The Rescue | Jonah 1:17-2:10

This sermon was originally preached in 2015.


Having now almost covered the first chapter the Jonah, we note that Jonah is not a sympathetic character. Jonah is not the archetypical hero for whom we cheer. In many ways, Jonah is not even remotely a pleasant person based upon what we have read. Fortunately, in this chapter, things begin to look up for Jonah. He finds himself in the stomach a large fish and thanking God for saving him from death at sea. The prophet thought that he would rather die than obey God, but when death actually enveloped him, Jonah cried out to the LORD. Though there was no reason for God to rescue Jonah, He did, and thank God that He did because He does the same with us. Like Jonah, we offer God nothing but our sincerest rebellion. Yet He repeatedly gives us grace instead of the death that we deserve. 

THE GREAT FISH // VERSE 17

Within this verse lies what has largely made Jonah such a popular book: the great fish. What shall we say about the great fish that swallowed Jonah? Many scholars have wrestled with the question of how Jonah could survive for three days inside the fish, and I will not spend effort here doing the same. For my take on the miraculous nature of this event, please see the historicity heading within the Background on Jonah. Instead, I will be more concerned with the reason and implications for why God used a great fish and what this great fish meant to Jonah.

First, it should be noted that God appointed the great fish to swallow Jonah. This same word is used elsewhere in the book. It occurs in rapid succession in chapter four verses six, seven, and eight. There God appoints a plant, worm, and wind, respectively. This significance of this language is similar God’s hurling of the storm in verse four: God is in completely sovereign control over all creation. Jonah claimed truthfully, in verse nine, that the LORD was the maker of the land and seas, and throughout this book, God constantly reveals that statement to be true.

Second, the fish was a tremendous grace of God. As we will see going into chapter two, Jonah did not know that God would rescue him. He fully believed that we would drown to death in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, and because of his disobedience, God would be just in letting Jonah die. However, because of the LORD’s abounding and steadfast love, He saved Jonah from death. The fish was merely the instrument that God used. As one commentator put it, “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.”[1]

Finally, careful consideration must be made of Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish. He spent three days and nights inside the fish. Throughout the ancient world, three days could be used symbolically for dying and death. Mark Futato points out that Hosea 6:2 even gives a clear discussion of death and resurrection in three days’ time: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”[2] This is significant because of what Jesus draws from Jonah’s stay in the belly of the fish. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus says, “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.” Jesus explicitly draws parallels between Jonah’s days inside the fish and His own time in the grave. It is important to know that God used a great fish to save Jonah from death, but it is more important to understand that this act points toward the time when Jesus would absorb the wrath of God and die in our stead. In fact, the only reason that Jonah was able to be spared from death and the wrath of God is because of the death that Jesus died on Jonah’s behalf. Jonah was able to spend three days alive in a fish because Jesus spent three days dead in the grave.

JONAH’S PRAYER // VERSES 1-10

At last in the second chapter of the book, we find the prophet praying! The prayer that Jonah makes in these next few verses is not exactly what you would expect from someone in his situation. Though I do not know from experience, I imagine that a fish’s belly is not the most comfortable place to stay for three solid days. Because of this assumption, many presume that Jonah prayer is describing how the LORD will deliver him from the fish; however, this does not seem to be the case. Instead, Jonah describes his losing battle against the waves in the next few verses; thus, Jonah is writing about how the LORD did deliver him from the sea. This makes the psalm in chapter two distinctively a psalm of thanksgiving. Jonah is joyful to be in the belly of the fish because it was the method that God used to rescue him from death.

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress” Let us pay careful attention to the words of Jonah’s prayer here. The prophet begins with the statement that he called out to the LORD, the One who he explicitly claimed as his God but disobeyed. Nothing seems to be out of place here. In fact, this is what we expected to happen earlier in the book. We expected to the prophet praying to God, but in twists of irony the pagan sailors called out to Him instead. So this verse, for once in the book, appears to how things normally operate—except for this simple phrase that Jonah acknowledges: “out of my distress.” It took the reality of drowning to death to get the prophet of God to pray. Just as in the previous chapter we discussed that some of life’s hardships are caused by our own doing, by our own sin, so to we find here that often the LORD must bring us to the point of distress in order for us to call out to Him. God desires that none should suffer or die; however, if by suffering we can be made to rely upon Him, then suffering is a price worth paying. We do not like to think of God in these terms, but it is truth. Because God is the ultimate treasure, stripping us of our lesser treasures so that we will come to Him is sometimes the most loving thing that He does for us.

“and he answered me” How amazing is this phrase! Thus far, Jonah has done little to present himself in a positive light for us, but even though his prayer only came because of his distress, God answered him. Though we would see no reason for God to answer Jonah’s cry, God delights in answering the pleas of those who call out to Him, even when their sin put them in the situation. We find the same pattern in Psalm 107:10-15: “Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High. So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor; they fell down, with none to help. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of the darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!” Indeed, those verses give a near perfect summary of Jonah’s journey in the first two chapters of the book.

“For you cast me into the deep” At the end of the previous verse, Jonah recalled that he cried out to God from the “belly of Sheol.” Sheol was the Hebrew concept of the grave or Hades. It was the place of the dead. It was similar to our understanding of hell, though not quite. They tended to view it as more of a holding place for the dead, not just a place for the unbelievers. Thus, Sheol could relatively be described as a locational representation of death. Therefore, he described the seas around him as the belly of death. Verse 3 now continues to reflect that imagery by describing the sea as the deep. The concept of the deep begins in Genesis 1:2, where God declares that the earth was “without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” This pictures the pre-formed earth as a primordial ocean of chaos before God established order through creation. So the deep was consider a concept for the destructive and chaotic tendencies of nature. The ocean represented a sort of un-creation. This means that Jonah’s description of being at the mercy of the deep is a Hebrew nightmare.[3]

In verse 4, Jonah then describes the depth of his internal despair while in the sea and his eventual return to God in prayer. Looking upon the temple of the LORD was likely an idiomatic expression for praying to the LORD. Jonah said to himself that he was driven from the LORD’s sight. Interestingly, Jonah lamented being cast from God’s presence in the midst of the sea, even though it is what Jonah sought to do from verse three onward. Once he began to experience the reality of being outside of God’s presence, Jonah immediately turned back to God in prayer. Too often, we are the same way. We repeatedly tell God what we want, and in His infinite wisdom and love, He withholds those things from us, knowing that they would be to our ruin. How terrifying is it when God gives us what our sinful hearts desire! Nevertheless, it is frequently the only way that God can show us that we should desire Him instead.

In verses 5-6, Jonah recounts his sinking to the ocean floor. His sense of helplessness is easily felt through the description of seaweed tangling around him. In that moment, he felt so far down in the sea that he was beside the roots of mountains. Overall, it seemed to be an imprisonment of sorts. Jonah felt trapped, cornered and waiting to die. As with many who testify that the LORD saved them from ‘rock bottom’, Jonah’s salvation only came when he was at his lowest point. When Jonah felt completely imprisoned and certain of his death, God rescued him from the pit (that is, from Sheol).

The verb יָרַד (yarad, “to go down”) is repeated four times in chs. 1-2 for rhetorical effect (1:3a, 3b, 5; 2:7). Jonah’s “downward” journey from Jerusalem down to Joppa (1:3a) down into the ship (1:3b) down into the cargo hold (1:5) and ultimately down into the bottom of the sea, pictured as down to the very gates of the netherworld (2:7), does not end until he turns back to God who brings him “up” from the brink of death (2:6-7).[4]

Though Jonah’s life was fading away, his prayers still reached into the throneroom of God. What a simple, yet powerful, thought is contained within this verse 7! It did not matter that Jonah was as low as he could possibly go. It did not matter that Jonah was at death’s door. God still heard his prayers. Because of God’s love, His omnipotence, and His omnipresence, no one can be too low or too far for God to hear them. Frederick Lehman’s hymn describes the love of God as such: “The love of God is greater far/ Than tongue or pen can ever tell/ It goes beyond the highest star/ And reaches to the lowest hell.” Psalm 139:7-10 illustrates this thought well:

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.

Jonah, in verse 8, pauses for an insightful thought. He makes it known that worshippers of false gods forsake their “hope of steadfast love.” Jonah witnessed firsthand the loving-kindness of the LORD. He had just become a recipient of the marvelous grace of God. Upon receiving such love and grace from God, Jonah feels compelled to warn that all of other forms of worship are in vain. The might and sovereignty of the LORD was such that He saved Jonah from the belly of Sheol. Jonah knew that God has the complete ability to rescue anyone, and he had just experienced it personally. Because Jonah received a momentary glimpse of the greatness of God, he was compelled to expose the vanity of all other gods.

This is a very biblical truth. In Psalm 51, David prays for repentance to the LORD for the sins of adultery and murder (no doubt he was likely feeling as low spiritually as Jonah did physically). Yet in verse thirteen he makes a profound declaration: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” The Israelite king claims that he will instruct other sinners in the ways of God so that they too will turn to God in repentance. Furthermore, Peter writes that we were made righteous and holy in the sight of God for the purpose of proclaiming the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). All of this means that repentance must lead to proclamation. We cannot experience that wondrous love of God and not desire to declare that love to others who are placing their confidence in idols that will ultimately fail them.

And of course, idols do not merely refer to the pagan deities of old. We understand well now that placing confidence in Zeus is a fruitless endeavor. However, our modern gods are much more cunning than that. A boyfriend or girlfriend, even wife or husband, can be our god. When we establish them upon the throne of our heart, we look to them for never-failing steadfast love. Anyone who has lived in a society of other people for more than an hour will know that no one is innately capable of that kind of love. Thus, looking to a person for such a godly love is a worthless chasing after the wind. The same also applies for anything else that we might esteem as an idol: films, philosophies, literature, television, etc. The LORD is the only source of pure steadfast love that will never fail us.

Finally, verse 9 contains the words that we long to hear from Jonah’s mouth! Here Jonah submits to the will and plan of God. He turns to God with a heart of thanksgiving for his gracious rescue, and then he pledges to make sacrifice and fulfill vows to God. The emphasis is not upon the works themselves that Jonah pledges to commit. God is clear that sacrifices do not please or appease Him (Psalm 51:16; Isaiah 1:11-17). Instead, Jonah’s readiness to obey God is the key. It is one thing to speak thankfulness with our lips, but it is another matter entirely to show thankfulness with our actions. Such are the sacrifices and vows of the Old Testament. They were always meant to be displays of a thankful heart rather than the means of salvation.

“Salvation belongs to the LORD!” This is very likely the most potent statement found within the book of Jonah. It is a marvelous statement of sound doctrine that Jonah learned in from the oddest seminary imaginable, yet it is by no means strange that Jonah learned through hardship. Spurgeon points out that “Most of the grand truths of God have to be learned by trouble; they must be burned into us with the hot iron of affliction, otherwise we shall not truly receive them.”[5] Psalm 119:67 also states, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.” The greatest classrooms are often located in the school of hard knocks. Jonah experienced this truth intimately, and it led him to the great truth of the Bible: salvation only belongs to God. Because only God is the keeper of salvation, it means that He is also the only One who can give it. Therefore, Jonah’s statement is advocating salvation by grace alone! God alone could save Jonah’s life. There was no sufficient work, whether in word or deed, that Jonah could have done to earn his salvation. In fact, the only actions that we have read of Jonah have been ones that condemn him instead. Fortunately for Jonah (and for us), God alone holds salvation, and He distributes it, not based on merit, but based on pure grace.

In response to Jonah’s prayer of faith (which he only made because of the grace of God), God commands the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land. As previously stated, the fish was a vessel for the mercy and grace of God. Many consider this to be Jonah’s true deliverance; however, Jonah viewed the fish’s belly as being a refuge from the fury of the sea. Therefore, this expulsion onto dry land is nothing more than the consummation of Jonah’s salvation.

THE END OF THE MATTER

Like Jonah, we have been saved from the sea of God’s wrath by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though at times we may bemoan our present circumstances and question why God has not delivered us entirely, we must remember that Jonah gave thanks to God from the belly of the fish, even though the conditions were not ideal and he had not yet been brought to dry land. Because Jonah was saved by the fish, he had faith that God would complete his salvation from the sea by bringing him to dry land.

Likewise, this life is similar to the belly of the fish. Though we have been saved from the world, we are still in the world. Conditions may be less than ideal, but that is because our salvation has not been consummated yet. We rest in the promises of Christ that because He saved us from the waves, He will also be faithful to bring us to shore.

Will we, therefore, respond to God with a prayer of gratitude for our present salvation, or will we complain that we have not stepped foot onto land yet? Let us learn from Jonah by being grateful for present salvation, even as we look forward to our future deliverance.


[1] G. Campbell Morgan, The Minor Prophets, p. 69.

[2] Futato, Mark. ESV Study Bible. Jonah, p. 1630.

[3] It is also interesting to note that often Hebrews were frightened of the oceans because of the terrors that they could contain (like the leviathan), but God used one of those mighty creatures to rescue Jonah.

[4] The NET Bible note on 1:3.

[5] Spurgeon. “Spurgeon’s Sermons, Vol 3. Salvation of the LORD, p. 194.

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