In My Distress...I Called for Help
Scripture: Jonah 2:1–2:10
In the Scripture reading this morning, we read the text for our sermon in Jonah, chapter 2. I want to begin my remarks by raising the question: What exactly is Jonah 2? My Bible, the NIV, has the heading, “Jonah’s Prayer.” The chapter begins by telling us that “From the inside of the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.”
But a careful reading and analysis of the words of this chapter indicate that Jonah 2 is not so much a prayer as it is a testimony about his whole experience, and particularly a testimony about answered prayer. These are not the words that Jonah spoke in the belly of the fish, but a reflective poem of thanksgiving directed to the Lord and written after the fact. I say this for several reasons. For one thing, this is written in carefully arranged lines of Hebrew poetry. Miracles aside, I cannot picture Jonah carving this into the lining of the fish’s stomach. Secondly, the words carry many phrases which are almost direct quotes from other Scriptures; particularly the Psalms. While the use of such phrases in prayer is certainly appropriate, it is more likely the result of quiet reflection than the desperate pleadings of a drowning man. Thirdly, the perspective of the chapter moves back and forth from desperation to thankfulness and praise. Hence my conclusion is that, while Jonah certainly prayed from inside the fish, this chapter is not that prayer, but represents a retrospective of his entire experience in the water and in the fish written after he had been vomited back onto dry land.
This conclusion sets us free to look at the different images and phases of Jonah’s experience without being locked into a strict chronology or a single focal point within the experience. As I have done so, I have clustered my observations into three categories: Jonah’s dilemma, Jonah’s response and God’s answer.
Jonah’s dilemma was very dramatic and very intense. As we left the story last week, the sailors had thrown Jonah overboard where the Lord provided a great fish to swallow him. Jonah spent three days and nights inside the fish. At some point during that time, or more probably, all during that time Jonah prayed from inside the fish. This is how he describes the experience:
“In my distress I called to the Lord…From the depths of the grave I called for help,”
The vocabulary is interesting here. The word for “distress” comes from a root which means “to be in a narrow place.” It is often used metaphorically of any kind of distress or confining circumstance. We use the same imagery in English idiom when we speak of being “in a bind” or say, “I’m in a tight spot.” It is difficult to imagine anyone whose distress was quite so literally narrow and confining as Jonah’s. It is also interesting that the words for “depths of the grave” could be literally rendered “from the belly of Sheol.” This does not imply that Jonah actually died, but no doubt the belly of the fish felt like a grave from which he would never return.
His poetic remembrance recalls not only his time in the fish, but the moments before the fish swallowed him. Let’s continue reading in verse 3:
You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.
His vivid recall continues in verse 5:
The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.
In fact he adds these words in verse 7:
“…my life was ebbing away.”
It is interesting that what Jonah experienced so literally in the ocean is described in almost identical metaphorical language in Psalm 42:7b:
all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
I don’t know if any of you have had a near drowning experience. I am happy to say that I never have. But I can imagine that Jonah’s words vividly capture that feeling of panic, of desperation, of fading consciousness.
As I said, I have never had a near drowning experience, but I have had experiences in life in which I felt overwhelmed and desperate; times when hope seemed gone and there was nowhere to turn. I was “in a bind” and in distress.
Before we leave this description of Jonah’s dilemma, however, we need to review. If we want to understand Jonah 2 in context we need to be reminded: Why was Jonah in distress? Why did the sailors throw him overboard? What was he doing at sea in the first place? The answer to that question is found in chapter 1, isn’t it? Jonah was running away from the Lord. He had gone AWOL. He did not want to do what God commanded him to do, so he was fleeing from God’s presence and from God’s service. Jonah’s distress was a direct result of his own disobedience. He was experiencing the discipline of the Lord.
Isaiah 26:16 describes Jonah well:
Lord, they came to you in their distress; when you disciplined them, they could barely whisper a prayer.
It is clear that Jonah knew that he was in the wrong. He knew that his dilemma was coming from the disciplining hand of God. Look at the personal pronouns in verse 3:
You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.
It is there in verse 4 as well: I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight.” The word “banished” could also be translated “expelled.” Jonah is a man, not only in physical torment but in spiritual torment as well. It is an awful thing to feel that all that you value and all that you care about, indeed life itself, is slipping away and you have no one to blame but yourself.
That was Jonah’s dilemma. Now let’s look at Jonah’s response. First, I believe there was repentance. I believe this is found in the verses we just looked at in which he acknowledged that it was God who had hurled him into the sea and expelled him. But he went beyond repentance to desperate prayer. Look at the phrases describing his response, beginning in verse 2:
In my distress I called to the Lord… From the depths of the grave I called for help.
These are cries of desperation. They are desperate calls for help in a time of great personal anguish and despair. Many of the prayers recorded in the psalms begin with similar desperation. Psalm 120:1 starts with almost identical language: I call on the Lord in my distress. Psalm 31:22 carries similar echoes:
In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!” Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help.
Psalm 69:1-3 has more:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. 2 I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. 3 I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched.
As I read these verses and many more like them, I am impressed by the realization that effective prayer is rooted, not in the eloquence of our tongues, but in the desperation of our hearts. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a place for eloquence and for carefully crafted prayers, founded in meditation and in the quietness of contemplation and worship. But for me the prayers that have born greatest fruit in my life have been short and desperate: “God give me strength! God give me wisdom! Save me, O God!” “In my distress, I called to the Lord.” The desperation and distress we experience may be actual physical danger and threat, or the emotional distress that comes from seemingly insurmountable problems in our personal and professional lives. Whatever its source, the response is the same; a desperate call to God for help.
Prayer is actually an expression of a deeper reality of the heart, which is expressed in Jonah 2:7:
“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.”
First comes “remembering” then comes prayer. And this is where distress can play a vital role. It often takes distress to wake us up and cause us to remember the Lord and then turn to him in prayer. This can be true of the backsliding believer like Jonah. Jeremiah points this out in Jeremiah 3:21-22:
A cry is heard on the barren heights, the weeping and pleading of the people of Israel, because they have perverted their ways and have forgotten the Lord their God. 22 “Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding.” “Yes, we will come to you, for you are the Lord our God.”
For the backslider who has forgotten God, or run from him like Jonah, God’s discipline, life’s distress can serve as a wake-up call to remember God, to return to him and to be cured of our backsliding. Jonah remembered God and prayed.
Distress and trouble can have the same effect, even if we are not living in rebellion. The Apostle Paul was not living in rebellion, but listen to the effect that trouble had in his life in II Corinthians 1:8-9:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
That reliance on God is expressed in prayer. “Save me, O God!”
Jonah’s distress and desperate plight caused him to remember the Lord and cry out to him in repentant prayer. Let us look now at God’s response. It is found in the very opening verse of Jonah’s poem which is why I believe this is a retrospective of the whole experience. In verse 2, we read:
In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
The end of verse 6 says it even more clearly: But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. For Jonah, this deliverance actually took place in two phases. The first phase of deliverance came as Jonah was sinking, with the seaweed wrapped around his head and this big fish swam up alongside, with its mouth open. I wonder if Jonah’s first thought at that moment was, “O, thank God!” I rather doubt it. Sometimes God’s deliverance comes in very unexpected forms. As threatening as the fish no doubt appeared, it was God’s means of saving Jonah. The end of chapter 1 clearly said, “The Lord appointed a great fish.” The next phase of Jonah’s deliverance took place when the fish vomited him out upon the shore. This whole experience was as miraculous as an actual resurrection. In fact, Jesus himself used Jonah and his three days and nights in the fish as a prediction and picture of his own three days in the grave before his resurrection. But the key here is the reality of answered prayer. Jonah prayed. He called for help. And his prayer rose before the temple of God, into heaven itself and God not only heard but answered. Jonah 2 is, above all else, a testimony to answered prayer. Jonah called and the Lord answered. God “brought his life up from the pit.” This is why the last few verses of the chapter and of the poem are given over to thanksgiving and praise.
“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. 9 But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.”
I suspect that Jonah is comparing the God of heaven, his God, with the idols and gods to whom the sailors on the ship had prayed – without result. But he moves quickly to offering a song of thanksgiving and praise to the Lord, with the triumphant conclusion: Salvation comes from the Lord. The word “salvation” is used here in its broadest context of deliverance from trouble and distress. He may even be echoing the words of Psalm 3:8: From the Lord comes deliverance.
Psalm 68:20 says it this way:
Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.
Jonah 2 is a wonderful testimony of a backslider’s prayer, and God’s gracious deliverance from death. What are the lessons we can take away from this chapter? That depends on where you are with the Lord at this point in your life.
Are you, like Jonah, running from the Lord? Have you gone AWOL? Are you fleeing from his presence and from his service? If so, the application is plain. Turn around. Acknowledge your sin and disobedience. Remember the Lord and cry out to him for mercy and pardon and restoration. If God could hear Jonah from the belly of the fish, he can hear you. And he will hear you and he will pardon if you cry out in repentance. But repentance is found, not only in prayer, but in obedience. There is an interesting reference in verse 9: Jonah says, “What I have vowed I will make good.” I thought about that. What vows is Jonah talking about? They could be vows he made in the belly of the fish, in his desperation: “God, if you get me out of here, this is what I’ll do!” But it seems to me that he could also be referring to vows that he had made when God called him to be his prophet; vows to serve the Lord and deliver his words faithfully; vows that Jonah had broken when he fled from the presence of the Lord. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which way we interpret it. True repentance will be lived out and expressed by our new or renewed obedience to the promises we have made to God.
Maybe you are in distress this morning, but you are not backslidden. You have not consciously abandoned the will of the Lord and fled from his presence. But life is still very difficult for you right now. You are shut in by circumstances and troubles that seem insurmountable and which have cast a dark shadow across your life and your future. To start with, I would point you to Psalm 139. In distress, even if you are not aware of any sin in your life, it is always good to make sure. Psalm 139:23-24 records a prayer: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. It is a prayer of submission to the Lord to humbly ask him if there is anything wrong; any lesson you should be learning; any bad habits or sinful pattern that you have slipped into that lies at the root of your trouble and distress.
If God answers this prayer by reassuring you that all is well between you and him, then cry out to the Lord for help. “Lord, give me strength! Lord, give me wisdom! O God, save me!” Use the distress to drive you to your knees with new urgency and new desperation. Use your own weakness in the situation to cause you to rely on God and his strength.
Maybe some of you are in a good place right now, in life and in your walk with God. You are experiencing the sunshine of God’s grace and mercy and walking in the joy of the Lord. What can you take away from this message? First of all, remember where the good gifts of life come from. Remember to acknowledge God as the giver of all good gifts and give him thanks. Offer him the sacrifice of praise. But I would also urge you to remember to “keep your vows.” Recall the promises you made to God. Maybe they were commitments made at an earlier stage of the Christian life. Maybe they were vows and promises you made during an earlier time of crisis and distress. Do you remember what they are? Are you keeping them? What we promise in the dark, we should not fail to fulfill in the sunshine.
And for all of us, wherever we are in life or in terms of this message, we would do well to commit this simple, summary truth to memory for both now and the future:
Deliverance is from the Lord.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- “In my distress I called to the Lord.” What were Jonah’s circumstances as he prayed?
- Read Isaiah 26:16 and Jeremiah 3:21-22 and compare with II Corinthians 1:8-9. Difficulties may be encountered as a result of our backsliding, or simply as an obstacle in doing the will of the Lord. How can we tell the difference? What should our response be in either case?
- Jonah 2 is a poem of personal testimony about answered prayer. Share your own personal testimonies of times when you called out to the Lord in distress and God answered.
- Memorize the phrase from verse 9: “Salvation (deliverance) comes from the Lord.” What are some situations you are currently facing in which you need to be consistently reminded of this truth?
- Jonah closes his poem with a “song of thanksgiving”. Spend time in prayer, giving thanks for God’s answers to prayer which you have shared together.