Prayer from the Depths

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July 21st, 2019

An encounter with God’s grace and steadfast love is an opportunity for prayer and praise. 

I. Praying in Distress (2:1-6a)

For the first time in the narrative, Jonah finally prays to the Lord in light of his dire circumstances. Prayer is the proper response to this situation, as it the first step of surrender and a recognition that we are helpless and dependent upon the Lord. 

Though Jonah is in the “belly of Sheol” (literally: the ‘womb of death’), God still hears Jonah. As Christians, we know even more powerfully that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom. 8:38-39).

As Jonah poetically recounts his downward descent of drowning, he begins to recognize the sovereign hand and action of God behind all of the events that have taken place: You cast me into the sea… your waves and your billows passed over me.” 

“In spiritual terms, he is experiencing what every awakened person feels: the sense that God’s presence is so real and near that each event in life is seen to be under his control…When we are aroused from spiritual lethargy, we become conscious of the weight of God’s judgment; we recognize that we are in the presence of a holy God and yet have lived without a thought for his majesty. Every circumstance of life seems to be enlarged in its significance by his all-pervasive presence.” ~ Sinclair Ferguson

In the midst of his near-death experience of drowning, verse 4 is a critical turning point for the runaway prophet. Jonah realizes that he is “driven away” (banished) from God, which is ironically what he wanted when he fled from the Lord. However, it is not until this moment that he fully realizes the horror and terror of sinking to his death without the sovereign help of God.

Jonah models the first two steps of repentance in this moment: 

  1. Repentance begins with turning our attention back to the Lord (“yet I shall look again”). Psalm 51:4: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned…”

  2. Repentance means being specific about our sin and rebellion (“... upon your holy temple”). The temple was where God’s presence dwelt, which is precisely what Jonah is running from (cf. 1:3)

The presence of God is essential for our lives: we are helpless and powerless without it. In Christ, we have been given the indwelling Spirit of God, but in our sin the Spirit can be “grieved” (Eph. 4:30) or “quenched” (1 Thess. 5:19).

In Jonah’s turning back to the Lord, his prayer is saturated with the Word of God and direct quotations or allusions to the Psalms. “When a true child of God is in trouble, it is wonderful how dear the Bible becomes to him” ~ Charles Spurgeon


II. Proclaiming Steadfast Love & Salvation (2:6b-9)

Jonah prays in gratitude and praise that God has raised him up from the gates of death, even though his life had hit rock bottom and was near death. He remembers the Lord, who in his grace, won’t let Jonah get away. 

Jonah proclaims, “those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” Idols are essentially “empty substitutes” for the real God, and they have no real power. 

Idolatry is a heart and a worship issue (“pay regard” = cherish or worship); idols are things that have captured our hearts more than God. We can make anything into an idol, and the subtle danger of idolatry is that they are often good things that we make into ultimate things. We look to them for our sense of identity, safety, security, and comfort.

Idols are “vain” because they will always over-promise and under-deliver. They cannot bear the weight of our worship and expectation in the way that God is designed to in our lives. It is only his “steadfast love” (covenantal love) that can fulfill our deepest desires.

“Jonah sees the literal idols that the pagans worship and doesn’t see the more subtle idols in his own life that keep him from fully grasping that he too, just like the heathen, lives only, equally by God’s grace.” ~ Tim Keller 

Salvation belongs to the Lord” is the truth of the whole Bible. When we realize that salvation is fully of the Lord, it reinvigorates our faith. There is nothing we did to earn our salvation and there is nothing we can do to lose it. It is his work from beginning to end.

Jonah says he will “pay” what he has “vowed,” likely meaning he will fulfill his prophetic ministry and go to Nineveh. This encounter with the grace of God has recommissioned him to bring the Word of God to Nineveh. 

III. The Problem Within Jonah (2:10)

Jonah is unceremoniously “vomited” back onto the dry land, as the Lord continues to exercise his sovereignty over creation. This was not a pretty or pleasant experience, but it is again God’s surprising mercy and grace to his undeserving prophet. 

This is not the end of the story here for Jonah, however. Though Jonah repents in some sense here in chapter 2, he still has unresolved issues with God’s plan for Nineveh. He is genuinely grateful and thankful for his salvation and deliverance, but he will object when this is extended toward those he deems undeserving.

Jonah has now had a firsthand experience of God’s mercy toward the undeserving, but the story is still full of tension as he seems to reluctantly warn Nineveh and then acts in defiance and anger toward God’s mercy for them in chapter 4. 

We ought to recognize our own stories and our own repentance in the midst of the tension with Jonah. There is always a risk of experiencing the mercy of God firsthand, but then being unwilling to extend this to others. 

We also have access to the greater story that Jonah could not have known at this time. Jonah could only look to the temple (2:4, 7), but the temple set the stage for the sacrificial, atoning work of Christ on behalf of a guilty humanity. Through Christ, we have access to a greater resurrection, a greater salvation, and a greater mission. 

“Why did Christ come? Why was he conceived? Why was he born? Why was he crucified? Why did he rise again? Why is he now at the right hand of the Father? The answer to all these questions is, in order that he might make worshipers out of rebels.” ~ A.W. Tozer