03 Jonah: The Storm-Tossed Prophet

Jonah:  The Storm-Tossed Prophet

(Jonah 1:17-2:10)

“A Severe Mercy”

Fish stories are notoriously hard to verify, especially if we are letting the fisherman tell it!  Nowhere is that truer than in the story of Jonah.  People have believed Jonah was telling a “fish story” for thousands of years now.

An uncle was visiting his brother’s family one Sunday afternoon.  The uncle was a hardened skeptic and did not mind spouting his opinion.  He turned to his ten-year-old niece and asked, “So what did you learn about in Sunday School today?”   She said, “We read about Jonah being swallowed by a whale.” He said, “Really?  So, tell me, do you believe that Jonah was really eaten by a whale?”  She replied, “Yes.”  And he said, “And how do you know that happened?”  She said, “I don’t know, but when I get to heaven, I’ll ask him.” He said, “Oh yeah?” with that “gotcha” kind of face.  “Well what if Jonah didn’t go to heaven?”  And without missing a beat, she said, “Then you can ask him.”

Well today we are not going to get distracted with a lecture in marine biology to convince skeptics that there really could have been a fish large enough to eat a man. {Let me ask you this.  If I could scientifically verify it, would you then be willing to believe the story was true?  No, you wouldn’t.  If I could prove medically and biologically how Mary could have conceived Jesus without a man being involved, would you then believe Jesus was the Son of God?  Again, no you wouldn’t.  For the believer, let me say that Jesus believed and taught that Jonah was absolutely true.}



(NOTE:  The Book of Jonah has been overtaken through the years by his encounter with a “great fish.” Jonah and the fish are not the point of the story, but in reading many commentators and preachers you would think it was.  The fish was mentioned only four times in the book.  It should be noted that, when sensational events such as this are used as a literary device in fiction or mythology, the event itself finds a central place in the story.  The fact that Jonah downplays the fish event speaks to the fact that this is NOT mythology or fiction.  It is NOT a story made up for the Bible.   The fish is of importance only as it points to God’s providential care for the prophet as he was drowning.  Since the Enlightenment period, scientific proof has become the paramount way of “knowing” anything.  The empirical method— knowing by observation and repeated phenomena— has overtaken the importance of “knowing” reality by faith.  It is this desire to truly “know” something by proving it scientifically that has moved many to comment of Jonah’s great fish and some to discount it as myth.  The Biblical account does not give us any indication of what kind of fish it was, nor does it really matter.  It was an “appointed” fish; a “prepared” fish; a “great” e.g. large fish.  But the genus and species are left unrevealed.)

Jonah was running full out away from God.  God said, “Go east to Nineveh.”  Jonah boarded a boat headed west to Tarshish to “run away from the presence of the Lord.”  And so, as Jonah ran, God “hurled” a storm into the Mediterranean Sea.

Sin always leads you into a storm.  And your sin, as Jonah quickly leaned, is never just about you.  When someone decides to make sinful decisions, they often defend their actions by saying, “It’s not hurting anyone.”  Jonah could have said that, and yet his disobedience was now jeopardizing the lives of a ship’s crew.  Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking your decisions only affect you.  Sin…ANY sin…diminishes you.  It depletes you.  There is less of you to be there for others.  It makes you less human.  And that impacts every person in your life.  “Be sure your sin will find you out,” the Book of Numbers warns us.

The boat was threatening to break apart.   And so, the crew reluctantly decided to do what Jonah requested: throw him overboard.

Jonah expected to die.  He thought this was the end for him.  He was alone in a now – still sea, without a life vest and no land in sight.  It was then God did the unexpected:  He sent a fish.

God appointed a fish… just as God appointed a storm.  Though Jonah took his life out of God’s hand, God did not just leave him alone.  God was determined to bring the prodigal, prejudiced prophet back into His will.  This is a clear picture of the mercy and compassion of God that is presented in Jonah.

But let’s see this properly.  Though Jonah was in a tough predicament, he was still experiencing the grace of God.  God sent the fish as a rescue mission, not to make Jonah’s life miserable.  Jonah had already done that.  God wanted to spend some time having Jonah’s undivided attention.

Well now he has it.  Pitch black, hot, smelly, and swimming in gastric juice and half-consumed fish and seaweed, God left Jonah there for three days and three nights.  Sometimes when God wants to get our attention, He leaves us nowhere to look but up!



(NOTE:  The prayer that follows is taken almost entirely from the Book of Psalms.  Every word that Jonah speaks was taken from the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.  Jonah knew the Bible.  It flooded out through him as he sank down to “the roots of the mountains.”  Yet knowing the Bible and living the Bible are two different things entirely.  Jonah knew the Word of God; it is questionable whether he truly knew the God of the Word.)

Jonah was now in the belly of the fish.  I would imagine he didn’t have a Bic lighter or a cell phone with him to provide light.  It was terrifying, he was all alone.  He did not know if that was going to be his place of death, as much of his prayer indicates.  He hadn’t read the book of Jonah to know how this was going to end!  Don’t let the imagery this provides for some of our situations to escape us.

You may be in the same type of circumstance today.  Through no fault of your own, you may be confined to a wheelchair; quarantined in a hospital bed or maybe locked in a jail cell as you listen to this.  Maybe you are trapped in a situation where your job or marriage has begun to feel like a prison.  Our whole nation, in fact most of the world, this morning is living in the belly of the whale with Covid-19.

Let’s also understand that, for Jonah, this predicament was his salvation though he did not understand that in the moment.  God was still shaping, still working in Jonah’s life.  The Bible clearly states (no matter what the fish was) that it was “PREPARED” or “appointed” for Jonah.  He wasn’t an accidental “catch of the day.”  God ordained this fish, just like He ordained/prepared the storm.  God was always a step ahead.

You know, when we undergo times of chastening or discipline, we need to see God’s grace and His hand in the midst of the discomfort.  “Do not despise the chastening of the Lord….the Lord chastens every child He receives…” (Hebrews 12:4-11)

And from the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed.   But as one writer noted, Jonah’s prayer was a prayer of affliction, not a prayer of affection.  Jonah prayed, but he never truly repented.  He cried out in pain, but not in hunger for God.  He never confessed his own sins.  Not once.

Though Jonah used the Psalms as the structure of his prayers, he carefully avoided the Psalms that talked about confession of sin and repentance.  He could have used Psalm 32 or Psalm 51, but instead he stayed away from those.

He repented of his circumstance; he was sorry for his pain, and that God had thrown him into this mess.  But his prayer was very self-centered.  “My distress…my pain…my problem.”

Jonah did not repent of his prejudiced and unloving attitude toward the Ninivites.  He still thought he was better and more deserving of God’s mercy than they were.  He was, after all, a “Hebrew.”  He even threw shade on the Ninevites when he said, “those who pay regard to vain idols will forsake their hope of steadfast love.” He made this statement without ever repenting of his own idolatry of creating a God in his own image.  Jonah wanted a God of all wrath but no compassion, except for him and for his.    We’ll see how that works out later.

There are also some Gospel pictures here.  Jesus likened Himself to Jonah, calling Himself “the greater Jonah.”   The picture of Jonah’s being tossed into a sea raging with the wrath of God is a picture of Jesus being thrown on a cross for us, to absorb the wrath of God.  Jesus said “the Son of Man has come to give His life a ransom for many.  And his being devoured by the fish is a picture of Jesus dying, and being dead and buried for three days in the depths of the earth.  (see Matthew 12:39-40)



The day came for Jonah’s release.  Jonah was expelled as the fish “vomited” him out.   Jonah never spoke much about the fish.  We talk about it more than he ever did.  It only gets four mentions in the whole book!

But Jonah made one statement while he was still in the belly of this mega fish.  “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” “Salvation is of the Lord.” “Salvation is the Lord’s.” (2:10)

Some have said this is the central verse of the entire Old Testament, if not the whole Bible.  It is the Gospel in one sentence.

Salvation comes because of God’s grace, not because of our works and efforts. “By grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves…”  We are not saved because we’re decent people, or because we’re registered Republicans, or because we’re Americans,  or because we’re not criminals, or because we’re good parents, or good neighbors, or just all around good people.

None of that matters.  All have sinned.  We are incapable of pleasing God in our sin.  No amount of good you can pull off can counterbalance the weight of our sin.  We need grace.  Grace.  God’s grace.  “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” The Gospel is that God moved toward us, not that we decided to move toward Him.

Another man found himself in the middle of a raging storm.  He was a ship’s captain with a cargo of human slaves aboard.  The ship had blown off course and was about to capsize and in desperation, this ship’s captain cried out to God for help.

The ship righted itself, got back on course.  And the captain’s life was changed forever.  He cried out to God.    As Jonah did from the depths of the sea, John Newton cried out and God heard him.  The date was May 10, 1748; the day he forever after marked as his conversion.   He became a pastor, and a powerful voice for the reform of slavery in England.   He also wrote a few songs his congregation sang.  Among those:

“Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound”

But now, in our day of heightened racial tensions and Black Lives Matters and White Supremacy and everyone in between Jonah is taking a brand-new bounce.

Jonah was a racist prophet.  He was a man who put his nationality as a Jew above every other race on earth.  He blamed the Ninevites for what they had done, not to him personally, but to his forefathers and to other nations.

Jonah despised the Assyrian people so much he was more than ready for God to wipe them off the map.  People he’d likely never met, never sat with for tea; people with whom he’d never shared a meal.  But he hated them.  How much?  Enough to rejoice if God wiped them out!

But the large fish is only mentioned four times in the book.  Jonah is not about the whale.  And it’s not about the great city.  Nineveh is mentioned nine times.  It’s not about the prophet either.  Jonah is only mentioned eighteen times.  But GOD is mentioned 38 times in a book that just has 48 verses!

You know that the MAJORITY of our Bible’s 66 books were written from right to left?  Every OT book was written…God’s Holy Spirit inspired  people who read from right to left, and people who think from right to left.  That is one of the main reasons we struggle so much with Old Testament books, and why we miss so much of it while we try to make it make sense as people who read and think from left to right!

Now I know that some of us, as modern, scientifically-minded left to right thinkers, believe that it would be unlikely that this is a REAL event…that it actually happened…that JONAH was swallowed by a fish.  C’mon pastor.  Sounds like a scene from Pinocchio or something.

But you may never have seen the video clips of a whale shark or even a great white that could swallow a person!  So maybe it was something much bigger than a whale that swallowed Jonah.  We do not know.  The Bible says it was a “great fish.”  I’m pretty sure there wasn’t enough space inside the fish to set up a little table and chair like Geppetto had in the Pinocchio cartoon.  It would have been dark, smell like dead fish, and Jonah would have been marinating in gastric juices that probably started bleaching his skin.  And I’m sure that some of our fishermen in here have a “great fish” story at least that big that got away!

We do need to understand that the Lord JESUS believed it really happened!  In fact, He used the story of Jonah’s being swallowed as a way of explaining His time in the grave before resurrection came.  “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish…” (Matthew 12:39-40)

But ultimately Jonah’s story is about God calling Israel back to their intended purpose:  To be a light to the nations who do not know Him…  A missionary people, carrying the Good News to the world.  But the story  was repeated time after time and the Israelite’s chose over and over again  to emphasize their “chosen nation” status and neglect their duty to evangelize and do missions and to tell the nations about the God they served!  They thought God chose them to bless them.  But God blessed them to be a blessing to the nations, not to keep Him to themselves.

Church, be careful.  Christian, listen up.  You were “grafted in” to the vine of Israel to do what Israel would NOT do…go to the nations and share the Good News of Jesus!!  Let’s not fail in that task as they did.

Jonah failed.  This is the story of a man called to do exactly what was in his job description:  Represent the God of Israel to a lost nation—in this case the Ninevites.  But Jonah did exactly what we do:  Eric Mason reminds us that Jonah put his SOCIOLOGY above his THEOLOGY.  He put his RACE above God’s GRACE.

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