Extreme Rescue Measures

Jonah 1:17-2:10

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / July 17, 2005


The prophet Jonah has been "fleeing from the presence of the Lord"(1:10). Jonah has willfully chosen to disobey God, and has gone his own way. God, however, has also made some choices.


We read, in the previous chapter, how God sent "a great wind" that threatened to "break up" the ship Jonah was traveling on (1:4).


Jonah is thrown overboard and, left to his own devices, he would have surely drowned in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. But, as we well know, God intervenes to save Jonah in a most unusual way.


The text reports that, "the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights" (1:17).


So what of this "great fish"? Did it really swallow Jonah? And can a person actually believe in such a story?


For some people, a discussion like this is hardly necessary. Those who believe in the God of the Bible will have little difficulty believing that such an occurrence is possible. As one theologian has said, "If the God of the Bible can raise Jesus Christ from the dead, He can certainly cause a great monster of the deep . . . to swallow (Jonah)" (Boice, The Minor Prophets, 228).


For others, however, believing that Jonah survived 3 days in the belly of a whale is not so easy. If there be any doubters among us today, I would like to provide you with biblical evidence that affirms that the story of Jonah is indeed true. As biblical evidence, I do not expect that this will be compelling for the unbeliever, but compelling only for those who regard the Bible as trustworthy.


The question usually posed by the Christian skeptic is whether the story of Jonah is a historical account or whether it is simply a parable.


From the very onset of this book the indicators are that this is a historical account, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise and go to Nineveh’”(1:1, 2).


First we must note that this is the way many of the books written by Israel’s prophets begin; for example, "The word of the Lord which came to Hosea"(1:1), "The word of the Lord that came to Joel"(1:1), "The word of the Lord which came to Micah"(1:1), and so on. The beginning of Jonah follows the pattern of these other historical books.


Secondly, there is another reference to Jonah in the historical record of 2Kings 14:25, “(The king) restored the border of Israel . . . according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Ammitai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.


The references to Jonah are too specific for his character to be allegorical. Jonah has a father named Ammitai, his occupation was as an Israelite prophet, he was of Gath-hepher, and was commanded to go preach in Nineveh.


Compare that with how Jesus typically tells a parable, “A certain man had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me” (Lk. 15:11, 12).


See the difference? No names are ever given. No location is ever named in the parable.


Moreover, we should be compelled by the fact that Jesus treats Jonah’s account as historical—Jesus says to the Pharisees, "no sign shall be given but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here" (Mt. 12:39-41).


Jesus treated the account of Jonah as historical. We should, too. If you ask me how a person can survive in the belly of a fish for three days, my guess is he probably can't—any more than a person can stay three days in the grave and live again. Surely, that's why Jesus called it a "sign". Jonah’s survival in the belly of a great fish was a miracle—and as such, it can be no more easily explained than the Virgin birth, or the Resurrection of Jesus. And the reason we can regard such a story as historical is on account of our faith in a God for whom nothing is impossible.


Now, that’s enough said about the veracity of this story, let’s return our attention to what’s going on with Jonah.


            This entire predicament began when Jonah chose to resist God’s call, and when he attempted to “flee from the presence of the Lord.” Now, Jonah is quite literally trapped. With nowhere to go, “Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish, and he said, ‘I called out of my distress to the Lord, and He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; (and) Thou didst hear my voice’” (2:1, 2). 


            Bear in mind that when Jonah refers to the distress of the past, he’s not talking about being in the belly of the fish—that is his present reality. The distress that he references was the time he spent treading water in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Jonah describes how “the current engulfed” him and how the “billows passed over” him (2:3). That is the distress being referenced.


And Jonah’s current prayer is his acknowledgement that God has “answered” his call of distress; Jonah’s current prayer suggests that his being swallowed by the great fish was the Lord’s response cry for help. Extreme rescue measures indeed!


            Friends, there are a number of lessons for us to learn from this account. The first, and perhaps the most obvious one is that we should not wait until a crisis hits before we turn to God.


            It can be easily traced how Jonah’s distress was related to his disobedience.


This is sometimes true for us. We allow our prayer life to deteriorate, we neglect our reading of Scripture, we slacken in our responsibilities to the local church, and the Lord uses some alarming occurrence to awaken us from our spiritual slumber.


Needless to say, we should not wait until a crisis hits before we return to God.


The second thing we learn from the story of Jonah is a most comforting truth: God sometimes answers our prayers in spite of our guilt.


Jonah had been willfully sinning against God. Jonah disregarded God’s call to go to Nineveh, he fled instead to Joppa, where he purchased a ticket and boarded a ship headed to Tarshish. Subsequently, Jonah is thrown overboard and then he determines to call out to the Lord for help.


The amazing thing that I see here is that God answers his call! Jonah deserved to be punished, but instead the Lord rescues him by appointing a great fish to transport him to “dry land” (2:10). From this we conclude that God sometimes answers our prayers in spite of our guilt.


I think there are at least two reasons why God would rescue Jonah in spite of his guilt. The first reason is that God is merciful. God is not an ogre; God’s design is not to make us miserable. The testimony of Scripture is that God takes no pleasure in the punishment of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). God rescued Jonah in spite of his guilt because He is a merciful God.


Secondly, I reckon that God rescued Jonah in order to teach him a lesson about mercy. What was it that Jonah initially refused to do? Jonah did not want to preach to the disobedient people of Nineveh in the event that they might turn to the Lord and receive mercy. Jonah did not think it was right for God to show mercy to such people. Do you see the irony in that?


Jonah, through his own disobedient actions, was in danger of losing his life. Jonah, even more urgently, was now in the same position as the people of Nineveh. As God showed mercy to Jonah during the time of his disobedience, Jonah learned the important lesson of being merciful to others.


There is at least one more thing we learn from Jonah from this account; thirdly, we learn the need to be thankful in the midst of difficult circumstances.


The profundity of verse nine in this chapter can only be appreciated when we keep in mind the context. Jonah was trapped in a whale's stomach! He was trapped in 105-degree heat with only minimal air to breath. And to make matters worse, he was covered in unpleasant gastric juices. Yet, listen to Jonah’s prayer, "I will sacrifice to Thee with the voice of thanksgiving. . . Salvation is from the Lord."


In this highly unpleasant context, Jonah gives thanks for his salvation. This is something we all must seek to imitate. Horatio Spafford understood this as demonstrated in his hymn, “It Is Well”. Spafford wrote the hymn while traveling to meet his wife following the tragic death of his daughters. In spite of his anguish, Spafford wrote,


When sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

‘It is well, it is well with my soul’


What enables a person to thank God amid such difficult circumstances? For Jonah, and for Horatio Spafford, it was their contemplation of salvation that preserved their spirit of thanksgiving:


My sin—O the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part, but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!


Summarizing then, the lessons from Jonah: Let’s not wait for God do pursue us with His rod of discipline, let’s seek to obey His call at every turn.


Secondly, in the event that we do not obey God, no matter what we have done, or how far we have strayed, call out to the Lord for help since we learn from Jonah that God sometimes answers our prayers in spite of our guilt.


And finally, our disobedience may land us in some uncomfortable circumstances, but we should nonetheless express our thanksgiving to God at all times. Give thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ as the author of our salvation. Give thanks to the Lord since He determines to cause “all things to work together for good” for us who love God, for us who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).


What a wonderful thing it is to belong to a God who refuses to let us go! And what a wonderful thing it is to belong to a God who rescues us when we cry out to Him. Amen.