Lesson Focus: The character and nature of God is always that of a deliverer. There is no one or no things that can deliver us from all things except for the God of heaven and earth.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that God is a faithful deliverer.
Understand that God delivers Jonah despite his unfaithfulness.
Be encouraged to call out to God for deliverance in times of distress.
Catch up on the story: Even though this story is found in every children’s bible every written (without chapter four, regrettably), Jonah is not someone we want to emulate! He reminds me of a spoiled brat, theologically speaking, that is. Like a rebellious child, when called to rise and proclaim a message of repentance to Nineveh, Israel’s sworn enemy, Jonah books passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction.
Soon enough, God hurls a great storm upon the sea to get Jonah’s attention. Causing great peril for the ship and it’s crew, the storm rages and continues to grow. The sailors call upon their own gods in prayer and do everything they possibly can to keep the ship together. Meanwhile, Jonah is soundly asleep in the ship’s hold. It seems that the storm has not gotten Jonah’s attention. Or, if it has, he doesn’t care. The captain of the ship urges him to help out or at least call out to his God for salvation. Still, Jonah does nothing. Finally, by way of casting lots, the sailors determine that Jonah is the cause of their current problems. Jonah tells the scared bunch that if they throw him into the sea, the storm will stop. Not wanting to commit murder, the crew refuse. As the storm continues to worsen, the sailors finally consent to do as Jonah says. Overboard Jonah goes, and the storm ceases. The sailors pray to Jonah’s God, making offerings and vows of obedience and faithfulness.
In the Belly of the Fish… As Jonah sinks down into his watery grave, he calls out to God, and God responds by appointing a fish to come and swallow him up whole. The end of chapter one tells us he’s in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights. Long enough to think hard about his life choices. Keeping with the spoiled child theme, Jonah’s in timeout. It’s as if God has said to him, “You sit there and think about what you’ve done. You can come out when you can be civil again.”
Only, I’m not quite sure that’s how Jonah responds. Chapter two starts by telling us that Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish. Now, you might expect that the prayer that Jonah would make would be one of repentance. After all, he was disobedient by running away. Not only that, but he endangers the life and property of the crew of the ship he boarded, doing very little to help the situation.
It seems that Jonah only came to his senses when it was apparent that he was going to drawn. Jonah’s prayer takes the form of a Psalm of Thanksgiving. It’s a common form most likely to be sung with the body of worshiping faithful at the Temple after deliverance from some crisis. Jonah’s prayer is not like David’s prayer of confession and repentance in Psalm 51. Not at all.
Common to the Psalm of Thanksgiving, there is a description of the situation. And so, Jonah narrates for us how he ends up in the belly of a fish. Imagine this in your mind; Jonah has hit the water with a splash. He’s been calm up to this point, and even as he begins to sink, he accepts his fate with serenity. As he sinks lower and lower, and as his body uses up all of the oxygen in his lungs, he starts to freak out and calls out to God. “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me…”
Jonah could have avoided this whole situation at several points in the story. He could have been obedient the first time God spoke to him. Jonah could have repented and called out to God as the storm raged. But he didn’t, and now he’s sure the end is near. Down and down he goes, into the “belly of Sheol.” Sheol is the place of the dead, a place from which no one returns. Jonah continues to sink; the waters have closed around him, seaweeds have entangled him, I’m sure adding to his distress. He laments that he will never again see the Temple in Jerusalem as he sinks down to the “roots of the mountains” to the “land whose bars closed upon him forever…”
It’s hard for us to understand the imagery of what Jonah is describing here. Phrases like, “the belly of Sheol” and “into the deep” and “into the heart of the sea,” and “roots of the mountains” are meant to depict a steady downward movement. By the end of verse 6, Jonah has descended down as far as any person can go. This is metaphorically and possibly literally, as well. He is in the pit, and there is no way out.
As his “life was ebbing away,” he remembered the Lord and called out to God for deliverance, and God answers with a fish!
Let’s think about this a moment. Even though Jonah has done his best to remove himself from the presence of God, even though he has not been obedient, and his current situation could have been avoided had he made better life choices, God still responds with steadfast love and faithfulness. God responds with salvation. God delivers. Keep in mind that in this song, there is no sign of repentance. As we’ll see in the next two chapters, Jonah never quite gets there.
Who is this God who is so merciful and gracious to such a stubborn, spoiled brat child? Jonah answers this question with verse 9. After vowing to make sacrifices of thanksgiving as soon as he gets back to Jerusalem, Jonah makes the point of the entire book, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”
So What…? Deliverance belongs to the Lord. There are a few spots from which we might view today’s story, Jonah’s song, and his profound confession about God. We can confess that deliverance does indeed belong to the Lord. There’s nothing or no one out there, which can ultimately bring about a rescue. When we are in the pit, when things are as dark and desperate as they have ever been, deliverance belongs to the Lord. When your life is ebbing away, deliverance belongs to the Lord. When you can’t breathe or can’t move because the waves and weeds have hemmed you in on every side, deliverance belongs to the Lord.
Now, God won’t always deliver us in the ways we expect or hope, but God always saves. So, if you’re as far down as anyone can go, call out to God, for God is always listening. Deliverance belongs to the Lord.
The second spot we might stand when looking at this story is from the pit of our own making. Perhaps our decent into the pit is almost entirely our fault. Like Jonah, we’ve sought to flee from the presence of God. At least, we’ve fled so that we might not hear God’s persistent voice calling us toward faithfulness and obedience. Maybe at several points along the way, we could have changed course and so averted disaster. Still, if we call out to God, deliverance belongs to the Lord.
If God’s dealing with Jonah is any indication, even when we are in the pit of despair of our own making, God still hears and responds. This is who God is. This is what God does; he delivers.
But deliverance is never the end of the story. Whether we are in the pit of despair because of life or from our actions, the salvation God brings always segues into mission. Today’s passage ends with verse 10, “The Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon dry land.” When Jonah hits the beach, he may think he’s headed back to Jerusalem to fulfill his vow, but he’s not. The story continues.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
How would you describe Jonah’s personality or disposition?
If you were in Jonah’s shoes, what kind of prayer would you make?
What do you think about Jonah’s prayer? Compare Jonah’s prayer to Psalm 51
The imagery in this chapter describes Jonah as descending deeper and deeper into despair and nothingness. Has there ever been a time when you felt like Jonah? Was that situation of your own making or a result of the brokenness of this world? How did you respond to it?
What does Jonah mean by, “deliverance belongs to the Lord?”
Given the context of the statement, who will receive God’s deliverance?
If you were God, would you have delivered or saved Jonah? Why or why not?
Deliverance or salvation is never the end of the story. For Jonah, what comes after deliverance? What comes after deliverance for us?