Sermon preached on Jonah 1:17-2:10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/5/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Salvation is of the LORD”
So, I have to admit. When I was younger and would read the book of Jonah, I’d often want to quickly move through Jonah chapter 2. Almost skip over it essentially. If I recall, I didn’t skip over it, because that seemed wrong. But I’d quickly read it as quick as I possibly could to get back to the story line, or at least that’s what I thought. Jonah chapter 2 is clearly something different. It’s a song, a psalm. And its poetry – a different genre than the rest of the book. And yet, as I’ve grown, I’ve learned to appreciate Hebrew poetry more, and so I’ve spent a good deal more time studying it. What I found, is that like most poetry, you need to slow down when you read it, not speed through it. And like most poetry, I found I greatly appreciated it, after more serious reflection. That’s what I found in Jonah chapter 2, and I hope that today you’ll share in that joy as we look at this lovely psalm.
Now, sometimes it might seem strange to us that right in the middle of a story like this, that we find the narrative of Jonah almost interrupted to have this song sung. And yet that’s something in our own culture we’ve done. Just watch some TV episodes of I Love Lucy, and they regularly interrupt the storyline to have a song or musical performance. Even more so, this is not out of the ordinary in Scripture. There are several places where in the midst of God’s great salvation, that the people stop to sing some praise. Miriam, Moses, Deborah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary, are just a few saints whose songs are recorded for us in the midst of historical books. In the midst of narrative. It’s the idea of the new song. That a new song is sung to celebrate some new saving act of God. That is what Jonah is doing here. Jonah realizes from the belly of the fish that he has been saved.
Just remember from last week what had happened. Jonah had disobeyed God. He went on the run. He got on the ship and tried to sail away from God. That proved futile when God sent a big storm after him. When the sailors discovered from Jonah that the huge storm was directed at him, they asked what should be done. Jonah said that they should throw him overboard. That’s ultimately what they did. Jonah should have died at that point. When you are thrown overboard in the middle of the ocean, far from land, in the midst of a great storm, you are going to die. That is, unless some salvation comes to you. Well, that salvation came to Jonah. Chapter 1, verse 17, God had a fish swallow Jonah to save him. It’s in this song, that Jonah acknowledges that salvation. And it’s in this song we learn a little bit more about the story of Jonah. We get to see a bit of what was going on inside him after he was thrown overboard from the boat. On the boat he had no signs of repentance, and we saw no prayers out of him. Finally, this psalm reveals a change in Jonah’s heart as he fell to his death in the mighty waters of the sea.
So let’s begin then today by analyzing the structure of this passage and this psalm. I had us read beginning in chapter 1, verse 17, because despite the later chapter breakdowns, that verse really serves to bracket this psalm. 1:17 and 2:10 are the narrative hooks for this passage. They both focus on God’s action with the fish. In 1:17, God appointed a fish to swallow Jonah and save him from drowning. In 2:10, God commands the fish to spit Jonah up on dry land. So these verses are like the introduction and conclusion to this passage. Chapter 2, verse 1, then is the transition to the psalm. It’s there that we find when he uttered this psalm. It’s from within the fish, after he is swallowed, but before he is spit up on dry land.
The structure of the psalm itself then can be divided up into three parts. Verses 2-4 are part one. They reflect on Jonah’s peril of drowning, his calling out to the Lord, and his hope. Verses 5-7 are part two, and they are essentially a reprise of the first part. This second part recapitulates the first section, further developing the ideas of the peril, and the calling out to God, and the hope, and ultimately salvation. The last part is verses 8-9. This is the conclusion to the psalm, and it offers assessment and response by Jonah to God’s great salvation.
And so let’s dig into this psalm. And let me start by noting that this psalm is a thanksgiving psalm. In Scripture, there are different categories of psalms. Psalms of thanksgiving is one category. Another category is psalms of lament. That would be a psalm that laments a plight and calls out to God for help and salvation. It’s important to note that this is not a lament psalm. No, in the view of Jonah, the salvation had already happened. And so he thanks God. And so rather in thanksgiving psalms, you find that a plight is recounted, and God’s salvation is described and praised. That’s what we have here. And it’s important, because even though his salvation is not complete – he is still in the belly of the fish – to Jonah his salvation is already a certainty in his mind. It’s similar to the already/not-yet salvation experience in which Christians find themselves.
Let’s begin then with the first part of the psalm in verses 2-4. These verses right away recount Jonah’s affliction. Verse 2, “I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, and he answered me.” Remember he was thrown out of the ship to the middle of the ocean. The second half of verse 2 has the parallel thought, typical of Hebrew poetry. “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” You can’t help but notice the belly language and see the symbolism that he was saved from the belly of Sheol by now being in the belly of a fish! Now, Sheol is another name for Hades. This is the name in the Hebrew given where souls go when you die. So, do you see how serious his plight was? Verse 2 says that his affliction was that he was about to die. He sees his death as good as certain when he describes himself as already being in the belly of Sheol. But what did Jonah finally do at that moment? Verse 2 says that he called out to the Lord. It’s what sailors had already been doing on the ship, of course. What he was told to do by them, but didn’t. But now, finally, at the brink of death, he calls out to God for help. And the good news – God heard his voice and answered him. Already we see the salvation starting to be acknowledged in this psalm.
But then in verse 3 he goes into further detail of his troubles. Notice the aquatic imagery. He talks of being cast into the deep, into the heart of the seas. Being surrounded by the flooding waters. Billows and waves. I think of the similar themed song called Flood by Jars of Clay – there of course describing the judgment of the flood during Noah’s time. But you’d imagine it would have to be a similar experience. Now it’s not that uncommon to find a psalm talks about the peril of the waters. That’s common imagery used in the psalms. Yet, here it’s used in a very literal way for Jonah. He was literally faced with the water and the waves crashing down upon him. He might have tried to swim through it all, but the sea would ultimately win. Jonah’s description is pretty sobering when you actually imagine him in the water like that.
Verse 4 closes this first part in a climactic way. In the midst of his plight, he had called out to God. And in the midst of the seeming certainty of death, two contrasting ideas come upon him. This is Hebrew parallelism too – but its contrasting parallelism in verse 4. Two contrasting ideas. One a sense of ironic judgment. The other a hope of divine salvation. Verse 4. “Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.'” On the one hand, he recognizes the absence of God’s presence in this watery judgment. On the other hand, he has hope that he will again taste of God’s presence, as he looks upon God’s holy temple. The irony here is that in chapter 1, Jonah’s mission was to flee God’s presence. Ironically, he could not escape God. But now when it seems God has abandoned to the sea, he puts his plight in terms of God’s presence not being there. Cast out of God’s sight. He wanted to escape God’s presence. Now he finds that accomplishing that wasn’t such a good idea after all. Here you do find a biblical rationale for understanding hell as the absence of God’s presence. Not in the sense that God is not omnipresent. But rather, that God’s judgment and hell is ultimately the removal of all God’s goodness and involvement from your life. That’s hell. I don’t like it when people only talk about hell in this way – as the absence of God’s presence. But this is certainly one way we can think about hell. Well, Jonah was getting a taste of this right here in the sea at the brink of death. But Jonah had hope. He hoped that this absence of God’s presence was only temporary. That he would again look up the abode of God – his heavenly temple. Surely he had that hope because of verse 2. That he had called upon the name of the Lord. With a heart finally breaking in repentance, he cries out for help. And he knows God. He knows the compassion of God and hopes and trusts that yet he will find mercy. And so he’s recounting all of this from inside the fish, having already been saved from the drowning in the sea.
Let’s look at the second part of the psalm now – the reprise of verses 5-7. Verses 5 and 6 continue the aquatic imagery. They bring it so close to home. Verse 5. As the waters close around him, he says it touches even to his soul. He realizes the significance. He’s under divine judgment. His physical death in this way is but representative of a divine judgment that goes beyond the physical. Finally we find him have a right fear; fear of him who can cast both body and soul into hell. The imagery is so powerful here. Powerful, because this doesn’t seem to just be figurative imagery. It sounds like he’s poetically recounting how he almost drowned. Verse 5 – weeds wrapped around his head! Or then in verse 6. You can just see him dropping down, down, down and then bang, he hits the bottom. The bottom of the sea floor – he went down to the roots of the mountains. Again the imagery turns from physical to bring out the spiritual dimension too. Verse 6 talks of the earth with its bars closing behind him. This prison language seems to get you to recall Sheol again – which would have been understood as a prison. He sees that his physical death in the sea is going to leave his soul imprisoned in an eternal death. And so here is a man that finally is realizing the consequences of his sin. Yet, in God’s grace, he finds that this hope late in time was not too late or misplaced. The contrasting parallelism in verse 6 switches to talk of salvation. Though the prison of Sheol seemed to be his destiny, God brought him back up. Now the direction changes. Before the direction was down, down, down. Now he is lifted up in verse 6. In verse 7, his prayer went up, up into God’s holy temple.
We see the same idea of his calling upon God in this second half when we says in verse 7, that he remembered the LORD. The sense is that it took Jonah to sink all the way to the bottom, to the absolute brink of death, then he remembered God. He had to hit rock bottom, then he called out to God. Then, finally, he is expressing repentance and faith. Faith in calling out to God and hoping in his salvation. Repentance in once again desiring God’s presence. Repentance that acknowledged that fleeing from God’s presence was not good. Repentance that longed to find again God’s presence in his holy temple. When his soul was ebbing away, he finally repents, he finds godly sorrow, and he calls upon God for salvation.
And with grace upon grace, God answered that prayer. God saved Jonah by appointing a fish to pick him up from rock bottom. The final part of this psalm then recognizes this. Verses 8 and 9 offer assessment and response. Verse 8, “Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy.” He gives a general statement of rebellion and its outcome. Going away from God, going to idols, does not pay. Instead, you forsake the benefits of God that would be yours. The word for mercy here is the rich Hebrew word hesed. A word often translated as steadfast love, but probably best understood as covenant loyalty. It’s a rich word that expresses how God in faithfulness to his covenant expresses love, and kindness, and grace and mercy toward his people. This is what you leave behind when you turn away from God. Jonah hadn’t per se taken up man-made idols. But he recognizes that his own plight was a turning away from God. It was no better than the idol worship that he was going to preach against in Nineveh – whether he makes that connection or not, at this point.
And yet better things had been in store for Jonah. God hadn’t left him. God in fact used this sea and the waves and even the seaweed to break Jonah. To make him realize what he didn’t want to lose. To bring him to repentance. And in that, God saves him. Saves him from the sea. And saves him from sheol. Body and soul, Jonah is saved. Verse 9 expresses Jonah’s response. It’s what this psalm is. Thanksgiving! His song is a song of thanksgiving. And he envisions a future in which he’ll be able again make sacrifices at the temple of God. Evidently he made a vow to God in this process as well – and he acknowledges that he will pay that as well. Here his hope of returning to the presence of God is seen in its culmination. He will return to the Promised Land. He’ll return to the temple. He’ll return to worship with God’s people. This is the full extent of his salvation. And so he declares at the end – “Salvation is of the LORD!” How true that it is. God is the one who saves. How true we know that as Christians. Salvation is of the LORD!
Jesus helps drive home this truth for us in Matthew 12. What a wonderful way he does this. He talks about the sign of Jonah. He’s talking about what’s in this passage. He says that the sign of Jonah is something that looks forward to Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus said in Matthew 12:40. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The miracle of Jonah was a model and a picture of an even greater miracle that would happen with Jesus. Jonah was saved from death by the fish. But his time in the fish was like in some way Jesus’ time in the tomb. Jesus would die and be buried and remain under the power of death for a time. And yet Jonah was spit up and lived on. Jesus, in a similar way, overcame death – it could not hold him. And so Jonah’s exit from the fish was like having his life back from death. Jesus did die and rise again and have his life back. Jonah then would go on to proclaim a message to Nineveh that would result in their repentance and forgiveness. Jesus’ message before and after his death was a call for repentance. Repentance and faith that brings forgiveness to any who heed that call. Forgiveness made possible because Jesus died on the cross. A death that provides for our salvation. A death that made it possible that those Ninevites could be saved. A death that made possible Jonah’s salvation here in chapter 2.
And so Jonah’s experience here with the sea and the whale is a sign, Jesus says. Surely it’s a sign ultimately of the forgiveness that’s coming. The salvation that’s coming. Of the life from death that is coming. Jonah was as good as dead and yet God saved him. God showed him his hesed – his saving mercy and kindness and loyalty to be gracious to those who call upon him. Well, God’s hesed is available because of the cross. Because his blood was shed; the blood of the new covenant. And so we can’t preach this message of Jonah today, without preaching the message of Christ and the cross. Believe in Christ. Repent from your sins. Turn to him and find life from death. Find the salvation that is of the LORD!
That is what we as Christians have found. Well, if you were Jonah, he would have found such relief and newness of vigor when he was finally standing on the shore. He would have been back from the dead, in a sense. Think of how he must felt when he finally stood back up on dry land. He probably kissed the ground. Well, for us as Christians, we too have come back from the dead. Scripture tells that Christians have died with Christ, and are now raised with Christ. And so if Jonah went on to serve the Lord after coming back from the dead, how much more should we! And how much more should we response with thanksgiving and praise?
And yet realize, that Jonah was already thanking God while he was still in the belly of the fish. His salvation was only partially complete at that time, but he trusted that God would bring it to completion. Let us to be thanking God, even before our salvation comes to its completion. In the big picture, that means we are thanking him, even before the great day of his return, when our salvation is made complete. But even in our every day trials, when we call out to him for help, we thank him for each blessing and answered prayer. Even if our prayers haven’t been answered in their entirety yet. If Jonah can thank God like this psalm while still inside the fish – surely then we ought to thank God even when our prayers are only beginning to be answered. Even before God has seen you fully through that particular trial. Let us rather trust in God’s hesed and in his salvation. God is faithful and he will bring you safely through all life’s trials.
Let me end with one final plea to any today who may be living in open rebellion against God right now. You know if this is you or not. Jonah was living like that. And it was when he hit rock bottom that he finally realized that he did need the Lord. Sometimes that’s what has to happen to us. Sometimes God allows us to hit rock bottom because he knows that’s how we’ll learn the best that we really do need him. And so if you are at rock bottom today, my counsel is to call out to God for help. He is there to save. He saves those who hit rock bottom. And yet let me also say this. You don’t have to wait until rock bottom. Today you can turn from your rebellion against God. Today you can be renewed in the joy of your salvation. Today you can call out to God and find his answer to your call. Why wait until rock bottom? Call upon him today.
And so we join with Jonah today and declare, “Salvation is of the LORD!” How true that is. How clearly we have seen that with Jesus. Praise the Lord! Amen.
Copyright (c) 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.