This lesson shows that sometimes God allows us to be stripped of every provision so that we’ll see our one true resource—Himself.
We have heard it said before, there are no atheists in foxholes. Jonah, chapter two, shows us that the bellies of whales seem to have the same effect. All it takes for the average atheist or disobedient believer to get serious with God is to have the walls of the foxhole or the whale’s belly, as the case may be to close in on them.
The key to the second chapter of the Book of Jonah is understanding that Jonah is now fully motivated as a “pray-er.” In the first chapter of the book we read the sad record of his disobedience and his doubt and the trouble that he got into. It was only after this that Jonah realized he was in a situation over which he had no control. There was nothing he could do. He had run from God and was entombed in the belly of a giant fish. And the Scripture says then he prayed (Jonah 2:1).
All of us experience trouble in our lives. In fact, a lot of the trouble we experience is not because we have been bad or we have done wrong. Philippians 1:29 says it this way:
For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake. – Philippians 1:29
Suffering is just as sure as salvation. We are going to have some because of who we are in Christ. But sometimes trouble comes to us not because of who we are in Christ, but because we have denied who we are in Christ. Sometimes our trouble comes as God’s remedial action to bring us back into fellowship with Himself. This was the case with Jonah.
- Describe a time in your life that parallels Jonah in the great fish – hemmed in on all sides, completely without resources.
- Which kind(s) of trouble were you in (physical, mental/emotional, spiritual, or all three)?
- If you know, and can share, what do you think was the “cause” of your trouble? (Suffering for Christ? Suffering due to another’s sin? Suffering due to your own sin? Other?)
The Impossibility of Jonah’s Situation
God loves to put us in a corner where we have no alternative but Him. The truth is that we have no alternative but Him anyway. We don’t realize it until he cuts off all ways of escape and shuts down everything we have been so dependent on. Insofar as his own resources were concerned, Jonah was in an impossible situation. So he turned to God.
The Completeness of Jonah’s Trouble
In Jonah 1:15 we read that Jonah was cast into the sea. That qualifies as a pretty impossible situation by itself—alone in the Mediterranean Sea with no life jacket. But then he is swallowed by a giant fish. This makes his situation completely impossible, mentally, and spiritually.
1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 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.
3 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.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
7 When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!” – Jonah 2:1-9 ESV
Physical Trouble. First of all, Jonah was in trouble physically. His body was affected. Notice verse 2: “I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction.” Affliction is a word that has physical overtones. In other words, Jonah was in danger of dying. Who knows how long he might survive in the belly of the giant fish, but it could not have been forever. His physical demise was imminent, to say the least.
Mental Trouble. And then he was in trouble mentally. Notice verse 6: “at the roots of the mountains, I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” Jonah is in such trouble that his mind must have reeled at the very thought of his situation. Put yourself where he was. Jonah was incarcerated in a moving, swimming, living fish. You don’t just knock on the door to get out. Doctors say that suffocation is the most terrifying way to die, and that is what Jonah was facing. It is amazing that he had the presence of mind to think the thoughts recorded in this prayer.
Spiritual Trouble. In reality, being out of fellowship with God is the most miserable trouble of all. Jonah 2:4 reads, “Then I said, ‘I have been driven away from Your sight.’ ” Remember, this was what Jonah had been trying to do. It suddenly dawns on him that he has accomplished his goal! Jonah now felt he had sinned so much, he had gone so far, he was in such dire circumstances, that even God didn’t see him. He was out of the sight of God.
Jonah’s predicament is just like the trouble we often experience. We get stressed physically when we violate God’s principles. We get consumed mentally when everything is caving in on top of us. And before we know it, we feel like God has forgotten us. That complete sense of trouble is a universal one. Psalm 22, written prophetically to picture the agony of Jesus on the cross, also pictures the agony of the psalmist himself:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. – Psalm 22:1-2 ESV
We get so overwhelmed by what is happening in our lives—physically, mentally, and spiritually—that we feel completely hopeless.
- Describe a spiritual or relational area of your life where you realized (either presently or in the past) that you “left your first love” in a significant way.
- What awoke you to the fact that you had left? What did you decide to do about it?
The Characteristics of Jonah’s Trouble
Jonah’s trouble is characterized by one word: affliction. As we read through Jonah’s prayer take note of all the intense words that Jonah used to describe his situation.(I have underlined many)
They are Old Testament sayings that graphically portray and characterize his trouble.
- Could you use some of these same words to describe some trouble you have been in—or are in now?
What do you do when life is completely overwhelming? I hope you do what Jonah did—you pray. Before we analyze how Jonah prayed, let’s look at a pattern for fixing spiritual failure that is pictured for us in the book of Revelation. The church at Ephesus was a onetime flourishing congregation of people who, according to the context, had left their first love—devotion to Christ. Verse 5 tells them (and us) what to do when you get overwhelmed with failure or trouble:
Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. – Revelation 2:5 NASB
Here are the three terms: remember (they must have forgotten), repent (they must have failed), and return (they must have forsaken). If you will use this threefold pattern, you will have a guide for praying your way out of affliction.
To Pray Your Way out of Affliction, Remember. First of all, Jonah’s prayer was a prayer of remembrance. As he reflected on his desperate situation, he remembered that God had blessed him in the past. Verse 4 says,
Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ – Jonah 2:4 ESV
If we reflect on the closing verse, you will see what Jonah did,
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you – Jonah 2:9 ESV
What was Jonah doing? In the midst of his terrible plight, his thoughts went back to the times when it was different. He remembered the fellowship with God that he had once known.
The first step toward getting back into a fruitful relationship with God is to remember. Where did you get off the path? Go back and remember how it used to be! The first thing Jonah did was spend a little time in the fish’s stomach creating in his mind a picture of when he was in a different place at a different time, worshipping God in His holy temple.
To Pray Your Way out of Affliction, Repent. The next step is to repent. Look again at Revelation 2:5: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent.” Jonah’s prayer was a prayer of repentance. Notice verse 7: “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer went up to You, into Your holy temple.” When Jonah remembered the past, he realized that he was out of fellowship with God. Jonah understood the mess he was in, but he knew he didn’t have to stay there, and so he cried out to God.
People come to Celebrate Recovery because of a mess they’re in. The hardest part for me is when I look at them and think: “How do you think this happened? Whose fault is this? What went wrong?”
There is something ingrained in us that does not want to admit we are wrong. We don’t like to repent. But until we face up to it and say, “I think this is my fault. No, I’m sure it is my fault. No, it IS my fault, and I have done wrong, and I have violated what I know to be true, and oh, God, forgive me”—we haven’t repented and we’re still stuck. Until we repent, we will never get better or get right or get clean or get whole.
You say, “Well, that’s too hard.” No, what is hard is living in a whale’s belly because you didn’t repent quickly enough to avoid getting there in the first place.
To Pray Your Way out of Affliction, Return. Remembering and repenting are two-thirds of the prayer package. The last step is to return to the first works. Notice Revelation says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works.” Whatever the relationship is that you lost—whether with God or with another person—you must “do” the same things you did before.
I’ve had people share with me: “I remember how it used to be, and I’ve repented for what I did to mess it up and I want to make it right, but I just don’t feel the way I should.” It is hard for many to understand they have to do the same thing they did at first. What were the first works when they got saved? They read their Bible. They prayed. They spent time with God’s people. Then they argue back: “I’ve been away from that so long I don’t feel like doing it.” They need to do it out of obedience. When they do it, the feelings follow naturally. The feelings of knowing God’s wonderful grace in their life will not happen until they begin obediently to do the first works.
Return, Repent, Return, Repeat:
- Describe an area of struggle or sin in which you have to cry repeatedly to the Lord for help and deliverance?
- How does it make you feel to go back to Him over and over?
- How do you think He feels about you when you return to Him for help?
Notice verse 9:
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” – Jonah 2:9
Jonah was saying, “God, I am going to do what I told you I would do. I am going to do the first works.” He knew that when we get away from God because of our own rebellion and God deals with us and we come to our senses, we remember where we used to be, we repent, and then we immediately begin to obey what we know God wants us to do.
Most people go halfway through the process; the exert the most energy building up to the confession; the drama of becoming broken and then because they can’t get up the energy and past their own pride to read their Bible or pray or get in fellowship with God’s people, they don’t, and pretty soon they slip back into the old way. Many times despondent, hurt and once again in despair.
- Have you had times where you stepped forward, confessed, pleaded and became exhausted and in despair, never to return to your first love?
- How can you be reminded or encourage others that the “return” steps are as important as bringing the situation into the light?
The Cause of Jonah’s Trouble
Jonah had committed a terrible sin against the Lord and this was the reason for his trouble. God had orchestrated all these events to get his attention so he would pray. If we find ourselves in trouble, the first question we ought to ask ourselves is, “Lord, is there anything going on in my life that you are unhappy with? If there is, I want to know about it so I can fix it right now.” If He shows you there is something, what should you do? You should pray by remembering (what you forgot), repenting (of where you failed), and returning (to what you forsook).
The Intensity of Jonah’s Supplication
The use of the word ‘supplication’ has diminished in the last 200 years. It is not clear if we just don’t use the word, or if the practice has slipped by the wayside.
Supplication (n) – the action of asking or begging for something earnestly or humbly.
In Jonah 2:2, the prophet cried aloud to the Lord out of his distress. As we’ve noted, Jonah was familiar with the psalms. Perhaps he was familiar with a psalm that has been a great encouragement to many, Psalm 107. Psalm 107 is about people who kept getting in trouble, who kept having to cry out to the Lord to save them. Several key verses tell the story:
In your desperate condition, you called out to GOD. He got you out in the nick of time; He put your feet on a wonderful road that took you straight to a good place to live. So thank GOD for his marvelous love, for his miracle mercy to the children he loves. – Psalm 107:6-7 MSG
13 “LORD, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. 14 He led them from the darkness and deepest gloom; he snapped their chains. – Psalm 107:13-14 NLT
19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 20 He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction. – Psalm 107:19-20 ESV
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards and were at their wits’ end. 28 “LORD, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. 29 He calmed the storm to a whisper and stilled the waves. 30 What a blessing was that stillness as he brought them safely into harbor! – Psalm 107:27-30 NLT
“They reeled and staggered like drunkards and were at their wits’ end”. Wow! Have you ever been there? I know I have been. Did you know that came from the Bible? What happened? “Then they cry out to the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distresses (three times). He calms the storm, so that its waves are still. Then they are glad because they are quiet; so He guides them to their desired haven.” But then we go on to notice verse 43.
The Instruction for Jonah’s Salvation
Those who are wise will take all this to heart; they will see in our history the faithful love of the LORD. – Psalm 107:43 NLT
Are you in trouble today? If you will cry out to God in your trouble, He will heal you and He will hear you and He will forgive you and He will put you back on track. He will give you a second (and a third and a fourth!) chance. But He is waiting for you to respond to Him and cry out in your trouble.
You say, “Well, yeah, I’ve been there before.” All of us have. And we will all likely be there again sometime before we see heaven. But that is no excuse for not praying our way out of affliction today. Remember, repent, and return. He is waiting to receive you.
Did you know?
There is a person whom most Christians think didn’t suffer to learn obedience who really did. In fact, this person cried out in tears to the Father just like you might do. He was never in the belly of a whale, but He was alone one night in a garden with all the forces of hell encouraging him to disobey the Father. So the next time you think God is tired of hearing you call for help, remember He’s not. His son has been there, too.
7 While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God. 8 Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. – Hebrews 5:7-8 NLT
Jeremiah, D. (1998). The runaway prophet: jonah (Study guide) (p. 56). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.