Reflecting God’s Compassion … Consistently (Jonah 2:1–10)

Just as a diary or journal can provide a “window into the soul” of its writer, so too prayers can reveal the heart of the pray-er. How we pray, when we pray, and what we pray for often showcases what we truly believe about God, ourselves, and life a pilgrims in a fallen world.

The second chapter of Jonah gives us an inspired eavesdropping session on the prayers of the prophet. And by listening we learn a lot about him as we find a hypocritical prayer marked by self-preservation, self-exoneration, and self-righteousness, characteristics that are especially disagreeable when contrasted with the character of the God to whom the prayers are being directed; a God who is generous, patient, and compassionate.

This prayer gives us a look into Jonah’s heart and invites you and I to examine our own.

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In the early 20th century, artist Blanche Lazzell wrote this in her diary: “This book is not intended for other eyes than the writer’s, and when they are forever closed, I hope this book will be laid in the fire.”

Lazzell later become a well-known artist and, despite her wishes for privacy, her diary is now part of a permanent collection in the Smithsonian Archives, on display for all to see and read.

Why is that a horrifying thought for diary-keepers everywhere? Why does the idea of a stranger reading your journal make you uncomfortable?

Could it be because a journal or diary is where the desperately private becomes potentially public. It’s a place many go to be totally vulnerable, unreserved, and exposed. In many ways, it’s a window into the true self and the depravity, imperfection, and insecurity that’s otherwise skillfully kept hidden. To have all of that and more laid bear is unnerving.

The Christian prayer life is like a diary. In prayer we can express our deepest sorrows, greatest triumphs, embarrassing blunders, and darkest rage. In prayer we confess sin, admit insufficiency, and ask forgiveness. 

Like reading someone’s diary can give you “a window into their soul,” so to speak, so too can listening to the prayers of a person, a family, or a church family. How we pray, when we pray, and what we pray for often reveals what we truly believe about God, ourselves, and life in a fallen world.

Can you imagine if someone was eavesdropping and recording all of your prayers? *Shudder* If that was the case, though, what would they learn about you?

In the second chapter of Jonah, we’re given an inspired eavesdropping session on the prayers of the prophet. And by listening in we learn a lot about him.

What we’re going to find is a hypocritical prayer marked by self-preservation, self-exoneration, and self-righteousness, characteristics that are especially disagreeable when contrasted with the character of the God to whom the prayers are being directed; a God who is generous, patient, and compassionate.

This prayer gives us a look into Jonah’s heart and invites you and I to examine our own.

Before we get to the prayer, let’s remind ourselves of where we are in the story. In chapter 1, the Lord gives his prophet, Jonah, a surprising assignment, one that showcased God’s compassionate character. Jonah disobeyed God, running in the opposite direction trying to remove himself from the Lord’s presence. 

This is, obviously, a futile task, and God proved inescapable, hurling a great storm upon the ship—Jonah’s chosen escape vehicle. The sailors eventually learn it’s Jonah’s disobedience putting their lives in danger and ask him, “What can we do to make it stop?” He answered: “Throw me into the sea.” 

The pagan sailors—behaving more like God than God’s prophet—try everything they can not to kill Jonah, but, in the end, they have no choice. And when the prophet’s body hits the water, the storm ceases, Jonah sinks, and the ship sails on. But, instead of letting him die like he deserves, God once again demonstrates his compassion by sending a great fish to swallow and deliver his prophet.

Now we come to chapter 2 and the exposing entry into Jonah’s diary of prayer. The prayer is bracketed by verses 1 and 10 which transition out-of and back-into the narrative. Verses 2 through 9, the prayer proper, is recorded in the form of a thanksgiving psalm, which really adds to the irony because the content doesn’t match the form. Instead of worshipful gratitude we find selfishness, entitlement, and pride. As I said, prayers can reveal the heart of the pray-er.

The psalm begins with Jonah calling out in desperation with the only goal being self-preservation.

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 deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. 

This is the first time Jonah has spoken to God in this book. 

He didn’t address God in his confusion regarding his assignment. He didn’t voice his disagreement. He didn’t request understanding. He didn’t even ask for God to spare the lives of the sailors as they fought against the storm he caused. No. The first time we have Jonah, the prophet of God, speaking to God, is when he’s sinking to the bottom of the sea.

He was about to drown, and it’s in that “distress” that he called out to the Lord; “from deep in the realm of the dead” he “called for help.” And, once again highlighting the compassionate character of the God from whom he had run and to whom he was now speaking, the Lord “answered” and “listened to” his rebellious prophet by sending the great fish.

Again we’re confronted with the contrast between the patient and compassionate God and the haughty and self-centred prophet. It’s revealing that Jonah only calls out to God when his back’s against the wall.

These back-against-the-wall requests to God are sometimes called “foxhole prayers,” so named for soldiers pinned down in a bunker, surrounded by enemies. In those moments, soldiers may call out to God as a last resort.

I’ve prayed those prayers in desperate times. I’m sure you have also. David in the psalms prayed out of helplessness. Jesus, with the cross looming, called out to the Father in prayer. I believe God wants us calling upon him in our times of greatest need. There’s nothing wrong with foxhole prayers, except perhaps when they’re our only prayers.

It’s as a last resort that Jonah calls out to God from his watery foxhole. It’s all about self-preservation. Even worse, in the next two verses Jonah actually blames God for the foxhole! He moves from self-preservation to self-exoneration

You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight;’

Who hurled Jonah into the sea? Technically, the sailors, because Jonah wouldn’t do it himself. But the prophet points the finger at God. “You did this. You may have used a storm and sailors, but it’s on you, God. They’re ‘your waves and breakers’ that ‘swept over me.’ You cast me aside.” 

We’re all invited to Jonah’s pity-party in verse four as he laments being “banished from” God’s sight. Hang on a minute! Think back to chapter 1: Wasn’t it Jonah’s desire to get away from the presence of God? Wasn’t that the thrice-stated reason he disobeyed? It was! And now he’s blaming God for the apparent realization of the goal. “I’m passive in this whole thing! I’m a victim! ‘I’ve been banished from your sight!’” That’s revisionist history. He’s experiencing what he longed for, doesn’t like it, and now he’s blaming God and exonerating himself. “It’s not my fault!”

The pity-party continues:

The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.

Such strong language used to describe the hopelessness of his circumstances. He was trapped, approaching death, helpless and powerless.

Now, at this point let’s pause and ask a very important question: Has there been any acknowledgement of guilt, sin, or disobedience on the part of Jonah? None! Nothing even close to resembling repentance. 

What we have instead is a woe-is-me description of his troubles, troubles that, while self-inflicted, he blames on the One who has just delivered him. This is nothing more than a stilted prayer of self-preservation and self-exoneration. And, like a diary in a museum exhibit, it reveals to all who read it the heart of this prophet.

Just as I’ve prayed prayers of self-preservation, I’ve prayed prayers of self-exoneration; prayers in which I try to justify my sin to the God who sees all and who has delivered me from the bondage and power of that sin. 

“God, if you hadn’t made me the way you made me …; If you hadn’t brought that person into my life …; God, you gave me the family I have … you failed to give me the strength … you aren’t clear in your expectations … you’re not helping me enough … You hurled me into the depths! These are your waves and breakers!” That’s self-exoneration. That’s praying like Jonah, unrepentantly shifting the blame to the One who has provided salvation. Maybe you can relate.

As we’ve seen, Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 has been motivated by self-preservation and stained by self-exoneration. In what’s left we’re going to find what may be the worst yet: Self-righteousness.

It becomes clear that Jonah believes he’s worthy to be saved by God, worthy to be heard by God, and worthy to be seen by God. His prayer is soaked in self-righteousness.

Scan back to verse 4: “Yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’”

“God, I’m worth saving!” Do you hear the presumption? You might say, Hey, Jonah’s just calling out in faith! Maybe. But I think the rest of the clues point toward hypocrisy, not humility.

Drop to verse 6: “But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.”

Of course he did! Because Jonah is worthy of salvation, isn’t he? God already saved Jonah from drowning by way of the fish and now, sitting inside his fishy ark of deliverance, Jonah boldly claims his certainty of total restoration. “I will again walk into the temple. There’s no doubt. God will restore me.” This is Jonah self-righteously declaring: “God, I’m worth saving!”

“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. 

While he believes he’s worth saving, Jonah now self-righteously declares: “God, I’m worth hearing!” My prayer rose to you, right into your holy temple. I spoke and my requests came before you. All Jonah had to do to have God’s ear, apparently, was “remember” him. To bring to mind the God he had been ignoring, running from, disobeying, mis-representing, and rebelling against. But, even though he hasn’t spoken to him throughout, all he does is bring him to mind and his prayers of desperation zip right up to God’s ear; they rise before God.

Interestingly, the last thing said to have risen before the Lord’s face was the wickedness of Nineveh (1:2). Coincidence?

It is a privilege to be heard by God. It is a miracle of divine provision that the Creator of all things bends his ear to the calls from his creatures. Jonah, as disobedient and rebellious as he had been, takes it for granted: “He’ll hear me. I’m worthy hearing.”

“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’ ”

Here’s where the self-righteousness really comes to a head. Who do you think Jonah is referring to when he says, in verse 8, “those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them”? Or, it could be translated: “those who cling to empty faiths reject God’s extended mercy.” Who in this story are holding tightly to idolatry and, inso doing, rejecting the compassionate love God longs to extend to them?

I think it’s Nineveh! They were the godless people to whom Jonah was originally sent. Jonah in these two final lines of his prayer is bring it back full circle to his assignment and comparing himself with the Ninevites, those evil, wicked, undeserving monsters.

Those sinners over there, those God-haters, they cling so tightly to their false gods they don’t deserve the love and compassion of the true God.

And then the all-revealing first two words of verse 9: “But I.” Those sinners don’t deserve to be in the presence of a compassionate and loving God, but I, I will be in your presence. I will come before you in praise that you’ll no doubt accept and rejoice in. I will make sacrifices to you that you’ll love and make vows to you that you’ll gush over.

In his self-righteousness, Jonah has already claimed “God, I’m worth saving” and “God, I’m worth hearing” but here he adds to the list “God, I’m worth seeing.” Not like those dirty Assyrian sinners. I’m your guy. “Salvation comes from the Lord” but only to those worthy like me, only to those worthy like Israel.

I’ve prayed in self-preservation and with self-exoneration. And, if I’m honest, I’ve prayed prayers stained with self-righteousness as well. I’ve taken for granted the privilege of having the ear of my Creator and Sustainer. I’ve allowed thoughts of my own worthiness creep into how I speak about others. “Those people over there, they kind of deserve what they’re getting. I, obviously, having been delivered from death through faith in Christ, I deserve something better.” 

I love the parable Jesus told in [Luke 18:9–14].To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

Was Jonah the pharisee in this story or the tax collector? Which am I? Which are you?

Jonah’s prayer was motivated by self-preservation, marked by self-exoneration, and stained with self-righteousness. It’s little wonder, having to listen to it, the fish threw up. 

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. 

Just as Lazzell’s diary was an exposing look into the artists’ heart, so too was Jonah’s prayer. It revealed what was going on internally; what he thought about God, about himself, and about his assignment in the world. 

The same is true with our prayers. What do they reveal about us?

Through the negative example of Jonah in this “psalm of thanksgiving,” we are being invited to Pray with God! To pray with God! To shape our prayers in such a way as they reflect the compassionate character of the God to whom we’re praying. We’re to Pray with God! 

Jonah, in many ways, was praying against God in chapter 2 just as he had been running against God in chapter 1. God is compassionate and loving and longs for people to come to him in faith. Jonah didn’t share that sentiment nor that godly character and his prayers reflected that. You and I need to Pray with God!, not against him.

Practically speaking, this means asking the Holy Spirit to empower you in prayer and allowing the Scriptures to guide you in prayer. 

One way we can be sure we’re praying with God is to pray his words back to him. Think about it. When we use the Bible to shape our prayers we are literally quoting God’s infallible word back to him.

And there are many prayers in the Bible to use as guides. In fact, there’s a 150-chapter book full of them called the Psalms. But there are many others sprinkled throughout its inerrant pages as well. 

In fact, in my Bible I have have every prayer marked in the margin with a “P” so that I can more easily find them and use them to shape my prayers. When it comes to prayer, who better to learn from than the inspired authors of Scripture, right? 

You see, like a secret diary, our hearts are revealed in how we pray. But, at the same time, how we pray shapes our hearts. Back and forth it goes and it can be a beautiful upward spiral of spiritual maturity. 

I’ll encourage you, this week, to find a biblical prayer, maybe even the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, and use it to help you begin learn to—and continue to—Pray with God!

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Josiah has served the Oakridge Bible Chapel family as one of its elders and one of its pastoral staff members since September 2018, before which he ministered as an associate pastor to a local congregation in the Canadian prairies. Josiah's desire is to be used by God to help equip the church for ministry, both while gathered (edification) and while scattered (evangelization). He is married to Patricia, and together they have five children—Jonah, Henry, Nathaniel, Josephine, and Benjamin.

Josiah Boyd

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