The Frightened Prophet – Chapter 2 (running back to God)

Jonah’s plight
Finding himself in the belly of the whale must have really frightened Jonah. Nobody before had ever been is such a predicament. It is probably with hindsight that he realized where he was. At the time he could not possibly have been aware as to exactly what had happened. One of the first questions asked is whether a whale or ‘great fish’ could swallow a man. There are some records of such things having happened in more recent history. Two of these are recorded in The Princeton Theological Review of October 1927, which describe how that, in 1758 and in 1771, sailors were apparently swallowed by whales and lived to tell the tale. On the other hand some allege that a whale or similar fish could never swallow a man. As far as believers are concerned we must be careful not to feel pressured into rationalizing the miraculous. There is no need for us to do so. This is a miracle. We believe in miracles!

Another possible question is whether Jonah was alive all the time he was inside the fish or did he die and then revive? The way chapter 2 is written seems to encourage the thought that he was alive all the time. That in no way diminishes the comparison with the Lord’s burial, when, of course, He was truly dead and raised again to life.

We might ask how long Jonah was actually in the fish’s belly. The only safe answer is that given in the passage: three days and three nights. However, if we were to suggest that he was there the exact same time the Lord was buried in the tomb that would probably amount to around thirty-six hours. The Jews always counted a part of a day as a full day. Every full day of twenty-four hours consists of a day (the period of light) and a night (the period of darkness). On the day Jesus was buried He would have been in the tomb for around one hour before sunset, then for the full twenty-four hours of the Sabbath, followed by about eleven hours of the third day which would allow Him to be raised just before dawn on the first day of the week – a total of thirty-six hours. Put another way, He was there for three days – and as a day always includes a day and a night He was therefore entombed for three days and three nights; as was Jonah.

As with Jonah, we understand too, that believers can be ‘swallowed up’ by circumstances beyond their control but of course not necessarily brought about by the Lord: sickness; financial difficulty; breakdown of relationships; bereavement. Like Jonah, they feel abandoned in the depths of great darkness and with no one to listen or help they must look to God. Do remember, He cares, and He hears. Jonah’s release did not come immediately. He had to wait God’s time, uncomfortable though that most certainly was. Yet, when the horror was passed he would appreciate God’s mercy and be reassured in knowing that God controls the circumstances and the timing of them. Take courage!

Jonah’s prayer
Extremity and fear often drive people to pray. We have all experienced that. It is remarkable, however, that in chapter 1 there is no mention of Jonah praying though there were many occasions when he might have done so. He might have prayed before making his decision to run away. He might have done so before boarding the ship. Again, before he retired for the night he might have prayed. When found by the captain and criticized for his apathy he should have done so. He could have joined the sailors in prayer on deck and shown them how to pray to the true God. When he was about to be thrown overboard he did not pray and neither did he do so when he actually sank into the sea. All this goes to show that once a believer gets started on the downward path it becomes more and more difficult to pray. In the end it may seem quite impossible. You may feel that to start your prayer life again now would be both hypocritical and mechanical; but you have to start sometime and there is no better time than now. I mean right now, at the end of this sentence! Now.

It may be difficult to re-start but it will get easier as you persist and spiritual reality will soon return. You will feel more comfortable with the Lord once the initial step is taken. Join Jonah as, at wits’ end corner, he cried out to God in prayer. He was absolutely sincere. He was in a terrible situation and only God could help. And God did!

Jonah’s psalms
It is obvious from reading chapter 2 that Jonah was very familiar with the Psalms. He must have read them repeatedly and memorized them. They had become part of him and now they come to his rescue. Again and again in his prayer he quotes from them, reminding God of His own promises and seeking to apply them to his present need. When it is difficult to pray, this is something we can do. We should seek to place before God His promises and claim them for ourselves. Many have sought to analyze Jonah’s use of scripture in his prayer and here is one such attempt: Jonah 2. 3a (Ps. 69. 14); Jonah 2. 3b (Ps. 42. 7); Jonah 2. 4b (Ps. 18. 6); Jonah 2. 5 (Ps. 69. 1-2); Jonah 2. 6 (Ps. 42. 7-8); and Jonah 2. 7 (Ps. 5. 7).

There are a number of important points in Jonah’s prayer all based on these psalms. He clearly believes that if he cries out to God, God will hear, v. 2. He says that it was God who cast him into the sea rather than the sailors, v. 3. He acknowledges his position as being cast out of God’s sight, v. 4a. Again, in verse 4b he undertakes to ‘look again’ to God for salvation. He describes, vv. 5-6, his present extremity and then cries out that ‘Salvation is of the Lord’, v. 9c. This shows Jonah as being honest in his prayer. He is seen to accept what has happened to him as being just and right. He knows that God can save him and he undertakes to amend his ways, v. 9b. We should remember that one of the greatest defences we have against the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil is a good knowledge of the word of God. It will help keep us from sinning and is also able to help restore us to communion with the Lord who is ‘faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’, 1 John 1. 9.

Jonah’s ponderings
Verse 8 of the chapter seems at first glance to be strangely out of context. It is also difficult to translate and to grasp its meaning. Many see Jonah as referring to the idol-worshipping sailors but that is unlikely as he is speaking in the context of his own experiences. The first part of the verse speaks of observing ‘lying vanities’ – idols, or idolatry. Is it not the case that Jonah had his own idols? He certainly felt strongly about the privileged position of the Jews with their God, so much so that he sought to deny God’s grace in others. We may need to be careful not unwittingly to put ‘the assemblies’ on a denominational pedestal and to humbly remember that God in His sovereignty works with others too. Furthermore, Jonah’s burning desire to pursue a new life in Tarshish amounted to idolatry. His own ambition and plans were elevated above God’s plans for His servant. There is perhaps a warning here for us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think: that is idolatry.

The second part of the verse, ‘forsake their own mercy’ is variously translated: ‘forsake their true loyalty’ RSV; ‘turn their backs on God’s mercies’ NLT; ‘forfeit the grace that could be theirs’ NIV; forsake … faithfulness’ NAS; ‘walk away from their only true love’ The Message. Comparing all these variations helps us to understand Jonah’s thoughts. When we pursue our own ambitions, forsaking God and treading on others in the drive towards our goal, we are disloyal to God, forfeit His grace, forsake faithfulness, and no longer enjoy or demonstrate God’s love. Once he realizes this Jonah can cry, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’. So can we.

Jonah’s promise
Jonah undertook to be faithful to God in the future, ‘I will pay that that I have vowed’, v. 9b. Once he had acknowledged his guilt and repented of his sin God then honours His word and speaks to the fish. Jonah is ‘vomited out … upon the dry land’, v. 10. Having survived his strange ordeal Jonah is in many ways a changed man. It is possible that due to the time spent inside the fish that his skin and hair had been bleached. Certainly, his heart had been cleansed by the word of God. We presume that he now made his sorry way back to his hometown of Gath-hepher, chastened and humbled, yet perhaps wholly determined that if God should ever entrust him with another mission he would obey the call and fulfill his responsibility.

It may be that we too have been disobedient to the heavenly voice and have failed God. We may have seen the error of our ways and, repentant, are in the process of restoration and are undergoing a cleansing effect as we read and once again enjoy Holy Scripture. We must wait on God. Will He trust us a second time, or have we lost our chance to be effective for Him in service? Our God may be known as ‘the God of the second chance’ but we must not presume on His grace as perhaps more often than not second chances do not come. Let us wait on Him patiently and in humility, deeply aware of our consummate unworthiness. Many years may have gone by since we missed the golden opportunity to serve God in the particular way He encouraged us. For some the onset of retirement from business may provide the opportunity to return to that work. Better late than never!

To be continued


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