This is the fourth post in an on-going series examining the book of Jonah. For the next couple of weeks we will release a blog post discussing a different element of truth found within the story of Jonah. Today, we will look at God’s compassion.
1Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2saying,
‘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. 3For 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. 4Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” 5The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. 7When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. 9But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!’
10And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land (Jonah 2:1-10, ESV).
From time to time I find myself confronted with the question, “When have I felt the closest with God?” Most recently, I recall the birth of my son, Ryder and the feelings of immense joy and thanksgiving which were directed to the Lord the night he was born. I found the intensity of these emotions had brought me weeping before my heavenly Father as the only words I could muster were simply, “Thank you!”
If I’m being honest, though, these periods of intimacy with God are often regulated to times of profound sorrow and loss and not times of joy. It seems the times I have felt God’s presence with the most immensity have been periods contrasted by severe emotional pain. In those moments, the presence of God was seemingly engulfing me while my circumstances were seemingly drowning me.
Why is that? It seems the opposite would make the most sense. Periods of ease and comfort should create within us the greatest sense of intimacy with God. However, I find these periods have had the opposite effect on me. When my life is relatively calm, I have to fight to spend time with God and allow His Word to direct me. When chaos and heartbreak abound, I have to fight to do something other than spend time with God.
As we look at this passage of Jonah, we find Jonah in the middle of one of these chaotic moments in life. One which should be filled with desperation and grief, more so than most of us can imagine. However, instead of seeing despondence, we see thanksgiving. Jonah is, quite literally, in the belly of the beast, and yet, he is directing praise to the Lord. How can this be? In order to understand why Jonah has taken a stance of praise and thanksgiving, we need to be aware of the feelings Jonah had entering into chapter 2.
Many of us, myself included, read the story of Jonah and infer the following: Jonah was thrown overboard by the sailors; therefore, the sailors were responsible for his near-drowning. However, when we re-read Jonah 1:11-15, we see the story is different than our inference. The story actually goes like this: the sailors ask Jonah what to do, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard, the sailors try to row out of the storm but can’t, and they pray to God to not hold themselves accountable for doing what Jonah said. The one who suggested to drown Jonah was Jonah himself. Jonah knew his flight away from God was wrong and asked the sailors to kill him so they might be saved from God’s wrath and so that he would receive his just reward for disobeying a perfect and holy God.
Jonah wanted to die. He acted on those desires by attempting to have himself drowned. This is an attempted suicide.
Why is this so important to point out? Because in knowing the depths of Jonah’s depression at this point we can see the depths of his thanksgiving as a result of what God has done.
Jonah 2:2 says, “I cried 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 (ESV).” We could image Jonah saying, “When I was about to die because of my own attempts, I cried out to you and you heard me.” Jonah expresses an aspect of this narrative we aren’t told previously. Jonah, in his moment of attempted suicide, asks God to intervene.
As D.L. Peterson points out, “The hymn is appropriate, since it celebrates Jonah’s rescue from his attempted suicide1.” L.C. Allen also notes, “It is a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from a watery grave2.” Jonah can now testify to what the Bible clearly states about the nature of who God is:
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble (Psalm 9:9, ESV).
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1, ESV).
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy (Psalm 61:3, ESV).
I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust (Psalm 91:2, ESV).’
My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you saved me from violence (II Samuel 22:3, ESV).
The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him (Nahum 1:7, ESV).
In preparation for this blog post, I was talking to a friend about this passage, and he commented on how Jonah doesn’t ask God for deliverance from his circumstances. I’ve been mulling over the relevance of that comment. Did Jonah not want to be delivered because he was still suicidal? Was Jonah told something previously that made him know he would be delivered? What could be the meaning behind Jonah’s lack of a plea?
My suggestion is Jonah is less concerned with his current circumstances than with his current spiritual state. Remember, Jonah was a prophet of God and was commissioned by God. Meaning, Jonah used to communicate with God and experience His presence. But, by running away from God’s command, he was also running away from His presence. Now, as we read verse 7, Jonah states,
When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple (Jonah 2:7, ESV).
Think about the implications of what Jonah just said. He departed from God’s presence and ran away from God’s will. Now, however, he has cried out to God and his cries have entered into God’s holy temple. Or, shall we say, God’s holy presence. Deuteronomy 12:11 describes the eventual location of the temple as, “the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there (ESV).” Jonah is once again in communion with God. Once again, his prayers are being heard. And, once again, he is able to experience God’s presence.
What might be the reason for Jonah’s lack of concern for his current state? He is once again in the presence of God. And,
where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (II Corinthians 3:17, ESV).
What we can learn from this passage is an incredibly valuable lesson on how to handle the various trials we face. Jonah, in the midst of his trials, does not focus on his present circumstances but rather focuses on his renewed relationship with the Lord. James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us to have a similar approach to our trials by stating,
2Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4, ESV).
This seems like counterproductive statement until we recognize that the moments of trial, even thought they produce pain, can result in a closeness with God and a sanctification of our selves if we press towards God our Father. Hold on to the promises of the Lord, as we are told:
17O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear 18to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed (Psalm 10:17-18, ESV).
God hears the cries of the afflicted…even the self-afflicted.