The Praying Prophet and the Listening God
What’s the worst pickle you’ve been in?
I’ll never forget one of the last weekends I was tree planting in Alberta, just over 16 years ago. I had slept by myself in our bush camp to save some money while the rest of my crew spent the night in a nearby hotel. And in the morning I went to go pick them up in one of the camp trucks.
Most of the other trucks were already in town, so I hopped in what we called a “Crummy.” These were our bush ambulances and they had a big tall box in between the cab and the box where you could stand upright, and on top of this box was a container with all of the first aid supplies.
As I swung into the hotel parking lot, I had to make a choice between taking the long way around to where my crew was staying, or take the shortcut underneath the big overhang at the hotel entrance. I took the shortcut.
Halfway under the overhang I started to notice that it was getting really hard to drive. And I heard this really strange sound. So I parked and got out and looked, and sure enough I was totally stuck under there. My truck was about 3 inches too tall for the overhang, that metal box had carved a beautiful channel through the soffit, which they had just replaced, and I was completely wedged in place.
As a crowd gathered I had to figure out what to do. So I asked for help.
That meant waking up my foreman, who informed me that I wasn’t licensed to drive that truck in the first place. The pickle intensified.
But we made a plan. We took all the air out of the tires and someone else had to drive the truck out and take things from there. And I later found out that the owner of my tree planting company worked things out with the hotel and nothing bad came out of the whole situation.
In the moment, it felt pretty terrible. But as far as pickles go, it wasn’t that bad. It certainly worked out okay. And it certainly pales in comparison to the pickle that Jonah found himself in at the end of Jonah chapter 1. I’m not sure there’s a bigger pickle than sinking like a stone in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. That’s where most of us would just say, “Well, I’m done.”
But like we’re going to see today, Jonah wasn’t without help either. He had someone he could call out to for help. The God whom he was running from was ready to answer and save even in the middle of a mess that Jonah had gotten himself into.
And as we listen in on Jonah’s prayer in Jonah chapter 2 today, we’re going to glimpse God’s mercy and be able to reflect on what God’s mercy does for us when we receive it. And we’ll start to think about what it looks like to pass that same mercy on to others when we meet those who need it.
The Great Fish
So we’ll pick up where we left off last week, at the very end of chapter 1. “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).
Like I said last week, we’re going to spend a few minutes on this verse today, because this is the verse that tends to attract the most attention in the book of Jonah. I’m sure when many of us think about Jonah, we don’t just think about Jonah. We think about Jonah and the whale.
This is also the verse that makes many people say, “Jonah is not a true story, because nobody could survive for three days inside of a marine animal like that. Jonah must be just a parable designed to teach us things instead of a real story.”
That’s actually a very common idea you come across as you study this passage. And how do we respond to it?
There’s a few ways we respond to this idea. First, if it truly is impossible for someone to be kept alive inside of a whale, then how do we learn any lessons from this passage in the first place?
It’s like if I told my kids a story about a time when their dad went out and lifted a car over his head to teach them that their dad was strong. But if I can’t actually lift a car over my head, then the story doesn’t actually teach them anything.
If God didn’t sent Jonah to Nineveh in real life, if God didn’t save him with a fish in real life, if none of these things really happened, then the story doesn’t teach us anything.
We don’t learn about God’s love for the Gentiles unless God actually did send a prophet to preach to them. We don’t learn that God will forgive and save us unless He actually did save and forgive Jonah and the Ninevites. We don’t learn that He is powerful unless He actually did send the storm and the fish.
If none of this actually happened, then it’s just meaningless. This story only teaches anything if it actually happened.
Secondly, people who say “This is highly unlikely to ever happen, therefore it’s just a parable” need to pause and consider the nature of miracles. A miracle is a miracle precisely because it’s something that doesn’t normally happen.
And we should notice that verse 17 does not say that this kind of thing happened all the time. “Then Jonah was swallowed by one of the many great fishes who regularly transported passengers to and fro across the sea in those days.” If it said that, then sure, Jonah would sound like a parable.
But instead, it’s described in a way that shows us that this is unusual. Giant fish or whales don’t typically swallow men whole, and that if that happens, those men don’t typically stay alive for three days before being spit up again on dry land. That’s what makes this story so remarkable. God appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. This was an unusual work of God—a miracle.
Now while it’s a miracle, it’s not totally as impossible as some people suggest. The Mediterranean Sea has Great White Sharks and Sperm whales, both of which have swallowed men and other large animals whole, without taking a bite.
And the Hebrew word for “fish” isn’t a technical word like ours is, so it could totally apply to a whale.
And there are actually all kinds of anecdotes you can find about people and dogs that have been swallowed by whales and lived to tell the story.
But then there’s still the question: how did he breathe for three days? How was he not digested by stomach acid? And that’s where we need to remember that this is a special work of God here. A miracle.
And if we don’t believe that God could do this miracle then we should just close our Bibles and go home, because we worship a saviour who claimed to have spent three days dead in a tomb before walking out alive. And we worship Him because that doesn’t happen everyday.
And that brings us to the third and strongest response to those who think this is just a story: Jesus didn’t think it was just a story.story—because Jesus did.
“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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’” (Matthew 12:38–41).
That makes no sense unless Jesus actually thought that Jonah was a true story.
I read a commentary last week that said, “Couldn’t Jesus have just been using an illustration from a popular story to make a point?” But that’s like me saying, “Ebenezer Scrooge will rise up at the judgement and condemn this generation because he repented when the ghosts visited him and you haven’t.” And you’d all say, “Dude, that’s just a story.”
Jesus would only talk this way if it actually happened. “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation” he said in Luke 11:30. He thought it was a true story. And I don’t know better than Jesus. So I’m going with His opinion on this one. Yes, it happened.
You might be saying, “Why is this important?” It’s important because we’re not the ones who get to tell God what is and is not possible. If God wants to appoint a big fish to swallow a man, we don’t get to say that couldn’t happen. And it’s important because this shows us just how serious God was about accomplishing this mission of saving the Ninevites. He literally kept Jonah alive for three days inside of a big sea creature in order to make sure that this happened.
So now let’s move on to chapter 2 where we spend most of our time with Jonah’s prayer. consider Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2. And we should just appreciate what verse 1 tells us: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.”
We’ve been reading our kids a book on prayer, and it’s taught our kids that they can pray anywhere, because God can hear them anywhere. And anywhere includes the digestive systems of large marine animals. God could hear Jonah from the whale’s belly and Jonah knew it.
Let’s not forget that, whatever it was like for Jonah in there, it probably wasn’t really comfortable. Some of you remember the Pinocchio movie where Gipetto gets swallowed by a giant whale and lives in a dry and comfortable little house inside of his mouth.
That wouldn’t have been what this was like. This would have been tight and wet and dark and smelly and probably closer to a nightmare than anything else. And in that spot, Jonah prays.
Let’s consider Jonah’s prayer and what he says.
The opening lines of Jonah’s prayer in verse 2 celebrate that God is a God who hears and responds to His people in the darkest of circumstances. “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” (Jonah 2:2).
Some people have this idea that prayer, calling out to God, is something you do once you’ve pulled yourself together. Especially if you’ve sinned or gotten yourself into trouble. You need to clean yourself up first before you talk to God.
Jonah didn’t think that way. He prayed to God from the belly of the whale. And even before then, while he was drowning, as we find out in verses 3-7.
Listen to verse 3: “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 2:3).
In case you thought that being thrown into the sea was just a day in the life of Jonah, it wasn’t. This was a really horrible thing to happen, and Jonah is honest about this.
But notice his language here. He doesn’t say “for those sailors cast me into the deep, and some waves passed over me.” No, Jonah knows that this was God’s work. God cast him in there. It was God’s waves and billows that passed over him.
Jonah expected to die. That’s what verse 5 and 6 tell us: “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” (Jonah 2:5–6).
“The land whose bars closed upon me forever” probably refers to Sheol. The place where the dead went before the coming of Jesus.
In other words, Jonah expected to die here. He was sinking and drowning and he thought that this was it.
And what was the worst part of that? Verse 4 gives us a really interesting glimpse into his heart: “Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple’” (Jonah 2:4).
Remember how, in the Old Covenant, God’s presence was manifested in the temple? That was the place where you went to meet with God. And Jonah’s greatest sorrow in dying was that he won’t be able to see and be with God in the temple again.
We’re often hard on Jonah, because he does a lot of things wrong, but this is remarkable to me.
Jonah’s greatest grief, as he’s dying, is that he might never see the temple again. Jonah tried to get away from God and now his greatest sorrow is that maybe he was successful. Maybe God let him go.
And I hope we can see that this is quite a turnaround from his earlier desire to run from God’s presence. Running away from God sounded great until it landed him in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and now, he wants to be with his God again.
So Jonah is in despair, he’s dying, and he calls out to God. And then at the end of verse 6, there’s this shot of hope, because God responds. “Yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”
And here’s my concern right at this moment: that we’re not surprised by this the way we should be. I’m concerned that perhaps we’ve gotten used to this.
We’ve gotten used to the fact that God hears Jonah’s prayer and does not say, “What are you whining about? You got yourself in that spot. You deal with it.”
Isn’t that how we often deal with things? Especially if you’re of a certain political persuasions? “You got yourself into that situation. It’s your problem. Leave me alone.”
God does not deal with us like that. God is ready to respond to all who cry out to Him for mercy even if it’s their own fault that they are in that spot in the first place.
And we see this in verses 6 and 7. “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the put, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.”
It’s unclear whether Jonah pictures his prayers coming to God in the Jerusalem temple, or to God in His true, heavenly temple. But either way, God heard Jonah. And God did not say “It’s your fault.” God responded with mercy to Jonah and saved him.
And there in the whale Jonah anticipates a full return to God’s presence in the temple.
“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:8–9).
Jonah is going to sacrifice and fulfill his vows to the Lord. Notice here that he’s finally caught up with the pagan sailors, who were sacrificing and making vows to Yahweh back at the end of chapter 1.
But caught up he has. Jonah recognizes that only in the Lord is steadfast, covenant-keeping love. To the Lord belongs salvation. And Jonah trusts that he is on the way back to worship God again in the land of the living.
And sure enough, verse 10, “the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.”
I’m not sure it would be a great experience to be swallowed by a big fish. I’m not sure it would be a great experience to be vomited up by the same fish. Jonah probably was sore and smelly. But standing on dry ground he was alive, against all the odds, and ready to continue serving the Lord.
So there we have chapter 2. Jonah made an incredible journey physically, and his soul made an incredible journey as he turned back to the Lord.
And as we reflect on all of this, let’s ask what we learn about God, about Jonah, and about ourselves from this chapter. And we’re going to focus on three lessons and a question that come to us from this material.
1: Pray the Bible
The first lesson has to do with prayer itself. I hope you’ve noticed that Jonah’s prayer here is beautiful and meaningful and significant. And he prayed this way from the belly of the whale. How do you pull that off?
And the answer is that Jonah’s prayer is rich with language form the Psalms. The Psalms were Israel’s prayer book, and Jonah would have been familiar with them, and so it’s not surprising that when he opens his mouth to pray, what comes out is beautiful Psalmic language.
I’ve been in a lot of crises in my life, and I’ve heard a lot of good people pray in those crises, and it’s surprising sometimes who doesn’t know how to pray—and who does. And I think, just like Jonah, those who know how to pray in a crises are those who have been learning how to pray well all along.
So what’s the lesson there for us? Learn how to pray from the Bible. Start with the Psalms—read them and learn what they mean and then pray them back to God. And beyond that, practice praying whatever you read in the Bible. And then when you open your mouth to pray in the middle of a crisis, what will come out will be meaningful and beautiful and helpful to those around you.
There’s a great book we just added to the library called “Praying the Scripture” by Don Whitney. We also have a whole series of small little books called “5 things to pray” that tackle a whole swath of subjects and show you how to pray the Bible for your kids or for your church or for your world based on what we see in the Bible.
Practice praying the Bible and you’ll be ready to pray when any circumstance arises.
2: Come to God in the Mess
The second lesson for us is this: come to God in the mess. Look at Jonah, crying out to God while he’s drowning and then while he’s in the fish. He cried out to God in the middle of a mess, a mess that was his fault. But he prayed anyways. And like we saw, the God of mercy heard him and saved him.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” says Psalm 130:1.
I don’t know why, but it seems like it’s easy for many people to think that if we’re in a pickle, we need to get out of the pickle and clean up before we can come to the Lord.
I’ve seen it often when I’ve talked to people dealing with sinful habits. They tell themselves they’ll never do something again, and then they give in to it again, and they feel so ashamed.
But I’ll ask them: how long did it take for you to turn to God in prayer after you gave in to your sin? And the answer is sometimes days. They wait until the feelings of shame have subsided and they feel “good enough” for God, and then they come to Him and promise that they’ll never do it again.
And when we act like that, it just shows how little we truly know God. How little we truly believe the gospel. God is a God who hears our prayer while we are drowning, even if we’re drowning because we tried to run away from Him. Because God is a God who shows us love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
If God sacrificed His own son for us while we were His enemies, do you think we need to clean ourselves up before we approach Him now that we’re His forgiven children?
Please understand that coming to God in our mess doesn’t mean that our mess is okay. We call out to God in our mess because we need salvation from our mess. And Jonah’s story shows us that God is ready to hear us and save us in the middle of our own self-made mess.
What would have happened to Jonah if he had thought, “I’ll get to land and dry off and then I’ll tell God I’m sorry and I’ll never run away from Him again”? He would have died. And so will we if we wait until we’re in good shape before we come to God.
So call out to God in your problem, even if you created the problem yourself by your own sin. Jonah needed God in the middle of his mess. And so do we.
3: God Does Not Waste Any of Our Suffering
The third truth we see here, just briefly, is that God doesn’t waste any of our suffering. And here I’m specifically pointing to the way that the fish saved Jonah from drowning and transported him back to dry land.
While Jonah was in the belly of the fish those three days he probably didn’t know what was going on. He probably didn’t know which way he was going and how long he was going to survive. It would have felt small and wet and smelly.
But he was being saved. And he was being transported back to dry land for a fresh commissioning.
I don’t want to stretch this too far, but looking back in my own life I can see how many experiences which felt black and hopeless were being used by God to the same effect: preserving me and putting me on course for a fresh mission. And that includes episodes of suffering which were brought on by the bad decisions I or others made.
Just think of Joseph. His brothers hated him and threw him in the well and sold him as a slave, and part of the reason why was his big mouth. He told them all about his dreams of them owing down to him, which made them hate him more.
But even there God used his suffering for purposes he couldn’t have imagined.
The big idea here is 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” (Romans 8:28). And “all things” includes even the things that we do wrong.
Again, please don’t take this as an encouragement that you can just go do whatever you want. You don’t want to spend time in the belly of a fish. But if that’s where you find yourself today, don’t despair. As you call out to God you can trust that He’s going to work through your suffering. All of it.
The Question: Will We Who Have Received Mercy Be Merciful?
So those are our three lessons. But now the question. Jonah chapter 2 ends with Jonah back on dry land. He’s been through quite the ordeal. He’s cried out to God and God has showed Him an amazing amount of mercy.
And the question hanging over the story at this point is, “Will Jonah be willing to show this same mercy to others?” God rescued him; is Jonah willing to be an agent of God’s rescue to the Ninevites?
That’s where this story goes, and I just want to remind us of that this morning. Any time we celebrate the mercy of God, we can’t forget that God’s mercy in our own lives is never meant to stop with us.
No doubt many of us this morning have reflected on the way in which God has been kind and merciful and rescued us not just from hell but from so many bad situations here in this life, even ones we got ourselves into.
But what are we going to do with that? Are we going to keep it to ourselves? Or are we going to look around at a world in need of rescue and be willing to share that same mercy with others?
This got me thinking about Outpour weekend coming up. I’m sure there’s a lot of important things each of us could do with a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.
And I’m sure Jesus could have been doing all kinds of important things for those 33 years while He was on earth. But instead He spent it here in order to save us when we least deserved it.
And when your heart is full of the kindness and the mercy that God has shown to you, it makes you eager to pass it on. It makes you want others to experience that same mercy as well.
And this goes way beyond one weekend. God has shown us mercy and that must make us people who walk around treating others better than they deserve. We don’t just look at people in a rough spot in life and think “Well, you got yourself there.” God doesn’t treat us that way. Instead, what does Psalm 103 tell us? “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).
So hear the summons from Jonah chapter 2 to seek God’s mercy for yourself. Especially if you don’t know Christ, seek the mercy He offers through the cross where He paid for your sin.
And then look out on your world. Think about who will cross your path this week. Who are you going to pass that mercy along to? Who are you going to treat better than they deserve? Not because you’re so great, but because God has been so gracious with you?