Life Out of Death

Jonah Leaving the Whale, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1627)

Pentecost +10
St. Brendan’s Anglican Church
Rev. Doug Floyd
Jonah 2:1–10, Psalm 29, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:22-33

The Bible is a book full of stories within stories within stories, and the stories are always interacting with each other. We read and hear songs and prayers and proverbs, and different styles of writing, but, in fact, they all operate within this storied world.

One story opens up multiple other stories, and it’s much like our own lives. Our lives are a web of stories. If you think of your own family, you’re born within a story that’s already happening, and yet, you have your own personal story of birth and through life. Your parents have a separate story, and you’re part of their story. In your story, they gradually move from central characters to background characters. Some writers like to play with these ideas. Marilyn Robinson has a series of novels where characters come to the forefront in different novels. In her Gilead series, each novel takes a different character, and all the other characters that were in the other novel are still there in the background. As you read her novels, you hear the same stories often from different angles.

This is happening in Scripture, as well. The Bible is teaching us truths, but it often teaching these truths in story. As the church has preserved and handed down the faith, it has drawn from the vast storehouse of wisdom throughout Scripture to teach the doctrines of our faith. If we read the Old Testament, there are certain consistent truths that are revealed about God that are separate from the surrounding cultures. While, many of the stories in the Old Testament have patterns that are similar to other cultures, the truths are distinct.  Israel is the only culture in that period that believes in one God. All the other cultures have multiple stories, as well, but they’re involving multiple gods.

Today, we come to our story in Jonah, and it’s a story set within lots of other stories. If I don’t read those stories, Jonah can quickly descend into a very simplified, moral tale, that if you run from God, He’s going to make sure He gets you, or something. Sometimes these rich, complex stories are reduced to simple moralisms, which makes it a little confusing to understand these characters because they’re much more complex than that. The Jonah story is set around the exile. It could have been written before the exile or after the exile, but it is set around the exile. And it’s important to understand the exile.

There are two key stories in the Old Testament: the Exodus story and the Exile story. The Exodus story tells about the Hebrew slaves being delivered from Egypt. It sets in motion lots of other stories, and typically, the way we read the Exodus story, the creation story’s being told within the Exodus story. Even though the Bible opens with Genesis 1, the story is being told to them on Mount Sinai. They’re hearing the story of the creation of the world, and because you can parallel Genesis 1, 2, and 3 with Egyptian creation stories and come up with very similar patterns, except, once again, Israel is going to make some distinctions that reveal why they’re separate from Egypt. The Exodus story is one of the dominant stories in the Old Testament.

The Exile story is the Exodus story set in reverse. It inverts the story. In the Exodus, the Hebrew slaves have been held captive, Pharaoh is killing the young Hebrew boys, God comes to deliver His people, and He releases a series of plagues to bring down the power of Egypt, to expose the falsity of their worship. He brings his people into freedom. In the exile story, God sends plagues to his own people. They’re not exactly all the same plagues, but there are similar plagues. There are locusts, a famine, and eventually the people are taken away into slavery.

In the Jonah story, we read about a prophet of God called to preach the judgment of God upon Nineveh. The people of Nineveh are his enemies and a fearsome people as well. Jonah has multiple reasons why he wouldn’t want to go to Nineveh, and the book will reveal some of those reasons. What does the prophet do? He goes in the opposite direction. We know the story. It’s a fairly simple story. He gets on a boat headed to Tarshish. There is a terrible storm, and the people on the boat are terrified. Jonah is asleep. This pattern sound any similar to any other stories you know? Group of people on a boat, somebody’s asleep down below? I mean, that’s exactly one of the Gospel stories, Jesus is sleeping down below.

Only, in that story, Jesus comes out and says, “Peace, be still.” In this story, Jonah says, “Throw me overboard.” He’s thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish, but then the water calms. After three days, he’s spit out on the shore and he goes to Nineveh, preaches judgment. Oddly enough, they repent, and God shows mercy, which offends Jonah. And then, we have a little exchange between Jonah at the end. This simple story has captured the imagination of the early church. It was one of the early images that were painted on buildings. Jonah becomes an early image of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This morning I want to meditate just a little bit on our text and think about it in relation to the story of the exile. By the time of the exile, the nation of Israel has been split in a Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom for several hundred years. The Northern kingdom has turned away from God and has set up a false temple and false worship and has had a series of ungodly rulers. The Southern kingdom preserved the house of David. It has had some good rulers, but many poor rulers as well.

The first kingdom to fall is the kingdom of the Northern kingdom of Israel. God warns them of their idolatry, and eventually Assyria captures them and they basically assimilate into Assyria. They never return. That’s the story of the lost ten tribes. They do show up in a slight way in the New Testament book, because when Paul goes out into the empire, there are Jews all across the empire who have set up synagogues, and this is where the Gospel is first shared. Then you have the Kingdom of Judah, the Southern kingdom. It is captured by Babylon about 100 years later. The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah talk about the fall of Jerusalem. Judah is swallowed by Babylon.

I use the word swallow because Jonah is a little, teeny story that gives us a picture of exactly what’s happening in the exile. Israel is being swallowed by the great fish Babylon. Babylon swallows Judah, and after a certain amount of time, Babylon spits Judah back out on the shore. There’s that image. After a certain amount of time, a percentage of the exiles, return to the land. A group of exiles eventually return to the land and begin to worship again in Jerusalem.

These stories are going on behind the story of Jonah. Jonah has been thrown overboard. In chapter two, “Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.” This is the first time in the story that Jonah prays. He’s been running up to this point, but now he prays. And watch where he prays from. The text says, “Jonah prays to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called out to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me. And out of the belly of Sheol, I cried, and you heard my voice.” It names three different places of prayer.

He’s been cast into the waters, and he’s cries out to the Lord from the belly of the fish: he prays for a specific place. Then we read, “I called out to the Lord out of my distress.” This sounds just like it might be right out of the Psalms. It is an existential prayer. It’s a prayer of his own condition. He’s praying from his own sense of desperation, from the anguish of his heart.

In one sense, all of us could probably pray at one time or another, “I call out to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me.”

Jonah is saying, “He answered me,” prior to him being rescued, which is interestingThat’s a future comment, “I cried to the Lord out of my distress and he answered me.” From the place of hopelessness, Jonah is expressing hope and trust that God is faithful.

Thirdly, Jonah says, “Out of the belly of Sheol, I cried, and you heard my voice.” So, now, he’s speaking of the place of the dead, which is going to give us a sense of what’s coming in this little Psalm. The place of the dead, the place where no one returns from, the place where no one has a voice, the place where humans can no longer praise the Lord, the place where shadows… And he is crying from that place, and the Lord hears him.

It makes me think of Psalm 139, “Where will I go from your presence?” And the Psalmist says he can’t go anywhere from the presence of the Lord. And so, Jonah is trying to leave the presence of the Lord, and of course, he is on this ship headed toward Tarshish. Even he cries out from Sheol, the place of darkness, the Lord is still present, and the Lord still hears him.

That image of him descending to Sheol continues. In verses three and four, Jonah continues descending down, down, down. He keeps going down in the passage. “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me. All your waves and billows pass over me.” So, he’s falling down. It’s like the image of someone sinking in the water.

I was thinking, of the Robert Redford film, All Is Lost. I don’t know if anybody’s seen it. It’s a wonderful image of this. A man is out on the ocean by himself, piloting his own boat, and he begins to have a series of problems. By the end of the film, he is sinking down, down, down into the water. As he is sinking down, suddenly there is a light up here there’s above, and the film ends. Even as the character is sinking to death, there’s some glimpse of hope. Jonah is sinking down, down, down. “For you cast me into the deep end, into the heart of the seas. The floods surrounded me. All your waves and billows pass over me. And then I said, ‘I am driven from your sight, yet again, shall I look upon your temple.’” Even here, Jonah expresses hope.

First, think of the image of him descending down, down, down. What other stories, what does this make you think of? Jonah says, “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea, and the flood surrounded me.” The first thing that might be obvious, is the story of the flood. Thousands and thousands of people sinking in the deep, under judgment. Noah is above the waters in the boat with the animals. Also, think of the Exodus. Israel is rescued. God leads them through the Red Sea. But then, Pharaoh and his army are cast into the sea. They’re sinking down, down, down into the water, into the watery depth.

In the exile, the story has been inverted. Jonah is experiencing the judgment that was given to Egypt. He is sinking down, down, down into the watery depth, but who’s on the surface of the water? The pagan sailors. In chapter one, verse 16, after they throw Jonah overboard and the water becomes peaceful, the Scripture reads, “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”

On top of the water, these pagan sailors are worshiping the God of Israel, and they’re offering sacrifices to Him, while below the water, the man of God is sinking into judgment, sinking into death. See how the whole story is inverted, of Israel being rescued. The people of Israel are singing on the other side of the shore, the song of Miriam, God rescuing them. Pharaoh and his army are sinking down, down, down into the depths. Like Pharaoh, Jonah is sinking down into the water. From this place of utter hopelessness, he says, “Yet again, I shall look upon your Holy temple.”

The image of Jonah being swallowed by the fish is the image of Judah being swallowed by Babylon. They have now sunk down, in a sense, to the death. Their land has been destroyed. The temple has been leveled. They’ve actually salted the land so it won’t even grow anything. People have been killed and slaughtered. The opening part of Ezekiel, at least, gives them no hope at all, because Ezekiel is trying to convince them, “You will never go home.” Later in Ezekiel, he brings hope in that God is going to rescue you.

In Babylon, the prophets bear witness to the Lord God of Israel. At the end of Daniel chapter 4, King Nebuchadnezzar ends of worshipping the Lord God of Israel. Even as the people of God have descended into the place of the dead, their presence becomes a witness to the pagan word and it begins to draw others to worship the creator God.

We also read that three times a day, Daniel faces Jerusalem and prays according to the pattern mentioned in 1 Kings 8:44-51

44 ”If your people go out to battle against their enemy, by whatever way you shall send them, and they pray to the Lord toward the city that you have chosen and the house that I have built for your name, 45 then hear in heaven their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause.

46 ”If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ 48 if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them 51 (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace).[1]

Daniel is facing Jerusalem where the temple should be, and he’s praying to return home, to the temple that no longer exists. This is a very similar picture. Jonah is descending down, down, down, “Yet again, I shall look upon your holy temple.” In Daniel 9, he prays a prayer of repentance on behalf of the nation. He prays that God will restore his people back to Jerusalem.

Daniel will never go back to Jerusalem. He will die in Babylon. He will die in the watery depths, but people will go back to Jerusalem. This is a theme that’s all through Scripture, is people praying for things that will not happen to them. It’s an amazing way of thinking because it’s so alien to our culture and to our world, is that you would live and pray for another generation right after you, that you will sacrifice so that a future generation might experience the blessings of God.

It goes all the way back to the story of Abraham. The blessings given to Abraham are only real if they are passed onto his child, the child of promise, and to the generations after him. And so, that’s what Abraham is praying for, and Abraham is even given the vision at one point of the children of Israel going into a time of darkness, the slavery in Egypt, and God’s faithfulness that he will rescue them. So, Abraham’s prayers are reaching hundreds of years in advance.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy used to say that the reason the Jews are still here is they’ve always lived hundreds of years in the future. They’ve always looked hundreds of years in the future because they are waiting for the promise of God to come, and when you have a society that lives completely in the present, there’s no hope that it could actually be here tomorrow because it has no future planning, no future hope. The Bible is built on a future hope. I’m always looking towards the future.

Here is a story of Jonah in the most absolute place of darkness and absolute hopelessness. In his Brazos Commentary on Jonah, Phillip Cary writes, “Jonah is not delivered from the worst that could happen. His redemption comes on the other side of the worst, so that we may know that there is no worst from which the Lord cannot deliver us.”[2]

The Jonah story is a man who has descended into the very worst, and yet, it’s still filled with hope of the faithfulness of God, that God will in fact restore his people. In verses five and six, he’s continuing to descend. “The waters closed in over me to take my life, the deep surrounded me, weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains.” He’s descended beneath the mountains. Some image. Then, it says, “I went down to the land whose bars are closed upon me forever.” So, there’s the image of no return. “I have come to the place of no return, the place of death, yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.” Now, that image think of what story would that make us think of them. “I went down to the land whose bars are closed upon me forever.” And this would be why the early church remembered Jonah. “I went down to the land whose bars are closed up on me forever, yet you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord, my God.”

This is an image of Jesus. Even though Jonah has been a rebel prophet, we see now Jesus is the one who actually will go down to the place of the dead, and He will come back from the place of the dead. And when He comes back, He will rescue those in the place of the dead. And I think I mentioned this in the past, but if you looked up the harrowing of hell, some pictures of the harrowing of hell, Jesus is pulling people out of a great fish, or out of a Leviathan. They’ve been swallowed by some deep sea dragon. Why? Because that’s the story of Jonah. So, Jonah is giving us a picture of redemption hundreds of years before Christ comes, but this is the way the early church would have read this story.

“My life was fainting away. I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you in your holy temple.” What a beautiful picture of hope. And then, verse eight is his statement of judgment, which could possibly indicate the fate of Israel who does not get rescued like Judah, “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” It’s not clear, but it is definitely referring to those who refuse to turn to the Lord will fall under judgment and forsake the hope of steadfast love. And then, the Psalm ends with the rejoicing of salvation. “But I, with a voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I vowed, I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord.”

Jonah is called to Nineveh, to preach judgment to a people that are in sin. He experiences the judgment that should come to Nineveh. What happens when he goes to Nineveh? They experience the salvation of the Lord. Now, that is an image that is in our Paul reading this morning from Romans, it is in Moses, and of course, it’s most fully expressed in Jesus. But Paul says, “I would be that I could be accursed if my people might be redeemed.” Moses prays a similar kind of prayer, that he might experience the judgment of God that the people might be redeemed, but in a way, Moses and Paul can’t fulfill that in the way that Jesus can. Jesus does enter into this promise of Jonah in a way that no one else can. He enters fully into this story.

So, when Jesus says, “No sign will be given you except the sign of Jonah, it’s the sign that I will go under judgment, I will enter into the depths on your behalf, I will descend under the mountain, into the place from which no man returns, and I will bring salvation back to the land. And as I do, I will take hold of those who have been forsaken, and I will redeem them.” And we are those who are sinking down into the mouth of Leviathan, and He’s taken hold of us and He raises us up into redemption.

In some small way, God’s people participate alongside of Christ in this work of reconciliation. We enter into the suffering of the world as we follow Christ into the world.

We pray for those in our own family, in our own story, in our own world, who have turned away from God, who have run from God. We may at times enter into a place of grieving and groaning for our world in need. In our own struggle, we may feel that we’re abandoned and forsaken. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, God may be working in us to pray for the redemption of others, which is what we see in Romans 8. In our own groaning, we are praying for the redemption of the world, and so we are praying to see the full reconciliation in Christ. We thank God for Jonah and that he was spit back out on the shore. So, praise the Lord and praise God that He has rescued us. And He rescues His people in Babylon, and He redeems us all in Christ, and we look to Him only as our hope.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Ki 8:44–51.

[2] Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 93. Note – This commentary played a key role in my sermon preparation.

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