17 – But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
1 – From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
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.
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.
4 – I said, ‘I have been banished from Your sight; yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’
5 – The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 – 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.
7 – I remembered You, Lord, and my prayer rose to You, in Your holy temple.
8 – Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
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.
10 – And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
As most prime-time TV viewers know, we are in the midst of what many people refer to as the cliffhanger season. Each night millions of Americans gather to watch the season finales of their favorite TV shows-episodes that leave them on the edge of their seats all summer, wondering things like: Who shot J.R.? or Who will marry who in the next season of 7th Heaven? or Will JAG’s Commander Rav be rescued after bailing out of his crippled plane?
The idea behind cliff hangers of course is to motivate us to tune in this fall when the stories pick up where they left off and all our questions are answered. And this is not a new idea. The success of this strategy has motivated TV producers and writers to use it for years. When I was a kid we’d watch Lost in Space each week because the last show would always end in such a way that you just HAD to tune to find out what happened to the brave Robinson family. I remember the old BATMAN TV series was always a continuation of the last episode and each show began with the same phrase, When we last left our heroes….
Well, if you were here last week you should remember that last Sunday’s sermon ended on somewhat of a cliffhanger. Jonah, the popular prophet of God from Gath Hepher was sent to preach God’s message to the Assyrians in Nineveh but due to his hatred of these people, he instead bought a ticket on a ship bound for Tarshish, a Spanish fishing village so far away it would take him 18 months to get there. No sooner had his vessel gotten out of the harbor than God threw a storm his way…and things were so bad that the ship itself thought it was going to sink. This forced Jonah to admit to the sailors that he was the reason for this perfect storm that was so obviously supernatural in origin. Well, at Jonah’s request the sailors of that ship reluctantly threw him overboard and the storm stopped and that is where OUR hero was when we last left him sinking down deeper and deeper into the cold, dark depths of the Mediterranean Sea. I’m sure you have been on the edge of your seat all week long wondering how things were going to turn out!
Now before we continue we need to understand that Jews were never seafarers as a people. They were afraid of the ocean. For them death by drowning was the worst way to die. In fact their enemies would often execute them by drowning just to add that final touch of terror to the experience of death. And in this second chapter Jonah describes that terror, the intense anxiety of being helpless against the ocean currents swirling around him and the waves crashing upon him, pushing him deeper and deeper. In his description of his downward descent Jonah tells us that the water was closing in on him and there was no way back to the surface. In verse 5 he speaks of the horror of having water enter his throat and seaweed tangle itself around his head. And then finally he actually hits the bottom. We don’t know how deep the ocean was there, but just imagine the fear of feeling your feet strike the bottom knowing that there was no way back up as your lungs are about to explode.
I experienced a fear like this once when I was on a youth retreat as a teen. I was swimming in the lake with my peers…having a great time and I noticed that about 30 yards out there was a floating diving platform. I swam out there and decided I would swim under the platform. It was only about 20 feet wide. I remember the moment I entered its shadow it got dark and the water got cold. I told myself it would only last a few moments and kicked hard for the other side but the water only got darker and colder. I began to panic wondering what had happened until my head hit the lake bottom and I realized that instead of swimming parallel to the surface I had angled downward where the water is always dark and cold. I pushed off from the bottom and came up gasping for air several yards away from the platform.
Well, I think that is somewhat how Jonah felt as the cold darkness of the ocean surrounded him and he felt his body finally come to rest on the ocean floor. Then, at the last minute, just before he was about to lose consciousness and drown, stubborn old Jonah finally prayed…he asked God to help. I’m sure his prayer was nothing fancy…probably just two words, Lord, help! But, as we heard a few moments ago, God answered that prayer. He apparently had a fish or a whale on standby in the vicinity and when Jonah prayed, He ordered this creature to rescue him just in the nick of time. The fish swallowed Jonah whole and ingested him into a place where there was a pocket of air.
Now it is at this point that we are confronted with one of God’s most unusual miracles and in fact, in all of Scripture, it is the one miracle that is most disbelieved. Some cynics explain it away by saying that Jonah had a dream in the ship while he was asleep during the storm and that the Book of Jonah is the account of his dream. Others relate the Book of Jonah to the Phoenician myth of Hercules and the sea monster. Another group says that although Jonah was a real character and did take a ship to Tarshish, a storm wrecked the ship. Then after the storm and shipwreck, Jonah was picked up by another ship on which there was a fish for its figurehead, which is why Jonah described himself as being inside a great fish. One other theory says that there was a huge dead fish floating in the sea that day and that Jonah took refuge inside it’s carcass during the storm.
I share all these speculations to show you what lengths people go to explain this miracle away. And I think all this hubbub over this prophet-eating fish is odd for two reasons.
- First of all…there is a great deal of evidence to prove that it is in fact possible for a fish or whale to swallow a man whole and keep him alive for several days.There are several species of fish or whales that could do this. For example, the WHALE SHARK does not have teeth and feeds by opening its enormous mouth, submerging it’s lower jaw, and rushing through the water at terrific speed. After straining out the water it swallows whatever is left. It’s mouth is ten to twelve feet wide…plenty big even for prophet who is full of himself. This sea creature has four to six compartments in its stomach, any one of which is plenty big for a man to live. It even has an air storage chamber in its sinus area…seven feet wide and seven tall and fourteen feet long. And, there are dozens of stories of this actually happening…whalers or fishermen being swallowed by whales like this and then discovered alive inside the stomach days later. So, this is not really that big of a miracle; in fact it is very believable that God could do this, which is why it is strange that so many people would have a such a hard time swallowing this part of the Bible.
- Another reason I think it is odd that so many people doubt this happened to Jonah is because the Bible is literally full of miracles. It begins in fact by telling us that God created this world and the entire universe from nothing. Within its pages is the account of a man named Enoch who never died. Reading a little further we come upon the story of a widow whose small flask of oil filled up numerous large pots and another story of an ax head in a deep water hole that floated at the command of God’s prophet.The Bible also tells of a widow’s son who died and was about to be buried who was raised from the dead. All of these miracles are in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we are confronted with the blind being made to see and the lame to walk, lepers cleansed, and more people being raised from the dead. One had even been in the tomb four entire days before being brought back to life. The Bible is indeed a book of miracles, but the one most quickly scorned is this one in Jonah. In fact many people point to the 17th verse of chapter one of Jonah as their reason for not believing the Bible to be trustworthy.
NOW….WHY IS THIS SO?
Well, I’ve been thinking and have come to agree with several commentary writers that this may just be due to the fact that the 3 days and 3 nights Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish are compared in Scripture to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Remember, in Matthew 12 the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus if He would give them a sign of His power. He answered, Only an evil, faithless nation would ask for further proof; and none will be given except what happened to Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was in the great fish for three days and three nights, so I, the Messiah, shall be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh shall arise against this nation at the judgment and condemn you. For when Jonah preached to them, they repented and turned to God from all their evil ways. And now One greater than Jonah is here-and you refuse to believe Him. (Matthew 12:39-41 )
It makes sense to me then that the reason there has been such great attack upon the book of Jonah is that his experience is representative of that of Jesus. If you attack this miracle…you also attack the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection…it’s sort of a 2 for 1. And the devil will go to any length to destroy the credibility of the Person and the work of Jesus.
Now, the key word here in verse 17 that is used to describe this whale or fish is provided. Notice it did not say, God CREATED a great fish. The word that is translated provided literally means assigned or ordained or appointed. This word is used four times in the Book of Jonah and always points to the Lord’s power to accomplish His will. And that is one of the most wonderful truths we can glean from Jonah’s experience.
- You see, God doesn’t sit up there in heaven remote…disinterested in our affairs. No. He watches us every moment of our lives and when necessary, He intervenes miraculously as He did here. Earlier He controlled the weather as well as the lots they drew that fell on Jonah. Now He controls this great sea creature. Later He will control a plant, a worm, and a desert wind. And I want us to see here that there is A SAVING PURPOSE in all of God’s miraculous interventions in Jonah’s life. As the omnipotent God of the universe, He broke into His ordered creation and literally moved heaven and earth to save this prodigal prophet and others. You see, as our study will show, through Jonah’s preaching God is going to save Nineveh and then through Jonah’s writing of this account He will save many of the Jewish people from their narrowness, self-righteousness, and sense of religious superiority. He used Jonah’s experience to help them understand that He is the Savior God of the WHOLE world. And then God also performed all these miracles in Jonah’s life even for our benefit so that we can understand Him and our relationship with Him more fully. So, one thing the book of Jonah teaches is the amazing truth that God does intervene in our lives. He does miracles but always for a purpose which leads to a second thing we can learn at this point in our study.
- You see…God often uses miracles to help us see the folly of our actions. This is why He threw this storm at Jonah’s ship and why He often miraculously throws storms our way when we do stupid things because like a bucket of cold water in the face, these tough times help us to come to our senses which is literally what happened to Jonah. God loves us too much to just let us go off and do foolish things that will bring pain into our lives and the lives of our loved ones. As Max Lucado says, God loves us as we are…but too much to let us stay that way. This is why He intervened in Jonah’s life…out of love. God could have chosen another prophet and said, GOOD RIDDANCE! to this pious prodigal but he loved Jonah too much to let him get way with this sinful rebellion. So He threw a storm at his ship and worked things so that Jonah would be thrown into the sea, sink to the bottom, and panic so much that he would be humbled to the point that he would finally pray and through his prayer and the time he spent in that fish, he would have an opportunity to realize how wrong he had been.
- You know, often the ONLY thing that brings us to our knees in prayer are the storms of crisis.Pushed to the brink, back to the wall, right up to the wire, all escape routes closed, ONLY then do many people go to God for His help. Abraham Lincoln once said, I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. In his book Growing In The Seasons of Life Charles Swindoll recounts the story of an airliner in 1968 bound for New York that began its descent when the pilot realized the landing gear had refused to engage. He worked the controls back and forth, trying again and again to make the gear lock down into place but had no success. He then asked the control tower for instructions as he circled the landing field. Responding to the crisis, airport personnel sprayed the runway with foam as fire trucks and other emergency vehicles moved into position. Disaster was only minutes away. The passengers, meanwhile, were told of each maneuver in that calm, cheery voice pilots manage to use at times like this. Flight attendants glided about the cabin with an air of cool reserve telling the passengers to place their heads between their knees and grab their ankles just before impact.It was one of those I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me experiences that led to many tears and even a few screams of despair in the cabin. The landing was only a few seconds away when suddenly the pilot announced over the intercom: We are beginning our final descent. At this moment, in accordance with International Aviation Codes established in Geneva, it is my obligation to inform you that if you believe in God you should COMMENCE PRAYER.
Now the belly landing went off without a hitch. No one was injured, and aside from some very extensive damage to the plane, the airline hardly remembered the incident. In fact, a relative of one of the passengers called the airline the very next day and asked about the prayer rule the pilot had quoted. No one volunteered any information on the subject. Only a no comment response was given. Now, isn’t that amazing? The only thing that brought out into the open a deep-down secret prayer rule was crisis.
This is like so many of people because only when death and disaster is imminent only when everything else has been tried; only then do they crack open a hint of recognition that God just might be there and that they should commence prayer which is what Jonah did. When he was totally exhausted at the end of his rope…no where else to turn…only then did he cry out for God’s help. And you know, when you are sinning like Jonah, that scenario is the best possible place to be. Because until we get to that place where we have exhausted our abilities and sufficiency; until we give up on every logical human resource, most of us don’t reach out for God.
Sometimes I think that the trouble with many of us is that we have just enough ease in our Christian experience that we never get desperate. We never quite get to the place where there is no hope for us except in God so we ignore Him and rely instead on self. And when this happens God often sends storms our way, like He did for Jonah-storms that are really blessings in disguise because they drive us back to deeper fellowship with Him.
A little boy was sailing his model boat on a lake when the wind caught it and threatened to blow it out of his grasp. A big boy came along and started throwing rocks at the boat and the first the little boy cried in anger for him to stop. But then he noticed that the rocks were carefully aimed to fall just beyond the boat and that the waves made by the rocks were gradually gently pushing the boat closer to shore. In the same way many times God throws problems in our lives…trials that push us closer back to relationship with Him. Often, like Jonah we have to be DRIVEN to our knees but finally the time comes when we say, with the Psalmist,
Before I was afflicted, I went astray…but now I obey your word. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might LEARN Your decrees. (Psalm 119:67,71 )
And Jonah had a lot to LEARN…For three days in that smelly, dark fish belly he pondered his situation. He did a lot of soul-searching. He eventually saw the foolishness of his sin. He saw his need for God and then he prayed again the prayer that makes up most of this second chapter. I like the way R. T. Kendall put it. He said: the belly of the fish is not a happy place to LIVE, but it is a good place to LEARN. Up until this point Jonah had thought all he needed was public success as a prophet and the material rewards and acclaim that comes with it but in the fish he realized this was not true. He saw that his greatest need was to be God’s faithful prophet.
And this shows that prayer-even prayer that is motivated by crisis-is one of the GREATEST MIRACLES of the Christian life. Because in communion with God, like Jonah, we can LEARN so much. In fact, let’s not waste JONAH’S crisis. Let’s review the things that his emergency-motivated prayer taught him.
1. First of all Jonah’s prayer showed him that GOD HEARS US when we pray.
In 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 [GOD], You LISTENED to my cry. Last week I said that this little book of the Old Testament shows us that God SPEAKS but now we see that it also reminds us that He HEARS as well. When Jonah was sinking deep into the sea; when his life was about to ebb away, he squeezed off a quick SAVE ME! prayer, a prayer born out of affliction not affection but God heard even that supplication…which is in line with His promise to us. Remember? In Isaiah 65:24 God says, Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will HEAR! In II Chronicles 7:14 He assures us, If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways THEN WILL I HEAR from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. In I John 5:14 it says, This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, HE HEARS US.
Think of it! Almighty, omnipotent, HOLY God…waits to hear us address Him. God is very much like a father whose son goes away to college or the military and then sits by the phone waiting for His boy to call home. This is why it is so true that no matter how far we run from God…even to the bottom of the Sea, it is always only one step back to Him…
You know, in my counseling experience I have learned that what people want most is not wisdom or guidance. They just want someone to listen. They just need to know that they are heard and we are all that way. We all have this need for someone to listen. And Jonah’s experience reminds us that God fills that need for all of us. He always hears when we call out to Him. In fact GOD picks up on the first ring which leads to the second thing Jonah’s prayer taught him…
2. …it helped him to see that there is no place where God is not.
Back in chapter 1 verse 9, Jonah had admitted to the sailors that God was Lord of all the earth and in the belly of this fish at the bottom of the ocean he found out just how true a statement that was. In his prayer Jonah said that he was in the depth of Sheol…in the very heart of the seas… ..beneath the roots of the mountains… that he was in a place where he was banished from God’s sight. But Jonah learned this was not so. He found that God was even with him in that dark, cold place. Perhaps this experience reminded him of the words of Psalm 139 where King David prayed, Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to You; The night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.
God IS always with us, around, before, above, and beneath. In this Psalm David is proclaiming God’s hear-ness AND nearness. The problem is not that God is distant and needs to be wooed or badgered into coming to us. No, the problem is that God is ever present, ever near, but that some of us like Jonah, seek ways of escape from Him.
You know, like most churches we begin our worship services with an INVOCATION a prayer to ask God to join us but that is not really the way it should be. God is already here. So WE, not HE, are the ones who need to be invoked. We need to open our eyes and minds so that we can realize He is with us here in His house and always.
In his book, Your God is Too Safe, Mark Buchannan says that we must not, …just acknowledge that God is present, but rehearse, repeat, work and rework our knowledge that even though we don’t see Him and sometimes don’t feel Him, He is there. I remember one year at CENTRIFUGE the worship leader positioned a huge throne on stage with a spotlight trained on it…to remind us that God was present and worship was especially meaningful when we realized that. But He is not just present here with us in this place of worship, as Jonah learned He is present…near…even in the midst of the dark trials of life. In Joshua 1:9, God promises, I will be WITH YOU wherever you go! In Psalm 46 it says, God is my refuge and strength, a VERY PRESENT help in time of trouble.
Now, God’s presence is something most of us miss because we don’t naturally see that well. So, as Brother Lawrence says, we must PRACTICE His presence. We must train ourselves to walk in continual expectancy learning to sense that God is always near. You see God IS with us wherever we go. Whether we notice Him or not is a matter of our vision, our attentiveness and this takes practice.
I remember reading old Louis L’Amour westerns in which he described the skill of American Indian scouts who could track someone anywhere…even across solid rock. These skilled trackers could see a trail left by someone they were pursuing that you and I would miss. Now, it’s not that their eyes are better than ours. It’s just that from childhood they were TRAINED to recognize a broken branch or blade of grass or a scratch on a rock.. They PRACTICED and PRACTICED until their eyes could see what other eyes missed. And this is what we must do if we are to be able to sense the presence of God. We must PRACTICE. That is to say we must talk with Him throughout our days. We must study His word regularly. We do all this so that we get to the point that we become conscious that each breath is given by God, each word spoken in His hearing. You see, just as Jesus was near to those myopic disciples on the road to Emmaus, He is near to us. He is in the midst of our days and our weeks…our rising up and our lying down.
Buchannan tells of the birth of his son. The cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck and an emergency c-section had to be done. After the crisis had passed he described it in this way, I saw the doctor deftly untangle the umbilical cord that was wrapped tightly around his neck. I listened for his cry…silence…terrible vast silence…but then a sputtering and then wailing and then color suffused his flesh. I should have been a wreck. I was, I think, the calmest person in the room. God had come to be with me. Actually no…I had come to be with Him.
God is near, as Jonah and anyone who has ever called out to Him has discovered…
3. And then one other thing prayer did was it showed Jonah himself.
It opened his eyes to the folly of his actions. He saw his idolatry. In verse 8 when Jonah talked to God about people clinging to false idols he was talking about himself. You see Jonah had put himself in God’s place. God had told him he had a job for him to perform and Jonah had told God He had the wrong man. God had told him he wanted him to go east to Nineveh. Jonah decided to go west to Tarshish. God told him to go by land. Jonah went by boat. Everything God said to do, Jonah did the opposite. Jonah made himself his own god. He tried to superimpose his will on the will of God. He was determined to direct his life, to govern it himself. And we do the same thing today. We superimpose our will on His. We put ourselves, a loved one, our possessions, or whatever in the place of God. But our counterfeits will always fail and will leave us frustrated and defeated. Because when we put ourselves in God’s place we run headlong into our insufficiency and inadequacy. If we are wise, when that happens we turn back to God. We cry out to Him in prayer and in this communion we see the error of our ways. We see ourselves from God’s perspective and like Jonah we return to making Him Lord. This is one of prayer’s greatest benefits. Frederick Robinson writes, All prayer is to change the human will into submission to the Divine will…Practically then I say Pray as Jesus did, until prayer makes you cease praying. Pray until prayer makes you forget your own wish, and leave it or merge it in God’s will.
Well, after this three day combination underwater cruise/prayer retreat Jonah was ready to fulfill his vow to be God’s prophet…and so the fish vomited him out on the beach at Joppa. What a way to deliver a distinguished prophet to his destination! But it does go to show that you can’t keep a good man down! We’ll continue our study of Jonah’s adventures next week….
You know, there is a real sense in which each Sunday at this point we are at a real cliff hanger time. We have worshiped God…we have enjoyed His presence…we have studied His word and now we all wait to see how this special time will end. You see, our time here is not over. It is not really complete until we respond in some way. When we come to this time I always sit on the edge of my seat wondering how our worship will end…what will happen…who will respond to what God has taught. For some of you this worship service won’t really be complete until you talk to God and tell Him that you believe in the miracle of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection and that you want to repent of your sin and accept Him as your Savior and Lord.
God may have shown others who are already Christians that, like Jonah, they have been running their lives and that they need to reaffirm their commitment to Christ as Master. Some of you may feel God leading you to join our church. However you feel led to complete our worship this morning; however you want to respond we invite you to do so right now by walking the aisle as we stand now and sing and sharing that decision with me.