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Author:Rev. W.B. Slomp
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Congregation:Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church
 Edmonton, Alberta
 www.edmontonimmanuel.ca
 
Title:Jonah in His Distress Encounters God in the Belly of the Fish
Text:Jonah 1:17 - 2:10 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Obedience
 
Preached:2010-10-17
Added:2011-02-21
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Sing: Psalm 27: 2

Sing: Psalm 89: 11, 12, 13

Sing: Psalm 69: 1, 5, 10

Sing: Psalm 69: 12

Sing: Hymn 62: 1, 2

 

Read: Matthew 12: 34 - 42   

Text: Jonah 1: 17 - 2: 10

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
   
Jonah is inside the belly of the fish. The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. In other words, we are not dealing here with a chance occurrence, but with something that God purposely brought about.
 
The prophet Jonah is a very stubborn man. God knows that. He knows that he is dealing with someone who does not easily submit himself to the will of God, someone who has to be brought to his knees through divine intervention.
 
Jonah is not someone who just sits back and listens to what God has to say to him, and then carries out the will of God. No, Jonah has to be brought to a crisis in his life. And therefore God has to intervene in a special way.
 
That is the way that God deals with all of his covenant children. He does not just let us go our own merry way when we are disobedient. No, he will try to shake us up to bring us to our senses.
 
Now in the case of Jonah, the way he tries to shake him up is by having him thrown overboard the ship which was to bring him to Tarshish, where he was headed in his foolish attempt to escape the will of the Lord. The theme of this morning’s sermon is as follows:
Jonah in His Distress Encounters God in the Belly of the Fish
1. Jonah inside the fish;
             2. Jonah’s distress;
            3. God’s answer;
4. God’s salvation.
 
In chapter 2, we read the prayer which Jonah composed while he was inside the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Some of you may wonder how it is possible that a man could survive inside a fish for such a long time. You may even say to yourself, "Is it not any wonder that most people do not believe the Bible when they read about a story as preposterous as this?"
 
For here we are told that a prophet of Israel is swallowed up by some great fish; he remains in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights; and while he is in the belly of that fish, he not only survives, but even composes a poem; and then after the three days are up, he is vomited out, not just anywhere, but on dry land.
 
How can anybody in this modern day and age believe that such a thing actually took place? For man today is much more sophisticated than he was in the past. This is the age of science and technology. Today we no longer fall for such fishy stories.
 
To top it all off Jonah writes a poem inside of the fish. How could he do that? Did he have a pen and paper inside the fish, as some artists portray the scene on canvas? They even portray him as sitting at a little table, pen in hand. Is this not all a little too far-fetched?
 
Modern theologians are of that opinion. And so they say that there is only a moral lesson to be learned here. The details of the story do not matter, but only the content of the message.
 
For that reason there are those who want to defend the authenticity of the story. These well-meaning souls go to great lengths to prove that it is indeed scientifically possible that a man could be swallowed by a whale and survive for three days and nights in the belly of a large fish. They will point out that there have been many stories of people who have been swallowed up whole by a large whale and survived.
 
There is one apparently credible story about a seaman in the late 19th century who was swallowed up by a large sperm whale in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands, and who after three days was recovered unconscious, but alive, though with some damage to his skin. And there have been several other stories of that nature.
 
It’s admirable that they want to prove the truth of the story of Jonah. The question is, does it ultimately really matter whether or not a fish could be large enough to swallow a man whole and to have him survive for three days and three nights?
 
In the final analysis, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t really matter. You cannot prove miracles. For what do the Scriptures say? It says in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” You see, that is the problem with a lot of people: they want proof before they believe.
 
That is also what the Pharisees were after. They said to the Lord Jesus, Rabbi, there is a lot of discussion going on amongst the people about the miracles you are performing. The people are divided. Some people are saying that the miracles you do are because you are the Son of David, the long awaited Messiah, and others are saying that you are doing them through the power of the devil. Now we are reasonable men. We have an open mind about these things. We are willing to be persuaded in your favour. Why don’t you perform some miracle which we tell you to do and then we too will believe.  [Matthew 12 paraphrased]
 
But then what does Christ say to them? He says, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign.” He calls them wicked and adulterous. These are strong terms. “Wicked” is a term which applies to all of us. For wickedness has to do with sin. And sin is found both within and outside of the church.
 
But the term “adulterous” can apply only to God’s covenant people for an adulterer is someone who is unfaithful. It is someone who breaks his or her marriage vows. What the Lord Jesus uses, therefore, is covenantal language. For when a husband or a wife is unfaithful to his or her marriage partner then he or she is unfaithful to the vows, to the covenant that they have made with each other. Well, that is the same way it is with us as church as the Bride, and Christ as the Bridegroom.
 
But by questioning the Lord Jesus, by questioning the way he has revealed himself in his Word, the Pharisees are unfaithful to him and we would do the same. For who is the Lord Jesus Christ? He is the Creator of the universe. And he is able to do all things. He is certainly able to create a fish to swallow a man whole and to have that man survive three days inside of its belly. For him as the almighty creator that is only a small thing. And so the Lord Jesus affirms the truth of Jonah in the belly of the fish.
 
Just because this is somewhat out of the ordinary, it does not mean that you have to suspend your faith and try to make it fit into your own world of subjective experiences. That is what the Pharisees do, and therefore they ask for a sign. But the Pharisees are unbelievers.
 
And so what does the Lord Jesus say? He says I will not give you a sign. I will not perform a specific miracle for you as you ask. For you ask these things not of faith, but out of unbelief. There is only one sign which I will give you, and that is the sign of Jonah who was three days and three nights inside the belly of the fish.
 
For you see, miracles are not designed to make you believe. They are given to us only to confirm us in our faith. That is the way it was for Jonah, and also for us. You can see the miracles of creation all around you.
 
As we know from the following chapters, after Jonah has spent his three days and three nights inside the fish, he does go to Nineveh to preach there. But Jonah does not come out and say, “You had better listen to me, for a miracle has happened to me."  No, he cannot do that. How would he prove it? The unbelievers would poke fun of him, and ridicule him. Only once they believe his preaching can that miracle have any significance for them.           
 
How can he then be an effective witness to the Ninevites? Well, the Lord is preparing him for his task inside the belly of the fish. That is clear from the prayer which he composes inside of the fish.
 
It is not so, of course, that Jonah actually wrote this prayer down while he was inside the belly of that fish. No doubt, Jonah wrote these words afterwards. For you see, Jonah himself is the author of this book. The Lord told him to write down everything after this whole episode had taken place; after he had returned from Nineveh and experienced there the repentance of the wicked people. And in our text, which contains the prayer of Jonah in the belly of the fish, we find the words that were in Jonah’s heart at that time. He recalls these thoughts as he sits down to write his prophesy.   
 
2. And from that prayer it is quite obvious that Jonah is in great distress. (We come to the second point.) Indeed, that is what he tells us. He says “In my distress I called to the Lord” (v. 2). Why is Jonah distressed? Well, you may say, the answer is obvious. He has just been thrown overboard, and swallowed up by a large fish. And now there he is, inside the belly of the fish, not knowing whether he will live or die. Who would not be in distress under such circumstances?
 
But do you think that that is the main reason for his distress? Jonah was prepared to die. He told the sailors himself to throw him overboard. Of course, this was all very distressing. But that was not the main reason for his distress. For you see, Jonah was a covenant child. He was brought up to know the ways of the Lord. And that was the main reason for Jonah's distress. At this point he realizes that his relationship with the Lord is on very shaky ground. And that is not because of God for God is always true to his covenant. It is because of Jonah’s own disobedience.   
 
Jonah has gotten out of the habit of regularly praying to the Lord. How do I know this? you may ask. Well, in the first place we know this because of the situation Jonah finds himself in. He had ignored the Lord God and his directives. He went his own way. Someone who has a good prayer life would not do that.
 
Secondly, we can also know that from the prayer itself. For you see, when you take a close look at this prayer then you can come to no other conclusion than that this prayer is not a very good prayer. I will say some more about that later.  
 
But this prayer does show something else. It shows that Jonah is thoroughly familiar with the book of Psalms, for he quotes extensively from it. Some lines were taken directly from several psalms. He quotes them verbatim. It shows that Jonah is very well versed in the Bible. And therefore it may be all the more surprising to us that Jonah finds himself in the predicament in which he is in.
 
For, from the previous sermons in this series, you all know how he got there. The Lord told him to go to Nineveh to preach the Word of God, and to call its citizens to repentance. If they do not repent they would be utterly destroyed. But Jonah flatly refuses to go. Jonah was disobedient. God speaks to him, but he does not want to listen. Jonah thinks that God should not bother with such a heathen nation. “Leave them to their devices”, he says to himself. “They are not worth it. Let them be destroyed. They do not deserve the mercy of God.” But God’s will always gets carried out one way or the other. The Lord always gets his way.
 
And therefore now Jonah finds himself inside the belly of the great fish. And he prays. But just because he prays does not mean that his heart is in the right place.
 
That is what some people think. They think that the more you know about the Scriptures and the confessions, the more educated you are and the better you can express yourself, the better a believer you are. And that is why they look up to elders and ministers and professors and believe that they have all the answers, and that their faith, because of their knowledge, must be one cut above the rest of the people.
 
But brothers and sisters, that is not necessarily so. That was not true in those days, and that is not true today either. There are simple believers in the church, who perhaps can barely read or write, or have difficulty putting their thoughts together, but who live a lot closer to the Lord than someone who may have a whole bunch of degrees behind his name and whose speech is as smooth as butter. Intellectual knowledge does not make for a better Christian. In some cases it may even be a hindrance rather than a help.
 
We can certainly see that with respect to the prophet Jonah. Jonah knows a lot more than the average man. He is better versed in the Scriptures than the average Joe. And yet, look at how far removed he is from the will of the Lord.
 
And that is why Jonah is in such trouble in the first place. If only he had listened to what God had to say to him. Then everything would have been fine. Jonah is the author of his own misfortune.
 
Jonah had become complacent. In other words he took God’s love for granted, not only for himself, but also for his fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord. Jonah thought, I belong to the nation of Israel, to the true church. God cares about me and my fellow believers more than anyone else. We have the promise of God. We are his special nation. We are the true church. And therefore God also hardly bothers with the heathen nations.
 
Do you see what Jonah’s big mistake was? Jonah concentrated only on the first part of the covenant. And he ignored the second part. For the covenant does not just exist of a promise, the first part, but also of a demand within the covenant, the second part.                         
 
And so one thing becomes clear from his prayer: He is truly miserable. But why? Well, not because of his sins, but only because of the circumstances he finds himself in. He also realizes that he is as good as dead, not just physical death, but spiritual death. For what does he say? He says, “I have been banished from your sight.”
 
That is quite an insight Jonah has come to at this point. For remember, that is not something that he confessed before. He thought that nothing could undo his special relationship with the Lord. He thought himself to be quite secure in the love of God. But what a fool he is. He doesn’t know what it is to serve the Lord.
 
Have you ever noticed that there are those people who go from one crisis to the next? They are full of despair and bitterness. And they blame everyone and everything, except themselves. Do you know what their problem is? Well, they want to go their own way, and they want to do whatever makes them feel good at the moment. And because they are like that, they do not have a good prayer life either. And then, when something bad happens to them, they cry for themselves.
 
Indeed, that is the point God wants to bring each and every one of us to. He wants us to cry out, but for the right reasons. He wants us to be in despair, but only because we are such miserable sinners. It is only then that you can realize the wonderful salvation that you may have. Jonah had not yet come to that point. Jonah cried to the Lord. But Jonah cried because he no longer saw the face of God.
 
As I said, Jonah’s prayer was not a very good prayer. Do you know why? Because nowhere in this prayer do you find a confession of his sinfulness or his guilt. Compare that to David's prayer in Psalm 51 after he repented from his sin with Bathsheba. It was a total confession of his sin and guilt before God. But when you read this prayer of Jonah, then you will notice that there is no confession of sin.
 
And indeed that is why Jonah still went reluctantly to Nineveh once he had been rescued from the belly of the fish. He had still not learned his lesson. He had only come part way. His arrogance turned to submission. He realized that he could not escape the will of the Lord.   
 
3. And yet, in spite of it all, the Lord hears Jonah’s prayer. (We’ve come to the third point.) Earlier in the service we sang from Psalm 69. The first stanza of that psalm could have been written by Jonah. It appears that David had a similar experience as Jonah.
 
Indeed, is that not true of every believer? Have the waves of the sea not threatened to undo us at times as well? Have we not all felt at times as if we were drowning in our troubles?
 
But the beautiful thing is that this psalm, like most others, ends on a positive note. For where else can one go in times of trouble, except to the Lord. He gives salvation. He gives a way out.
 
Jonah says, “I will look again toward your holy temple.” In other words he wants to be there where he hears the voice of God. He wants to be there together with God’s people. For already there in the belly of the fish Jonah begins to feel the restoration in God’s sight. That is why he could also state, “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."
 
Brothers and sisters, have you ever experienced answered prayer? It is wonderful when that happens, isn’t it? But when do you experience his answer? You can experience it only if you have totally given your life over to the Lord. And then your bones are no longer weary as the bones of David were. There is again a spring to your step. Joy is back in your life.
 
Well, that is also what Jonah felt. In spite of his dire circumstances – for do not forget, at this point he does not even know yet whether he will escape from the belly of the fish – in spite of his predicament he is joyful. You can read his joy in this prayer. In spite of the fact that he does not realize his own sinfulness, he nevertheless knows that he is a child of God. He knows that whatever will happen will happen for his own good. He totally trusts again in the Lord. He submits to him.
 
Brothers and sisters, the only way you can experience the joy of answered prayer is when you completely bare your soul, and when you know God listens to you. That is the first step out of the doldrums of our miserable existence. There is someone who listens. For we know that God knows our hearts and our thoughts. He sympathizes with us like no other.
 
And we are even richer than Jonah in that respect. For we have our flesh in heaven, Jesus Christ, who also walked on this earth, and who also had to deal with many troubles, in a way that we cannot even begin to understand. And now he sits at the right hand of God the Father. He listens to our prayers.
 
Listen to what the author of the book of Hebrews says about that. He writes in Hebrews 4:15-16, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Isn't that wonderful?
 
That is what the Scriptures teach us. We all need someone who listens to us, who understands our troubles and concerns. We all need to be with someone with whom we can drop our mask and our pretense and be able to show ourselves for who we really are without being rejected. And once we find somebody like that, healing already is beginning to take place.
 
People are poor listeners and judgmental. But there is One who is not. And that is the Lord Jesus Christ. He listens to your troubles, and you can cry your heart out to him. He hears you.
 
Let me ask you, are you also willing to let him listen to you? Or is it so hard for you to bare your soul? Have you built a wall around yourself? Do you wear a mask because you don’t want anybody to know the real you? One thing is for sure: God already knows you. He knows you a lot better than you know yourself. With him you do not have to wear a mask. With him you do not have to pretend that you are somebody you are not. For he accepts you in spite of your sins. You can go to him in prayer at any time.
 
4. Do you know what else happens when you pour out your heart to the Lord? You come to the realization that you cannot save yourself. That only God can save you. And that brings us to the final point, namely, God’s salvation.
 
Jonah wanted to go his own way. His plan of salvation did not match God’s plan. He did not want the Lord to save the Ninevites. That is why he did not go.
 
Do you know why Jonah did not want them to be saved? He did not want it because he himself did not know what it was to be saved, at least not to the fullest extent. He thought that he could save himself. “After all, don’t I have a lot to offer God?” he thought to himself. Jonah does not belong to a heathen people. He is a covenant child.  He is a prophet even.
 
But in reality Jonah has nothing to offer God. That is the way it is for all of us. We may be members of the church and diligently attend the church services. We may pride ourselves of having received the sign and the seal of the covenant. But that is no reason to boast. It is only a reason for thankfulness. If we boast, let us boast in the Lord. For he alone saves.
 
In the end of the prayer Jonah finally could cry out, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” He said that before he was even outside of the belly of the fish. For he knew the same truth as Paul knew in Romans 8:24-25: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
 
It is a total trust in the Lord that he will bring us to our appointed destination, in life and in death. It is a total trust, as Paul says further in verse 28, “...we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
 
It may be that this morning there are among us those who are trying to save themselves. They are seeking solutions to their problems without considering God. If that is the case then the Lord will send you a fish. He will put you in the belly of the fish. He will put you before a choice, which he does time and again throughout our lives: Either turn to me with all your heart and all your soul, or turn to the devil and all his devices, by becoming angry and bitter, and turning to alcohol, to wrong friends, to worldly pursuits, or whatever this world has to offer.  
 
But what is the right choice? Well, you know.  Salvation belongs to the Lord.  That is the conclusion Jonah came to, and that is the conclusion you and I must come to as well. All of the time. Amen.
 
I gratefully acknowledge R.T. Kendall’s excellent insights in his book Jonah in the preparation of this and the other sermons in my series of sermons on the prophesy of Jonah.



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: www.edmontonimmanuel.ca

(c) Copyright 2010, Rev. W.B. Slomp

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