God Appointed a Fish (Jonah 1:17-2:10)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Jonah. We will pick up this morning with Jonah 1:17 and will cover verse 17 and then all of chapter 2. Jonah 1:17–2:10.

In our sermon last week we saw how Jonah was arrested by God through the power of a great storm and then how Jonah was put on trial by the casting of lots and the questioning of the sailors. All of which were under the control of God. Then after Jonah’s trial, we saw him being sentenced to death by drowning. And we saw the sailor’s efforts to avoid carrying out Jonah’s death sentence which only resulted in God strengthening the storm to the point where the sailors had no choice but to comply with God’s plan. And so we saw the sailors surrender to God and hurl Jonah, the reluctant prophet of God, into the sea.

And then we saw that the LORD approved of the sailors’ actions when he calmed the storm and the sea in a manner that Jesus would later do in front of his disciples. And we saw the sailors stop in amazement and worship the LORD.

But what about Jonah? The scene of last week’s passage closes, not with Jonah being thrown into the sea, but with the sailors worshipping the LORD after seeing his power and authority over the storm and the sea. What became of Jonah? After recording the fact that Jonah was thrown overboard, presumably to his death, we are left to wonder about him. And this week, we will turn our attention back to Jonah and his brush with death.

Follow along with me in your Bibles, or in a pew Bible, as I read Jonah 1:17–2:10.

17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ 5 The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. 7 When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. 9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” 10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 1:17–2:10 ESV)

Jonah having rebelled against the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land, deserves nothing but death. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death.” And the sailors, being God’s instruments in carrying out the trial and sentencing of Jonah, carry out that sentence by tossing him overboard. In the same way God hurled the wind onto the sea to start the storm, the sailors hurled Jonah onto the sea to end the storm.

As I said last week: Jonah’s sentence was death. He rebelled against the LORD and the price for that rebellion was death. That was the sentence for his crime. And we know from the Bible that is the sentence for our crimes against the LORD as well.

But we are not left in this story without hope. Just as the gospel doesn’t leave us without hope, the story of Jonah doesn’t leave us without hope either. Again, Jonah is not a story about Jonah’s resistance. The story of Jonah is a story about God’s persistence. His persistent pursuit of those needing a Savior. I have said from the beginning of this series that Jonah is a story about God’s mercy toward all people, and today we are going to see God’s mercy toward Jonah and Jonah’s response to that mercy.

And the whole point for this sermon today is to get us to see that because we have been saved by God’s grace alone, Christians ought to be overflowing with thanksgiving toward God and give him the worship he deserves.

One thing that we must get right if we are going to understand Jonah is that God’s appointment of a fish to swallow Jonah in chapter 1 verse 17 is not punishment for Jonah. The fish is God’s instrument of salvation for Jonah. Remember Jonah had been sentenced to die, that is what he deserved, that was his punishment, and yet in verse 1:17 we see that God appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah and ferry him back to dry land. In verse 17 we see mercy not judgment.

God’s Sovereignty Over Nature

Now, I am not going to spend much more time this morning supporting my conviction that the book of Jonah is a historical account, including the part about him being swallowed by a great fish for three days and surviving that ordeal. I made my case for that in the first sermon in this series and that sermon is available online if you missed it.

But briefly, I will just remind us that as Christians we believe in all sorts of miraculous things. We believe that our Savior was born to a virgin, that he walked on water, that he turned a few loaves of bread into a enough food to feed thousands, and that he died on the cross and rose from the grave three days later. And if we can believe these things about our Savior, we can believe every miracle in the Bible.

And in addition to this, my strongest evidence for reading Jonah as a historical account was Jesus’ own relating of Jonah being in the belly of the fish for 3 days to his forthcoming 3 day stay in the tomb. And his matter of fact statement about the people from Nineveh repenting and the fact that they will rise up at the judgment and condemn the Jewish religious leaders who rejected Jesus, leaves little room for doubt concerning Jesus’ view on the historicity of this book.

So although science may struggle to understand how Jonah could survive three days in the belly of a fish, we as Christians do not have to struggle to understand it. As was saw last week, God does as he pleases. He is God. He is not bound by the laws of science… He created the laws of science. And if God wants to deliver a man from death using the belly of a great fish as a sanctuary, then he is free to do just that. And I am fine with believing it that way.

And so, in verse 17, the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. And from the belly of that fish Jonah offers a prayer to God. And we will dig into the specifics of that prayer this morning, but before we do, we must pause for a minute on this notion of God “appointing” a great fish. You may have noticed that I have used that word “appointed” in each of my sermon titles so far in this series. God Appointed a Prophet, God Appointed a Storm, and today, God Appointed a Fish. I have done that for a reason. I want us to recognize that God is the one in control of these events. It was God who called Jonah to be a prophet, and try as he might, God was not going to allow Jonah to run from that call. God is sovereign and he does whatever he pleases. You cannot thwart his plans.

And so, it was God who hurled a great wind upon the sea. It was God who appointed the storm to arrest Jonah and stop him from fleeing from his presence. The LORD is sovereign over the wind and the waves. The LORD is sovereign over all of creation. And that includes the fish of the sea. God appointed a fish to deliver this wayward prophet from the sentence of death that he deserved. And God commanded the fish to spit his prophet up when it had arrived at dry land. Our God is a merciful and gracious God and he is powerful enough to demonstrate that mercy whenever and to whomever he pleases. “For you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” And thankfully it pleases God to deliver wayward sinners.

Salvation Belongs to the LORD!

Jonah’s closing line in the prayer really says it all. Look with me at the end of chapter 2 verse 9: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” Jonah had an appointment with this great fish, and that fish was his salvation. And Jonah owes his deliverance to the LORD alone. Jonah did not and could not appoint that fish. The LORD appointed that fish. And Jonah does not deserve the salvation he receives. He has been the villain of the story. Jonah has done nothing to deserve or merit salvation, but God in his mercy saves him by appointing a great fish to be his rescue boat. Jonah was hopeless and helpless. There was no saving himself. And so even as he is sitting in the belly of a fish, which was probably not a comfortable location, he was able to cry out, “Salvation Belongs to the LORD!”

Jonah knows that those who are saved are saved by God’s grace alone and thus he cries “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” And his recognition of that results in him overflowing with thanksgiving toward God. And that should be our response to God’s grace upon us as well.

Look with me at Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving beginning in verse 1 of chapter 2.

1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” (Jonah 2:1–2 ESV)

Again, this is not a prayer for God to save him from the fish. This is Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving for being saved by the fish. Jonah sees the fish as deliverance from certain death. When Jonah was cast into the sea and found himself sinking toward the bottom, he prayed to the LORD for help. And the words contained in verse 2 are a summary of what he prayed and how God answered. Very simply, when Jonah was cast into the sea he called out to the LORD for help, and the LORD heard his cry and answered him. Jonah refers to his desperate situation as being in the belly of Sheol. In other words, Jonah was as good as dead. The words “Sheol” and “pit” in these verses and elsewhere in the Old Testament refer to the realm of the dead, and that is where Jonah says his cry for help came from. It would be like me saying, “With one foot into the grave, I cried out to the LORD and he answered me.”

Jonah was attempting to flee from the presence of the LORD and he is on the verge of getting exactly what he wants. He is on his way to Sheol to await permanent isolation from God. But thankfully God does not always give us what we think we want. And thankfully he hears the cries of those who realize their error and call to him for help. Never doubt the reality of a deathbed conversion. Jonah’s cry for help and God’s answer to that cry came on Jonah’s deathbed.

And Jonah was indeed in a desperate and hopeless situation. Pick up with me in verse 3.

3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ 5 The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; (Jonah 2:3–6a ESV)

First of all notice in verse 3, that Jonah acknowledges that, though the sailors physically cast him into the sea, it was really the LORD who was behind it.

But the LORD was not done with Jonah. That is not why he cast him into the sea. In the midst of Jonah’s graphic and poetic description of drowning in the sea, we learn that Jonah was cast into the sea precisely because God was not done with him. Though Jonah found himself sinking further and further into the depths of the sea. Though he was tossed to and fro by the waves and the currents as he descended. Though the weeds of the sea wrapped around his head and though he went to the bottom of the sea where the mountains begin their gradual rise out of the waters. And though Jonah went DOWN, look in verse 6, Jonah says, “I went DOWN to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” Remember that theme of going DOWN we have seen before. Jonah went DOWN to Joppa and DOWN into the ship and then DOWN into the inner part of the ship to sleep. And the author of Jonah picks up on that theme again here in verse 6. But this time there is no where further DOWN for Jonah to go. He has reached the gates of Sheol, gates whose bars are about to close behind him forever.

But the LORD was not done with Jonah. The LORD had appointed a fish. And though Jonah went down to the land of Sheol, at the end of verse 6 he says, “Yet you, brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.” Indeed, salvation belongs to the LORD. And now Jonah understands that in a way he never did before.

Beginning in verse 7, Jonah describes how his deliverance took place. He says:

When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. (Jonah 2:7 ESV)

At the last moment, before Jonah lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen, he remembered the LORD and he prayed. The sailors had prayed, they had asked Jonah to pray, but it is only now that Jonah, the prophet of God nonetheless, actually prays. With only seconds to spare, Jonah cries out to the LORD, and the LORD hears, and the LORD answers. The LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And from the belly of the fish, Jonah is remembering his desperate plea for help and thanking God for delivering him from certain death and eternal separation from the LORD.

But brothers and sisters don’t miss what God is saying to us here. As Christians, we too have been saved from a hopeless and desperate situation. As Christians we too were formerly people who were sinking further and further down, further and further away from the presence of the LORD. We were in a no less desperate situation than Jonah when God intervened in our lives and saved us. We heard it in the hymn this morning:

I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,
But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.

Love lifted me!
Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help,
Love lifted me!

And because we have been saved from a hopeless and desperate situation, Christians ought to be overflowing with thanksgiving toward God. We should be careful that we are not presuming on God’s grace like it is something we deserve. Instead we ought to recognize the utter hopelessness of our situation before Christ and cast ourselves before his feet ever grateful for what he has done for us.

And in verse 8, Jonah reminds us that the LORD is the only one who is able to save. The sailors, though they eventually cried out to the one true God, had seen how impotent their false gods were at helping them. And Jonah knows that those who attach themselves to false gods and to other false sources of help in desperate times are only forsaking the steadfast love of the LORD that is available to all who call on his name.

And in verse 9, we see Jonah vowing to worship the LORD in the manner he deserves. And from this verse we are reminded that because we have been saved by God’s grace alone, Christians should offer appropriate worship to God. Because God has delivered him, Jonah vows to sing with a voice of thanksgiving, and to offer sacrifices fitting for what God has done for him. Jonah’s response to being saved mirrors that of the sailors’ response to being saved at the end of chapter 1. Both speak of worship, and sacrifices, and making vows.

But maybe you are thinking, “Well that is Old Testament talk. We Christians do not offer any sacrifices to God, Jesus’ death was the once and for all sacrifice on our behalf.” To that I would say you are right, but only partially right. Jesus death was the once and for all sacrifice that paid for our sins, but we can and should still make sacrifices to God, not to atone for our sin (that was not the only type of sacrifice in the Old Testament) and not in the form of animal sacrifices, but in the form of presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to God. The apostle Paul says in Romans 12:1:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)

The Apostle Paul is using Old Testament language here to describe how we, as Christians, are to give our whole selves—our desires, our talents, everything we have—over to God. And we are to do this because of the grace God has shown us in saving us and setting us free from sin and its claims upon us. The worship God desires from us requires us to lay down our whole lives before him as a sacrificial offering of thanksgiving for what he has done for us. We have been delivered by God from the wages of sin and the only appropriate response is thank-filled worship and complete devotion.

Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, just as God sent a fish down to the depths of the sea to rescue Jonah who was entangled in the weeds of the sea, God sent his Son down to earth, to rescue us from the entanglements of sin. And just as God used the fish to take Jonah and set him back on dry land to carry out the mission God had called him to, we too have been delivered and saved for a purpose. But our first priority, even before we embark on our mission, is to worship the One who has saved us.

We have been rescued from the depths of death in a no less dramatic and miraculous way than Jonah. Appointing a fish to swallow a man is nothing compared to God becoming man and dying on a cross and rising from the dead three days later. And yet, many Christians find themselves with little to no desire to worship the LORD who saved them and little to no desire to lay down their lives before him.

Christian, God created you to bring glory to him. And you did not. And so then God saved you to bring glory to him. And I ask you this morning: “Are you bringing glory to God? Are you worshipping him as he deserves? Are you so overcome with thanksgiving when you consider the dramatic rescue mission that God embarked on to save you that you cry out to the world: ”Salvation belongs to the LORD!” Is that your cry today?

Brothers and sisters, the story of Jonah is our story. We were sinking deep in sin, we were sinking to rise now more. But the Master of the sea heard our despairing cries. And in his mercy he answered those cries. In his mercy he sent, not a fish, but his Son. And because of this divine rescue mission we can exclaim with the hymn writer, “now safe am I.” But we have been rescued for a purpose. And that purpose begins with worshipping the one who rescued us and singing to him with a voice of thanksgiving. Brothers and sisters, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” That should be the cry of every Christian in this room. That is our cry when we are sinking deep in sin. That is our cry when we are victorious over sin.

So, do not go to sleep tonight without thanking the LORD for saving you. And spend some time today reflecting on what you must do now that you are saved.