In March 2020, with nothing much else to do and a sizeable stomach on me. I started running with the added fact that I lived right beside the wonderfully flat towpath. Why? Mostly to pass some of the lockdown boredom that I had felt creeping in and the fact that the weather was splendid! I started running and kept running; I felt like Forrest Gump going up and down the towpath. I found my speed increasing and the timing to get to specific markers decreasing. I have no shame in admitting that although I hated running, I enjoyed getting better at it and better than some people I was running past.
After a few months, I remember that there was one glorious morning when the sun was out, it wasn’t too windy, and it wasn’t yet too warm. I thought it was the perfect time to get my Adidas Bounce on and start running; a couple of days before, I had run 12KM and thought nothing of it, and although I had no actual distance in mind at this point, I was feeling good, so I just kept going and going. After over an hour of running, I suddenly didn’t think that fresh anymore; I forgot to bring water because I hated carrying a bottle. When I finally turned around to make my way back, I realised I had run further than I had ever run before. Except now, I was dehydrated and realised that part of the reason I had been flying was that the wind was behind me, a wind that I now had to run back into.
Remembering How Much I hate Running
It was the worst I had felt in a long time, but I kept plodding along the road I had come; I didn’t think it could get any worse for me, then I somehow managed to lose my footing and slightly tweak my angle. Truthfully I hated running, and now I hated it even more as I found myself deeply dehydrated, with a thundering sore head, running into the wind that felt like a wall with an ankle that felt like a knife. Again, I hated running, and in the middle of that run, I thought I would never run again as I found myself grinding to a halt and wondering what to do.
We have all been there, haven’t we? Not necessarily out for a run or exercising but coasting along in life, thinking with everything going well, impressed by our own strength and performance, just cruising along. Then we hit that metaphorical wall and wonder what we can do. I found myself sitting on a wall, out of breath, soar and out of motivation to keep on going and admit for the first time that I needed help.
Jonah has Been Running (Context)
The book of Jonah is a highly fast-paced tale as over four chapters, a marathon is squeezed into a sprint. But, as with no time wasted, the word of God came to Jonah in 1:1 and commanded him to:
”Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up before me.”
What a moment it must have been to have been commissioned and thought worthy of the work of God. What does Jonah do? Well, no sooner has the Lord spoken to him and called him to run in one direction does Jonah gets up. He sets his mind on Tarshish, a city literally opposite direction from where the Lord has called him to go. Then he acts as he heads down to the port to find a boat to help him run away from what God was calling him to. There must have been a moment when Jonah thought it would work out for him; he knew that he was actively running away from the call of God in his life. Still, there must have been a moment when the ship set sail when he thought God would just let him go, that the Lord would choose someone else.
From Bad to Worse on the Boat
Even as the journey got more brutal as the winds picked up and the waves battered the boats how Jonah must have hoped that it was only bad weather, weather that would pass. He just wanted to keep running and running on his own strength even when there was nowhere to go. Finally, slowly, Jonah realises he is running out of steam; as the ship is battered and the crew wonder what they have done to deserve this, they learn it’s not them but the one hiding beneath the decks. Then after the fruitless attempt to outsail God, the men heed the advice of Jonah and throw him overboard as they cry out to the Lord:
“Please, Lord, do not let us perish because of this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood! For you, Lord, have done just as you pleased.”
Jonah had been running on his own strength quite well, yet, with every step, he grasped that there was nothing you can do to outrun God. How helpless must Jonah have felt as he hit that water and thought it couldn’t get any worse, to then be swallowed by a fish appointed by God? He had hit his wall! Now, the question is where he would turn for help. When I ran out of steam on my run, I called home and asked for a lift. When Jonah hit his wall, he knew there was only one place to which he could turn for help: God!
A Lesson that Needs to be Learned from the Belly of the Fish (2:1-2)
Chapter 1 finishes by telling us that God “appointed” a great fish to swallow Jonah; it’s a word that we see used several times throughout the whole story of Jonah. It is a word that shows us much to be thankful for as we are reminded that God is in control and never taken by surprise. Yet, more profoundly than that, God will use the stupidly in our lives to teach us truths and show us grace. When God chose Jonah to go to Nivenah, he knew that he would go in the opposite direction; he wasn’t surprised by the abandonment that Jonah showed. Instead, he embraced where he was on his own journey to teach Jonah a lesson about who God was – gracious.
Fish: A Reminder of God’s Power and God’s Grace
The fish reminds us that we cannot run from God, His will, or his way; moreover, the fish reminds us that God, in His grace and mercy, is patient with us even when we would not be as such with others. At the moment of my running, I hated running, yet, as I looked back, I learned some lessons that helped me better enjoy running and not hurt myself. The lessons were a matter of hindsight! So often, in matters of faith and our walk with Jesus, only when we have the space to look back can we more clearly see God’s hand at work in our life and his mercy over us.
A Downwards Spiral Towards Grace
In his book on Jonah, Tim Keller quotes Peter Craigie here, who points out that throughout chapter one, Jonah has been described as descending – going down – down to Joppa, Down into a ship, down into the lower deck! Now, he finds himself descending to the ocean’s depths in the belly of a fish. It seems a further place from God, yet only in this place of brokenness can we know the fullness of God and his Grace. Only when we can admit the weakness of our strength can we embrace the beauty of God’s mercy. Jonah had received the call of God and ran from it. Only when he was broken by his stubbornness could he begin to see the ugliness of trusting in himself and running from God’s Grace and call. Only at the lowest point could he call out the high and mighty one. Keller puts it well as he writes:
“If Jonah was to begin finally to ascend, both in the water and in faith, he had to be brought to the very end of himself. The way up was, first of all, down. The usual place to learn the greatest secrets of God’s Grace is at the bottom.
Yet, it is not just about reaching that place of ReadinessReadiness where we are emptied of ourselves and able to receive from God. It is about how we act when we are there that the Holy Spirit prompts us to turn from ourselves toward God. One of those critical movements of turning toward God is prayer. What does Jonah do from the belly? He prays because it is through Pray we turn to God. At the end of that prayer, we encounter a realisation of grace. As Jonah declares that he will fulfil what he has vowed (preach to Nineveh) and that Salvation belongs to the Lord that Jonah is released from the depths a man more ready to serve God, and his prayer reveals the journey of grace that each of us must walk to be ready to serve God.
Recognising The State of Ourselves: A Need of Grace (3-6a)
Jonah had exhausted himself from running from God and the call on his life. When God told him to go right to Nineveh, he turned left for Tarshish and hoped foolishly that the Lord would leave him to his own choices. Yet, God’s love for us is so much that he will not leave us to the foolishness of our ways; those he calls to himself and his purposes will bring us to a place where they see their need for Him and the beauty of his grace. That is different for each of us and can often be a difficult journey, but in difficulty, infinitely worthwhile. To climb Mount Everest is difficult, yet, it is the difficulty that makes the climb worthwhile. To know the beauty of relationship with God through faith in his Son is the most beautiful place to be, a relationship of infinite value and eternal significance, yet, to be able to enter it is a difficult process because it often requires each of us to deconstruct the false narratives of the world that have shaped us and be willing to embrace the beauty of weakness. We have all grown up with narratives that tell us we are okay; we as individuals have all that we need within us; all we need to do is look deeper within, find our inner courage, and be the best version of who we are.
Yet, grace as a message incarnated in the Gospel, Jesus confronts this notion of self as we are reminded that there is no rescue in us or anyone around us. Furthermore. The Gospel declares that there is more than this life and that to live truly is to live with the beyond in mind. We were made for a purpose beyond ourselves, and that purpose can only be known and embraced when we come to the place of looking beyond ourselves. Jonah had tried to live in his own strength and to his own ends and had been brought to a place of great distress as from the belly of the fish he cried out to God for rescue from the depths of hell/Sheol (2), knowing that God would hear him.
God Is Always at Work
Yet as he cries out for rescue from the Depths, he recognises that it is right that he be there; as he recognises that it was by the hand of God that he found himself in the deepest of deeps: “You hurled me into the depths… all your waves and breakers swept over me…” (2:3). Jonah knows where he is and deserves to be there because of his sin, and there is nothing he can do to fix it. So often, the basic human response to a mess is to try and fix it; if we offend someone, we try to find ways to make amends. Yet, there will come times when we can finally admit there is nothing we can do, and we need some help from beyond ourselves. It took me a lot of painful running to admit defeat and phone home for a lift. It took Jonah a lot of sinking to come to that beautiful place of broken realisation where with bowed knees and open hands, we seek rescue from God through faith in Christ. Only through running along the road of folly did Jonah come to that place of the realisation of his sinfulness as he cried out in prayer:
”The Waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever. (2:5-6a)
For the first time in the book, Jonah realised his sinfulness and need for power beyond himself, not just to live but to find rescue. As Keller put it:
He realises that he stands condemned and permanently barred for his sin and rebellion. There is no possible way to open those gates himself or make good his debt. The famous hymn expresses this: “Not the labours of my hands Can fulfil thy law’s demands. Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, All for sin could not atone. Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
Our living apart from God keeps us apart from God. Like Jonah, at this moment, it is only when we realise this that we begin to understand the beauty of grace and the wonder of God’s mercy who rescues us despite our foolishness. Then when we can admit that we cannot save ourselves, what a rescue we will receive.
Rescue Comes From God (6b-10)
Twice Jonah looks towards the Holy temple of God (2:4;7) because Jonah knew that it was over the Mercy seat that God would speak to his people. Consider Exodus 25:22:
Above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites. – Exodus 25:22 NIV
In that glance towards the dwelling place of God, Jonah remembered the Mercy of God and the Grace of God, which cost was made real by the Sacrificial system pointing towards the Great Sacrificial Lamb to come – Jesus. Additionally, we are reminded in the Exodus of how vast the Grace of God is because he bore so patiently with such a sinful and rebellious people, who, in forty years of wondering, seemed to try their best to out sin the Grace and God.
Jonah had known of the goodness of God through the history of his people. Yet, there is a huge difference between knowing about something and believing it. He’s running from the call of God in his life, and the Grace of God at work in his life has brought him to a place where he can trust God. Specifically to trust that God would act as he moves from distress and despair in the belly of this fish to a place of peace and trust. What was that place? Knowing that rescue would come and that it would come from God alone:
“Yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”
The Beauty of Gods’ Wisdom
Think about this whole scene for a minute. Here is someone who God called to serve him, yet, someone who did not want to serve God so chose to literally try and go in the opposite direction to the furthest point away from the physical place God had called him to. Yet, such as the grace in the Wisdom and work of God, the sovereign God, that he knew how Jonah would react. Such is the Grace of God at work in the work that even when his child chose to run from God, God chose to use that movement away from God to move Jonah towards God. This is how Amazing the Grace of God is that he brings us to it as we run from the end through mercy.
Beginning to Walk with God
Specifically, God brought Jonah to a place of ReadinessReadiness where he was ready to fulfil what God had called him to and ready to enjoy the privilege of walking in the direction God had for him. Hence, in verse seven, where Jonah is exhausted by life and the foolishness of his choices, he declares:
“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you…” (7).
A statement that shows us the beauty of grace and the power of God as Jonah tells us the Story of How God answered his prayer. Jonah’s actions until this point had displayed a life that would rather trust in anything else over God:
- God directed him to Nivennah, and he moved in the opposite direction
- God called him, and he thought a boat would be sufficient to help him avoid the call of God on his life.
- Then for a moment, he trusted in the sailors to help him outsail the Justice of God.
Jonah has been on a downward ascent away from God from the moment he began moving. However, it is at the bottom in the belly of the fish where Jonah’s stubbornness has been broken, and the transformation of grace has begun. Jonah shows us that he has learnt his lesson by comparing his newfound wisdom in grace to the folly/foolishness of those who trust (as he did). As he knows his need for grace, he shows his ReadinessReadiness to trust God, particularly be the comparison and contrast of verses 8 and 9. Jonah shows that the Grace of God has been at work in his life as he reminds us of what he was: “Those who cling to worthless idols” and the effects of such a course, they “turn away from God’s love for them.” Yet, this is no longer Jonah; he will, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to God (9). More than that, he has learned where Salvation alone will come to form – God! As he declares his loyalty to God, he acknowledges that there is nothing in this world that can offer us the fullness of life that the Grace of God offers us. He had seen the Rescue of God for the Sailors from the storm, and so he knew that rescue from the deeps would come from God alone as he committed himself to the work of God:
But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ ” (2:9b)
Jonah has received the Grace of God and repented of the error of his ways. He realised the foolishness of trusting anything other than God, so he trusted that God would rescue him. What happens? verse 10: “And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” Verse 10 resumes the Narrative from the end of chapter 1. Yet, so much has happened in between that Jonah returns to dry land a changed man ready to journey with God.
CONCLUSION: YOU CAN NOT OUTRUN GRACE
There is so much that could be said as we close our thinking around the Psalm/Prayer of Jonah here. There is so much wisdom and insight into the Christian life as we look to live out that faith that is ours through the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead – the fulfilment of God’s Salvation plan! Yet, I want to highlight just a few things.
Don’t Look within
Firstly, the danger of trusting ourselves; so many of our cultural stories tell us that all we need to do is look inward, and we will find our purpose and direction. They tell us that all we need to enjoy life and find purpose in life is whatever our heart desires. Contrasted to that Narrative are the moments of Jonah who thought that he could choose something other than the call of God in his life. He did not want to go where God wanted him to go, so he thought choosing something other than God would be okay. Choices that lead only downwards and to distress and despair. Don’t be like Jonah; let us not look to ourselves or our own wisdom; let us look to and trust in God.
The Transforming Power of Prayer and Relationship with God
I am not sure how Jonah convinced himself that his choices would work out. I imagine him walking down the road and rationalising all the stupid things running through his head: “There is someone better to do this than me….” Then when he finally hit rock bottom and began to pray to God, we begin to see something of the majesty and mystery of life with God. Specifically, in the prayer of Jonah here from the belly of the fish, we see the process of God working in Jonah to begin the process of grace and repentance. The voice of God begins to undo the lies of the world in the mind of Jonah; Jonah prays we get to glimpse the transforming power of a two-way relationship with the God of heaven: that as we commune with him through his word and prayer, he will work in us and through us. Jonah was transformed by God, and part of that transformation process was honest prayer, where he brought it all to God. Let us be a people who live in our relationship with God by listening to him through his work and bringing our concerns and hearts to him through prayer.
Grace: You Cannot Out Run it, and it is a Journey
I went for a run and thought I could run further than I was ready for in the weeks after. When I got back to running, there was something freeing about knowing that I would never be a marathon runner. I moved from having a knowledge of something to an experience of it. While the experience was somewhat negative, it helped me improve my running in the longer term. Jonah was someone who was growing up as a Jew and had knowledge of the Grace of God through the history of his people, through the sacrificial system and the worship of God in the temple. Yet, his knowledge of God’s Grace never became real until he experienced it! As he turned away from the call of God and sought to trust in the worthlessness of idols and created things, it was only by the experience of each choice that he was ready to begin his journey of repentance and experience the fullness of grace. He had to move away to be brought into God’s presence. He had to try other things to see the true cost of grace, a cost that his entire religious system made clear, yet, a cost that only became real to him at a depth of the oceans. Finally, he had experienced grace and was able to cry out that Salvation comes from God alone. It was from there that the journey of grace would begin.
The Cross Reveals the Power and Beauty of God’s Grace
Today we are in the shadow of Easter; we are those who have witnessed the Crucifixion of Jesus and his Resurrection. We are those who have no excuse to understand the cost of grace and how amazing it is that God invites us into a relationship with him through faith in his Son; then that God enables us to walk with Him and live for him by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us and through us. Grace is amazing because, as Christians, we are those who realise we cannot outrun it because it has nothing to do with us, yet, through the testimony of scriptures that understand the Journey of Grace/repentance is not a one-time event but a continuous process.
Walking the Scantifying Road of Grace
The rest of the book of Jonah shows us that process/journey of grace as we see Jonah struggle when God shows Nineveh the same grace he received. Yet, he still fulfilled the call of God on his life. Grace is amazing because this chapter from Jonah reminds us that we cannot outrun it. So, today, let us, like Jonah, turn away from the things of the world to God and vow with shouts of grateful praise that: “Salvation comes from the Lord.” Whether this is for the first time coming to realise how amazing grace is because of its cost – the Cross of Christ; or renewing in our lives the call of God and then, like Jonah committing to live it out in the power of the Holy Spirit so that others to can now the beauty of Life with God. Timothy Keller concluded:
”God releases Jonah from the fish even though, as will become obvious soon, his repentance is only partial. Yet the merciful God patiently works with us, flawed and clueless though we are.”1
So today, as God works in us the fruits of grace on our journey of repentance this Easter, let us remember the cost of grace and its power through the Cross and the empty tomb: and rather than try to outrun it, let us run with it so that others can know just how amazing life with God through faith and grace received really is.
- Keller, Timothy. The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. John Murray Press. Kindle Edition. ↩