After trying to run from God to avoid going to Nineveh, Jonah found himself on a bit of a detour. He’s thrown into the sea, only to be swallowed by a giant fish, where he stays for three days. I’m guessing that when you’re trapped inside an aquatic creature, it gives you a lot of time to reflect on exactly how you got there. Jonah probably felt a crushing burden of guilt as he waited to see what had happened. He probably realized that this was a disaster of his own making, that if he had simply listened to God and done what he had been told, none of this would have happened.
And what would the future hold for him? It wasn’t as if there was an obvious exit for Jonah. Even if he could worm his way out of the fish’s belly, it wasn’t like there was a life vest or inflatable raft waiting for him. The fish’s belly might well turn out to be Jonah’s tomb.
Faced with the crushing weight of the past and the darkness of his future, Jonah did the only thing he could: he turned to God in prayer.
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
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;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
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.
As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
In some ways, this is a surprising departure from Jonah’s character. True, he includes a knock at those who worship “vain idols,” which could be seen as a jab at either the Assyrians or the sailors who threw him in the ocean, but for the most part, Jonah’s attitude has changed. Instead of his stubborn refusal to listen to God, Jonah shows broken humbleness before the Almighty.
But what strikes me as amazing is that Jonah’s prayer is so forward-looking. Notice that, even though he’s still stuck in the belly of the fish, Jonah speaks as though he’s already been saved. Falling to the roots of the mountain, being choked by weeds, the depths swallowing him, all of these events are spoken of in the past tense, as though Jonah were once again safe and sound on dry land.
And that, perhaps, is the secret of strong faith. Rather than be bogged down in the here-and-now, the eyes of faith look beyond the present to what we know God can and will do for His people. Jonah was so confident because he knew that “deliverance belongs to the Lord!” And that is still true for His people today.
One of my seminary professors put it this way a few days ago:
That is forward-looking faith. And that is what we are called to as well.
While Jonah may have screwed up a lot in the first chapter of his book, at his core he remained a child of God and his faith in his God gave him confidence, even in the face of an uncertain future.
May we show the same faith when we feel lost in the depths.