Jonah Series: Responding Well to Distress (Jonah 2)
Responding Well to Distress
Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish and said, “I called out to the Lord from my distress, and he answered me; from the belly of Sheol I cried out for help, and you heard my prayer. You threw me into the deep waters, into the middle of the sea; the ocean current engulfed me; all the mighty waves you sent swept over me. I thought I had been banished from your sight, that I would never again see your holy temple! Water engulfed me up to my neck; the deep ocean surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. I went down to the very bottoms of the mountains; the gates of the netherworld barred me in forever, but you brought me up from the Pit, O Lord, my God. When my life was ebbing away, I called out to the Lord, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. Those who worship worthless idols forfeit the mercy that could be theirs. But as for me, I promise to offer a sacrifice to you with a public declaration of praise; I will surely do what I have promised. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” Then the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto dry land.
Jonah 2 (NET)
How should we respond to distress, which comes from various trials? In the story of Jonah, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach a coming judgment to them with the hope that they might repent. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and since the Assyrians were the chief enemy of the Jews at that time, Jonah essentially said, “No.” Instead of traveling northeast towards Nineveh, he went south to Joppa to get on a boat to head to Tarshish which was in Spain. While traveling from Joppa, God brought a terrible storm that almost destroyed the boat and all the sailors in it. Since Jonah was identified as the reason God sent the storm, the sailors tossed him off the boat into the raging sea. While Jonah was drowning in the sea, he prays, and God saves him from death by allowing him to be swallowed by a big fish.
In Psalm 2, Jonah recounts his deliverance and demonstrates hope for a future deliverance as he prays to God from within the fish. From this narrative, we learn principles about how we should respond to distress, created by trials. It’s commonly been said that we are either in a trial or headed into one shortly. Trials are a part of life, and they can either build us up and make us stronger spiritually or harm us—pushing us farther from God and others. Therefore, it behooves us to learn from Jonah’s narrative how to respond to distress.
Fact or Fiction
With that said, before we discern principles from Jonah’s prayer, we must address the clear difficulties in this text. Can a large fish, including a whale, swallow a person whole, and can that person survive temporarily in its belly? Some have considered this book a parable with spiritual principles instead of a historical account because of difficulty accepting the fish story. In considering this claim, first it must be said that Scripture speaks about Jonah as a historical person. Second Kings 14:25 mentions a prophet named Jonah prophesying during the reign of Jeroboam II. Most believe this is the same Jonah. In addition, Christ spoke about Jonah as a historical person. Christ said that Jonah being in the belly of a fish for three days and nights was a typology of his future death, burial, and resurrection. In Matthew 12:39-41, Christ said this:
… An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them—and now, something greater than Jonah is here!
Christ spoke of Jonah being a real person, him being swallowed by a large fish as an actual event, and his ministry in Nineveh as being real. If it was not real, it couldn’t have truly reflected Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection which historically happened. Scripture teaches that the book of Jonah is a true story, including his being swallowed by a fish.
With that said, it’s worth asking, “Is Jonah being swallowed by a fish and being preserved alive possible?” For those who believe in a God who does miracles and who is the author of the Bible, this is not a hard reality to accept. It is either physically possible, or it was a miracle where God suspended his natural laws for a greater purpose. However, many believe there is good evidence that this event could have happened apart from God’s miraculous intervention. For example, some studies of sperm whales demonstrate that a man can be swallowed alive, live for a few days in the whale, and subsequently be vomited up. A sperm whale’s mouth is typically 20 feet long, 15 feet high, and 9 feet wide, which is larger than most rooms in an average house. In addition, sperm whales feed on squid which is often much larger than a human. Whalers have found whole sized squids in a dead whale’s stomach, which supports the fact that one could swallow a human whole. There is also a biography of a man named James Bartley who claimed to be swallowed by a whale in 1891 and survived for at least a day. James Boice shared this story in his Jonah commentary. He said:
One case concerns a voyage of the whaling ship Star of the East, which in February 1891, spotted a large sperm whale in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands. Two boats were launched, and in a short while one of the harpooners was able to spear the whale. Those in the second boat attempted to attach a second harpoon, but the boat capsized in the process and one man was drowned. A second sailor, James Bartley, disappeared and could not be found. In time the whale was killed and drawn to the side of the ship where it was made fast and the blubber removed. The next day the stomach was hoisted on deck. When it was opened, the missing sailor was found inside. He was unconscious but alive. Eventually he was revived by sea water and after a time resumed his duties on board the whaling vessel.
Furthermore, there have also been rare modern incidents of people being swallowed at least briefly by whales and then spit out. For instance, a lobster diver in Cape Cod, Massachusetts was swallowed by a humpback whale for a brief period and then spit out in June 2021.
Finally, some believe that Jonah being vomited out by a large fish is supported by Nineveh’s repentance. Many have questioned, why would the Ninevites repent at the preaching of a Jewish prophet? The Ninevites didn’t even worship Yahweh. However, they did worship the fish-god Dagon. If witnesses saw Jonah vomited up from a large fish, which represented the Ninevites’ deity, and shared it, it would indeed be a “sign” to them. Therefore, there is certainly evidence, within the text and outside of it, for the possibility of a person being swallowed by a large fish—possibly a whale—and surviving.
With that said, the text spends little time focusing on the event of Jonah being swallowed by a large fish and surviving. The reason is that the author, probably Jonah, expected his Jewish audience to believe in miracles since God had historically did them on their behalf. The focus in Chapter 2 is Jonah’s prayer in the whale which teaches us principles about how we should respond to distress, especially when circumstances seem hopeless. Though in much of Jonah’s narrative, he is an example of what not to do; in Jonah 2, he demonstrates many aspects which should be modeled.
Big Question: In Jonah 2, what principles can be discerned about responding well to distress?
To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Consistently Pray
Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish and said, “I called out to the Lord from my distress, and he answered me; from the belly of Sheol I cried out for help, and you heard my prayer.
Though Jonah had been in rebellion, while Jonah was drowning in the sea, he cried out to God for help. Likewise, whether we are dealing with a family, health, or financial crisis, we should cry out to the Lord because cares for us. Many Scriptures teach this reality: James 5:13 says, “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray.” First Peter 5:7 (NIV) says, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” In the context of trials, James 1:5 says, “But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him.” God promises to give us wisdom for our trials if we, in faith, cry out to him. The word “ask” is in the present tense, having the sense of continually asking God for wisdom. In addition, it implies persevering in prayer. Sometimes one prayer is not enough. It seems to have been for Jonah. Also, when Peter was sinking in the sea after walking on water, he only had to cry out to Jesus once to be delivered (Matt 14:22-33). However, in many situations, God calls us to pray often and repeatedly for deliverance. We need to persevere in prayer not because God needs our prayers to act, but because God’s first priority in our trials is for us to know him and be changed by him. Jonah had been running from God; however, the trial made him give up his self-dependence and pride and cry out to God. God wants the same for us. Prayers not only commonly change our circumstances, but they change us as we draw near God and start to trust his will for our lives.
To some, it might seem unnecessary to emphasize the need to pray when in distress. They might question, doesn’t everybody pray in trials? Certainly, we are more prone to it than when experiencing prosperity. However, it often isn’t our first thing, nor is it our continual practice. Often, the first thing we do in distress is worry, get frustrated, or even get angry. Then, we quickly run to try to fix the problem without prayer. We commonly go to the medical doctor before crying out to the great physician. We go to the counselor before going to THE Counselor. Again, James says, “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray.” He says that because we often neglect prayer or don’t pray enough.
When Jonah was thrown off the boat into the raging water, while waves were crashing over him and it was hard to breathe, he cried out to God in prayer, and God heard him. God delivered him from death through a great fish. Are we crying out to God in prayer? Are we asking him for wisdom, strength, open doors, grace to persevere, and relief? No matter how daunting our circumstances, we must constantly run to God in prayer.
Application Question: What are other things that people commonly do when in distress instead of praying? In what ways have you seen God provide grace when crying out for prayer in distress?
To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Meditate on God’s Word
and said, “I called out to the Lord from my distress, and he answered me; from the belly of Sheol I cried out for help, and you heard my prayer. You threw me into the deep waters, into the middle of the sea; the ocean current engulfed me; all the mighty waves you sent swept over me. I thought I had been banished from your sight, that I would never again see your holy temple! Water engulfed me up to my neck; the deep ocean surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head…
As we consider Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the fish, it must stand out that this prayer contained various parts of the Psalms. Mark Yarbrough, the President of Dallas Theological Seminary said this about Jonah’s prayer: “Every word in the text of Jonah 2—some paraphrased, some summarized, some verbatim—was taken from the Psalms, Jonah’s hymnbook of faith.” This is clear in many ways. For example, Jonah 2:2 reflects Psalm 18:6, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried out to my God. From his heavenly temple he heard my voice; he listened to my cry for help.” Jonah 2:3 reflects Psalm 42:7, “One deep stream calls out to another at the sound of your waterfalls; all your billows and waves overwhelm me.” Jonah 2:4 reflects Psalm 32:22, “I jumped to conclusions and said, ‘I am cut off from your presence!’ But you heard my plea for mercy when I cried out to you for help.” Jonah 2:8 reflects Psalm 31:6, “I hate those who serve worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.” Again, each sentence in Jonah 2 is either a paraphrase of a Psalm, summarized, or verbatim (cf. Jonah 2:2 and Ps 120:1, Jonah 2:3 and Ps 69:1–2, Jonah 2:4 and Ps 5:7, Jonah 2:5 and Ps 69:1–2, Jonah 2:8 and Ps 31:6, Jonah 2:9 and Ps 3:8). It’s clear that Jonah had the Word of God hidden in his heart since there was probably no Bible in the whale, and he certainly didn’t have a candle.
Likewise, if we’re going to respond well to distress, we must consistently meditate on God’s Word as well. We must read it daily, study it, sing it, and hide it in our hearts so we can respond to conflict at work or with family and friends in a way that honors the Lord. In Psalm 119:105, David said this: “Your word is a lamp to walk by, and a light to illumine my path.” If we are going to be able to see in dark times and walk in the right direction, we must turn on the light of God’s Word. David also said in Psalm 1:2-3 that the person who meditates on God’s Word day and night bears fruit in season and his leaf does not wither. In waiting seasons, by God’s grace, the meditator bears the fruit of patience. In depressing seasons, God gives him the ability to have joy in Christ. In confusing seasons, God gives him wisdom. Whatever fruit he needs, God produces in and through the person as he abides in the Word.
Are we abiding in God’s Word? Are we reading it, memorizing it, studying, singing it, and praying it, even as Jonah prayed it in the belly of the fish? Lord, draw us to your Word and bear much fruit in us and through us!
Application Question: Why is abiding in God’s Word so important in trials? In what ways have you experienced special grace by abiding in God’s Word in distressful seasons? How is God calling you to more faithfully draw near his Word in this season?
To Respond Well in Distress, We Must Reflect on God’s Sovereignty
You threw me into the deep waters, into the middle of the sea; the ocean current engulfed me; all the mighty waves you sent swept over me.
God’s sovereignty is one of the major themes of the book of Jonah. In Jonah 1:4, God sent a storm when Jonah rebelled against God. When Jonah was thrown off the ship into the sea, God appointed a fish (1:17). In Jonah 4:6, when it was hot outside, God appointed a plant that provided shade for Jonah. Then, God caused a worm to attack the plant, and it shriveled up (4:7). ). After, God caused a hot wind to beat against Jonah’s head (4:8). Jonah, the author of this book, clearly saw God in control of all circumstances. That’s also true as he prays this prayer. In verse 3, Jonah said, “You threw me into the deep waters … all the mighty waves you sent swept over me.” The sailors were not in control and nor were natural events that might cause a storm. God was. This is an important reality for us to accept if we are going to respond well to trials.
We see this reality throughout Scripture. When Moses asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and Pharoah said, “No.” Moses taught two seemingly conflicting truths in the book of Exodus about Pharoah’s response. He said Pharoah hardened his own heart (Ex 8:32), but he also said God hardened his heart (Ex 9:12). Only focusing on Pharoah might have made Moses angry, frustrated, or anxious and even made him quit the mission. However, understanding that God was in control of Pharoah and that God had a good plan, no doubt, gave Moses more peace and perseverance in the trial. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord like channels of water; he turns it wherever he wants.” God is in control of kings, as well as the ocean, dry land, and the storms that come upon both.
With Job, even though Scripture says that Satan caused all of Job’s trials, Job saw God as in control of them. In Job 1:21, Job said this in considering his losses, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be blessed!” Likewise, in Job 13:15, he said, “Even if he slays me, I will hope in him.” Though there is an aspect of mystery in considering God’s sovereignty, the free will of humans, Satan and demons, and events in the natural world, the mystery is in our minds, not God’s. Ephesians 1:11 says God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.” There is not one thing on this earth that is not conforming to God’s sovereign will. This may be confusing for us or even frightening, but if we despise this truth that Scripture teaches, we neglect one of our greatest comforts in trials. Satan is not in control, terrorists are not in control, our boss is not in control, and neither are we. God is, and God uses his sovereignty over events to work them all for the good of those who love the Lord (Rom 8:28). It’s our promise that we must always cling to when in distress, when confused, angry, and feeling like giving up. While Jonah was drowning, he prayed because he believed God was in control of the wind that caused the storm, the men who through him over the boat, and the waves that were drowning him. Therefore, since he trusted God’s character, he had hope.
If we don’t see God as in control of all circumstances, we will spend a lot of our time mad at the government, our boss, spouse, or children instead of seeing God using them for a purpose. That doesn’t mean people or demons are free from responsibility. They are not; however, even in their evil works or failings, God is in control orchestrating them for a good purpose. Therefore, we must trust him. This reality will enable us to respond to our trials well and be built up through them instead of destroyed by them.
Another classic example of God’s sovereignty over the evil works of people is seen in Joseph’s story. His brothers sold him into slavery. As a slave in Egypt, a woman falsely accused him of sexual assault. Therefore, he was imprisoned. However, in the prison cell, God used him to minister to Pharoah’s former cupbearer. After the cupbearer was restored to his position, he eventually told Pharoah about Joseph’s wisdom and ability to interpret dreams. This eventually led to Joseph becoming second in command over Egypt and being able to save his family and many nations during a global famine. At the end of the story, when his brothers begged for forgiveness, in Genesis 50:20-21, Joseph said this: “As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day. So now, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your little children.” Instead of seeking vengeance, he cared for their families. Recognizing God’s sovereignty over their evil, enabled him to forgive instead of returning evil for evil.
If we do not recognize God’s sovereignty over our trials, we will constantly struggle with anxiety, anger, depression, and even unforgiveness towards others. We’ll respond negatively instead of positively because we don’t see the evil done to us as working for our good.
In addition, when God saved Jonah through a fish, he saw the fish as appointed by God (1:17). If we don’t recognize God’s sovereignty over bad, we often won’t recognize it over the good. Then, we’ll be prone to take credit or give credit to someone else other than God.
Are we recognizing God’s sovereignty over our trials and stressors (and our successes and blessings)? Again, Jonah saw the wind that caused the storm, the sailors throwing him over the boat, and the waves that were drowning him as under God’s control—so much so, he could essentially say, “God you did this, please help me!”
Application Question: What is it so hard to accept God’s sovereignty over evil events and trials? Why is it important to accept God’s sovereignty over all things, especially evil things, and how does Scripture teach this truth? In what ways has God’s sovereignty over difficulties been a comfort to you?
To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Guard Our Hearts against Irrational, Evil Thoughts and Emotions
I thought I had been banished from your sight, that I would never again see your holy temple!
When Jonah said, “I thought I had been banished from your sight, that I would never again see your holy temple,” it could be that Jonah was simply saying that he thought was going to die, which was a very real possibility. But, it also could represent a very negative view of God, including his judgment and plan. Before the storm, Jonah was already upset with God’s desire to warn Nineveh and potentially save them, so it makes sense that his thought of God banishing him came from a wrong heart as well. This is not uncommon when people rebel against God or make some decision that leads them into a trial. Though they made the unwise decision, they commonly get mad at God. I heard the story of a Christian who married an unbeliever even though she knew Scripture taught otherwise. After her marriage ended in divorce, she became angry at God and turned away from the church for a period because she blamed God for letting it all happen. This might have been how Jonah was thinking. His rebellion led to judgment, and now he is blaming God for banishing him in the sense of allowing him to die. As a Jew, he knew very well that God was just, and that sin deserved death. That was the point of the Jewish sacrificial system. It was only because of God’s mercy that he chose to judge a substitute, represented by the innocent sacrificial lamb instead of the original offender. The sacrifice prefigured Christ eventually being judged for our sins. God is a just God, and sin deserves discipline which God had brought for Jonah’s rebellion.
Likewise, one of the temptations we must be very careful of when going through trials is the temptation to become angry at God or think irrational negative thoughts about ourselves or others. When Satan was allowed in God’s sovereignty to bring trials in Job’s life, his purpose was for Job to eventually curse God and turn away from him (Job 1:11, 2:5). This happens all the time in the church. A pastor makes an immoral decision, or somebody gets into conflict with a church member, and soon after they are now mad at the church and God. We must understand that this is the very temptation that Satan brings in trials. He wants us to doubt God’s goodness, become angry at him, and turn away from him. And if he can’t get us mad at God, he wants us to get mad at ourselves or others. He’ll take what he can get.
After some type of failure or trial, it’s common for people to accept the devil’s lies and specifically condemn themselves. They say to themselves, “I’m not good enough. Maybe God can never use me. Maybe, I’m not even a real Christian.” Or, they spend all their time condemning and blaming others. None of those are right responses.
The title “devil” simply means “accuser.” In trials, including our moral failures, Satan will come to our ears to accuse God, us, or others. As mentioned, he does all the above to push us away from God and his people and to gain a stronghold in our lives. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger. Do not give the devil an opportunity.”
Therefore, when going through trials, we must guard our hearts against wrong thoughts and emotions (which commonly lead to wrong actions). . Proverbs 4:23 says, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life.” In considering spiritual warfare, 2 Corinthians 13:5 says, “we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ.” Also, Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.” The Philippians were being persecuted for their faith (Phil 1:29) and going through various communal difficulties (Phil 3:2, 4:2). No doubt, there were many temptations to be anxious, but instead of worrying and entertaining irrational, negative thoughts, they should pray to God instead. In addition, Paul said this to them in Philippians 4:8-9:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you.
To protect their minds from anxiety and wrong thinking, they needed to not only pray but choose to think about godly things, like God’s Word. They should also practice righteousness instead of sin. In trials because of commonly entertaining wrong thoughts, we are more tempted to fall into lust, lie, or hurt someone including ourselves. Instead, Paul says, we must choose to not be anxious by praying and choose to think about godly things instead of negative ones to protect our actions and bring God’s blessing.
Are we protecting our thoughts during trials or are we entertaining negative thoughts about God—that he doesn’t love us or have good plans for us—and also entertaining negative thoughts about ourselves and others? When Jonah said, he thought God had banished him (v. 4), this may have reflected a negative view about God and/or himself, which we are all prone to especially during trials. Therefore, to respond well in trials, we must guard our hearts against irrational and evil thinking. We must learn to take our thoughts and emotions captive and make them obey Christ (2 Cor 10:5).
Application Question: Why is it so important to protect our thoughts and emotions during trials? What types of irrational and evil thinking are you prone to in trials? How do you overcome them?
To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Discern What God Is Teaching Us and Apply It, including Repenting of Any Sins
Those who worship worthless idols forfeit the mercy that could be theirs. But as for me, I promise to offer a sacrifice to you with a public declaration of praise; I will surely do what I have promised. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
When Jonah says, “Those who worship worthless idols forfeit the mercy that could be theirs,” he does not only seem to be referring to a general truth. This referred to his disobeying God. This is why he promised to offer sacrifices and fulfill his promises after saying it. Though Jonah did not worship physical idols like pagans, he did place his nationalism, as an Israelite, and dislike for the Ninevites before God (cf. Col 3:5). Through God’s discipline, Jonah saw his sin and repented, at least partially. We know he repented because, in Chapter 3, Jonah indeed went to the Ninevites and preached to them. However, in Chapter 4, we see that it was only partial because he still held unforgiveness and hate in his heart towards them and was angry when God forgave them. Nevertheless, there was indeed some aspect of recognizing his sin and idolatry, which is what led him to preach to them after initially refusing. Repentance is a continual process for all of us. God reveals a sin, we repent, and at times, fall back into that sin, only to be rebuked by God again, and Lord willing, repent. We all have idols God wants to get rid of in our lives and also virtues he wants to develop in us. This is part of the reason God brings various trials.
In Deuteronomy 8:2, God said this about the Israelites in the wilderness:
Remember the whole way by which he has brought you these forty years through the wilderness so that he might, by humbling you, test you to see if you have it within you to keep his commandments or not
God led the Israelites into the wilderness to show them that they still had pride in their hearts, lust, idolatry, and unbelief. He brought them through difficulties to show them their sin and help them repent. Likewise, God does the same with us. Trials often show our pride, unforgiveness, lack of trust for God, lust, anger, and many other sins which tend to show up when under distress.
For this reason, in James 1:2-4, James said:
My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.
Our trials are tests of our faith. Tests demonstrate both our strengths and weakness. They also help us grow. James says as we faithfully endure our trials, we become more mature in the faith. That’s what the word “perfect” refers to. God does not want us to stay immature children who fall into sin, unbelief, and discord every time a trial comes. He wants us to develop and mature through trials so he can use us more.
For that reason, when going through trials, we must ask ourselves,
What is God teaching us? Are there certain sinful tendencies he is revealing in our hearts, like impatience, complaining, anger, bitterness, or unbelief? Are there certain virtues he is trying to develop in us—like love for our enemies (which Jonah was supposed to learn), perseverance (not complaining or wanting to always quit during hard times), faith (trust in God regardless of our situation)?
This is probably in part of what James 1:5 meant by challenging us to pray for wisdom in our trials. We need wisdom to pass the tests that trials present and to grow through them.
While praying in the belly of the whale, it seems that Jonah recognized some aspect of the idolatry in his heart. His nationalism and hate for his enemies kept him from obeying God’s command to preach to the Ninevites. He will indeed fulfill his promises by obeying God in the next chapter but not according to the heart. God still had more work to do on his heart through trials, just as he has to do with us (cf. Phil 1:6, Jonah 4:7-8).
Application Question: How do we find out what God is aiming to teach us in our trials? What lessons have you learned through more recent trials, including sins God wants to get rid of and virtues he wants to develop in you?
To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Hope in God’s Mercy and Grace
I went down to the very bottoms of the mountains; the gates of the netherworld barred me in forever, but you brought me up from the Pit, O Lord, my God… But as for me, I promise to offer a sacrifice to you with a public declaration of praise; I will surely do what I have promised. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Jonah 2:6, 9
As Jonah prayed in the belly of the fish, he described how God heard his prayer while drowning and God saved him from death. He said, “you brought me up from the Pit, O Lord, my God” (v. 6). While in the belly of the large fish, Jonah was still going through a trial. It was probably hard to breathe in there, it stunk, he was surrounded by stomach tissue and acid that was bleaching his skin and clothes. However, he was happy just to be alive and had faith that God would deliver him again. This is clear because he declares: “I promise to offer a sacrifice to you with a public declaration of praise; I will surely do what I have promised. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (v. 9). He believed God would deliver him again so that he could offer sacrifices at the temple and fulfill his vows of being a prophet for the Lord.
Interpretation Question: Why did Jonah believe that God would eventually deliver him from the belly of the fish?
Jonah’s hope was not unfounded wishful thinking. (1) It was based on God’s past faithfulness in delivering Jonah from drowning, but (2) no doubt, it also was based on God’s character. He declared, “Salvation belongs to the Lord”—meaning that God is a merciful and gracious God who often saves us from our sins and distress.
Likewise, part of the reason God allows us to go through trials is to develop our hope in him. In Romans 5:3-4, Paul says, “Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope.” God allows us to go through trials not to discourage us but to increase our hope in God. Even when considering those who had lost relatives to death, Paul said this to the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 5:13, “Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope.” Even death, including the loss of loved ones, should not be a hopeless state for believers because of their trust in God. We grieve, but we grieve in hope because of God’s character and promises.
(1) Therefore, like Jonah when going through trials, we must hope in God because we remember God’s past faithfulness. Has he previously delivered us from a difficult situation? Did he heal our hearts when we went through a difficult relationship? Did he open a door when there was no door? Did he make some horrible situation an indispensable growth experience? If we are going to hope in God like Jonah did while in the belly of a fish, we must remember God’s past faithfulness. (2) However, we must also know God’s character. He is the God of salvation (v. 9). He does not simply let us die in our sins. He sent his Son to die for us so we could be saved. He takes bad situations and uses them for our good (Rom 8:28). He is a God of mercy and grace; therefore, we can hope when there is no hope. Even death is no obstacle for him, he can even use that for the good.
Jonah’s belief that God would set him free from the belly of the fish to make sacrifices to God is reminiscent of Daniel’s friends’ declaration to Nebuchadnezzar when they wouldn’t bow down and worship his statue. In Daniel 3:17-18, they replied to the king:
If our God whom we are serving exists, he is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he will rescue us, O king, from your power as well. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we don’t serve your gods, and we will not pay homage to the golden statue that you have erected.”
In the face of death, they believed God would rescue them. This no doubt came from their past experiences with God, as he delivered them previously when they wouldn’t eat the king’s meat (Dan 1). It also came from their understanding of his character. It also may have come from their deep and abiding relationship with God. As they prayed, worshiped, and lived in his Word, faith and hope arose in their spirits. However, they also recognized that even if God didn’t deliver them, they would trust God. Similarly, the same thing happened to Paul while facing a death sentence in a Roman prison. While talking to the Philippians, he recognized the possibility of dying, which was a gain, or continuing to live and serve God. In Philippians 1:23-25, he said this:
I feel torn between the two because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body. And since I am sure of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for the sake of your progress and joy in the faith,
Because of Paul’s biblical reasoning that it was more vital for him to live and bless the Philippians and possibly because God gave him a settled peace in his spirit that he would live, Paul had a sure hope that God would deliver him.
Likewise, when encountering trials, we must also have hope. Again, even in death, we can have hope if we take a biblical mindset. Paul believed death was better by far because it brought him into Christ’s presence. No doubt, he believed that if God took him, God would provide for those left behind. However, his faith ultimately led him to believe that God would preserve his life.
Either way, in trials, God’s desire is for us to hope in him. As Paul said trials create perseverance in us, develop our character, and should create hope in our hearts (Rom 5:3-4). More than hoping in temporary things like wealth and health, trials help us hope in God and his eternal promises.
Are your trials causing you to doubt God’s goodness and wise plans? Or, are trials making you put your hope in the only one who can deliver you and whose plans are eternal—covering more than our short time on earth? To respond well in trials, we must hope in God’s mercy and grace. Like Daniel’s friends, we must say, “God can deliver us, and he will. But even if he doesn’t, we will still trust him!”
Application Question: Why is hope in God so important when encountering trials? How can we increase our hope and help others do the same?
To Respond Well in Distress, We Must Recognize that Trials Are Temporary
Then the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto dry land.
Eventually, after three days and nights in the belly of the fish, God commanded the fish to vomit Jonah on dry land. Again, this demonstrates God’s sovereignty over trials. God used the fish to deliver Jonah from drowning, however, being stuck in a fish’s belly was still a trial. Possibly, it took the whole three days for Jonah to repent while in the fish. It seems that right after he prayed, God delivered him (v. 9-10). It took not only Jonah almost dying in the storm and then drowning in the sea, but it also took him being confined for three days to give God thanks for saving him and at least partially repent for his rebellion.
With that said, this teaches us another truth we must remember if we are going to respond well while under distress. Trials are temporary. They don’t last forever. They are short because God is teaching us something through them. If we learn the lesson, often they are removed. Sometimes, when we don’t repent, they get extended. Because of the unbelief of the Israelites, they had to return to the wilderness for forty years. Sin can extend our time in a trial. Trials are always temporary when compared to eternity. Either way, to respond well in trials, we must remember their temporary nature. In 1 Peter 5:10, Peter said this to believers suffering persecution in the Roman empire: “And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
The trials they were suffering through were “for a little while,” and then God would restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish them. For most, this would probably happen through the sanctification process of the trial, as they repented in and trusted in God. He would develop perseverance, character, and hope in them. He would also get rid of various sins as they recognized them and turned from them. However, for others, God by his grace would glorify them as he took them home through those trials, especially as the Roman Christians were suffering for the faith. As Paul said, for believers’ death is ultimately a gain as we will be made into the image of Christ and have perfect communion with him and other saints (cf. Phil 1:21, 2 Cor 5:8).
As we go through trials, we must remember that they only last for a little while. They are temporary experiences that God uses to make us more into his image by creating his character in us. Even death for believers is just a passageway into eternity where they fully know and worship the King of kings and Lord of lords. Amen!
Application Question: Why is it important to remember that our trials are temporary and not eternal (1 Pet 1:6, 5:10)? How can we remember this reality while going through trials that seem to have no expiration date?
To Respond Well in Distress, We Must Seek to Be Like Christ
Then the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto dry land.
Finally, the Lord commanded the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land. As mentioned, in Matthew 12:39-40, Christ taught that Jonah being swallowed by a fish for three days and then being vomited up on the land was an Old Testament picture of Christ who would die, be buried, and rise again for the sins of the world. Though Jonah was unaware of it, God was using his failure and subsequent trial to present a picture of Christ to those around him and to us, as we read the Old Testament book.
Likewise, to respond well to distress, we must seek to be like Christ in them. First Peter 2:21-23 says this to suffering saints:
For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly.
Christ gave us an example of how to suffer. Are we being tempted in our suffering to fall away from God, be angry with him, or enjoy the pleasures of sin? Like Christ, we must not commit any sins, nor lie with our mouths. Have we been hurt by those we love? Like Christ, we must pray for our enemies and ask God to forgive them. Are we being accused and lied about as the Pharisees and Sadducees did with Christ? Like Christ, most times we should not defend ourselves, but leave our defense in God’s hands. Are we struggling in a waiting season for God to open a door or use us in a different capacity? Like Christ, we must wait patiently even if the Lord only opens the door after thirty years to serve him in a greater capacity with our last three. Are we struggling with the cross the Lord has called us to carry in our family, workplace, or physical body? Then, like Christ, let us plead for God to remove the cup of suffering but, at the same time, declare, “Yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). We must at all times and in all ways seek to picture Christ when going through our trials. He is our example. Isaiah 53:3 says this about Christ, “He was despised and rejected by people, one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness; people hid their faces from him.” Because he was a man of suffering, he understands, can relate to, and empower us to be like him as we suffer. Hebrews 4:15-16 says,
For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.
As Jonah pictured Christ while confined in the large fish for three days, we must always aim to demonstrate Christ in our trials. May others see Christ through our obedience, prayer, faith, perseverance, trust in God, and service to others in our trials. Lord, let it be so, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Application Question: Apart from the cross, what are other ways Christ suffered and therefore can model for us how to suffer well? How can you better model Christ specifically amid sufferings?
As we consider Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the fish after God saved him from drowning, we can discern principles about responding well to distress in general. When the storm initially came, Jonah did not respond well. He didn’t pray to God and was even willing to die rather than obey God’s call to go to Nineveh. However, as he was drowning, his heart changed and continued to change while in the belly of the fish. Though Jonah, in general, is an example of what not to do, in Jonah 2, he responds well to distress and is an example for us in doing so.
1. To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Consistently Pray
2. To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Meditate on God’s Word
3. To Respond Well in Distress, We Must Reflect on God’s Sovereignty
4. To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Guard Our Hearts against Irrational, Evil Thoughts and Emotions
5. To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Discern What God Is Teaching Us and Apply It, including Repenting of Any Sins
6. To Respond Well to Distress, We Must Hope in God’s Mercy and Grace
7. To Respond Well in Distress, We Must Recognize that Trials Are Temporary
8. To Respond Well in Distress, We Must Seek to Be Like Christ
Application Question: Which principles about responding well to distress stood out most and why?
• Pray for God to draw us to great prayer and meditation on God’s Word to empower us and give us wisdom for our trials.
• Pray for God to give us great belief and trust in his sovereignty over our trials—believing that he is truly working all circumstances out for our good.
• Pray for God to protect our hearts from negative thoughts and emotions which often come from the accuser, the devil.
• Pray for God to transform us into his image through trials, including developing perseverance, character, and hope in us.
• Pray for God to enable us to display Christ to others through our trials so that others may repent and come to know him and obey him more.