By Joseph Ametepe
In the summer of 1995, God sent me on my first missionary journey to Lebanon. During this mission, I had the privilege of preaching and teaching in various churches and training church leaders, doing discipleship of believers, and a door-to-door evangelistic ministry. During a break in my ministry, I traveled in a mini-van from Beirut to Tripoli in the north of Lebanon. On our way, the driver, whom I was traveling with, suddenly veered off the main road. Lo and behold, our vehicle was speeding down a narrow strip of land. This strip of land led into a deep and wide pit below. I was sitting in front with the driver and saw where we were headed. We were going to plunge into the pit. Reality set in for me. From the bottom of my heart, I cried out to God for help: "Jesus, save us!" Immediately after my desperate cry for help, the vehicle came to a screeching halt, just a few feet before we plunge to our death in the pit below. I prayed right there and then when the crisis came. I didn't wait until our vehicle plunged to the bottom of the deep pit before praying for help. Neither did I pray a well-prepared and rehearsed prayer in that time of crisis. I simply got down to the business of pleading for God's supernatural help.
God heard my desperate prayer for help and saved us. To God be the glory! Since crisis is part and parcel of the believer's life, I am sure that many of you have also cried out to God for help, when facing danger or starring death in the face. The point of my story is that it's human nature to pray when in crisis. Sometimes, the crisis is the work of enemy forces seeking to destroy us. Other times, we bring the crisis on ourselves because of the disobedient choices we make. Jonah found himself in the latter situation. He brought trouble on himself and on a boatload of sailors. Jonah decided to travel by sea to go west to Tarshish when God wanted him to travel by land to go east to Nineveh. In other words, Jonah disobeyed the direct command of God and tried to flee from His presence. How about that? What a bold and brazen venture! Jonah would not make history by becoming the first man who successfully fled from the presence of God. Jonah and the pagan sailors encountered a supernatural storm which threatened to break up their ship. In their desperation and despair, the sailors cast lots to find out who was responsible to this violent and vicious storm. Through God's providence- "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD"-(Proverbs 16:33), the lot fell on Jonah. The culprit whose actions resulted in the violent storm had now been discovered. But the storm still rages on. When the culprit was asked what should be done to stop the raging storm, he answered, "Pick me up, and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know on account of me this great storm has come upon you" (Jonah 1:12). At first, the sailors ignored Jonah's proposal. They gallantly tried to return to land. But the storm got stormier against them. At last, they had no choice but to do as Jonah had proposed. They did after praying to God to absolve them of all guilt on account of Jonah. To their astonishment, the vicious and violent storm ceased its raging as Jonah sank to the bottom of the sea. Jonah, the runaway prophet, the rebellious prophet, the reluctant prophet who had stubbornly refused to pray throughout the stormy ordeal, now finds himself in a precarious situation. He is now in the belly of the big fish. No doubt, Jonah is now starring death in the face. At last, in a crisis of his life, Jonah, prays to the Lord his God.
Isn't it strange that we human often choose to pray as a last resort instead of a first option? How different things might have been for Jonah if he had simply chosen to call on God right at the beginning of the storm! But thank God, He is a God of forgiveness, grace and abundant compassion! Even when we wait so late to come to Him, to cry out to Him for help in all humility and sincerity of heart, He is still ready and willing to respond graciously to us! Oh how marvelous is our God! Oh how merciful is He! There is none like Him in the entire universe, so full of compassion and overflowing mercy! Jonah's story teaches us that a true and sincere prayer offered up to the One true and living God, in a spirit of humility by a true believer in Jesus, is heard and responded to. Despite Jonah's reluctance to pray, when he finally prayed in great distress, God in His great compassion, answered and delivered him. What God did for Jonah, He is willing to do for you and me. Why? He is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
A careful reading through the Book of Jonah shows that it is a book of prayer. In fact every chapter has something to say about the practice of prayer. In chapter 1, while the supernatural storm was raging and wreaking havoc, the pagan sailors prayed to their false gods to no avail (1:5). Later, at the close of the chapter, when God converted the sailors, they prayed to the true God (1:14). Chapter 2 of Jonah records the heartfelt and humble prayer of Jonah while in deep distress and the compassionate response of Yahweh. In fact, the distress in Jonah's life actually gave birth to the practice of prayer on a whole new level in Jonah's life. After the fiery preaching of the repentant prophet in chapter 3, the king of Nineveh issued a proclamation. There was to be no eating or drinking for man and beast. Both man and beast must be covered in sackcloth. The people were urged to call on Elohim earnestly, and that each person must turn from his wicked way. The people of Nineveh did as the king decreed. The response was amazing. Being a compassionate God and a God who responds to genuine repentance, God Almighty relented from the calamity He had purposed to bring on the Ninevites (3:1-10). Finally, in chapter 4, Jonah prayed again. This time, he prayed with a bitter and angry spirit. He threw up a temper tantrum at God-asking God to take his life. His reason, death was better to him than life (4:1-9). Fortunately for us, we are not going to talk about the temper tantrum prayer of Jonah to God.
Personally, one of the joys I experience and cherish in studying, practicing, and preaching the Word of God is in the area of prayer. When I am poring over the prayers recorded in the Bible, I take special care to learn all that the Holy Spirit wants to teach me in order to become one who prays effectively. In other words, I just don't want to "say a prayer" but to "offer up fervent and effectual prayers," which the Bible says, can accomplish much (James 5:16a). With this as my motivation, I always seek to learn principles of effective prayer from the recorded prayers of the saints in the Scriptures, not just mere pious phrases to recite in my prayers. As I pored over Jonah's prayer in the belly of the big fish, the Holy Spirit taught me several basic principles of effective prayer. These principles are essential for an effective prayer life for believers in Jesus Christ. Some of these principles are very simple, yet they teach a great deal about effective and effectual prayer that moves the heart and hand of God to respond to our cries to Him.
The Definition of Prayer
Prayer is a privileged spiritual communion which takes place in the context of relationship between the true and living God and the believer in Jesus Christ. It is inspired and directed by the Person of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer. In this privileged communion, the believer expresses not only his hunger and thirst to know God more intimately and be changed into the image of Christ, but also his adoration, praise and worship to God, thankfully acknowledging His goodness, humbly and honestly confessing his sins and failures to Him, listening attentively to His voice in His written Word and the impression of His Spirit, and asking Him according to His promises in His Word to meet the needs in his own life and in the lives of fellow believers in the Church and others outside of the Church, as it is fit to bring glory and praise to His name and for the advancement of His kingdom. -Joseph Ametepe
Principles of Prayer from a Prophet Praying in a Crisis
With the help of the Holy Spirit, I have discovered seven principles of prayer from a prophet's prayer in crisis. God preserved Jonah's prayer in the Bible in order to instruct believers today. We will do well to ask the Holy Spirit to impress these principles upon our hearts and diligently apply them in our prayers. The principles in Jonah's prayers are: (1) The person to whom prayer is directed is Yahweh-the only true God. (2) The place of prayer can be anywhere, even in the belly of a big fish. (3) The power of crying out to God in prayer brings God's breakthrough to the believer. (4) Personal acknowledgement of God's dealings with the believer without blaming God is an essential element of effective prayer. (5) Praising God for responding to prayer always delights the heart of God. (6) Promising to worship God and pledging to keep one's vow to God are acceptable to Him. (7) The primary source of salvation is Yahweh. I believe that learning and applying these basic principles will take our prayer life to a whole new level. This is God's desire for all His believers in Jesus Christ.
Let's now begin to look at these principles in detail and see what the Holy Spirit is so eager to teach us.
1. The Person to whom true prayer is directed is Yahweh-the only true God (vv. 1a, 2a, 7b).
Jonah didn't pray to some higher power or force up there in the skies above. Rather, he prayed to a person named the LORD - Yahweh. He prayed to a personal, living, spiritual divine being. In other words, he prayed to the supreme deity of the universe.
Would please notice how Jonah chapter 2 begins. It begins by saying: "Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God" (v. 1a). Jonah prayed to the LORD with whom he had a personal saving relationship. The expression "his God" must not be overlooked. Jonah prayed not only to Yahweh, as the saved sailors did in Jonah 1:14, but to Yahweh as his God, from whom he had tried to escape, and whom he now addresses again as his God while starring death in the face. Jonah didn't turn to a higher power, but to a personal, loving, living God of the universe. This teaches us a simple lesson that true prayer is directed to the true, living, and personal supreme Being of the universe.
If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are to pray to a Person, the living God, not a force or a false god. And that Person is the Lord your God. Many people say they pray. But the question is: Who are they praying to? Do they know and can they claim that the god they are praying to is the true and only God of the universe who is fully revealed in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ? Do they have a genuine saving relationship with the true God? If these questions are not answered in sincerity and with certainty, then please know that God is presenting an opportunity to you to share the gospel. Remember, the sailors prayed at the beginning of the raging storm. But the gods they prayed to were false gods. Sadly, many people are in that same situation today. They are praying to false gods, not to faithful and the true God.
Jonah's prayer was directed to the only true God of the universe, the Lord, that is, Yahweh Himself. May I say to us, that prayer to any other god, who is not the Lord, the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, is a waste of time. It's futility and vanity of vanities. I don't care how fervent you pray to your god and how much time you devote in praying to that god, if He is not the Lord, the Great I AM, the Creator and Possessor of heaven and earth, the Sovereign of the nations, the Sustainer of the universe, the Ruler and Redeemer of sinners, then you have missed the boat. Your prayers are to no avail. Please listen! Prayers that count, prayers that make a difference, are prayers that are directed to the True and living God, Yahweh, the LORD, who is fully revealed in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
To stress the point that the person to whom true prayer is directed is the LORD, that is, the only true God, the Bible tells us in verse 2 that Jonah called out of his distress to the LORD. Later in verse 7, the Bible says of Jonah: "While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple." Jonah was very aware that he was praying to a divine person who is the LORD. He never doubted that. Folks, I tell you:-true prayer is directed to the LORD, a Person, who is the supreme and only true God of the universe. Actually, in his prayer, Jonah mentioned the personal name of God, "the LORD" four times (vv. 2, 6, 7, 9). In other words, for Jonah, there is only one true God to pray to. He is Yahweh. Period!
When the Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray, the first thing He taught them was the One to whom they should offer their prayers. He taught them to pray to a Person. Their Father in heaven, not to a force. A holy God, not to a higher power. Almighty God, not to an angel. Our Maker, not to Mary. "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you...Pray then in this way: 'Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name'"(Matthew 6:6, 9).
David knew that Yahweh is the only true God to pray to and practiced it in his prayer life. This is seen clearly in his prayer in Psalm 5. He prayed: "Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my groaning. Heed the sound of my cry for help, my King and my God, for to You I pray. In the morning, O LORD, You will hear my voice; in the morning I will order my prayer to You and eagerly watch" (Psalm 5:3).
Actually, Jonah's prayer as a whole is similar to the psalms of thanksgiving with which any devout Israelite could identify (see Psalms 30; 32; 34; 92; 116; 118; and 138). These psalms were exactly suited to Jonah's circumstances. He could not have expressed his thoughts and feelings any better in words of his own. In other words, Jonah's prayer reflects that he was a man was well-versed in the Holy Scripture. And may I say to us, anyone who prays effectively needs to be well-versed in the Holy Scripture. He or she must have a growing understanding of the Word of God. Even in Christian circles today, there is a lot of praying that is not centered on the Word of God! Please stay away and steer away from that type of praying. Personally, by the grace of God, every day that God gives me, I first open His Word, before I open my mouth to pray to Him.
Who are you offering your prayers to? Yahweh? The true God? The living God? The One who is fully revealed in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ? Are you in a genuine saving relationship with Him? If you have spent your life praying to some other god, may I respectfully say to you that your prayers are going nowhere. Your prayers are like that of the sailors who prayed to false gods to no avail. But that can change for you today. You are praying to the wrong god because you don't know Jesus Christ. He was sent to show us the way to the true and living God. He died on the cross for your sins. He was buried. He rose again from the dead to bring you into a right standing with the true God. Simply ask Jesus to forgive you your sins. Accept His death on the cross as the full payment for your sin debt. Admit to Him that you are a sinner in need of His forgiveness. Place your full trust in Him today and you will be saved. You will begin a new and saving relationship with Him. A relationship which will guarantee that your prayers will count and make a difference!
2. The place of prayer can be anywhere, even in the belly of a big fish (v. 1b).
Jonah didn't pray in a sanctuary full of icons. He didn't pray in a well-decorated temple with scented candles and incense burning around the altar. He prayed to his God from the belly of the big fish appointed to swallow him and preserve him from drowning. In fact, the Bible shows that there is no one specific place where God's people are commanded to pray for them to be heard.
At the time of his prayer, Jonah was in the belly of the big fish. Notice what the Bible says in verse 1: "Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish" (v. 1). This is the only place in the Bible where we are told that a man prayed from the stomach of a fish. The late Dr. McGee in his usual witty way says: "If I know human nature at all, Jonah didn't wait very long to pray this prayer. When he found himself in this condition, you can be sure of one thing: he immediately went to prayer before God. In fact, I think he prayed on the way down and by the time he got into the fish's tummy, it was time to say Amen."
Thank God most of us here will probably not be praying from the stomach of a fish. We can pray in a church building. We can pray in our homes. We can pray in a restaurant. We can pray in public or our private prayer closets. We can pray on the beach. We can pray in an upper room (Acts 1 and 2). We can pray on a housetop (Acts 10:9). We can pray while driving or flying on a plane. We can pray on a campus or in a classroom. We can pray at a street corner as long as we are not doing it for show. We can pray while in the shower or while sitting on our "toilet throne." We can pray in prison (Acts 16:25). We can pray in a motel or a hotel. Jonah prayed in a "Fish-tel."
The point here is that there is no one specific place where Christians are commanded to pray or else their prayers will not be heard by God. Jonah prayed in the most despicable place, but his prayer was heard because his heart was right with God. It is not so much the place we pray as it is the posture our heart in prayer. In other words, wherever you find yourself, when your heart is right with God, you can pray to Him and be heard.
3. The power of crying out to God in prayer brings God's breakthrough to the believer (v. 2).
Jonah called and cried out to God in prayer and God's power was released to bring a timely and miraculous deliverance in his desperate and distressful situation. The power of crying out to God is one of the most powerful teachings about prayer in the Bible. Unfortunately, we know very little of it and therefore do not practice it at all in our private prayer life. Jonah knew of it and practiced it. As a result, Jonah experienced God's breakthrough in his dire and near death situation.
The power of crying out to God is revealed to us by God's prompt response to Jonah's cry for help. Notice what the Bible says in verse 2: "And he said, I called out of my distress to the LORD, and He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice." Here, Jonah used two important expressions in his prayer, namely, "I called out," [Hebrew: qara'ti] and "I cried for help"[Hebrew: shua'ti]. "Qara'ti" is from the Hebrew verb "qara'." In this context, it also means "call, cry, utter a loud sound, call unto someone, usually God, for help, cry for help, appeal to Yahweh to display His power." "Shua'ti" is from the Hebrew verb "shava'." It means to cry out for help specifically to God. The intensity of the action conveyed by "shava'" is aptly illustrated by the fact that verb occurs only in the Piel stem. That is, whenever a very strong or strenuous act characterized by much action or strong emotion is being described in the Hebrew, the Piel stem is used. "Shava'," that is, "to intensely cry out for help" is used 22 times, most often in the Psalms (10 times) and Job (8 times). This leaves only four references in the rest of the Old Testament (Isaiah 58:9; Lamentations 3:8; Jonah 2:2; Habakkuk 1:2). The main point here is that this verb is used to describe the cry of anguish, the cry of the oppressed, the cry of those who are approaching a breaking point in their distress (cf.Exodus 2:23).
Approaching a breaking point in his crisis , Jonah let out a loud cry for help to the Lord his God with all his heart. Remember, he was facing the danger of death from which there is apparently no escape. In his great distress or straits, and in humility of heart and trust in God, Jonah gathered all his strength and uttered the greatest cry for help in his life. He appealed to Yahweh to display His power in delivering him from his mess. In other words, Jonah prayed with a new fervor and passion. He prayed at a deeper level than he used to. He prayed as never before. He called out to God. He cried out to God with all earnestness. Now please, don't ask me how Jonah was able to utter such an intense and loud cry for help in his distress while in the stomach of the fish- with all the gastric juices and the "gooey slimy stuff "passing over his mouth! All I know is that the Bible says he did. Perhaps, this is one of the questions I will ask Jonah in heaven. "Please, Jonah, tell me how you were able to utter a loud and intense cry for help in the belly of the big fish?"
The point I don't want you to miss here is that the power of crying out to God is demonstrated repeatedly in Scripture by God's prompt response to those who cry out to Him in their desperate and distressful circumstances. In other words, crying out to God sincerely and humbly, brings God's breakthrough to God's people. I have written a thorough and extensive article on this subject. Please follow this link to read it: The Power of Crying Out to God.
Let me ask you. Have you experienced the power of crying out to God in your prayer life? Have you been in a desperate and distressful situation where you humbly called out to God with all your heart for His help and intervention? How did God response to you? Jonah's answer to these questions is: "He answered me...You heard my voice." With our economy still struggling and many losing their jobs, investments, and homes, these are tough times. Many are in distress, even we who are believers in Jesus Christ are not exempt from crises. We will do well to learn how to sincerely and humbly cry out to God for His help and see Him display His power on our behalf. No doubt, His response will give us a fresh testimony of His care and deliverance.
4. Personal acknowledgment of God's dealings with the believer without blaming God is an essential element of effective prayer (vv. 3-4).
In his prayer, Jonah humbly accepted God's discipline in his life for his disobedience without pointing an accusing finger at God. In effect, Jonah was saying to God, "All Your work is perfect. All Your ways are just. You are a God of faithfulness without injustice. Righteous and upright are You" (Deuteronomy 32:3-4).
While in the belly of the big fish, Jonah did not blame God of wrongdoing. At this point, Jonah had no anger or resentment against God for confining him in the stomach of the fish. He accepted God's discipline. He refused to point an accusing finger at God for his predicament. Would you please carefully take note of Jonah's personal acknowledgment as recorded in verses 3-4. "For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me. So I said, 'I have been expelled from Your sight. Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple'" (vv. 3-4).
In describing his watery experience, Jonah admitted that his circumstances were a discipline or judgment from the Lord Himself. Notice he says: "You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas" (v. 3a). I thought the converted sailors picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea? Why is he now saying that God had cast him into the deep, that is, the deepest abyss of the ocean? Here is why! The sailors were merely the vessels or instruments God used to bring His righteous discipline upon Jonah. In other words, God was the One who cast Jonah into the deep. But He did so, using the converted sailors! That is why Jonah felt in his conscience that the sea with its raging waves and billows was the servant of God and His wrath, to discipline him for his disobedience to God's direct command. In other words, he admits that the sailors, the sea and its breakers and billows are all God's servants in administering God's righteous chastisement upon him. In acknowledging all the things God had done to him, Jonah refuses to accuse or blame God of wrongdoing. If there was anyone who did wrong, it was Jonah, not Yahweh.
Furthermore, Jonah admits to God that he has been expelled or banished from before His eyes. In Jonah 1:3, we are told, Jonah fled from the presence of the LORD. Here, he realizes that the Lord has temporarily expelled him from the sphere of God's eyes, that is, of God's protection and care. This was an "oops" moment for Jonah. "Oops! What have I done? I am running away from the Only One whose protection and care will bring me out of my messy and near death situation." Don't we also act like Jonah? We need God, His care, compassion, love and help. Yet, we ignore Him and put Him at arm's length in our lives. Then, when we are in great trouble, we have our "oops" moment! We realize how desperately we need Him. We can really go on in life without Him.
Jonah's acknowledgment of God's dealings with him is actually similar to a fellow prophet's admission. Micah, making a confession on behalf of Israel admits: "I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against Him, until He pleads my case and executes justice for me. He will bring me out to the light, and I will see His righteousness" (Micah 7:9). Jonah's personal admission of God's dealings in his life without blaming God, is also demonstrated in the lives of the Job, at the beginning of his great trial, and in the lives of the Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon.
After losing his servants, his sheep, his oxen, his donkeys, his camels, his sons and daughters in a single day, Job didn't point an accusing finger at God. The Bible says:"Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God" (Job 1:22). After the wall of Jerusalem which had been in ruins for years was rebuilt, Ezra and Nehemiah led the Jewish returnees in confession, repentance, prayer, and worship for a whole day. In their prayer, they accepted God's discipline and did not point an accusing finger at God. "Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness, do not let all the hardship seem insignificant before You, which has come upon us, our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria to this day. However, You are just in all that has come upon us; for You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly" (Nehemiah 9:32-33). What a humble and sincere admission before God! I have come to cherish their humble and sincere admission before God. I find myself often applying this principle in my prayer life.
Do you blame God for His dealings with you? Do you point an accusing finger at God just because you don't understand what He is doing in your life? Do you put the responsibility of wrongdoing on God for all the bad things you encounter in life? It is sad, that though the Bible makes it clear that God's work is perfect, and that His ways are just (Deuteronomy 32:4), many people, even believers in Jesus Christ included, join the bandwagon of those who accuse and blame God. Are you one of them?
Notice also that in his personal acknowledgment of God's righteous dealings with him, Jonah also anticipates God's deliverance. He says, "nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple" (v. 4b). Please understand that this was not wishful thinking on Jonah's part while in the belly of the great fish. This was a vivid demonstration of his confident faith in the Lord. Jonah would again look to the holy temple of the Lord. That is to say, he would once more approach the presence of the Lord, to worship before Him, not in His heavenly temple, but in His temple in Jerusalem. In other words, Jonah expressed conviction that he would one day soon see and be in the sight of God in His Jerusalem temple. You see, Jonah was one of the many in the northern kingdom of Israel who faithfully went down to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. In confident anticipation of God's deliverance, Jonah says in faith: "I'm going to look again toward the holy temple." Other servants of God who pray with great expectation include Habakkuk (see Habakkuk 2:1), Micah (see Micah 7:7), and Paul (see Philippians 1:19-20; Philemon 1:22).
Let me ask you, when you pray, do you pray with a spirit of confident anticipation for God's response? What is the level of expectation in prayer?
5. Praising God for responding to our prayers always delights the heart of God (vv. 5-7).
This is a basic principle of effective prayer, but we often don't practice it. It's so easy to grumble and complain when things don't go our way than to praise God for all He's done and continues to do for us! After describing his dire and distressful situation, Jonah lifted up his heart in praise of God for bringing him out from the pit. Jonah had literally come to a fresh understanding that God inhabits the praises of His people (Psalm 22:3).
Please observe Jonah's praise as recorded in verses 5-7. "Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head. I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, but You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple."
Please notice that Jonah first gives us a graphic description of the peril of death he encountered on that dark day of his life. He did this to help us see more perfectly the thought of miraculous deliverance which filled his mind and for which he lifted up his heart in offering praise to the Lord his God. In giving his vivid account of his near death experience, Jonah says, the waters of the sea surrounded him, reaching literally to the soul of death. In other words, it appeared to be all over for Jonah. Furthermore, he says,"tehom" [Hebrew for "the great deep"] or the unfathomable flood of the ocean, surrounded him. Also, he says, "suph" [Hebrew for sedge, seaweed or sea-grass, which grows at the bottom of the sea, was bound about his head, so that he sank to the very bottom. Talk about hitting rock bottom! Jonah experienced it. Literally, Jonah was going through hell.
In Hebrew worldview, the symbol of the sea/deep/ flood speaks of death. So to sink into the waters was to sink toward death and realm of Sheol or the pit, as it was sometimes called (see Psalms 69:1-2, 15; 124:4-5; 144:7). So the picture being portrayed of Jonah in his prayer is that he had been cast into the sea, and the chaotic waters of the great deep are closing around him as he sinks down through them toward the pit or Sheol, the place of the dead. In other words, Jonah is saying, "I'm on my way to a certain death." That's how dark and desperate his situation was.
The Bible also says in its description of the crisis of Jonah that when he sank into the deep, the earth, literally shut its bolts behind him as if to say, "Jonah, you are locked up real good. The way back to earth where you decided to flee from the presence of the Lord, is shut and bolted against you. The weight of the waves, or the great masses or water, which are pressing upon you when you sank to the bottom of the sea will surely prevent you from ascending from the sea to land." It's like Jonah is saying, "Humanly speaking, it's all over for me." This was Jonah's predicament. This was his plight. He was heading to a certain death. However, one word reverses everything for Jonah, from death to deliverance, from sinking to salvation. Notice he says in his praise, "But You" (v. 6b).
Someone has said, "If God has not said "But" the whole human race would have been lost." Jonah says of his rock bottom, near death experience when it appeared life was over for him, "Yahweh, my God stepped in and intervened in my situation, bringing up my life from the pit of death." It is as if Jonah is saying in his praise of God, "O Lord my God, You are a miracle-working God. You alone can intervene in impossible circumstances. You alone can bring a timely change in a hopeless and helpless situation. You alone can turn a certain death into a sure deliverance. You are awesome! You are amazing!"
Furthermore, Jonah says in his praise of God, that when his soul was about to sink into the night of death, he thought of Yahweh in prayer, and his prayer reached to God in His holy temple, where Yahweh is enthroned as God and King of His people (cf. Psalms 18:7; 88:3). I don't know about you! But there are times in my life when the Holy Spirit assures me in prayer that my prayers are rising up to Him into the golden bowl full incense (see Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4) in His presence. As such times, I cannot help, but lift up my praises to God in confident assurance that He will respond to me. Jonah had such an experience in the belly of the big fish. He had confident assurance that his prayers were not just hitting the ceiling (in his case, the walls of the fish's tummy) and bouncing back to him. But that they actually went through the walls of the fish's belly, into the very presence of Almighty God of the universe. He could therefore boldly say, "My prayer came to You, into Your holy temple" (v. 7b). For this, Jonah was full of praise to God.
What about you? How would you describe your life of praising God in your prayers? Does the praise of God take a backseat in your prayers to God? Do you rely on the Holy Spirit to praise and magnify God for the privilege and joy of hearing and answering your prayers? Do you praise God for His ability to bring a change in your hopeless and helpless situations? Do you, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, bless and honor God for the little and big miracles He does for you? Are you a "praiser" or a "pouter"? There are Christians, even after God has done many good things for them, still whine. How sad! At this point, Jonah didn't pout. He praised God.
6. Promising to worship God and pledging to keep one's vow to God are acceptable to Him (vv. 8-9a).
Before Jonah was delivered from his near death experience, he promised to worship God and pledged to pay the vow he made to God. Please understand that Jonah was not using his promise to worship God and his pledge to pay his vow to God as a manipulative tool. He genuinely wanted to serve God with all his heart. Some believers try to manipulate God with such promises as: "God, if You get me out of this mess, I will dedicate myself to You the rest of my life. I will make myself available to You to use me in whatever way You choose. I will serve You faithfully the rest of my life. I promise! Please, just get me out of this mess!" But God cannot be fooled or manipulated. We can do that with people, but not with God. It will never succeed. Why? God knows our heart so well. No one can pull the wool over His eye. Jonah didn't try to twist God's hand to get him out of his mess. He sincerely promised to serve God after getting out of his messy situation.
We now read of Jonah's sincere promise to offer thanks to God and his pledge to fulfill his vow to God in verses 7-8a. "Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay."
Notice that Jonah first points to idol worshipers who forsake their Chesed [Hebrew for: faithfulness, mercy, steadfast love.] What the Bible is saying here is that idol worshipers deprive themselves of the steadfast love of God, which manifests itself in God's gracious acts on one's behalf. The expression "vain idols" is literally "empty or worthless vanities." Idols are empty vanities because they are "the works of man's hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but they cannot hear; they have noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they cannot make a sound with their throat. Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them" (Psalm 115:4-8).
Please understand that all things which man makes into objects of trust are idols. In other words, an idol is anything which takes God's rightful place in a person's heart. Money or wealth, prestige, power, people, recognition, fame, etc., are objects of trust today. Many worship these idols and deprive themselves of God's steadfast love which never cease.
Now, I want you to watch this carefully! Isn't it ironic that Jonah is criticizing those who rely on worthless idols? Yes, it is! Until the time of this prayer, Jonah has not relied on Yahweh at all. In fact, he rebelled against Him. But now, seemingly, he has realized his dependence on God for his life. Coming to that realization, Jonah promises to offer a thank-offering sacrifice in response to the Lord's deliverance of him. In other words, Jonah commits himself to worshiping God with a prayer of thanksgiving and pay his vow which he has made in distress. This reminds me of the psalmist Asaph. He declared in the Spirit: "Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High; call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me...He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me; and to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God" (Psalm 50:14-15,23). Jonah had now ordered his way aright. Therefore Jonah knew that God would show him His salvation. In anticipation of that, Jonah promises to worship God and pledges to pay his vow to God. So Jonah was not trying to manipulate God with his promise to worship Him and his pledge to pay his vow to Him.
Actually, Jonah found himself in the same position as the sailors: offering sacrifices and making vows (see Jonah 1:16). One can say that the Book of Jonah is a "Book of Vows." The shipload of sailors who were saved in the storm offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him (Jonah 1:16). Now, Jonah, in the belly of the fish, also promises to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and pays the vow he has made to God. I don't suppose you and I can possibly conceive of the thanksgiving that was on Jonah's heart when the fish vomited him out onto the dry land. No doubt, he was a mess at that time. But according to the promise Jonah made to God, I believe, before he cleaned up the mess on him, Jonah lifted up his voice in thanksgiving to God for delivering him.
Jonah understands that when you make a vow to God, you must make sure you fulfill it. In fact, the Holy Spirit speaks clearly of this in Ecclesiastes 5:4-5. "When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than you should vow and not pay." (See alsoJob 22:27; Psalm 116:14, 18).
Now the question is: what was Jonah's vow? Can't you imagine what it was? In the light of Jonah 3:1-4, Jonah's vow could well have been to carry out God's ministry will for him by preaching in Nineveh. His vow goes like this: "I'm going to Nineveh, Lord, and I am going to what You want me to do. Lord, use me as You will and when and where until I see Your blessed face, Your rest, Your joy, Your glory to share." Before, Jonah had said, "Lord, I won't go to Nineveh." But now, he's changed his mind. God has changed it for him. And now he makes a vow that he will go to Nineveh. The Lord has to deal with many of us like that. He has never put me through a fish, but He did bring me to a point where I had to abandon my ambition to pursue a civil engineering career in order to preach His Word.
Have you promised to live for God while facing crisis, only to live for yourself after He's delivered you from your crisis? Do you keep your word to God? Remember, you cannot manipulate God. Let your yes be yes, and your nay be nay. In other words, when you make a vow to God in distress, pay it. Don't be late in paying it!
7. The primary source of salvation is Yahweh (v. 9b).
Jonah ended his prayer on a powerful note. He made a declaration which is one of the most significant teachings in the Book of Jonah. He confidently concluded his prayer in the belly of the fish by declaring: "Salvation is from the LORD" (v. 9b). Jonah's prayer begins with the the LORD (Yahweh) and ends with the LORD. He called out to the LORD out his distress and concluded his prayer by confessing that the primary and only source of salvation is Yahweh. True prayer begins with God and ends with God.
Jonah declares that Yahweh is the sole source of salvation. This declaration is very significant. It is the most important statement we find in the Book of Jonah. It teaches us that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the only Savior (cf.Psalm 3:8; Isaiah 43:11; 45:17; Hosea 13:4; Jude 1:25). Jonah learned this significant truth not in a seminary, but in the stomach of the great fish. Jonah learned that salvation is God's work for us. It is never man's work for God. If Jonah, whom I believe was already saved, is to be used of God (and he is going to be used of God), and if Jonah is to be delivered from his helpless and hopeless situation, it will be because "salvation is from the LORD."
Salvation is from the Lord is a wonderful statement that is found in the Old Testament Book of Jonah. This salvation is not limited to physical deliverance from desperate and distressful circumstances. It extends to spiritual salvation. Mark this well! If a lost sinner or soul, who is dead in trespasses and sins, is ever to be saved, it is because salvation is from Yahweh. Salvation is the Lord's, that is, in His power, so that He alone can grant salvation. The Bible says inActs 4:12: "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." The Lord Jesus Himself declared: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6).
Jonah's hope and confidence of worshiping the Lord and paying his vow to Him are based on this simple yet significant statement: "Salvation is from the LORD." This is a simple truth to say as well as to share.
As a believer in Jesus Christ, when in crisis, where do you look for help? In whom do you trust to deliver you? Who do you ultimately call on to rescue you? Do you look for deliverance from the government or from God? Do you look to man for help or your Maker. Remember, "deliverance by man is in vain. Through God we shall do valiantly"(Psalm 60:11-12). It is sad that some Christians forget this basic principle. As a result, they spend a great deal of energy looking for help and deliverance from the wrong sources. In the end, as it is bound to happen, they are disappointed. Meanwhile, all this time, God is shouting to them, "I'm the only source of salvation, spiritual or physical. Look to Me! There is no savior besides Me. I'll never disappoint you if you look to Me to bring me out of your mess. Yes, I am willing and able to rescue you even from the messes you have made."
How wonderful it is to know that "salvation is from the LORD." I don't know what you are going through now. It may be a loss of a loved one. Or a loss of your job, your home, your investments. It may be a loss of your health, or a relationship. Whatever it is, there is hope. Salvation is from the LORD. Will you look to Him? Will you call upon Him? Will you cast your cares upon Him? Will you trust Him to bring you out of your pit. He did for Jonah, the runaway, rebellious, reluctant and repentant prophet. He can do it for you. The choice is yours! Blessed are those who choose to believe that salvation is from the Lord alone, for they will not be put to shame. Jonah's prayer did not bounce off the belly of the big fish and knock him on his head. His prayer actually reached up to the throne of Yahweh, the Almighty God of the universe. And He personally, promptly and powerfully responded in compassion to Jonah. God, who knows the heart of each and every living person, is satisfied that Jonah has genuinely repented of his rebellious ways. He therefore decided to intervene in Jonah's distressful and desperate situation. The Bible vividly speaks of Yahweh's prompt and compassionate response in verse 10. "The the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land."
I don't know exactly how God spoke to the great fish. But I do know that just as God spoke the world into existence (Genesis 1:1-24), so He speaks to His creation in the animal world. God once spoke to a donkey and even opened his mouth to speak in human language to Balaam (see Numbers 22:28-30). The amazing thing here is that the fish obeyed God more readily than Jonah. The sailors could not reach dry land to get rid of Jonah (1:13). But one little word from Yahweh enables the fish to rid his aching belly of Jonah. One writer says of the aching belly of the fish: "Three days of undigested Jonah." Another writes: "The fish was glad to get rid of Jonah. Wherever he goes, Jonah just seems to cause difficulties, whether for human beings or God's other creatures."
Jonah had experienced firsthand, God's prompt and compassionate response. But the question is: Will Jonah also extend mercy to others? That is another teaching article in itself.
I don't know how God hurled the storm that caught Jonah and the pagan sailors by surprise. I don't know how God converted the sailors with whom Jonah traveled. I don't know how God first spoke to the great fish to swallow Jonah. I don't know how He spoke to the fish again to vomit Jonah on dry land. I don't know what shape Jonah was in when the fish vomited him on dry land. I don't know how much time he spent trying to clean up himself. While I don't know a lot of things about Jonah, I do know one important truth from his story. That is, a true and sincere prayer offered up to the true and living God in a spirit of humility by a believer in Jesus Christ, is heard and responded to. From Jonah's prayer to God in his crisis, we learn that true prayer is directed to a Person, the true and living God, Yahweh. We pray to our Father, not to a force. We pray to a holy God, not to a higher power. In other words, believers in Christ pray to the living and true God-a divine personal being, who alone is God. We learn that the place of prayer can be anywhere, even in the belly of a big fish. Jonah's prayer in crisis also teaches us that the power of crying out to God brings about God's breakthrough in the believer's situations. It reminds us that personal acknowledgment of God's dealings with us without blaming Him is an essential element of effective prayer. Jonah's prayer in his dire situation also teaches us that praising God for responding to our cries for help delights the heart of God. We also learn that promising to worship God and pledging to keep one's vow to God are acceptable to God. Finally, Jonah's prayer in crisis teaches us that the true God alone is the source of salvation. The remarkable thing about Jonah's prayer in distress is that God personally, promptly and powerfully responded to him in compassion and brought him out of his distress. The God who acted promptly and compassionately on behalf of Jonah is our God. He is willing to respond personally and powerfully to rescue us out of our crises, whatever they may be. Take courage! Trust God! Turn to God! Tirelessly look to God and fix your eyes on Him! "Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until He is gracious to us" (Psalm 123:2).