The Lord's Day Evening
November 25, 2007
“Learning Theology the Hard Way!”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Please be seated. Now this evening we are going to turn to the book of Jonah. The book of Jonah — the story not so much about a big fish, but the story about a big God.
Now, I learnt a pneumonic for the minor prophets: “Heaven Just Ain't Over Jordan.” It's the fifth one, Jonah, of the minor prophets…the “J”. Turn to the book of Jonah.
And in order for us to again have something of a context, the verse that I want us to think about tonight is verse 9 of chapter 2: “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” But it might have been a while since we read the book of Jonah, so I want to read way back in chapter one and catch this marvelous, extraordinary story. But before we do that, let's look to God in prayer. Let's pray.
Father, we thank You for the Scriptures, and we thank You especially for the book of Jonah. We thank You for this prophet, this extraordinary thing that happened to Him in Your sovereign power and grace. Now help us as we read this Scripture together. Come, Holy Spirit. Illuminate our understanding. Give us hearts to believe all that You have written, and we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Jonah, Chapter 1:
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Ammatai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
“But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.’
“And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, ‘Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ And he said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
“Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you that the sea may quiet down for us?’ for the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, ‘Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.’ Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, ‘Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.’ So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
“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.
“Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 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.
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.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away from Your sight;
yet I shall again look upon Your holy temple.’
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 up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord,
And my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;
What I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!’
“And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.”
Amen. May God add His blessing to that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Well, I'm sure the story of Jonah is more than familiar to all of you, and my purpose this evening is to draw attention to this epitomizing statement at the end of chapter two and verse nine: “Salvation belongs to [or perhaps even ‘comes from’] the Lord.”
“Nothing in my hands I bring;
Simply to Thy cross I cling.”
Or that stanza:
“Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no respite know;
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
John Owen, the Puritan, was fond of saying something — that it's one thing to know the truth; it's another thing to know the power of that truth. It's one thing to assert as a kind of catechism, “Salvation is of the Lord”; it's another thing to know that in the depths of our experience. Sometimes we need to experience truth. It's a wonderful thing to teach these boys and girls The Catechism. I love to hear them repeat The Catechism. It's an extraordinary blessing; it's one that I never had. It's much more difficult learning a catechism when you’re an adult than it is when you’re a child, as many of you know.
What does it mean to say “Salvation is of the Lord”? That we contribute nothing to our salvation? Sure, we need to exercise faith, and we need to engage in repentance. But these are non-contributory. Salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end. If God doesn't save us, then we're not saved. That's what Jonah learned in the belly of this fish, that salvation is all of God from beginning to end. That's what he learnt. He knew that. I'm sure that he knew that, but he needed to be taught it in the crucible of trial and suffering. Charles Haddon Spurgeon said this fish was an Arminian fish. As soon as Jonah said “Salvation is of the Lord,” he spat him out!
I want to ask tonight, what is it that Jonah learnt? What is it that God wanted to teach Jonah in particular? Well, a number of things.
I. Jonah needed to learn about sin.
The first thing, and it's something we so desperately need to learn, you and I, God taught him something about sin, ongoing sin. Sin that lies in our hearts. Sin that just will not go away. Even though we are saved, even though we belong to Christ, even though we are regenerate, even though we are the children of God, even though the Spirit dwells within us, there's still sin.
“The good that we would, we do not; the evil that we would not, that we find that we do. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?”
That ongoing daily struggle with sin. Jonah learnt that privilege was no guarantee to godliness.
Jonah is a prophet. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” That's the first verse. That's the opening verse of the book of Jonah. That's a standard formulaic Hebrew way of saying that he was a prophet — the word of the Lord came to him. He didn't make it up. It came to him. He was the instrument. He was the receptacle that received the word of God. God spoke to him. God spoke to him directly in a way that He doesn't do to you or me. He was a prophet. He was an Old Testament prophet. He was one of the minor prophets. He lived during the days of King Jeroboam. He's mentioned elsewhere in Scripture; in II Kings 14 there's a passing reference to Jonah.
Jonah lived in the north…he lived in Israel, that is. Not north as you think of it now, but north as regards Israel and Judah. He was a northern prophet. He was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the southern kingdom of Judah. He lived somewhere in the region roughly of Nazareth. He dwelt and ministered and prophesied in the dwindling days of the northern kingdom of Israel. He spoke directly to God's people. Enormous privilege, enormous status that he had, and yet he sinned; he sinned against privilege. He sinned against light. He was a prophet of God to whom God spoke directly, and yet he sinned in a catastrophic fashion.
He's a disgruntled missionary. God had called him to be a missionary. He’d called him to go to the Ninevites. He didn't like the Ninevites. He didn't think that they were deserving of the word of God. He didn't want to go there. He didn't think that God was right to send him there. He was a racist. He didn't like the Ninevites. He didn't think they were deserving of the grace of God. And he's angry. He's angry with God. He's angry with God's will, he's angry with God's providence, he's angry that he has been chosen to do a task that he doesn't want to do…that his heart isn't inclined to do.
There's an interesting thing that happens in chapter one. It's a way of describing how Jonah in one sense physically “went down.” And as he goes down, he goes down to Joppa, he goes down into the ship, and then he goes down into the belly of the ship to sleep, and then he goes down into the sea. And you can read that as you read chapter one. He's going down, and down, and down, and down. And the writer is playing a little trick with you, because in his heart he's going down and down and down into sin, into rebellion. He's rebelling against God.
Sometimes we don't appreciate the depths of our sin, and the depths of the potential that we have to sin, until God allows us free reign to exercise that sin. Most of the time God seems to put hedges — praise God that He does so! That He puts barriers, that He prevents us from performing what we are inclined to do; that the inclination is there, but the opportunity to do it isn't. Praise God for that! But God allows Jonah to fall. He allows Jonah to sink down and down and down. He sins against privilege.
He learnt, you see, that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” When Jonah heard God's call, what did he do? He ran away. He ran away to Joppa. He went south. Nineveh was northeast of where he lived, 600 miles maybe northeast of where he lived. So Jonah, you understand, is running away from the presence of the Lord. You notice how that was repeated in the opening chapter, that he was running away from the presence of the Lord and he heads in the opposite direction to the direction God wants him to go. He goes to Joppa. And, lo and behold, he wants to go to Tarshish. Tarshish is in...well, we're not sure where it is, but some believe that it's in southern Spain. That it's what we would today call Gibraltar…the Rock of Gibraltar across the Mediterranean from North Africa and Morocco. The Phoenicians had mining colonies in Tarshish. It's about 1800 miles from Joppa. Some commentators think, depending on what time of year it was in the various ports along which the boat would have called into and stayed for a while on its way to Tarshish, that this trip may have taken upwards of a year. That's a serious bit of mileage. That's a lot of air miles — or sea miles. He runs 1800 miles and more away from the direction that God wanted him to go. “The heart is deceitful, and desperately wicked.” He ran away from God's presence.
I know people who have stopped going to church. I know people who claim to be believers, and the Spirit came into their lives and seemingly regenerated them. They cried to the Lord and God seemingly saved them, but they've stopped going to church. And they've stopped reading the Scriptures. And they've stopped fellowshipping with God's people, because they’re angry with God. They’re angry with God because God asked them or told them to do something they didn't want to do. And there is no limit to the deceitfulness of our hearts. This is Jonah. This isn't some obscure believer. This is Jonah. This is a prophet of God, to whom God spoke directly. And he had to learn something about his heart. He had to learn something about sin.
I wonder, is God in these days teaching us something about our hearts: that it's one thing to know the truth, it's one thing to have it all up here in our heads, but we desperately need the grace of God, because our hearts are desperately wicked. And there lies within us a potential for untold sin, if God only allowed us the opportunity to do it. It is grace that prevents us, and Jonah is being taught something. It's a painful lesson. It's a hard lesson. It's a lesson none of us want, but it's a lesson that all of us need. As God teaches us about our heart, He opens it up, He performs this cardiac surgery. He opens up that chest to expose that heart, and to show it for what it really is and for the potential that still lies within us to rebel against our God, to run away from God's presence, to do the very opposite of what God wants us to do. He learnt something about sin.
II. Jonah learned about the providence of God.
He learned, secondly, something about providence, the providence of God. Can you believe it? When he goes to Joppa, there's a ship there ready, waiting to go as far away as you could possibly think. You know, Tarshish was the other end of the world for Jonah! For a Hebrew prophet who probably had never left northern Israel in his entire life to go 1800 miles to the west to what was to him the other side of the world, and there was a boat there in the dock, and he had the money to pay the fare. Seemingly, according to the commentators who have looked into this, seemingly it would have been a large sum of money, and he had it. And do you know what Jonah must have been saying to himself? “This is God's providence! How considerate of God. How kind of Him to provide this ship, to give me the resources to go in the direction that my heart is inclined to go.”
He learned something about the providence of God: that sometimes the providence of God won't prevent you from sinning. Sometimes it will. Sometimes God is so good to us that He stops us. He prevents us. He puts obstacles in our path. But sometimes He lets the reins go. He lets Jonah fall — down and down and down and down.
And what did Jonah discover? That you can't run away from God. That you can't run far enough. That the universe is too small. That Tarshish wasn't near enough far away to run away from the presence of God.
“If I take the wings of the morning, and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea, behold, You are there.”
You are there…. You know, Jonah learnt something about the omnipresence of God…the omnipresence of God.
“The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea,” the text says. And the mariners “hurled the cargo” into the sea to lighten the boat. And they cast lots to find out who it was, and the lot — lo and behold — fell on Jonah. And the men throw him overboard, and, lo and behold, right there there's a great fish ready to swallow him.
Now if you’re asking what kind of fish this is, and you may well be, how about a sperm whale? Can we leave it there? It's altogether possible. But you know, I know there are problems about being inside the belly of the whale for three days and three nights. It's three days and three nights in Hebrew reckoning, from sundown to sunrise, just like the resurrection was actually 36 hours, not three days and three nights as we count three days and three nights. But even so, you’d be a little bleached when you came out of that belly of the whale! This is a miracle. This is a miracle. There's no way round it. You can try and find stories (and they exist) of people who have been swallowed in the Antarctic by whales and spat up again. Those stories exist.
But you know, this is a miracle. It's not really a story about a big fish. If you have problems about the big fish, you’re going to have more problems about the raising of a dead man to life. God did this. God was in control. Do you think it took God by surprise that this little Hebrew prophet was falling into the sea somewhere in the Mediterranean? In a storm? Of course not! God had brought these circumstances about. God was watching over His servant. God wasn't about to let His servant go. He was teaching him a lesson, even to the extent of falling into the sea. What a graphic description in poetic language in chapter two of “going down to the roots of the mountains” and the weeds engulfing his neck.
You know…I don't know how else to put this, but the Jews in the Old Testament didn't like water. I didn't grow up to swim. I wasn't anywhere near the sea; I was a farmer out in the middle of the country somewhere. There weren't swimming pools. This is Wales, now; this isn't Mississippi. People would swim in the summer, but in frigid temperatures. It never struck me as anything that I really wanted to do, so I never really learnt to swim. And I'm sorry, I never did. The thought of being thrown overboard into the sea fills me with fear and trepidation, as seemingly did Jonah. But at every step of the way, as you imagine him falling down into the depths of this ocean, the hand of God was upon him. God was teaching him a lesson. But God provided a fish to swallow him and keep him alive.
You see, there's no stopping this God. There's something determined about God. You and I know people like that. Maybe it's our spouse! You know, once they’re determined to do something, they are determined to do it and there's no stopping them! They have their minds made up. And God has His mind made up:
“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.”
Jonah learned something about the sinfulness of his heart, but he learnt something too about the providence of God: that you can never escape the providence of God. You can't go far enough away to escape the providence of God. No matter where you are.
III. Jonah learned something about prayer.
But thirdly, he learnt something about prayer. It's a curious thing…it's a marvelous thing, it's a beautiful thing! In chapter 2…and if you’re reading in the pew Bibles, chapter 2 is indented because it's poetry. It's not prose any longer, it's poetry. And as we read chapter 2 of Jonah together, what did it sound like to you?
“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.”
Doesn't that sound like one of the Psalms? Don't you get the impression that you've read this somewhere before? That the language and the phraseology all sound very similar to us, because we've read it before. It's the language of the Psalter, it's the language of the Psalm book.
I don't know whether Jonah actually uttered all these words in verse form in the belly of the fish, or whether afterwards as he was retelling the story, you know, he doctored it up a little and turns it now into a beautiful psalm. Maybe it was a bit of both. But it's fascinating to me.
What is this psalm? It's a prayer. It's a prayer to almighty God. It talks about “out of the belly of Sheol.” Now Sheol in Hebrew is always associated with the realm of the dead. Jonah is saying ‘I'm as close to death as it's possible to get now. I'm at the end of my tether now. And out of the belly of Sheol, I cried, and You heard my voice.’
There in the most extreme of circumstances, in the belly of the fish, in the depths of the sea, as close to death as it's possible to come…and what is his instinct? It is to pray. God has brought him…do you see where God has brought him? He's brought him to an end of himself. He's brought him to an end of himself. There's nothing more that he can do now. He can't run any further. He's gone to the edge, and there is no further for him to go. That's how far he had to fall before he began to turn.
He says in verse 8, for example…he remembers. He remembers [in verse 7]: “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord.” I've met people…they grew up in church. They listened to their mother's prayers beside their bed at night. They learnt the catechism, but they rebelled. They went off to college, and they rebelled, and they rebelled big-time. And for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years they rebelled. They lived out in the world until God brought them to an end of themselves, and then all of a sudden they remembered. They remembered the Lord. They remembered the things that they had been taught.
And that's what Jonah is doing. He remembers. He cries out to the Lord: “Out of the depths I cried to You, O Lord.”
“Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
“Can we find a friend so faithful,
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
“Are we weak and heavy laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.”
It's a beautiful thing, that God brought him to the very depths, and he cried out to the Lord and God heard him…and God heard him.
He learnt something about sin, and he learnt something about providence, and he learnt something about the beauty of prayer…that this is the kind of God that we have tonight, a God who hears the cry of the destitute, and He hears the cry of the rebellious destitute. And He answers their prayers.
IV. Jonah learned something about grace.
And he learnt something about grace. He learnt something about grace.
“When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
And my prayer came to You,
Into Your holy temple.”
He remembered God, and God was gracious to him.
He remembers, in verse 8, that “those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” Now there's a translation issue with that verse, but at least it means this: he's using this extraordinarily important word in the Hebrew language that's translated here steadfast love. It's the Hebrew word hesed — covenant love, covenant mercy, the love that sends Jesus to die for our sins; the love that does not spare His own Son, but freely delivers Him up for us all. And he experiences, well, in a way that Jonah had not experienced in many a year, a fresh taste of the beauty of God's grace to a rebellious, perishing sinner.
We know that he experienced grace because of what he's doing, because he worships now. Because he speaks in this psalm of one day going back to Jerusalem and worshiping in God's temple. And seemingly, in verse 8–“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love”–he seemingly has learnt the lesson that there is love, there is steadfast love for sinners.
He came to see that when you forsake the covenant Lord for anything or anyone else, you are just a fool. You are just a fool. Had Jonah learnt the lesson fully? No. No. You remember in chapter 4, sitting underneath a plant, a gourd of some kind, and feeling sorry for himself and angry with God because the gourd wilts. When the Ninevites are converted, what does Jonah say? “I knew this would happen!” In a sort of tantrum he explodes once again. Jonah is…well, he's an example of some of us: that we need to learn this lesson not just once, and not just twice, but over and over and over again.
I'm coming up to my thirty-sixth anniversary of being a Christian. There are some lessons that I haven't learnt yet, and there are lessons that I think I need to learn all over again. Jonah, my friends, is just like us. If God were only to allow us to do what our hearts are inclined to do, there is no limit to the ugliness of it. May God teach us, and teach us quickly, and teach us soundly what it means to love Him and follow Him.
Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Jonah. We see ourselves so clearly revealed in his life. There are lessons, Lord, that we fear we need to learn. Make us ready to learn them, whatever the cost and whatever the pain, because we would love You more than we do, and we would serve You better than we do. We want, yes, with all of our hearts to be out and out for You. Now bless us, we pray. Write these things upon our hearts for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
© First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.