28 Apr 2024

Self-righteous response to Undeserved Mercy [Jonah 2]
  • Topic: Deserve, Entitled, God, Gospel, Grace, Jonah, Life, Mercy, Ocean, People, Prophet, Righteous, Saved, Self entitlement, Self righteousness, Separation, SIN, Steadfast love, Tax collector, Verse


The disobedient prophet who defied God in Jonah 1 finds himself tossed overboard and in the heart of the sea. In the belly of the fish, Jonah reflects on the judgement from the God who is just. And also, God's mercy for the undeserving prophet. Yet Jonah 2 ends off with a puzzling end, where Jonah sinks into self-righteousness. Jonah 2 confronts our hearts which are prone to self-righteousness even after receiving the great gift of mercy and grace in the Gospel. The Gospel of Grace (Ephesians 2) reminds us that there is no room for self-righteousness or pride because grace is a gift to the undeserving not a reward for the deserving.



Sermon Transcript


Last week as I listened to the sermon, I had a proud brother moment. I was like that’s my baby brother, okay, not so baby, but used to be a baby brother was preaching. And this year, one of the best things that had happened was that my brother, Raynor, has now become my colleague in church. And it's been fascinating, because we really enjoy a good relationship. Some people have asked if I fight with my brother in the office or not? Well, we don't. In fact, it's been really heartening to just talk about God's word, talk about ministry and His people with my brother. However, things didn't start out this way. I still remember, there was a time I'm the oldest child, where I was getting all of my parents’ attention, all the gifts, the spotlight was on me. And then one day, my parents said, you are going to have a little brother. And then that's where my life took a turn downwards. All the attention and the toys and privileges that I was getting from my parents, now I had to share. And as a sinful little boy, I am still sinful now, but as a sinful little boy, I was really annoyed. Wait, you mean I need to share my attention with this little guy? Wait, all the toys that you bought for me, are now to be shared? What do you mean, mom and dad, I am your firstborn, I should have the privilege. And that was really how our relationship was like in the earlier years.

This is what we call classic childhood self-entitlement. I deserve it, because I came first, why must I share it with someone else? And as I was thinking about this, I was thinking about what the root of self-entitlement is. We are all Singaporeans here. Just Google Singaporeans and self-entitlement on Google, 1000s of articles come up, right? But I'm just thinking, why is it that people are self-entitled. And I think at the root of self-entitlement is really self-righteousness.

Think about it. I deserve better, because I am better. I deserve the best because I'm better than all those other people. That's why I am entitled. I am not like the others, they don't deserve it. Look at me, I'm better, I deserve it. I think it was interesting is that we might laugh at children and their self-entitlement. But that's actually a reflection of the human heart. As we grow older, we don't fight for toys. We still fight for attention, right? Think about it in our workplaces. I think I deserve better pay than my fellow colleague over there because I'm more hardworking what. Right? Why is my pay like this? Why is the boss treating this guy better when I am the best worker? This is an important thing for us. Because if you're not careful, self-entitlement and self-righteousness can seep into our lives. You see, just because we are Christians, or just because we love God, doesn't mean that these things don't affect us.

Here is why we need to listen closely to Jonah 2 today. Self-entitlement, self-righteousness, these are issues of our heart and Jonah 2 is going to address that. Jonah 2 is also Hebrew poetry. If you've noticed when Uncle Tommy read it, the words are slightly indented, they're slightly different. I used to do this in my Bible reading. When I saw Hebrew poetry or poetry in my Bible reading, I will just quickly skip pass it. Not important what, you know poetry, how important can it be? And I also realized that Singaporeans, we are not too good with reading poetry, but here's why Jonah 2 is so important and I think many of us know the Jonah story without Jonah 2. But the author is drawing our attention to Jonah 2. He changes his writing style midway. And when he's doing that, he's saying, focus here, look here, there is something very important. So we need to ask ourselves, why would the author write Jonah 2 in poetry? 

Flashback to last week, Raynor brought us through the disobedience of Jonah. Right? He turn his back on God, went the other way, refuse to seek God, he got tossed overboard, blatant disobedience from Jonah. As a result, we see in chapter 1, verse 17, ‘God appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish, three days and three nights’. It is in the belly of the fish, where Jonah reflects what is going on in his mind.

1.     Jonah Receives Judgement (3-6a)

Here we have our first point, Jonah, or the disobedient Prophet, receives judgment. He reflects on it. He says, ‘You cast me into the deep into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me, all your waves, and your billows passed over me’ (Jonah 2:3). Jonah is painting a picture. He is being tossed to and fro in the ocean, and Jonah finds himself in the deepest parts of the sea, or what he calls the Heart of the Sea. I don't know about you, but the ocean scares me. Whenever I think about the ocean, I get pictures like this in my head, not the calm oceans we see in East Coast Park. The ocean scares me so much because when you are in the ocean, you are at the mercy of the currents that sweep you back and forth no matter how good a swimmer you are, you are swept by the currents and you have these huge 50, 100 foot waves that come crashing down, they are able to capsize large oil tankers and fishing ships. What more a human like Jonah? If even the huge ships were helpless at the mercy of the ocean, what more weak little Jonah?

When I was younger I had a near drowning experience. I was in Sunway lagoon, it was at a waterpark. I think I was maybe four or five years old. I thought I knew how to swim so I went to the biggest slide in Sunway lagoon. As I came down the slide, the slide was a lot more forceful than I thought. I plunged deep into the swimming pool. And I realized that I went all the way down. No matter how much I kicked, no matter how much I flapped my hands, I tried to pull myself up, I just couldn't surface to the top. And I remember how I feel like, you don't remember many things when you're four or five years old. I'm 30 years old now, it was 25 years ago, and I still remember that experience, that helplessness, that fear that creeps into you, knowing that no matter how hard you try, you cannot surface to the top.

Remind you, that was a swimming pool at Sunway Lagoon, how about Jonah in the great crashing waves of the sea? For those of you who might have a similar drowning experience, you can probably relate to this. Jonah must have felt a million times more helpless. No wonder Jonah uses these words to describe himself. ‘The flood surrounded me, all your waves and billows passed over me’ (Jonah 2:3). Waves and billows refer to the building up and the crashing of waves, causing him to be helpless. But I guess the question is this. Why did Jonah have to experience this? It was because of his disobedience.

And Jonah is going to reflect beyond just the physical helplessness to a spiritual one. Okay, verse four, says this. ‘I am driven away from your sight, yet I shall again look upon your holy temple’ (Jonah 2:4). Can you see what Jonah is reflecting on here? Is not just being caused to and fro by the waves, it is separation from God. He says, ‘I long to look at your temple’ again. The temple in the Old Testament represented the presence of God. The only time that the Israelites could meet and encounter the presence of God was in the temple. And Jonah is saying, All I can do now is look upon your temple. Because I am so far away, there is separation from God. That's why he says, I hope to return. This is Jonah's spiritual punishment or spiritual judgment, not just a physical being tossed to and fro by the waves, but separation from God.

I think sometimes for New Testament Christians, we don't really understand separation from God. Because thank God for the amazing work of the Holy Spirit, we have God in us, but we understand the feeling of separation. Think about the time you've been separated from someone you love. Or think about a death of someone you love. There is a aching of the heart, there is a yearning, there is a sadness, there is a mourning when there is separation, except Jonah was not separated from another human, he was separated from God. Jonah goes further to say, ‘the water closed in over me to take my life’ (Jonah 2:5). You get the picture? Tossed to and fro by the ocean, separated from God. And now he goes deeper, the water closed over him. And he starts to sink. ‘The deep surrounded me, the weeds were wrapped around his head’ (Jonah 2:5).

Do you get the picture? Jonah was on the top of the surface going down and down and down and down, the picture of separation. And just when we think he reaches the bottom, the depths of the ocean, Jonah is not done. He says, ‘I went to the roots of the mountain. And I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever’ (Jonah 2:6). What's this land? This refers to the underworld in the Old Testament, Sheol as we know it, the place where people  go when they die. So what is Jonah describing here? He says he's not just drowning in the ocean, he feels like he's locked up, almost like a picture of a jail cell. He says, ‘I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever’ (Jonah 2:6). He paints a picture, his separation is eternal. He is in a jail cell, he is serving his jail term with no parole and no early release. You get the picture? The floating prophet slowly descends to the bottom of the ocean and to the depths of the world. Eternal, never ending separation.

As I was going through the verses, I wonder if you picked up who made Jonah feel like this? Who punished Jonah? Look at these verses, that is what Jonah says, right? ‘You cast me into the deep, your way, your billows, I am driven away from your sight’ (Jonah 2:3,4). Who is this? This is God. God is the one inflicting punishment and judgment on Jonah. Because of his disobedience. You see God is so holy that he cannot stand sin. He is so just that he must punish disobedience. Maybe you are new today. And you're saying this god? He's a bit too violent. He's a bit too harsh. How can he do this to someone? You know, if this god is like that, then I don't want to believe in him. How can God inflict this kind of pain to people? May I invite you to consider the flip side? Would you really want to believe in a God who is unjust? A God who would close a blind eye not just to sin, but to murder, to rape, to genocide? I think none of us want to worship and believe in a God who is unjust. And that's the picture we see here, God punishes his disobedient Prophet, because He is just. However, that is just one aspect of God's character.

2.     The Merciful God Saves His Undeserving Prophet (6b-7)

God is not just fully just, God is also merciful to the undeserving. That is the second point. See, just as Jonah is about to drown. Let me take a step back, did Jonah deserve to drown? I think, yes, he deserved it right? Blatantly disobedient, should have followed God, but just as he was about to drown, this happens. Jonah says, ‘I went down to the land, whose bars closed upon me forever’. And how wonderful is this next part? ‘Yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God’ (Jonah 2:6b). See the same God who punish Jonah for his disobedience now acts in mercy to save his undeserving prophet. Remember that jail cell that Jonah could not get out of, stuck in there for eternity? The divine, supreme God intervenes, saves him, pulls him out from the jail cell, brings him out of the pit. We see divine mercy because God is merciful.

Think this poses a question. It sounds like Jonah died and came back to life. It does, right? I think this is where I want to proceed with a little bit of caution. I think Jonah is using the death imagery to describe his experience and separation from God. Not necessarily saying that he dies, it’s like in Singapore we say, wah, I feel like dying, the heat is so hot, I feel like dying. We don't really mean that. I think Jonah is painting a picture here, but he's also saying that his judgment and punishment that he received is so horrifying that he feels like he is going to die. None of us have been in the belly of a fish for three days. Maybe this is Jonah’s reflection on that. Jonah now is going to continue to reflect on God's mercy to him. Remember the theme of separation. He says, All I can do is look and long for your temple, meaning long for Your presence.

But what Jonah says next is amazing. The prophet who deserves judgment, got this instead. ‘When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord. And my prayer came to you, into your holy temple’ (Jonah 2:7). What is Jonah saying here? The prophet who was distant and separated from God because of his judgment and sin, now has his prayer answered. The God who had to separate himself from Jordan and because of his disobedience in all his justness can now listen to his prayer, because of His mercy. Divine Mercy for the undeserving prophet. You know, I think God should not have heard Jonah. Jonah didn't deserve it, right. I mean, he's a pretty bad guy. Surely God shouldn't have listened to him. But that is what Divine Mercy for an undeserving people looks like. I don't deserve it, but God gave it all. This is why Jonah says what he says in verse two, verse two is the summary of the entire poem. He says this, ‘I called out to the Lord, out of my distress. And He answered me, out of the belly of Sheol, I cried, and you heard my voice’ (Jonah 2:2). The merciful God, who hears and saves his disobedience, undeserving prophet.

3.     Jonah’s Self-righteous response to Mercy (8-9)

You know, being saved is a liberating thing. The fact that I'm standing here today tells you that my drowning story ended well, right? It tells you that I didn't die. It was in that moment when I was feeling helplessness, kicking the best that I can, flapping my hands, trying to get to the surface, when a random stranger came in, grabbed my hand, pulled me out to the surface. How do you think I reacted? Or how do you think I should have reacted? Probably in thankfulness and with joy, right? Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. You saved my life. What can I ever do to repay you? I should have said that right? To be honest, I don't remember what I said. I was five years old. But I think that is how I should have responded.

But likewise, how do you think the undeserving, disobedient prophet should have responded? Well, I think Jonah should have said, ‘Thank you, God, you are so merciful, you are so wonderful. You know my sins that I committed, I'm so sorry for it. Thank you for giving me grace when I don't deserve it.’ That's what we think he should have said, right. But here is the punch in the text. Here's what Jonah said. He says, ‘Those who pay regards to vain idols, forsake their hope of steadfast love’ (Jonah 2:8). What Jonah? What are you talking about Jonah? ‘But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord’ (Jonah 2:9). I wonder if you were like me when I was reading this text for the first time. I'm just scratching my head. What are you saying Jonah? Why are you talking about people who pay regards to vain items? It just doesn't make sense. And then why would you compare yourself to them in verse 9?. This forms the last point for today, is Jonah’s self-righteous, self-entitled response to mercy.

Some people have joked that these last two verses is the prayer that made the fish sick. So that’s why the fish spit him out. Or trying to go along with Pastor Jason's humor, you could say that Jonah had a fishy response. Okay, tough crop, rough crop. That's why the fish came out right? Remember the topic of self-entitlement and self-righteousness that I brought up at the start? This is exactly how Jonah responds. This is why he would compare himself to idol worshipers. Let me let me break it down and try to explain it. He says this. ‘Those who pay regard to vain idols, forsake their hope of steadfast love’. Instead of saying, Thank you God for saving me, Jonah turns and starts talking about idol worshipers. Who were the idol worshipers in this story? We've seen it in the sailors and the Ninevites. What's so striking about this verse is that immediately after receiving mercy, he starts bashing and looking down on idol worshipers. Do you know what he's saying here? He says the idol worshipers do not deserve steadfast love. This word, steadfast love, is the famous Hebrew word, Hesed, meaning loyal, compassionate, steadfast, undying love. So what Jonah is saying in verse eight is this, I have received God's steadfast love because He saved me when I was undeserving. But the other people, the idol worshipers, they don't. God, only I am entitled to the steadfast love which You have given. Can you see what Jonah is saying here? Can you see how self-centered, self-focused, self-righteous that is?

And this is going to get even clearer in the next verse. He says, ‘But I’. Why does He say, ‘but I’? He's contrasting them with himself. He says, ‘But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord’ (Jonah 2:9). What is Jonah saying here? He says, God. Look at me. Look at how good I am. I deserve the mercy because I will give thanks to you. I will sacrifice to you. I will pay back what I have vowed. But the idol worshipers, they don't deserve what I got. Jonah is saying, God, I am not like them. They don't deserve your grace. Look at me. And he's saying this, yes, Salvation belongs to the Lord. That’s a wonderful line to say right? Salvation belongs to the Lord. But in this context, what Jonah is saying here is this. Yes, Salvation belongs to the Lord. But I'm the one who deserves it. Not the others. God, I deserve saving, not them. Look at how good I am, that's why God saved me. Do you now see why people say that these two verses are the prayer that made the fish sick. It's disgusting, right? Doesn't Jonah sound like the entitled, self-righteous kid who doesn't want to share his gifts from his parents with others?

Doesn't Jonah sounds like the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. Jesus talks about this parable. He says there were two men as you can see, that went to the temple to pray: One a Pharisee, you see him in red, and the other tax collector, see him in the background. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the days and the tax collectors, you can say, they were like the loan sharks in a Singaporean context today. So these two men go to the temple and pray and the Pharisee stands in pride, he says and he prays out loud in the temple. He says, God, I thank You that I am not like the other man here. They are extortioners, they are unjust, they are adulterous, like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get, I give offerings. And then he leaves. Now the tax collector comes up. He is so broken, that he can't even face the sky, face heaven. He says this, God, be merciful to me a sinner. God be merciful to me a sinner. And Jesus wrapped up this entire parable saying this. He says, I tell you the tax collector who went down to his house was justified, not the Pharisee. Why? Because whoever is proud, whoever exalts himself, whoever is self-righteous, whoever is self-entitled, will be humbled. But the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Do you see how similar Jonah's response and the Pharisees is? I really wonder if when Jesus was telling this parable, he had Jonah in his head. Jesus says, it is not the self-entitled and not the self-righteous that are saved, but the humble who comes to Him, because He is in need of mercy, because he knows how much sin he has. That is the one who is saved.

Applications and Conclusion

If you're new here today, maybe you think Christianity is about getting my act together. Let me say this. Christianity is not so much about what I can do. But it's more about what God and Christ has done. Christianity is not saying I deserve to be saved because I am better and the others are not. But Christianity is saying I am so sinful that I need help. I need to be saved. If that's you today, the very first step is saying the exact prayer that the tax collector said. Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And if that's you, we encourage you to talk to the friend that brought you here today. Or go down to the newcomer’s corner and talk to someone.

I want to turn my attention to all of us Christians in the room. We Christians, we have been saved by a greater mercy. Paul writes about this in Ephesians Two. He says, ‘God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us. Even when we were dead in our trespasses’ (Ephesians 2:4). Christians, can we just stop to think, sometimes we don't remember where we came from: dead in our trespass. God didn't save us because we deserved it. He saved us while we were dead. And He ‘made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved’ (Ephesians 2:5). He didn't just save us, look at verse six, he says, ‘And He raised us up with Him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. So that in the coming ages, He might show us the immeasurable riches of His grace and kindness towards us in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 2:6).

We are not saved because we are good. We were saved because we were dead. We were saved because of God's mercy. We were saved because of His kindness and His grace in Christ Jesus. And then Paul goes on to say this. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith’, isn't the next couple of lines so fascinating, ‘This is not your own doing. It is the gift of God’. It is not a reward for your holiness. It is a gift of God. ‘Not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9). You see, we've received a greater mercy than Jonah. Jonah was saved from a one-off physical death. We are saved by a great mercy that changes our eternal destination, from the judgment of hell to the riches in heaven. Not because we did anything. It's all because of mercy. It's all because of grace. That's why it's called a gift.

You see, I think that's the beauty of the gospel message. That's the beauty of grace. The gospel of grace is this. The gospel of grace is the great equalizer. It means that no one gets to walk with a swagger and no one needs to walk with a limp. What do I mean? Salvation by grace means that none of us get to walk with a swagger meaning walking around with self-righteous, ‘I am better than you’ attitude. I'm better see my kids. Look at the school they go to. They come to church. How about you? Do your kids even come? Or, I serve in three ministries. I lead a healthy care group. People love to come to my group. No wonder God saved me, I am better what. The gospel of grace is the great equalizer. It means all of us are saved by grace and not by our works, it means none of us get to walk with pride. None of us get to live with a swagger or self-righteousness.

It also means that none of us need to walk with a limp. Meaning we come in with our heads held low. You know these Christians, they're better. Me, I'm just lousy. I'm just sinful. And all I live is in shame to God. The Gospel is the great equalizer. Because it tells us that we were all just sinners, dead in our trespasses, in need of God's mercy, in need of God's kindness, in need of God's grace. We are one in the same, there is no room for self-entitlement or self-righteousness.

But it's hard right? As I was preparing this sermon, I found myself reflecting a lot on this. I, in my role, I serve as the varsity ministry shepherd, and the key part of my job is journeying with people who struggle with difficult or complex sins. And I usually sit across the table and chat with them. And I realized in the past couple of months, this has crept into my life. As I sit across the table from someone who I've been meeting for maybe 10 times, 20 times, and he's confessing his sin to me. I don't say it out loud. But in my head, I can say, wah God, Heng ah, I'm not like this guy. Or I can say, God actually, if I were him, by the third meeting, I settled this already. Why does this guy need 10 meetings, 20 meetings. If it were me, I would have already changed and responded, No wonder you saved me, God, no wonder you chose me. This puffs me up in pride. And it often blinds myself to my own sin. And this happens, when I forget that we are all sinners saved by the mercy of God. Mercy should not lead to self-righteous, self-entitlement. But mercy should lead to praise and worship.

I've talked about my struggle. How about you? I don't know all your lives in depth. I don't know your thoughts. I don't know your emotions and your struggles. But I know the human heart. Because I have one here. And it's so prone to react to mercy in self-righteousness and self-entitlement. You know, the genius of this text is this. Remember, when we looked at Jonah and we say how can you respond like that? It's when we critique and criticize Jonah, that we find ourselves being self-righteous and self-entitled as well. That's why gospel living, gospel remembrance is so important. Unless we are reminded of grace, we are all going to fall in this, I am better than you, God I deserve better, ‘No wonder you save me God’ kind of attitude. And I think sometimes as Christians, we can really think, God I don't need mercy anymore. You know, the guy next to me, the guy who is in pornography, the guy who is in adultery. He needs grace. Me? Don't need, I'm okay. We can really think that at times, and we start comparing our sins to other people, we can fall into this self-righteous, self-entitled attitude. No wonder you saved me God, I deserve your mercy. We forget, that it is not of works, but it is a gift. You see as Christians, we need to know this.

This is Tim Keller, he summed it up, he says, ‘As Christians we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe’. Just think about that. The God who sees all our thoughts, our emotions, our affections. He sees into the depths of our heart, the corners of our hearts. He knows it all. He knows and He knows your deepest, darkest sins. And the gospel needs to realize that we are actually more sinful and flawed than we think. And we stopped doing that when we compare ourselves to others. But here is the kicker. ‘Yet at the very same time, we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope’. How crazy is that? I don't need the gospel just when I was saved. I need the gospel, I need mercy every day of my life. If not, I'm going to be self-entitled and puffed up and proud. Guys, remember this, we are not entitled to God's mercy. Just like Jonah, we are that undeserving, disobedient Prophet, saved by a merciful, gracious God, not by our works, but because of His gift and generosity.

How then should we respond? We've been drowning in death, we've been saved to life. I think we must not respond in self-righteousness, but in praise and worship, and in thankfulness to God. How's your heart today? How are you responding to God's mercy and grace? Don't respond in self-entitled, self-righteousness, but praise and worship and thankfulness to the God who gave his gift to undeserving people like you and I. That's the wonderful thing about being a Christian.


Shall we pray? God, we thank you for your extravagant grace, your mercy for undeserving people like us. And I pray God, would this grace, find good soil in our heart, that this will not lead us to self-righteousness, self-entitlement, but this will spur us on to praise for the wonderful gift of grace you have given to us through your Son. God, I pray that as a church, we will be gracious and merciful to others because you have first given it to us. We pray and we ask all these things, in Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.