If we take a step back from this epic tale and simply look at Jonah from a macro perspective, an interesting irony emerges… Jonah was a deeply religious man living in outright rebellion against God. Remember, Jonah was theologically sound. As a good Hebrew Jonah knew the Scriptures and had committed the entirety of the Torah to memory.
Beyond this, Jonah was devoted. As a young Gentile who’d encountered the living God through the ministry of Elijah, Jonah made a decision to move to Israel, be circumcised, and dedicate himself to the service of the Lord. Jonah had given all to be a prophet. He’d made sacrifices (we have no mention of a wife, children, or larger family). Jonah was dedicated.
But he was also devout. Jonah was diligent when it came to obeying the Law of God. He was serious about observing the feasts and always respecting the Sabbath. I’m sure he even made the pilgrimage to the Temple frequently to offer the necessary sacrifices for sin.
If Jonah was around today you would see him as being quintessentially the perfect Christian. Jonah loved to study the Bible. Memorized Scripture. Never missed a morning devotional.
Jonah could talk doctrine with anyone, equipped to evangelize the unbeliever, defend his faith, and communicate God’s truth is a relevant way. Jonah would have been a prayer warrior and avid church attender. He was faithful in his service and pious in his behavior.
Jonah also possessed a sterling reputation. Well-mannered, respectful, charismatic, a natural-born leader there was a lot Jonah had going for him. He’d never gotten into trouble or compromised. He was a good man, above reproach… Didn’t drink, smoke, chew or hang out with those that do! All the moms wanted their sons to grow up and be like Jonah.
Outwardly, Jonah demonstrated all the marks of a good man; and yet, his resistance to this one command to go and demonstrate grace to the wicked Ninevites tore down that facade and revealed Jonah for who he really was - Judgmental, unloving, and hard!
Not only does Jonah resist “the word of the Lord” and proceed to defy a direct command of God, but in doing so we saw his moral prejudice and ethnic bigotry rise to the surface. As we noted last Sunday, the way he handles himself in this “mighty tempest” further revealed an apathy towards the lost and brazenness in the face of obvious divine involvement.
It’s simply a fact (and Jonah illustrates this reality concerning the devoted, dedicated, devout, and diligently religious person) the command to demonstrate grace to the sinner will reveal the true heart of the supposed saint! Though religiously pious, Jonah’s reaction to the presence of grace revealed he was nothing more than a selfish punk!
Jonah’s resistance of grace revealed two things about the man and mainly his religion. Note: Religion can be defined as a set of things you do or refrain from doing in order to earn God’s favor. In a sense, it’s mans attempt to reach up and reconnect with God.
Sadly, the way Jonah responds to the grace God wanted to show the Ninevites made clear his religion hadn’t effected his heart and had actually failed to bring him closer to the God he claimed to serve. Ironically, it is in the way Jonah treated others that he presents a very religious person who actually lacked a tangible relationship with God.
I know it’s provocative, but there will be a lot of devoutly religious people (even “Christians”) in hell because while doing things for Jesus they missed the importance of actually knowing Jesus. Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’"
In Matthew 22 Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees and Scribes with a difficult question. They asked Him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” This is how Jesus answered… He said to them, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”
And while this response was a brilliant retort, Jesus doesn’t stop there… He then challenges the essence of their failed religion by saying, “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
What Jesus is saying is rather incredible and honestly was designed to be a direct rebuke of the religious men like Jonah in His midst. By tethering love for God to love for one’s neighbor Jesus is saying a genuine love for God will be made evident by the love you show for your fellow man. Note: It is impossible to love God and hate your neighbor!
To his credit Jonah understood what so many religious people fail to realize… The very essence of God’s grace makes religious devotion and piety pointless! It’s either God’s grace and a relationship or it’s man’s religion. I either open my hand to receive and enjoy His favor or I defiantly close my hand because I believe it should be earned.
This is why when Jonah is faced with the inconvenient truth that God desired to demonstrate grace to the Ninevites (people he absolutely hated), he ends up rejecting his religion, leaves the land of Israel, and immediately attempts to “flee from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah would rather die apart from God than be God’s instrument of grace to the Assyrians.
Beyond this… It should also be pointed out that while Jonah was religiously zealous as it pertained to the things he did for God (things he could control and feed his own sense of self-rightness), his unwillingness to obey this one command to demonstrate grace to others revealed the brutal but honest truth - Jonah didn’t actually know or love God.
Since God’s grace is by definition something you cannot earn (which completely counters the importance of religious adherence), demonstrating grace to others can only manifest as a natural response to a grace you’ve already received and accepted in your own life.
This is what makes your reaction to God’s grace so pivotal and in the end truly revealing… Resisting the demonstration of God’s grace through your life to your neighbor is actually evidence you’re resisting the very demonstration of God’s grace to you. Grace received will manifest as a grace shown. You simply can’t have one without the other.
The Apostle John adds to this idea writing (1 John 4:7-11), “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Because grace transforms the recipient and then naturally manifest from his or hers life, if you’re struggling to demonstrate grace the problem resides on the receiving end. You see it’s impossible to show grace to others if you’re not receiving grace yourself. Keep in mind, we call it “showing grace to others.” It’s hard to show something you haven’t received! Which explains why legalistic Christianity produces so many judgmental Christians.
This is important… Jonah’s core problem was not his unwillingness to demonstrate grace to the Ninevites (this was the symptom of his illness and not the illness itself). Instead, Jonah’s core problem was what this unwillingness revealed about himself… Though a religious man, Jonah was resisting the reception of God’s grace in his own life.
As such Jonah, the goodie-two-shoes church kid, was just as lost as the wicked Assyrians. Jonah had forfeited a relationship with God on the altar of religion. His moral acumen was based in his performance, his goodness, his obedience to God’s commands and not a relationship with the LORD. Ironically, to reveal to Jonah the depths of his own sin, God asked him to do the one thing his religion wouldn’t allow - show grace to a sinner!
Friend, there are two quick points of application… First, how you treat others says everything about your relationship with God. Religion fosters prejudices, a judgmental spirit, moral comparisons, hierarchies, strife, envy, jealousies, even hatred. But a relationship with Jesus yields love, compassion, forgiveness, restorations, service, and selflessness.
Secondly, if you’re struggling to show grace to someone or love your neighbor the remedy isn’t to try harder, but to instead come back to the cross - the place where grace is received. The problem with your output is in actuality one of input. Never forget experiencing God’s grace will yield the manifestation of that grace being shown others.
J. Allen Blair wrote, “One of the greatest delusions that has entered the minds of Christians is to think they can live the victorious life. You have never lived the victorious life. The only One who has is Jesus Christ. The victorious life is not a life we experience, but rather one we live out. It is the out-living of the indwelling Christ. And He indwells the believer, He lives out His life from within. Our part is to let go and let God do the work… Our obligation is not to try to get victory, but to die to self and yield to Christ’s control - and experience victory.”
In John 13 Jesus builds upon this by saying to His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus is clear the love we have for God and therefore to one another stems from His great love for us!
As we’ve noted, Jonah’s resisting of grace was taking him down, down, down. Jonah was on the run and God was in hot pursuit. Though God had sought to use the “tempest” to get his attention and the events on that ship were designed to drive Jonah to his knees in repentance, sadly he remained defiant. Jonah would rather die than go to Nineveh.
Even then, most amazingly, the crew on this ship still demonstrated great grace by refusing to initially throw Jonah overboard as he’d suggested. The man resisting grace was being shown once again the power of grace by pagan Gentiles. And yet, because the storm worsened the crew finally relented. Over Jonah went and the storm ceased!
Jonah 1:17-2:1, “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow 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 fish’s belly.”
Though I don’t want to get sidetracked from the core narrative (as mentioned this is not a story about a fish, but rather one concerning God and Jonah), admittedly, since this is one of the more incredible details recorded in the Bible, it does demand our quick consideration.
First, let’s address what the Scriptures are actually describing… While there have been some who’ve tried to soften the supernatural elements of this story by claiming the Book of Jonah should be viewed as either mythological or allegorical, the truth is it can only be read as literal history. In no way does the context of our story lend any other conclusion.
For further evidence of the historicity of Jonah and the fish look no further than what Jesus said in Matthew 12:38-41. We read, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But Jesus answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.’”
Jesus not only confirms Jonah was a real person, an actual revival takes place in the city of Nineveh, but Jesus claims Jonah indeed spent “three days and three nights in the bell of the great fish.” As a matter of fact, Jesus even points to this event as being a foreshadowing of his own death, burial, and resurrection after spending three days in the “heart of the earth.”
The second consideration is that the text establishes this event as being abnormally natural and not necessarily supernatural. Let me explain… Notice we’re told “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” - a “fish” mind you that “the Lord had prepared to swallow Jonah.” Consider what’s actually being described here…
One… Contrary to lore and the way the story is portrayed in Sunday School, this was not a whale, but a unique “fish” or in the Hebrew “dag” or “sea-creature”. Though unlikely a human being could actually survive three days in the belly of a whale, this is not what’s claimed.
Two… This “fish” we’re told was specifically “prepared” (past tense) by God “to swallow Jonah”, keep him alive for three days, and then vomit him onto shore. In the Hebrew this word “prepared” doesn’t mean God simply picked out a random fish to commission for such a task. Instead the word means God “carefully designed” the fish for this specific purpose.
Though we don’t know when God “prepared” such a sea-creature, the Jewish Rabbis taught that on the 5th day of Creation when “God said, ‘Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures’” He created this “fish” with the specific intention that Jonah would one day be “swallowed” and preserved alive for “three days and three nights.” Most amazingly, this means this specific “fish” swam the seas for thousands of years waiting for Jonah!
Aside from this, if you believe there is an active God in the world, then what’s being describe really shouldn’t be an issue. The truth is that there are far greater miracles in the Bible than Jonah being swallowed by a fish. Case in point… This isn’t even the greatest miracle record in the book of Jonah. The far greater miracle ends up being the salvation of the Ninevites!
Finally, there are some who theorize Jonah actually died - the fish preserved his corpse - and then upon his resurrection he was vomited onto dry land. Though interesting (and this does add an even deeper meaning to what Jesus said of Jonah), the problem is that “after three days and three nights in the belly of the fish” we’re told “Jonah prayed” to God.
The reason this is problematic is that it would imply Jonah’s soul cried out to God after his death and that God heard his prayer and granted him a second chance to obey. Not only would this lend some credence to the Catholic heresy of Purgatory, but the text never says Jonah died. In actuality, the idea is that after being alive for days Jonah finally prays.
With all that being said… Let’s read the entire chapter which records Jonah’s prayer.
Jonah 2:2-10, “And Jonah said: ‘I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, 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 floods surrounded me; all Your billows and Your waves passed over me.’
Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; yet I will look again toward Your holy temple. The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; the deep closed around me; weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.
When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer went up to You, into Your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.’ So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
As we seek to unpack what Jonah prays you need to know I see this differently than most commentators. Though undoubtedly Jonah repents of his sin and there are specifically three aspects to his repentance that demand our consideration, in the end I believe Jonah makes a terrible mistake in his approach. Sadly, his repentance only ends up bringing him back to the point he initially left from and Jonah will then be forced to learn the lesson all over again.
In regards to the positive elements of his prayer, there is do doubt three things contributed to Jonah’s repentance (if you’re on the run please consider them): First, Jonah conceded that life was miserable apart from God. Second, Jonah confesses that his misery was on account of his idolatry. And finally, Jonah remembers that salvation is of the Lord.
First, Jonah conceded that life was miserable apart from God. I don’t know how long it took, but it couldn’t have been long before Jonah realized he was not dead. As a matter of fact, I’m sure he quickly realized something far worse than death had overtaken him. Imagine what these “three days and three nights” in the “belly of the fish” were like for Jonah.
In his prayer Jonah actually describes his experience as an “affliction” or literally a “grave distress”. Consider what it must have been like to have “the floods surround” him as he slides into the fishes belly with the “billows and waves” constantly “passing over him.” Jonah is in a living cement mixer. He rises up, is turned over, and sent back down again!
Jonah continues by describing his struggle with the “weeds wrapped around his head” as he descended down into “the mooring of the mountains.” No matter what Jonah did or how he fought his descent he was so overwhelmed he felt as though “the earth with its bars” were “closing behind him forever.” Jonah ultimately defines his experience as if he were in “the pit” or “the belly of Sheol.” Literally, this “affliction” was what he imagined hell being like.
And yet, aside from the practical suffering Jonah was experiencing, it’s clear his greater torment was spiritual. Though his life was filled with hopelessness, he attributes this to the separation he was experiencing with God caused by his rebellion. He uses phrases like “You cast me into the deep” and “I have been cast out of Your sight” to relay this alienation. This reality was so tormenting that Jonah sums it up by saying his “soul fainted within himself.”
When Jonah boarded that boat in Joppa “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” I’m sure this was not the way he saw his life playing out. And yet, what is hell but life apart from God? It didn’t take long for Jonah to realize he’d been stupid. His rebellion led him to a place he never imagined he’d end up. In the belly of this fish Jonah attained the life he sought.
Friend, I hope you know the original lie has never changed. Satan always seeks to get men and women to buy into the idea that it’s possible to create a better life apart from God. It was Jonah’s pursuit, but only wrestling, alienation, and utter hopelessness resulted.
Second, Jonah confesses that his misery was on account of his idolatry. In the midst of this affliction Jonah comes to see this was all a prison of his own making. To his credit Jonah doesn’t blame God for his misery. Instead, he owns the fact he was in “the pit” because of the consequences of his own poor choices. Rebellion had led him to this destination.
Along these lines verse 8 is rather fascinating… Jonah says, “Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy.” Though on the surface it would appear Jonah may be referring back to the failed attempts of the pagan sailors calling out to their false gods while in the storm, if you dig deeper into the language and sentence structure this isn’t the case.
The reality is verse 8 is one of the more difficult verses in all of the Bible to translate. Case in point the ESV translates this verse as, “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” The NIV has a different twist, “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” I even ran across one scholar who translated verse 8 as, “Those who pay regard to the vain idols forget the grace that could be theirs.”
In the Hebrew this word the New King James Version translates as “Mercy” (interesting that in some Bibles the word is even capitalized) doesn’t actually speak of mercy, but rather spoke of God’s covenant love - something intrinsic to the person of God Himself.
The reason this is fascinating is that, in context, Jonah was speaking therefore of the love God had for the Hebrew people. This is significant because Jonah’s acknowledging that his rebellion against God was not only an act of vain idolatry (himself sitting on the throne as god), but that the act itself separated himself from the steadfast love God had for him.
Friend, though the Bible says in Romans 8:39 that there is nothing that can “separate you from the love of God” the one exception is you. Jonah knew God loved him, but he also knew the course he’d set for himself would render that covenantal love of no effect. Never forget, while the grace of God is amazing in its own right, it’s powerless if you don’t receive it.
Finally, Jonah remembers that salvation is of the Lord. Yes, Jonah had created the mess he was in and it was true his idolatry had alienated him from the lasting effects of God’s love, but it was also true God was more than willing to save him if he’d ask. He says, “I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and He answered me… I cried and You heard my voice… You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God… Salvation is of the Lord.”
How truly amazing it is that while Jonah had made a mess of things God was still willing to hear his cries and not only answer them, but save him from his affliction. J. Allen Blair wrote, “Praise God, no one can go so low that Christ cannot save! No matter how far down one may go in sin, God’s grace can raise him up!” We should all find this incredibly encouraging!
It’s been said verse 9 may be one of the more important verses in the entire Bible. Simple, but brilliant. You see the truth is that all of humanity really falls into one of three basic categories: You have the irreligious who don’t believe they even need salvation. You have the religious who see salvation as something they can earn. But then you have a third… There are those who rightly believe “salvation” only comes “of the Lord.”
There is little doubt Jonah’s concession that life was miserable apart from God, his confession that his misery was on account of his idolatry, and his acknowledgment that “salvation is of the Lord” prompted God to “speak to the fish” and have “it vomit Jonah onto dry land.” And yet, while all of these things were significant, the sad truth is that Jonah’s repentance fell short of God’s intended desire!
Notice in response to everything that has happened Jonah declares, “But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed” before then adding that “salvation is of the Lord.” I know it’s a subtle detail, but don’t miss how off this really is.
Though Jonah understands only the Lord saves, he appeals for God’s salvation to be extended as a response to the promises he just made! “I will sacrifice… I will pay… What I have vowed” so that the Lord will save. Jonah is repenting, but his repentance is leading him back to religion and not grace. God’s favor based on his merit, not God’s goodness.
It’s my conviction that as Jonah is being regurgitated out of the fish he believed his final destination would be Israel, not Nineveh. How surprised he’ll be that the moment his head hits the sand (Jonah 3:1-2) “the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the message that I tell you.’”
Because Jonah has yet to fully learn the lesson God is seeking to teach him, the last two chapters of the story return from its intermission with literally the exact same plot-line of the first two! And you know… It’s not an accident the Ninevites will end up being saved - not because of the “sacrifices, vows, or promises” they made, but simply on account they were willing to receive God’s grace and the salvation that grace affords.
Sadly, in this second act, though we’ll find Jonah obeying God’s commands, he still fails to reflect God’s heart. He goes to Nineveh and begrudgingly delivers God’s message. Then he goes up on a hill hoping to witness judgment when instead the greatest revival in all of human history occurs. Yes, Jonah is released from the prison of his rebellion, but his continued resistance of grace will eventually shackle him in a whole new type of misery.
No Additional Links.