Jonah sings a thanksgiving song, even while in the belly of the great fish. Because the great fish rescued Jonah from death, the fish now gives him a “boat ride” back to land. Jonah is not terrified by the fish but thankful. God saved his life by providing a great fish to swallow him and return him to land. It was a three-day journey from Sheol back to life. Consequently, Jonah prays a thanksgiving song, even in the in the belly of the great fish.
The prayer’s genre is evident from its component parts. Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, 101) identifies these parts, and they are typical for a thanksgiving psalm (for example, Psalm 116).
|Introductory Summary||Jonah 2:2
“I cried out, because of my distress, to YHWH and he answered”
|Recollection of the Crisis||Jonah 2:3, 5-6abc
“The waters had enclosed me, threatening my life; the deep had enveloped me; reeds had wrapped around my head.”
|Cry out for Help||Jonah 2:4, 7
“YHWH I had remembered. My petition had reached you; [it had reached] your holy temple.”
|Description of Deliverance||Jonah 2:6d
“Then you restored from the pit my life.”
“As for me, with a grateful voice I will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.”
“Deliverance belongs to YHWH.”
Typically, thanksgiving psalms move from remembrance of the crisis and the petitioner’s cry for help to its resolution with gratitude, sacrifice, vows, and praise. In other words, they remember the crisis and the petition, and then they give thanks for the deliverance. This is exactly what we see in Jonah’s prayer: Crisis and petition (2:2-6abc) followed by thanksgiving and praise (2:6d-9).
Consequently, Jonah’s prayer is not a prayer for deliverance from the belly of the fish, but a remembrance of how Jonah cried out to God in the “womb of Sheol,” that is, in the belly of the sea where he was drowning. God answered Jonah’s cry for help by providing a great fish to bring him back to life and land. Jonah is rescued from Sheol, from the pit of death, and encounters God’s presence in the belly of the great fish as he journeys toward land.
As a result of this deliverance, Jonah promises a sacrifice—a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Leviticus 7), and pledges he will pay his vows, which are typically part of a thanksgiving sacrifice ritual. Jonah knows, beyond any doubt, Yahweh has rescued or delivered him.
Jonah’s prayer is deeply immersed in the liturgical life of Israel as Jonah uses the language of Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms. Almost every word and line has a counterpart in the Psalter. The below chart identifies similar, often the same, language (Hebrew) in both Jonah’s prayers and various psalms.
|2:2||I called to the Lord, and he answered me||I called to the Lord, and he answered me||3:4; 120:1|
|2:2||Out my distress||Out of my distress||118:5|
|2:2||I cried for help||I cried for help||18:6;
28:2; 30:2; 88:14
|2:2||You heard my voice||You heard my voice||28:6; 31:22; 116:1|
|2:3||You have thrown me away||You have thrown me aside||102:10|
|2:3||Into the deep…waves||In the deep…waves||88:6f;
|2:4||From your sight (eyes)||From your sight (eyes)||31:22|
|2:4||Holy temple||Holy temple||5:7; 138:2|
|2:5||Waters as far as my life (soul)||Waters as far as my neck (soul)||69:1|
|2:5||Deep surrounds||Deep surrounds||42:7; 88:17|
|2:6||You brought up the pit||You brought up from Sheol||30:3; 71:20|
|2:6||Yahweh, my God||Yahweh, my God||13:3; 30:12; 88:1|
|2:7||When my soul fainted||When my life faints||142:3|
|2:7||I remembered||I remember||42:4, 6
|2:7||My prayer to you||My prayer to you||69:13; 88:2|
|2:7||Holy temple||Holy temple||5:7; 138:2|
|2:8||Worship worthless idols||Worship worthless idols||31:6|
|2:8||Forsake steadfast love (hesed)||Forsake faithful ones (hesed)||37:28|
|2:9||Thanksgiving…pay vows||Thanksgiving…pay vows||50:14
|2:9||Salvation belongs to the Lord||Salvation belongs to the Lord||3:8;
What is the significance of this? One might suggest Jonah is vainly repeating phrases from his past piety. I see no reason to think this, however. To use standard liturgical phrases does not mean it is contrived piety. Rather, it might reflect how deeply ingrained this language is in the life of the singer. Sometimes pious repetition is the most effective way to express our hearts when our own words fail us. Further, the prayer perfectly fits the situation, and it is tailored to express Jonah’s journey from watery chaos to life on the land. Jonah is thankful for life.
What this language does tell us is how profoundly shaped Jonah is by the worship of Israel. As Bobby Valentine says, “The prayer shows Jonah to be a master of Israel’s liturgical tradition (he has memorized the hymns!).” He knows his prayer book; he knows how to pray, and he prays sincerely. He petitioned God while tossed about in the chaotic sea, and now, in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks and vows a sacrifice once he returns to the temple. This is the first (2:2b-6b) and second halves (2:6c-9) of the prayer itself. As Youngblood outlines the prayer, Jonah first remembers his petition and God’s response (2:2b-6abc), and then he expresses gratitude for God’s deliverance (2:6d-2:9).
Remembering the Petition (Jonah 2:2-6abc)
The prayer runs like this (in some cases I have taken Youngblood’s suggested translation; otherwise it is my own with some language from the NRSV. I have also underlined parallel ideas):
I called, out of my distress, to Yahweh,
and he answered me.
I cried out for help in the womb of Sheol,
you heard my voice.
Nearing death, perhaps confronted with a near-death experience, Jonah awakens to his situation. Near death, he finds himself in the “womb” of Sheol. The noun translated “womb” is often translated “belly,” but it effectively means “womb” since it is feminine in gender (so Youngblood). Sheol is the realm of the dead, and this is Jonah’s distress. When Jonah was about to die, he cried out for help and asked Yahweh to deliver him from death. God answered and delivered him by sending a great fish to swallow him. Now, in the belly of the fish, Jonah gives thanks for the deliverance.
You hurled me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas
and the river overcame me.
All your breakers and billows swept over me.
In the previous line, Jonah addressed God directly: “you heard my voice.” Now, remembering his predicament, he recognizes God’s hand in his distress. “You hurled me into the deep,” he says. “Hurled” is the same word used to describe what the wind God sent upon the sea, how sailors threw cargo overboard, and what the sailors did to Jonah in chapter one. Though the sailors “hurled” him, Jonah knows who lies behind their action. The sailors served God’s purposes; God hurled Jonah into the deep by the hands of the sailors.
The language of “deep,” “heart of the sea,” and the “river” as well as “breakers” and “billows” provide a vivid image of how chaos (perhaps alluding the Canaanite gods Yam [sea] and Nahar [river]) overwhelm Jonah. God gives Jonah over to the chaos, to the forces beyond Jonah’s control but not outside of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Yahweh maintains control over the chaos that surrounds and overwhelms Jonah.
Then I said,
Though I have been banished from your sight,
yet I will look once more toward your holy temple.
In the midst of the chaos, Jonah decides—despite his sense that he is beyond hope, outside of God’s care and concern—to look again, at least one more time, toward God’s dwelling place, God’s holy temple. When Solomon consecrated the new temple in 2 Chronicles 6, he describes how Israel, when it sins, would “prayer toward this place” (the temple) for forgiveness (2 Chr. 6:21, 26). The temple always meant hope, forgiveness, and renewal. Jonah appeals for mercy by turning his face and prayer toward God’s dwelling place.
The waters engulfed me up to the neck,
the watery deep overcame me,
and the reeds wrapped around my head.
The “waters,” “deep,” and “reed” (as in Sea of Reeds, or Red Sea) evoke the Exodus (Exodus 15:4, 8, 10, 19, 22, 25), but Jonah is not standing on the land. On the contrary, he is, like Pharoah’s army, sinking into the sea. When God flooded the path through the sea to destroy the Egyptian army, God released chaos. It is a form of “uncreation” (like the flood in Genesis 6-8) where God reverses the good order of creation and chaos takes over once again. Jonah feels like the Egyptian army at the bottom of the “Red Sea” (or Sea of Reeds). This is yet another description of Jonah’s near-death experience from the chaotic sea, which—in this circumstance—serves Yahweh.
I descended to the foundations of the mountains,
to the land whose bars would trap me forever.
Youngblood is particularly insightful in these comments (p. 109):
In Israel, the sacred mountain is represented by Zion. Thus, the mountains to which Jonah descended are the inverse, the negative, of the sacred mountain here Jonah previously stood in YHWH’s presence. Jonah has just completed an “anti-pilgrimage” to the “anti-temple” of Sheol. Instead of a psalm of ascent sung by pilgrims during their climb to the summit of Zion, Jonah sings a psalm of descent inn anticipation of death and separation from YHWH.
Jonah, descending to the base of the mountains in the sea, entered an underwater “land,” the realm of the dead, which is Sheol. Jonah’s descent was into death, but God heard his prayer and delivered him.
Jonah’s Chaos and Our Own
While Jonah created his own chaos by fleeing from God’s presence–and we often do the same, we also experience chaos in so many other ways. Reading Jonah’s prayer, his language lives in our own experiences of chaos. In desperate times–drowning in the sea, as it were–we reach to God and cry out for God’s mercy.
In a real sense, we are all Jonah. We have all found ourselves, at times, engulfed in the waters, overwhelmed by the deep. Chaos often reigns in our livers, whether it is due to our own sin or due to tragic circumstances beyond our control.
What we learn from about God from the storyteller in the book of Jonah is that God is merciful. God hears our prayers, and God answers them with mercy and deliverance, even if we have created our own chaotic circumstances.
Jonah’s prayer language comes from the Psalter, and Jonah’s prayer is also our prayer as we find ourselves engulfed in chaotic waters. Israel teaches us how to pray in the Psalms, and Jonah teaches us to appeal to God’s mercy despite the messes we have created for ourselves.
The center of the first half of Jonah’s thanksgiving song is an expression of hope despite his circumstances. Hurled into the deep, Jonah knows Yahweh has banished him, nevertheless Jonah looks toward God’s dwelling place. Seeking in the depths of the sea and descending toward Sheol, Jonah turns toward the temple in prayer and hopes for deliverance. And God, who is full of mercy, heard his prayer and delivered Jonah from certain death.