When we read the book of Jonah, the prophet doesn’t give us much to emulate: he fled the presence of the Lord, slept indifferently through a storm caused by his disobedience, half-heartedly obeyed after a miraculous act of God’s mercy, and angrily protested God granting mercy to people Jonah hated. These extremes led author and theologian, Tim Keller, to call Jonah the prodigal prophet because his story closely parallels Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-32. Jonah resembles the extravagant younger brother at the beginning of this story and the proud older brother at the end.
While most of the book of Jonah instructs us what not to do, nestled in the middle is Jonah’s prayer from inside the fish, which offers helpful instruction for our own prayer lives by showing us what calling on the Lord looks like.
As Jonah 2 opens, we read that God had appointed a fish to swallow Jonah as a consequence of his disobedience. Prior to being swallowed by the fish, Jonah was going down—down to Joppa, down to sleep in the bottom of the ship, and down in the ocean.
In Jonah 2:6b, he prayed, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”
With this prayer, Jonah demonstrated thanksgiving and sacrifice to the Lord. He saw God’s providence in the midst of his situation and declared, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9). And then the fish vomited him out. Jonah proclaimed trust and hope while he was in the belly of the fish! As twenty-first-century readers, we know the end of the story, but Jonah didn’t. He didn’t know he would see dry land again. His hope and even salvation were not dependent on his circumstances.
What Gave Jonah Hope?
So, what is it that gave him hope? In Jonah 2:4 and 7, Jonah’s eyes were on the Lord’s holy temple, where God would dwell with his people. Jonah spent all of chapter 1 fleeing the presence of the Lord, but in chapter 2 his hope was restored as he looked upon God’s presence. Jonah knew that inside God’s holy temple was the ark of the covenant, which housed the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. He also knew the holy temple was the place where God came to meet with his people. Because man could not keep his law perfectly, God established something called “the mercy seat.” The mercy seat was between his presence and his law and it was sprinkled with the blood of an animal sacrifice once a year to atone for sins.
Jonah turned his eyes to look on the Lord’s holy temple and saw the mercy seat, atonement for his sin. He was trusting in future grace, and that hope brought him great joy in the darkest of circumstances! He was calling on the name of the Lord.
So, Jonah’s prayer instructs us in two key ways: call out to God and call on his grace.
1. Calling on the Name of the Lord
Jonah 2:2a says, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me.” No one else could hear Jonah’s cries, and the pagan sailors had already done their best to navigate through the storm. In his despair, Jonah knew there was no other source of help.
Just like Jonah, though, we know that calling out to the Lord isn’t always easy. The Lead Pastor at College Park Church, Mark Vroegop often says that the moments when we don’t want to call out to God are the moments when a prayer of lament is vital:
“Pain creates a strong temptation to give God the silent treatment,” he says, but “laments invite us to do the same—to keep crying out in prayer through the ups and downs of hardship.”
Even when we don’t feel it, we can openly lament and trust what we know of God’s character. We serve an attentive God who hears us, and he wants us to call out to him! (1 John 5:14-15). Jesus empathizes with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15) and invites us to rest in him (Matt. 11:28).
What is your first response in times of trouble? Do you find yourself calling on the name of the Lord? Do you cry out in prayer, or does prayer only come after texting a friend, googling symptoms, self-soothing with social media “likes,” or binging on earthly comforts? Prayer should be our first response because it reminds us who is in control. God alone has the power and authority over all things, and he is our help and shield.
2. Calling on His Grace
Jonah found hope in looking at the mercy seat, which was sprinkled with the blood of an animal sacrifice once a year. How much more can we take hope when we turn our eyes to the cross? It is there we will see the daily and future grace of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ that atones for every sin—past, present, and future (Heb. 7:27)!
Whether or not we have hit what feels like rock bottom, we have all been in the depths with Jonah. Our sin completely separates us from a holy God, yet he chose to come near us and provide a way for us to come near him through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Because of Jesus, we have access to God’s presence at any time, without limitations. Looking to the cross and rehearsing the gospel may not change our circumstances, but it reminds us our greatest problem is already covered. Even without knowing how our circumstances will play out, we can find hope in the cross. Through the blood of Christ, the debt for our sin is paid in full. And nothing can separate us from God’s redeeming love (Rom. 8:38-39).
Turn to the Father
Jonah shows us how to humbly return to the Father, just like the prodigal son humbly returned to his father (Luke 15:20-21). But unlike the prodigal son—who feared his father would turn him away—and the prodigal prophet—who didn’t know the all-sufficient grace of Jesus—we have full assurance of the Father’s response when we call out to him:
The Lord your God is in your midst
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17).