Originally published in Disciple Magazine, February 2014. Part 3 of 5
When we left Jonah, he was sinking down into the sea, having convinced the crew of his ship to throw him overboard to calm the storm God had brought upon them because of his disobedience. He likely thought that this would be the end of the matter, but “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17a). Instead of meeting death, “Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights” (1:17b).
The first we hear from Jonah in this unique (and probably uniquely unpleasant) place, is the last thing we expect, given his attitude and actions in chapter 1—a prayer: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish” (2:1). In Jonah’s telling of these events, he doesn’t mention if he pouted, wept, slept, or anything else after finding himself alive and well inside the fish. We don’t know if his prayer was at the beginning or the end of his three days and nights “at sea”—what the Lord compelled him to record for us was that he prayed. He did not yet know the rest of the story, whether he would be rescued or whether he would yet die in the fish, but he prayed anyway.
It takes varying degrees of shock for most of us to recognize our helplessness and cry out to God, and for Jonah, the Lord used extraordinary measures indeed to get his attention. From this low point, however, we have an incredible prayer ascribing power and glory to God and foreshadowing the salvation He would bring to all men through Christ.
Jonah’s prayer begins with his cry to the Lord and an acknowledgement of the Lord’s response: “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; You heard my voice” (2:2). Immediately, we see Jonah’s repentance operating, as he does not rage against God, but turns to Him, “casting [his] anxiety on Him” (1 Pet. 5:7). He likens his position before God as crying out from “Sheol”, the place of the dead. In this way, Jonah’s prayer echoes every prayer for salvation uttered from sinful lips—it is only when we see (by the Spirit’s opening our eyes) our state of spiritual death that we cry out to God for help. And, just as He heard Jonah, the Lord hears us still.
As he recounts the thoughts and fears that washed over him during his ordeal, Jonah begins to see God’s sovereign hand in all his troubles: “For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me” (2:3). Though at first his tone is one of resignation rather than worship, he recognizes that God, the all-powerful Creator (for the breakers and billows of the sea are His), was the one who cast him into the sea by bringing the storm, causing the crew to recognize His authority, and leading them to toss Jonah overboard.
Jonah interprets this as God’s judgment for his disobedience in fleeing the Lord’s call to prophesy to Nineveh “So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Your sight” (2:4a). Even in this, though, he turns back to God, recognizing that he had no hope outside of Him: “Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple’” (2:4b). He continues, describing his terror in sinking down into the depths: “Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head. I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever” (2:5-6a).
Just as he despaired of life, the Lord intervened yet again: “but You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (2:6b). Remember that he was still in the fish, by no means “safe”, yet Jonah recognized that the fish itself was from God to rescue him from drowning. He did not know the final outcome, but he used this unexpected extension of his life to praise God for preserving him. His language calls up imagery of resurrection (something he believed as a Jew, at least in terms of the resurrection of the last day), presaging the way that the Lord would one day bring Jesus Christ “up…from the pit” as the firstfruits of the resurrection and countless more from every tribe, tongue, and nation, who call on Him in repentance and faith.
In beautiful parallelism (typical of Hebrew poetry and prayers), Jonah reiterates how his cry from beneath the earth itself ascended to the presence of the Lord: “While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple” (2:7). Even in his sinfulness, Jonah’s earnest prayer is heard by the holy Lord. His mercy flows out readily to those who see their sin and recognize Him as their only hope.
Jonah’s prayer moves into doxology, turning from despair to worship: “Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness” (2:8). Whether he makes reference here to the newfound faith of the pagan crew members (1:16), his own unfaithfulness in fleeing from the Lord, or simply a general statement about the singularity of God’s power and love, the point stands—it is impossible to place your trust in anything other than the One True God and be regarded as faithful by Him. Jonah contrasts that false faith with true worship: “but I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving” (2:9a).
Worship of the Lord always involves these two elements: sacrifice (ultimately provided in Christ’s death) because His holiness demands payment for sin; thanksgiving because God mercifully accepts the sacrifice. The language and sacraments of worship in the New Covenant are built upon this—baptism mirroring our death to sin in the death of Christ (sacrifice), and the Lord’s Supper (the name “eucharist” even coming directly from the Greek for “thanksgiving”) representing our thanksgiving for that sacrifice, rejoicing that God has accepted the Christ’s body and blood for our sins and given us His righteousness.
As he closes his prayer, Jonah recommits himself to the Lord and offers a final note of worship: “That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord” (2:9b). This is a summation of sorts. Jonah recognizes his sin and owns it fully, promising to the Lord the obedience he refused earlier, and commits his fate completely into God’s hand. In a sense, he says, “Lord, here I am. When and if you see fit to rescue me from this fish (because there is no way I’m getting out on my own), I will do my duty as a prophet and fulfill my call to deliver Your message.”
Then, after Jonah has prayed through his experience and come to repentance, “the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land” (2:10). Here, He showed that He had heard Jonah’s cry and brought him salvation. In His sovereignty, He also waited for the right time (three days) to preserve Jonah’s experience of “death, burial, and resurrection” as a portrait of the one greater than Jonah (Matt. 12:41) who would show just how great a salvation the Lord was to bring about.
Photo: Jonah and the Whale by Pieter Lastman, Public Domain.