It’s no surprise that children love the story of Jonah! A big fish swallowing a man, how amazing! No wonder it is a favourite with Sunday schools. It’s a certain story to be included in any children’s picture Bible. But I want us to see that this is not just a story for the kids - this book has very important things that each of us need to take on board.
There are two great themes running through the book of Jonah that are vitally important to each one of us: the compassion of God and the control of God. God’s mercy and his sovereignty!
Think about how important both these truths are.
If God was not compassionate there would be no hope for sinful people. There would be no hope for Nineveh that wicked city. There would be no hope for Jonah the run away prophet. There would be no hope of people finding the forgiveness we so badly need.
If God were not in control there would also be no real hope for us. If God is not in control what is? If God is not in control then chaos really is chaos. If God is not in control then we may be helpless victims of our circumstances. If God is not in control then surely our lives are very insecure and very vulnerable. If God is not in control then there is very little comfort from his promise to work all things together for the good of those who love him - for if he is not in control then he is not able to deliver on such a great assurance.
This week, as we look at the second section of Jonah, we are again going to look at these central truths: the control and compassion of God.
The God of Great Control:
God is in control right throughout this little book of Jonah.
He is in control of the sea. He is after all, the LORD, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the land. ‘To the Israelite the untameable sea was a picture of chaos, the enemy of all settled order’. However, Jonah acknowledges that even there God is in control. At the end of verse 3 Jonah speaks of your waves and your breakers - the sea is God’s sea. What may appear chaos to us is not chaos to God for he is in control of everything.
He also is in control of the fish. In chapter 1, verse 17, he provides the fish to swallow Jonah. In chapter 2, verse 10 he commands that fish and it vomits Jonah onto dry ground.
He has control over Jonah’s circumstances. Look at verse 3: You hurled me into the deep . . . Does that seem odd to you? Chapter 1 tells us that it was the sailors that threw Jonah overboard. However, Jonah knows that in that action they are merely acting as God’s servants.
He is even in control over Jonah’s life and death. At the end of verse 2 we read, ‘From the depths of the grave I called for help . . .’ The Hebrew word translated ‘grave’ is Sheol - meaning grave, the netherworld - the lowest point in all creation. The descent into death is not beyond God. God rescues Jonah from death’s door.
Jonah describes his decent in verse 3-7: The currents swirl about him
The waves swept over him.
He feared he had been banished from God’s sight
The waters engulfed him
The deep surrounded him
He sank (verse 6) To the roots of the mountains - this is a picturesque way of talking about
the bottom of the sea - when the mountains hit the coast you know that their decent has not stopped.
The earth beneath barred me in forever Jonah thinks of the underworld as having gates, like those in the cities of his day, that enclose the inhabitants forever.
However, at the moment of Jonah’s greatest darkness and despair, at death’s door, when no one could save him, God rescues him - ‘But you brought my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.’
God is in control! When our life seems on the verge of chaos, when its very foundations are threatened, when our circumstances seem out of control - God is still in control! When Jonah rebelled - God remained in control. In his love and patience he did not give up on Jonah but brought him back in line.
The God of Great Compassion:
Jonah was a big time rebel. God had called him to arise and go to Nineveh, he went down to Joppa. God called him east, he went west. Jonah went to Tarshish to flee the LORD. However, in his compassion the LORD did not let go of Jonah.
What a stubborn rebel Jonah was! In chapter 1 we waited in vain for Jonah to pray. It seems that he would rather have died than conform to God’s plan, and he faces death as he is thrown overboard. This death penalty is what his rebellion deserves. But then helpless, unable to save himself, fearing that he had been banished from God’s sight and was so descending to a godless grave, he finally prays -
In my distress I called to the LORD . . .
From the depths of the grave I called for help . . .
Verse 7, When my life was ebbing away I remembered you, LORD . . .
Only when he had lost all hope did his thoughts return to God. Here are the desperate of words of a dying man, the cry of an undeserving rebel.
And how does God respond?
. . . he answered me
. . . you listened to my cry for help.
The great fish which the LORD had provided had swallowed Jonah - Jonah was rescued. What grace! Surely Jonah has just experienced what he already knows, the LORD is gracious and compassionate . . . slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. So from the belly of a fish comes this psalm, this prayer of Jonah, thanking God for his rescue.
Do we thank God for his rescue of us? When we sing do we remember how he has rescued us through the cross? Like Jonah we have reason to declare God’s praises!
However, not everyone experiences such wonderful grace and love. Verse 8: ‘Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.’ The word translated ‘grace’ in the NIV is the Hebrew ‘hesed’. A word which is translated variously as ‘mercy’, ‘loving-kindness’ ‘steadfast love’, ‘goodness’, or ‘favour’. It is a favourite word in the Old Testament for describing God’s character and his actions towards his people. Like the child who can’t get their hand out of the jar because they are clinging on to its contents, those who cling on to worthless idols miss out on God’s steadfast-love.
In our culture their may be very few who cling to idols in the traditional sense but there are many things that people make idols of. There are those things that people put in the place of God, things that hold people back from God, and so they forfeit the grace, the loving-kindness, that could be theirs.
Jonah does not think that he is like silly pagans clinging to their idols:
But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you,
What I have vowed I will make good.
There is a similarity here with chapter 1 verse 16. In chapter 1 the pagan sailors offered sacrifices and made vows. Jonah wants to put clear blue sea between him and the pagan sailors but our storyteller seems to want us to highlight the similarity between Jonah and them. Both were in danger of drowning, both cried to the LORD, both are rescued, and both express their gratitude in the same way. What is the point that the storyteller is trying to make? That the same loving kindness that rescues a prophet of Israel rescues pagan sailors who were previously ignorant of the one true God!
God’s great promise to Abraham said that all the peoples of the earth would be blessed through his seed (Gen. 12:3). God acts in line with this promise as he shows his compassion to these pagan sailors. In so doing he is pointing ahead to Jesus, through whom the promise is brought to fulfilment - for Jesus will extend God’s compassion to all nations, and gather to himself a people from every tribe and race (Rev. 7:9).
The prayer ends, Salvation comes from the LORD. God saved Jonah from drowning, but this mini-salvation is just a shadow of that which will come in Jesus!
. . . The LORD, the God of heaven [the top God, the only God], who made the sea and the land is in control of all things. He is in control even when chaos surrounds us, in control when circumstances baffle us, in control over life and death itself. We can take comfort that the God who is in total control exercises this control for the good of his children - here bring Jonah back into line! ‘This is the God we see acting in the death of Jesus in the New testament, not giving us what we deserve but what we need.’
Those who cling to idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. Wouldn’t it be dreadful if some of us put things ahead of God? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if some of us decided not to follow him because we loved what the world offers more? They would miss out on the wonderful grace [the hesed, the stead-fast love] that could be theirs!
For those of us who have been rescued, who have experienced God’s salvation in Jesus, we like Jonah have reason to be filled with thanksgiving and praise!