To get us back into the story, I want to bring our minds back into what happened last week in ch. 1.
God called Jonah the prophet to go to Nineveh and call the Ninevites to repentance because they were deep in sin against God, and God was tired of it. But instead of obeying and going to Nineveh, Jonah ran to Joppa, jumped onto a ship, and headed for Tarshish. But God sent a great wind on the sea that threatened to tear the ship apart, and the sailors figured out that this was happening because of Jonah. Reluctantly, they threw Jonah into the sea, and immediately, the wind stopped, and these pagan sailors ended up worshipping God, offering a sacrifice to him, and even making vows to him. Then, the last verse of chapter 1 says that the Lord sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. That’s where we finished last week.
Now, chapter 2 starts off with Jonah in the belly of the whale. BUT, what he prays in the belly of the whale actually tells us some of what happened before he ended up in the whale, as he’s thrown into the sea. So, we’re going to first work our way through this prayer of Jonah in chapter 2, and then we’ll step back and see what we can learn about why we, as God’s children, should cry out to God. Starting with verses 1 & 2, this is what Jonah writes:
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.
Now, before we go on, it’s worth noting that this is past-tense, ‘I called out to the Lord,’ talking about before he was actually in the belly of the whale, when he’s still drowning in the ocean. He’s praying from within the belly of this great fish, but he’s referring back to when he was in the water. We’ll see that even more clearly with verses 3 and 4:
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.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
His language here shows us that he feels not only like he’s in physical danger, obviously, but also that he has been completely rejected by God. He’s on his way to Sheol—which can be generally understood to be the place of the dead— he’s drowning in the sea, and he feels as if he’s being driven from God’s sight. But, there is at least a glimpse of hope here, right?
Obviously, Jonah is referring back, so as he’s praying this, he knows what’s going to come about, that he’s going to be saved. So, he says, “yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” Looking back on when he was going through this, he may not have known there was a purpose for it in the moment, but certainly now he knows there was a purpose, that he would look again upon God’s holy temple, in other words that he would again be in the presence of God. Instead of running from God’s presence, which is what we know he’s doing from chapter 1, Jonah knows now that he will in fact be back in God’s presence. Then, in verses 5-6, Jonah elaborates even more upon his situation after being thrown into the sea. He writes,
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;
I mean, at this point, after being thrown into the sea by the sailors, he’s now apparently drowning and convinced he’s going to die. The waters are coming in over him, seaweed was wrapped around his head, and he is sinking! That’s what “at the roots of the mountains” means— that’s referring to where the mountains reach their true bottom at the bottom of the sea! So, he’s dying, he’s hopeless, he’s going down to the land whose bars closed upon him forever (that’s another description of the place of the dead, a place of permanence), there’s nothing he can do in this situation, and yet…the last part of verse 6 and then verse 7 say this:
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
He was drowning, sinking to the depths of the sea, and then he remembered the Lord. And, of course, he didn’t remember as in like he forgot, and just now is remembering, but remembering in the sense of knowing. He became intimate with the Lord again, he looked to the Lord, at least to some extent. I have some serious doubts that Jonah is actually repenting here in chapter 2. And that’s mainly because he doesn’t admit any wrongdoing, and as we’ll see in chapter 4, his heart is only partially changed here. But, he did pray to God. And people do not pray to God without wanting some sort of communion with him. And, so, then we see the truth that Jonah is once again embracing, at least partially, in verse 8.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
So we’re getting closer to a statement of repentance here. What is he once again embracing, or at least bringing up? God’s grace! God’s compassionate heart, his love, first shown to the Ninevites in wanting to send Jonah there to preach repentance, then shown to the pagan sailors whose physical lives were spared, but even more importantly, ended up fearing the one true God of the universe, and devoting their lives to him! And now, in the midst of inevitable death by drowning, God is going to show his grace toward Jonah. God saved his life by appointing a large fish to come and swallow him whole. And so, how does he respond to this steadfast love that he knows and enjoys once again? Verse 9:
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
He’s expressing gratitude for God’s grace shown once again, even after so many mistakes and so much rebellion. With thanksgiving, he will sacrifice to God once again, and he will pay the vow he made with God. He will serve God as his King once again, and specifically, he will go to the Ninevites! And it’s this very thanksgiving and this very grace that God has shown him yet again, that causes Jonah to make this last statement of verse 9. This is what he says:
Salvation belongs to the Lord!
This is, by far, the simplest way for Jonah to conclude what has happened in God sending the storm to stop him from fleeing, and then sending a whale to save his life from the depths of the sea. Salvation belongs to the Lord! And then, after this prayer, verse 10:
And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
Now, like I mentioned last week, I’m not going to get into all the arguments about whether or not this a historical event, or just a story meant to teach us something. To me, Jonah is pretty straightforward, a historical prophet, Jesus refers to these events as historical events. But the 2nd reason I don’t want to get into all of the arguments for and against is because if we did, in the limited time we have on Sundays, I think we’d miss the whole point of the narrative. This isn’t about a great fish; this is about a great God! Yes? You better believe it.
I know many of you have been in situations comparable to that of Jonah’s. Obviously, I don’t mean that you have been eaten by a whale, but…maybe even today you are in a place where you need to cry out to God. Maybe it’s because you’re running from God, either in outright rebellion like Jonah, or with mere complacency, indifference toward the grace of God and the life that God would have you live.
Maybe it’s not necessarily sin-related, but is instead situation-related. Perhaps you have loved ones who don’t know Jesus. Maybe you struggle with self-image issues or feeling like you have purpose or direction in life. No matter how big or small your circumstance may be, Jonah here gives us five reasons why we should cry out to God. The first is this:
1. He hears us.
We see this right there in verse 2: “I called out to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” Then in verse 7: “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your temple.” We are not deists, who believe that God exists and that he created everything but now has no personal involvement with his creation. We are Christians, who believe that God is involved in every intricate detail of our lives, which means he hears us when we cry out to him. So, we cry out. The second reason we cry out to God is similar to the first:
2. He answers us.
Can I say something that I hope will bring you some assurance: There really is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. Prayers are sometimes answered differently than we expect or differently than we want. I seriously doubt that Jonah, when he was crying out to the Lord, had in mind that God would send a whale to save him! I doubt that crossed his mind. And yet, God did answer his prayer. I’m sure when Jim and Barbara cried out to God five years ago during his stroke, I doubt they had in mind a limitation in being able to communicate for Jim. And yet, God answered.
In fact, sometimes God’s answer doesn’t come all at once. Jonah was saved from drowning in the sea, only to find himself in another rather precarious situation, in the belly of a whale. He was saved from drowning, and yet he wasn’t yet able to do what God had called him to do. Then, in verse 10 we saw that Jonah was placed back upon dry land. Sometimes he answers in stages, but God certainly answers.
And when it feels as if God is silent, we need to know that we’re not the first ones to feel this way. Throughout the entire Bible we see stories of men and women who waited for God to answer their prayers. All of Israel waited how many years for a Messiah that was explicitly promised to them? But God does absolutely answer prayers in His timing, which, whether we like it or not, is the best timing. And he answers prayers in the His way, which, whether we like it or not, is the best way.
While his answers are sometimes difficult, there is such joy in knowing that he hears us and he answers us. There are a countless number of complex details that make up the story of each of our lives. We may not see the reasons God answers in the way he does immediately; we may not see these details and the purposes for all these details even until we’re on the other side of eternity. But, no matter how complex and detailed our lives may be, the truth remains that our prayers reach God in his holy temple, and he responds. That’s why pray. That’s why we cry out. The 3rd reason to cry out to God, and this is my favorite:
3. He is the Divine Sovereign.
The Bible makes clear that we are to cry out to God, even pleading with him. Psalm 62:8- “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” But why do we pour out our hearts to God? Why do we cry out to God? Why is he our more-than-sufficient refuge? Not just because he has dominion over all things, but because He himself is THE Divine Sovereign. What does that mean? It means that he is the supreme power and authority; He is the supreme ruler. This is not merely a passive rule and dominion over everything; it is an active rule and dominion over everything.
In fact, this probably should be the main reason we feel compelled to cry out to Him! Because He is the one in control! He is the one who can change things, or at least the only One who knows fully why things are the way they are. Jonah certainly recognized that this God was THE Divine Sovereign. In Jonah 1:15 we’re told that the sailors picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, right? The sailors did that. But then, in Jonah 2:3, Jonah says to God, “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.” Jonah recognizes both primary and secondary causes for things that happen. That’s the theological way of putting it. The sailors threw him into the sea, and yet ultimately, God is THE Divine Sovereign! He rules all!
Think about the other ways that we’ve seen this already in this book. God hurls a great wind upon the sea, and then he makes it return to calm immediately. He controls the weather. In a sense, you can blame Him for the snow this morning. He appoints the great fish to swallow Jonah, then verse 10 says he “spoke” to the fish and had it vomit Jonah back out on dry land. Later in chapter 4 we see God appointing a plant to grow and give Jonah shade, but then he appointed a worm to kill the plant. We will see next week God’s sovereign dominion even over the human heart! With Jonah barely preaching to them to repent (seriously, it’s almost like he still doesn’t want to do it), even with that weak obedience and apparent half-hearted preaching, God changes their hearts—the Ninevites repent.
There is no aspect of reality outside of God’s sovereign hand. Job put it well in Job 42:2- “No purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Why is this a reason to cry out to God? Here’s why. Think about it: who better to cry out to? Who better to plead with, humbly?! We do not plead with a feeble God! We do not cry out to a weak God. Instead, Psalm 103:19- “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” When we cry out to God, when we plead with him, we’re not, like, inquiring from a subject matter expert, even in the top of his field. No! We’re asking the King, God Himself. That’s why God’s power and authority should compel us to cry out to him for the big and for the small things.
The sailors threw Jonah into the sea, but ultimately, God was in control! Ultimately, GOD had a purpose for that happening, and even brought it about. He saw to it for his purposes, which brings us the 4th reason to cry out to God:
4. He brings about our circumstances for a reason.
Now, I want to be honest here, and say that I’m going farther with this than merely saying, “God allows our circumstances for a reason.” I cannot help but say it stronger than that because I think this is the God that the Bible reveals to us. Not merely a God who reacts to what happens, but a God who brings about what happens. Somehow, we, as humans, make real decisions that have real effects that we are responsible for, and yet God is absolutely sovereign over all things. Proverbs 16:9- “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”
This might be one of the most difficult truths of the Bible. In fact, some say, because it’s difficult to understand, we shouldn’t really bring it up when people are going through rough times. I’ve read an article somewhat recently encouraging pastors and others not to say, “There’s a reason for this happening to you,” when we visit people in hospitals or going through other serious things. Why? Because that’s difficult to grasp. And I know we need to be sensitive, and honestly, a hospital bed is not the best place to have a theological argument, but I do want to teach this openly, and not soften it. I want to present the God that the Bible presents.
Because listen, I think there is unspeakable comfort in truly understanding, as Christians, God’s sovereignty in bringing about our circumstances. What comfort is there in a God who merely reacts to what is happening? Or even a God that knows what is going to happen but doesn’t really have a hand in it? What assurance does that bring?
Spiritually, what Jonah is experiencing here in the belly of the whale is either the reminder or the realization that God being truly in control means that his presence is as near and as real as can possibly be, no matter the situation. God, in a very real sense, brought this about, and he brought it about for a reason. The hardest question to ask ourselves is this: Do we believe that God is working out all things for his glory and our good? Do we believe it? Romans 8:28- “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Do you believe it? I’ve never been challenged to believe this more than in seeing Joe and Reba, and Audrey, Andrew, and Mallory over the last ten days.
That belief that God is good, and that God has reasons, perhaps beyond our understanding. But, what good can come? I’ll tell you first of all, that the Cerra family and those of you who’ve been through hard things, maybe like this—we never have the same opportunity to experience the real and near presence of God than when you literally cannot place your hope in anything else. I’m not saying any of us should envy those going through the hardest of times, certainly not, but I am saying that the refinement, the sanctification, that can come through suffering, is unmatched. And that’s not just for those who are suffering. We too, when people around us are suffering, can be refined. How God has used them to make me face my own sin, specifically, how much confidence I place in myself vs. in our sovereign God.
Jonah prayed for the first time, perhaps in a long time, in chapter 2 here. And this prayer, this crying out to God, is takes an admission of weakness. An admission that we’re not the ones in control, and nor should we pretend to be. When we do not cry out to God, when we’re not prayerful—we do not pray—it’s like a billboard pointing out to us that we have too much confidence in ourselves. And maybe sometimes we need to be reminded of that, like Jonah.
Sinclair Ferguson put it like this:
“Few principles are more important in the Christian life than the practical recognition of the sovereign God, and his gracious determination to draw us near to himself, whatever the cost may be. When his purposes involve afflictions and suffering of any kind, the knowledge that he is sovereignly over-ruling is the only thing that can preserve us from a craven fear or a sense of despair, and bring us a measure of joyful and willing acceptance of our situation. Only when we recognize that God’s aim is to make us like Christ (cf. Rom. 8:29), and that he works all the events of our lives together for this purpose, will we begin to rejoice in the good that is produced out of tribulation (Rom. 5:3-5).
I’m convinced that the most important good that comes out of tribulation is the knowledge of the all-encompassing truth that Salvation belongs to the Lord. That’s the 5th reason we cry out to God.
5. Salvation belongs to Him.
This is the best possible statement from Jonah encapsulating all of Jonah’s awe of what God has done for him. Salvation, redemption, reconciliation, restoration, all of it belongs to the Lord. He is the one who does it, and we are not. For God to do whatever it takes to help us trust in him instead of in ourselves, even if it means suffering ourselves, or seeing others around us suffer. For God to do that is a work of love. Somehow, mysteriously, God brings about our circumstances for his glory and our good, and ultimately, in all of our circumstances, salvation belongs to him. For Jonah, he had to experience God’s mercy yet again to be able to take that mercy to Nineveh. That’s was probably the main reason God had in what he went through.
Let me close with Psalm 119:75-76. I hope desperately that this may become your prayer today, and what you cry out to God, especially if you are suffering:
“I know, O Lord, that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant.”