This is part two in a four-part series on the spectacular book of Jonah. Many of us are familiar with the general narrative, but it’s easy to assume we know the whole story because we heard it in Sunday school as young children. Truth be told, this is no little kid’s fable. Jonah teaches us about defying God, resenting His calling, hating His people, and yet still receiving His mercy. Jonah is a man of extremes. His radical emotions and knee-jerk responses startle me awake to realize the absurd extremity in myself: my own running from God, my own resistance to His will for my life, and how much greater God’s love for me is than my own shortcomings.
These posts are based off of Bible study lessons. They’re meant to be worked through with a Bible, a notebook, and a few friends. You’re more than welcome to read through these on your own, but I encourage you to invite a friend to work through each post with you. Ask each other the questions I pose, share your thoughts and feelings and questions with one another. These posts are long, so don’t feel pressured to work through a whole part in one sitting. And of course, I’d love for you to leave your own thoughts, insights, and questions in the comments below!
Recap and Introduction
Last week we introduced our series and worked through Jonah 1. We started with a brief look into the context of this passage. Jonah comes in the years directly following Elijah and Elisha. When a prophet went to speak a word to a foreign nation, it historically hadn’t ended well for Israel in this time; Jonah has learned from Hazael and Aram. His word isn’t to some small local power like Aram, though. He’s been sent to Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian Empire was the most ruthless, powerful, massive empire the world had ever seen.
We talked about Jonah’s dread. First, we considered the source of Jonah’s dread in Jonah 1. God is the source of dread—specifically, God’s command to go to Nineveh and cry against them. Next, we watched Jonah’s response to his dread. Unlike Elijah, there was no procrastination. Rather, Jonah defaulted to direct, immediate, intentional flight. God says “Rise up and go to Nineveh” and Jonah “[goes] down to Joppa, down onto the ship, down to Tarshish” heading more than two thousand miles in the opposite direction. We talked about the (attempted) journey to Tarshish. Go ahead and take a few minutes on your own to remember and discuss a few things that stood out to you in Jonah 1:4-16 with a friend.
Finally, we saw that God is not done with Jonah; Jonah is not too far gone for the Lord to love and forgive and use him. We closed with Jonah 1:17, which is how we’ll open this second lesson.
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17, NASB)
About the Fish…
This whole chapter takes place inside the belly of a fish. Before we look at Jonah 2, though, I’d like to take a quick detour to talk about that fish. Look with me to Mark 8. Our focus will be verses 14-21 which I’ll provide below, but open up your own Bible to see the larger context of our passage. What does Mark 8 begin with? Jesus miraculously feeds more than four thousand people who have been following Him and listening to His teaching. What does Jesus do in the feeding of the four thousand? Describe the miracle in your own words, give a brief summary of the story. Keep that in mind as we move into our passage.
And they had forgotten to take bread, and did not have more than one loaf in the boat with them. And He was giving orders to them, saying, “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” They began to discuss with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, *said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces you picked up?” They *said to Him, “Twelve.” “When I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?” And they *said to Him, “Seven.” And He was saying to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:14-21)
Why is Jesus upset? Jot down what you think the reason is, and ask your friends to share. I’m pretty confident that Jesus is upset because the disciples completely miss the point. They don’t just miss the point of His teaching in verse 15, they seem to completely misunderstand His whole ministry and identity! The disciples are completely focusing on the wrong thing. Without even diving into the beauty of what Jesus actually meant, we can clearly see that He isn’t talking about how they only have one loaf. Why in the world would they worry about how few loaves they had!? They just witnessed Jesus multiply seven loaves of bread into hundreds upon hundreds for hours! This passage is not about bread!
It can be so easy to be distracted by things that really don’t matter a whole lot. Looping this back to Jonah, what do people typically focus on in this book? What do most people know or remember about this story? The fish.
…What!? You focus on the fish!? Why?! Do you realize how insane this book is? A prophet of the Lord runs away from God, refusing to do what’s been commanded of him; he’d rather die than fulfill God’s calling! What is God’s response? He saves him. He doesn’t strike him down, he doesn’t let him drown; God saves Jonah! And that’s not even including what the calling was: A prophet of Israel was told to go to the capital of Assyria. What!?! That’s ludicrous! That’s unimaginable!
Friends, I know there’s a lot of questions we could ask about the fish. What species was it? How big was it? How could a human possibly survive inside of a fish for three days? These are all fair and good questions, and I would love an answer to them as much as anyone else. But please hear this: the fish is honestly the least spectacular thing in this whole book. Do not let minor things distract you from the main point: God is merciful. God has brought a most unexpected deliverance. I think that would be a great alternate title or subtitle for this book: A Most Unexpected Deliverance. That’s why I decided to use that as the title of this study! Keep God’s mercy at the forefront of your mind as we continue to work through Jonah, and as you read anything in Scripture. Don’t lose sight of the main point. Don’t get distracted by the fish. It’s not about bread!
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can get back into Jonah. This whole chapter is a prayer Jonah offers from the belly of the fish. We get immediate reaffirmation that the fish isn’t the main point when we turn back to our text. How many times do you think Jonah mentions the fish? If you guessed anything other than “none,” you’re in for a surprise: it’s of such little concern to Jonah that he never even acknowledges it happens. So then, what does he acknowledge?
Here’s what I’d like for you to do. Read through Jonah 2 all the way through. If you’re working through this with a friend, have one of you read the chapter out loud. Once you’re done, take one minute to reflect on what you’ve read. See what sticks out to you, jot down a few notes. Once the minute is up, go ahead and read it again. Then share with your friend what you noticed.
1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish, 2 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;
You heard my voice.
3 “For You had cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the current engulfed me.
All Your breakers and billows passed over me.
4 “So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Your sight.
Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.’
5 “Water encompassed me to the point of death.
The great deep engulfed me,
Weeds were wrapped around my head.
6 “I descended to the roots of the mountains.
The earth with its bars was around me forever,
But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.
7 “While I was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
And my prayer came to You,
Into Your holy temple.
8 “Those who regard vain idols
Forsake their faithfulness,
9 But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving.
That which I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation is from the Lord.”
10 Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. (Jonah 2:1-10)
Here’s a few things that stuck out to me. I love how Jonah continues to use “Descended” and “brought up” imagery, pointing back to Jonah 1. God commanded him “Rise…go” and instead Jonah went “down” deeper and deeper, until he was completely in the throughs of the water. Jonah describes the depth of his descent as deep as “the roots of the mountains.” I love this image; I feel that there was a time in my life I would have described my running from God as dragging me as deep as the roots of the mountains. Jonah of course isn’t only speaking literally, though he likely sank deep into the ocean. Jonah is acknowledging the state of his heart—he’s a spiritual fugitive, a prodigal son. God rescues him from the depths of his own rebellion.
Jonah knows that this storm is from the Lord. He says “You cast” and “Your breakers.” The squall was no coincidence. God sent it after Jonah, but not to destroy Him. God’s punishment on believers is to discipline and restore, not to damn. Jonah going into the water wasn’t a surprise to God. It’s not like His plan was just to scare the prophet and when he was thrown in God had to improvise a rescue. This was God’s careful, intentional plan of redemption for Jonah.
Jonah is saved on the brink of death. He considers himself as good as dead, fully accepting the earth’s bars that would soon lock him in Sheol. Isn’t is amazing that his faith was restored before the fish even got to him? Look again at verse 4; even if the fish hadn’t come, Jonah had already returned to the face of the Lord. It took Jonah being within seconds of death to finally repent, but even the last second wasn’t too late. What I find most incredible is that God planned on saving Jonah before the thought of praying came into his mind. At what point did God send the fish? When Jonah sank deep enough? When he started praying? When he finally repented? Before all of this. Look to Jonah 1:17 and marvel at the fact that before Jonah even considered repentance, while he was still fully in rebellion, God appoints the fish.
The Will of God
Last week we asked at the end of the lesson “How have you run from God? Are you still running?” We also asked “What is God calling you to do?” I pointed us to 1 Thessalonians 5. Let’s go there together and read verses 12-22.
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22)
What is the will of God for your life? This is a question every Christian struggles to answer. It’s a question I’ve found myself asking at different points in my life, often when I face a major decision. What job should I take? What college should I attend? Should I ask her out or not? Is she the right person for me? What should I study in school? These are all important, fair questions we should absolutely bring before our Father in heaven. He knows and He cares. But I think there’s another sense in which Christians rarely care about this question. I often find myself so worried about things I have to do, decisions I have to make, choices that affect my life; I get so wrapped up in these that I forget to remember God’s ordinary will for my life.
Paul makes God’s will for our life shockingly clear. There’s no magical incantation or meditation practice to hear God’s voice. There’s no divination ritual with bones or tea leaves or sacred Roman chickens. Paul tells us straight up. God’s will for us is to admonish the unruly. He calls us to encourage the fainthearted and help the weak. To be patient with everyone. He tells us to not repay evil with evil and always seek after others wellbeing. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in everything.
Christian, whenever you find yourself questioning what God wants you do do in life, remember this: God’s will for your life is God’s law. The will of God and the Law of God are synonymous. The Old Testament had a strict, clear, pragmatic law that gave Israel a way to know and understand God’s will for His people. In the New Testament, Jesus gives us the Sermon on the Mount and other passages to show us exactly this: the law isn’t about following rules, it’s about following the will of God. How does Jesus summarize that will? Love God and love people. Love them in real, tangible, practical, uncomfortable, messy ways.
Running from God
You might have answered “Have you ever run from God?” with a “no” before because you were thinking about running from some specific direction like how I did at the brink of big decisions. You might have thought, “I’ve never refused a clear direction from God like Jonah. If God ever told me to do something like ‘Go to Nineveh’ or ‘Pick that major’ or ‘Date that person’ I’ve always listened.” More realistically, you thought “I’ve never received a calling from God anything like Jonah, so how could I possibly run from Him like that?”
The reality is, we’ve all run from God. We’re constantly running from God. For some of us, we really have run from a specific calling; you might have felt called to evangelize to a specific person, or felt the Holy Spirit telling you to reach out and pray with someone, or forgive an old enemy, or confess a particular sin. Instead of humble obedience, you ran; running left you in a storm, surrounded by unbelievers, begging to die, riddled with shame and pain. I’ve been there, at the roots of the mountains, weeds wrapped around my head, engulfed in the raging sea. Friends, you are never too far gone for God to save you. God knows how to bring you back to Himself. He’s totally fine with using both ordinary and extraordinary means to call you back. If you are in Christ, if you are a Christian, no matter how far you’ve run and how deep you’ve descended, God can and will deliver you. He has appointed a fish for you.
I’m not necessarily talking about physical deliverance, either. It’s true, God does often save us from our worldly dangers; consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or David and Saul, or Paul and all his near-death experiences. Remember all of the sick and crippled and demon-possessed and even dead people Jesus returned to health. God is often ready and willing to provide physical deliverance, but also consider Stephen at the end of Acts 7. Stephen just delivered one of the most powerful sermons in all of history. Literally, he summarized and explained the entire Old Testament to a crowd of Jews with the equivalent of Ph.D’s in Hebrew Bible, ending his speech by telling them they’re all clueless enemies of God. The Jews set out to stone him, and…
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
…and they do. Stephen dies, but even in death, he gains. Is that not our confession? Is that not our great hope? Philippians 1:21 tells us “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (emphasis mine). Stephen was delivered by most unexpected, extraordinary means; rather than a fish, God appointed a Man for Stephen. God appointed Jesus, fully God and fully man, to die; the God of the universe died a homeless rabbi, executed like a criminal. Yet Jesus’ death is what guaranteed our life. Friends, you are not too far gone; God has gone to great lengths to pull you from the depths.
Last week, I gave some takeaway questions for the end of the lesson. This week, I’m giving an assignment. I know how tedious it can feel to be given an assignment at the end of a Bible study lesson or Sunday school class or sermon, but please don’t ignore these things. Think of all the time and diligence you put into your studies or your job; isn’t Christ worth more? How much more important is your faith than your Chemistry lab or your end-of-quarter report? The last thing I mean to do is understate the importance of school and employment. I’m not trying to guilt trip you. Rather, I want us to see how much work we put into those good things, and consider if the amount of time and effort and care we put into our faith is proportional to how important we say it is. Let’s always be introspective.
This isn’t even a huge assignment, but I want you to take it seriously. Write your own prayer from the belly of the fish, like Jonah. It doesn’t have to be poetic, it doesn’t have to be well written or use fancy language. You can use bad language; it can be as long or as short as you want it to be. You will never have to read this to anyone, though I’ll encourage you to ask your friends about what they write. If they choose not to share, celebrate them for their vulnerability with God. This is between you and the Lord. Below is an outline for how to write a Jonah prayer. If you’re not there yet—if you can’t pray that prayer of deliverance because you’re still running—try the second outline. In our next lesson, we’ll see just how much Jonah has changed. Perhaps you will change radically, too.
(1) Start with “I called out of my distress to the Lord, And He answered me.”
(2) Confess the nature and depth of your running -> what had you refused, how hard did you resist, how dire was your lowest point?
(3) Describe God’s deliverance -> how did he rescue you, how did he pull you out of the depths?
(4) Express your gratitude and faith
(5) Close with “But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord”
For those still running…
(1) Start with “I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice.”
(2) Confess the nature and depth of your running -> what had you refused, how hard did you resist, how dire was your lowest point?
(3) Admit your resistance to turning back to Him, explain why you’re still running
(4) Ask for Him to change your heart, to give you faith
(5) Close with asking God for this to be true of you “So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Your sight. Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.’”