by Alex White.
You’ve probably heard the expression that a grizzled old news editor told his newest reporter when he sent him out looking for a story: “if a dog bites a man, that’s not news. Man bites a dog? That’s news!”.
Well, a man swallowing a fish isn’t much. A man being swallowed BY a fish is unheard of (with apologies to Steve…)
I want to focus on the second chapter of Jonah because it is one of the most well known stories in the Old Testament.
Let’s think about who Jonah is for a moment. He is a prophet who was called by God to take a specific message to a specific group of people. A responsibility that he didn’t just dodge, he attempted to run as far away from as possible! In chapter 1 we read about the storm, and it all ends up with Jonah being thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish that God has sent. In chapter 3 he makes his way to Nineveh and reluctantly preaches to a Godless people who, much to his surprise, turn to God!
But of all the accounts we read in the Old Testament, this must be one of the hardest to swallow (if you’ll pardon the pun). Surviving within a fish for three days seems ludicrous. And yet it is presented to us as a fact, and referred to as such by Jesus himself in Matt 12v40
“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.”
We are told in the gospels that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, then he prayed, and we have his prayer recorded here. It’s a big turning point for Jonah.
God hears a desperate prayer
If your Bible is like mine, and most modern bibles, the text for this bit is laid out slightly differently than the rest of the book. Funny indentations. Have you noticed that before? That is how our translations lay out Hebrew poetry. It is worth us spending a couple of minutes thinking about poetry to help us get the most out of it.
But first: < ask people to finish off Humpty Dumpty, which I’ll start saying >
Most of you probably haven’t had much cause to repeat that for years, but the rhyme and meter help to fix it in your memory. Poetry is structured to make things memorable.
Hebrew poetry doesn’t use rhyme and meter though. It uses parallelism instead. That’s good news for us, because that kind of poetry translates well, unlike rhyme which doesn’t!
So when we look at Hebrew poetry we are looking at pairs of thoughts. The second thought in each pair may be used to do one of the following:
- State the same thing again in a similar way to reinforce the thought.
- State something contrasting to contrast the thought
- State something which develops the original thought and takes it further.
So what do we see going on in this chapter? Let’s read it with our poetry heads on.
We can see parallel passages reinforcing a thought in v3 “you cast me into the deep… all your waves and your billows passed over me”, and in v5 “the waters closed in over me… the deep surrounded me”
We can development of a thought in v2 “I called out to the Lord… and he answered me” and “out of the belly I cried… and you heard my voice” or in v7 “I remembered the Lord… and my prayer came to you”.
And there are startling contrasting pairs in v4 “I am driven away from your sight… yet I shall look again upon your holy temple” and v6 “I went down to the land… yet you brought up my life” and v8-9 “those who pay regard to idols… but I with thanksgiving will sacrifice to you”
So what does this poem tell us of Jonahs state of mind?
We know that he wasn’t an exemplary follower of God. Not the quality of prophet we normally expect to see by a long chalk. He was disobedient to God and had run away from God. Even in this prayer he seems to be blaming God for his predicament! “You cast me, your waves…” It’s interesting to think that Jonah might be the least repentant person we see in this entire book!
But in those contrasting lines, we see his hope is in the LORD. It may be desperation that has driven him to this prayer, but in desperation he is calling out.
You would think that by rights, God would have washed his hands of such a rubbish person… But God answered him (v2), heard him(v2), God lifted him up(v6) and will bring him salvation (v9)
How does Jonah end his prayer? “I will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” With that triumphant declaration of his will, Jonah throws himself on God’s mercy.
V10 “and the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land”
So what do we learn from this today?
It isn’t about fish-shaped submarines, but something much more pragmatic.
Can you ever run so far away from God that you can’t come back?
Can you ever run so far away from God that you can’t come back?
Jonah teaches us that. In fact the book is full of people turning to God – the sailors in chapter 1, Jonah in chapter 2 and the Ninevites in chapter 3.
No matter how far you have tried to run from God… No matter how bad the situation you find yourself in… God pursues you in order to rescue you. The heart of God is to rescue people. He rescues people nowadays first by introducing them to Jesus, then also by helping those who have run away from him to come back.
Take out a pound coin which I offer, then make dirty, then spit on – but does anyone still want it? Well yes… because under all that it is still a £1 coin. Life sometimes gets in our way. We feel dirty, downtrodden, and think that we have lost our value… but we haven’t.
Hearing the call of the kingdom
The Lord sent the wind, the Lord sent the storm and the Lord sent the fish. The Lord God was rather determined that Jonah took his message to the people of Nineveh!
Occasionally we lose sight of the nature of the call of discipleship. We want to be ‘Gods person’, available and used by God — but we sometimes have our own script about how that might look.
Romans 8:28 says “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Please note that it doesn’t say that God will work all things together for our comfort. Or even for our good. But for good.
Jonah was a servant of God here, and although it was a rough time for him, God certainly worked things together for good… for the good of the sailors, and as we can see in the next chapter, for the good of the people of Nineveh.
In many places around the world today it can be really tough to be a Christian, and personally costly to risk telling other people about Jesus. I was struck by something that Richard Wurmbrand wrote in his book ‘Tortured for Christ’ about his time as a prisoner in Romania in the mid 20th Century.
“It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners. It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating. A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted the communists’ terms. It was a deal; we preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching. They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy.”
― Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ
We are less likely to face that kind of choice – but we can still face the possibility of ostracism or insult, of being out of step with the way that the world judges things and so be judged ourselves. We have the challenge of what we do with our time and how much we want to give to Gods work in any of its forms.
We live surrounded by ‘Nineveh’, where people neither know nor care about God right now. Our temptation isn’t to escape to the other side of the world, but to bury ourselves in our own world.
God still calls us. Every initiative in this church happens because God whispers and someone whispers back “yes, Lord.”
So what might God be calling you to do?