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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:The Womb of Life
Text:Jonah 2:4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Amazing Grace

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 18:1

Psalm 69:5

Psalm 116:1,2,3,4

Psalm 18:2

Psalm 27:6

Read:  Jonah 2

Text:   Jonah 2:4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Dear Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How low can you go?

Jonah went down, down and down again.  After being told to arise and go to Nineveh, he went down to Joppa.  He got down into a Phoenician sailing ship, and then went down into the lowest parts of the ship.  Then he gets thrown overboard, and he just keeps on going down.  Down into the deep, down to the moorings of the mountains.  Down into the pit, to the belly of Sheol itself.

How low can you go?  “I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever.”  (Jonah 2:6)  That’s about as low as you can go.  But it reminds me of Another Person who went down.  He descended, or went down, into hell.  (Spoken of Jesus, in the Apostle’s Creed.)

Hell.  Sheol.  The place where one is cast out of the sight of God.  Hell.  Sheol.  The entrance to which the Italian poet Dante wrote in the 1300’s, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” 

In Jonah chapter 2, we read of a man whose soul fainted within him, who had all but abandoned hope of salvation.  But who, in the midst of all of that, confessed that the God whom he was running away from, and the God who had thrown him into the deep was both able and willing to pull him back from the gates of hell.

“Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.”  (Jonah 2:4)  This morning I want to reflect on the God Whom we serve, who is both willing and able to redeem our life from the pit.  I wish to preach God’s Word to you under the following theme:

Jonah seeks the grace of God in Sheol.

1.    The hopelessness in Jonah’s condition.

2.    The hopefulness in God’s provision.

1. The hopelessness in Jonah’s condition.

In chapter 2, the book of Jonah suddenly turns from being an historical account to a prayer or a psalm of Jonah where he reflects on both what has happened to him on account of his sin and on the redeeming power of God.  There are many similarities between this prayer of Jonah in the belly of the fish and the psalms.  So many so, that some people have suggested that the prayer of Jonah is not authentic, but was added later. For example, Psalm 42:7 says, “All Your waves and billows have gone over me.”  Compare that to Jonah 2:3b, “And the floods surrounded me; all Your billows and Your waves passed over me.”  Psalm 69:1 cries out “Save me, O God!  For the waters have come up to my neck.”  Jonah 2:5 says, “The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; the deep closed around me.”  Psalm 116 has many similar themes to Jonah 2, and also ends with the promise to pay one’s vows.  And there are other similarities with Psalm 18, 88, 130.  But that does not mean that Jonah did not compose this psalm in the fish’s belly.  And it should not surprise us that there are similarities between the book of Psalms and Jonah 2 for two reasons.  First of all, many of the psalms are very personal cries from the heart, groans of distress – just as Jonah chapter 2 is.  Secondly, when Jonah turned to the LORD and prayed, he also turned back to God’s Word.  Psalm 130:5 says, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His Word I do hope.”  Jonah, the prophet who had run away from the spoken Word of God has now returned to the written Word, and cast himself upon the promises that are in that Word.  We are going to explore his feelings of guilt, depression, dejection and hopelessness.  We are going to try to get a bit of a feeling of the intensity of what Jonah was experiencing as he sank down into the Belly of Sheol.  But as we do so, we need to remember in the back of our mind that while Jonah’s condition – and your condition – was hopeless, the written Word of God teaches us that things are not always the way they seem.  “In His Word I do hope” because in His Word the Lord teaches us that He is both willing and able to rescue us from the jaws of hell itself.

There is something else I also want to make clear.  Jonah ended up in the fish’s belly because of his sin.  He had attempted to run away from God and now God was putting His finger on Jonah to bring him back.  Now it may be tempting for us to start putting an “equal” sign between Jonah and ourselves, and to conclude from this that when we suffer it is because of some sin that we committed.  As if it is God punishing us, or forcing us to face our specific sin.  And it could be that your sin has led to you suffer until you were brought back to your senses and back to God.  God did that to Jonah; He could do it to you.  But the book of Jonah does not teach us that when we suffer it is God punishing us.  In fact, the Bible makes it very clear that we suffer for all kinds of reasons.  Joseph suffered, but not because of his sin.  Job suffered, also not because of his sin.  In fact, Jesus Christ says that all Christians will suffer.  Jonah 2 does not teach us that if you are going down, struggling to survive, then you must be a bigger sinner than others.  Rather, it teaches us more generally of the hopelessness of the condition of each of us, and the hopefulness of God’s provision for us all.

For a moment, I would like you to picture what it would have been like to have been Jonah.  The wind is howling and everyone is shouting in fear.  The angry grey sea hisses and spits.  Huge waves crash into the ship, soaking the sailors to the bone.  Then a few strong men pick Jonah up and they heave him overboard.  He splashes clumsily into an ocean that he’s likely never swum in before.  Salt water slaps his face.  His head goes under and his ears struggle to adjust from the cacaphony above the waves to the eery silence beneath.  The terrified sailors and the stormy surface of the sea are left behind as Jonah goes down.  And down.  And down.  The waves pass over the place he entered the seas, separating him forever from that shipload of Phoenician sailors.  The floods surround him.  The ocean grips him by the throat and the deep closes around him.  Arms flail uselessly as seaweed wraps around his head.  He’s fighting, but he’s drowning.  His chest is about to burst, but he can’t breath!  The cords of death entangle him.  He can not escape from drowning.  “Oh, my God!  I’m going down!  I’m sinking!  I can’t breath!  I can not find the surface!  I’m all tied up!  I can’t breath!  I can’t breath!  I … can … not … breath!”

And then one gulp – and he’s gone. 

It’s quite likely that Jonah never even saw the fish before he was swallowed.  He probably never got the chance to tell if it was a sea dog or a whale!  One moment he’s struggling in the water, almost blacking out from fear and a lack of oxygen, and the next moment he is … yes, where is he? 

It’s cold.  It’s pitch black.  It is wet and slimy.  It is moving.  And there is Jonah, heaving back and forth, back and forth by the perpetual motion of a big fish.  If you want a taste of hell, try being swallowed alive and stuck in the innards of a fish!  There would not have been a lot of room to move in there.  Not a great place if you tend to get claustrophobic.  “The earth with its bars closed behind me forever.”  (Jonah 2:6.) 

But Jonah is not kidding himself.  He knows why he is there.  Oh yes, this is not some kind of “Eureka!” experience where suddenly everything becomes crystal clear and Jonah suddenly understands God’s ways and never struggles again.  God still has an ultimate lesson to teach him in Nineveh itself.  But if – and I believe we should – if we take this prayer of Jonah at face value, he knows why he is in the belly of Sheol.  He knows what he deserves. 

Verse 3 – “For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me; all Your billows and Your waves passed over me.  The One whom Jonah was praying to was responsible for sending him to the place he was now in.  Ultimately, it was  not the sailors who threw Jonah overboard, but God!  And it was not “mother nature” or some freak tropical storm that sent those waves crashing over him, but God!  This was not something outside of God’s control.  The wind, the seas, the sailors and the fish were firmly in His hand and God so directed these things to chastise His servant Jonah.

And then comes verse 4.  “Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight.’”  Jonah feels hidden from the eyes of God.  As Herman the Ezrahite cried in the midst of his depression in Psalm 88, when all appeared dark and hopeless, “You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths.  Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves.”  (Psalm 88:7,8.)  Jonah, the prophet who had spent so much energy and money to flee from the presence of the LORD, now gets a taste of what it would be like to be banished from the LORD, to be cast out of His sight.  The significance of being rejected by God begins to dawn on Jonah.  It is as if he is at death’s door.  The gates of hell have prevailed against him, clanging shut with a terrible finality – or so it seemed. 

Sheol.  “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  The New International Version of the Bible translates Jonah 2:2 as saying, “from the depths of the grave I called for help,” but it has a footnote to say that the Hebrew word that they translated as “grave” is Sheol.  The New King James Version of the Bible, which we are using today, did not translate the word, but says, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried.”  I think it is appropriate to leave the word as “Sheol” for we do not have a word in the English language that encapsulates the full meaning of the word “Sheol”.     In general, it is fair to say that the word does mean “grave”.  Both the godly and the ungodly went to Sheol after they died.  But the word “Sheol” does not always appear to have the same meaning.  Sheol is not always seen as a “place” but also as “the state of death”[1], the state where the body is separated from the soul.  And there are also times where Sheol speaks of Hell, such as in Deuteronomy 32:22 and Isaiah 14:9.  And then there are places such as Psalm 139:8 (“If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there”) where the word seems to refer to “the deepest place in the deep”.  When Jonah speaks of the “belly of Sheol” in chapter 2:2, I suggest that he is likening the belly of the fish to the grave.  He is also likening it to the “deep” (verse 3).  And he also sees himself as being in the pit (verse 6) and being in a place where he is cast out of God’s sight, where God hides His eyes from him (verse 4).  Sheol in chapter 2 verse 2 is the place where Jonah is confronted with the shocking realization of what life would be like outside of the presence of the LORD.  It was as if the earth with its bars closed behind him forever, as if the gates of hell itself had clanged shut, and Jonah could abandon all reasonable hope for help.  For Jonah, the belly of the fish was – to a point - hell.

And indeed, that’s how Jonah felt.  Verse 7 says that his soul “fainted within me.”  His very soul, the core of his being, was overwhelmed, it was totally crushed.  It folded in or curled up on itself.  Not just his body, but his soul curled up in a foetal position.  “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

I believe that Satan was also there in that fish.  I believe that he was laughing.  That he thought he finally had Jonah where he wanted him.  Satan wants us to give up.  He wants us to admit defeat.  He wants our minds to be so overwhelmed with terror and dread that our souls curl up in that foetal position so that we can not even pray to the LORD.  He wants us to give up.  He wants us to believe that we are not good enough.  He wants us to believe that God won’t love us, that he can’t love us because we are so vile and despicable.  Satan wants us to believe that what our sense tell us is the truth.  Our senses tell us that it is hopeless.  Our senses tell us to despair.  Our senses tell us that God is angry with us.  Yes, that he has the right to be angry.  Our senses tell us that it is not for us.  Our senses tell us that others are good Christians, that they will make it.  But that me, . . . well, I’d might as well give it up now.

“Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight.’”  Do you hear the despair?  Do you feel the finality?  “My condition is hopeless.  I’m as good as dead.” 

And yet, he is not dead.  And yet, he has not given up all hope. “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His Word I do hope.”  (Psalm 130:5)  After Jonah has been tossed overboard and sinks into the stormy sea, all of his 5 senses are screaming at him that it is all over.  That he is cast out of God’s sight forever.  And even after he’s been gobbled alive by a voracious fish there is still no human reason for hope.  But then, as it says in verse 7, “I remembered the LORD.”  Faith “against all hope” (Rom. 4:18) calls out to Jonah and reminds him of the God of the Scriptures, the God of Mercy.  The One who was willing to save, even from the belly of Sheol.

There are times when many of us too sink into the depths.  When the deep closes around us and all becomes dark.  When our soul faints within us, curls up into foetal position and is about to die.  When we just don’t have the strength – or even the desire – to carry on.  Jonah prayed to the LORD from the fish’s belly.  It may have taken some time before he did pray.  In fact, there are times in our lives when we can not pray.  When we just don’t know what to say.  When we want to curl up and die.

But there was Another who also went down a long way.  “He descended into hell.”  That was Jesus.  And why did He do that?  So that “in my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.”  (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 16, Q44.)  His anguish.  His pain.  His terror.  His agony.  To assure and comfort me when my sorrows and my temptations become too much.  And when you can’t pray?  The Spirit is there, sighing with groans that words can’t express. 

“Likewise the Spirit also helps us in our weaknesses.  For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”  (Romans 8:26)

Our condition, like Jonah’s, is hopeless.  But we have a God who delights in making what is hopeless, hopeful!  We’ll see that in our second point.

2. The hopefulness in God’s provision.

The second part of verse 4 is absolutely amazing.  Indeed so amazing that a few translations (such as the RSV and the Message) have followed the old Greek translation or another reading that says instead, “How shall I again look upon your holy temple?” or, “I will never look upon Your holy temple again.”  But let’s stick with the original Hebrew text as it has been handed down to us.  “Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’”  Jonah knows that it is God’s hand that has sent him into the sea.  Jonah knows that God has caused him to be swallowed by a fish.  In his despair he concludes for a time that he has been cast out of God’s sight entirely.  But then, in the pitch darkness of the fish’s belly, the LORD causes his eyes of faith to open and see a glimmer of light.  Yet, nevertheless, but I will look again toward Your holy temple.  Here we are confronted with the daring possibility of a person descending into Sheol, into the realm of the dead, there to be met by God and restored to life!

And the thing that gives Jonah hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation is the temple.  Take note of that.  Remember that Jonah was from Gath-Hepher.  At that time Palestine was split up between Israel and Judah.  Jonah was from Israel in the north.  But is was to the temple in Jerusalem in the south that the hope of Jonah was directed to.  The temple.  The place where sacrifice was made for sin.  Where atonement was made for the people.  Where blood was sprinkled before the Mercy Seat.  The place where the LORD dwelt between the cherubim, in the midst of His people. 

“Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.”  The audacity of it!  It defies the senses!  Is Jonah not unworthy?  Is he not a sinner?  Did he not reject God?  And yet he has the courage to look up, beyond the black walls of the belly of the fish and confess that he will look again toward God’s holy temple.  Jonah has gone down to the depths.  He even confesses that it was God who sent him there on account of his sin.  But he knows that he is a child of God.  He was circumcised.  A child of the covenant.  Assured that there was still a sacrifice for sin left for him.

“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His Word I do hope.”  That’s where we need to start when the blackness threatens to cover our eyes and we can’t see our hand in front of our face.  Do not look too much at what you sense, what you feel, what you think.  When the LORD feels far away and your soul faints within you, bring to your mind what He has promised.  Remember that He has adopted you to be His child.  Remember that He has called you into fellowship with His Son, who is your Life and your Salvation.  Remember that He has placed His mark of baptism on you, and said, “This one is mine.”  Remember that He has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  (Hebrews 13:5)  And if a sinning, selfish, loveless, disobedient prophet of the LORD like Jonah could hold on to that promise in the Old Testament, all the while squeezed in the belly of Sheol, how much more should we approach the throne of grace with boldness?  For Jonah’s confidence in his redemption comes through his relationship with the God of the covenant, with the God who met with His people in the temple of Jerusalem. 

Seven hundred years later, that same God would come to His people in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.  And concerning Jesus it says in Luke 9:51, “Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.”  Jerusalem.  Where the Temple was.  Our LORD Jesus Christ made the firm and deliberate choice to purposely go to Jerusalem.  No, not to destroy, not to condemn the world to hell, but as He said a few verses later in Luke 9, to save. (Luke 9:61)  Jesus made the deliberate choice to go to Jerusalem to suffer the pain and torment of hell so that we might be delivered from that same pain and torment of hell.

Hebrews 4:14-16, 

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jonah looked towards the temple in Jerusalem.  He looked toward the shadows of what would come later.  But we look towards the redemption that was accomplished once for all in Jesus Christ.  We can approach God’s throne with boldness and freedom and confidence.  Do you remember what the Heidelberg Catechism confesses in Lord’s Day 16?  In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ has delivered me from the anguish and the torment of hell.”  In my greatest sorrows and temptations.  We could also say, “in all my sorrows and temptations.”  For there is no sorrow, and there is no temptation, and there is also no sin that is so great that it can separate us from the love of God.  Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.

The insides of that fish, that in the eyes of man was the belly of Sheol, was, in the eyes of faith, the womb of hope!  Jonah was quite likely curled up in a foetal position inside that fish.  But it was not the position of hopelessness and death.  It was the position of hopefulness and life.  Jonah seeks the grace of God in Sheol – and he finds it.  Let us seek the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and we shall find it in abundance.  Amen.

[1] L. Berkhof Introduction to Systematic Theology p685.







* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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