God called Jonah to go preach in Nineveh, but Jonah refused. He hated the Ninevites. He wanted God to judge and destroy those vicious, wicked people. Jonah knew that when God sends a message of judgment, He also provides a way to escape the judgment. Jonah knew that if he went to preach to the people of Nineveh, they might repent, and if the people repented, God would forgive and relent from punishing them — so Jonah ran. But God sent a storm to shake him up; He sent a sailor to wake him up; and He sent a fish to take him up. The Bible says God had prepared a fish to swallow Jonah — a fish with a special porpoise! With the prophet inside, the fish started swimming for Israel to return him so that he could get on with his mission.
From the belly of the fish, Jonah began to pray. In verse 1 of this chapter Jonah is inside the fish; in verse 10 he gets out. In between we find Jonah at his lowest point. By sharing his prayer, he shares what happens when we disobey God and run from His will. This is an interesting prayer: there is no petition in it, no request — only Jonah’s statements about how it felt to run from God, and how he repented.
Jonah said, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress” (v.2). Sometimes the Lord uses distress to get our attention and bring us to our knees. Did you catch Jonah’s vivid description of his near-drowning experience? He talked about sinking down to Sheol (the abode of the dead, v.2); he sank “into the deep” where he was surrounded by “floods” and covered by waves (v.3); he says that the seaweed wrapped around his head (v.5); as he sank down to the base of the mountains, it looked like the “bars” (maybe sand bars) would be his grave (v.6). It sounds like Jonah thought he was dying.
According to verse 7, it was then that Jonah began to pray. He had a very unusual prayer room, the dark, smelly belly of a fish. Listen to how Chuck Swindoll describes Jonah’s experience:
Pitch black. Sloshing gastric juices wash over you, burning skin, eyes, throat, nostrils. Oxygen is scarce and each frantic gulp of air is saturated with salt water. The rancid smell of digested food. Everything you touch has the slimy feel of the mucous membrane that lines the stomach. You feel claustrophobic. With every turn and dive of the great fish, you slip and slide in the cesspool of digestive fluid. There are no footholds. No blankets to keep you warm from the cold, clammy depths of the sea. For three days and three nights he endured this harsh womb of grace.
From that dark place, when Jonah had hit rock bottom, the Lord heard his voice and answered him (v.2). Isn’t that reassuring? You may be at the lowest point of your life, but you can call out to God with a heart of humility and repentance, and He will hear and answer.
In verse 3 Jonah admitted that it wasn’t the sailors who had thrown him into the sea, it was God: “For You cast me into the deep”. When Jonah said those words, I believe he was acknowledging that God was disciplining him. Jonah accepted God’s discipline. Remember this: if you are bound to sin, you are bound to suffer. God disciplines His children when they sin (see Hebrews 12:5-6). How we respond to God’s discipline determines how much benefit we receive from it. We can despise it, resent it, and resist it — or we can respond like Jonah, who owned up to his sin and accepted God’s discipline.
Jonah made the best decision of his life in the worst place. He decided to “look again to the Lord’s holy temple” (v.4, 7). I think this was Jonah’s way of turning from his sin and turning back to the Lord. (Note: by referencing the temple twice in his prayer, Jonah may have been claiming the promise found in 1 Kings 8:38-39.) If you have fallen into sin, you don’t have to turn to a temple, but you do have to turn to God. Jonah trusted God’s grace…will you?
At the end of his prayer, Jonah said, “What I have vowed, I will pay” (v.9). I can only speculate as to what vows Jonah had made, but I think I know one. At some point in Jonah’s past, God had called him as a prophet. Surely Jonah had vowed to the Lord, “I will go where you tell me to go, and say what you tell me to say.” And now Jonah was in a whale of a mess because he had broken that vow. He said, “I will pay that vow. I will do it. You told me to go to Nineveh, and I will go.” Remember, when we disobey the Lord, we step out of His will. And the only way to get back is to return to where we said no and say yes.