"Out of the belly of hell cried I" (Jonah 2:2). Why did the Lord take Jonah so low? He was in the belly of a living hell, suspended in darkness, hanging between life and death. Why would a merciful God put a servant through this? I believe Jonah's story shows us how God deals with disobedient servants.
Jonah was in this hell for three days and nights. Yet, in all that time he never prayed. The storm hadn't brought him to his knees and neither did his brush with death in the whale's belly. Only after three days and nights do we read, "Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly" (2:1).
Why didn't Jonah pray before this? It was because he was convinced, "I am cast out of thy sight" (2:4). He described God as having mercy for Nineveh, but Jonah couldn't believe for the same mercy for himself. He thought, "I'm a dead man. I can't fall any lower. God has turned His back on me. He hates me for what I did."
Nothing could have been further from the truth. When Scripture says, "The Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah," the word for prepared means enrolled. God had picked out a huge whale and put an urgency in that creature. So when Jonah went overboard, the fish was there, ready to swallow him. The Lord was still at work.
The truth was, God was speeding Jonah on his way to Nineveh. Soon the prophet would be walking in sunlight again. He would preach boldly in the streets as a chosen messenger.
What did God intend through Jonah's belly-of-hell experience? For a season Jonah knew what it was like to feel dead. He couldn't pray. God had hidden His face, and the prophet had no one to turn to. Hell for Jonah wasn't the seaweed sweeping over him, or being pounded back and forth. It was the sense that God had lifted His hand from his life.
It was all meant to test Jonah in his disobedience. God wasn't demanding, "Now will you obey Me, Jonah?" Rather, He was asking, "Whose word will you believe in this awful hell, Jonah? Mine or the devil's?" Finally, we read, "Then Jonah prayed" (2:1). "When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee" (2:7). Jonah rushed back to God's loving arms. Then he testified, "Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice" (2:2).
How could such a prayerful man as Jonah drift away from his calling and fall into disobedience? It begins with a partial, incomplete knowledge of God's nature.
Jonah was given a powerful revelation of God's grace and mercy. He testified, "I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil" (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah claimed this revelation was the reason he ran away: "Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish" (4:2). By his actions he was saying, "Lord, You so easily forgive all who repent. Every time you pronounce judgment, You are overcome with mercy. I know You're not going to judge Nineveh. As soon as I prophesy, they'll repent, and You'll pour Your grace on them."
Do you see the problem with Jonah's reasoning? He is describing only a partial revelation of God's nature. And he is accusing God of being soft on sin. Of course, God is everything Jonah describes here: longsuffering, willing to forgive, ready to pour out abundant grace. I thank God for this marvelous revelation of His nature. It has been the most life-giving truth I have ever known. I love preaching mercy to God's people.
But the Bible also speaks of God's holy, righteous nature. "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Roman 1:18). Surely Jonah knew this side of God. How could he neglect it?
I believe Jonah had no understanding of the fear of God. If you think of God only as merciful, you will find it easy to disobey His Word. You'll believe He esteems His warnings lightly, that He doesn't mean what He says. I believe this was the root of Jonah's disobedience.
Such fear has to be sought diligently. And it must be implanted in us by the Holy Spirit: "If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God" (Proverbs 2:4-5). Like God's mercy, the fear of God is life-giving: "The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death" (Proverbs 14:27).
Have you been taught by Jesus in your secret closet of prayer? Have you sought Him for things you can't get from books or teachers? Have you sat quietly in His presence, waiting to hear His voice? The Bible says all truth is in Christ. And He alone can impart it to you, through His blessed Holy Spirit.
A question may now arise in your mind: "Isn't it dangerous to open my mind to a still, small voice? Isn't that why so many Christians get into trouble? The enemy comes in and mimics God's voice, telling them to do or believe some ridiculous thing—and they end up deceived. Isn't the Bible the only voice we're supposed to heed? And isn't the Holy Spirit to be our only teacher?"
Here is what I believe on this matter:
The Pharisees and Sadducees came and demanded that Jesus show them a sign from heaven (see Matthew 16:1). Jesus responded, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas” (Matthew 16:4). Later, Jesus called His disciples together and asked, "Whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:15-16).
Jesus declared, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 16:17). Christ was saying, "You didn't get this revelation just by walking with Me, Peter. My Father revealed it to you from heaven." In short, Peter received the glorious, initial revelation that comes to everyone who believes. The glory of Christ's salvation was being revealed in him.
Yet, we read, "Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ" (16:20). Why did Jesus say this? Hadn't heaven itself already announced that He was the Lamb of God who had come to save the world?
The fact is, the disciples weren't ready to testify of Him as the Messiah. Their revelation of Him was incomplete. They knew nothing of the cross, the way of suffering, the depths of their Master's sacrifice. Yes, they had already healed the sick, cast out devils and witnessed to many. But even though they had been with Jesus for those years, they still had no deep, personal revelation of who He was.
The next verse confirms this: "From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples" (16:21). In other words, Christ began to reveal Himself to them, showing them deeper things about Himself. The rest of the verse continues, "how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day."
Solomon wrote, “Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom” (Song of Solomon 2:15). Solomon is warning that oftentimes it’s the little, nagging issues that keep us from walking fully in God’s calling to abundant life in Him.
Do you remember when you gave your life to Jesus? Like other new Christians, maybe your heart was filled with purpose. You experienced God’s healing love, and you longed to share it with others, evangelizing, reconciling and serving. As you moved forward in this new life, you began to better discern your role in God’s kingdom and your gifts for serving Him. Maybe you even sensed a calling to ministry of some kind.
But then you noticed something peculiar happening. Almost daily, your singular focus on Jesus got crowded out by other demands. Little things popped up, capturing your attention and distracting you so that slowly you lost your focus on Christ.
My father, David Wilkerson, was very familiar with this aspect of the Christian life. He was determined to have an intimate life with God through prayer, and nothing could interrupt that. Dad prayed between two and four hours every day of his life, sometimes setting aside a whole day for prayer and letting us know not to interrupt him.
The need for intense focus is demonstrated by the famous Wallenda family. They are tightrope walkers dating back seven generations. Just over a year ago, Nik Wallenda added to his family’s legend by walking on a high wire across a gorge in the Grand Canyon. The wind was fierce that day, and Nik was unsure about the event. But once he made up his mind, he had a laser-like focus. He emerged from his quarters with an expression that inspired awe. The entire media grew quiet, and the cameras zoomed in on Nik’s face. His every breath was in sync with his task and the blowing winds that day were no match for his focus. Pole in hand, he strode forward to the wire—and walked all the way across the gorge, never distracted for an instant.
Nik Wallenda’s focus was literally a matter of life or death. Yet we in the Church of Jesus Christ have an even higher calling—but do we have his laser-beam focus? How often has our distraction turned into days, months, even years of meandering and mediocrity?