Text: Jonah 2
“Friends, I want to speak to you about wickedness in the world today. I’m sure that you will agree with me that there are lots of extremely wicked and cruel people around. The world is full of cheats, and tyrants, and murderers, and liars. I think that God should punish these wicked people. I really do. Don’t you? ‘Course you do!”
That might have been a typical sermon snippet from Jonah the prophet. One day, the Lord had a word with him: “Jonah, I am very angry and upset with the people of Nineveh. In fact, I’m so angry that I’m going to punish them…” (Jonah rubs his hands with glee) “…unless they have a change of heart.”
“Fat chance of that happening,” muttered Jonah. ‘Sin City’ – that’s what I call Nineveh.”
“In fact, I want you to go and warn them,” commands the Lord.
“You heard. I want you to go and warn them so that they will mend their ways and then I won’t have to punish them.”
“But they deserve to be punished! I want them to be punished! They have to be punished!”
“Jonah, do as I say. Get up, and go east, to Nineveh.”
So Jonah got up, and went west, towards Tarshish. He boarded a boat that would take him there. During the voyage, God sent a terrible storm. The wind howled and the waves crashed against the boat. Everyone was terrified that the boat would capsize and they would all drown.
“This storm is all my fault,” exclaimed Jonah to the sailors. “God is angry with me for trying to run away from him. Throw me overboard and then God will calm the storm.”
So they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights. And then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
While inside the great fish Jonah collected his thoughts and prayed. As it stands, it’s a very good prayer, although in in context of Jonah’s reluctance to obey the Lord it doesn’t really cut the mustard. Let me explain.
1. It’s good that Jonah prayed when he was in trouble, 2:2,7. “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help … When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” At times of mortal danger, not everyone turns to God. I understand that when black box voice recorders are recovered from planes that have crashed the last, it is often found that the last frantic words of the crew are curses, rather than prayers. Of the two criminals who were crucified alongside Jesus (Lk 23:42f), only one prayed; the other hurled insults at him. It’s good that Jonah prayed when in trouble. However, it would have been even better if he had prayed sooner. Back in 1:4ff when there was such a violent storm that the ship threatened to break up, ‘all the sailors were afraid and each cried to his own god…the captain went to Jonah and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god!”‘ By 1:16 these former heathens are already worshiping the one true God while Jonah the prophet hasn’t even started praying yet. Isn’t there a bit of Jonah in many of us? How often we look upon God as our last and feeblest resource! We go to Him not as our first, but as our last, resort. Our motto seems to be: “When all else fails – pray”. Scripture says (Phil 4:6f), ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ The hymn reminds us, “Oh what peace we often forfeit, Oh what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” It’s good to pray, but let’s resolve to make it a continual conversation with God, not just a button to press in case of emergency.
2. It’s good that Jonah’s doctrine was sound. When in ch 1:8f Jonah was asked for his CV he gave a perfect answer: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” In 4:2 he says to the Lord that all along “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” This is very good theology. The NT endorses the importance of sound doctrine. Paul tells Titus (1:9) that anyone with oversight in the church ‘must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.’ It’s good that Jonah’s doctrine was sound. However, it would have been even better if he had put his doctrine into practice. His his creed and his conduct, his beliefs and his behaviour, principles and his practice, simply do not match. Look at 2:8f: he knows that ‘those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs’ but he is not willing to lift a finger to bring God’s message of grace to them. He understands that ‘salvation comes from the LORD,’ but he wants to hang on to it for himself. It’s possible to find such an attitude today. There are those who will happily recite the creed and sing songs celebrating God’s saving work but it never occurs to them to tell their friends, or neighbours, or colleagues, about Jesus. Denney: “I have not the slightest interest in theology which does not help us to evangelise.” James 1:22 says, ‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.’ It’s good to have sound doctrine, but don’t forget to practice what you preach.
3. It’s good that Jonah’s gratitude was so heartfelt, 2:2, 6, 9. “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry…To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God…I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you.” Luke 17 tells of the time that ten men with leprosy were healed by Jesus. The Saviour was clearly astonished that only one came back to thank him. It’s good that Jonah’s gratitude was so heartfelt. However, it would have been even better if his gratitude had overflowed in concern for others. When something good has happened to you, shouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world to want to share it with others? But not Jonah. He’s only interested in himself (x24). Look again at his attitude towards idol-worshipers, 2:9 – he disapproves, he wags his finger. But he expresses no concern that they might ‘turn from their idols to serve the living and true God.’ (1 Thess 1:9) The overflow of the psalmist’s heart is (Psa 66:16) – ‘Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me.’ The pattern that Jesus lays down is, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt 10:8). If God has been good to you, don’t keep it to yourself. It’s good for us to be grateful to God for all that he has done for us, but even better when our gratitude overflows in a spirit of generous concern that others might be similarly blessed.
In chapter 3, we see that Jonah has finally been dragged, kicking and screaming, to the place of obedience. But, for the time being, let’s determine to make prayer a regular conversation with the sovereign Lord, and not just another emergency service. Let’s resolve to honour God not only with our heads, but also with our hands and our hearts. Let’s make up our minds that having received so many good things from the Lord, we will now make it our duty, responsibility, privilege and joy, to share generously with others.
Friends, I want to speak to you about the love and compassion that God has for all people, wherever they may live and however wicked they may be. I’m going to ask each of you to think of just one person you know, perhaps the person you like least or the one who you think is furthest from the kingdom of God. And I’m going to ask you to pray for that person right now, and ask that God will use you to bring that person to a knowledge of the Saviour.