a lesson from the prophet Jonah
Last week, we finished studying the book of Jonah with some friends from church. It’s a beautiful little book with a complicated and unusual main character. Jonah is a prophet – someone who relays messages from God to other people – who really doesn’t want to bring a message to the city of Nineveh. So the book begins with Jonah running from God in chapter 1, and ends with him griping at God in chapter 4. And there’s no nice, tidy resolution – the story ends with a question mark, as God asks Jonah if he really doesn’t think he should have mercy on these clueless Assyrians.
So Jonah has issues. But in the middle of the book, he comes across a lot better. In chapter 3, he finally obeys God’s command, goes and proclaims judgment to the people of Nineveh, and serves as a catalyst for city-wide repentance. Given that the usual response to prophecy in the Bible is for only a few to believe, this is a spectacularly effective ministry! And in chapter 2, Jonah appears as a man of surprising faith, and unusual thankfulness.
In chapter 1, Jonah’s attempt to run away from God’s calling resulted in the ship he was sailing in being pummeled by a storm, the sailors throwing him overboard, and a giant fish swallowing him. So Jonah chapter 2 begins with Jonah “praying to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.” The rest of the chapter is Jonah’s prayer, which appears in poetic form like one of the psalms. Given Jonah’s circumstances, you’d expect it to be a psalm of lament. But it’s not.
In the belly of the fish, Jonah gives thanks. He doesn’t complain about his present predicament or ask to be restored to the world of light and air; he praises God for rescuing him from death.
I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. (Jonah 2:2, 5, 6)
The runaway prophet knows that he is in a tight place (literally); but he doesn’t focus on that. He has enough perspective to give thanks for the fact that he is lodged inside a giant fish – because the alternative was drowning to death. In other words, Jonah is able to step back, take a look at where he is and realize that this is part of God’s plan to rescue him from where he was headed, which was much worse. And so he gives thanks to the God who is in the process of saving him.
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! (Jonah 2:8-9)
Jonah’s song of thankfulness is a challenge to me. I tend to be problem focused; once I’m through one obstacle, I start worrying about the next one. In my dissatisfaction with my current situation, I forget to thank God for all the ways he has blessed and delivered and protected and provided for me. I miss the fact that even this hard situation is a means of his grace. I fail to remind myself that, even though the full fruits of God’s salvation are still to come, I have already been saved in Christ from everything this world has to throw at me.
And Jonah is an encouragement to me. Because even after this amazing confession of faith and gratitude, Jonah goes on to sulk and complain, not only about God’s gracious pardon of Nineveh (Jonah 4:1-3), but about his own personal discomforts (Jonah 4:6-8). The man who could celebrate God’s salvation in the belly of a fish can’t bear to live without the shade of a vine. The fact that the vine was another miraculous gift of God in the first place fails to elicit a single word of thankfulness or gratitude from Jonah.
And yet God is still gracious and patient with Jonah. And so he is with you and me. When we take him for granted, he keeps on granting us good gifts. When we fail to remember all his benefits, he gives us challenges to wake us up from our heedless ingratitude. When we complain about his plan and our troubles, he gently calls our frustration and self-pity into question, reminding us what is really important, so that we can recover a heart of gratitude for his salvation.
Image credit: By Sargis Babayan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32665853