In the last chapter, we saw how the sailors were terrified by the great storm and were at their wits’ end. Nevertheless, they made every possible effort to save the life of Jonah. But at last, they were left with no option except to toss the disobedient prophet overboard. However, the sovereign God Who had sent out the stormy wind in the first place also prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And there in the fish’s belly, he poured out his soul in anguish and repentance before the Lord. This prayer, which is recorded for us in this chapter, consists of quotations from the Book of Psalms. It is exactly the kind of cry which would be uttered under such circumstances by a man who was familiar with the sacred penitential writings of his people. And at the end of the chapter, we find that Jehovah interfered once again, and the prophet was released from the belly of the fish.
From the opening lines of the repentant prophet’s prayer (verses 1-3), we may learn a solemn lesson: sin will assuredly bring trouble, even to God’s dear sons and daughters. That is exactly what is stated in the terms of His covenant of grace (Ps. 89:30-32): “If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.” But notice the Lord’s words in verse 33 of that Psalm: “Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail!” And so we see that it is His love that causes Him to send afflictions upon His wandering children – not to cause them suffering, but only to make them anxious to return to Him and enjoy the smiles and kisses of His love! Indeed, almost nothing else will serve to drive the wandering child of God back home to Him – except afflictions. And when a distressed soul imagines that it is deserted by the Lord, that is the heaviest of all griefs. Jonah said to himself, “I am cast out of thy sight!” (verse 4) And it was that very same thought which added to the weight of the Redeemer’s sorrows (Ps. 22:1-2). But we must understand that none of the children of men – not even Jonah – have ever truly experienced a state of being “God-forsaken.” The only Man Who really was forsaken by the Father was the Lord Jesus Himself, as He endured the soul-agonies of the garden and the cross as He paid the price for our sin.
Jonah had told himself (incorrectly so) that he was cast out of God’s sight (verse 4). But his next words are very remarkable. “Yet,” says he, “I will look again toward thy holy temple!” And again, in verse 7: “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.” If we have studied the Old Testament, we will remember that the Temple was a picture or foreshadow of Christ. He was the sum and substance of the whole Temple, and of all its furniture. Hence Jonah – like all of God’s true children of old – was looking to the as-yet-unrevealed Messiah for his salvation! And surely we do not need to be reminded that no matter what the afflictions of God’s children may be, there can be no relief to any or all of them, except for that which comes through faith’s confidence and hope in Jesus.
The prophet goes on to reflect upon the favor of God to him when he sought Christ and trusted in Him during his time of distress. Even though he had been cast into the depths of the sea and should have drowned, and even though the seaweed had wrapped themselves around him and threatened to choke him to death; yet he acknowledges that it was the Lord God Who mercifully spared his life (verses 5-6). Then he warns others and reminds them to keep close to the Lord (verse 8). Those who forsake their God-given duty also forsake their only source of mercy; those who run away from the work of their place and day also run away from the comfort of it. And as far as a believer copies the children of the world, who observe and chase after deceitful vanities; he forsakes the Lord of mercy, and does not live in the enjoyment of the privileges that are rightfully his. But this warning is followed by a promise of thanksgiving, and a declaration that salvation is indeed “of the Lord” (verse 9). Thus Jonah’s experience encourages other saints, in all ages, to trust in Jehovah as the God of salvation.
See what a gracious prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God we serve! And so sweetly did another of His servants bear testimony to the same truth in Psalm 130:1-3. The same Lord Who sent the great fish to swallow the disobedient prophet now commanded him to spit out the repentant prophet on the dry land! But let us not lose sight of how Jonah’s miraculous deliverance from the fish’s belly is a spiritual representation of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus! Just as the belly of the fish could not detain Jonah when Jehovah ordered his deliverance; so also, the grave could not detain Christ when He had paid the debt of our sins, and satisfied both Divine law and Divine justice. He came forth from the tomb; and the Father took to Himself the glorious name of the God of peace, when He brought again from the dead Jesus Christ, through the blood of the everlasting covenant!
Lord, we pray for grace so that the afflictions which You bestow upon us may never drive us farther away from You. Rather, may they lead us along the trail of repentance, back to Your loving and merciful presence! Amen.
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illustration by Charles Foster, 1915