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Several years ago, I found myself in the middle of a deep depression. I have never felt sadder or lonelier in my life. But I have also never felt closer to God. The prophet Jonah probably felt the same way during his three days in a fish’s belly, and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today.
Let’s quickly recap Jonah’s story. God called him to speak a hard word to Nineveh. Instead, he booked the fast boat to Tarshish. Mid-cruise, a storm arose, and to calm it, the sailors threw Jonah into the sea. But instead of drowning, Jonah got himself swallowed by a providentially large fish.
That brings us to Jonah 2:1-2:
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said:“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.”
Old Testament scholars debate whether Jonah is an historical narrative or a parable. Much of the debate centers on whether we’re supposed to interpret Jonah’s submarine ride literally. Personally, I don’t think resolving that debate is very important. If God could raise Jesus from the dead after three days, I’m sure he could keep Jonah alive for the same time in a fish’s belly. So maybe this isn’t just another fish story. But even if it is a parable, the lesson about prayer is still the same. And it is this: When you’re in trouble, pray.
Our passage gives three clues about the parlous nature of Jonah’s situation.
First, he is “inside the fish.” In the order of creation, God did not make humans to be fish food. If anything, it should be the other way around. We should not be inside a fish; the fish should be inside of us. But as an unnatural act, sin results in the reversal of the order of creation. What God created to bless us becomes instead a means of judgment.
Second, Jonah mentions “my distress.” The objective peril of his situation causes him subjective discomfort. We’d feel the same way if we were in Jonah’s situation. And in a sense, we were. Apart from Christ, we too were under the sentence of death that sin imposes (Romans 6:23).
Third, Jonah describes his spiritual location as “the depths of the grave.” When I was depressed, I couldn’t think past the present moment. There seemed to be no future for me. Hopelessness is a dying man’s way of thinking.
And yet, despite all this, Jonah is quite sure that God has not abandoned him. Speaking of God, he says, “he answered me,” and “you listened to my cry.” Notice the past tense voice of those verbs. Jonah is so confident of God’s grace to him that he speaks of an as-yet-unanswered prayer as an already accomplished fact. That’s the kind of faith we all ought to have.
When you hit rock bottom in life, look up and speak up. God heard the prayer of Jonah’s distress, he heard the prayer of my depression, and he’ll hear the prayer of your trouble too.