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The Psalm of the Prodigal Prophet (Jonah 2:1-10)

1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish, 2 and he said, “I called out of my distress to the LORD, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; Thou didst hear my voice. 3 For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Thy breakers and billows passed over me. 4 So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Thy sight. Nevertheless I will look again toward Thy holy temple.’ 5 Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, Weeds were wrapped around my head. 6 I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But Thou hast brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. 7 While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer came to Thee, Into Thy holy temple. 8 Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, 9 But I will sacrifice to Thee With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD.”

10 Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.

Introduction

Years ago, a friend of mine gave this very apt description of a particular situation: “Bob, I look at this like I do a three-quarters-inch snowfall on a garbage dump. It looks beautiful until you begin to stir around a little.”

This is precisely the way I feel about Jonah’s “psalm,” recorded for us in Jonah 2. At first glance, it has all the appearances of piety, but after a little probing and reflection, it proves to be more of a religious sham than anything else. Not all Bible students agree with me here. In fact, I’m not sure I know of one who has taken the position I hold. For example, Theodore Laetsch titles this chapter “The Lord Delivers His Repentant Prophet.”16 I do not think that there is any evidence to support the conclusion that Jonah has repented in any way, shape, or fashion.

The context of the book gives us no evidence pointing in this direction. We saw from Jonah 1 that this prodigal prophet willfully sought to disobey the command of God to cry against the great city of Nineveh. Instead of traveling something over 500 miles to the Northeast to arrive at Nineveh, Jonah set out by ship from Joppa, heading Northwest, toward Tarshish. Jonah’s disobedience brought about a storm, which threatened the ship and the sailors. Only through their persistent questioning did they learn the reason for the storm, and only after great efforts to save Jonah did they cast him overboard. The sailors, unlike Jonah, responded obediently to the revelation they received, and they were left topside, praising God. Chapter 2 picks up the story from the undersea perspective, describing the prayer and the plight of Jonah as poetically depicted. In chapter 3, Jonah will be commanded for the second time to cry against the Ninevites, which he finally does, leading to the repentance of the entire city, and the “changing of God’s mind.” Chapter 4 shows us that Jonah’s attitude has not changed. There, he explains his disobedience in very unflattering terms, explaining why he did not want to preach to the Assyrians.

In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary from the overall context of Jonah, some want to find at least a measure of repentance in chapter 2. It is not to be found. We may be deceived by the terminology employed by Jonah, much of which is borrowed from the Book of Psalms. But when we compare the theology of Jonah’s “psalm” with that of the psalms, the shallowness and inferiority of Jonah’s praise is quickly evident.

Emphasis and Approach

Having preached the Book of Jonah over ten years ago, I find that my approach and emphasis have changed considerably. Previously, I spent considerable time attempting to document accounts of fish swallowing men who lived to tell about it. A look at the text quickly informs us that there is little emphasis on the great fish here, largely, I think, because the fish was obedient to his commission, while Jonah was not. Since the thrust of the book is to focus on the disobedience of Jonah and of the nation Israel, the fish is given few “column inches” of press. We may tend to dwell on the fish to help prove that this miracle could have taken place. We defeat our purpose in so doing, however. If there are documented instances of men being swallowed by fish, only to be recovered and to live, then what is described here is hardly a miracle at all. It is just one of those strange events which occur from time to time, but which should not be placed in the realm of the supernatural.

Neither is the issue of whether Jonah died the focus of the psalm. It is true that Jonah’s plight prototypes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but whether or not he died is not the primary issue. Personally, I do not think he died. I believe he was “as good as dead” until “saved” by the fish. In essence, Jonah is saying, “I was a goner, but God heard my prayer.”

My approach in this lesson is to show that Jonah’s psalm falls far short of the psalms of the Old Testament, and also to suggest some of the reasons we are tempted to see Jonah’s “psalm” as more spiritual than we should. To do this, we will focus our attention on the Old Testament psalms to show how they differ from the psalm of Jonah. Then we will seek to apply the lessons we learn from Jonah’s psalm to the prodigal prophet, to Israel, and finally to us.

The Structure of Jonah 2

The structure of our text is as follows:

1:17, 2:1

Introduction: Jonah’s Salvation and the Setting of His Psalm

2:2-9

Jonah’s Psalm

2:10

Conclusion: Jonah’s Exodus

The Setting of the Psalm

17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.

1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish,

Jonah’s “psalm” is a poetic description of his deliverance from drowning. A great fish is not only the divinely appointed means of deliverance (1:17), but also the place from which the psalm was composed (2:1). One can only imagine the thoughts which must have passed through Jonah’s mind as he came to grasp what had happened to him. As he sank below the surface of the water, Jonah knew that he was certain to drown (2:2-7). In his last conscious moments, he cried to the Lord for deliverance. Suddenly, everything went black. Perhaps the dark form of the approaching fish was noticed by the prophet. Then, there was a sense of motion, of being carried along. There may also have been the near birth-like experience of passing from the fish’s mouth into its stomach, probably through a very small opening. This could have served to extract any water from his lungs, something akin to artificial respiration.

As Jonah regained consciousness, imagine the horror of his first sensations: the feel of the stomach lining of the fish pressing about him; irritation of the acidic stomach juices of the fish beginning to bleach his skin; the foul smell of the place; the passing-through of the normal diet of the fish; the darkness of this place. In time, Jonah must have realized that this fish was not the means of his destruction, but the means of his deliverance. His prayer for deliverance had been heard by God. He was to live. His psalm, recorded in verses 2-9, was composed in the stomach of the fish and later recorded for our edification. Let us now move on to the content of this “psalm of the prodigal prophet” to see what it teaches us about Jonah, about Israel, and about ourselves.

Jonah’s “Psalm” and the Psalms

The best way to understand Jonah’s “psalm” is to identify some of its unique characteristics, and then to compare these with the characteristics of the psalms in the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. By means of this comparison, the inferiority of Jonah’s “psalm” becomes evident. Consider the following characteristics of Jonah’s “psalm”:

(1) Jonah’s “psalm” employs the poetic form of the biblical psalms, as well as the terminology of many of these psalms.

In Jonah 2:9 we read, “Salvation is from the LORD.”

Likewise, in Psalm 3:8 we read, “Salvation belongs to the LORD.”

Notice also the similarity of terminology between Psalm 18 and Jonah 2:

The cords of death encompassed me, And the torrents of ungodliness terrified me. The cords of Sheol surrounded me; The snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the LORD, And cried to my God for help; He heard my voice out of His temple, And my cry for help before Him came into His ears (Psalm 18:4-6).

“I called out of my distress to the LORD, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; Thou didst hear my voice . . . While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer came to Thee, Into Thy holy temple” (Jonah 2:2, 7).

In Psalm 42, the psalmist also employs “water” imagery, which has a familiar sound when we read Jonah’s “psalm:”

Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him For the help of His presence. O my God, my soul is in despair within me; Therefore I remember Thee from the land of the Jordan, And the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the sound of Thy waterfalls; All Thy breakers and Thy waves have rolled over me. The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; And His song will be with me in the night, A prayer to the God of my life (Psalm 42:5-8, emphasis mine).17

(2) Jonah’s “psalm” focuses on his physical deliverance from death by drowning. All of the poetic description found in Jonah’s psalm pertains to his near-death experience in the sea. He was engulfed by the breakers (vv. 3, 5), and seaweed was wrapped around him (vs. 5). Jonah was near to fainting away when he cried out to God for his salvation (vv. 2, 4, 7). This plea was probably similar to that of Peter, who having walked upon the water towards our Lord, suddenly began to sink (cf. Matt. 14:22-33). There was little time for anything but a hurried cry for help. The “great fish” was appointed by God to swallow Jonah, and while Jonah does not mention the fish, we know that it provided him with an underwater haven for three days and nights (1:17). It was from within the belly of this fish that this psalm was composed by the prophet (2:1). Just as Saul, who would become the Apostle Paul, had three days of blindness in which to contemplate the gospel (Acts 9:9), Jonah had three days in which to contemplate his divine deliverance. It was not over, of course, because there was still the small problem of his release from his underwater incarceration.

(3) Jonah’s psalm is self-centered. Jonah described his dilemma, his danger, his deliverance, and his delight. In The Book of Psalms the psalmists also described their deliverance, although the particulars were often left out, or only briefly mentioned, often in the introduction to the psalm (cf. Psalms 3, 18). Very quickly, the Old Testament psalmists turned from the details of their personal experience to the character of God, which was demonstrated in their deliverance. In short, the psalms are God-centered, while Jonah’s psalm is self-centered.

Note how cryptic is this psalmist’s description of his dilemma, and how quickly he changes his focus to the character of His God:

The cords of death encompassed me, And the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I beseech Thee, save my life!” Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate (Psalm 116:3-5, emphasis mine).

Such is not the case with Jonah. Chapter 2 dwells on the details of Jonah’s dilemma, while God’s character is scarcely mentioned. Not until chapter 4 does Jonah get around to addressing the character of God, in particular His grace, compassion, longsuffering, and lovingkindness:

And he prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life” (Jonah 4:2-3, emphasis mine).

While the biblical psalmists found the character of God to be the basis for their praise, adoration, and obedience, Jonah found the character of God to be the pretext for his disobedience and for his protest.

There is but one dominant reference in Jonah’s “psalm” to God’s attributes. He does allude to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. This attribute is distorted and abused, however. Rather than attributing his danger to his own rebellion, Jonah depicts God as the cause of his danger:

“For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Thy breakers and billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3).

This sounds similar to Adam’s explanation for his disobedience:

“The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12).

(4) Jonah’s psalm reveals his disdain for Gentiles and a smug self-righteousness as an Israelite. We have already been informed of the faith of the Gentile sailors in chapter 1, and of their obedience to all that they knew they were to do. In Jonah’s “psalm of praise,” we find no mention of these sailors, of their physical deliverance from death, or of their newly-found faith in the God of Israel. We can safely assume that Jonah did not find any of this to be a source of joy or the cause for praise to God. We can press this point further and conclude that Jonah really despised Gentiles and would have preferred their death and damnation to their deliverance and salvation.

This may be merely conjecture, to be demonstrated in chapter 4, except for the tone of Jonah’s words in verses 8 and 9: “Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, But I will sacrifice to Thee With the voice of thanksgiving” (Jonah 2:8-9a). Jonah has great disdain for the Gentiles, who practice idolatry. At the same time, he regards himself as one of the elite, who worships the true God by means of the sacrifices which God has appointed. Jonah, as an Israelite, is superior to the idolatrous Gentile heathen.

Jonah’s words do not square with what we have seen in chapter 1, however. The heathen prayed; Jonah did not. The heathen were eager to uncover sin; Jonah was not. The heathen wanted to practice their religion; Jonah did not. The heathen had compassion on Jonah, yet Jonah showed none toward them. By virtually any standard, the Gentile sailors proved to be superior to Jonah from all that we have read in the first chapter, and yet Jonah can unabashedly tell God that he is somehow superior to the heathen.

The psalmists of the Old Testament knew better. In their psalms, they spoke of the conversion and worship of the Gentiles:

I will tell of Thy name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise Thee. You who fear the LORD, praise Him; All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel. For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Neither has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.

From Thee comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; Those who seek Him will praise the LORD. Let your heart live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, All the families of the nations will worship before Thee. For the kingdom is the LORD’s, And He rules over the nations (Ps. 22:22-28, emphasis mine).

In Psalm 67, the psalmist goes even further, basing his words on the promise God gave Abraham, which informed him that the blessing of his descendants was to result in blessing for the whole world:

God be gracious to us and bless us, And cause His face to shine upon us— Selah. That Thy way may be known on the earth, Thy salvation among all nations. Let the peoples praise Thee, O God; Let all the peoples praise Thee. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; For Thou wilt judge the peoples with uprightness, And guide the nations on the earth. Selah. Let the peoples praise Thee, O God; Let all the peoples praise Thee. The earth has yielded its produce; God, our God, blesses us. God blesses us, That all the ends of the earth may fear Him (Psalm 67).

Jonah does not wish God to bless the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Jonah does not wish God to bless the Gentiles through the Jews. Thus, when God commanded Jonah, a Jew, to preach to Nineveh, a Gentile city, Jonah fled. No wonder we find no praise for the conversion of Gentiles, but rather a statement to God about the superiority of the Jews to the Gentiles.

(5) The only promise which Jonah makes is the promise to offer a sacrifice to God at the temple. In the past, I have read more than I should have into the words of Jonah as recorded in verse 9: “But I will sacrifice to Thee With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD.” I felt that his words in this verse implied that God was sovereign, and thus He was free to save whomever He chose, and that Jonah was promising to obey God’s command and go to Nineveh.

I now understand these words differently. If Jonah had vowed to go to Nineveh, why is it necessary for God to repeat the command to do so in the first verses of chapter 3? When Jonah said, “Salvation is from the LORD,” I believe he was merely giving God the credit for his physical deliverance. He was saying, in effect, “The salvation which I have been describing in my psalm is of God.” The substance of the vow which Jonah refers to is spelled out in the first part of verse 9. Jonah intends to go to Jerusalem, where he will offer a sacrifice of praise to God. Making a sacrifice was normally promised in a vow (cf. Ps. 66:13-15), and I believe that it is what Jonah meant here, as stated in the first part of verse 9 in his psalm. How gladly Jonah would have said farewell to his domicile, the belly of the fish, gone to dry land, and then hastily returned to the land of promise, where he would have offered a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God.

(6) Jonah’s psalm contains no repentance and no confession of sin, even though chapter 1 makes it clear that such was needed. Jonah had much to confess, but he has confessed nothing in his psalm. Even when depicting the cause of his danger in verse 3, he does not attribute his being an outcast in the sea to his own sin, but to the sovereignty of God! In contrast to Jonah’s psalm, note the confessions of sin in the Book of Psalms:

I acknowledged my sin to Thee, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” And Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin (Psalm 32:5).

Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness; According to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, And done what is evil in Thy sight, So that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak, And blameless when Thou dost judge (Psalm 51:1-4).

Save me, O God, For the waters have come up to my soul. I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me. … O God, it is Thou who dost know my folly, And my wrongs are not hidden from Thee. May those who wait for Thee not be ashamed through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; May those who seek Thee not be dishonored through me, O God of Israel, … But as for me, my prayer is to Thee, O LORD, at an acceptable time; O God, in the greatness of Thy lovingkindness, Deliver me from the mire, and do not let me sink; May I be delivered from my foes, and from the deep waters. May the flood of water not overflow me, And may the deep not swallow me up, And may the pit not shut its mouth on me (Psalm 69:1-2, 5-6, 13-15).

While Jonah was quick to condemn the idolatry of the Gentiles (Jonah 2:8), Jonah failed to recognize that his disobedience was as offensive to God as the idolatry of the heathen. Jonah would have done well to take heed to the warning of this psalm:

“Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High; And call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” But to the wicked God says, “What right have you to tell of My statutes, And to take My covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline, And you cast My words behind you” (Psalm 50:13-17).

Here, God has indicated that religious forms and rituals (such as Jonah’s psalm) were only of value to the one who obeyed His commandments. In the words of this psalm, Jonah had “cast God’s words behind him.” Jonah had deliberately disobeyed God’s command to go to Nineveh. Why, then, would his psalm or his promised sacrifice be precious to God?

Jonah should have remembered the words of Samuel to King Saul, who disobeyed the command of the Lord:

“Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23, emphasis mine).

We have come to the bottom line. Jonah’s “psalm” offers us absolutely no evidence of a change of heart, or of the prophet’s repentance. It is rather a revelation of his own sin and self-righteousness. It is, at best, an expression of gratitude for his physical deliverance from death.

WHY, THEN, DOES GOD DELIVER JONAH FROM DEATH BY THE “GREAT FISH” IF JONAH’S ATTITUDE TOWARD GOD HAS NOT CHANGED? I believe that there are several reasons:

(1) God is showing grace to Jonah, just as He has shown grace to the sailors, and as He will show grace to the Ninevites.

(2) God is attempting to instruct Jonah, and to change his belligerent attitude by showing grace to him. A personal experience of God’s grace might have inclined Jonah to rejoice in the grace which God wanted to bestow on others, including the Assyrians.

(3) God is keeping Jonah alive so that he could, and would, go to Nineveh and preach against the sin of that city. God is guaranteeing that Jonah would ultimately obey his command.

WHY ARE WE SO QUICK TO ASSUME THAT JONAH HAS REPENTED, RESULTING IN THIS PSALM?

(1) I believe we are too quick to arrive at conclusions based solely on external appearances. Jonah was an Israelite, a prophet, no less. Surely a prophet would be spiritual. These words are similar to the Old Testament psalms, so they must be deeply spiritual. We should know better than to judge by external appearances.

(2) We desperately want Jonah to repent. We cannot stand to think of a prophet as a stubborn, rebellious sinner, who is self-centered and unrepentant. We cannot stand to think of one in the position of a prophet being so sinful. We want the story to come out with a happy ending, and to give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. This book was not written to comfort, but to condemn. It was not recorded and preserved to make us feel good, but to leave us very unsettled and uncomfortable. This book was written to teach us some very unpleasant truths about the nation Israel, and about ourselves, as we shall see.

The Lessons of This Chapter

Despite the discomforting reality of Jonah’s continued rebellion in this chapter—indeed, because of
it there are several important lessons to be learned from this chapter. As we close, let me draw your attention to the lessons for Israel, and for the church.

Lessons for Israel

As we have already shown, Jonah was not only a prophet by virtue of his declarations, but also by his deeds, specifically his disobedience. Jonah typified the stubborn rebellion of God’s people, Israel. Just as Jonah disobeyed God’s order, Israel disobeyed God’s law. Just as Jonah refused to carry out his task of preaching to the Gentiles, so did the nation Israel. Just as Jonah called on God for deliverance, yet without genuine repentance, so did Israel. Just as Jonah had the outward trappings of righteousness, the right forms and the right terms, but lacked genuine righteousness, so did Israel.

The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day typify this same willfulness and rebellion. When He came, our Lord, as it were, swept away the three-fourth inch covering of snow from the accumulated garbage of Judaism. Jesus uncovered and condemned the smug self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the Israelite leaders, just as the Book of Jonah has done with the prodigal prophet.

The scribes and Pharisees were meticulous about the details of their religious forms and ceremonies (the gnats which they strained), but they overlooked the essence of true godliness—obedience (the “camels” they swallowed). Just as Jonah chaffed at the thought of the repentance and forgiveness of the Assyrians, so the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees bristled at the repentance of the “prodigal son,” as reflected by the older brother (Luke 15:11-32). They protested against the fact that Jesus spent his time with “sinners” and not with them (cf. Mark 2:16). And just as Jonah smugly saw himself as righteous, while the pagan was a sinner (Jonah 2:8-9), so the scribes and Pharisees looked down their spiritual noses at others:

“The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:11-14).

The rejection of Christ and of the gospel by the Jews proved to be the occasion for the salvation of the Gentiles, just as Jonah’s disobedience was the means of God bringing the sailors and the Assyrians to salvation:

I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! (Rom. 11:11-12).

If not by their obedience, God fulfilled His promise to Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations through Israel.

Lessons for Contemporary Christians

Before showing the similarities of Jonah’s sins to those of saints in our own day, let me point out one significant difference between Jonah’s thinking and ours today. Jonah, thinking with the mindset of the Old Testament Jew, rested and relied on his election as an Israelite, failing to see his relationship to God in terms of grace, but in terms of some kind of intrinsic worth, based upon his race and perhaps even on his calling as a prophet. Today we tend to presume upon God’s grace. We use the grace of God as an excuse for our disobedience. Jonah tended not to see himself as sinful, as much so, or more than, the heathen; we, on the other hand, see ourselves as depraved, and admit this as part of our human condition, but we view God as somehow committed and thus obligated to forgive. The common element, then and now, is viewing God as obliged to bless “His people,” regardless of their rebellion, and to view “heathen” sins as more reprehensible to God than “sacred sins,” like disobedience.

Jonah’s “psalm” warns us of the very real danger of superficial spirituality. The fact that Jonah’s “psalm” has been taken so seriously by scholars and laymen alike warns us that we are not sensitive to superficiality in spiritual things. The church at Sardis, addressed by God in the third chapter of Revelation, was superficially spiritual: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, and you are dead” (Rev. 3:1b).

Superficial spirituality is very skilled in following the approved religious forms and in the use of pious platitudes. Because of this, it initially looks holy and good. But a little probing reveals its true character. I might say also that a little persecution or suffering also quickly exposes the spiritual reality.

I greatly fear that superficial spirituality is the norm in America, rather than the exception. I fear that there is much of this in my life and in our church. May God give us the grace to see it for what it is and to deal accordingly with it.

Superficial spirituality has several tell-tale symptoms. For one, it relies on the wrong things. It relies on one’s background, one’s ancestry, one’s denominational heritage, one’s position (an elder in the church, etc.), or one’s knowledge. None of these constitute spirituality. Many of them are used to counterfeit it.

Superficial spirituality relies heavily on forms. It borrows much from others; it mimics piety rather than manifests it. Superficial spirituality prays only in dire circumstances; it is motivated by crises, and is manifested by foxhole prayers. It is selfward in orientation, rather than Godward or manward. It seems insensitive or oblivious to personal sin, yet it recognizes sin in others. It lacks a depth of intimacy with God and has little evangelistic fervor. It has a very narrow band of concern, and is usually very introverted in focus (e.g., “Lord, bless our missionaries.”). It tends to distort doctrines and to accommodate or excuse one’s sins (such as Jonah’s use of God’s sovereignty, veiling his own sin).

The salvation of Jonah reminds us that God’s means of saving us are not those we would have chosen. God does not save us according to our preferences, but according to His provision. The great fish would not have been Jonah’s choice of accommodations, but as unpleasant as the belly of the fish was, it did the job. Jonah would have much preferred a dramatic search effort, employing a Coast Guard cutter, helicopters, and skin divers. He would rather have been hoisted aboard a ship and given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by a beautiful female sailor. God did not flatter Jonah in the means by which He saved him because pride was one of this prophet’s principle problems.

So too, God’s means of saving men has never been flattering either. Spending 400 years as slaves in Egypt was not flattering to the Israelites, nor entering into the Red Sea or the river Jordan, nor slaughtering an innocent animal and pouring out its lifeblood on God’s altar, but these were the means which God provided. Looking up to a brazen serpent was not a flattering way to be healed from the bite of a serpent, but it was God’s way. Trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of a rejected king, the Lord Jesus Christ, is not man’s preferred means of finding the forgiveness of sins and of entering into eternal life, either. Nevertheless, this is the means which God has provided for man’s eternal salvation. This is the only means. If you have not experienced His salvation, you may have to be brought very low, as low as Jonah, so that any means of salvation is gladly received.

May God keep us from the superficial and synthetic spirituality of Jonah’s “psalm”, and bring us to the vibrant and genuine spirituality of the Book of Psalms.


16 Theodore Laetsch, The Minor Prophets (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), p. 228.

17 Compare also Psalm 88:6-7, 17, in which the psalmist uses “flood” terms, but here the adversity of the psalmist is brought upon him by God, not by men.

Related Topics: Character Study