Jonah 1:17–2:10 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. 3 You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. 4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ 5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit. 7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. 8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. 9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’ ” 10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Ok. Let’s just get the uncomfortable part over with. Let’s talk about vomiting. I’m not trying to be sensationalistic by bringing up a word that for all of us is stuffed with the meaning of 2 am nausea, sick children, or the way you feel after riding a roller coaster. I’m bringing up the word right now because really it’s an interpretive key to what’s going here in Jonah chapter two. You noticed how it ended right? “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” (v. 10) That’s not, “And the Lord told the fish to give up Jonah, and Jonah walked calmly out onto dry land.” Or, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it gentled deposited him onto the shore with a nice fin on the back.” There’s none of that. What is there? There is one nauseous fish – one that’s poor and sick and desperately needs to get Jonah out of his system. And that tells you something. Not biological by the way. The Lord’s not trying to turn us into marine biologists that study Jonah two to discover what kind of terrible indigestion a sperm whale or great shark might after they swallow and house a human for a few days. The Lord is signaling something massive and critical about Jonah’s prayer that happened inside that great fish.
What is he signaling? Well, that for the most the prayer is nauseating. I know. I know. It’s no fun critiquing anybody’s prayer. But we have to. That’s in this case what it’s there for. Did you know that? There is just no world where Jonah here functions as a model Christian. He’s a sort of antitype – the Christian we never want to be. We looked at that just like week. In Jonah one you have pagans outperforming Jonah in prayer. Lots outperforming Jonah in prophecy. And you have the wind, the waves, the boat, the pagans, and even a great whale doing exactly what the Lord says. Everything is following orders. Everything except Jonah. In fact, did you know that commentators call Jonah biblical satire? Jonah is like The Onion of the Old Testament. He’s the Saturday Night Live caricature of Christianity. He’s the punch line to every true and bad thing you could say about Christians. He’s hypocritical, unloving, selfish, self-righteous, and disobedient. In fact, there’s a slave song that comes from All Saints Parish right here in South Carolina that says, “God sent Jonah to Ninevy land. Jonah disobey my God command. Don’t you do that!” And that refrain repeats itself to make the point quite strongly.
And so it shouldn’t surprise us to find a prayer from Jonah here in Jonah 2 that’s nauseating for the Lord to deal with. What’s sickening about it? If you look at it from afar you notice right away that it’s incredibly narcissistic. In fact, what he does in the prayer is take Psalms, songs that were used for worship, and replace the Lord in them for himself as the main character. How much does he do this? Twenty-four times in Jonah’s prayer Jonah emphasizes himself with words like, “I,” and, “me.” Twenty-four times. And the prayer is eight verses long. So do the math. On average Jonah is finding a way three times per verse to insert himself into the prayer. Not positive. The Lord himself manages to make it into a prayer a full third less than Jonah. Again. Not positive. But, really, I’m just getting started here. There are other massive problems with what’s going on here. Consider, for example, how long it took Jonah to get to prayer. There he was marinating in that fish. Just stewing there. Can you imagine? The narrator lets us because he doesn’t tell us what it was like. There Jonah sat in the darkness, in the sludge, in the humidity. So depressing and so bad. It takes Jonah three days – three days! – to concoct any sort of prayer at all. Three days.
And then when he does? The prayer’s nothing like you might expect. You know what we’d expect? I’ll tell you what we’d expect. We’d expect him to be pouring himself out before the Lord with tears saying, “Lord, I really messed this up. I’m sorry. Forgive me for running. Thank you for your mercy and not destroying me in the storm. I see how merciful you want to be. I’ll go give the Ninevites mercy now. Amen.” Boom. Mic drop. That’s a way better prayer. Way better and I didn’t spend close to three days trying to come up with it. But what comes instead? Is there repentance? Did he change his mind at all? Well, you tell me. Take this first part of his prayer for example, “You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.” (v. 3) You’re probably noticing something that sounds familiar. He’s directly quoting Psalm 42, which is awesome. Except did you notice how he’s using it? “God, you did this. God, you put me here. God, it’s your fault.” Now I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the best way to approach this issue. In fact, if I’m God I’d be saying, “Yeah, Jonah, buddy, you did this. I never wanted you here. I wanted you in Nineveh. When are you going to get that?”
And then as if that weren’t bad enough, Jonah then goes after former pagan sailors who had actually become more obedient than him. Those pagan sailors had heard one Word from the Lord, converted, and started immediately praying to him and living for him. But what does Jonah do in his prayer? He throws the good guys under the bus like he’s better. “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” (v. 8) Do you see what he’s saying? “Lord, I’m better than those guys. I never worshipped those worthless idols like those guys. I deserve your faithfulness and your love.” Unsurprisingly, the Lord doesn’t answer that prayer. So Jonah ramps up his nauseating prayer even more. He says, “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good.” (v. 9) You know – the tried (but not true) attempt to bargain and barter your way to salvation with God. “God if I do this, then you have to do that.” “Lord, just get me out of here and I’ll keep my vows. I’ll go to Jerusalem. I’ll complete my sacrifices. You just need to let me out of this fish.” What a deal, right? “God, I’ll go to Jerusalem when you told me to go to Nineveh.” Smashing prayer. Incredible bargain, right? Not so much.
Now if you’re still with me, you’re beginning to get it. There was no way that Jonah is going to go walking out that fish. This was nauseating. The bad comparisons. The pious sounding words from Scripture that Jonah had reshaped with his narcissism. The attempts to bargain and barter his way to salvation. All nauseating. And I think Jonah would’ve stayed in that great fish except that after he had gotten all the sickening words out of his system he finally said two true ones. In Hebrew they’re just two little words. Yeshuata Ladonai. “Salvation comes from the Lord.” (v. 9) Yeshuata. Joshua. Joshua is Hebrew equivalent to the New Testament word Jesus. Salvation comes from the Lord. Salvation comes, yes, finally from Jesus. And that’s when it happened. It’s like the Lord was saying, “Ding. Ding. Ding.” And finally the fish’s jaws spring open and no matter how nauseating Jonah had personally been he was saved. All the way saved. All the way saved. Despite his misuses of Scripture. Despite his desperate attempts to be better than others. Despite his attempts to bargain and barter his way to salvation. He was saved. Because ultimately the Lord brought him to Jesus.
This, by the way, is not my private interpretation of Jonah 2. You know where this interpretation shows up most magnificently in the life of the church? It shows up in a Christ-centered confession that was written about 500 years ago called the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. Commenting on Jonah 2 that confession says, “Every confidence is futile except a confidence in mercy. Mercy preserves us; our own merits and our own effort do not preserve us.” Do you see how brilliant that is? And do you see how in line that is with what happened? Right here in Jonah two you can make a list. And you will see that Jonah’s works didn’t get him one ounce of mercy. Not a lick. Jonah prayed hard. Didn’t work. Jonah quoted the Bible. Didn’t work. Jonah compared himself to other sinners. Didn’t work. Jonah bargained and bartered for his salvation by promising to be good. Didn’t work. Jonah tried everything! There is one thing and one thing alone that worked. When Jonah finally had stewed long enough and tried hard enough to figure that he wasn’t going to do it. That he couldn’t. That his proper liturgical prayers and his promises to be good and his supposedly better adherence to the Lord than others were bunk. That there was just one thing left. Yeshuata Ladonai. “Lord, you have to do this.” That’s when the Lord sprung him.
I hope you realize by now that’s why this prayer is in here. It’s here to teach, but not in the way you might think. It’s not here so we can learn the perfect words to make God happy or to discover just the right bargain or just the right comparison to get us mercy. It’s so that we’ll just quit all that. That we’ll see it for what it is: junk. We’ll see that even our best prayers aren’t all that great. They come from hearts with twisted motives. They occasionally make poor use of Scripture. And our comparisons to other people aren’t nearly as clear-eyed as we want to think. We all have hidden hypocrisies. And bargaining? Well, I’m pretty sure that whatever we think we can offer the Lord he already has. And so what’s left for us? There is only mercy. There is only believing that the Lord takes deep rebellion and forgives it. There is only trusting that the Lord takes outright denial of him and covers it when we sit under his salvation. There is only being confident not that we’re great people, but that the Lord’s one great, giving, self-sacrificing God who gives mercy.
Mercy that would need to be quite large in this case. You realize that’s what this prayer got right? The extent of mercy; how low it would have to come. Jonah got that part right. He understood that he was “banished from your sight.” (v. 4) That his deserved banishment was to the lowest of the lows. “To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.” (v. 6) Forever. That was not Jonah being overly dramatic. This was Jonah thinking clearly. This was forever. Jonah had a concept of a forever underworld that was a forever barring in – an eternal prison. In a very real way in that great fish, he was living that. He didn’t know if he’d ever get out. Do you see that? The Lord’s teaching us something huge here. This isn’t just a fish story. And it’s not just a story about how to get spit out of a fish. This is a story about how to get sprung from being six feet under; about how to escape the very real Davey Jones’ Locker. But it’s more than that too. It’s a heaven and hell story. It’s a story about how to get sprung from an eternal underworld that threatens to bar one in forever; and it’s a story about how to take a forever banishment from real life off the table.
And the answer couldn’t be clearer. It doesn’t come from praying proper prayers. It doesn’t come from quoting Scripture. It doesn’t come from being better than somebody else. And it doesn’t come from bargaining or bartering your way to heaven. Mercy only comes through faith in the Lord’s mercy. The sort that the Spirit so wants you to see here. Do you think it was just some kind of historical fluke that Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights? Don’t you see that that’s why Jesus obsessed and preached and taught his three-day journey in and out of the grave so many times? Because he is the reason for Yeshuata Ladonai. He is the “something greater than Jonah” (Matt. 12:41) that he himself talked about. Jonah said he wore seaweed as a crown. Jesus wore thorns. Jonah described how he sank under the weight of his own personal sin. Jesus sank under the weight of the sins of the world. Jonah told us how he sank to the depths of the ocean. Jesus sank to the depths of hell. Jonah made the fish sick and was spit out onto dry land. Jesus was so great that after three days when death spit him out onto the shore of eternal resurrection life, it wasn’t because death was sick of Jesus. It was because death was dead because of Jesus. Jesus is the Greater Jonah. He is the one who saves with mercy that goes as low and as far as it must.
And he’s always had that kind of mercy for you. He was merciful to you before you made a single vow to him. He was merciful to you before you prayed a single prayer to him. He was merciful to you before you quoted a single Bible verse or confessed a single sin. He was merciful to you before you followed him, obeyed him, or ever even knew who he was. And you know what’s even better? He’s that same Jesus. He’s merciful to you when your prayers kind of stink. He’s merciful to you when your confessions are a bit half-hearted. He’s merciful to you and to anyone whose life looks a bit like it’s been modeled after Jonah’s badly concocted prayer, but who right there in the mess simply trust. To you the Lord says, “Ding. Ding. Ding.” And you get tossed back out into the land of living. Perhaps not from Davey Jones’ Locker, but definitely from the belly of the earth. Perhaps not from the stinking, soupy mess of the guts of a fish, but certainly from an eternal barring in – from the place that makes fish guts look like a luxury hotel. Jesus springs us from that. And he springs us to the shores of eternal resurrection life. That is what the lesser Jonah finally came to. He came to rely only on the essence of God; who he is and what he does. The Lord took him away from his sputtering and his trying and his committing and brought him to Jesus about whom he preached a brilliant two-word sermon. “Yeshuata Ladonai.” Salvation comes from the Lord. And then do you know what happened? It did. Amen.