Jonah thanks God


Jonah 1:17 – 2:10



Jonah thanks God



  • Introduction
  • Jonah’s thanksgiving
  • Jonah’s hope
  • Jonah’s blindness
  • Conclusion



This morning we continue our series on the city of Nineveh


In today’s terms Nineveh is located in Northern Iraq and in ancient times was one of the strongholds of the Assyrian empire – Israel’s enemies

–         The two books of the Bible which have the most to say about Nineveh are the prophets Jonah & Nahum


A couple of weeks ago we started looking at Jonah

–         We heard how God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach against its violence and wickedness

–         Jonah, who believed strongly in justice, didn’t think Nineveh should be given a chance to repent and be forgiven

–         So he got aboard a ship and sailed away in the opposite direction

–         But the Lord didn’t give up on Nineveh or on Jonah

–         God sent a powerful storm and, long story short, the sailors threw Jonah overboard


Today we pick up the threads from the end of chapter 1

–         Please turn with me to Jonah 1, verse 17 – page 897 in your pew Bibles

–         At this point Jonah is in the water, no land in sight and no life jacket – things are looking a bit grim for the prophet

–         From verse 17 to the end of chapter 2 we read…


17 At the Lord‘s command a large fish swallowed Jonah, and he was inside the fish for three days and three nights.

From deep inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God:

“In my distress, O Lord, I called to you,     and you answered me. From deep in the world of the dead     I cried for help, and you heard me. You threw me down into the depths,     to the very bottom of the sea,     where the waters were all around me,     and all your mighty waves rolled over me. I thought I had been banished from your presence     and would never see your holy Temple again. The water came over me and choked me;     the sea covered me completely,     and seaweed wrapped around my head. I went down to the very roots of the mountains,     into the land whose gates lock shut forever. But you, O Lord my God,     brought me back from the depths alive. When I felt my life slipping away,     then, O Lord, I prayed to you,     and in your holy Temple you heard me. Those who worship worthless idols     have abandoned their loyalty to you. But I will sing praises to you;     I will offer you a sacrifice     and do what I have promised. Salvation comes from the Lord!”

10 Then the Lord ordered the fish to spit Jonah up on the beach, and it did.


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us


Jonah’s thanksgiving:

In an address to the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast in 1994 Mother Theresa told this story…

–         “One evening we went out, and we picked up four people from the street. And one of them was in a most terrible condition.

–         I told the sisters, “You take care of the other three; I will take care of the one who looks worst.”

–         So I did for her all that my love could do.

–         I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face.

–         She took hold of my hand as she said two words only:

–         “Thank you.” Then she died.


I could not help but examine my conscience before her. And I asked:

–         What would I say if I were in her place?

–         And my answer was very simple.

–         I would have tried to draw a little attention to myself.

–         I would have said, “I am hungry, I am dying, I am in pain,” or something.

–         But she gave me much more; she gave me her grateful love.

–         And she died with a smile on her face.

–         Gratitude brings a smile and becomes a gift.”


Even though Jonah is in a dark and terrifying place

–         As close to death as one can come

–         He does not offer a prayer of complaint

–         Or even a prayer of confession

–         He offers a prayer of thanksgiving


It may not be immediately obvious to us that Jonah’s prayer is a thanksgiving because we don’t explicitly read the words, “Thank you God”

–         But we know it was a prayer of thanksgiving because it follows the same pattern as other Jewish thanksgiving psalms


Typically with Hebrew psalms of thanksgiving there is a retelling of the crisis in retrospect

–         That is, a looking back at the near death experience and an acknowledgment of Yahweh’s deliverance

–         And there is a promise or a vow to praise the Lord and offer sacrifices to him – as a practical way of saying thankyou

–         If someone does something nice for us then we might acknowledge that by sending them a thank you card

–         What we read in Jonah chapter 2 is the prophet’s ‘thank you card’ to God, for saving him from drowning


The first thing we note about Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving is that it was composed in the belly of a large fish

–         I imagine the belly of the fish was cramped, dark, slimy and smelly

–         It’s not like Jonah had a pen and paper with a desk and chair and lamp to sit down and write

–         Which means that Jonah would have composed the psalm in his head (drawing on other psalms of thanksgiving with which he was familiar) and then spoken or even sung it out loud to God


Some people these days have a difficulty with a large fish swallowing a man whole and then vomiting him out 3 days later

–         They think if something is miraculous then it’s not historical

–         And so they explain the story of Jonah as a parable which, although made up, nevertheless communicates some very profound truths


Well, that’s one theory, but personally I have no problem with the miraculous

–         I think God could easily make a fish large enough to swallow a man – no problems with that

–         In fact it seems to me to be exactly the sort of practical joke God might play on someone like Jonah

–         It’s totally fits with God’s whacky sense of humour

–         Anyone who has experienced God’s sense of humour for themselves will understand what I’m saying


Where the story becomes difficult to believe is in the next chapter – in Jonah 3 – where the entire city listen to Jonah’s message and repent

–         That really stretches the imagination – but we’ll get to that next week


In Mother Teresa’s story, which I mentioned before, the dying woman simply said ‘thank you’ – she didn’t draw any attention to herself

–         By contrast Jonah attracts a lot of attention to himself

–         One of the striking things about Jonah’s psalm of thanksgiving is it’s self-centered-ness

–         Most of the psalm focuses on Jonah’s crisis – it’s I, I, I, me, me, me, most of the way through

–         I called, I cried, I thought, I went down, I felt, I prayed, I will sing, I will offer – and so on

–         With all this I, I, I, me, me, me, talk it’s little wonder Jonah gave the fish a belly ache and was vomited up


We don’t want to be too hard on Jonah though

–         After all he has been through a tough time and nearly died

–         In fact it is at the very cusp of death – at his lowest ebb – that Jonah finally prays to God. Verse 7…

–         “When I felt my life slipping away, then, O Lord, I prayed to you”


You may remember from a couple of weeks ago that Jonah did not pray when the storm hit

–         The pagan sailors were all praying and even called Jonah to prayer, but Jonah refused to talk to God

–         It’s only when he hits rock bottom that Jonah breaks his silence

–         And it’s only when he prays that God sends the fish to rescue him


It’s not like the sailors threw Jonah overboard and the fish swallowed him up straight away – No

–         God waits for Jonah to pray before he sends the fish


Sometimes we might be tempted to think,

–         ‘What’s the point in praying? God already knows what I’m thinking – he knows what’s in my heart.

–         Why bother saying it out loud?’

–         Well perhaps it’s because we need to own it


We’ve been watching that mini-series on Sir Edmund Hillary on Sunday nights – quite enjoying it so far

–         Sir Ed is depicted as a fairly quiet character

–         Kind of a classic kiwi bloke – holds it all in

–         Doesn’t really say how he’s feeling

–         At the end of last week’s episode the girl that Ed fancies is about to head off to Australia for 3 years

–         This girl knows that Ed likes her, but she (quite rightly) doesn’t want to do all the work in the relationship

–         Even though she knows that Ed likes her, Ed still has to be the one to say it out loud – she can’t say it for him

–         When Ed realizes that he may not see the girl of his dreams again for a long time he says,

–         “I wish I had found the courage to ask you out”

–         And that’s enough for him to get a kiss


It’s a similar thing with prayer

–         Yes, God knows what we are thinking but we must still say it out loud – he can’t say it for us


So Jonah finally prays and God saves him

–         But Jonah’s salvation is not yet complete because he is still in the belly of the fish and he won’t be able to survive there for long


Jonah’s hope:

In some ways this is Jonah’s finest moment – thanking and praising God (from the belly of the fish) before his deliverance is fully realized

–         It shows us that Jonah’s faith & hope in the Lord is strong


A team of child psychologists wanted to observe how different children respond to negative circumstances

–         So they filled a room with horse manure

–         And put a child in the room to see how he might react

–         The boy whined and cried and despaired that he was in a room full of smelly horse poo


Then the psychologists put another child in the room

–         The little girl immediately started tearing around and digging in the manure with an excitement that baffled the on-lookers

–         After a few minutes of watching this, they asked the child why she was so excited

–         And she replied, “With all this manure in the room, there’s got to be a pony somewhere”


The reaction of the second child is a picture of hope

–         Even though the little girl could not see a pony

–         She could see the signs of one

–         Her hope of finding a pony was strong because of the manure


What was it the Apostle Paul said?

–         For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.


Paul’s point here is that hope is often strongest when things appear worst

–         Not when life is at its best


Jonah’s situation was significantly more life threatening than being in a room full of horse manure

–         Most of his prayer describes the horror of his situation


Generally speaking the people of Israel were not a seafaring people

–         They were afraid of the sea and other large bodies of water

–         For them the sea was a symbol of chaos as well as a symbol of deliverance by trial


Noah had to pass through the chaotic flood waters (in the ark) in order to save his family and the animals from death

–         The people of Israel had to pass through the Red Sea in order to be delivered from slavery in Egypt

–         And they had to pass through the river Jordan in order to enter the promised land


I expect Jonah was conscious of these stories of deliverance through threatening waters, during his 3 days & nights inside the fish

–         And I expect these stories of deliverance strengthened his hope

–         I imagine the smelly inside of the fish and sea all around were for Jonah like the manure was for the little girl

–         Where there is manure there must be a pony

–         Where there is a great body of water there must be deliverance


So Jonah’s faith & hope in the Lord was strong – he praises God for his deliverance even before that deliverance is fully realized


One of the implications here is that God’s salvation of us is normally a process – it happens in stages, not all at once

–         God didn’t magically transport Jonah to dry land or back to the temple (like in Star Trek when they say, ‘Beam me up Scotty’)


The first step of salvation for Jonah was God sending a violent storm

–         The second step was Jonah being thrown in the sea and nearly drowning before he finally cried out to God for help

–         The third step was being saved from drowning by a huge fish

–         Jonah could see where this was going – eventually God would return him to dry land

–         And so while Jonah was waiting for the next phase, he praised God


One of the things we do each Sunday is to come together to sing songs of praise to God

–         Some weeks singing songs of praise is easier than others

–         If things are going well and we are aware of God’s goodness in our lives, then no problems singing

–         But if we have had a hard week and we are struggling to see God’s goodness or we feel like we aren’t quite out of the woods yet, then it can be more of a struggle to sing about how great God is

–         This life is not perfect – there are times when God seems absent and we shouldn’t try to deny or ignore the feelings this raises for us

–         But it doesn’t help to dwell too long on those feelings either

–         While we are waiting for God to complete our salvation we can still offer thanks & praise to him in anticipation of what he will do


So if you feel like you’re wading through a lot of poo at the moment – just think, there must be a pony somewhere


Jonah’s blindness:

Having celebrated Jonah’s strength of hope from the belly of the fish we also need to acknowledge the fundamental contradiction we find in Jonah

–         Yes, Jonah is a thankful believer in Yahweh, but he is also a disobedient believer

–         And to make matters worse, Jonah is unrepentant


Once when the famous preacher and evangelist, Billy Graham, was driving through a small town in the southern states of America

–         He was stopped by a policeman and charged with speeding.

–         Graham admitted his guilt, but was told by the officer that he would have to appear in court.


The judge asked, “Guilty, or not guilty?”

–         When Graham pleaded guilty, the judge replied…

–         “That’ll be ten dollars – a dollar for every mile you went over the limit.”

–         Then the judge suddenly recognized the famous minister.

–         “You have violated the law,” the judge said.

–         “The fine must be paid – but I am going to pay it for you.”

–         He took a ten dollar bill from his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and then took Graham out and bought him a steak dinner!


“That,” said Billy Graham, “is how God treats repentant sinners!”


Many of us have heard that message before – that God forgives and pays the debt for repentant sinners

–         (For those who admit their guilt and try to change their ways)

–         So we are not surprised or impressed by Billy Graham’s story


What would make the story more interesting is if the judge still paid the fine even though Billy Graham did not admit his wrong doing and was not sorry for speeding

–         This is basically what God does for Jonah – which is what makes his story so interesting

–         God saves Jonah, even though Jonah is not repentant


Nowhere in his psalm does Jonah say, “Woops, sorry Lord. I was wrong, you were right. Will you forgive me?”

–         Jonah may be thankful that God saved him but he’s not sorry for running away

–         Jonah is, in a sense, blind to some aspects of himself


The psychologist Carl Jung came up with a term he called the shadow side

–         For many years I mistakenly thought our shadow side was that part of us which was like the dark side of the force – the bad in us

–         But actually our shadow is more simply those aspects of our personality (both good & bad) that we are not aware of and can’t see easily or won’t acknowledge

–         So our shadow side is really our blind spot


Now the fact is we all have a shadow-side or a blind spot, including people of outstanding integrity and faith like Jonah


In verse 8 Jonah says, rather revoltingly…

–         “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But, with a song of thanksgiving, I will sacrifice to you”

–         This is a clearer translation than what we have in our pew Bibles


It’s sort of like Jonah is saying here,

–         “I’m not like those scum bag idol worshippers. I’m better than them. You can count on me to make good on my promises”


What Jonah doesn’t realize is that after he was thrown overboard those pagan idol worshipping sailors became worshippers of Jonah’s God, Yahweh

–         And they did exactly the same thing that Jonah promised to do

–         They made vows and offered sacrifices of thanksgiving to Yahweh

–         So Jonah isn’t all that different to the pagan sailors

–         He just has the advantage of knowing more about God than they do


But there is an even deeper blindness in Jonah here because actually he is guilty of idolatry as well [1]

–         While Jonah may not literally bow down to images of wood or stone he has attempted to make God in his own image

–         He has tried to make God conform to his way of thinking


Whenever we put God in a box or reduce God so that he is smaller, more domesticated, more controllable and less free (as Jonah did) then we are guilty of idolatry

–         As we talked about last time the great Kauri tree of justice is so large in Jonah’s forest of belief that the small Sapling of mercy has no light to grow

–         In Jonah’s mind God is not free to forgive the people of Nineveh

–         Jonah has tried to make God conform to his way of thinking – and that’s basically idolatry


Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament had a lot to say about faith

–         And that’s because faith is fundamental to a relationship with God

–         We, finite beings, can’t be in a relationship with the infinite God without trust

–         Faith (trust) doesn’t try to control God – faith let’s God be free



Jonah is a complex character isn’t he

–         He is sincerely thankful and genuinely hopeful but ultimately unrepentant

–         Nevertheless God in his grace breaks with our expectations and saves Jonah anyway

–         Salvation really does belong to the Lord


I’m not saying here that God is bound to save us even if we remain unrepentant – far from it

–         God may be patient but he’s no fool, so we shouldn’t push our luck

–         The point is: Deliverance belongs to the Lord

–         That means God is free – free to show mercy to whomever he wants, but also free to withhold his mercy


Like all the prophets of the Old Testament, Jonah points to Jesus

–         In Matthew 12, Jesus is asked to perform a sign or a miracle to prove his credentials but Jesus refuses saying…


“No! The only miracle (or sign) you will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah. In the same way that Jonah spent three days and nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will spend three days and nights in the depths of the earth”  


Jonah may not have been perfect but God still used him to point to Jesus – in particular Jesus’ death and resurrection


It is Jesus’ death & resurrection we remember today as we gather around the Lord’s Table

–         The musicians will come now to lead us in sung praise as we prepare for communion…



Out Takes:

Another thing we notice about Jonah’s prayer is that the Lord’s temple features a couple of times

–         Verse 4, “…I thought I would never see your holy temple again”

–         And verse 7, “…I prayed to you [from the depths of the ocean] and in your holy temple you heard me.”


God designed the temple to be a safe, peaceful and ordered space

–         In the temple there is a place for everything and everything in its place

–         The sea (or the ocean) is the complete opposite to the temple

–         The sea is dangerous, messy and chaotic


Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone – pave paradise, put up a parking lot.

–         It’s often when we lose stuff, when we are cut off from the people and places we love that we truly realize just how much we value them

–         Jonah had been running away from God and from the temple but when faced with the prospect of never being able to return he suddenly realized what he had

[1] Refer Terence Fretheim, ‘The Message of Jonah’, page 103, for more on this