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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Jonah the Ninevite


In my distress I called to theLord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. Jonah 2:2

The last time we were in Jonah, we saw that God is an omnipotently sovereign God - that is to say, He rules over ships and storms; over fish and physics; over sleep and even short straws.

But, even more significant than that, is the truth that all his rulings are to purposeful ends. Those purposeful ends are very diverse and incredibly numerous - far beyond our ability to grasp - but in the case if Jonah chapter 1, the most obvious and clear purpose of all God’s sovereign workings detailed in the account up to that point, was to bring pagan sailors from a place where each was crying out to his make-belief god, to a place where they all cried out to the Lord God of heaven; offering sacrifices and making vows to the one true and living God.

God designed the rebellion; Jonah’s responsible for it

An implication of what we saw there, is that far from God spotting an opportunity in Jonah’s rebellion to make believers out of those pagan sailors, in actual fact God ordained all the details that brought the sailors to salvation, including the rebellion of Jonah that set everything in motion.

God designed Jonah’s rebellion. What we didn’t get around to saying last time, is this: Even though God, in his supreme purposes and his divine wisdom foreordained Jonah’s rebellion, that does not make God responsible for the sin of Jonah’s rebellion. Jonah is responsible for his own rebellion, even though it’s a fact that nothing can thwart a single one of God’s plans - and that therefore his rebellion was an inevitable and a completely certain event, nevertheless Jonah is responsible for the rebellion. And God holds him responsible for it. Here’s how the Apostle Paul puts it:

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?”

And then he adds:

‘But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”(Romans 9:19-20).

In other words, the Apostle Paul doesn’t even try to explain how these two, apparently paradoxical, facts can coexist, he just expects us, in faith, to accept what God has revealed to us about himself - i.e. that all his ways are upright and just.

And he expects us to let that truth leave us marveling at a God who is not one bit like we are. His ways are not our ways, but all his ways are perfect; and we bow in reverent submission to the truth that he has a right to plan and purpose sin, and he has a right also to hold people accountable for those sins.

Jonah in the sea

Now, if you remember, chapter 1 closes with the sailors throwing Jonah overboard at his own suggestion; and the commentary from the author is that God provided a fish to swallow Jonah. And now in chapter 2, we’re inside the fish and Jonah is praying to the Lord his God.

So, the first thing to notice is that Jonah is alive inside the belly of the fish. Dead people don’t pray. The spirits of the dead pray, we know that from Revelation 6:10 - the souls under the alter cried out to God about the length of time before their deaths would be avenged. But what I mean is, here we are not talking about Jonah’s spirit, we’re talking about his bodily location - inside the fish. Dead bodies don’t pray. Jonah’s bodily presence is praying, and so therefore he’s alive inside the fish. That doesn’t make a lot of scientific sense to our 21st century minds, but it doesn’t need to. By some miracle of God, Jonah was enabled to live for 3 days and nights in the belly of a fish.

The second thing to notice is that this whole chapter is Jonah’s prayer. In some places Jonah is recounting to God what has happened - past tense. And in some places, he’s telling Him what he’s going to do when he gets out of the fish - future tense. But the whole chapter is a prayer.

And out of this prayer we discover details about Jonah’s experience that occurred between verse 15 of chapter 1 and verse 17 of chapter 1 and that aren’t recorded for us in that chapter. In other words, we learn details about what happened to him after he was thrown into the sea and before he was swallowed by the giant fish.

So, here’s what happened to him in chronological order, which is not the order he tells it to God in his prayer. Jonah, prioritises the most significant part of the story in verses 1 and 2 by putting them up front in his prayer - namely that God heard his cry for help and delivered him from his trouble. He doesn’t prioritise the order of the events as they actually unfolded.

But we’re going to now place them in order of what happened: We know from chapter 1 verse 12 that Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, and verse 15 of chapter 1 tells us that’s exactly what they did. As you’d imagine, once Jonah was in the water, the currents of the sea swirled around about him, verse 3; and the waves of the sea broke over his head, verse 3. Next, the waves threatened to take him under; and they started to engulf him, verse 5. And then suddenly he did go under; the deep waters surrounded him on all sides, verse 5; seaweed wrapped itself around his head, verse 5; and he began to sink, verse 6. Down and down he sank; deeper and deeper - as it were, even to the roots of the mountains themselves, verse 6. Until, with breath running out, he was on the brink of death - barred in by his watery grave; seemingly forever.

Yet, in his condition of absolute desperation, when he was on the brink of oblivion, something happened: Verse 7, he ‘remembered the Lord’. And in remembering him, he prayed to him. Verse 4: ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple’; that’s how he prayed. And his prayer rose up from the deep depths of the sea to the very house of God itself, verse 7 - to God’s holy temple; the place God presenced himself at in Jonah’s day.

And upon that prayer, God worked a miracle of intervention - he worked an event that was simply out of step with the normal laws of nature. He provided a huge fish that swallowed Jonah whole; and so, God brought Jonah’s life up from the pit, verse 6. He brought him from the brink of death by preserving his life inside the belly of a fish.

It’s totally remarkable! Jonah’s prayer from inside the fish is only possible because of all the details of what he’s recounting to God in this prayer.

Watch what I mean: according to Jonah, God was the one who hurled him into the sea. But we know for sure that it was Jonah who told the sailors to throw him overboard, and we know for sure that the sailors did actually pick him up and throw him over board. Yet as far Jonah’s concerned God did it.

Is he being irreverent? No. Jonah is acknowledging that God has been in every single detail of this whole affair - from his rebellion right up to his prayer. It was God who hurled him into the depths of the sea, verse 3.

And, verse 3, it was God’s waves that crashed over Jonah and took him under. In other words, it was God who took Jonah to the brink of death. Is he being irreverent? No. It’s the opposite. Jonah is saying God has been totally sovereign over all these details.

And so, it was also God who did the unimaginable miracle and who instantaneously provided a fish to save his life, verse 6. Jonah is in no doubt, sitting there in that fish, it’s God who’s in control.

Now isn’t that interesting? It’s interesting because, who was it who thought they were in control at the beginning of this book? It was Jonah.

Jonah thought he could ignore God’s word and do his own thing. It was Jonah who thought he knew best. It was Jonah who thought he was wise enough and strong enough to protect his own people. But now, there’s no doubt in his mind, he knows who’s in control. God is in control. He knows whose ways are perfect and who's wisdom is supreme. God’s ways and wisdom are supreme. Now he knows: no one can run away from God.

Jonah, started out his journey from his home in the hill town of Gath. He took the long road downhill to the coastal town of Joppa. He got on board a ship and went below deck where he fell asleep. He got thrown overboard by sailors into the raging sea. In the sea, he sank way down beneath the waves, going deeper and deeper and deeper.

The Lord took Jonah a long way down to teach him a lesson about his sovereignty. And then it was God who raised him up, just so that Jonah would know that his life is in God’s hands and not his own. And in knowing that, that he would know that all lives, including the Ninevite lives, are in God’s hands.

So that we would know that our lives, and the lives of our families and the lives of our friends are in God’s hands, not ours. We are not masters of our own destinies; God is the master of all destinies.

Jonah’s confession and commitment

So, that’s the part of Jonah’s prayer that recounts to God what He had done to Jonah and what He had done for Jonah. Now comes the part where Jonah responds to all of that with declarations to God about what he himself will do, when he gets out of the fish.

Which, in itself tells us something. It tells us that Jonah has confidence in God. It tells us that God didn’t rescue him from the sea by the fish, only to let him die inside the fish. God could have reached down and plucked Jonah from the watery depths and deposited him on land himself, he didn’t need a fish to do it.

But he didn’t do that; He did it in stages. He sent a fish to swallow Jonah and after three days and nights, he will instruct the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land. That’s how God is going to do it. And Jonah is confident that God will see his deliverance of Jonah through; which is why he prays in the way he does - talking about future things; things he can only do outside of the fish; when God has delivered him from the fish.

But there’s one thing to note before we get to what Jonah pledges he will do, and it’s in verse 8:

Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them’.

Why does he say that? I think he says it by way of confession. I think he’s saying he’s the one God loves, and he’s the one who clung to worthless idols. And the reason I think that, is because of the words ‘turn away’.

That’s exactly what Jonah had done. God had told him to go in this direction, and he had turned and gone in the other direction. By his own confession - made to the sailors - he had run away from his God.

So, what worthless idol had he clung to, and in so doing turned away from God’s love? Pride and self-exaltation seem to be his particular idols. He thought he could be Israel’s savior, and that he could out-wit God to boot. These are idols - they’re the type of inner-self idols that aren’t so detectable, but which wreak havoc in our souls if we let them sit on the thrones of our hearts.

Back in Gath, Jonah couldn’t see them so clearly, but here in the belly of the fish he can see the idols of his heart plainly, and he knows that having embraced them he has turned away from God’s love.

All idols have this power. And subtle idols have the extra power of taking our hearts unawares. So, Jonah is teaching us to beware the subtle undermining effects of idolatry in our lives.

The outward idols are easier to identify - take a long hard look at your life diets and you’ll get a tangible handle on the overt idols in your life. But the inner idols; idols of self love, jealousy, hatred, discord, pride, they need even more careful examination to detect.

Everything God had brought Jonah through had served to show him the heart idols that had turned him away from the love of God.

That’s his confession. Jonah’s commitments to the Lord are both found in verse 9. First, he’s committed to going to the house of the Lord and sacrificing with gratitude to the Lord, and with praise to the Lord. And second, he’s committed to declaring good news - namely that ‘salvation comes from the Lord’.

He’s going to the place where people assemble to worship and he’s going there to give thanks to the living God, and to honour and glorify him. And then he’s going out from the assembly place, to the Ninevites - I think that given how chapter 3 starts, that that’s who he’s vowing to speak to - to tell them that ‘salvation comes from the Lord’. He’s going to tell them on the basis of his personal experience of the Lord’s salvation.

This is exactly what we are meant to be like. We are meant to be those who assemble to worship together with thanksgiving and shouts of joy, and then, who go out into the world and tell, with our lives and our lips, the good news that salvation comes from the Lord.

Jonah's example of prayer

Assuredly though this whole chapter is about the power of prayer and so we must say something about that. God is a god who hears and answers prayer and there are 4 kinds of prayer rolled up in Jonah’s chapter-long prayer that God hears from inside the belly of the fish.

There’s the kind of prayer that is petition. Jonah had become a self-assertive; self-reliant kind of person since the proud notion had arisen in his heart to turn away from the word of the Lord. But the circumstances God brought across his path were designed to take him to a place where all self-reliance was shown for what it is – utter futility.

At the bottom of the sea, he was at the mercy of things more powerful than he. His self-reliance was shattered right there; pounded by God ordained waves of mercy.

God teaches his servants that self-reliance is a dishonour to Him, and a foolish charade. Self-reliance is an illusion, and it’s a God belittling illusion at that. But the prayer of petition is the admission that we need Him; we need God to intervene.

Then there’s the kind of prayer that is thanks giving. Jonah had a lot to say ‘thank you’ for. In his distress he had called out to God and in a flash; in the twinkling of an eye, God had come to his aid - God had answered his prayer, verse 1. God listened to his cry and sent immediate help. So, what will Jonah do? He will go to the house of God with shouts of ‘grateful praise’.

Thirdly, there’s the kind of prayer that is adoration. This is the kind that acknowledges what God is like - the kind that points up his perfect character with words of exaltation. Jonah says, ‘you Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit…with grateful praise, will I sacrifice to you’.

And lastly there’s the kind of prayer that tells God what we intend to do. ‘I will say, [to the Ninevites] salvation comes from the Lord’.

So, when we pray we are speaking to God: recounting his works in thanksgiving; praising him for who he is; confessing our need of him; and telling him how we intend to behave going forward.

What Jonah’s prayer points up to us though, is that God always puts people in their rightful place. Jonah didn’t seek the Lord’s wisdom at the outset about his plan, he went in his own strength. But God has told us, ‘if anyone serves, they should do so in the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 4:11).

Seeking to serve in our own strength robs God of his rightful praise. But prayer is the glad acknowledgment of the servant, that he or she doesn’t have the strength in themselves to serve; rather, that God alone can supply that strength.

Prayer is a hearty reliance on God, and a delightful willingness that He should be seen as praiseworthy and all-glorious. That’s exactly how Jonah’s prayer finishes.

Jonah the Ninevite

By the end of this chapter God has made Jonah a Ninevite. What I mean is: Jonah sinned against the Lord by turning away from him; just like the Ninevites had always done. And God made Jonah as needy of salvation as the Ninevites, by placing him in a position of impending doom. And when Jonah found himself in that condition and saw the magnitude of his need, in his desperation he called out to God to save him; that’s what God wants the Ninevites to do. And when Jonah called out like that, God was merciful and compassionate and intervened, and He provided for his immediate need; that’s what He would do for the Ninevites.

So, Jonah, are you more worthy than the Ninevites? No. It turns out Jonah, you’re exactly like the Ninevites. Now, are you not glad that I am a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love? Oh yes you are Jonah, and now you will confess your sin to me and you will vow to show compassion to 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, by going to Nineveh and proclaiming the salvation of the Lord.

Jonah’s experience doesn’t terminate on salvation. Jonah’s experience terminates on praise. God saves people to something. He saves them to know him and in knowing him to praise him forever. Praise to God is the overflow of joy in God, and therefore all this has happened to Jonah that his joy in God may be fuller; that his praise be freer; that his love be broader; and that his obedience be sweeter.

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land’.

Next time we’ll see him fulfil his vow, and at last, follow God’s revealed will - all the way to Nineveh!


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