Into the Deep

Jonah 1:17-2:10

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.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

“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.
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;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
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;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy 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!”

And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

One thing Scripture doesn’t tell us is how long it took before the fish swallowed Jonah. The text recounts the events so matter-of-factly that it takes some work to imagine them from Jonah’s perspective. We can’t know how long Jonah spent struggling to tread water, tossed by the waves, fighting for every breath. It may have been seconds or hours, in the tumult before the tempest subsided, or set hopelessly adrift long after the sea had calmed.

It likely probably wasn’t very long, because it’s unlikely that Jonah could swim. The Hebrews were mountain people who weren’t very fond of water. In their culture, mountains were the places nearer to their God, places of safety and refuge, and lowlands and valleys were places of uncertainty. The sea was the place where God wasn’t. In Genesis 1, when God set apart the water from the dry land, he was pushing back the deeps of the darkness and void, carving out a safe place for his people to live. This is why, when Jonah wants to run away from God, he goes to the coast and gets on a boat, “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). When he told the sailors to throw him overboard, he was telling them throw him into the grave, into Sheol.
It’s from the water, the belly of Sheol, not the belly of the fish, that Jonah cries out to the Lord. He cries out to the the same God whom he disobeyed, the one whose presence he boarded a boat to escape, and the Lord answers him. And from a fish’s stomach, Jonah sings this song of praise.

Just when it seemed that Jonah was being punished for his disobedience, God rescues him. He understands that even though it was the sailors that threw him overboard, and he himself told them to do it, it was God’s hand that brought him there and God’s waves that covered him. “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). And yet when Jonah cried out to God, he rescued him from judgement. The Lord cast him into the deep, but he also appointed the fish that spit him out on dry land. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

Jonah was getting exactly what he deserved, he was lying the the bed he had made for himself when God intervened. Jonah was disobedient, rebellious, and wicked. He was a coward, a liar and hypocrite. “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

God didn’t deliver Jonah because he was faithful, but because God is merciful and gracious. Jesus hasn’t saved you because you were good, but because he is.
Though we have been redeemed, we’re bound to end up in messes of our own making. Our sins are forgiven, but they are not always without earthly consequences. You may get tossed around by the waves and maybe end up with seaweed wrapped around your head, but you can still call out to the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6).

Reflect

  1. God didn’t send an angel to pick Jonah up and set him on dry land. He sent a fish to swallow him. Has there been a time when God has answered your prayer in a way that wasn’t exactly what you expected, or not quite the way you wanted?
  2. Jonah sang from the belly of the fish. How did you, or could you, learn to praise God from where you were in that experience, even if it wasn’t a very pleasant place?

Pray

Jonah’s prayer was permeated with the language of the Psalms, the prayer book of God’s people for thousands of years. Pray this prayer from Psalm 27.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
    it is they who stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will lift me high upon a rock.

And now my head shall be lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
    be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
    “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
    Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
    O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not,
    O God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
    but the Lord will take me in.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they breathe out violence.

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!

Taylor Whitson, May 12, 2020
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