ascended to the right hand of the Father where He ever intercedes for us; and because He has made us right with God and because He is our advocate with God, God hears our cries. It is because of Jesus that we are now children of God who can cry out, “Abba! Father!” And the Father cares for us and hears our cries. So even though Jonah is a rebel against God; even though he’s under God’s discipline, God still hears him and answers his prayer… No matter what our circumstance, no matter what we’ve done, or how bad things have gotten, it is never pointless to pray. Even if the situation we are in is because of our own disobedience, God still delights to answer the prayers of His children. In God’s grace He hears our cries. And even if you don’t yet know God, because of Jesus, if you truly cry out to Him for mercy He will give an ear to your prayer as well. He is sovereign, He is good, and He is mighty to save…

In verse 3 Jonah confesses God’s sovereignty, saying, “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.” Though the sailors, at the word of Jonah, cast him into the sea, he understands that this was all a part of God’s plan. And that’s how God often works; though He needs no one, He often uses means… God used the sailors to cast Jonah into the sea; which is exactly what Jonah needed to see the wretchedness of his sin, and to cry out to the Lord for salvation… Likewise, God uses us, His people, to share the gospel with others, so that they too would see the wretchedness of their sin and cry out to God for salvation. Only God’s grace can open people eyes and grant true repentance, but He uses means…

Jonah sees all of this—this whole scene as part of God’s sovereign grace. He sees God as sovereign over the wind, the waves, the fish, and even the sailors. But after confessing that, he gives us a glimpse into what was happening after he was thrown into the sea, before the fish came and saved him. In verses 4-6 we read, “Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.”

You see, before Jonah could see God’s grace in what was happening, he first had to understand that he was under God’s judgment… And apparently that’s what he began to grasp as he sank down into the sea. In his distress he felt he was being driven away from God’s sight, though in his rebellion he was seeking to run from God’s sight. But the idea of God’s sight here is not exactly what Jonah had in mind. He wanted to hide from God’s call on his life, not be separated from Him forever. But as he sank down into the sea, getting closer and closer to death, he felt as though that’s where he was headed: towards eternal death and eternal separation from the love and grace of God. And indeed he was right; sin—rebellion against God leads to separation from the loving presence of God—it leads to God’s wrath. That was true for Jonah, and it’s true for us. Sin is not to be played with: sin always costs more than it says, and as Jonah experienced, it will take you deeper than you want to go… But Jonah had to see that before he saw God’s grace; sin must be bitter if we are truly going to taste the sweetness of Christ…

Now, by God’s grace, Jonah sees the error of choosing sin; he sees that whatever pleasure or temporary happiness may come from sin, none of it compares to the joy of the Lord—the joy of knowing Him and being with Him forever. Notice he says that he will again look upon God’s holy temple… In the Old Testament God’s temple sometimes refers to the temple in Jerusalem, and sometimes to heaven itself, because typically what was being referenced was the place where God dwelled. So when Jonah speaks of seeing the temple, he means he wants to see the Lord, he wants to be with God… This verse is more clear in Hebrew, but the idea is that Jonah is repenting, and crying out to God, saying that no matter what happens, he wants to be with the Lord; whether he makes it to dry land again and is able to see the temple in Jerusalem, or whether he dies and goes to heaven, his desire is the Lord. And you see, this is how true repentance happens: the affections and desires of a person’s heart shifts from sin to the Lord; sin becomes bitter and Christ becomes sweet, and they forsake their sin for the Lord’s sake…

Jonah thought he was done for. He knew he had sinned against the Lord, and that the Lord was punishing him for his sin, and that he deserved every bit of it. But, he was praying and crying out to the Lord for deliverance, hoping that God would have mercy and save him; but whether God saved him from the sea or not, Jonah still mourned over his sin and desired to be with the Lord. In verses 5 and 6 we see that Jonah was not just in a desperate situation, but in an impossible situation. The waves are crashing over him, and pushing him down toward the very bottom of the sea. He gets rolled around so much in the raging sea that he’s entangled in seaweed…

In verse 7 Jonah says, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” So things were so bad, and he was held under the water so long that he began to faint, and thought he was he dying; but even as he was fading away he cried out to the Lord in prayer; he remembered the very thing that started his rebellion in the first place: that the Lord is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster… He didn’t want the Lord to be gracious to Nineveh before—that’s why he ran from God—but now he’s begging God to be gracious to him…

He ran from God’s call and the Lord chased him down. When the Lord hurled the storm on the boat and pagans called him to pray, he sat and slept and sought to ignore the Lord. He tried to hide in the comforts of the boat, but his lack of obedience, and his lack of prayer got him tossed into the sea. And you see, that’s often how the Lord works; if we do not depend on Him, live for Him, and pray in times of comfort, God will lead us into times of distress. And in those times he leads us to the end of ourselves so that we will see our great need of Him. People often say that God will not give you more than you can handle; but it’s important to note that people say that, not God’s Word. God oftengives us more than we can handle so that we will see our great need of Him and will cry out to Him. If we will not pray in times of comfort we will prayin times of distress. If we do not see how much we need the Lord in times of comfort, we will see how much we need Him in times of distress… And that’s what happened with Jonah here. And that’s what Jonah sees; he doesn’t cry out to God merely because he doesn’t want to perish—he cries out to God because he wants God… He sees his need of Him… Jonah’s sin had become bitter to him, and thus he saw that the Lord was sweet…

Jonah thought it was all over when he was caught in the depths of the sea; but the Lord had mercy on him. He heard his cry. God saved Jonah out of an impossible circumstance. His situation was so dark, was so grim, Jonah saw no way out… He was headed towards utter destruction, but God showed Himself to be mighty to save. And this is what He’s done with each of us as well. We were all in an impossible situation; dead in our trespasses and sins, destined for wrath and fury, rebels against God headed towards utter destruction… “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace” (Ephesians 2:4-5)… But he doesn’t only do that in our salvation, but also in our lives as Christians. When we find ourselves in an impossible situation, that we see no way out of, God hears our cry, and if He so desires, He will deliver us. It may not happen exactly how or when we think it should, but it can happen… I mean, surely when Jonah prayed and ask God to save him, he didn’t ask God to send a big fish to swallow him and save him from being swallowed by the sea; yet, that’s exactly what God did. But even greater than saving him from the sea, God saved him from his sin… And that’s a prayer that the Lord is guaranteed to answer; God’s Word promises that, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). And he not only saves us from the penalty of our sin, but from the power of sin, and one day from the presence of sin; so in your fight against sin, cry out to the Lord, and He will help you.

Jonah says in verse 8 that, “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” And when we run to sin that’s exactly what we do. And no doubt Jonah saw that; the pagans who once worshiped vain idols repented and believed in the one true God; yet Jonah who claimed to fear God had run from God and was no better than an idol worshipping pagan… Indeed he did worship an idol: the idol of self… What he wanted to do… Where he wanted to go… What he wanted to happen… And in worshipping that idol he was forsaking the steadfast love of the Lord. But, by God’s grace, now he’s forsaking his sin.

In verse 9 he prays, “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” Now like the pagan sailors—who forsook their vain idols and repented, sacrificed and made vows of loyalty to the Lord—Jonah makes vows, and commits to sacrifice, and be obedient to God’s call on his life… And notice, he does it with the voice of thanksgiving; in other words, he does all of this with a heart of praise. Even in the belly of a fish, Jonah is so delighting in the Lord that he cannot wait to serve Him. And this is flowing from what he says in the last part of verse 9, indeed what the very point of the book of Jonah is: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” Now Jonah sees that God is mighty to save and can save anyone He wants… Indeed He can save even in the most impossible of situations; no one is too far gone… He saved Jonah out of the depths of his sin and the depths of the sea…

As God’s Word says, “[He] will have mercy on whom [He has] mercy, and [He] will have compassion on whom [He has] compassion” (Romans 9:15)… Indeed, salvation, “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16)… God is sovereign and gracious, and His sovereign grace is amazing… And amazement of God and His grace, and true delight in the Lord is what fuels Jonah’s repentance—his commitment to sacrifice, vows of loyalty, and obedience to God’s call. And the Lord responds to Jonah’s repentance in verse 10; there we read, “And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.”  

Conclusion

Beloved, God is in control. The winds, the waves, even fish obey our great God. Salvation belongs to this God, to the triune God of the Bible alone… In His grace He is mighty to save. He can save to the uttermost… He can save the most vile of sinners. But His grace doesn’t stop there; in His grace He delights to answer the prayers of His children. He desires us to be a people of prayer. People who depend on Him, who love Him and live in communion with Him; indeed He delights when we delight in Him. Here in Jonah chapter 2, we see a God who is willing to move heaven and earth to save His people; we see a God who gives an ear to His people even when we don’t deserve it; we see a God who truly is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Friends, this is a God you can trust; this is a God you can depend on; this is the one true God you should be living for. So marvel at His grace, and let your hearts be so amazed that you are moved to make your vows to the Lord and sacrifice for His glory. Don’t look merely to Jonah, but to the one the sign of Jonah points to; to the one who is greater than Jonah, Jesus Himself… For it is because of Him that God can be gracious to us; indeed Jesus is the very grace of God incarnate: living, dying, and rising again so that we can live with Him forever. So, die to yourself, pick up your cross, and give yourself to truly following Jesus; for that is the sacrifice and the vows that we are to make… And when we count that cost, we get the greatest gift God could ever give us: Himself…