Lessons from the Belly of a Fish
Raise your hand if you are excited to see what God’s word has for us this morning. Praise God! If you remember from last week, our passage was Jonah chapter one. We saw how God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, the capital city of Jonah’s arch enemies; and instead, Jonah began to flee to the modern-day country of Spain. But as you remember, Jonah didn’t get very far in running from God. While Jonah and the sailors were out at sea, God hurled a storm down at them. God revealed to the sailors that Jonah was the cause of the storm, and they reluctantly threw Jonah overboard to prevent them from being destroyed in the storm. The main lesson for us in all of this is that you cannot run from God. Jonah thought that God was limited to the political boundaries of the nation of Israel. And sometimes we have the mistaken notion that if you can run from the church, then you can run from God. But Jonah learned the hard way that there is no place on earth where God is not.
But hopefully you remember that God was not done working with Jonah. Aren’t you so glad that God doesn’t stop working with us whenever we mess up? As Jonah was sinking deep under the water, I’m sure he imagined that his days were through. I’m sure he thought that God was going to kill him for his rebellion. But the last verse of Jonah chapter one tells us that God had prepared a great fish to come along and swallow Jonah. And the Bible says that Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. To see what happens next in the epic story of the prophet Jonah, I ask you to turn in your Bibles to Jonah chapter two, and we’ll be reading all ten verses. Again, Jonah 2.
“Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, ‘I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all Thy billows and Thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of Thy sight; yet I will look again toward Thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me forever: yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto Thee, into Thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.’ And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”
The title of this morning’s sermon is “Lessons from the Belly of a Fish.” As we look through Jonah chapter two, we are going to see six easy lessons we can use when we are in the belly of the fish. And you might be thinking right about now, “When I’m in the belly of the fish? Well, it looks like this one isn’t going to apply to me!” Well, maybe it does. What we’re going to be talking about this morning is what to do when it seems like everything has gone wrong in life. When it seems like your life has gone from the best of the best to the worst of the worst. Is there anyone here this morning that’s ever been in the belly of the fish? I know I have multiple times in my life. Thankfully, the Bible speaks to those kinds of situations in our lives. If you remember, Jonah was one of the most popular prophets in Israel’s history. He was well respected, and people listened to what he had to say. And yet today, we find him cruising through the ocean, inside a dark, smelly, nauseating environment. Jonah knew what it was like to have the best of life, and now he is experiencing the worst in life. Let’s see what lessons we can learn from this runaway prophet.
Lesson #1: God hears your cry, no matter where you are
Look at what verses one and two say about Jonah’s prayer. “Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, ‘I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” In case you didn’t notice, this entire chapter is a recording of Jonah’s prayer from inside the fish. The first lesson that Jonah learned about what to do in the belly of the fish was to pray to God. Verse two paints a grim picture of how bad Jonah’s situation was. In verse two, Jonah says that he was in the “belly of hell.” And something we have to remember about Jonah is that he thought that he could get away from God as long as he left Israel. And yet now, Jonah has learned that even in the midst of the belly of hell he can cry out to God, and God would hear his voice. I hope that’s something that you all realize from the depths of your being. No matter what is going on in your life, you can take it to God in prayer, and He promises that He will hear and answer your prayer. Now, you may not always like the answer, but He will always answer your prayers. So the first lesson from the belly of the fish is to pray, pray, pray! And I don’t know about you, but in my life, this is one of those principles that looks really good on paper, but I always seem to forget whenever the rubber meets the road. I know the value of the prayer, but whenever things start to get tough, I often try to handle it myself, and fail to seek God’s assistance. Now, I eventually come to my senses, but how much additional pain did I have to go through because I failed to bring it before God’s throne? Although, in Jonah’s position, it didn’t take a whole lot of wisdom to know that there was absolutely nothing he could do on his own. Jonah had nowhere to look, except to God.
And before we go on to the second lesson, I want to briefly deal with a couple of practical questions about Jonah and his giant sea creature. The first question is, “Was Jonah swallowed by a whale or by a fish?” I mean, probably all of our Bibles say fish, but the popular idea is that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Why is that? Well, in the Hebrew language, there is only one word for both big fish and whales. Back then, they weren’t yet familiar with modern taxonomy, so they didn’t realize that whales weren’t fish. So they just had one word for all of those big things that swam out in the ocean. So really, we don’t know for sure if it was a whale or a fish. Just in case you’re interested, there are two main suspects for what type of animal may have swallowed Jonah. One is the sulphur-bottom whale, and the other is the whale shark. The sulphur-bottom whale can measure almost 100 feet in length, and the whale shark is about 60 feet in length. So of the two main suspects, one is a whale, and the other is a fish!
But this raises the bigger question, “Is it possible to stay alive in a fish?” This is an argument that has been leveled against Christians for centuries. Skeptics are very quick to say, “No one could possibly live inside of a whale for three whole days.” And frankly, we are partially to blame for this dilemma. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, and I heard the story of Jonah, I was under the impression that Jonah had his own little Ramada Inn inside that fish. I can just imagine Jonah sitting at a little dinner table inside there, and maybe he stumbles across an oil lamp that the fish had swallowed. And oh, what’s this? It’s a copy of today’s newspaper! And really, we have to get all of that out of our heads. When Jonah was in that fish, it would have been an absolutely miserable experience. I’ve been told that whales’ stomachs can have up to five or six compartments, and that you could survive in some of them for quite some time, but it would be an absolutely miserable experience.
And that is exactly what happened to a man in the early 1900s. A whaling crew was attempting to harpoon a whale in the English Channel, when one of the sailors fell overboard and was swallowed by the whale. Forty-eight hours later, the crew tracked the whale again and killed it. When they cut open the whale, imagine their surprise when their crew mate was inside the whale alive! Now, he was unconscious, and the whale’s stomach acid had seared off all of his hair, and his skin was a nasty yellowish-green color, but he was alive! Also, one time a dog was swallowed by a whale, and it wound up in a big air pocket near the whale’s head. It was alive and barking six days later when they found that whale.
But church, we cannot forget that while it is possible to survive inside of a whale, this is very much a miracle from God. I am not trying to take away the absolute miracle that Jonah survived, I am simply trying to say that God has repeated that miracle a few other times throughout human history. So if someone tells you that God can’t keep His prophet alive inside of a whale, gently remind them that not only can God, but He has, more than once.
So I’m sorry if that little bit bored you, but I felt like I had to address the issues that the world addresses about the book of Jonah. But let’s move on to lesson number two.
Lesson #2: God is in control
Look at what verse three of this passage says. “For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all Thy billows and Thy waves passed over me.” In this short little verse, Jonah says three different times that God is the source of his current predicament. In the first line, Jonah says that God has cast him into the deep. Then, at the end of the verse, he says it two more times. He says Thy billows and Thy waves passed over me. Do you see the point here? Jonah realizes that God is in complete control over this situation.
You know, for so many people in this world, the simple fact that God is in control is a reason that they hate God. I’m sure you have heard people say, “I want nothing to do with a God that let this person die.” Or, “How could a loving God let this happen to me?” But for the Christian, knowing that God is in control should give us peace, just like it gave Jonah peace. I mean, think about it, if God has put you in the belly of the whale, doesn’t it give you some peace to know that you are there for His purposes? I know it helps me out. So if you are here today, and you are struggling, not understanding why things are happening to you the way they are, remember that God is in control. The Bible says that His ways are higher than my ways, and His thoughts are higher than my thoughts. I know that doesn’t always make life’s difficulties easy, but at least it puts it in perspective to know that God has a reason for what He’s doing. He hasn’t forgotton about you. He doesn’t hate you. He has a plan for you, and sometimes, His plan includes being swallowed by a fish.
Lesson #3: We must have hope
This is really a direct extension of lesson number two. When Jonah realized that what was happening to him came straight from God, it filled His heart with hope. To see what I’m talking about, look at verse four. “Then I said, I am cast out of Thy sight; yet I will look again toward Thy holy temple.” I love this verse! Once Jonah realized that God had put him in the belly of the fish for a reason, he said that he would one day look again on God’s holy temple. Jonah had hope! Although, did you notice that Jonah’s prayer isn’t entirely correct here? Jonah said that he was cast out of God’s sight. And while I understand where Jonah is coming from, and while no doubt it felt like he was outside of God’s sight, I hope you realize that there is no place where you are outside of God’s sight.
And if you think about it, Jonah’s display of hope here is really quite inspiring. Just to be completely honest with you, sometimes I really get down in the dumps. My personality type makes me prone to getting discouraged, when really there is absolutely no cause for discouragement. Sometimes, I feel like nothing is going my way, and it is hard for me to have hope. But look at Jonah. Here we have a guy that is by all counts a failure. Just to see how bad things were for Jonah, look at what verses five and six say. “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me forever: yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.” Wow! Do you see how bad things were for Jonah? While we know that Jonah put his prayer onto paper on a later date, do you realize that this is what was going through Jonah’s mind as he was sinking to the bottom of the ocean? He said that water completely surrounded him, even to his soul. Anybody ever felt like that? The depth closed him round about. The weeds were wrapping around his head. He went down to the bottoms of the mountains. The earth with her bars was about him forever. This is a man that should have had no hope. And yet, Jonah says that God has brought his life up from corruption. Praise God for His salvation!
I don’t know where you are in your life right now. But I do know that all of us experience this kind of pain some times in our lives. And I hope that when this pain comes, you will have hope. You may feel like the waves of life have completely surrounded you. You may feel like you are slowly sinking all the way to the bottom of the ocean. But when that happens, my prayer is that you will look up. Know that God is in control, and know that He will take care of you. When you are in the belly of the fish, have hope.
Lesson #4: Focus your attention solely on God
After Jonah establishes that God is in control and that he has hope for the future, Jonah tells God that he is going to only serve Him. To see what I’m talking about, look at verses seven and eight. “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto Thee, into Thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” I want you to pay especially close attention to what verse eight says. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. What does this mean? Well, “lying vanities” is a phrase that essentially means “false idols” or “false gods.” A lying vanity is anything in our lives that we think is going to save us, but in fact it is nothing but a cheap imitation of God. Jonah said that anyone who follows these lying vanities forsakes their own mercy. The word for “mercy” here is the exact same word that is sometimes translated as “lovingkindness.” It’s the word in the Hebrew that refers to God saving us from our sins. So basically, Jonah is saying that anyone that looks to false idols for salvation will actually lose any chance of salvation.
After Jonah says how foolish it is to serve idols, look at how he concludes his prayer in verse nine. “But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.” I love this verse! As Jonah is drifting in and out of consciousness in the belly of this fish, he acknowledges that salvation is from the Lord, and that he is only going to serve him. In the book of Jonah, this verse is probably the peak in Jonah’s spiritual journey. I wish I could say that Jonah was a reformed man after this, but unfortunately we are going to see next week that Jonah still doesn’t really get the point. But for now, since we’re trying to decide what we can learn from Jonah, let’s focus on the positive. Jonah is absolutely correct in saying that God alone deserves our faith and our attention. Anything else we focus on is going to fail us miserably.
And since I doubt that any of you are going to go home tonight and bow before a graven image, let’s try to make this a little more applicable. Whenever you find yourself in the belly of the fish (and remember, we all find ourselves there from time to time), God desires for you to look to Him for your salvation, not to something else. So often we try to fix the problem with self-help books or secular counselors. And I’m not saying that those are bad in and of themselves. But there is an old adage that I think applies beautifully here. “If God brought you to it, He will bring you through it.” If you are facing a difficult situation in your life, don’t look down at what some self-help guru has to say. Don’t look around at how the world solves their problems. Look up! If God puts you in the belly of the fish, there is an excellent chance that He has done so that so you can exercise your faith in Him. Is it okay to read books about dealing with the issue you are in? Yes, it is ok. But mark my words. There is absolutely no substitute for the power of God. If you feel like nothing in life is going your way, focus your attention on God.
Lesson #5: It’s all about God’s timing, not our timing
Look at what the final verse of Jonah chapter two has to say. “And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” Just on a quick side note, yesterday I was at Paul and Rosemary’s house for a little while, and they had been studying through Jonah in their own personal devotions, and Paul and I were talking about this chapter. Paul thought it was so funny that God had that whale just throw up Jonah on the beach. And while I don’t want to sound like an eight year old, it is pretty funny! It’s amazing the methods that God uses to accomplish His purposes, isn’t it? But the focus for this point is not so much what God did, but when God did it. While it doesn’t say it in this verse, remember that Jonah was in that whale for three days and three nights. Now, if I am Jonah, I think I’ve learned the lesson that God is trying to teach me after about five minutes. After about ten minutes I’m thinking, “Ok God, I get the point, you can let me out now!” And yet, God left him in there for a good little while. Can anybody here relate with what Jonah was probably thinking? You feel like you’ve had this trial for long enough, you’ve learned from it, you’ve grown closer to God, and still nothing. Why hasn’t God answered yet? Well, it’s because it is all in God’s timing, not our timing. And you know, we’re never going to know for sure why God left Jonah in that whale for so long, but I have a sound biblical theory that I’d like to share with you. And that theory makes up our final lesson.
Lesson #6: God desires to be glorified from our trials
I’m not going to ask you to turn there, but I am quickly going to read Matthew 13:39-40. And this is Jesus talking. “But He answered and said unto them, ’An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonah: for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” Church, this is why I believe Jonah was in there for three days and three nights. It’s because it points to Jesus! Jonah and the big fish is a beautiful foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and Resurrection! Did Jonah understand why he was being kept there so long? No, probably not. But aren’t you glad that God gave us that Old Testament sign of what would happen to our Lord and Savior?
But you know what, church? Jonah died hundreds and hundreds of years before Jesus was born in the stable. Jonah probably died an old man never understanding why his trial lasted so long. So the point here is two-fold. The first part is that God desires to be glorified through your trials, but the second part is that you may never know how God was glorified. Jonah never knew, and you may not either. But it doesn’t change the fact that God was glorified. And you might be saying, “Brother Josh, there is no way that God is being glorified through what I’m going through.” Well, to a certain extent, the glory that God will or won’t receive depends on your attitude, so you might be right. But let me be perfectly honest with you. I have been the pastor here for about eight months now, and I have been privileged to learn a good deal about many of you. I know some of the health crises, emotional crises, financial crises, and spiritual crises that you all have faced. And in so many of your lives, I have seen God glorified. You might not see it, because you are the one suffering. But from someone on the outside looking in, I see the glory of God shining in your life. I hear about how you search the Scriptures for comfort. Praise God! I hear your testimonies of having faith in the hard times. Praise God! I see with my own two eyes when you become more and more faithful in your church attendance. Praise God!
And as the pianist and song leader come forward, we have seen six simple lessons from a man that was riding along in the belly of a fish. He knew that he could pray to God, even from the bottom of the ocean. He knew that God was in control. He knew that God would deliver him. He knew that he needed to focus his attention solely on God. He learned that all things happen in God’s timing, not our timing. And centuries later, we learned that God was glorified through Jonah’s trouble. I hope that in some way, you are encouraged this morning by the story of Jonah. While I may know some of the details of what is happening in some of your lives, God knows every detail from every one of your lives. And I know that in all things, God will take care of you. You’ve heard me say many times that there is nothing magical about these two pews in the front of the church. But at the same time, in many of our lives, some of the biggest decisions we’ve made were made at places just like this. This morning, if you are struggling, I invite you to come forward and bring your burden before the Lord. And if you aren’t really interested in everyone knowing that you’re struggling, well that’s okay, too. But whether you pray where you’re sitting, or down here, or at home in your bed tonight, please, please, please, lay your burden before the Lord. I can guarantee you won’t regret it.
And if you have never accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, I encourage you to do that this morning. If you have any questions about what it means to be a follower of Christ, it would be my utmost privilege to show you what the Bible says about salvation.
Before we have an invitation, let’s pray together.
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