John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Safely inside the special fish God provided for him, breathing the oxygen his body needed, and doing so without effort, and tasting the sweetness of salvation, Jonah looks back at his escape from the jaws of death and states a beautiful truth. Because he had been walking in sin, he was cast overboard and into the raging sea. He had fallen to the bottom of the sea and became entangled in the weeds. Instead of going to Nineveh as God had commanded him to do, in order that he might warn them and call them to repentance, lest God’s wrath come and destroy them, Jonah found himself worthy of being destroyed because of his own sins. But he tasted God’s mercy as it is in Christ and confessed that sure mercy of God.

Emphatically and in a positive statement he declares, “Salvation is of the Lord.” To that we would call your attention next time. But we may note first that he states this same truth emphatically and from a negative point of view when he states, “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy” (Jonah 2:8). He has idols in mind. They are the lying vanities. And he had just had close contact with those who did observe lying vanities on the ship. No, he did not hear them praying to their gods in the storm. He was sound asleep. But when they awakened him and urged him to pray to his God, he became aware of the fact that they had tried in desperation to get their gods to save them. The shipmaster had said to him, “Arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.” Note that he makes a distinction between their idols and Jonah’s God. He even states that perhaps thatGod, not their gods but that God, will help them. Remembering this, Jonah now speaks of the folly of putting trust in any one other than Jehovah.

Now it makes no difference whether your idol is mental or made of metal. Slipping the letter n between the eand t does not change the situation one bit. Whether your trust is in an image made of gold or silver, of brass or iron, or whether it is a god of your own imagination, a god you imagine exists but is the figment of your mind, and of the minds of them that taught you, “they that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” And please note that the word image is also in the word imagine.

It is important that we bear this in mind, because in our sophisticated day and age, the worship of gods of silver and gold, or other metals or substances, is old-fashioned, and hard to find in our country. That, by no means, means that those living around us do not observe lying vanities. In fact there are more false gods and idols today, and in our own country, than in Jonah’s day. In that which calls itself the Christian church today there are so many mental images of God that are such gross distortions of the revelation of Him given in Holy Writ, that Jonah’s words ought to be considered seriously. For they too are lying vanities, and in the judgment day will be revealed to, have been such.

In many churches they imagine God to be weaker than man. He must wait for man to give Him the right to save them. They preach a changeable god, or even worse one that winks at sin and can show love and grace and mercy upon those whose sins have not been blotted out. Or else, a god who sent his son to die for everyone in the world, but is disappointed because he just cannot get some of them to accept his kind and conditional offer. Instead of examining every word of God in Scripture, they imagine God to be what their flesh wants Him to be. And the truth of what Jonah says stands: they forsake their own mercy.

Now that all images, whether mental or metal, are lying vanities means that they deceive because they are empty, worthless, powerless, and in the judgment day will be shown to have been no gods at all, and that they who put their trust in them have indeed been deceived by lies. The sailors on that ship with Jonah found out that their gods could do nothing. The storm became fiercer and fiercer, even though they prayed more and more vehemently. They tasted no mercy of any kind from their gods.

Not only do the gods of man’s imagination have no power to show the slightest degree of mercy, but they are lying vanities also in that they militate against the one true and living God. Not only do they fail to render to Him the honor due to His name, but they assume to take His place and deny that He is God. In the realm of the spiritual there is no neutrality possible. Jesus said it in Luke 11:23, “He that is not with Me is against Me.” That is why it is so important that we preach the God of Scripture and sound doctrine. If we do not, we fight against Him. We worship vanities that lie about God! They do not simply deceive us, but as Satan lied to Adam and Eve about God, false doctrines spread lies to us about God! They are not harmless and neutral. Not being with Him and for Him, they are against God.

And when Jonah speaks of observing lying vanities, he does not simply mean looking at them. There is a good sense in which we can observe these lying vanities. If we observe them to be false doctrines, and lies about the one true God, we are wise and not deceived by them. But what Jonah means is looking up to them, putting one’s trust in them. The word isshamar, which is translated as observe 45 times, but well over 200 hundred times as keep. And the idea is hold on to, believe in, look up to, direct your prayers unto, retain as your source of help and safety. In fact, the very word mercy reveals that this is what Jonah had in mind.

Mercy is compassion or pity upon someone in some form of misery. Mercy will lift one out of that distress, if it is at all possible. And looking unto one for help in time of woe is seeking mercy from that one. That is what the sailors did during that terrible storm. That is what Jonah stood in desperate need of, as he began to sink deeper and deeper in the waters of the sea, and then got the weeds on the bottom wrapped around his head. To save him one would have to have pity, mercy, compassion upon him. Yes, such a one would have to be able to see him in that awful plight. Such a one would have to be very powerful in order to save. But such a one would also have to be in the vicinity to see, hear, and know of the misery. Yea, such a one would have to be everywhere present, to help all those who, on this sin-cursed earth, suffer the miseries and woes of this life.

Taking all this into consideration one can see what lying vanities are these idols made of wood and stone, of gold and silver, brass and iron, but also all those gods that simply exist in the minds of men as their mental images of Jehovah. We do well to listen then to what He says through the Psalmist in Psalm 115:5-8, and I quote, “They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.”

Gold and silver, wood and stone, cannot have mercy upon man. Neither can the sun, moon, or stars, or any created object that man makes his god. And a god that man thinks up is no better. That god owes its existence to the man who gave it existence in the minds of man. It depends upon man; and surely what depends upon man cannot help man when he gets into difficulties. These are lies and lying vanities. For, after man dies, these mental gods that depend upon man surely have no life or strength. Only Jehovah, the everywhere present, almighty, unchangeable God can help us in our miseries. David states it so beautifully inPsalm 62:5, 6 in these words, “My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from Him. He only is my rock, and my salvation: He is my defense: I shall not be moved.”

By the way, these words David speaks in what is sometimes called David’s only Psalm. Indeed, he wrote many more Psalms than this one. But the reason—and it is a good reason—why it is called his only Psalm is because he makes so much use in it of the word “only.” The translation does not show this, but he begins by stating, “Only upon God waiteth my soul.” Even then in the translation we can find repeated use of the word only. The basic message of the Psalm is that mercy is found in God alone; and the exhortation in verse 8, namely, “Trust in Him at all times; ye people, pour out your hearts before Him: God is a refuge for us. Selah,” expresses that idea that only in God is there help for us. Yea, it teaches us that He ONLY is God. All the idols and men and mental images are lying vanities. And if we look to them, we are forsaking mercy, rather than in the true sense seeking it.

God’s mercy is sure, and the last verse in Jonah 2reveals that. There we read, “And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on the dry land.” It was God’s mercy that caused that fish to vomit out Jonah. It was not that the fish was irritated by the presence of Jonah in its belly and spit him out to get relief. It was not that the fish sought relief, but that God exercised His mercy. And note that the fish did not simply vomit out Jonah, but that it did so upon the dry land. It swam into very shallow water and very close to the shoreline to spit him out on dry land. Never mind what the intentions of the fish were, it was the thought and mercy of God that gave to the fish the desire to spew him out. It could have vomited him out way back there in the deep water. And large fish do not come that close to shore. God’s sure mercy does, through unordinary, unusual events, bring blessings and salvation to His people.

And do not forget that unusual work of God of which Jesus spoke, when He told the Jews that no sign would be given them except the sign of Jonah, who was three days and three nights in the fish’s belly. There indeed we have the sure mercy of God. It was in amazing mercy that He sent His Son into the heart of the earth, after sending Him into the belly of hell, and this time in the sense of Gehenna, the lake of fire, for our sins. It was the mercy of God that raised Him up the third day, because by His cross He had justified us. Do not forsake that mercy. Do not turn away from that merciful God to trust in lying vanities. Listen carefully to Jonah, because it is God Who is speaking through him.

Jonah seeks mercy where it can be found. He confesses here that he will sacrifice to God with the voice of thanksgiving, and will pay his vows to God. Indeed, salvation, every single bit of it, comes from Him, and from Him alone. Follow man-made philosophies that credit man with helping God by “accepting His kind offer,” present the matter as though man fulfills the condition of believing and that God then proceeds to save him, and you are looking to lying vanities and forsaking mercy, rather than seeking it where it can be found. That act of believing is part of the work of salvation that God works in us. Salvation, in all its parts, and from every possible aspect, is of the Lord. Do not forsake that truth, but with Jonah confess it. Then you are not following a mental image that is empty and deceives, but you are already enjoying a salvation that is of the Lord.