Jonah 2:1-10 One of the most remarkable things about Jonah’s prayer is that most of the prayer is quotation from the Psalms. He quotes from Psalm 120:1 (v. 2), Psalm 42:7 (v. 3), Psalm 31:22 (v. 5), Psalm 69:1 (v. 7), Psalm 142:3 (v. 8), Psalm 3:8 (v. 8) and Psalm 31:6 (v. 9). Calling God his own mercy (v. 8) is also a reference to Psalm 144:2. These quotes not only show a close acquaintance with the Psalms on Jonah’s part but also demonstrate the power of the Psalms both as the Word of God and as a divine record of the Christian’s life and experiences. It can only be that the Psalms, speaking so clearly of our hope in times of trouble, were the motivation for Jonah’s prayer of repentance and renewed faith.
As a prayer of renewed confidence and faith in God, Jonah’s prayer shows us how in prayer and in the presence of God we learn His gracious purpose in afflicting us. Remembering Jonah,
Let the heart, therefore, of the believer ever say to itself, when cast by Christ into the furnace of affliction: “My Lord sits here as a refiner of silver; he would have me entirely separated from what mars the purity of my affections, and interferes with the integrity of my obedience. Let me fall in with his design, and, giving the dross of my corruption to be burnt up as in the fire of his judgment, devote myself anew as a living sacrifice to his fear; so that, if I must confess with the psalmist, ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray,’ with him also I may be enabled to add, ‘But now I keep thy word.’”1
As a prayer of repentance, Jonah’s prayer is also a wonderful illustration of God’s readiness to forgive His people. David spoke of that in Psalm 32:5, “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” John promises it in I John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Perhaps Jonah remembered David’s words and was encouraged to confess his sins, but in doing so became proof of what John would later write.
What a motive to repent that is for us! In many cases God answers our prayers in His own time, but He never delays forgiveness. He does not delay because forgiveness of sins, our justification, was purchased with the blood of Christ and is the principal blessing of salvation, the key to all other blessings, without which also we cannot live.
Jonah mentions this twice in his brief prayer. He says, “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (v. 2); and again, “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple” (v. 7). Surely that was a reason for his vow to sacrifice to God and his thanksgiving (v. 9).
God is not like us. He never turns a deaf ear to His people and never refuses their prayers when they come to Him in sincerity and truth. This is what I John 1:9 means when it says that God is faithful and just to forgive. He is faithful to His own purpose and work and can never overlook the sacrifice of His own Son. He is like the father in Jesus’ parable who gladly received his wayward son, without even mentioning his sins and who immediately prepared for him the best of what he had.
This is pure grace. We do not deserve forgiveness. Our sins are committed against Him. We never see the wrong we do as we should, even when we are sorry. Our repentance is never sincere enough. Worst of all, we commit the same sins after we have repented of them. Forgiveness is possible only because Christ died for our sins and paid the full penalty for them so that it is as though we never had nor ever committed any sin.
Jonah is a living lesson of how unworthy we are of God’s forgiveness. Not only was he disobedient and rebellious, with no ground for asking forgiveness, but also, having been forgiven, he went to Nineveh with an attitude that had not changed very much. He preached in Nineveh only what God had commanded him to preach, showed no compassion for the sinners in Nineveh, less even than for the gourd that shaded him and, having preached the minimum, sat and waited for Nineveh’s destruction and was greatly disappointed when God spared the city. His obedience was reluctant and grudging after he was vomited out by the fish.
Because God is always ready to forgive such unworthy sinners, so also must we be, especially when others confess their sins to us. We may not forgive grudgingly. We may certainly not say, “I forgive, but I cannot forget.” We may not use the seriousness of another person’s sins against us to delay forgiveness. Our forgiveness must be immediate as God’s is, otherwise our forgiveness is not sincere. All true forgiveness is like God’s.
Understanding God’s readiness to forgive and His gracious purpose in affliction, having repented and experienced God’s forgiving grace, though still in the fish’s belly, Jonah was thankful and showed his appreciation. God had heard his cries and saved him, though not yet from the fish, and Jonah expressed thanksgiving both in words of thanks and in vows. He confessed that salvation was of the Lord, a tribute to what God had done for him.
We do not know what vows Jonah made. Perhaps he had promised to go to Nineveh if God forgave him and delivered him from the fish. Perhaps he promised to make suitable thank offerings when and if he ever returned to the land of Israel. This was proper and good, but Jonah, so like us, soon showed how sinful he was even in his thanks. Certainly he was thankful for his own salvation, but never do we read that he was thankful for God’s grace to Nineveh.
The heart of Jonah’s thankfulness is his confession that salvation is of the Lord. Certainly he had seen that in his own case, but he was still blind to the full reality of what he confessed when he continued to wish and wait for Nineveh’s destruction and when he was angry over their repentance. How easy it is to confess the truth that God is sovereign in salvation and that salvation is all of grace when we ourselves are the objects of His grace, but how difficult when God shows grace to those who have injured us and against whom we are bitter and angry. How difficult it is to confess that salvation is of the Lord when He takes His Word from us and gives it to others, as He was doing with Israel and Nineveh and would do again in the New Testament.
Always we find ourselves denying in fact what we confess with our mouths when we say that salvation is all of grace and yet act as though we are somehow a little better than others and more worthy of God’s grace. We really deny that salvation is of the Lord when we find in ourselves a reluctance to forgive when God Himself has forgiven or when our forgiveness is half-hearted and begrudged. We find ourselves denying in deed what we confess with our mouths when there is in us a reluctance to see the gospel preached in places like Africa or Asia and when we think that Christians from other cultures can never be truly Reformed as we are.
Jonah’s sins and our weaknesses only underline and magnify the truth that salvation is indeed of the Lord! Nevertheless, the focus must not be on Jonah or even on us, so like Jonah, but on the God of grace. That is the theme of the book, and the sailors, Jonah, Nineveh, and every believer show that in being always and forever unworthy of God’s great grace and salvation.
The book demonstrates so clearly that there is no difference, as far as God’s grace is concerned between the Jew, Jonah, and the Gentile Ninevites and sailors, no more than there is between bond and free, male or female, black or white. As Paul says, they are all one in Christ Jesus. It takes the same grace to save the worst of criminals as it does to save someone who was born and raised in a pious home, the same grace to save a heathen idolater as to save one born in the line of the covenant. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 4:23).
All of salvation must be of grace, therefore. Not only must regeneration and the new birth that first deliver sailors and Ninevites and us from unbelief and idolatry be of grace, but so must the conversion of a wayward and disobedient Jonah be of grace. Not only justification, but also sanctification is pure grace. Holiness, assurance, adoption, communion and fellowship with God, tears for sin, humility, peace, joy, and all the other good fruits of a Christian life are all grace—and grace without works. Works themselves are the fruit of grace.
All this traces back to the cross of our Savior, the ever-flowing fountain of grace. Nothing that is pleasing to God, that He receives, is ever from us but all was purchased by Christ Jesus. Even the delight we take in God’s work of grace, the desire we find in ourselves to please Him and the feeble efforts we make to serve Him, which He counts good works, are grace, for “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). When finally God rewards our well-doing that too is grace added to grace.
This is the source of humility, for what do I have as a reason for pride or for setting myself above others when I have nothing that I have not received? It is the beginning of a life of praise and thanks and obedience, for if He begins the work of grace in us He will also finish it (Phil. 1:6). It leads us to wait upon God and not run ahead of Him or think that anything depends on us. Truly salvation is of the Lord!
That grace traces back to God’s eternal purpose in election. His choice, not ours, is the difference between a repentant Jonah and thousands of unrepentant Israelites. That stands out in the case of Jonah himself, but ever so starkly in the salvation of the heathen sailors who heaved Jonah overboard and of the Ninevites. They and only a very few others in the Old Testament were saved from among the Gentiles. Why? Because the Ninevites were a better people than the other nations? Because the sailors had a better opportunity than most to see the power and glory of God?
The Ninevites were among the wickedest and cruelest of the nations. The sailors belonged to a class that even today is notorious for blasphemy and whoring, as the career of another Jonah, John Newton, illustrates. As God said to Israel, “The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut. 7: 7, 8).
God made known something of His eternal counsel, His love before time to Jonah. Jonah must have known Psalm 32, but he certainly learned to sing it with new fervor:
I graciously will teach thee The way that thou shalt go, And with My eye upon thee My counsel make thee know. But be ye not unruly, Or slow to understand, Be not perverse, but willing To heed My wise command.
The sorrows of the wicked In number shall abound, But those that trust Jehovah, His mercy shall surround; Then in the Lord be joyful, In song lift up your voice; Be glad in God, ye righteous, Rejoice, ye saints, rejoice.
1 Patrick Fairbairn, Jonah: His Life, Character and Mission (Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, MI, 1964), 81, 82.