There is a story about a young athlete from Penn. State featured a few months ago in ESPN, named Madison. This young girl had what appeared to be the quintessential life. She was an all-star track, tennis, and soccer athlete – winning two state titles in soccer for her high school. She won countless athletic awards, had an outstanding GPA, and received a scholarship to her dream Ivy League school for running in track and grades. “Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes.” Which made it all the more shocking when one day during her freshman year, Madison took a running jump off of a parking garage, plummeting 9 stories to her death. She was 19 years old.
Madison, like most young girls, documented her seemingly perfect life on Instagram; however, deep beneath the smiling pictures there was a deeply unhappy person. “Madison and Ashley Montgomery, a friend and track teammate, followed a group of Penn upperclassmen on Instagram. They would scroll through pictures and say to each other, “This is what college is supposed to be like; this is what we want our life to be like.” Madison was deeply unhappy about her performance in school, track, and her entire college experience not living up to what she had hoped it would be. But no matter how many teachers and coaches told her she was doing great, and no matter how many other friends also shared that they felt like college wasn’t what they were hoping it would be – Madison could not shake the feeling that she was somehow failing. But in this turmoil, she felt she still had to maintain her persona of being a happy, successful student/athlete. And eventually, it consumed her to the point where she felt that the only escape was to take her life. That’s a heartbreaking tragedy.
In our passage today we return to the story of Jonah, where Jonah himself has just been thrown overboard. Jonah was commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh and preach repentance, but instead Jonah flees to Tarshish. We will get into why Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh next week, but Jonah’s life quickly unravels. Quickly, we see a deep pocket of sin and selfishness reveal itself beneath the surface of Jonah’s life in his flight from God. In response, God hurls a storm on the sea that Jonah is sailing on, and rather than praying to God, turning around, and repenting – Jonah chooses to be thrown overboard, where God has a giant fish swallow Jonah.
Unlike the poor girl who took her life, though, when Jonah’s failures lead him to his darkest and bleakest moment, he is able to find hope. How? How can Jonah find the strength and humility to come before God, though he has failed God so massively?
Well, let’s look: Our three points: The Danger, The Turn, and the Conclusion.
Jonah, inside the belly of the fish, begins his prayer to God, recounting what has happened since he was thrown overboard (2:1). “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,” (2:2). Now, immediately that may sound like a good thing – God answered Jonah, and heard his prayers! However, try and imagine that you are reading this story for the first time. God hearing Jonah doesn’t necessarily mean a good thing. In fact, if we are following the plot line, this sounds like bad news. Remember, Jonah has flagrantly disobeyed and dishonored God. If we were thinking from Jonah’s perspective, him crying out to God would be about as good of news as an escaped convict crying out to the prison guards who are chasing after him.
The gravity of Jonah’s danger that he is in is highlighted by his use of the word “Sheol”. Sheol was a Hebrew word used to describe the grave, or death – but is at times used to describe something like Hell. So, when Jonah says that he cries out to God “out of the belly of Sheol”, it certainly means that he believes he is going to die, he is already in the grave, but it may also be an allusion to his own spiritual death – he feels that he is at the lowest of lows and the darkest of places. Here is what we know for certain: Jonah is crying out to God when he is at his absolute worst, and as a last resort. So how does God respond?
Well the next passage shows us how Jonah sees God responding, “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,” (2:3-4a). This passage is interesting, because it takes choices that Jonah made, and then makes it sound as if God did it. For example, Jonah was the one who decided that he should be thrown overboard (1:12), yet He claims God was the one who ultimately cast him “into the deep”. Also, Jonah was the one who decided to “flee from the Lord’s presence” (1:3), but he claims that he is “driven” from God’s sight. We see this repeated again in Jonah’s quotation of Ps. 42:7, where he acknowledges that they are God’s waves, not just waves. Jonah is emphasizing that his sin has led him to offend a sovereign God, and that is really, really bad news. What is God’s sovereignty? Nothing happens in this world that doesn’t either come directly from, or pass through the hands of God (Luther). God is in control; there is nothing going on in the world today that God is not sovereign over.
The danger for Jonah is that he has disobeyed a sovereign God, a sovereign God who can bend all of His sovereign power in storms and waves and fish towards rebuking this wayward prophet. This is Jonah’s great, great danger.
So, at this point, things look bleak for Jonah. He has angered a sovereign God, and is now sinking beneath His waves of judgment. And this is where we reach the turning point of the prayer. This prayer is actually set up in a certain structure called a chiasm. A chiasm is a certain structure used in the Bible made to emphasize one particular point. The chiasm here is from verse 2-7, with the second half of verse 4 as the pivot point. It looks kind of like half of an “X” or a piece of paper folded in half:
It is not exactly the same, but we see something similar to this in certain songs today. There is a chorus that is repeated throughout the song, but then after a certain turning point, the chorus, though keeping the same words, suddenly means something entirely different. This seems to happen a lot (for some reason) in country songs. For example, Kenny Chesney has a song called “There Goes My Life”, and the song begins with a high school boy figuring out he has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, and realizing his new responsibility he laments losing his future dreams with, “there goes my life”. Throughout the song, however, the father realizes that what he dreaded turns out to be his “everything”, and the song ends with his daughter all grown-up, driving away to college and the dad choking up in the driveway saying, “there goes my life”. What meant something at the beginning, means the exact opposite – it’s a different structure, but the effect is the same here in Jonah 2. And the second half of the verse is the turning point.
“yet I shall again look upon your holy temple,” (2:4a). So on the first slope of the prayer, everything looks pretty dismal for Jonah. He has angered a sovereign God and it looks like he going to be destroyed, “yet” Jonah believes that he will look upon God’s holy temple. The “holy temple” was the place in Israel where God’s presence dwelt – so either Jonah believes that God will save his life and let him see the temple again, or he thinks that if dies he will be able to commune with God. How is that possible? Jonah, disobedient wayward Jonah, believes that he will be forgiven – how could that be? How does Jonah know that God will save him? We will have to wait for the conclusion for that.
And now, when you move through the other half of the chiasm, it mirrors what was said in verse 2-4, but this time it is entirely different – Jonah knows that he will be saved! So the terror of the waters (5-6a) and speaking with God (6b-7) are no longer things to be feared. Think about that friends: as you read verse 5, Jonah is slipping deeper and deeper under the waves, certain that he is going to die, and he has this thought: I’m going to be okay. Even if I die, I’m safe. My God is with me, and I will see Him.
When we know that our sovereign God is for us, even when we die, we can have peace. Oh, how I long to have a peace like that when my time comes. A sweetness mingled in with something that could be so bitter. The second my eyes close here on this earth, they open before my God. Dear Christian: you will never die.
And, miraculously, Jonah doesn’t die, “yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God,” (2:6b). Remember, as Jonah was sinking beneath the waves, he had no idea that a fish was going to swallow him and save his life – when you read verse 5, Jonah is fairly certain that he is going to die. But God, mercifully saves Jonah’s life.
The question we should be asking ourselves is this: How did Jonah do that? How could Jonah have been able to commune with the God whom he had sinned against so deliberately? You notice when you have really frustrated someone because of something dumb you have done, you don’t want to talk to them till you feel like you have made it up to them? Even apologizing feels difficult because you know just saying sorry won’t make it up for what you have done. When I meet one on one with people that is probably the number one reason I hear as to why people don’t pray more regularly to God: they just feel unworthy. So, with someone who has done stuff as awful as Jonah, how is he able to? Simply put: The Love of God.
Verses 8 and 9 serve as a summary conclusion of what Jonah has learned from this whole ordeal, “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!” (2:8-9). For time’s sake, we will have to cover this briefly, but here is the big idea: There is only one God who saves.
In surveying the love and grace of God in saving him, Jonah says that there is no point in putting our hope and trust in any other god but the true God. What do you trust in most? What do you hope in most? What do you live for? Whatever that is, if it is not God supremely, then it is an idol, a false god. All gods promise salvation, but only the real God can save.
Here is why: false gods tell you, “Obey me, then I will save you. Fail me, and you will die.” If you make “success” your idol, then you will be only happy when feel like you are measuring up. And when you fail, you’ll feel like dying. If you make “approval” your idol, then you will only be happy when you feel like other people like you. And if you think they don’t, then you’ll feel lost and desperate. And the real depressing thing about our idols is that they are never pleased. Maybe you get some measure of success, but in time, it will fade, and you’ll be left feeling like you have to prove yourself again. Our idols are like buckets with holes drilled in the bottom, demanding that they be filled.
Idols will always break our hearts, because there is only one God who saves.
You notice that Jonah says that those who hope in idols forsake their hope of “steadfast love”? You know what that is? That is mercy. That is love that doesn’t flinch or grimace when it sees our failure. It is love that sticks around, no matter what. How can God love us like that? Well, Jonah tells us, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” God is the one who saves us! Our idols tell us that our saving is up to our hard work, effort, and cleverness. The Gospel rips open the skies of our pitiful idolatries with the glorious trumpet blast, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
You see, this is how Jonah was able to come before God in prayer. Jonah knew that he had a choice: he could stay under the crippling weight of his idolatry of self-worship, or he could fling himself on the mercy of God. Jonah knew that God was merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6-7). So, with no pretense, with no shows, no Instagram filters, no attempts to make him look more impressive than he really was – Jonah flung his sin-soaked self into the welcoming arms of His loving Father, and sighed with relief, “salvation belongs to the Lord.”
Do you know that rest? Friends, if Jonah can experience that rest, we can – in fact, we have an even better advantage of experiencing that rest than Jonah does. Why? We know something Jonah doesn’t. Where Jonah trusted God’s love and forgiveness abstractly, we know it in a person. Hundreds of years after Jonah, Jesus Christ came and displayed the love of God, and accomplished the means by which Jonah, and you, and me can have salvation in God. You see, Jonah just had an abstract principle. We have a person. When Jesus Christ died, he died for your sins, and your failures, so that you could be made right with God, and you too may give up the silly act of trying to be impressive and drink in deeply the love of God found in Christ. Let’s pray.