"Salvation is of the Lord."
These are the closing words of Jonah's prayer of thanksgiving from the belly of the great fish (דָּ֣ג גָּד֔וֹל). I don't know whether it should be punctuated with a period or an exclamation point. But I imagine him uttering these words balled up in the fetal position within the leviathan's womblike gut (מֵעֶה), blinded by the impenetrable dark, but eyes wide opened to the boundless sovereignty of God. Summarized in these brief but profound words is the message of the entire Book of Jonah, if not the whole Bible. Charles Spurgeon declared it, “one of the grandest utterances that any man ever made.” It is, Spurgeon argued, “an epitome of Calvinism; it is the sum and substance of it.”
But what does this remarkable phrase mean in Jonah's mouth, and in the context of this book?
Jonah is perhaps the Bible's most humorous character. He is more than a reluctant hero, as he's often popularly understood to be. He's really the anti-hero of the book, the antagonist of the story. God calls him to go to Nineveh and "call out against" that "great city." Instead, Jonah flees "to Tarshish away from the presence of God." If God issued the call in Jonah's hometown of Gath-hepher (2 Kings 16:25), then Jonah's trek would take him southwest, precisely the opposite direction of Nineveh, to the coastal city of Joppa. From Joppa, the anti-prophet boarded what is likely a Phoenician ship heading to Tarshish, a city located either on the island of Sardinia, or even further westward on the coast of Spain. The point is that he's heading as far West as he could possibly go - roughly 2,500 miles from Israel, and 3,000 some miles from Nineveh.
Jonah is comically getting as far away from Nineveh as he can.
But God, relentlessly and mercifully pursuing his man, "hurls" a great wind on the sea, causing a "great storm" to erupt upon the vessel, such that it "threatened to break up." The seasoned sailors (old "salts," מַלָּח) panic. First, in their desperation they call out to heaven, "each to his own god." When this proves unfruitful, they "hurl" their cargo into the sea - a last ditch effort to save the ship. Jonah, however, has gone down to the hull of the ship and fallen asleep. The captain wakes the passive passenger, and (with obvious disbelief and irritation) says: "What are you doing, sleeping? Get up, and call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give thought to us, that we might not perish."
But both the sailors' gods and God's prophet fail to deliver.
Finally, in total desperation, the men cast lots to discover the source of this unforeseen and startlingly violent weather. The lot falls to Jonah. After interrogating the silent prophet, Jonah finally confesses that he is a Hebrew, and, with comical irony, that he "fears" the LORD, "the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." At this, the men cower with a fear greater than any storm could provoke (lit.: "they feared with a great fear"). "For," we read, "he had told them that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD." They ask him, in so many words, "what then must we do to be saved?" Jonah tells them that they need to "hurl" him into the sea. But these were apparently decent men. They were reluctant to throw a man overboard to a watery grave. Instead they attempt to row the boat back to shore. But the waves continue to batter them, rendering their efforts futile and even dangerous.
Finally, the men call out, "O LORD let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD have done as it pleased you." They "hurl" Jonah into the sea, and the storm immediately stops its "raging." The men then "fear the LORD with a great fear," and offer sacrifices and make vows.
Despite the prophet's utter passivity - even in his suicidal solution - and complete rejection of his calling, God has managed to win "converts" among the Phoenician sailors.
The next scene takes us under the waves. From the depths, the LORD - sovereign over wind, waves and whales - appoints a "great fish" to swallow Jonah. Many have misread the story of "Jonah and the whale" as though his being swallowed was his judgment. But in fact, the fish is Jonah's unlikely vehicle to life out of "the belly of Sheol," his escape from the jaws of death (2:6). This marks a dramatic turn in the narrative. From the beginning, Jonah's trajectory "away from the LORD's presence," has been downward (1:3b, c, 5c; 2:6b). Now God has "brought up" Jonah's life from the pit (2:6c) - the dark terminus toward which he's been running ever since he left Israel. In his "steadfast love" (חֶ֫סֶד), the LORD answered the plea of Jonah's dying breath.
In Jonah 2:2-9 we read a prayer of thanksgiving offered from within the beast, in which our hapless anti-hero echoes (mimics?) the language of his national prayer book to vividly describe his drowning experience, and God's dramatic rescue "at the eleventh hour" (e.g., Psalms 5:7; 9:13; 18:6-7; 26:7; 30:3; 31:6, 7, 22; 42:7; 50:14, 23; 69:1, 15; 86:13; 88:6-7, 13, 17, 18; 102:1; 118:5; 120:1; 138:2; 142:3; 143:4). But perhaps the most remarkable verbal parallels occur in Jonah 2:8-9. In 2:8, Jonah uses a phrase to describe the "vain idols" of the nations that appears in only one other place in all of Scripture, Psalm 31:6 (מְשַׁמְּרִ֖ים הַבְלֵי־שָׁ֑וְא). Like David in Psalm 31, Jonah is drawing a sharp contrast between himself and those who do not trust in the Lord (see 2:8-9a and Ps.31:6-7). We should note, however, that unlike David (31:9-10), Jonah makes no clear confession of sin in his prayer. We should also note the incredible irony of his (self) righteous declaration in verse 9a, b ("But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay"), contrasting himself from such men as the sailors, "who pay regard to vain idols," right after we read 1:16!
Then, in verse 9c, Jonah utters these words: יְשׁוּעָ֖תָה לַיהוָֽה, "Salvation belongs to the LORD." This too appears one other time in Scripture, though in reverse order: Psalm 3:8 (לַיהוָ֥ה הַיְשׁוּעָ֑ה, cf. 3:3).
In context, Jonah appears to be saying that only in the LORD can salvation be found, in contrast to the "vain idols," which the narrative of 1:4-16 bears out so clearly. The gods to whom the sailors called out were of no avail. The sailors' own efforts and skills were unsuccessful. Even their "good deeds," in attempting to save both Jonah and themselves from certain death, proved vain. And it certainly wasn't through Jonah's earnest ministry that they're saved! Their salvation came solely from the sovereign God of heaven, the maker of the sea and dry land, as they heeded the reluctant words of Jonah - the culprit of their predicament who was identified by the "random" fall of the proverbial die. Similarly, Jonah, without strength or "a fighting chance," calls out to God in his last moments, and is remarkably rescued. (It would even seem that Jonah is spared here despite a lack of repentance.)
And here, I believe, the author has Jonah speaking better than he knows. For though Jonah thinks that his salvation by the hand of the LORD through this "watery ordeal" has basically ended, we read on that it is far from finished. He doesn't realize that the salvation he needed wasn't first and foremost from the waves and billows of a deity spurned (2:3), but from his own heart (4:5-11). Moreover, Jonah seems to think that God's "steadfast love" belongs to him, an Israelite prophet, mouthing biblical petitions and prayers - but not, apparently, to pagans who have forsaken their steadfast love (2:8), like these sailors or, as we'll see, the Ninevites. Because Jonah doesn't appear to understand the extent and depth of his own sin, he can't begin to properly grasp the depth or extent of God's grace.
In chapter 3, the commission to Jonah is repeated nearly verbatim, and this time the wayward prophet obeys (3:2-3)…at least outwardly. In response, the city remarkably repents, from the greatest to the very least of them (3:5-8) - beginning with the king, who declares, "Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish," and down to even the animals! God, in turn, relents of the disaster He had threatened against Nineveh (3:10), as is His way (Jeremiah 18:1-11).
But rather than rejoice at such an unprecedented success, Jonah is angry (4:1). Now this is ironic. Everyone is turning from evil - Nineveh from the evil that is in their hands, and God from the evil he had threatened to bring against them - except Jonah. The happy event is, very literally, "an evil to Jonah, a great evil." In fact, he's so angry about this that he'd rather die than live (4:3)! In 4:2 we read, finally, the reason for the prophet's original flight from God, and for his anger. It wasn't because he was intimated by "that great city." It was because he knew God's purpose in sending him was in order to relent of the destruction they so richly deserved (and they did deserve judgment - the city of Nineveh, and the Assyrians in general, were infamous as a brutal and merciless people). Why else send a messenger to warn them? He knew this also because he understood that it is God's very nature to "relent from disaster" - a lesson Israel learned in her earliest encounters with the LORD (Exodus 32:14; 34:4-8; cf. Psalm 86:15; 103:8; Joel 2:12-13, etc.). Ironically, in Jonah's mouth the praise of Israel - and Jonah's in 2:8b - becomes a curse.
But God continues to pursue the angry anti-prophet, sovereignly appointing plants, worms, and east winds to "save Jonah from his evil," (4:6). God is bringing Jonah to grief over a plant so He can open his heart to God's own regarding the city of Nineveh. And so we see God bringing all the forces of nature to bear in His omnipotent pursuit of a stubborn and hardhearted prophet, who simply wants to be left alone and left to die. Just as God spares Nineveh, despite its evil, because of His gracious and good character, so God saves Jonah - and is saving Jonah - despite his evil.
We don't know what becomes of the man. The final question (4:10-11) is left unanswered. And it rings in our own ears even now. But we have hope for Jonah. And we have hope for ourselves. Because salvation is of the the LORD.
Salvation is of the Lord, because it is His purpose - even when its not ours.
Salvation is of the Lord, because it is His work - not ours.
Salvation is of the Lord, because it is by His grace - not our merits.
To borrow Charles Simeon's concluding comment in his famous dialogue with John Wesley, "this is all my Calvinism."