In the Depths? Help from Jonah

This article was written by Davy Ellison and published by FTC


A single image, from my first few visits to London, is impressed on my mind: the view from the top of an escalator in the larger Underground Tube stations. I remember standing looking at this enormous moving stairway, tilted at a frightening angle, inching slowly but steadily into the depths of London’s underground. Imagine gazing at hundreds of people on this downward trajectory into the belly of London.

This image of downward motion is one which is created by the book of Jonah in the first two chapters. Initially, Jonah goes down to the port of Joppa (1:3). Once aboard a ship, Jonah goes down to the inner part and lies down (1:5). Jonah is then thrown from the deck down into the raging sea (1:15). In chapter 2 Jonah then recalls being thrown down into the sea (2:3), where he then sinks down (2:3, 5)—finally sinking down to the sea floor (2:6).

For two entire chapters Jonah has been moving downward. In chapter 2, we therefore find him in the depths. But from those depths Jonah shares four truths that might encourage those of us who are likewise in the depths.

Truth #1 – God is Sovereign

We should be amazed at the sovereignty of God in the story of Jonah. It is stated explicitly in 1:17 as it is noted that the LORD ‘appointed’ a fish to swallow Jonah—it isn’t a chance happening, it isn’t a stroke of good fortune—God has orchestrated it. Not only does the fish swallow Jonah, but at God’s command he spits him out again (2:10). It isn’t just the fish that is under God’s control, however, it is also the waves. In 1:4 we are told that the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea to create in the storm. But, in chapter 2 Jonah himself acknowledges it is God’s doing (v. 3): ‘your waves and your billows’. God is sovereign. There can be no doubt about it. All these circumstances—both the waves and the fish—it is all at God’s beck and call.

In the depths Jonah is careful to encourage us to remember God is sovereign. No matter what we face we can face it with confidence because God is in control of all things. When we feel we are drowning in life, God can send a ‘fish’ to rescue us. We must trust our God; no, we can trust our God.

Truth #2 – God Answers Prayer

Jonah asserts this truth before he even gives us the content of his prayer (2:1–2). Even from the depths God hears and answers prayer. Jonah’s situation was desperate. He is struggling to keep his head above water in verse 3, by verse 5 the seaweed is pulling him under and so in verse 6 he has reached the sea floor—alternatively known as death. This prophet of the LORD, who thought he could escape God’s call on his life, is facing the end of his life. It is here, for the very first time in the book, that Jonah calls out to God.

The sad reality is that sometimes we must be brought to the end of ourselves before we seek God. Often it is only in the most desperate of circumstances that we will cry out to God. How is this supposed to be encouraging? Because when we do, God hears and answers. This is Jonah’s testimony (2:2, 7). Cry out to God, speak to him, tell him how you feel and watch as he answers.

This comes with a warning though, because often the answer is not quite what we would expect. Consider Jonah, in the gut of a great fish he thanked God for deliverance! Nonetheless, it was an answer to prayer.

Truth #3 – You’re Not the First

This is more of an implicit truth than an explicit one. But here we have Jonah—a prophet of the LORD commissioned with God’s message—and he is in the depths. We could also consider Elijah, Job, and Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. They all experienced the depths. In Spurgeon’s Sorrows Zack Eswine writes: 

After citing historical examples such as Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, and William Cowper, then Biblical examples such as Job, King David, Elijah or our Lord Jesus, Charles [Spurgeon] will inevitably say: ‘You are not the first child of God who has been depressed or troubled.’ Even ‘among the noblest of men and women who ever lived, there has been much of this kind of thing…Do not, therefore, think that you are quite alone in your sorrow.’ (pg. 37)

Do not despair simply because you, as a Christian in particular, are in the depths. History teaches us that many have walked that road before, many will walk it afterward, and undoubtedly there are many there with us in our depths. Moreover, God will not leave us alone in the depths (Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5).

Truth #4 – Salvation is From God

It is in the depths that Jonah confesses that salvation belongs to God alone (2:8-9). Idols are vanity, says Jonah. But Jonah doesn’t worship an idol—his is the living God and so with thanksgiving, sacrifice and vows Jonah will proclaim that salvation belongs to the LORD. We should not miss the clear echo of the end of chapter 1 here. The sailors at the end of chapter 1 forsook idols, worshipped Yahweh, and made sacrifices and vows. Sadly, it took Jonah to descend to the depths before he could follow the example of the sailors.

As one commentator writes, ‘The fish stands for the amazing grace of Yahweh, which came down to where [Jonah] was and lifted him to new life’ (Allen, Jonah, NICOT, pg. 213). Because of God’s salvation Jonah’s direction changed. At the end of verse 6, instead of continuing downward, the LORD lifted—brought up—Jonah. Salvation is from God.

In the Old Testament, the word salvation refers to both physical and spiritual deliverance. But as we read the Bible in its entirety, we soon come to see that all physical deliverance is simply an illustration of the great spiritual deliverance that God offers in his son Jesus. In the depths, as Christians, we must never forget that it is in Christ alone our hope is found—for there alone is sin dealt with.

A Fresh Start

Chapter 2 ends with the fish spitting Jonah out onto dry land—salvation is complete. Jonah is alive and on dry land. One commentator jokes that the disobedient prophet is so revolting that even the fish can’t stomach him for long. But something much more beautiful is taking place here than simply a great fish being ill on the beach. Chapter 2 is finishing where the story of Jonah began: with the prophet on the dry land and knowing where God would have him. Here is Jonah’s fresh start.

Each time we find ourselves sinking into the depths we must remind ourselves that God is sovereign, in his sovereignty he answers prayers, we are not the first to experience this and salvation always belongs to the LORD. In remembering these things, however, we too have the hope of a fresh start.


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