No matter how far you go, God will still find you. In this instance, Jonah was intending to go 2,000 miles away from where he should have been, but God caught up with him because he is everywhere present and sovereign. Even in our rebellion, even in our stubbornness, there is the providence of God in this incident of imprisonment in the belly of a fish, is that Jonah rediscovered grace. Many Christians are familiar with the story of Jonah, particularly children who have grown up in a Christian home, but sometimes being familiar with a story means we miss its important lessons. Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thank you for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. Although you and I will likely never experience what Jonah did, as we'll hear today from Dr. Derek Thomas, Jonah's encounter both with the whale and God reminds us of the sweetness of the gospel, and provides many practical helps for Christians today. Let's listen in.
Here's Dr. Thomas. Well, hello again, and this is number four in our series of characters who found themselves imprisoned and lessons that they learned from that experience of imprisonment, and in some cases, the imprisonment was 10 years in Joseph's case and overnight, maybe for others like Micaiah. And of course, you may wince a little now if the next person and the next person chronologically in the Old Testament I've chosen is Jonah, and it's a metaphorical prison.
He was locked in it for three days, and of course, we were talking about the whale. Jonah comes about a hundred years or so after the last character, Micaiah, Micaiah in the reign of Ahab in the northern kingdom of Israel, and we're about almost a hundred years later under the reign of Jeroboam the Second, somewhere in the middle of the late 800s and early 700s, hard to be exactly precise as to when this incident occurred. Well, there's messing up, and then there's Jonah. Chapter 1 of Jonah is an indictment on him, and there's no way of getting around it.
There's no way of rationalizing it away. Jonah doesn't like Ninevites. They are pagans.
They have in the past been enemies of Israel in moments of expansionism and political opportunity. It's a form of racial despising that Jonah, when God asks him to go to the Ninevites to proclaim the unsearchable riches of the gospel per 8th century BC, Jonah says, no. And he, instead of going east to the Tigris River and then some to Nineveh, he goes in the opposite direction, and he goes west to Joppa. He finds a boat. He has money to pay for a ticket, and he heads out into the Mediterranean Sea, heading for Tarshish, which is possibly Spain and possibly the British colony at the very southernmost tip of Spain, Gibraltar.
It was a land of great wealth, and Solomon, as we will have occasion to comment in a minute, Solomon purchased luxury items, luxury goods in the form of delicacies and food and wine and monkeys and other things from Tarshish. So, instead of slogging it as a missionary in Nineveh to people he didn't like and frankly didn't deserve the mercy of God, the mercy of God, he's heading for Shangri-La in what is possibly Spain. We have a euphemism, doing a Jonah, and doing a Jonah means running away from God, doing the very opposite of what we should be doing. The book opens in chapter 1 and verse 3, Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and that's very indicative of what's the central problem here, and the central problem is Jonah. Jonah is fleeing the presence of God, and in Hebrew, the word presence is also the word for face. So, he doesn't want to have eye contact with God, and metaphorically he has turned his back on God, and he's running away. Well, that's a problem we meet in Genesis chapter 3, when Adam and Eve are hiding from the presence of God, and God comes and says, where are you and why are you hiding? Because sin makes it difficult for us to look into the face of God, and when we sin, we turn our backs on God. We don't look at Him in His face.
There's no eye contact. It's a deception on the part of Jonah, and Tarshish is this wonderfully exotic place and romanticized as a place of great paradise and, as I said, a Shangri-La. Perhaps we can ask a question at this point. What does doing a Jonah look like for you and for me? But things don't go according to plan, and there is a storm at sea, and Jonah interprets it correctly as God's judgment on his poor decision-making, and he asks the sailors to throw him overboard, and they oblige him, and a fish comes and swallows him, and he is in the belly of this whale for three days and three nights. Is this real? Is this real? Is it an allegory? Is it just a story? Well, Matthew 12 and verse 40 suggests that Jesus, citing this and talking about the sign of Jonah, the picture of Jonah being in this prison belly of this whale for three days and three nights, becomes a picture, a symbol, of Jesus' burial for three days and three nights and the sign of Jonah, and Jesus alludes to it as though it was historical.
Well, if it's good enough for Jesus, it sure enough should be good enough for you and me. Now, there was a story just a few months ago, as I'm recording this, of a man who was swallowed by a whale on the northeast coast of the United States in New England somewhere, and it was a story that made the TV news. It was one of those relief moments from the dreadful news that often occupies the news broadcast, and to be sure, he was only in the mouth of this whale, according to the story, and he was only in there for a short time. Whether it is true or not, I have absolutely no idea, but being swallowed by a whale, swallowed by a whale, that kind of imprisonment is certainly something that seems to have occurred in our own time. Bertha Sinclair Ferguson, my fellow Ligonier, teaching fellow, puts it in his book on Jonah that he wrote half a century ago, I think, a long time ago.
And Man Over Board, it's called, and I read it probably forty years ago, certainly thirty-five years ago. The deeper work of God took place, not in the belly of the whale, but in Jonah's heart. And if we get sidetracked, I think, as we sometimes do, on proving the medical veracity of someone being able to survive in the belly of a whale, how would he breathe?
Would he not be drowned or suffocated or whatever? And some of those narratives are driven without an eye to the supernatural, and that God could very easily have acted supernaturally to keep him alive in the belly of that whale. But if that's our focus, I think we've missed the point, and the point is not the stomach of this sea creature, but the real focus is the heart of Jonah. Jonah, first of all, learned something about himself in this incident. Jonah was a prophet.
He's mentioned among the band of prophets in 2 Kings 14, at the time when there were schools of prophets, peripatetic prophets that went hither and yon, but he's now a disgruntled prophet and fallen out with God and thrown overboard and almost drowned and swallowed by this great creature. And at last, he comes to his senses in this dark and smelly context in which he finds himself in, and he is in great distress. He is in great distress, and he begins in chapter 2, and that's where I want to focus. He begins in chapter 2 to pray. Verse 17 of chapter 1, the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of this fish. He begins to pray, and this is not just a foxhole prayer.
We're familiar with foxhole prayers. This is a man of God who is seriously out of sorts. He is seriously backslidden.
He has allowed his native prejudices to make a really, really, really bad decision. But now, in God's providence, in the extraordinary providence of God, he has come to his senses, and God was punishing him. And as you read this prayer in chapter 2 of Jonah, he understands, he calculates that the reason for this providence, this imprisonment, is because God is punishing him for the wretchedness of his heart. And then in verse 8, he says, those who pay regard to vain idols, and in this case, the idol of Tarshish, forsake their hope of steadfast love. And there is a great deal of translation, debate, and discussion over this particular verse, and different versions will translate this in different ways. Way too complex to go into in this brief teaching episode, but I am most certainly aware of the Hebrew difficulties with the verse. But the ESV has gone with those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. In other words, if you pursue idolatry, you forsake the covenant love, the covenant hazard love, the loving kindness, as the English translations have rendered it, of God.
In other words, you're heading in the wrong direction. Jonah realized that he was a sinner. So, the first thing is that Jonah learned something about himself. As you read this prayer, this prayer, it sounds like a psalm. As many of the prayers of God's people, one thinks of the Magnificat, for example, of Mary.
When you read it, it's infused with the language of the Psalms, the Psalms formed for the church for centuries, the language of prayer, the language of spirituality. What do you say to God when you find yourself in trouble? What do you say to God when you find yourself angry? What do you say to God when you feel neglected? What do you say to God when your enemies are coming upon you, when life doesn't seem to be fair? Well, you pray like the psalmist prays. It is the vocabulary of prayer, and I think that Jonah is reflecting in this prayer the kind of spirituality that once he had known as a prophet.
This was the language of his prayer. The second lesson that we learn in this chapter is that no matter how far you go, God will still find you. In this instance, Jonah, we don't know how far he actually got, but Jonah was intending to go 2,000 miles away from where he should have been. But God caught up with him because he is everywhere present and sovereign. And God puts him, in the words of Jim Packer, God put Jonah in a custom-built time-out zone, a custom-built time-out zone, three days and nights, and probably in the Jewish sense. So, just as Jesus spent 31, 32 hours Friday night, all day Saturday, and then early before dawn on Sunday.
So, those are three days in the reckoning of the Jews, but in terms of hours, we're talking perhaps of 30 to 32 hours or so. And once again, it's an example of the providence of God, even in rebellion, even in our rebellion, even in our stupidity, even in our stubbornness, there is the providence of God. In verses 5 and 6, you have the awful scene described for us. The waters closed in over me to take my life. The deep surrounded 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, yet you brought me up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God. And he is describing, and he mentions it in verse 2, he talks about the belly of Sheol. He's being brought to the realm of the dead. That's what Sheol means, to the realm of the dead.
He was entering into the grave metaphorically and spiritually and almost physically. And Sheol as Dante in his Divine Comedy said of Sheol, abandon hope, all ye that enter here. Well, he longs in verse 8 to be back in the temple, and he longs to be surrounded by the steadfast love, the covenant mercies of God.
No matter how far you go, God will find you, and he learns in this context the value of prayer. And perhaps some of this prayer language was so instinctive. It was so part of the warp and woof of who he was as a prophet, despite this particular act of rebellion, that when he turns to the Lord, the language of those psalms come back to him with great potency. The third thing that he discovers in this incident of imprisonment in the belly of a fish is that he rediscovered grace.
He rediscovered grace. There are signs here that God is at work in his heart, his worship, his prayer. In verse 9, his consecration, but I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord. What I have vowed I will pay.
When you appreciate that you've been saved by grace alone, there's nothing that you don't want to do for the Lord. You want to pay your vows. You want to live for Him out and out. You want to be wholly consecrated to Him. We've made many vows, but among them are vows that we will follow Him no matter what. We will follow Him to the very end, no matter how difficult the path, no matter how difficult the terrain that He sets us upon. And so, you see this rediscovery of God's steadfast love, and it leads him to this act of consecration. Well, it's a start, and it's a good start.
But in chapter 4 of Jonah, he'll be back to his serial self-pity, sitting underneath that gourd and caring more for this plant than for the salvation of sinners in Nineveh. And so, the work that God is doing in Jonah's heart was only a start. It was only a beginning.
But that is us, isn't it? I remember seeing a picture of a garage, a garage that sold cars. But it was on two stories, and a workshop downstairs, sales and perfection, as it were, upstairs. And that was a picture of our lives. This is the workshop with all the ups and downs of our broken promises.
But the finished product, as it were, is upstairs when we get home to glory. A young woman named Anne Steele had encountered one of those periods of trial and disappointment. And her mother died when she was three, and when she was nineteen, she suffered a severe hip injury that left her an invalid. And eventually, she fell in love and was engaged to be married. But the day before the wedding, her fiancé drowned.
And later, Anne Steele penned the following song. Father, what air of earthly bliss Thy sovereign will denies. Accepted at Thy throne of grace, let this petition rise. Give me a calm, a thankful heart, from every murmur free.
The blessings of Thy grace impart, and make me live for Thee. And it's an echo, I think, of what Jonah was trying to say in the belly of this fish. The sad thing for Jonah, and if we're honest, the sad thing to us too is that God has to do these extreme things to get our attention, to wake us up, as it were, to the reality of who He is and what He has done for us in the gospel. Well, that's Jonah. We'll look at the fifth Old Testament character in our next lesson.
Because we can sadly be like Jonah, it is a great encouragement and truth that God loses none of His own, and He does wake us up to remind us who He is. In fact, these messages all week have been reminding us of the grace of God, and so I would encourage you to request the complete series. It's actually 12 messages in total, and we'll happily send it to you for your donation of any amount. You can give your gift today at renewingyourmind.org or by calling us at 800-435-4343. That series is titled Imprisoned Faith in All Circumstances. Not only will we send you the DVD set, we'll also give you digital access to the study guide, which includes overviews of each message, study questions, and other ways to enhance your understanding of this series. So call us today at 800-435-4343 or visit us at renewingyourmind.org. Join us tomorrow as Dr. Derek Thomas continues his series Imprisoned here on Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
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