A Psalm in the Heart of the Sea
Good morning, Gateway Chapel!
Scripture: Psalm 139:7-12
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
Good morning again, everyone!
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This morning we’re pressing on in our 2022 Year of Biblical Exploration. We are a unique group of people that see the Bible as relevant for today, not as an antiquated document, or a religious rule book, but a story and a map that points to Jesus. And we want to follow Jesus because not only did he make us but he knows the best way to live. And Jesus loved his Bible, even the Old Testament, and especially the kind of weird guys in the middle called the prophets.
And last week we started a short sermon series on one prophet in particular, the prophet Jonah. You don’t have to be a Christian to be aware of Jonah. The problem with Jonah is not awareness, but getting the story straight. Last week we read from the popular commentary called Baby’s First Bible Stories, and we saw how in many modern retellings of Jonah, not only is Jonah chapter 4 missing, but key details are changed to tell a story that is primarily about morals. Be nice! Or else!
If you took notes last Sunday you might remember our two thoughts from Jonah 1…the first was that Jesus is the Anti-Jonah we need. The story of Jonah is not just a lesson in morality and the dangers of not being a nice person, but it points us forward to a better Jonah who will go through the waters of death to save us.
The second was that Jonah represents the people of God and how we are comedically rebellious and also dearly loved by God. Jonah's name means, “Dove” or “Beloved.” It’s a pet name. If you are in Christ, on our worst days, in our worst moments, we are God’s beloved.
But, Jonah is currently inside the stomach lining of an enormous fish.
How many of you are familiar with the crawl space of your home? Or the house where you grew up?
Mine is inside our closet downstairs, and I have not opened that hatch in quite a while. I should probably do that.
I’m not claustrophobic, arachnophobic, or rat-phobic, but I’m just a better person in well lit spaces without rats or spiders.
The thing that spooks me out about the crawl space, is if I go down there and somehow, I don’t know how but your mind goes weird places…if somehow I went down there and I got stuck. The hatch closes and gets stuck. And the light goes out. And you hear something.
Sorry, I know I’m triggering some of you.
But I think to get into the story of Jonah, we have to recognize that kind of horrifying experience, is what Jonah is experiencing…but his is way worse. If Jonah was stuck under his rambler alone in the dark with maybe one rat and a couple daddy long legs spiders, he could yell for help and someone would come eventually. If Jonah was buried alive in a graveyard…someone might have followed him there and known where to find him and dig him out. But to be on the inside of a creature that is moving at unknown speed, in an unknown direction, at unknown depths of the ocean…is hopeless.
How…does a dead man pray?
Jonah two verse 1...
Jonah 2:1 (ESV)
Last week, we read Jonah 1. The word of the LORD (the main actor in all of the universe) comes to Jonah son of Amittai which means “My Beloved Son of Truth” and says “Arise, Go to Nineveh.” That’s intense because Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, the brutal nation that will wipe out nearly the entire nation of Israel. Jonah rose…but then it all goes wrong, instead of going to Nineveh he goes the complete opposite direction.
God moves seemingly every force in the universe to get his prophet back on track. Nearly all the characters in the story, from the sea to the ship to the sailors to the captain of the ship respond to God’s power…except Jonah. He’s sawing logs below deck.
And while Jonah says, “I fear God…the one who made all creation!” His actions differ from his words. And while the sailors and captain’s words initially show they’re not God’s people, eventually they respond to God with great fear, and worship him.
Eventually, Jonah asks to be thrown overboard (because he’s a hero or a quitter, we don’t quite know) and the sailors ablige…and at God’s command, along comes a massive fish.
And when we read “Fish” in our ESV Bibles, we kind of pause because Jonah is popularly known to be swallowed by what? A whale! But this fish imagery is one the Biblical authors use to communicate terror, chaos, and destruction. And readers long long ago would’ve noticed the intended connection between Jonah going into a sea monster, with the events of God’s people being swallowed up by an enemy nation. The Babylonian exile.
If you’re like me, you’re way more familiar with Jonah and the Whale because of bible stories growing up than you are of the story of the exile. But the exile is a crucial story in Israel’s history because it’s the moment when all hope seemed lost. And that’s what we see happening to Jonah.
1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish,
Jonah 2:2–6 (ESV)
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
If Jonah was a Blockbuster movie, this scene would look different. The Veggie Tales version is different too, there’s singing angels inside right? There might be a montage of him trying to escape the fish, of his disgust of the smell, and touching weird stuff, struggling to breathe, being afraid. The trailer of the movie might end with Jonah crying out and then the big text JONAH. Streaming July 10 on Paramount Plus.
Jonah 1 was narrative, and so was verse 1 of Jonah 2. But then it switches to poetry.
If you’re like me, you’ve skipped over a lot of poems and genealogies in your Bible readings over the years. Party foul! I am still learning how to read biblical poetry.
How do we read poetry in our Bibles?
If I say, “Jake Cederwall is a beast. Just look at him!” That’s a metaphor. If you met him, you wouldn’t say, “Chris you liar! I met him and he is in fact not a beast! He is but a man.”
In the same way, poetry is less about fact and more about communicating emotion through metaphor and imagery.
When Jonah says I was in Sheol…the weeds wrapped around my head…I’m at the roots of the mountains…those are images meant to communicate something important.
Tim Mackie from the Bible Project talks a lot about hyperlinks. When you go to a website, there are blue links on a webpage that if you click will take you to another place on the site.
In the same way, the Bible is linked together by key words and images, especially those found in poetry. One great way to use links in your Bible is through a concordance.
Poems are linked together in the OT through imagery, AND they tend to happen at key moments of God’s deliverance.
Kind of like something happens in a musical and then all the characters break out in song.
This prayer in Jonah 2 is very much in line with other poems in the Old Testament.
Let’s look at two examples.
Look at the similar wording to Exodus 15, or this one in 2 Sam.
The first is in 2 Samuel 22, when God saved David from the monstrous Saul.
4 I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. 5 “For the waves of death encompassed me, the torrents of destruction assailed me; 6 the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. 7 “In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I called. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry came to his ears.
Notice the similarities with Jonah 2. Waves, Sheol, distress, temple...
Or this one in Exodus 15:1-5, when God saved Israel from being swallowed up by Egypt.
1 Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. 2 The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3 The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name. 4 “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea. 5 The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.
Notice the similar imagery…the deep (which is the same word used to describe creation when the Spirit hovered over the deep)…Pharoah sinks down into the Red Sea which in Hebrew is the Sea of Reeds (what’s wrapped around Jonah’s head? Reeds).
There are so many hyperlinks in Jonah 2. You can also see connections with Psalm 3, 31, 42, 69, 88, 124.
And what we’re supposed to do as readers is stare at these poems and say, “Okay, how are they alike and how are they different?”
Like when you’re trying to buy a watermelon...”Which one should I pick? Where’s the yellow spot?”
Jonah 2 is like when God saved David from Saul. David hid in caves, in the deep, God saved him from death, just like God will save Jonah from death.
Jonah 2 is different than the Exodus. Who goes under the sea in the Exodus story, Israel or Egypt? Who goes under in Jonah? The Israelite.
So we see a poem in Jonah 2 and our radar goes up and we say, “Okay, how does this connect with other stories in my Bible?”
The point is not, RIGHT AFTER Jonah was swallowed, the next thing he did was pray. The point is, this story about Jonah being swallowed by a fish is a lot like other stories where the people of God looked dead in the water, but God was going to move.
Jonah 2:6–9 (ESV)
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
7 When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Again, tons of imagery. Connections with Psalm 3, 16, 31, 50, 102.
Here’s my question: How can Jonah pray this before he gets out of the fish?
One option is, he’s banking on the fact that he is God’s chosen one. O Lord, MY God, he prays. God will not forget him, even when he’s beyond hopeless.
Because Jonah knows he is in the family of God, he knows that ultimately death will have to spit him out before it can take him away from God.
It seems like he’s right. Because we read in Jonah 2:10
10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
Sometimes God allows us to die to show only he can give us life.
Sometimes God allows us to die to show only he can give us life.
“Jonah is not delivered from the worst that could happen. His redemption comes on the other side of the worst, so that we may know that there is no worst from which the LORD cannot deliver us.” - Cary
Think about how this connects with other poems we read.
David was pinned down, on the run, out manned, trapped against an angry and vengeful Saul. And God saved David, and we now have dozens of Psalms from David about God’s deliverance.
The Israelites were trapped against the Red Sea. You remember the story? Pharoah let them go, but now they’re backed up against the Red Sea. And they say
10 When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
But what does God do? He saves them.
God seemed to give up on his people entirely when they were sent into exile to Babylon. Countries don’t come back from exile. Jerusalem, destroyed. The temple, gone. The king, dethroned. Modes of worship, over. God…absent. And yet…70 years later, God brings his people back to Jerusalem, as if the great fish spit them back out onto dry land.
Peter, James, John, and the other disciples thought Jesus was God’s chosen one, come to save us all, until he was killed on a cross. And as he died Jesus recited poetry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Until three days later, death couldn’t digest him and he rose from the grave.
This week, I experienced my own version of watery chaos. I tried to play plumber and caused a leak in our upstairs bathroom that eventually started leaking through the ceiling. I felt like I was dying. I’d never experienced this before, I didn’t know what to do.
My Father in law Steve came over, and Steve has seen a thing or two. And he was calm, he helped us get the carpet up, get the wet pad outside, air out the base boards, and it was fine.
A few years ago we had a painful death in the life of our community at Gateway, and Gene Poppino preached that next Sunday. And Gene is somebody who’s come to end of his own rope, and seen horrible situations in his experience in ministry. And because Gene had been there, he was able to provide comfort in our grief and point us to Jesus.
As the people of God, we can be like this. Bringing calm to chaos. Why? Because we’ve been in the fish, and we know it’s just a fish. God is bigger.
"The creature that swallows Jonah up is not on the terrible monsters of the deep...but just a great big fish... Call it a monster if you wish, it’s no big deal. Wherever you go in the world, the LORD who created it is there before you and can prepare a way for you, even if the way is a great big fish.” — PHILIP CARY, JONAH, 76.
Christianity is a Jonah shaped faith. Christianity is coming to a place where you can honestly say, “God, I can’t do it. This is too big for me. I need you.” And God commands the fish to spit you out onto dry land and you’re free.
This is baptism, right! We’re having a baptism Sunday on July 10, if you trust Jesus and haven’t been baptized I’d love to talk to you.
However, what if Jonah is a hypocrite?
What did we learn about Jonah last week? Are his words reliable? Last week we saw how sometimes it looks like what Jonah says doesn’t actually match up with what he does. And people much smarter than myself make the same case for Jonah’s prayer here in chapter 2.
A few reasons...
Does Jonah actually repent of his sin of running from God?
What’s interesting is next chapter the Ninevites…the bad guys…will repent and turn from their evil. The sailors in chapter one turned the boats around trying to save Jonah. That word ‘turn’ or quite literally ‘repent’ is not used here.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.
Is he referring to the Gentile sailors he met on the ship? What’s the irony? They actually turn and worship God! And Jonah may not have worshipped a physical idol, but he worshipped something more than God when he ran to Tarshish instead of Nineveh.
Rigging the system
Rigging the system
Do you remember in Job where Satan says, “You know God, the only reason Job worships you is because you bless him!”
Is that possible that’s what Jonah is doing here? Just saying the things he knows God wants to hear so he can get the result he wants? Freedom?
Tim Mackie makes the point that what is God’s response to Jonah’s eloquent poem? Vomit.
It’s like if I finished a passionate part of a sermon, waited for an Amen, and just heard a loud fart.
How’re you guys doing?
Is Jonah a fraud?
It’s weird to think that a guy who God uses to teach such great truths could actually be a fake.
This is the ultimate critique of the church. You say one thing, but you do another.
I read Christianity Today a lot, and it seems like every week there is a story about a male leader in the church being ousted for some sexual sin.
Not just the Mark Driscolls, Ravi Zacharias’, or the Southern Baptist Conventions, but there are many other leaders in smaller congregations we will never hear about.
And the people left in their wake are left saying, “Wait, all the truths you told me…were they a lie?”
Super sobering for me.
There’s a lot at stake here.
We don’t know Jonah’s heart, just like we don’t truly know the hearts of people we read about in headlines.
Before we cancel Jonah, here’s my second point this morning.
We are Jonah: Complex characters in desperate need of a Savior.
We are Jonah: Complex characters in desperate need of a Savior.
Like Jonah, we’re messy. We say one thing, but we mean another.
We’re like icebergs. What we see of each other is not all that’s there, much of who we are is under the surface.
When we read Jonah, we get curious to figure out, “Okay, is he the real deal? What’s he mean when he says this? What’s his motive?” We engage with the story.
And I think mature Christianity gets curious with our own souls. “Okay, today I told my friend I’d pray for them, but I never did. What was that about?” “I told my husband I love him, but I’ve been resenting him all week. Why?” “My coworker asked what I did this weekend and I didn’t want to tell them I went to church. Why?”
Do we know Jonah’s heart? No.
Here’s what we do know. Our wagons are not hitched to Jonah, but to Jesus. And like Jonah, we’re really shaky. But Jesus isn’t.
While headlines remind us that people fail us, Jesus never will.
And while we may be complex, Jesus is the one who truly knows us.
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me! 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
And if you’ve trusted Jesus, you may be a hypocrite sometimes, say one thing and do another, but Jesus will not abandon you. Just like Jonah, he may allow you to experience a kind of death, but only to redeem you and remind you again that he is the way to life.
Just like David could not be overtaken by Saul, just like Egypt couldn’t put an end to Israel, just like Babylon couldn’t entirely swallow up God’s people, and just like the fish couldn’t digest Jonah, so the grave couldn’t keep Jesus. He is our hope. Trust him.
Celebrate the fact that Jesus was swallowed up by death for us. He went down to death for us. He bled out not only blood, but his prayers to God on our behalf.
But he also rose. And Communion remembers this but also looks forward.