If you were to look for one sentence that summarises the teaching of the Bible, it would be hard to find a more succinct candidate than the final words of the prophet Jonah’s prayer: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).
Jonah is a remarkable book for many reasons. One example is that it contains, in the Hebrew text, only five words of prophecy (3:4), whereas both the minor and major prophets of the Old Testament contain hundreds and thousands of words of prophecy addressed to Israel or the nations.
The Book of Jonah is more intent on describing the prophet himself, rather than conveying the words of his prophecy. The book details Jonah’s inadequate response to God’s command to go to Nineveh, his experience of God’s chastisement, his rescue from the belly of the fish, his obedience to God’s reissuing of his command, the repentant response of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching and, surprisingly, Jonah’s anger towards God’s goodness and mercy in the final chapter.
The book is deftly composed with delayed explanations of events described. We see examples of this in 1:9-10 and 4:3-8, and also in the classic revelation of Jonah’s reason for disobeying God (1:3) in 4:2. Yet, despite Jonah’s rebellion and reluctance to preach to the city of Nineveh, God’s sovereign purposes overrule Jonah’s disobedience to bring salvation to unsuspecting pagan sailors, as well as wicked Ninevites.
Our God is full of mercy and forgiveness. He also uses us to bring others to himself, despite our frailty and even our disobedience. For God’s mercy and goodness flow from his character and adorn his purpose, such that when we respond with faithful obedience to his word, the glory belongs to him and not to us. God is not prevented by either human beings or heavenly beings from fulfilling his purposes, for his word never returns to him void (Isaiah 55:11).
The highlight of the book is, in many ways, Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2. It is a prayer offered after he was delivered onto dry land, so that verse 2 is best rendered: “And he said”, not “saying”, as in the ESV, suggesting the prayer beginning in verse 2 is the prayer of verse 1. This understanding of the flow of the narrative is consistent with the opening words of the prayer in verse 2, looking back upon God’s deliverance of him from the belly of the fish: “I called to the Lord, out of my distress and he answered me”. It is also consistent with the author’s delayed explanation of the prayer in verse 10: “And the LORD had spoken to the fish and it had vomited out Jonah on dry land”.
Thus the prayer of chapter 2 is a prayer on dry land, recalling the prayer Jonah offered inside the fish. It is a prayer of thankfulness after his deliverance as he reflects upon his darkest hour (or 72 hours!), when the outcome of his prayers were unknown.
One could not think of a more devastating, let alone distasteful, venue for isolation than the stomach of a fish, even a big one! We may have reason for complaining about our home isolation of late, but nothing quite compares with Jonah’s experience. Yet this solitude enabled Jonah to reflect upon his folly in refusing to follow God’s commands, recognising God’s judgment on him in the storm at sea.
While Jonah may have urged the sailors to throw him overboard – humanly speaking – to certain death, it was God who cast him into the sea (2:3). He felt he had been cast out of God’s presence, the presence of God’s blessing. Yet he remembered the Lord and cried out to him, and God’s mercy prevailed as he rescued Jonah, chastened and repentant, for his sovereign purposes.
Upon his deliverance, he then journeys to Nineveh and preaches God’s word – and to the surprise of the reader (though not to Jonah), the Ninevites repent and turn to the living God, and God in his mercy relents from the judgment Jonah had foretold. In this respect, Jonah’s preaching foreshadows the spreading of the gospel to Gentiles, in accordance with God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a blessing to all nations.
Jesus uses the sign of Jonah to describe his own ministry for the salvation of the world. Unlike Jonah, Jesus was obedient to his Father’s will, suffered the extremity of death – not just metaphorically, but truly – for three days and three nights. Yet from the grave he rose victorious.
As God had a concern for the salvation of the city of Nineveh, he has a concern for the salvation of the world and the people of greater Sydney. We should pray for those in our communities that, in the wake of COVID-19, we might have opportunities to share the good news of God’s grace, that many people might put their faith in Jesus and that God’s mercy might be showered upon them. For it is only through Jesus that God forgives our sins: Salvation is from the Lord!