The Lord’s Day
“Learning Theology the Hard Way!”
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
“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
“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,
‘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
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
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
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
“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
He treasures up His bright
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
Please stand and receive the Lord’s
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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