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Salvation belongs to the Lord

A sermon by Rod Benson

Jonah 2:1-10

whale-tailAre you feeling tired this morning? Weary? Stretched? Are you carrying heavy burdens of responsibility, or injustice, or pain, or uncertainty? Is your soul in need of rest this morning?

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28f).

One of the best decisions you will ever make, and one of the most important reasons for labouring at biblical preaching, and investing your time in hearing sermons, is to learn more about God.

The great London preacher Charles Spurgeon once wrote:

The proper study of the Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can engage the attention of a child of God is the name, the nature, the person, the doings, and the existence of the great God which he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can comprehend and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-contentment, and go on our way with the thought, “Behold I am wise.” But when we come to this master science, finding that our plumbline cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, “I am but of yesterday and know nothing” … But while the subject humbles the mind, nothing so magnifies the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continuing investigation of the great subject of the Deity.[1]

I believe Spurgeon is right here. Whenever we hear a sermon, or go to our Bibles for spiritual food and comfort, one question we should always ask is, “What does this sermon, this text, teach me about God?”

Jonah chapter two is a good place to put this suggestion to work. What do we learn about God here? What insights into the nature and character of God are reflected in this passage? What do the words convey to my mind and spirit about God, and God’s ways, and God’s plans, and God’s provision for our needs? Let the words do their work.

Reading the book of Jonah, we discover that God speaks to Jonah (e.g. 1:1; 3:1f), and Jonah speaks to God (2:2-9). Through the course of four short chapters, Jonah is at times directly disobedient, whole-heartedly committed, reluctantly obedient, and sulkily silent in his relationship with God.

For his part, God responds to Jonah’s stormy fluctuations in the narrative in various ways, from hostility to salvation, from blessing to rebuke, from singular honour to virtual annihilation.

Through it all, we learn that God has a deep and abiding care for Jonah, for his welfare, and for his mission. One of the best ways in which Jonah could respond and repay this care and respect is to engage in prayer.

During the supernatural storm, Jonah seemed unable or unwilling to pray, but this is what he does in chapter two, amid unprecedented existential anguish, and probably sheer terror, from the belly of the great fish that has providentially surfaced and mercifully swallowed him and miraculously prevented him from drowning.

The themes and thoughts in Jonah’s prayer are instructive. He is physically at the gates of death, morally defeated, emotionally exhausted, and theologically compromised. Yet he believes in the God of Israel, and prays to this God, and God graciously responds to Jonah’s prayer by commanding the fish to vomit his servant onto dry land (2:10).

It’s an extraordinary prayer for an extraordinary moment. Let’s take a few minutes to examine the content and flow of the prayer.

If one of Jonah’s fellow Israelites had heard this prayer in another context, it would probably not have sounded otherworldly or theologically dissonant. The prayer is in the form of a song of thanksgiving that would have been recognisable to many faithful Israelites. It shares important similarities with Psalms 30, 32, 34, 92, 116, 118 and 138. There are four basic elements to such a prayer:

  1. introduction (v. 2)
  2. description of personal distress or trouble (vv. 3-6a)
  3. report of divine deliverance (v. 6b)
  4. conclusion, including reference to a sacred promise made to God (v. 9)

All of these elements are evident in Jonah’s prayer.

Jonah had a sense of the difference between the natural and supernatural worlds appropriate to his time and place. His cosmology probably reflected the description we find in Genesis 1 and throughout Scripture, with heaven situated “above,” the earth in the middle, and “Sheol,” the place of the dead, beneath the earth, in the primal deep, the waters of chaos left over from when God divided land from water (Gen 1:2, 9; Ps 104:7-9; Job 38:8-11; Pro 8:29).

A sharp distinction was made between the world of sensory experience inhabited by the living, and reflecting at least some aspects of God’s created order of good, light and life – and the world of the dead, shaped by the absence of God, and the presence of thick darkness, hopelessness, fear, evil, and death. Not a place you would call “home”; not a place you would be in a hurry to reach.

Jonah has been cast into the Mediterranean Sea, and the waters of chaos are closing round his head (2:3, 5). He believes he is at the point of death, where body and spirit separate, and his conscious self drifts down to the pit, to Sheol (v. 5). Notice the reference to seaweed: despite the spiritual overtones, it is a real, concrete experience.

Now according to Psalm 6:5 and 88:11f, God is neither here, nor is he worshipped, in this post-death shadow-land, and ironically Jonah will have received what he had earlier sought in a moment of folly and self-will: he will find himself “driven out from [God’s] presence forever and will never again be able to look toward [God’s] dwelling in heaven or on earth” (v. 4).[2]

But God is a God of mercy and grace, kindness and love, patience and compassion, and boundless wisdom. And this God is personal, able to communicate with Jonah, and with you and me; able to relate, and respond, and come to the rescue.

And this God comes to Jonah’s rescue.

Again and again, Israel had a similar experience with God. So did Peter, and Paul, and others in the New Testament. Does what is happening to Jonah resonate with your experience of how God works? Does God’s kindness to Jonah, and Jonah’s response in sorrow and sadness, trust and thanksgiving, find an echo in your heart?

Isaiah 55:6-7 says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”

In Jonah 2:4-6, when Jonah is at his lowest point, when he can do nothing to save himself, when he seems beyond hope, when the long dark cold tunnel through which he is inexorably passing seems to press in with unending gloom and then impenetrable darkness, Jonah catches a glimpse of light, real light, and hope is rekindled, and his heart is strangely warmed.

Jonah becomes profoundly aware that God loves him, and that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Pro 3:11f; cf Heb 12:5f). God is at work, and Jonah at last is compliant, and he is a changed man.

He says, “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to your holy temple” (v. 7). To remember God was Israel’s chief responsibility (Dt 8:18; Ex 20:2; Jdg 8:34). In tough times, what do you remember of God, and God’s ways, his promises and his salvation?

Verse 8 indicates Jonah’s contrition and repentance. He has experienced conversion. Verse 9 shows his desire to live a new life, renewed by genuine faith in God, and a willingness to accept God’s sovereignty and call.

This also demonstrates how God is at work in Jonah’s life, beneath the surface of his decisions and emotions. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “Jonah needed to feel the grace of God towards himself before he would be a suitable minister of that grace to the people of Nineveh.”[3] Have you had a personal experience of God’s grace? Do you need a fresh outpouring of divine grace in your life and ministry today?

Verse 9 is a summary of Jonah’s testimony thus far: “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” He probably knew that to be the case, from childhood. But now his intellectual knowledge of faith was strengthened and made alive by personal experience. He has discovered the wonderful difference between “the knowledge of the truth” and “the knowledge of the power of the truth.”

Like Job long before, Jonah’s ears had heard of God, but now his eyes have seen God in action, in revelation, in redemption – and everything must change (see Job 42:5).

Oh to experience a real and dramatic conversion! A fresh revelation of the living God! The singular awareness of walking faithfully with God, participating in his free grace, revelling in his unique love, experiencing personal membership of God’s own family, citizenship in God’s kingdom – this is Jonah’s lived experience.

To know this mighty Being, as far as he may be known, is the noblest aim of the human understanding; to love him, the most worthy exercise of our affections; and to serve him the most honourable and delightful purpose to which we can devote our time and talents.[4]


Sermon 749 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 15 October 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 1, 1855 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1975), p. 1.

[2] Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Jonah,” in Minor Prophets I (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), p. 272.

[3] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008 [1981]), p. 35.

[4] John Dick, Lectures in Theology, quoted in Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1948), p. 16.

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