Last sermon preached by L.A.D.
Feb. 9, 1964
“Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly,
“And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” – Jonah 2:1-2
The events narrated in the book of Jonah are historically true, and took place about 850 B.C. The entire book is given to the narration of only one undertaking of the prophet, yet the story is a wonderful one, and most vividly told.
The subject affords an admirable illustration of how, by means of story and history, the Word contains and reflects Divine truth from the Lord, who is within the Word as its spirit and life.
The story is that Jonah, a Hebrew prophet, was commanded by the Lord to go to the heathen, or Gentile, city of Nineveh to warn it against destruction, which would follow if the people did not put their evils away. Jonah did not want to go because he despised the Ninevites and did not want them saved. So instead of going to Nineveh, that city of Assyria on the Tigris, he went down to the seaport of Joppa, and set out for Tarshish at the other end of the Mediterranean.
In those days, when people were worshipers of many gods, it was not supposed that a people’s god had power alike in all places. We recall how the Syrians, being defeated upon the hills, said: “Their gods are gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.” Jonah thought that if he could get out of the land where Jehovah was worshiped, it would be beyond Jehovah’s power to send him to Nineveh. So Jonah went down to Joppa to sail out of Jehovah’s jurisdiction. We are familiar with the results.
But why is this story told? What does it mean? What is the Divine truth that it contains, and what is its practical lesson?
The first chapter, about Jonah’s flight from Jehovah, represents how the Word was with the Jews, and that they were commanded to teach it to other nations, yet were reluctant to do so.
The second chapter, about Jonah in the fish and crying to the Lord, represents the Lord’s temptations in overcoming such states when he was on earth, as is evident from the Lord’s own words: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly: so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
The third chapter, about Nineveh’s hearing the prophet and repenting, is prophetic of the fact that nations other than the Jews, hearing the Word, would repent and be saved.
The fourth chapter, about Jonah’s being angry because the Lord saved Nineveh, represents the feeling of the Jews that only Jews ought to be saved. This is a type of religious intolerance by no means confined to the Jews.
Thus in the internal sense this book tells us about the Lord and his coming into the world and saving the human race. But as the Lord’s redemption of the world is a perfect representation of our individual experiences, the book at the same time tells about our temptations and salvation.
Nineveh, a Gentile city, where the Word was not, represents false ideas in our own minds. Jonah, commanded to go to Nineveh with the word of the Lord, is ourselves when Divine truth from the Word calls us to repentance and asks us to cast out our false ideas, that we may be able to receive love to the neighbor and to the Lord.
Jonah’s flight from Jehovah is our unwillingness to obey the clear teachings of the Word. The ship that he got into is the false doctrine in which we try to sail the sea of life when truths from the Word are rejected. The storm is temptation. To be cast into the sea is to be immersed in falsities of belief, and to be swallowed by the fish is to accept and to be captivated by a system of worldly thought. Such general statements help us to see how spiritual truths are within the letter of the Word, what they are, and how to make them practical.
Water is the universal symbol of truth. Seas are aggregate truths. Anyone understands if it is said, for example, that Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and such are fountains from which have come the rivers of truth that flow down and make the great sea of scientific knowledge. But, as we know, every good thing may be misused and so have a bad correspondence also. Since a sea represents aggregate truths, a stormy sea destroying life represents truths perverted, or falsities. A fish is a living creature in the sea. It represents therefore a living truth, a truth perceived and admitted into the mind. A large fish like a whale represents large truths or a system of truth such as the science of biology, physics, sociology, ethics, or philosophy.
A fish consuming men is a false science that destroys the life of the Lord in the soul. Any system of science that controverts the truth of the Lord’s Word is a great destroying fish. Materialists are not able to understand the soul or the life after death, or to conceive of God. What is the result? They find themselves in the dark and narrow prison of their own science. They are swallowed up by the great fish of their own false system of thought. And in temptation what can such a belief – a belief that we can know nothing of spiritual things – do to help us? “Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.”
Consider the theory of creation which bases creation upon the fortuitous concourse of atoms. In this theory, starting with inorganic matter, atoms of themselves combine to form higher types of life and finally man. And as plants and animals reach a certain age and die, as planets cool and suns burn out, eventually creation will run its course, and organic matter will return to the inorganic. When one seeks to escape from the Divine Word and to sail the sea of life away from the Lord, storms will arise. To calm them the man may reason, “Death ends all. Good is merely a relative thing. We can know nothing about God.” Thus the materialist becomes swallowed by the great fish, the false thoughts and perceptions which he has made his own.
What a contrast between these theories that conclude by saying that we can know nothing about the soul or the spiritual world or the Lord and the true Christian faith that believes in revealed truth, in a loving Heavenly Father, the indestructible soul, and eternal life in the presence of God!
What comfort is there in the materialist’s theory for one who has lost a child, a parent, or a friend? Or what inspiration is there for a good life? Those who are principled in faith in Jesus Christ, who are stayed on every hand by His power, may find it hard to realize the doubt and despair that must come to those who are swallowed up by such theories. The Word pictures them in telling of Jonah’s feelings when swallowed by the great fish: “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” If one is ever so afflicted because he has fled from the voice of Jehovah, let him know that the Lord has permitted his affliction to teach him the nature of deceiving theories, that he may be led to turn to Him, and that, if he does, the Lord will hear and deliver him.
To the tempted it appears as if the Lord had cast them into their bed of torment, and so Jonah continues, “For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.” This is a graphic picture of a man when he is captive to deceiving thoughts and sin, and the billows and waves of false thoughts and evil passions overwhelm him and render him helpless. Having made this world all, he discovers at last that it has no power to satisfy the soul or to deliver it from spiritual death. So Jonah’s prayer continues, “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul.” These are the waters that are meant, the floods that come into the soul, the temptations that toss us about. And if we yield in temptation, we sink in the sea.
And we are told in this story how deep these temptations are. “The depth closed me round about; the earth with her bars was about me for ever.” Sometimes we have to go to the very bottom before our will will let go and we can be turned again to the Lord.
But in our story Jonah finally sees this. He says, “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” Lying vanities are worldly philosophies that deny belief in anything that cannot be perceived by the senses, that deny that there is a God whom we can know and should follow, and believe that there is no Bible but what man has made.
When Jonah saw and confessed that he had been following lying vanities and forsaken God, he was cast out upon the dry land. Such is the Lord’s power that, even when we have sunk to the depths, he can deliver us if we turn from following our own ways and look to him.