2 Penitence in the Fish

<< Jonah 2: Jonah’s Penitence in the Fish >>

1Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, 2And 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. 3For 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. 4Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. 5The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. 6I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. 7When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. 8They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. 9But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD. 10And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. JONAH II.

It was a strange, cramped, confined sort of life that Jonah experienced In the fish. He seems to have had an inner consciousness of what was passing around, while the external was helpless, and as if paralysed. A similar life is sometimes realised in a trance state, and in some conditions of the dying. They perceive what is passing around, but have no power to stir a muscle. The external fainted, but the internal is fully alive. Some who have recovered from apparent death by drowning have declared that their inner perceptions and sensations were quite vivid, when their outward powers were suspended, and their whole life seemed placed before them in the strongest and clearest light. Others have heard and known what was passing around them, but with no power to speak a word or move a limb. Jonah perceived the waters about him, and that he was deep down in the sea-the heart of the sea he calls it, verse 3, in the Hebrew, He felt the weeds floating and wrapping themselves about his head, but he knew he had no help for himself; he saw the real nature of his folly, and his utter incapability to procure for himself deliverance, and he remembered the Lord. His prayer was heard from the depths of the sea. “My prayer,” he says, “came in unto Thee, into thine holy temple;” and he was delivered to know and to say, “Salvation is of the Lord.”

In the depth of his distress he remembered the Lord. How strange it is that he, or any of us, can ever forget the Lord. He is goodness itself, and has loaded us with tender mercies. We live every moment by His life. Our talents, our gifts, our daily support, the marvellous arrangements of our being, both in soul and body—and these are not only wonderful, but miraculous—are all from the Lord. Yet so short-sighted, so heedless are we, that when we are in the full enjoyment of these, and our bark is sailing smoothly on the sea of life, we soon forget Him by whose mercy we exist, and transgress those Divine laws by which alone we can he truly happy. Then storms come—storms terrible to endure; sometimes only mental storms, but sometimes also attended by loss of wealth, fame estimation of friends, domestic comfort, children, health. Our trials multiply, for sorrows, like joys, often come in groups.

” First a speck, and then a vulture,
Till the air is dark with pinions.
So disasters come not singly,
But as if they watched and waited,
Scanning one another’s motions.
When the first descends, the others
Follow, follow, gathering flock-wise
Round their victim, sick and wounded;
First a shadow, then a sorrow,
Till the air is dark with anguish.”

So was it with the self-willed prophet. The sea raged, the tempest howled; the mariners were at their wits’ end. Inquiry brought home the conviction to Jonah that all this storm was the result of his disobedience, and at length the lot announced that he was indeed the culprit through whose misconduct everything had gone wrong. He was cast overboard, completely overwhelmed by the waters, and swallowed by the fish. In the dim sensations of his condition, he felt the waves and the billows were rolling over him; and in the darkness and deeps of the bottom of the sea, there seemed no room for a ray of hope. Then he remembered the Lord, whom he had forsaken. Yet why had he ever forgotten Him?

Here let us pause for a moment to consider the exact state of this case, for it is illustrative of innumerable others. Jonah had only been required to do a very proper, a very reasonable, and a very merciful thing. The Divine tenderness honoured him with the commission of rescuing a vast community from sin and impending ruin. What was there in this from which a prophet ought to have fled? It was an errand full of mercy, and no doubt would be full of blessing. But self-willed Jonah would not have it. What trouble he took to escape it! Jonah was typical of his nation. He would have no dealings with the Gentiles. A vast city was there, crowded with inhabitants—with women and children—almost a kingdom in itself: But Jonah was hard and unfeeling towards them, and to avoid being employed on a work of mercy towards them, he would fly even to the ends of the, earth-for such Tarshish was then considered. “

There are many mysteries in the world, many mysteries, of things in heaven and things on earth; but one of the mysteries most inscrutable of all, is the mystery of human folly—the astonishing fatuity by which great numbers take incredible pains, and persist with pertinacious obstinacy, to inflict upon themselves palpable misery and bitter and lasting ruin. In the depth of his despair Jonah discovered this, and cried out, “They who follow lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” . How stupid was the “lying vanity” to which he had given himself. He would not do the work of brotherly love the Divine Father of all had laid out for him—had, indeed, given him the privilege to do. He would rather leave his home and country and tempt the dangers of the sea, than go and do that which was an honour, and should have been his happiness to do.

The Jewish nation was selected in like manner to receive the doctrine of the unity and universal Fatherhood of God, and the universal brotherhood of man, as well as by all elaborate symbolism to represent regeneration, and the spiritual kingdom of the Lord. They were chosen for the sake of the whole family of man, and not for themselves alone. But they did not regard it so. They shut themselves up from others, and considered Jehovah as their national God, rather than as the universal Father of mankind. They treated other nations as heathens, and, often with contempt and hatred. The result was isolation and hatred for themselves. Their religious system became thus to them merely a sectarian scheme, a system of science rather than of brotherly love. They were absorbed in the requirements of this system, doing their round of observances, detailing and practising their traditions, rather than purifying their hearts, and living and working in the generous sympathies of mutual love.

As this state of self-seclusion grew upon them, as they shut themselves up more and more in selfish isolation, their condition became narrower, darker, stormier, more cold-blooded, until at length they were shut out from other nations, , and then divided from one another. A very small proportion confined their esteem to themselves alone, and there were no dealings even between the Jews and the Samaritans (John i v,9). They made the commandments of God, those broad, grand laws of heaven, of none effect by their traditions. They were great at tithes of mint, anise, and cummin, but very small at judgment, charity, mercy, and faith (Matt. xxiii. 23). Such a close, flat, flabby, cold, and narrow life, dark, conceited, and confined, destitute of the gushing energies which flow from a warm love of God, and a glowing charily to all mankind, is like the half-life of a man enclosed in a fish.

If we could discern with the spiritual eye the spheres of men, and groups of men, as expressed in their moral conditions, we should behold strange forms unveiling themselves before us. The dragon, out of whose mouth John says he saw three unclean spirits like frogs come forth (Rev. xvi. 13), can surely only mean a presentation to his spiritual sight of a selfish hypocritical system, which sends forth croaking assailants at the noble principles which constitute genuine Christianity. The Egyptians, as they became when they secluded themselves in their religious system, and prided themselves in their abundant and curious knowledge, were regarded by Ezekiel as a great dragon-like fish. Their religion was all allegory and ceremony derived from previous revelation, not, as they imagined, self-originated. They exulted, however, in their system for its own sake, and prided themselves simply because they knew it, and because it was theirs, and they are therefore thus described and denounced by the prophet: “Speak, and say, Thus saith the Lord God, Behold I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers, which hath said, ‘My river is my own, and I have made it for myself.’ But I will put hooks in thy jaws, and I will cause the fish of thy rivers to stick in thy scales, and I will bring thee up out of the midst of thy rivers, and all the fish of thy rivers shall stick in thy scales. And the land of Egypt shall be desolate and waste: and they shall know that I am the Lord; because he hath said ‘My river is my own, and I have made it'” (Ezek. xxix, 3, 4,9).

In the vast sea of thought and knowledge there are abundant means of amusing the fancy of a man, and inflating his pride. He can glide about from one portion of knowledge to another, and from speculation to speculation, like a fish swimming about in the waters of truth. True life is, however, something far more than thinking. Life means evils to be corrected, and virtues to be performed. Life means duties to be done, and charities to be embodied. Life is fraught with hopes that need to be realized, with efforts and energies that should go forth to heal some of the sorrows of mankind, to make the sum total of misery less, and the amount of human enjoyment more. Men ought therefore to be up and doing, so that charity may have her perfect work, and thus follow the example and act from the power of Him who is Perfect Love, embodied in unceasing activity.

Jonah remembering the Lord represents the only course open to the Christian when he, has felt his forlorn condition. He is full of penitence. He sees how much he has missed his way. Troubles and darkness surround him. The waters of sorrow and despair oppress him on every side. Chilling, harassing, depressing views succeed each other and weigh him down. Falsities gather about him, and deep revelations of interior corruption are unfolded to him. He cries like Jonah, “The waters compass me about even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.”

The Psalmist describes a similar state to that represented by Jonah : “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in upon my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me: I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried, mine eyes fail while I wait for my God (Ps, lxix, 1-3). Could the state described by the Psalmist be rendered visible to the spirit’s eye, it would have presented a graphic form of a man enclosed in a fish, and tossed about in a stormy ocean. The thoughts are troubled and confused, the bewildered soul looks, and mourns, and feebly expects, but all is dark, and no change comes. He loathes himself he loathes his state, he feels himself like being in hell and, indeed, he is surrounded for the time with infernal spheres, and may properly, though but temporarily, be said to be in hell. “Out of the belly of hell cried I,” the prophet said “and thou heardest my voice” (verse 2). ” For great is thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell” (Ps. lxxxvi. 13).

One thing, however, was ground for hope. There was still some life,—that is, some love. “Yet hast thou brought up MY LIFE from corruption, O Lord my God. “In spiritual things, as in natural things, while there is life there is hope. Persons in periods of temptation, and deep and lengthened trial, may be infested with thoughts, impressions, and persuasions, strange, low, impure, corrupt, and altogether foreign to their disposition, and this for weeks and months together; yet if these are regarded with aversion, and the heart turns from them with horror and grief, deliverance will surely come. It is love that decides the character. What we really love will assuredly mould all our faculties, and our very form itself, to its own likeness. Hence Jonah said, “Thou hast brought up MY LI FE from corruption.” Let the LOVE, the inner LIFE, be kept pure, let the inner affections of the heart yearn and pray for salvation and undoubtedly it will come. No person can be in a more unlikely place to be heard than Jonah, yet he was heard and delivered. The soul fainted, yet the life was preserved. The intellect was enfeebled and oppressed, yet the love was preserved, and salvation surely arrived. We remember the Lord, and we find He has never forgotten us. We have said in our bitterness—

“I would but cannot love,
Though would by love divine:
No arguments have power to move
In such a state as mine.”

Yet we may be comforted by the assurance that if the love of goodness and truth remains, the jewel, the heart of the soul, is safe, and the long winter of our misery will be transformed into a glorious summer.

“But if indeed I would,
Though nothing I can do,
Yet the desire is something good,
For which my praise is due.”

The Lord is near, the angels are near us, though unseen. Our sincere prayer reaches them, Heaven is meant by the Lord’s temple, for it is filled with His adoration and praise. Our prayer reaches unto His holy temple, for the blessed ones have charge over us, sympathise with us, and rejoice in our humility and penitence. Our prayers announce the states into which the Divine blessings can descend.

To come even into the temple of the Lord, in its highest application, is to be received by the Lord in His Divine humanity. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. We may be assured that every prayer of sincerity reaches the ear and the heart of Him in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and who is constantly saying, “Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

Jonah learned a great truth besides that of the ineffable kindness and pity of the All-good to the sufferer-namely, that the highest mercy is to keep man in order, and to restore him to order if he has departed from it. Mercy is extended to all finite creatures at all times, from the highest angel to the lowest subject of the King of kings. Our holy things need to be viewed by mercy, to pardon their shortcomings, And although it is mercy which, touches our failings with a tender hand, it is also even fuller mercy when the righteous are rewarded according to their works (Ps. lxii. 12). It is not to any merit of ours, or of the highest seraph, that the riches of heavenly peace and joy are imparted, but only that to heavenly-minded ones, though still imperfect, Mercy can bestow angelic bliss. He charges His angels with folly; but His angels see and shun and detest their folly, keeping self under their feet, abiding in Him, and His Divine Love and Wisdom abiding in, them.

It is merciful to impart to a suffering wayfarer a little help for present needs, and to alleviate immediate sorrow; but how much greater is the mercy which takes the erring one by the hand, strengthens and guides his feeble virtue, restores him to order, and preserves him in constant well-being. The higher the angel and the greater the mercy he feels, and he adores. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Just and true are Thy ways, thou King of Saints. Who shall not fear Thee a Lord, and glorify Thy name; for Thou ONLY art holy.” Such are the confessions of all the blessed. The adoring seraph covers his face. The higher in grace and the deeper in humility are all the inhabitants of heaven. They follow Divine truths, and thus are preserved, elevated, and blessed by Infinite Mercy. Mercy framed the heavens, mercy redeemed and regenerated every angel of heaven, and mercy imparts to each one, according to his capacity, eternal peace and joy. The things “which induce men to forsake THEIR OWN MERCY, are, indeed, LYING VANITIES, as Jonah came to see by bitter experience.

What a lying vanity is pride! It fills the heart of its possessor with vain phantasies of his self-sufficiency-of self-sufficiency when he knows his heart would not beat once, nor one breath remain a moment, if a power higher than his own, were for one moment withdrawn. Yet this lying vanity makes its possessor insolent, ambitious, envious, anxious, suspicious, defiant against God, and rebellious in opposition to the blessed commandments which mercy has imparted as the means of wisdom, health, happiness, and heaven. For this “lying vanity” thousands forsake their own mercy. What a “lying vanity” is inordinate worldly love. The preference of glitter and show for a moment, over the solid worth of spiritual graces and heavenly gifts, which endure for ever; of a fleeting earth to an everlasting heaven, is a folly so great that did we not know it as a common fact, we might well be incredulous of its possibility. Yet, for this lying vanity, myriads forsake their own mercy. What a “lying vanity” is impure pleasure! It promises bliss, and it leads to pain. It spreads before its dupes dreams of passionate enjoyment, it allures by phantoms of gorgeous felicity, of degraded but voluptuous and ecstatic bliss, and the reality is broken character, broken fortune, broken health, decay, imbecility, ruin, death, fiendishness. Oh may we shun these “lying vanities,” and follow for ever that true wisdom ‘which is from above, and which purifies, enriches, and ennobles both soul and body. Let us bless that unutterable mercy which has provided a shining way along which the humble tread, which leads to “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just. whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report,” and conducts its lowly but pure-hearted traveller into the higher country of his Saviour, the realm of endless peace.

Author: JONATHAN BAYLEY –From The Divine Wisdom of the Word of God (1892)