Prayer from the Depths of Woe

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 12, 2019.

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 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. 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 upon me forever; yet you brought 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 (Jonah 2:1-10).

By direct revelation, God commanded Jonah to go to the pagan city Ninevah and call the people to repentance. Instead Jonah ran from God, as if he could, and was eventually in the midst of a violent storm on the Mediterranean Sea. In many ways the ancient Prophet Jonah is so modern. Having received God’s Word, he disregarded it. Commanded by God, he disobeyed it. With a calloused heart, he rebelled against the Word of God, alienating himself from the covenant community and the worship of the LORD. Yet, in his rebellion, Jonah learned a difficult lesson: the true child of God cannot run from his heavenly Father. As the psalmist sings, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Ps. 139:8-10).

Jonah was not ignorant of God’s Word. He simply chose to disregard it. In his arrogance, he thought if he distanced himself from the Old Covenant Church and means of grace, he could ignore God. Like a foolish child who runs away from home because he doesn’t get his way, Jonah boarded a ship determined to flee from the presence of his heavenly Father. Proverbs counsels, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:11-12).

In loving delight for His child Jonah, God did not let him run far. God brings a Mediterranean maelstrom endangering the ship’s crew, while Jonah slumbers in his sinful complacency. Comfortably hidden among the pagan sailors, Jonah is providentially discovered by the cast of a lot. He could run, but he could not hide. His identity revealed, Jonah proposes that he be thrown into the sea, an act of trust in the sovereignty of God or sacrificial suicide (neither of which is clear). In the discipline of God, Jonah nearly drowns in the stormy sea until he is miraculously rescued by the gulp of a great fish. One can only imagine the trauma of being providentially transported in the gut of a fish. Nothing sobers quite like being swallowed alive.

Likely in a prostrate position, Jonah prays. Similar to a psalm, and in fact quoting liberally from the psalter, Jonah’s prayer is in essence a poem. Forming a chiasm, the verses move outward to inward to outward (A, B, C, B, A), as it were, moving outwardly from his physical peril, to his spiritual dilemma, to his spiritual condition. In addition to its literary beauty, Jonah’s prayer reveals the cry of the child of God from what he perceived to be the depths of woe, or the depths of Sheol, death.

The fact is that prior to death, or our Lord’s return, the child of God is prone to wander. In love, our heavenly Father will not let us wander too far. He disciplines us, graciously leading us back to Him. Of course, we can experience the depths of woe in other ways too, can’t we? Consider the trials of righteous Job, for example. The storms of life may rage simply to show us our utter dependence upon the Lord. What then should be our prayer from the depths of woe? I want to consider three perspectives of Jonah’s prayer: petitioning, pondering, praising.

Petitioning from the Depths

A prayer of desperation is different from a quiet time prayer, isn’t it? I love my morning quiet time with the Lord: reading and meditating on His Word, praying prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It is often an unhurried time of spending time with my heavenly Father (with coffee!). Prayer from the bottom of the sea in the belly of a great fish is something totally different. Jonah’s petition is one of desperation.

Jonah’s petition is understood in his description of his dire circumstances: He was cast from the boat into the stormy sea; He rightly assumes he is drowning to death; descending to the sea floor; only to be saved by the gulp of a great fish, the depths of woe indeed, an aquatic cocoon. No, Jonah’s petition is directed to neither the sailors nor the sea but to the covenant name of His God: “I called out to the LORD [Yahweh] out of my distress.” He doesn’t blame the sailors: LORD, “you cast me into the deep.” He doesn’t blame the sea: LORD, “your waves and your billows passed over me.” He is not the victim of human punishment or natural disaster. He is at the mercy of God.

Therefore, we see that Jonah’s petition is not merely for circumstantial deliverance. Because the storm, the near-drowning, the fish are all sovereignly orchestrated, his cry is to be delivered from the hand of almighty God: The seeming result leads Jonah to confess, LORD, “I am driven away from your sight.” Yet, it is in his cry for deliverance that Jonah understands the love of God for His child. Disregarding God’s Word, disobeying the LORD’s command, like the prodigal son, Jonah comes to his senses, understanding that his dire circumstances are in fact the loving discipline of his heavenly Father. He confesses, “you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God,” and it is more than a great fish that preserves him, it is the preservation of the LORD.

Jonah’s petition from the depths of woe is the desperate prayer of a covenant child of God to be delivered from the LORD’s discipline and returned to renewed fellowship, the loving fellowship of a father and child. The writer of Hebrews explains, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? …For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it”,(Hebrews 12:7,11).

As we consider Jonah’s petition from the depths, let us also consider our own hearts.

Are you straying as a wayward child, disregarding God’s Word and disobeying His commands? Are you running from God? Do you confess faith in Christ but look at your circumstances like an atheist, denying God’s purpose for your life? Brothers and sisters, consider the great love of our heavenly Father. Let us submit to His Fatherly care, with love and obedience. Let us be slow to sin and quick to confess our sins, for our Father is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). And, whether we be under the corrective discipline of our Father or simply the ongoing training in righteousness, let us consider the work of God in our lives, pondering His fatherly mercies.

Pondering from the Depths

There is nothing quite like difficult circumstances to humble us and lead us back to the Lord. Pondering his near-drowning, Jonah reflects, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” This is not aquatic exploration, nor is it a geological description of the sea floor. Like a prison of death, the waters enveloped him, seemingly sealing his earthly fate. His unexpected rescue presents further pondering: “out of the belly of Sheol I cried.” This is not a biological description of the fish’s belly (as fascinating as that might be).

For Jonah, it is the belly of Sheol, the Hebrew word meaning death or the grave. Saved from drowning, has he gone from bad to worse? Yet in the midst of his peril, Jonah considers, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD.” Thankfully, the LORD had never forgotten Jonah. In what first seemed a horror story, God’s mercy was realized in the belly of a fish. Indeed, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), but His kindness may take unexpected forms, like a giant fish.

Brother and sisters, let us not neglect to ponder the work of God in our own circumstances. Do you curse the sovereign kindness that may lead you to repentance? Do you despise the vehicle of God’s preserving love? Have you concluded that your circumstances will be the death of you, while your heavenly Father intends sanctifying life? Instead, let us ponder this: Our heavenly Father knows best.

            Whatever my God ordains is right,

            Here shall my stand be taken

            Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,

            Yet I am not forsaken.

            My Father’s care

            Is round me there;

            He holds me that I shall not fall,

            And so to Him I leave it all.

And, as we trust that what He ordains is right, we are enabled to praise Him, even from the depths of woe.

Praise from the Depths

Remembering the LORD (or we might say revival), as Jonah’s pondering reveals, is typically witnessed in a renewed interest in worship. Jonah longs to worship God in His “holy temple,” the designated location for Old Covenant worship and the manifestation of the LORD’s presence among His covenant people. This is not to say that Jonah could not worship God from the belly of the fish, but his longing is to be in the LORD’s designated place of worship, with the LORD’s people, worshiping according to the LORD’s appointed means. In the depths of woe, he confidently declares, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.”

While he had behaved like a pagan idolater, Jonah sees clearly idolatry for what it is: a counterfeit that robs the child of God of hope in the steadfast love and faithfulness of the LORD. There were no idols to rescue him from the hand of God. The irony is that we try to rescue our idols, while our loving heavenly Father rescues us. Stripped of all earthly entrapments, Jonah lay prostrate before God, literally. Enveloped in darkness he had but one plea, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:2), and raging seas and really, really big fish!

His arrogant heart humbled, Jonah longs to offer audible thanksgiving and temple sacrifice. His heart is transcended from the humiliation and agony of his circumstances to a heart for God-ordained worship. With renewed hope, he vows to faithfully worship His Savior, perhaps similar to when we sing:

            Take my life, and let it be

            Consecrated, Lord, to thee.

            Take my moments and my days;

            Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

He who rebelled against the Word of God now desires to worship God as appointed in His Word, and vows to do so.

Jonah’s prayer concludes with a declaration. Having disregarded the Word of God and disobeyed His command, having fled from God and selfishly endangering others, having been chastised by the Lord through a raging storm and near drowning, having been rescued by the gulp of a great fish with three days to ponder, having been awakened by God’s gracious discipline to His steadfast love and faithfulness, having vowed to worship the Lord according to His Word, Jonah makes one summary declaration: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” From the belly of the fish, the once-rebellious, now-restored prophet of God on the third day arose from the depths of woe in renewed consecration.

Indeed, salvation belongs to the Lord, for our Lord said, “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Yet, unlike Jonah, the Lord Jesus regarded the Scriptures as the very breath of God, down to the iota and dot. Unlike Jonah, the Lord Jesus obeyed every command of God perfectly in thought, word, and deed. Unlike Jonah, the Lord Jesus faithfully carried out His Father’s plan, never straying, always persevering. He was never disciplined for disobedience, because He never disobeyed. Yet, as a righteous substitute, upon the cross of shame He was punished for the sins of Jonah, and yours and mine.

While Jonah vowed faithfulness from the belly of a fish, our faithful Lord was crucified, died, and was buried. He was not vomited upon the shore thankful not to be dead; our Lord arose from the dead conquering sin and death that we might have eternal life through faith in Him. Because salvation belongs to the LORD, by God’s grace through faith in Christ, we have been raised from the eternal depths of woe to abundant and eternal life with our Lord.

Let us ponder the glory of God’s grace to sinners like Jonah, and you and me. Let us lift our praises, worshiping our Lord according to His Word. And, let us rejoice with God’s Word:

            Though great our sins and sore our woes,

            His grace much more aboundeth;

            His helping hand no limit knows,

            Our upmost need it soundeth.

            Our Shepherd good and true is He,

            Who will at last His Israel free

            From all their sin and sorrow,

            From all their sin and sorrow.

Indeed, from the depths of woe He has saved us, for salvation belongs to the Lord.

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