Cry of Distress and Voice of Thanks

The Prayer of Jonah

Jeroboam II was a king in Israel (the northern kingdom) for 41 years during the first half of the 8th century BC. It says in 2 Kings 14:25, "He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke through his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher." Since Jonah 1:1 identifies the prophet as Jonah, son of Amittai, we can safely infer that this is the same man and that he lived in the northern kingdom of Israel in the early to middle 700's BC.

God's Call and Jonah's Rebellion

According to 1:1, 2, the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it." To understand what this meant for Jonah, it may help to remember that about this time Amos was crying out against the sins of Israel and saying that God was going to raise up a nation against her, namely, Assyria (Amos 6:14). Nineveh was the chief city of Assyria. So just about the time Amos was prophesying the doom of the homeland at the hand of Assyria, God told Jonah to go preach to Assyria's chief city, Nineveh. Which was a little like God telling Ronald Sider to predict World War III while sending Jerry Falwell to hold revival meetings in Moscow. (Though I am hopeful that we will be more responsive to Sider than Israel was to Amos and that Jerry Falwell would head for Moscow more readily than Jonah did for Nineveh.)

Most of you remember the general outline of what happened. Jonah did not go east to Nineveh on the Tigris River. He got on a boat in Joppa bound for Tarshish (probably in Spain). God hurls a storm against the ship. When the prayers of the crew prove useless, they awaken Jonah and tell him to pray. Then they cast lots to see whose guilt brought the storm, and the lot fell to Jonah. When they asked who he was, he said, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land" (1:9). When the crew asked what might still the storm, Jonah said, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the storm will become calm for you" (1:12). It is a puzzle to me why Jonah should so readily offer to give his life for the sake of pagan (1:5) sailors, when a few weeks later he gets angry that God saves the life of 120,000 pagan Ninevites. Probably Jonah's willingness to die in the Mediterranean Sea was owing mainly to remorse and shame. He realizes what a fool he was to try to flee "from the presence of the Lord" (1:3). How can you flee from the Lord who made the sea and the dry land (1:9)? God has tracked him down and exposed his folly. His guilt is so obvious he simply surrenders himself to the sentence of death—or so it seems.

The crew threw him overboard, and the storm ceased. Jonah sinks in the water. And what happens? The first thing that happens is not the appearance of a great fish to swallow Jonah. Before the fish comes the cry of distress. Even though Jonah knew that he was guilty; even though he knew he deserved death; even though he had surrendered his life to the justice of God, yet in the moment when death was imminent, Jonah remembered that the God whom he had served so imperfectly was still "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repenting of evil" (4:2). And he cried out to the Lord for mercy. And then the Lord appointed a great fish for Jonah's rescue. The Lord had mercy on his prophet and saved him miraculously in a fish's belly.

Chapter 2 is what Jonah prayed while still conscious in the fish. He recounts his cry of distress in the water and lifts a voice of thanks for deliverance.

The Historicity of Jonah

Before we look at this chapter, let me mention briefly why I regard the book as historical rather than as a parable. Not only was Jonah a historical person, as we saw from 2 Kings 14:25, but also in the New Testament Jesus treats Jonah's story as historical. He says in Matthew 12:40, "Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will 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." Those of us who respect the wisdom of Jesus will be very slow to call his judgment into question. He thought the story was historical. We should, too. If you ask how a man can survive in the belly of a fish three days, the answer is, he probably can't—any more than a person can stay three days in the grave and live again. That's why Jesus called it a "sign." In Matthew 12:39 he says, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah, the prophet." Jesus knew this was no ordinary event. It was a miraculous sign of God's gracious and powerful intervention. There is no point in trying to explain it scientifically any more than the miraculous signs of Jesus' ministry. Jonah cried for help, and God saved him miraculously with a fish.

God Answers His Children's Cries of Distress

At least briefly, Jonah was conscious in the fish—long enough to realize that God had saved him from drowning in the sea. And during that period (or perhaps periods) of consciousness, Jonah prays. Chapter 2 is what he said. So when you read this prayer, keep in mind that when Jonah refers to the distress of the past, he means the time he spent in the water, not the time he spent in the fish. The water is the threat of death. The fish is the refuge of salvation. The cry of distress is past tense (in the water!); the voice of confidence and thanks is present (in the fish). Let's look at the prayer.

Jonah 2:1, 2: "Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, 'I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me.'" There is the simple statement that sums up what happened when Jonah sank in the water: he cried out to God, and God answered him by sending the fish. There is a lot of encouragement for us here that I want you to see. The general point I want to make is that God answers his children when they cry to him in distress. Then I think the text gives us some specific pointers to how and why God answers us when we call on him in distress. First, God answers us in spite of our guilt. Second, God answers us in spite of his judgment. Third, God answers us and delivers us from impossible circumstances. Fourth, God answers us in the nick of time. Fifth, God answers us in stages, not all of which are comfortable. Sixth, God answers us in order to win our undivided loyalty and thanks. Finally, God answers us in our guilty distress to help us become merciful like he is. Let's look at these in order to encourage ourselves to call on God with more confidence.

In Spite of Our Guilt

First, God answers our cry of distress, even when we are guilty. Jonah was not on his way to Nineveh when he fell overboard. He was running from God. He was guilty of disobedience. That's why he was in the water. Some of you are in trouble right now precisely because of your disobedience. And if you are wondering, "Is there hope? Will God have mercy on me and hear my cry of distress?" take heart from Jonah. His distress was the fruit of his guilt, but God answered him and gave him another chance.

That is not an isolated teaching in Scripture. Listen to the same scenario in Psalm 107:10–15:

Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High [like Jonah] . . . Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor; they fell down, with none to help. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men!

If your disobedience is the cause of your distress, repent and cry to the Lord. He will answer you in spite of your guilt.

In Spite of His Judgment

Second, God answers us in spite of his judgment. Notice verse 3: "For thou didst cast me into the deep." According to 1:15, it was the ship's crew who picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea. But Jonah knows that it was all of God. God was angry at Jonah's disobedience, and he was going to require chastisement. I suppose nothing makes us despair in our distress like the thought that God put us there because he is angry with us. And I guess most of us might say, if God has put me in this rotten situation because he is displeased with me, then there is no point in praying for his help. But Jonah ventured to pray for deliverance from the very God who threw him into the water. And the God who threw him in heard his prayer and performed a miracle to save him. Even when God is displeased with us, he never brings us into affliction merely for the sake of punishment. His purposes always include redemption. Job 36:15 says, "God delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity." Adversity is redemptive, not merely punitive. Even if you have felt as though the very hand of God is against you in your distress, do not despair to call upon him. He answers his children in spite of his own judgment.

In Impossible Circumstances

Third, God answers us and delivers us from impossible circumstances. Verses 5 and 6 describe the extremity of Jonah's plight: "The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever." It would be a terrible thing to fall overboard and be left behind when the sea is placid. How much worse to be thrown into a raging storm with 20 or 30 foot waves and feel yourself sucked so deep you know you're done for. And, as if that were not enough, as you struggle toward the air, you hit a mass of seaweed, and it tangles all around your head and neck. It's a terrifying scene. God let the circumstances become impossible before he delivered Jonah.

I don't know for sure why it is, but it seems that in the Christian life distresses and troubles come in batches. They don't get spaced out in proportion to our powers to cope. Often circumstances develop to the point where we can't see any way out. But then we need to remember Jonah's plight. It was impossible. But not with God (Mark 10:27)! When we cry to the Lord in our distress, he answers us and delivers us from impossible situations.

In the Nick of Time

Fourth, he answers us in the nick of time. Verse 7 says, "When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to thee into thy holy temple." More starkly we would say, "As I was losing consciousness, I remembered the Lord." Jonah was still praying without an answer in sight just before he blacked out. In fact, he probably did black out and regain consciousness several days later, realizing he had been spared in the belly of a fish. God often answers our prayers at the eleventh hour. Many a saint has groaned with Habakkuk, saying, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear?" (Habakkuk 1:2). But Jonah gives us courage to be unrelenting in our prayer, to keep on crying out to God even as we go unconscious, and to believe that God will answer in the nick of time.

In Stages

Fifth, God answers our cries of distress in stages, not all of which are comfortable. We must get out of our head the all or nothing notion of answered prayer. We can be fairly sure that when Jonah cried out to God, he did not say: "O God, put me in the belly of a fish for three days!" He probably said, "God save me, I am cast out from your presence, have mercy!" But God's answer came in stages. The belly of a fish hardly seems like salvation. But it was: Jonah is granted enough consciousness to realize he has been spared from drowning and that there is hope. He does not complain about his surroundings. He accepts God's first stage of salvation as a guarantee of dry land, and concludes his prayer in the fish's belly with the great affirmation, "Deliverance belongs to the Lord."

Don't disregard the partial works of God. If he chooses to save and to heal by stages, he has his good purposes, and we ought to be grateful for any improvement in our condition. A fish's belly is better than weeds at the bottom of the sea, even if it is not yet Palestine. God answers us in stages, not all of which are comfortable.

In Order to Win Our Loyalty and Thanksgiving

Sixth, God answers our cry of distress in order to win our undivided loyalty and thanksgiving. Verses 8 and 9 show how a prayer to God after deliverance should end: "Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty (or: forsake their mercy). But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!" The answer to Jonah's prayer has produced its proper effect. It has filled Jonah with wonder that anyone would forsake the Lord and keep idols. God taught Jonah that if you leave the Lord, you leave mercy. And he has filled Jonah's mouth with thanksgiving. God answers prayers in order that thanksgiving will abound to his glory. Which means that people who have a spirit of thanksgiving are the best candidates for answered prayer (Philippians 4:6). Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:11, "You must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessings granted us in answer to many prayers." And the Lord said in Psalm 50:15, "Call upon me in the day of trouble; and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me." God answers us in distress in order to win our undivided loyalty and fill us with thanksgiving for his mercy.

In Order to Make Us Merciful Like Him

Finally, God answers us in our guilty distress to help us become merciful like he is. To show you where I get this idea, we need to finish the story. In chapter 3, after Jonah is back on land, God sends him again to Nineveh. Jonah goes and preaches judgment. And in 3:5 it says, "The people of Nineveh believed God." Then verse 10 gives God's response, "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it."

Now look what's happened in the first three chapters. Jonah disobeyed God. God put him under the threat of destruction. Jonah cries out in his distress, and God answers him and gives him a new lease on life. So with the Ninevites. They disobeyed God (1:2). God put them under the threat of destruction (3:4). They cry in their distress, and God answers them and gives them a new lease on life. God showed mercy to Jonah so that Jonah would learn to show mercy to the Ninevites.

The book of Jonah has a message that is loud and clear about God, namely, his mercy is not confined to Israel but extends to any people who will trust him and repent of their sin. What saves is not nationality but faith. That's a great gospel message coming out of the Old Testament. But I don't think it is the main point of this book. The book is really about Jonah—about you and me and the way we ought to be if we have a God with mercy like this. The main point of the book of Jonah is not, "God is merciful." The main point is, "You be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful." The ultimate lesson about prayer in the book of Jonah is that God answers us in mercy to make us merciful.

This is confirmed if we just watch God finish his work on Jonah in chapter 4. Verses 1 and 2 show that Jonah had failed to learn the lesson of the fish: he is angry that God forgave the Ninevites. He is still a rebellious instrument of mercy. So he goes out of town to wait. And notice what God does in verse 6. Just as (in 1:17) God appointed a fish to save his prophet, so in 4:6 he appoints a plant to save Jonah from the discomfort of the sun. God will try to teach him one more time. Only this time the lesson plan is reversed. Jonah will not move from distress to deliverance (as he did in the water), but from deliverance to distress. Verse 6 says that Jonah was exceedingly glad with the plant, just like he was glad to be saved from the water.

But the next day God appointed a worm that made the plant wither, and then he appointed a sultry east wind and a hot sun and made Jonah miserable. And Jonah got angry. Then God comes and with his word lays bare the heart of Jonah. In essence, what he says at the end of chapter 4 is this: "You pity the plant and get angry when I destroy it, but when I pity 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from their left, you get angry with me!"

And if the book had recorded the rest of God's dealings with Jonah, I think it would have ended like this (and it's just as relevant for us): "Jonah, don't you see what I was trying to teach you when I answered your cry of distress and sent the fish to save you? I had mercy on you in spite of your guilt. I had mercy on you in spite of my own sentence of judgment. I saved you from impossible circumstances. I delivered you in the nick of time. I commanded a fish to save your life. You were filled with a song of thanksgiving for my mercy and vowed your loyalty to me. Jonah, Jonah, be merciful, even as I have been merciful to you!"