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Sermon preached on Jonah 1:17-2:10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/25/2018 in Novato, CA.
“With the Voice of Thanksgiving”
With our nation just celebrating a national day of thanksgiving this week, I wanted us to also spend our sermon reflecting on the doctrine of thanksgiving. And so, I bring us this psalm of thanksgiving today from Jonah chapter 2. This chapter really is a high point for the prophet Jonah in a book bracketed with low points. What I mean is that chapters 1 and 4 are full of uncommendable actions by Jonah. Chapters 2 and 3 are the opposite. And in my judgment, it’s especially this psalm in chapter 2 that is the culmination of the high point in this book. Here, Jonah worships God in thanksgiving because he has known the salvation of the LORD. That is surely to be our story as well in Jesus Christ. Let us then walk through this passage then with that framework, thinking of Jonah’s circumstances in light of our salvation and thanksgiving.
Let’s begin then first to think in terms of salvation. In verse 9, Jonah’s psalm declares that “Salvation is of the LORD!” That’s at the end of the psalm, but it’s at the end to sum up what the psalm throughout has been talking about. This is a psalm describing how God saved Jonah from death. Remember, the scene in chapter 1 ends with Jonah being thrown overboard off a ship into the middle of the sea. Under normal circumstances, this would spell death. Jonah should have drowned that day. If the imagery of the psalm is to be understood literally, Jonah came very close to drowning. But God saved him by sending this great fish to swallow Jonah. We see after the psalm that the fish basically became Jonah’s lifeboat. For after three days and three nights, the LORD had the fish vomit Jonah up onto the safety of dry land.
Notice some of the features of how the psalm describes the physical reality of this near-drowning experience. In verse 3 it describes that God cast Jonah into the deep, into the sea, and that the waters surrounded him like a flood. Verse 5 repeats that description of the waters encompassing him, and even mentions seaweed wrapping around his head. In verse 6 it describes him going down to the moorings of the mountains. That seems to describe him hitting the bottom of the seafloor, where he has come to the very base of the mountains. He had hit the lowest point in his life in a very a literal way.
At the same time that we see this language of the sea and physical drowning described in this psalm, there is also the language that looks past the physical to the spiritual; to death and beyond. In verse 2 he describes himself as crying out to God from the belly of Sheol. Sheol is the equivalent Hebrew word for Hades, a reference to the spiritual underworld, the grave for the spirit after death. Verse 6 uses similarly colorful language when it describes bars closing behind him forever; the language of bars is an idiom here for Sheol. So too the language in verse 6 about the “pit”. And so, realize what Jonah was thinking. When he was nearing death, he began to think in terms not only of the physical aspect of death. But he also began to think of the destination of his soul in the afterlife. Surely, his soul had not been in a good place as he approached death. And so, as death, physical and spiritual began to clutch hold of him, he comes to his senses and cries out to God for help. And praise the Lord that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness, one who relents from doing harm. For as Jonah gave that final cry to God for help, the Lord heard him and saved him.
Jonah’s salvation should remind us of how we are saved. In fact, Jesus himself told us that. In Matthew 12:38-42, Jesus said that Jonah was a sign that prefigured what he himself would do. Jonah, after being in the fish for three days came out alive. It was a picture of being dead and coming back to life. That is what Jesus experienced literally on the cross. And he did it, so that all who put their faith in him would be saved from their sin. As we repent of our sin and cry out to Jesus for help, his death and resurrection becomes our death and resurrection. Salvation is of the Lord. As we’ve considered in this first point how Jonah came to this conclusion, so too we affirm again today this truth for us as well. Salvation is of the Lord!
Turning then to our second point, we see how Jonah’s salvation brought him to respond in thanksgiving. That’s our second point, to think about such a sacrifice of thanksgiving, as it is described in verse 9. Jonah’s thanksgiving is first expressed in that he wrote this psalm. Verse 9 mentioned the “voice of thanksgiving” and that voice finds its first expression in the singing of this psalm. There are various kinds of psalms in the Bible and this one definitely fits in the format of a psalm of thanksgiving. And I appreciate the faith that comes out in this psalm of thanksgiving. Think about it. Jonah was faced with death and is saved by God sending this fish to swallow him up. It’s then and there from the belly of that beast that he writes this psalm of thanksgiving. You know, if I was in that situation, I might not think that being swallowed by a fish is God saving me from drowning. I might be tempted to think something like so-called “murphy’s law” that just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, I get swallowed by a fish! But Jonah in the eyes of faith prayed for salvation from drowning so when the fish came and he survived being swallowed by the thing, he knew he was saved. He knew it so much that even though he had not yet been vomited up on dry land, in the meantime he was going to write a song of thanksgiving to God to herald his salvation! Praise the Lord!
This fact that Jonah offered up thanksgiving from the belly of the fish is a wonderful picture of thankfulness in the midst of an already, but not yet, salvation. I hope as soon as I say that you begin to make application to yourself as a Christian. We too have experienced an already, but not yet, salvation. Already, we have found divine pardon for our sins. We’ve been justified. Spiritually, we’ve experienced a new birth. Yet, we still live here in this fallen world, with all its troubles. Those troubles include our ongoing battle with our own flesh that yet has sinful cravings. Nonetheless, as sure as the Lord’s Word, he has promised to complete our salvation. He will ultimately perfect us in our sanctification and come again to bring us to a glorious new world that will have no more curse, no more misery, no more sin, and no more evil. We therefore ought to sing our thanksgivings to God. We declare our thankfulness for how we’ve already experienced his salvation. But we should also declare our thankfulness as well for the salvation he is going to bring for us. Because we truly believe it is a certain reality; it’s as good as happened because God said it would happen. So, we can and should bring forth our voice of thanksgiving in declaring that we have known the salvation of the Lord.
It would be important to note here that in verse 9 he goes on to describe this sacrifice of thanksgiving in terms of the paying of vows. He clearly believes he will ultimately be able to leave the belly of that fish and go back to the temple and pay what he had apparently vowed to the Lord as a gift of gratitude for his salvation. The Old Testament, in Leviticus 7:16 speaks of such vow offerings to be made at the tabernacle. Various other Old Testament passages speak of vows, including the voluntary yet binding nature of them – see Deuteronomy 23, for example. But what is also seen in several places is the connection of a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” with the paying of a “vow”. That is clearly the connection here in verse 9. It’s in the typical parallelism of Hebrew poetry, so that the two ideas are equated: thanksgiving and paying the vow. Verse 9, “I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed.” That same equating of a sacrifice of thanksgiving with paying what has been vowed is seen also in Psalm 116:17-18 and Psalm 50:14. The reason for the connection seems to be brought out in Psalm 66:13-14. In Psalm 66, the wording of thanksgiving is not there, but it describes paying the vow that was made when the psalmist was in trouble. In other words, in light of some need of salvation, a vow is vowed in asking for help, and afterwards, after being saved, the person in gratitude for that salvation is to go and pay what was vowed in the tabernacle. I would add an important clarification here. When this is described in the Psalm 116 reference, the context raises and answers the question about paying back God for all his saving benefits. It basically makes the point that paying vows and giving other offerings doesn’t and can’t repay God for his salvation. So, we shouldn’t think of vows in that regard. Rather, we should see them as an expression of thanksgiving. The idea in all these psalms is not of somehow bargaining with God or bribing God to bring you salvation with the promise of a gift. Rather, it’s the reasonable service of gratitude that as we have known such a great salvation that we of course should respond with a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Well, for the New Testament Christian, the Bible tells us what such a reasonable offering should be in light of our salvation. Rom. 12:1, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” This point is even connected subtly with the idea of paying these vows when Romans just before in 10:15 speaks of “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good news.” That’s a quote from Nahum 1:15 which immediately goes on to say how we should celebrate and pay our vows. Romans essentially does the same when it gets to Romans 12. It’s basically saying to present ourselves as our sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Let me say one more thing about paying these vows in Scripture. There is a big emphasis as well about doing so in the presence of the saints in holy assembly. For example, Psalm 22:25, “From Thee comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.” Similarly, Psalm 116:18, “I shall pay my vows to the LORD, oh may it be in the presence of all His people.” I could give other examples too. There is an emphasis in Scripture that when it comes time to pay a vow, such sacrifices of thanksgiving are rightly offered in the presence of the saints in the context of public worship. Obviously, this must be done in respect to Jesus’ admonition against doing your acts of worship for the purpose of being seen by others in order to be praised by others. But surely the reason why these are to be done for others to see is its an act of testifying to others about the saving works of God we’ve experienced. It’s about praising and glorifying God so that others see what God has done too and also glorify God. It’s like if someone gives you a great gift or does something really nice for you – you hopefully thank them personally, but depending on the circumstances you might go around mentioning to others as well how wonderfully you were blessed by that other person. Doing so would elevate that person in other people’s eyes. Likewise, when people would go to the temple during holy assembly and pay their vow and explain why they are thankful, it would elevate and glorify God before the people.
Hopefully the application from that is clear too. Yes, our thankfulness for all God’s saving works and his blessings in our lives should be personal. But Scripture also commends us to make public profession of our thanksgiving. And so, when we come together in holy assembly each Sunday, it is our fitting “sacrifice of thanksgiving” when we lift up together our voices of thanksgiving to praise and thank God for saving us. This becomes a public testimony to one another to the grace and mercy of God. As we worship God like this together; this reasonable worship should mutually elevate God’s name before each of us. For we see that he has saved each of us here who bear his name and sing his praise.
I’d like to turn now in a final point from Jonah and give a warning about how we can be tempted to fall into unthankfulness. Let me begin by saying that not thanking God is a sin; it is what the pagans do, according to Romans 1:21. This is thematic here in the book of Jonah too because in this book it keeps showing the pagans responding in ways that outdo Jonah. For example, the pagan sailors of chapter 1 already offered sacrifices and made vows unto the LORD before Jonah finally did the same in chapter 2. The pagan sailors did the same thing we see Jonah doing in today’s passage, but they beat him to it.
So, stop and think about the issues we see of Jonah here in this book. Yes, this chapter is a positive scene for Jonah in this book. But think of the lowlights. The book begins in chapter 1 with Jonah being unwilling to answer God’s call to service. Yes, I know that chapter 1 doesn’t put that in terms of Jonah being unthankful. But in light of this point of thankfulness here in chapter 2, I can’t help but go back and ask this question for chapter 1. When the book begins in chapter 1, Jonah, and frankly any of God’s people at that time, had already received God’s salvation and blessings in various ways. It’s great that he experiences more in chapter 2 and comes to a renewed sense of thanksgiving. But there should never be a time where one of God’s people aren’t thankful for God’s salvation. And so, in chapter 1, when God summons Jonah into service, his response should be one of grateful service. Jonah should have jumped up eager and willing to serve his Savior at any moment. That is in fact what Jonah does in chapter 3 when God reissues the call. After being so recently saved from death, Jonah quickly obeys this time. That response in chapter 3 should have been what Jonah did in chapter 1. He should have responded with grateful service right when God asked. That should have been the case for any Israelite back then. It should be the case for any of God’s people today. Yet, I can see why Jonah might not have done so in chapter 1. Too often we can become slow in our gratitude to God when we haven’t seen his saving work recently. Too often we can have very short-term memories. When God does some great work of salvation in our life, we can live in a sort of spiritual high for a few days or weeks. But it can be easy to drop back into a state of just taking God’s grace for granted. Over time our gratitude for the past works of God in our life can begin to wane. This is a temptation to be aware of.
Likewise, we see that by the time chapter 4 rolls around, Jonah is back to being ungrateful again. For example, God provides that plant to give him some comfort for a time from the scorching heat and wind, but we don’t see any thankfulness by Jonah for God providing that plant. Don’t be confused here with the pew Bible’s translation in 4:6 that Jonah was very “grateful”. The Hebrew word there should be translated like it is in the KJV and many others as “glad”. So, the text shows how much Jonah enjoyed the plant, but the Hebrew doesn’t say that he was thankful for the plant. Instead of being thankful, when the plant dies Jonah complains.
But Jonah’s attitude is actually worse than that. In chapter 4 we see that twice Jonah wishes death upon himself. He does this first after seeing God show mercy to Nineveh. Even though he personally had benefited from God’s mercy, Jonah didn’t want them to have such mercy. Evidently, he hated them that much. Similarly, after the plant dies, he again wishes to die. This is such a reverse of chapter 2. In chapter 2, faced with death, Jonah came to his senses and desired life and salvation. Now faced with God’s salvation of others and his own momentarily afflictions he wishes death upon himself. What a sad reversal for Jonah. What a fall from thankfulness that we see here with Jonah.
Again, I hope the applications are clear for us. How quickly we too can be tempted in these ways. After experiencing God’s salvation, we can fall into a presumption of his mercy, taking that mercy for granted, and upset when we don’t get it. We can have an entitlement mentality that robs the grace of grace! It’s especially hypocritical if we fall into Jonah’s attitude here of expecting and demanding that grace for ourselves while not wanting certain other people to get it themselves.
May instead we be reminded today of the proper response of thankfulness we should have to God as our savior. We should have thankfulness for the grace and mercy that has come in light of our sin, sins of both commission and omission. Like Jonah’s sin of commission when he fled God’s command; yet he still was able to find forgiveness upon repenting. And like Jonah’s sin of omission when he should have been thankful for having the plant for a time, a plant he enjoyed but did nothing to care for. So to for us: God our savior has been our salvation in the midst of our own sins of both commission and omission. Let us be renewed today in the truth that salvation is of the LORD. We have known this salvation in Jesus Christ.
In closing, I leave us with this final thought. For all intents and purposes, Jonah effectively experienced resurrection in this passage. God saved him from certain death. The question became, what would he do with it? Well, we have already experienced resurrection. Spiritually we have been born again, and at the end we will enjoy the final resurrection into glory. In the meantime, what we will do with our new life? May we live our new life out in grateful service to the Lord. With the voice and sacrifice of thanksgiving may we offer ourselves in gratitude unto Jesus! Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.